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:

The Flappening

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

European demography 2020. Males on left, females on right. Notice how everyone is about to retire and young consumers are hen’s-teeth rare? The rest of the developed world (excepting the US, New Zealand, and France) looks the same or worse.

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

Russian demography 2020. Even worse than Europe. China is in a similar boat.

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:

  • finance
  • manufacturing
  • power generation
  • radio
  • television
  • telephony and telegraphy
  • agriculture

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.

 

Ramifications

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.

8 Comments

  1. Good stuff overall. The thing I think you’re minimalizing is the human drive for authoritarianism. We know that 40% of the population is happy to surrender their personal rights for the privilege of not having to do more than what they’re told (and I take that number from the studies on Authoritarianism, not recent American politics. Those dictators are in large part happy to let the overall pie shrink as long as they remain on top. Orwell’s 1984 where rigid dictatorships fight each other and impoverish their own citizens is still on the table. Why not North Korea everywhere?

    So the decentralized future you speak of can only come into existence if we find good ways to reduce or eliminate the current monopolies of taxation and violence that are required to maintain a state (any state that does not have both of these monopolies fails). I’m not getting all second amendment here–the US military could crush any local militia in a heartbeat if it decided to. I just don’t see a way to effectively dampen those monopolies without either entering into a civil war (because Kentucky stops getting subsidized by California and so leverages the military to maintain the status quo) or create local warlord situations or both. After all, we’ve seen what corrupt local police departments can easily do even if the rest of the world wants to stop them. Short of an external force coming in and “conquering” that police force, they are de facto warlords of their streets. It might be a comfort to the folks of the next town over that has a benign police force, but that will just propagate regional inequalities.

    But I agree that the pandemic of 2020 marks the transition to a new order that won’t be fully understood for a decade at least, and it will be an extremely painful decade for a very large number of people. The US Federal Government will have two choices in the next four years: abandon all pretense of checks and balances, or be paralyzed. Both threaten to kill America’s Grand Democratic experiment, because its structural ommitment to minority rule will become more and more apparent and less and less supportable. I think how that ball bounces will determine a lot about how the world economy and political arrangements shake out. We’re too big of an economic driver to not drive the rest of things, both now and in the future.

    Ed
    1. I agree with most of this, but true proper authoritarianism requires a few things that I don’t think are going to happen in the US:
      1) broad (enough) social buy-in and/or apathy and/or submission to pull it off
      2) an underlying technological suite that is not easily utilized by the masses
      3) effective social monoculture

      We’ve got a LOT of authoritarianism going on right now, but none of it’s aligned, and I don’t think enough of it WILL align to render hard-core authoritarianism in the US viable. Doesn’t mean I don’t think various factions will *try*, I just don’t think they’ll win.

      jdsawyer
    2. Regarding minority rule, I think the current internal migration (the biggest since 1950–possibly the biggest in history) will render that concern moot in about 3 years, if not by the mid-terms.

      jdsawyer
    3. Third thought:
      I expect regional inequities will sharpen a LOT–but they will also shuffle. The coastal cities do not have a bright future (between geographic constraints, political inertia, covid-inspired migration, demographic-inspired migration, and deep structural problems with governance et.al. their goose is pretty well cooked). The interior, OTOH, is in for some serious growth. But I don’t disagree that we could see the equivalent of local warlordism for a while (which, frankly, wouldn’t be historically abnormal in the US–just something we haven’t seen much of since WW2).

      jdsawyer
    4. Fourth thought:
      I think that all of the above thoughts lead me to conclude that the dichotomous choice the Fed seems to be currently faced with is an illusion. A few other options are already beginning to dawn, including: more Fedearlism (rather than less), which would certainly please the populists on left and right, a radical institutional reshuffling a’la The New Deal where the business of the Federal gov’t is basically re-thought from the ground up, and probably other options I can’t anticipate yet.

      jdsawyer
  2. I think it’s too early and the data too sparse on internal migration to draw any conclusions, though I’d be happy to be pointed at references. For one, I’ve seen little to indicate that the COVID-inspired migration won’t reverse once COVID is done. The rural areas are getting hit as hard or harder than the cities, and so why put up with substandard services, particularly health care access, once it’s safe to return? For two, we’re about to get another decade of serious conservative gerrymandering that ensures that those migrating from the coasts will have minor impact on governance. The growth in the interior is in the cities like Phoenix and Dallas which can be sliced and diced so their representation is minor. After 2030? Then the demographics may have shifted enough to be past minority rule. Before then? I don’t believe it.

    Ed
    1. Time will tell. I, for one, think the trend is permanent for a few reasons:
      1) The younger Xers (hi!) and millennials were already exiting the cities for cost and culture reasons. The childbearing window is closing for this cohort, and, pre-Covid, you simply couldn’t afford to raise kids in neighborhoods with good schools in the urban centers. For example, CA has had negative net migration for most years in the past decade. This part of the trend has deep legs, and was only accelerated by Covid. This group is now hitting their home-buying years (nat’l avg for first homeownership is ~31 or 32, and avg. millennial age is right around there now, too), and the coastal cities, constrained as they are by geography, don’t have the home stock to affordably accommodate a large generation of new homeowners entering the market–esp not ones with kids (bigger houses, bigger yards, decent schools, etc.).

      2) While rural areas are getting hit harder per-capita than the cities where the disease is concerned, life in the rural areas (or in the interior cities) is not getting hit like it is in the coastal cities. Lockdowns, business restrictions, etc. are very light, life continues much as normal, and hospitals *mostly* aren’t overwhelmed like they are in LA or were in NY last spring (I’ve got inside info on this last point, as I have a source in the nursing industry that gives me regular updates).

      3) Historically, plagues have long-lasting cultural effects. They chance consumer behavior and patterns of work, and they often change the culture pretty radically (leading either to a major increase in conservatism or in hedonism, and sometimes in both at once). I don’t see any reason to expect that this plague’s effects will be less profound. Despite its relatively low death toll, it’s just kicked off an economic depression that’ll be with us for a decade–even though the depression (or at least a big recession) were due for other reason, I expect the disease will be blamed for the whole thing, not just for triggering it a year or two earlier than would have been.

      4) The display of naked authoritarianism in LA, in NY and New Jersey, in CA as a whole, and in other coastal states, is starting to provoke outright rebellion across the political spectrum. It, combined with other factors above that have been longer in working, have triggered massive businesses (Oracle, Boeing, and SpaceX being the most visible) to move their whole plants from the coasts to the interior (frequently, though not always, to TX). Institutional trust in these places ain’t going to get restored any time soon, and a lot of them are either on the brink of, or well down, a Detroit-style death spiral.

      5) While you’re correct on this point insofar as districting tends to lag actual party affiliation by one (and, rarely, two) census cycles, that only happens when people aren’t moving around much. When they are, the districting machinery goes up for grabs, since elections happen much more frequently than censuses. Not that this is in the mind of the average punter–but then, neither is districting in general (see #6).

      6) When it comes to “conservative” vs. “liberal” rule, I doubt that will make much of a difference to the people out-migrating. It might make a difference to where that out-migration goes (for example, CO is attracting more long-term Democrats and TX more long-term Republicans, while NE is getting more of a balanced load. Also worth considering is the naked failure of single-party rule over the last 20 years (at the Federal level on the occasions it’s happened, but most pronouncedly at the state and municipal level where single-party rule can hang on for decades with few interruptions) that is leading to registration patterns that (in the last election cycle) hit the Dems worse than the Repubs for the first time since WW2.

      7) Both parties are currently in the process of radical implosion and reorganization, and what shape they’ll eventually take is not clear at the moment (nor do I think it’ll be clear for several years yet). Gerrymandering just doesn’t make that big of a difference to people who aren’t wonkish in nature. Those that are wonkish and do care tend to forget that gerrymandering is the only way that districting can be done, and tend to only cry foul when the other side has control of the districting process during a cycle when their party has forgotten to prioritize it as a political goal. The latter third of the 20th century was not kind to Democrats in terms of control of districting because their post-1970s electoral strategy was an all around loser. Their coalition depended upon aligning the interests of mutually oppositional factions (for example–one of many–culturally conservative black families with VERY culturally liberal gay rights activists), which meant it didn’t function at a national level except when they had charismatic leader who could run on personality rather than on policy. In a functional sense, that meant they fell apart faster than the Republican coalition did (the Republican coalition is also now toast).
      Now, obviously, most of this is out of conscious awareness for your average punter, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know/feel something that converges on it. In this case, the level of party disaffiliation is SO big, and party disenchantment SO profound, that only figures that engage in cult-of-personality and naked self-interest like Donald Trump or AOC currently has the ability to motivate voters (either in support or opposition) on a broad scale.
      As for minority rule, the US has always had that–it’s baked into the design of the country. It’s just more obvious at some points than others.

      So that’s why I think the migratory patterns have legs, and they will change the face of the way America functions politically and economically for the next generation at least.

      Your ball 🙂

      jdsawyer
  3. Okay, first gerrymandering isn’t the only way of redistricting. In Colorado, we amended the state Constitution to include the redistricting process. It establishes specific criteria, including geographic compactness, and then has a committee draw up the potential maps. The committee is split 50/50 Dem/GOP (that’s not the language in the Constitution, but that’s the result) and a judge has to approve the final maps to confirm they meet the Constitutional criteria.

    As for the authoritarianism in the coastal cities–that’s a bit below the radar thanks to the idiocy of anti-maskers. This pandemic has clearly proven one thing–too many people prefer social signalling over science. The lockdowns I know you rail against wouldn’t be on the table if more people followed common sense. But we’ve had this discussion in other forums. I am fortunate enough to live in an area where people are doing the right thing without the same level of crackdown. Frankly, it’s the old motorcycle helmets law problem. We shouldn’t need laws requiring people to wear helmets, but we’re not willing to enforce the consequences on the individual level. If we had laws that said, “you don’t have to wear a helmet, but if you get in an accident, the paramedics and doctors don’t have to treat you and the insurance company doesn’t have to pay your bills” we’d have tied the consequences to the action much more tightly, but we’re not willing to do that as a society. So how do we, as a society, get those idiots who go to the 500 person parties, to not suck up the resources from the folks who were cautious and just got unlucky?

    So I understand the rebellion against the lockdowns, but I don’t see it gaining any meaningful traction as long as the idiots have all the headlines.

    Now that does set up another impact from this plague that we haven’t talked about that will be interesting to see how it plays out. It’s made many of the class differences very visible. You’re poor? You die. You’re rich and well connected? You get the antibody treatment and get to jump the line for the vaccine. I can’t help wondering if those images are gonna fade away or stick in the craw of a lot of people the way the banks getting bailed out without consequence for the bankers did in 2008.

    As for this plague having profound cultural impacts–I agree, but I think it’s way too early to predict exactly what and how. In particular, we’ve got several trends that are appear to be emerging, but we don’t know how they’ll interact. For example, we’ve proven that “work from home” works for a number of professions. That should help accelerate your internal migration, because all you need is good internet to work from wherever. But… most rural areas don’t have good internet and aren’t going to get it short of a WPA type project. And we’re not getting a WPA type project as long as McConnell is alive. So that tension pushes any migrants back to the cities. Denver grows (and gets more expensive) and Brush (a small town on the plains) continues to wither.

    Similarly, we’ve proven that remote learning doesn’t work for young children (below high school). So… does that small town have a good school? The migration gets channeled back to various cities once again.

    Finally, yes, minority rule is baked into the system. The resultant corruption is more obvious these days, compared to the past 100 or so, and that’s making it less tenable. I think it will also get worse as the self-sorting continues. As you pointed out, liberals are migrating to some spots and conservatives to others, but the structure of the US system favors the spots the conservatives control. I’m an upper end GenXer, and I don’t see the GOP relinquishing its stranglehold on the Senate in my lifetime. There’s just not going to be enough liberal migration to Wyoming, the Dakotas, Mississippi, etc. to flip those states. We will continue to have minority rule by McConnell or his successor until we completely remake the system. It doesn’t matter how the parties re-align as long as the incumbents can stay in power in rural, small population states, and incumbency has huge advantages.

    Okay, maybe I’m just cynical about the national level in the US. We gotta get things moved to the local level where we can actually solve things.

    Ed

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *