This is the latest post in my New Year’s Series. While it can be understood on its own, it assumes a certain amount of familiarity with the background material built up over the last few years. You can find last year’s post, which recaps a lot of this material, here: The Abyss Stares Back. The full series can be found here: The Unfolding World. Be advised, what follows are predictions touching on matters geopolitical, demographic, economic, and cultural. If that’s not your thing, move along.
When I was four years old, I participated in my first backyard garden. That summer, we ate from it every night, and every night I was overwhelmed with wonder that the little seeds I’d stuck in the ground in holes I’d bored with a screwdriver were now making squash and broccoli and corn and carrots and tomatoes and greens that made up the flashy parts of dinner.
But it also confused me. Vegetables came from a garden, and grains came from a garden (we grew meal corn as well as sweet corn). My uncle lived on a farm out in the boonies, and when I visited I collected eggs and milked cows. But no matter how much I puzzled over it, I couldn’t figure out where meat came from.
My grandfather gave me the answer over dinner one night.
“You mean,” I said, “You kill animals to get meat?”
“That’s right,” he said, “And if you want to eat meat, you have to be willing to kill your own. Otherwise, you’re just making other people do your do your dirty work, which makes you a liar and a coward.”
Pretty heavy stuff for a four-year-old. It made enough of an impression that I learned to kill and butcher my own meat at the earliest opportunity. It was my first up-close contact with death (taking pets to the vet for euthanasia doesn’t count), and it came with the most hilariously off-putting realization of my early teenage years (considering the whole ‘puberty’ thing, that’s saying a lot):
“Dead” doesn’t mean “still.”
Death doesn’t work like it does in the movies. In the real world, when an animal dies, it tends to flop around for a bit as all the electro-chemical potential in its body settles out. You’ve heard the phrase “Running around like a chicken with your head cut off?” It’s a cliché for a reason. The dead chicken flops and flaps and runs and jumps with no purpose, no direction, no ability to process environmental cues. It runs into things, spews blood gouts out its neck, and generally looks morbidly silly while it claws at anything it runs into (so you better keep your cats and dogs well back or they’ll get damaged).
The Death of the Old World
2020 is now over. With it, the last gasps of the dotage of the Cold War global order founded at the Bretton Woods conference in the last days of World War Two have finally choked out [if you want a quick and dirty recap, dirty check out this video (45 mins)]. It is now 2021, the first year of the greatest and most fundamental transition in the institutional, cultural, financial, and demographic trajectories that the human species has faced in five hundred years. Welcome to the Great Transition, or, as I call it:
Like that chicken’s nervous system functions, the world’s economies, institutions, balance of power, and just about everything we know about “the way things are done” are now officially up for grabs. There
is no American Navy protecting the shipping lanes (America now has less than a quarter-million active duty personnel in overseas deployment—less than at any time since the post WW1 draw-down), and without that the market for shipping insurance is going to get very interesting. There is no young generation to pay for the social security of the largest generation in history, and governments across the world are starting to scramble as they realize there’s no light at the end of the fiscal tunnel.
China is already starting to implode financially, so it’s doing everything it can to provoke international ire—or war—in order to justify a complete national crackdown at home so that it might have a prayer of keeping the country from disintegrating into its constituent parts which, historically speaking, are un-unite-able. The people of Hong Kong and the victims of the Uighur genocide are the first on the list. They won’t be the last—and, to add insult to injury, the scheme has very little chance of working. China’s heart was cut out by the one-child policy, now it’s finally dying, and it’s thrashing is touching everything on the planet, including every level of every institutional power structure in the Western world. It cannot recover on less than a generational time scale.
This is How You Get a Revolution
Don’t worry, though. Even without China and Russia (which is going through a similar last-gasp) pouring gasoline on the fire, life in America and Europe and
Africa would still be getting interesting. The Cold War World Order concentrated power in national and trans-national institutions because you can’t fight a nuclear and economic war without centralization.
It didn’t hurt that all of the technology of the era:
- power generation
- telephony and telegraphy
only operated efficiently at scale. The heart of the industrial revolution was the ability to build bigger and bigger machines to accomplish more and more, so much more that humanity went from plowing up the Ohio Valley with mules and plowshares (so the farmers grow enough grain to feed Europe during the Napoleonic wars) to using a hand trowel to dig up and samples of the Lunar Soil for analysis in labs back home on Earth in the space of one (long) human lifetime.
But, as with any product of the biological world, the industrial revolution had embedded in its basic makeup the ingredients that would ultimately lead to its end.
The industrial revolution also created chemical engineering, which led directly to the antibiotics and birth control that drove the developed world over the demographic cliff (by simultaneously depressing both the birth rate and the death rate, shifting the median national age from a 19th century average of twenty-something to well over forty and trending upwards now), endangering every fiscal, social, institutional, and economic arrangement and assumption humans have grown accustomed to since the Black Death wiped away the medieval world in the late 14th century.
Not content with up-ending materials science, the Industrial Revolution led directly to the miniaturization that is now driving the radical decentralization of:
- finance [bitcoin, crypto, blockchain]
- manufacturing [cheap machine tools, 3D printing, DIY CnC]
- power generation [DIY hydro, solar, wind]
- publishing [need I elaborate?]
- audio and video distribution [youtube, bitchute, podcasting, etc.], and
- agriculture [would take too long to get into, but the stuff going on here will blow your mind].
All the industries built upon the old way of doing things are now in the process of disruption, reinvention, or dissolution—and the governmental power structures that were built to regulate them, and that they then captured in order to protect themselves, are rapidly hollowing out. Uber, Lyft, and AirBnB may have turned out to be con jobs that pretended (or abandoned) decentralization, but their attempt to feint in that direction and then consolidate power to satisfy their investors have not changed the basic directionality of the technology that now runs the world
The cities that grew up around those centralized concentrations of political, financial, industrial, and media power are hollowing out, too. The trend was already finding its feet before everything turned nutty, and then Covid poured rocket fuel on it. The politicians that benefited from those power concentrations (and the tax base and graft opportunities they created) are beginning to panic as their power base erodes and the financial towers they rest upon begin to totter like a late-stage Jenga game.
That’s going to create a lot of problems…and a lot more opportunities.
When a creature, or culture, or a country, or a world loses its sense of direction—when the world changes beneath it and it must re-find its bearings—the constituent forces that previously moved more-or-less in concert begin to pull in different directions. Humans are hierarchical animals. We function best when we know who’s in charge, and believe that their authority is legitimate. But now, as I write this, at the end of 2020, in the ashes of the old world, there is no common path or direction. What legitimate hierarchies remain are busy panicking in ways that may erode their legitimacy to such an extent that they cease to be meaningful.
The decentralization and devolution of power that will result should give everyone a better shot to live life meaningfully and with more substantive connection to the rest of humanity…once the crumbling power structures stop crushing people in their mad rush to shore-up their authority.
Decentralization will give us all breathing room…once we stop swinging our fists because we now have the elbow room to do so.
The Grand Stakes
It’s a delicate time in the history of our species. The world is greening. Raw nature is recovering on the land and in the seas, because humans are intentionally making room for it, and because our technology allows us to live without ravaging it to the extent we have in the past. But our fractious new world, pockmarked as it will be with wars and broken shipping lanes, will completely fail (absent new technological breakthroughs) to generate power cleanly outside of a few key countries in North America, South America, Australasia, and Europe. Worse still, the teetering of our interconnected, hyper-fragile technological civilization exposes us to the greatest risk a species can face.
We bootstrapped the industrial revolution with whale oil and coal—both fuels we could easily harvest with pre-industrial technology. Whales are easy to hunt with a large rowboat (processing them is more of a chore), and coal could literally be chipped out of exposed cliff faces. Hell, petroleum was once a nuisance that bubbled up out of the ground. We literally used the resources at our feet and built rockets to the heavens.
That time has now passed. All of the easy fuels are now gone. What petroleum, natural gas, and coal we now depend on is extracted by technology that cannot be duplicated without sophisticated supply chains, computing, and materials technology. Agriculture, metallurgy, all materials sciences, biotech, and everything else depends on the cheap, easy availability of energy—and ALL of our energy generating technologies currently depend on the availability of fossil fuels.
That situation will continue unless and until we have broad-scale nuclear power and/or artificial liquid fuels that are as cheap as fossil fuels. Either way, it means that, as of about 1950, we crossed an inflection point in human history where we are committed utterly to a certain civilizational path if we wish to survive.
That path no longer leads us to more/bigger/better/more centralized. Our demographics won’t support it. Our cultures have reached their maximum capacity where consumerism is concerned. Our ability to make sense of the world is cracking—it may be breaking. If that break is permanent, or too radical, no amount of social engineering, ideological conformity, or force majure can keep the machines of civilization functioning. Our fragile, centralized world will crumble from the inside.
If we falter and fall, if we lose our ability to build and operate our current technological suite, it’s curtains for the human race. We will never make it out of the cradle. We will become the latest victims of the Great Filter. Our cultures, languages, artworks, and passions will go up in smoke as the sun expands, and the human race (along with all of Earth’s creatures) will cease to be even a whispered memory in the vast timeless emptiness of the cosmos.
A Northern Star
Failure and fall is not our only option. We Americans have negotiated institutional, political, and cultural reshuffles larger than this. We humans have been through transitions at least as great as this. We’ve found ways through. We just have to do it again. It’s what humans do. Yeah, it ain’t a guarantee—humans have failed to make these transitions before, and civilizations have fallen catastrophically.
If we do indeed make it through this historical pinch point; if we decentralize, re-invent, and re-invigorate, we will make it outwards, and upwards, and carry onwards into the universe.
And if we also manage to grow wise(r), we may do all of that while preserving and championing the liberty, uniqueness, and value of the individuals who make up our astounding, violent, pugnacious, musical species to allow us to sing through the cosmos—not with one voice, but with a choir and cacophony raised high into a symphony, the likes of which the universe has yet to hear outside our home neighborhood.
Our new world is now here. The cultural, political, and international conflicts we’ve been experiencing up to this point will probably get worse for the next little while. In one way or another, we will fight about what shape our new world will grow into, what road we might take, how we will distribute opportunities, who should be considered worthy to participate, who deserves to be un-personed, and who deserves to rule (and how).
As this world matures, we will look around and realize that those of us left alive still have to live together and make a home on this tiny blue pearl hanging in the black. Over the next ten-to-fifteen years this new world will grow and take shape well enough to help us find our direction forward.
Whatever shape that turns out to be, 2021 is its birth year.
Two things are true about birth:
Each new birth is filled with promise, potential, and hope for the future.
And every single one is painful, bloody, and dangerous.
Keep your eyes up and your head down. The ride had just begun.