Today I turn 71. I’m afraid it’s a hard 71, too – I have not done my longevity any favors in the past, and it is not kindly disposed toward my future.
One of the things I have noted fading in a landscape littered with the detritus of entropy and decay of aging is hope. It may not be so for others. It is that way for me.
Hope has faded as time has gone on. I have seen all the old lessons of humanity come round to every new generation, which learns them all over again the hard way rather than building on the lessons of the past. There is some of that as well, but it is not enough to sustain a hope in me that humanity will survive and even perhaps transcend its own nature.
Today I experienced a glimmer of hope in the rising darkness. I read Time Magazine’s article about Greta Thunberg, the youthful climate activist who has serendipitously become the figurehead of a new activism rising in the hearts and minds of young people all over the world.
My generation knows about activism. We’re also the generation that is bequeathing a horrible mess to our children and grandchildren. In the 1960’s we identified many ills present in our world and actively opposed them. First we “turned on and tuned in.” Then we “dropped out” of the existing status quo and did our best to both destroy and rebuild our world in a new image. Sadly, we proved no smarter than any other generation. Before long the Darwinian paradigm of survival reasserted itself and most of us capitulated to the systems we knew were not working in return for a paycheck. Our old rallying cry of “turn on, tune in, and drop out” became a cautionary tale when it had to be appended with “co-opt and sell out.”
Some of us didn’t do that. We were a rare minority, isolated from one another by a socially prevalent waning moral sensibility. We were no longer empowered by the rising consensus of social consciousness and conscience that marked our beginnings. Those few who held to the early values survived by carving out their own sensible and thoughtful niches in the great monolithic walls that remained standing, untouched by that heartfelt “Revolution.” (“Volunteers” by Jefferson Airplane: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_0sg0XDfmg )
Upon reflection I would have to say that the most “lost” American generation of the 20th century was not the generation marked by Paris in the 1920’s. It was the generation that came of age between the years of 1965 and 1975, a generation so lost that it is ironically buried in history between the usual decade mileposts ending in zero.
Now comes Greta Thunberg. Some of the old hope flared in my heart as I read about the youthful activism afoot in the world, reflected in part by her sudden and astonishing appearance on the world stage. My generation is being protested against, and I for one am damn glad of it.
15 years ago I wrote an essay for an online contest prompted by the question, “Will the US still exist as a country in 100 years?” I remembered it today while thinking about Greta Thunberg and the ills her own generation faces. I remembered it because, at the end, I offered her generation what little I could in the way of advice from a member of the generation that failed her. Here it is. (And by the way, I didn’t win the contest. An affirmative answer did. It was very pleasant.)
Will the US still exist as a country in 100 years?
I’m an optimist. I prefer positive thinking and hope over negativity and despair. I also prefer honesty and fact-based thinking, and believe that the truth is most often seen when a fearless willingness to consider real conditions is not muddled by my personal hopes, desires or fears. I honestly have to answer this question No.
In a hundred years it won’t matter who our ruling political party is now. It won’t matter how we feel about the disappearance of our nation. A 100-year perspective calls for broad-spectrum considerations of major societal, geophysical, oceanic, climatic, and population changes and events which will in large part influence the future of every currently existing nation. Within each of these categories there are historically unprecedented conditions developing now.
The historical record does provide us with an understanding of the rise and fall of nation states and empires, but today there are multiple global stressors present for which there are no records available. Global climate change, global industrialization, and global population density are all unfolding at unprecedented rates, and will produce unprecedented changes over the next hundred years.
We understand the cyclical nature of empires and recognize the elements of their genesis, expansion and decline. There is a good basis there indicating that the United States is currently entering into the last phase. Economically and politically, America is passing from a resource-rich, economically productive and militarily powerful past. Once we occupied a unique pinnacle of wealth, resources and might on the planet. Now we’re moving toward a competitive, globalized future where the competition is formidable. Our natural resources are depleted, our productivity is in decline, our financial assets are rapidly being diluted as investors seek to invest in a burgeoning global economy.
American production is expensive, and our goods are produced at much higher cost in comparison to other countries. That fact in itself is a nation-killer. While America bounces against a financial “glass ceiling” of its own making, other economies can produce a loaf of bread and the crops and facilities to make it at a fraction of the cost. Cars, building materials, even traditionally local service industries are all rapidly going offshore. Investors are following because a country worth a dollar today, but earning more every day, increases in value more than a country worth a hundred dollars that only spends its dollars to buy bread from other countries. Follow the money and the trail of American wealth will lead you offshore. Fewer dollars are circulating within our country, the number of jobs is in decline, and in the throes of the current global economic crisis there is a strong probability that in America, when the crisis passes, it will be a “jobless recovery.” And a recovery of that kind is solid evidence that America is in a profound economic decline.
The two remaining assets of America – our form of democratic government and the stockpile of wealth amassed in more productive times and stored in our infrastructure – will not be enough to sustain us. The dollar will continue to fall in value as other currencies rise as a result of our waning productivity and the rising productivity of other countries. It is likely that, caught in the throes of a fatal addiction to our former quality of life, America and Americans will borrow against our remaining assets, incur debt, and weaken the dollar further. As a result it is probable that within 25 years America will follow in the footsteps of the British Empire, and find itself reconciled to being a lesser economic and political presence on the world stage, regardless of other developments.
But what about the other crises currently manifesting which will have even more profound effects on the destiny of the United States? Global climate change appears to be the largest gorilla in the room. While lesser minds argue about who caused it, the best minds could care less and are turned toward consideration of the fact of its presence and what it will cause in the future. Already it is manifestly certain that increased levels of water and heat energy in the atmosphere will create violent climatic disturbances and damage food crops and supplies. Transportation, communications and energy production will be intermittently interrupted, and more destructive storms will cause unprecedented damage to human habitation and infrastructure. Currently projected consequences in the short term include impactful crop failures in Europe by as soon as 2010. Later changes in the oceanic circulatory system as a result of global warming may cripple our planetary oxygen supply, much of which is produced by plankton.
The geo-political consequences of privation and famine historically include wars and societal upheavals as human beings compete for limited, critical resources. Under stress and in the quest for survival, national identities dissolve into monolithic tribal and religious allegiances. We’re seeing a precursor of that in the growing “culture wars” occuring in America. A diverse citizenry becomes a luxury, and only the brother-in-arms, the rigid adherent to the group ethic and goal is included in the struggle for survival. This possibility doesn’t bode well for the survival of any nation state in a hundred years. It is much more likely to produce a polyglot, nationless, techno-oligarchy welded together by mutual personal interest rather than a land-based national identity by then.
And then there’s the Malthusian exponent of global stressors: population growth. Our exploding planetary population may have already reached beyond the critical mass necessary for widespread human tragedy. At a time when our planetary natural resources are being gobbled and rapidly depleted to support and maintain the appetites of the world’s existing population, the earth itself is entering into an early stage of a condition which will reduce what has in the past been an overflowing bounty of provision. More people, fewer resources. Not exactly a hopeful scenario for the future, and yat another indicator of future geo-political upheaval and realignment.
I think the chances that America will be around in a hundred years are about a million to one. But for the generations ahead and the hope they will need to carry on in the presence of the turbulent and overwhelming conditions to come, I can tell them what I think that one chance in a million is:
If you can evolve and elucidate the Darwinian paradigm, survival of the fittest, to define the “fittest” as those individuals who are creative, thoughtful, unselfish and thrifty – and if you can be absolutely ruthless with those who are not – then you have a chance. Otherwise the wily, thoughtless, selfish gluttons who have risen to power consistently throughout human history will ride your backs down to extinction. Good luck.