Does it feel like the world’s started to fall apart over the last twelve months or so — or even the last three? That tiny voice in you shouting “yes!!” Isn’t wrong. It’s right. You’re not an alarmist or a maniac. Right about now, understanding that things are falling apart is the sanest thought of all to have.
Every now and then, there’s what’s come to be called an annus horribilis — a particularly terrible year. Take, for example, well..this one. 2020. Consider, for a moment, the last three months or so. In January, megafires. In February, megafloods. In March, a pandemic. Can you imagine another year like this one? Could any of our societies even take it?
Now consider the last twelve months or so. Before the megafloods and megafires and pandemic. Concentration camps in America and China. Whole ethnicities and religions banned from citizenship in India. The Brits breaking up with their old friends in Europe…while neo-Nazis stalked the Bundestag. The rise of a wave of demagogues, shredding democracy and peace and sanity gleefully — to the roaring approval of Facebook-addled masses. Not just in some remote other poor nations — but in the heart of the West, in Westminster and Washington DC and Bruseels.
So. Can you imagine another decade like the last twelve months? Another two or three? We’re already on our knees as a civilization. Another year like this one? Another decade of such years? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
I have some bad news, and I have some worse news. And then maybe a tiny bit of good news — but that part’s going to be up to you.
The bad news is this.
I’ve come to think we’re living through a Great Inflection. A turning point in the historic fortunes of a civilization. A point of no return, at which great megatrends reverse, macrosystems and macroinstitutions fail, and societies begin to break. See the chart above? We’re at the yellow point in the center — where a grand upwards line becomes a sudden fall from the heavens. The next few decades are going to be like the last twelve months — only worse, at an accelerating pace. See that chart above? Here’s what it means.
Two lines. One glides neatly upwards. One falls downwards in a half-parabola, like a stone thrown off a cliff’s edge. The point at which they intersect is the moment in which we live. A Great Inflection.
The upwards line is what you might call progress or civilization or prosperity. For most of our lives, our parent’s lives, our grandparent’s lives, that line crept slowly upward. So we’re used to living in a certain kind of world. One, a placid world, where there’s little if any real change. Two, a world of progress, where, magically, things like life expectancy and happiness seem to improve, for no real reason we understand or even care about. And three, a world where if we just do our jobs, and don’t ask too many questions, things tend to work out alright.
As you’ve probably already experienced, that world began to die in the last decade or so. The line of civilization and progress isn’t gently gliding upwards anymore. If you just do your job, you don’t get rewarded — mostly, you get brutally punished, betrayed, and abandoned, by broken systems and elites who could care less.
As a civilization, we’re at the yellow point in the center of my chart: the infection point. This is the moment at which everything changes — this decade, these years, right now. The great megatrends which have defined history over the last few decades and centuries are all now reversing — the steady expansion of democracy, progress, and prosperity. Everything we know is being disrupted, transformed, altered, sundered. Ruptured. And living through times like that — where great megatrends suddenly rupture — is baffling and bewildering and surreal. That’s what I mean by living through an inflection point. Historical inflection points might feel relatively slow to us — things change in a decade — but to history, that’s massive, radical, sudden change.
The red line — the downwards curve, the stone thrown from a cliff edge — what’s that? It’s all the catastrophes that have been slowly building in the background of a dying civilization, ignored, neglected, looming, gathering force and pace and strength.
Today, there’s a perfect storm of catastrophes converging upon us. From one side, what you might call natural ones: climate change, ecological collapse, mass extinction, and of course, pandemic. From the other, socio-politio-economic ones. The economic ruin that follows all the above. The political upheaval already being produced by decades of stagnation and inequality. And the sense that societies are slowly but surely losing the plot — incapable of really cohering together anymore, taking collective action, like America, or the UK, instead at each others’ throats. All that is what the “line of catastrophe” in the little chart above means.
2020 may have been an annus horribilis so far — but it’s not some kind of anomaly. It is the future. It’s the thunderous beginning of a new chapter in human history — the age of catastrophe. Hence, us at the yellow point. The upwards blue line is turning, downwards, red — catastrophes are now coming harder and faster and will do so for our lifetimes, most likely. Things aren’t going to go back to “normal” — not tomorrow, not the day after, not ever. The next few decades will be like the last year or two — only worse.
2020 was the year we began to finally witness the full fury of all the catastrophes we’ve been living in blissful denial of — whether pandemic, depression, climate change, or fascism. Think of a volcano suddenly exploding. Bang! All that pent up heat and pressure and lava suddenly goes ballistic, hurtling through the air, scorching everything in sight. That’s what we’ve done — only with much larger catastrophes than a mere volcano.
Think of climate change. It’s been gathering force and fury for decades now. Scientists, every month or so, publish yet more alarming data. The skies are polluted by this much, the oceans warming and rising by that much, the temperature rising, rising. As a race, as a species, we’ve mostly..ignored it. Sure, we’ve made half-hearted efforts — like teenagers who, when asked to clean their rooms, throw dirty socks under the bed, and maybe muss the sheets.
Or think of mass extinction. If you think we’ve barely begun to fight climate change (you’re right), the truth is that we haven’t even begun to think about how to fight mass extinction. So life on planet earth as we know it is dying off at astonishing rates. 40% of that species is gone, 60% of that one, 80% of this one — and the rates are accelerating. Mourn the little ones — but worry for yourself and your loved ones too. Because the fish clean the rivers and streams. The insects turn the topsoil. The animals nurture the forests and reefs. Killing life as we know it is a sure recipe to collapse our megasystems — our food chains, supply chains, resource chains, the things of which we critically depend. When all that happens — in another 15–20 years — that wave of catastrophe will make this one look toothless by comparison.
Then there’s the economic ruin that’s sure to follow all these. Did you see how a pandemic — a relatively mild one, by historical standards — brought economy after economy to its knees? But the economic effects of climate change and mass extinction and ecological collapse are going to be order of magnitude worse. Right now, you can’t leave home. Tomorrow, you might not have one. Right now, maybe you’re worried for your job, or you’ve lost it. Tomorrow, as regions burn and flood, and entire mega systems fail — massive swathes of jobs will simply disappear, permanently.
Did you see, by the way, the way that authoritarians are already making hay from the pandemic? How they’re using it to expand powers of surveillance and claim more..authority…and misdirect from their own failures and so on? During times of unprecedented crisis, people turn naturally to strongmen and demagogues. Pulling together is largely a myth, meant to make us feel good. How is it that an impeached Trump is more dangerous and destructive than…ever?
So my “line of catastrophe” represents a kind of process, a dynamic, a causal chain. Catastrophes produce depressions. And depressions produces waves of extremism. Waves of extremism reshape society, along authoritarian fascist lines. When the climate refugees flood America — how do you think tomorrow’s Trumpists will react then? More or less violently? When tomorrow’s Trumpists will never have jobs again, thanks to eco-depressions that effectively render places uninhabitable — how much angrier do you think they’ll be, and how much more ready to scapegoat some poor Mexican baby? But what happens when societies elect demagogues? They grow poorer, fast, and live vastly worse lives.
Hence, the future of natural catastrophe isn’t just that. It’s a future of dominoes falling. Of economies crashing, of depressions rising, of extremism’s riptides surging, of societies drowning in hate, violence, rage, and poverty — much like modern-day America.
Now, you might have already objected to my term “natural.” You’re right. Here’s the thing about this age of catastrophe. All of the catastrophes that are arriving now — this civilization-wrecking perfect storm of them — are self-made. All of them. They’re all “anthropogenic” — aka “man-made”, but I don’t like that term, because it doesn’t really get to the root of the problem.
What unifies all the catastrophe converging in this age, from climate change to mass extinction to economic depression to extremism? They are all byproducts. They’re what economist call “externalities”, hidden, unintended costs.
Climate change is an externality made of carbon emissions. Mass extinction is an externality made of rendering whole ecosystems toxic and unlivable. Depressions are an externality of too little money in the average person’s hands. Extremism is an externality made of distrust, anger, rage, resentment, and the hate it ultimately becomes.
But what are all these things externalities of? If they’re all forms of hidden costs — then what’s having the costs in the first place?
The answer to that question’s as simple as it is troubling. All the catastrophes we face now are byproducts of a feeble, decrepit industrial-capitalist economy. It’s logic of exploitation polllutants, which crowd the skies and kill off the animals. It’s exploitative logic says, too, that people must never be given money they haven’t “earned”, much less support, working social contracts, so the result is that depressions erupt after catastrophes, just like in America, right now. The morality it teaches people is that the strong have the right — the obligation, in fact — to exploit the weak, and the masses lap it up, resulting in waves of extremism, which crest predictably enough in all the places which became part of the global capitalist-industrial machine: America, India, China, Britain, all societies where people have learned to punch down on the helpless, instead of lift one another up.
The age of catastrophe we are entering now isn’t just “anthropogenic.” You and I didn’t really make it. We have probably tried resisting it as best we could. What has made an age of catastrophe is capitalism. Now, by capitalism, I don’t mean your butcher and baker and brewer. I mean McKinsey running concentration camps. I mean Goldman Sachs and hedge funds getting free money from governments, forever. Americans sometimes call all that “corporatism” (which is fine by me.) I mean the idea, so visible in American culture, especially when set in relief against the togetherness of a pandemic, that our only relationship with each other in a society is as adversaries and enemies, competing to the death for healthcare, retirement, jobs, incomes, employment. All that is what capitalism really is — exploitation of you, me, the planet, life on it, democracy, and the future, by organizations wealthier than countries, with legal superpowers, whose only goal is to maximize profit, at any cost. Your local small business might well be a form of resistance against it — many of mine are, the bookshop, the bakery, the little pottery.
The infection point we’re at is this. We have hit the limits of industrial-capitalism, as a way to organize our world economy, to shape our societies, to inform our lives, to structure our organizations, and frame our ethics, too. The simple way to say it is that its costs — pandemics, climate change, mass extinction, stagnation, extremism, depression, demagogues — are beginning to swamp its benefits. Sure, the rich get mega richer. But the rest of us? We’re sinking along with the ship.
My little chart predicts a grim future. If we’re at the inflection point that I think we are, then the future is just like that stone’s throw off a cliff edge that the line of catastrophe represents. It’s a swift plummet into an abyss. It’s a decade or three of every catastrophe beginning to hit us more and more severely, every single year, until the fundamental ideas of civilization itself simply wink out, as people are trapped in bitter, brutal contests of self-preservation. Think of how a pandemic has brought us to our knees — and now imagine a few decades like the last few months. Maybe you’re beginning to see what I mean.
I don’t want you to take my chart literally, in a kind of grad-school way. Any good model is only a metaphor, and this isn’t even that much. It’s just a little lens, a toy model, two lines and the point at which they meet. So don’t run away and shout: “Umair’s saying living standards will fall to the level of the 1800s tomorrow!! LOL!!” I’m not. But I am saying that, for example, America’s already a place where living standards are cratering, and every catastrophe makes that trend worse. Expand that across the world, and you begin to see my point, perhaps. We’re at an inflection point — some will arrive sooner, some later, and some lucky ones might just skirt it altogether.
No, I don’t mean that there’s going to be a pandemic every year, by the way. But I do mean that the last three or six months or year are a good window for seeing the future. This month, megafire, next month, megaflood, next month, political upheaval, next month, depression. There’s always something — some catastrophe, that’s pulling at us, making us fearful, tugging at our optimism and confidence — and the trend is always getting worse. As a result, whole societies are trapped in resource-depletion. They’re always trying to rebuild what just burned down, shut down, flooded — instead of ever really growing much again.
What my little chart above really says is this. One paradigm, one model of growth, one way to organize a civilization, one idea for managing a whole world — that’s now at an end. A dead end. And the real problem is that we have no real new ones, yet, going forward. What are we to do as a world, as societies, as families, as husbands, wives, fathers, mothers? How are we to cohere, prosper, survive, endure — grow?You can see that elites and leaders have no real idea for an agenda for the future — except the old one demagogues do: hate the ones who aren’t like you, and take what’s theirs. We need a vision for a new economy, new world, new civilization.
Now for the good news — the tiny bit of it. What might that be like? I think it’s eminently straightforward. It’s modeled on the most successful societies we know of in human history, which are social democracies. Every human being deserves dignity, resources, freedom — which are enshrined in rights to healthcare, education, income, and so on. Every life of any kind does — and so the animals and ecosystems need to earn a living too, which can be spent on protecting and nourishing them. To do that, we need global institutions, new banks and funds and agencies and so forth — like a Global Ecosystem Bank, or a World Healthcare Organization which actually coordinate a world’s healthcare, or a World Bank that can actually invest in you and me, where everyone can have an account, which receives a basic income. Think of how many good jobs all the above would create, too.
You can think of that at the national level. Why don’t you have an account at the central bank? Why aren’t oceans and reefs people, too — if corporations are? How come Amazon, Inc is “worth” a trillion dollars, but the Amazon river’s worth…nothing? Why is it that every single person doesn’t get a nest egg at birth, that can mature into investment in a business, college, or both? How come we don’t have institutions to do any of that — but we do have a dozen new WhatsApp clones every other day?
I don’t think any of that’s complicated, really — except to two groups of people. Americans, and elites. Elites like to imagine that what I’m envisioning is impossible — but that’s mostly because they don’t want to admit that their world failed, and failed badly. Americans, on the other hand, are used to being powerful and selfish, and that’s made them arrogant, so they tend to think of change in incremental terms.
My friends, cautious incrementalism isn’t going to cut it. That is the single most urgent lesson of the Great Inflection. Does it feel like the world has started to fall apart this last year? Let me say it again. That feeling’s not wrong. It has. It is. The way to fight it is to get radical, to get visionary, to get serious about building a new world. One in which these fundamental, beautiful ideas of civilization — equality, freedom, justice, truth, beauty, goodness — have razor-sharp meaning again. In which they aren’t mere intellectualizations and theory, but concrete ways of life, we are all enacting.
Otherwise, I think, the future is very simple. It’s the brutal, swift, bleak regress of a Great Inflection, through all the tragedies of history, from fascism to authoritarianism to depression, right back to a dark age, faster and harder than we yet know. And if you think I’m kidding — isn’t all that what the last few days, weeks, months, and years have already been?