Time To Hold Your Nerve

For the last few years (with the exception of one I missed, IIRC), I’ve been writing New Years posts that have explicitly pushed back against the grouchy gloom and pessimism that seems to obtain everywhere, left right and center.

Why would I do this?

First, because it’s true. The world is getting better, and it will keep getting better for a long time yet. For example…

This is What the last 200 years looks like. Charts by Max Rosen.

This is What the last 200 years looks like. Charts by Max Rosen.

These metrics say a lot–but they don’t say nearly enough. This year saw another slew of incredible technical advances that have a direct bearing on the quality of life of vast vast swaths of people. The first transplant of a hand onto the body of someone who never had one to begin with. The first child born to three parents, born without a genetic disease that otherwise would have doomed her. many more medical and technological and space travel and energy breakthroughs that it’s impossible to list them all Andthe highest ever parachute-free skydive (which, you gotta admit, is seriously cool).

These kinds of advances are symptoms of an epoch-defining momentum.

The sixteenth and seventeenth century gave us the printing press and the Age of Discovery (exploration and colonialism)–a tremendous economic engine that woke up the world and connected it like it had never before been connected in history, culminating in the creation of the very concept of humanity.

The ideas and incentives of that age gave us the Industrial Age, which defined the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries–which, not coincidentally, culminated in the destruction of the great empires that the colonial age created. The industrial revolution ended with the World Wars (which, understood on a historical time scale, were a pair of flare-ups in a 30 year-long implosion of the greatest imperial system the world had ever seen).

Then, the mid-twentieth century brought us the Nuclear Age, and the longest, most peaceful period in world history (there were wars, yes. A lot of them. But not nearly as many as was the norm before, and none of them were wars in the sense that the 19th and early 20th century came to know). This long peace (and the Cold War that drove it) gave us the greenhouse in which the current set of revolutionary technical developments could grow, and a cultural climate where human rights and civil rights could flourish and spread in a fashion unprecedented in human history.

And now, just as the past epochs ended by un-making some fundamental aspect of the era that birthed them, we are now in a new epoch that is un-making some of the basic realities that gave us the long peace.

One of those basic realities is centralization.

The twentieth century was the era of centralized institutional authority, of mass production and mass culture. The Soviets and other totalitarian states used this centralization to impose conformity–and so did the United States, both at home and in occupied Europe.

The twenty-first century is the Age of Disruption. And one of the first casualties of this disruption is cosmopolitan consensus. Especially in America and Europe, and especially in the educated classes, we look to the future and don’t think much about the past, except to look back and think “Thank God the world isn’t like that anymore.”

In a certain sense, we’ve been “done” with history for decades now. World Wars, Cold Wars, ethnocides, genocides, major regional conflicts, mercantile trade competition–these are all relics of the past. They only happen in the developing world, and they happen there less than they ever have. The open web, the centralized culture, relatively open trade, and the freedom of the seas have all worked together to give us a big tent into which we can invite more and more people-groups as co-equals in the human community. Sure, there are problems–some of them are huge, and they’re not equally distributed. But the basic facts-on-the-ground are good, and the only bad parts come from the wrong political party/people/interests steering the ship and cheating things to their own advantage, and if we can just disrupt those institutions that perpetuate the bad parts of the system, we can make what works for the elite work for the masses, too.

Every side of the political rainbow (aside, maybe, from the anarchists, theonomists, and communists) has had this basic attitude. And, damn, when you look at those graphs above, that approach really seems to have worked.

But nearly-free international communications and money transfer makes the phone and banking monopolies irrelevant. Personal tricorders (smart phones) are starting to make centralized medicine irrelevant. Private space flight makes the NATO military control of space (one of the cornerstones of international peace) difficult at best. Ebooks and POD paper and cheap shipping and open access science makes culture and policy a crowdsourced endeavor. CRISPR makes biology the god-like domain of any kid with a bioreactor and a garage (and bioreactors are easy to build). 3D printing and low-cost robotics makes hyperlocal manufacturing possible–which degrades the unifying authority of regulatory bodies, industrial associations, and trade unions. Applying that technology to weapons makes military and police authority less relevant. The free flow of information means that private think tanks can (and do) run intelligence operations whose analyses outmatch the most powerful governmental institutions in the history of the world. And consumerist attitudes (on the part of consumers) makes even monopoly powers in business vulnerable to short-term, rapid degradation and bankruptcy.

The cultural first-fruit of all these technological advances is the destabilization of centralized authority. There is no more mass culture, there is no more consensus. Local culture is reasserting itself, radically. Nationalism is back, everywhere. For a world peace that’s built on a single centralized authority, the lack of centralized authority means one thing:

We may be done with history…

…but history isn’t yet done with us.

The rest of the world is rising. Technology is empowering individuals from cultures without long traditions of individualism. It’s empowering small groups fundamentally opposed to individualism, cosmopolitanism, liberalism (small “l”), civil rights, and freedom. It’s allowed people to live prosperously without having children–which has now put the economies of about 80% of developed countries in existential danger. Every invention in human history has a dark edge and a bright edge, and the dark edges of our current technologies are finally showing themselves–and they’re sharp, and they’re starting to make people bleed.

There will be a lot more blood before things settle down again.

So, here are my predictions for the next few years:

  • The European Union will collapse, soon. As far as I can see, there’s no way, with Europe’s demography and financial situation, that the EU can survive. If you’ve got an hour, here is a lecture that goes into the deep history underlying the current discontent, and why it’s likely to break things up.
  • There will probably be a European war because of the impossible situation Russia finds itself in. There might be a world war, or a series of major regional wars. (I’d give it a 60-70% chance of happenning–it is always possible that some very wise people may be able to find a way out of the impossible mess).
  • There will be another major recession in the US because of the retirement (and death) of the Baby Boomers. Interest rates will go back up, taxes will probably go up a lot, and there’ll be a lot more nasty infighting and contested elections for the next few cycles.
  • Famines will probably hit large swaths of Europe and East Asia due to the fact that the farm lands are where all the wars are going to happen (if they do). This happened during the Napoleonic Wars, and most other major wars in European history. It will probably happen again, at least for a while.
  • Technological development will continue in spite of all the instability, and the engine of uplift will continue. The continued development of 3D printing and personalized medicine will help stabilize several of the stormier nations on the African continent, putting them in a position to start really developing a generation from now.
  • In almost every way, life will change across the world. In the Eastern hemisphere, we’re going to see fewer regional governments and more local ones. In the Western hemisphere, I expect we’ll see the opposite–stronger regionalism (despite the current resurgence of American nationalism). The march of technology is going to change a lot of the longstanding flashpoints of twentieth-century moral conflict (anything relating to abortion, bioethics, birth control, drugs, smoking, euthanasia, parenting, etc. is going to be up for grabs in ways that will make all sides of the current culture wars unhappy). It’s also going to revive and strengthen old ethnic hatreds and rivalries in a way that, ten years ago, almost nobody would have thought possible.

    And, through all of it, the way we live and the things we care about will shift beneath us without us even noticing. Life will get longer. The world will get stranger. Humans will move permanently out beyond the gravity well. The world will settle itself out to a new way of working, and that way will encourage more localization and local control than at any point in history since the age of city-states (which means that cultural diversity will explode). Food will, by inches, become less dependent upon long-distance trade networks. Energy will, by inches, become less and less tied to petrochemicals. Disease will gradually become less relevant in the developing world than it currently is in the developed world. Human bodies will, by inches, become customizable. Humanity may even speciate.

    The short term is going to be rocky. It might be the rockiest period the world has seen since the nineteenth century. But the long term picture isn’t just good, it’s amazing. Grand, and wonderful, and a little terrifying (if for no other reason than that we don’t have any history to compare it to), and with humanity reaching out into the solar system as a species where all–or almost all–individuals have access to the possibilities to shape their lives as they see fit.

    The last few New Years I’ve said, in one way or another, that there might be a bumpy time during the transition to this new world with new rules that I’ve talked about. I’ve ended the last few years by saying, using slightly different words each year, The future is bright and infinite…if we hold our nerve.

    Well, now the time has come. Resist the urge to silo yourself. Take up the challenge of staying connected across cultural lines, of building relationships with people who don’t agree with you, of learning about the parts of the world that think about life in ways you can’t even fathom. The future is brighter than it’s ever been, but across the world, the present is darker than it’s been in eighty years.

    Now is the time to take note and remember. The end of World War Two put European history on pause. The fall of the Soviet Union put world history on hold for a while. Now history is back, and it’s bigger than ever. Your life will bear witness to the stuff of future memory on a scale you never expected. These are the years your grandchildren will ask you about.

    So gird yourself and hang on tight.

    Now is the time when we must hold our nerve.

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14 Comments

  1. How do we possibly have a European War that doesn’t go nuclear?

  2. That’s the big question. Europe is one of two places that I read as being a big risk for a nuclear war over the next few years (the other is China/India). I can imagine a few scenarios, all of them too involved to go into here, but in the end they all hinge (in one way or another) on whether the various European political classes have internalized the lessons of the darker parts of the cold war. I’m not familiar enough with that end of things to comfortably pronounce on probabilities.
    But I’ll be watching with a weather eye, for sure.

    • The South China Sea doesn’t make the list as a big risk for a nuclear war?

      • Ed —

        I expect war there, yes (actually I think it’s more likely than war in Europe), but not nuclear war. The US has missile bases there, and China launching against Japan or Korea will provoke an automatic US response.

        -Dan

  3. An interesting read. You didn’t directly address what appears to be an impending class/race war in the US. Tensions are mounting and are palpable almost universally across the nation. What will diffuse this ticking time-bomb when we have an arsonist as POTUS?

    • Hi Bill–

      That’s because, as distressing as those matters are, they’re nothing in either scale or intensity compared to the similar conflicts that the US faced during the 1960s and 1970s–the backlash against it is already seriously gaining momentum, and I expect the whole matter will resolve itself in the next four-to-six years without much in the way of blood in the streets.

      The bigger underlying causes of the class/race tensions will, I think, also defuse. Ultimately, despite their many causes, I think the kingpin issue is demography–we get this kind of unrest any time there is a small generation followed by a bulge generation. That kind of demography creates an unusual (and unrealistic) economic situation, and it also enhances generation gaps and cultural discontinuities. But by about 2022 the millenials will all be in their thirties and the Boomers will be well past the mid-point on their way to generational attrition, and things will settle down again. I expect that 2024 will be our last truly crazy election for a while, and things will settle down solidly after that.

  4. Thanks for the quick response. I appreciate the optimism and wished that I shared it more enthusiastically. While I agree that the backlash is gaining some traction, I also see the catalyst (read POTUS) emboldening new pockets of more covert racists and when the top 1% continue to pillage the rest of us with impunity and now 1 of them holds the keys to the kingdom, I do not foresee much to stop them. By creating huge messes, we are distracted from the real damage that they can cause by further deteriorating small changes in legislation like the ones that led to Glass-Stegall Act being gutted and we have seen the catastrophic (at least to the 99%) results of that. Maybe it’s my inherent mistrust of government, but my gut says that this coming administration will be far worse than I had ever dreamed it would be and I thought it would REALLY suck. To be completely transparent, I had very similar feelings had Mrs. Clinton been elected, but for different reasons. Am I just from the school of “just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get me” or what?

    • Bill —

      Like you, I had a list of things I was dreading about either of the front-runners winning. Most of the things you list are things I’m concerned about too, but I can’t say I’m terrified by them, because I honestly don’t think the fundamentals in play can sustain the doomy scenarios that spring so readily to mind.

      Why? Well, among other things, the US is the most naturally defensible piece of geography on earth, and its economic core is united by more navigable waterways than the rest of the world has put together. In the words of intelligence analyst Peter Zeihan: “We can’t screw this up–we know. We’ve tried.”

      For some deep background on the complicated morass surrounding Glass-Steigal (and the fundamental reasons this recovery has been the squishiest in history), I recommend this brief lecture by Brian Wesbury which sets the current class conflicts into historical and legal context.

      Like you, I share a fundamental mistrust of government, but I think that we part ways on what kind of power the next few administrations are actually going to have to effect anything substantial, especially over the long term. With a country this divided, I don’t think there’s any hope of government working out broad-reaching policy solutions at a federal level for pretty much anything. De-facto, I see this as re-localizing political power to regions and states within the US, and with it financial power–and I expect the re-localizing of financial power fixing a lot about the banking system and wealth distribution issues that the feds were unable or unwilling to address.

      For example, part of the re-localization is due to the energy boom in the midwest, which is creating wealth concentrations that are creating new startup hubs along the Mississippi river well outside of Silicon Valley and New York. As the economic and political weight swings toward the middle of the country, the population will follow. This will give us a more balanced party political distribution across the country, soften the balkanization and cultural divisions that have been deepening since the 1970s when the midwest got hollowed out, and, by generating more locuses of wealth creation in more communities it will continue the trend of raising the middle class into the upper classes and raising the lower-middle to the middle.

      Education will remain a problem, especially where mobility from the very bottom to the lower middle is concerned, but re-localization may well fix that problem too (at least in parts of the country). Time will tell.

      In the US the energy boom is creating these conditions, but the waves of tech coming in the next two decades are, I think, going to continue to erode the ability of high-level central governments to affect efficient policy. They will still have their place, but it will be much more vested in coordinating interzone issues than in administering large regions as if they were flat and of a single piece.

      In my view, because of the way government necessarily works, it is almost always a trailing indicator of the society it serves–morally, technologically, economically, etc. Throughout most of history that wasn’t a big deal, but with as quickly as information, tech, and social fashion move these days, I think we’re seeing a fundamental (and, for a while at least, irrevocable) divorce between the “will of the people” and the abilities of governments, with more local and constrained governments being more effective and accessible than more distant and sprawling ones.

      And, like the 20th century centralization trend, I suspect that re-localization will be a painful process and take some time to get our heads around–but I honestly can’t see any counter-currents that might militate against it.

      Depending on your spot on any given political spectrum, this might be good or bad (from my POV it’s a bit of both), but it is, I think, the reality the world is serving up to us.

      FWIW. Would love to hear more of your thoughts on the matter!
      -Dan

      • The challenge for decentralization will be how hard the center resists it and how well the local areas can fight off the center. We’ve seen a spate of the states (controlled by conservatives) trying to eliminate what the cities (controlled by liberals) can do, vis a vis gay right and gun control. We’ll likely see California and some other states also telling the Feds to get lost, but how will the Federal Government handle it? I think marijuana is about to become the test case for that. I think that the struggle between the Feds and the localities could get very very ugly, up to violence and civil unrest.

        So while I am a fan of Hazel Henderson’s “Think Global, Act Local”, I worry a lot about the ability to actually implement local changes that matter, because of the need to constantly deal with the external threat. After all, a City State is an ideal size for a government/country, as long as it doesn’t have to worry about getting conquered. That is, alas, a bit of a disadvantage.

        I also think environmental change is going to be far more disruptive in the next two decades than the issues from the population gap, and that makes me far more pessimistic. It’s really not hard for me to imagine dust bowl conditions hitting a lot of the world, with the attendant economic and war side effects. What good does it do to be decentralized when your food supply goes away?

        • Hi Ed,
          I actually don’t see any immediate decentralization in the making. With the Republicants (spelling intended) increasing their majorities in both houses of Congress, I believe they will seize the opportunity to consolidate their power, redesign Congressional districts to increase the likelihood of even more of their brethren getting elected and see this as a mandate from We, the people, as tacit approval to do whatever they want in the name of “democracy and the republic”. I’m afraid that they will gut Social Security, Medicare , for sure Medicaid and Welfare/Food Stamps. There will be repercussions and backlashes for sure, but damage in the interim may be staggering and lead to a fission between the races that boils over into the worst kind of hostilities and if the National Guard or US Armed Forces are required to quell them, our foreign enemies will seize that opportunity to return to times of the cold war days. It may not be communism vs capitalism, but it is us vs them.
          It will be interesting to see and I may have read too many of my brother-in-laws conspiracy blogs, but it doesn’t seem all that far fetched to me. It certainly has as much chance of being true as the decentralization theory. We shall see.

          • Bill,
            Decentralization is on a longer time frame than the issues you raise. If anything, Trump et al are now fostering the distrust in the centralized government that has been present on many in the right for some time (whether they keep this distrust now that they’re in charge is a separate issue).

            The best example I can give is energy. We’re moving more and more to decentralized power generation and distribution. It’s slow, though. It’s probably another decade before the utility companies feel the pinch. But the pinch is coming.

  5. “Bumpy” huh?

    • I hope your right, Ed.

    • Yeah. Not catastrophic for the world (and far gentler for us in the US than for our European and Asian brethren), but uncomfortable, occasionally violent, and pretty damn shouty. Big transitions between epochs always are at least that. Most of them are spectacularly bloody. I frankly expect this one to be much less so than its predecessors.

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