Yes, we do live in interesting times, which does not mean that we understand very well our place on time’s arrow. We pine for an idyllic past, misinterpret what is going on right now, and imagine a utopian future that cannot be. If only the experts will come up with impossible new technologies and materials that we imagine we need to overcome the mess we deny having made.
We need not concern ourselves with undefined MAGA fantasies that Trumpist acolytes embrace to know that neo-classical illusions of mainstream economics and neo-fascist imaginaries both fail to grasp the hard reality of the ecological/climatic degradation and societal disintegration we experience today.
The Modernist Illusion of Techno-industrial Omnipotence
So, where exactly do we think we are going? And even more important, where is the “here” from which we expect to escape? The “modernist” culture endures, mainly as the industrial consumerism in which we all participate, even “postmodernist” skeptics. Built on consumerist addictions, it involves certain assumptions of infinite progress on a finite planet. Unfortunately, our culture has an underdeveloped sense of proportion.
Back in the 1980’s I regularly flew a small airplane between the Los Angeles metro area and my home on the central coast of California. Of course, I was aware of the damage that fossil-fuel burning vehicles was doing to the atmosphere. I rationalized my behavior by the fact that my little airplane burned no more fuel per mile than the average automobile. At the same time, I was studying the exceptionally high rates of cancer downwind from an oil refinery in the South Bay area. I thought of myself as an adamant environmentalist, but nobody’s perfect.
One day, a mechanic drove me from my home to his shop where he had repaired my pickup truck. On the way, we talked about air pollution. I lamented the volume of CO2 spewed into the air above Los Angeles. His response was to ask skeptically how the emissions from such a small pipe as a car exhaust could possibly cause such a volume of pollution.
I asked him if he had ever flown over Los Angeles. “No,” he said. I was at a loss to explain the vast urban sprawl of Los Angeles as seen from above. Multiply that by millions of cars and you get the smog that impinged on my visibility when I flew from the South Bay over LAX, then up the coast past Malibu to Santa Barbara, where the air was much clearer. He just did not get the vastness of the proportion of cars to their geography. Multiply that by the number of huge cities and outlying towns and industrial farms around the world, energized by burning fossil fuels. Well, I thought, it ought to be obvious.
I still flew my airplane, which cut down the miles I drove, both in LA and around home, but I probably netted just as much CO2 emissions as the next guy. My life, along with most others, fell within the category present imperfect.
Past Perfect? Not really.
The past was as complicated as the present–except for technology–but not in most of our minds. We often romanticize “the good old days,” except when challenged to give up some fossil-fueled conceit that we imagine a convenience. I remember reading an article in the Scientific American many years ago that calculated the work involved in maintaining all the “modern conveniences” we consumers take for granted.
As it turned out, keeping the gas-powered lawn mower, the powerboat, and all those appliances working well keeps us far busier than prehistoric peoples were in their hunting and gathering. They had lots more leisure time than we do. We have to work long hours to afford to sit around on Saturday watching an NFL game on that large flat panel smart TV while the broken axle on our ATV goes unattended, along with the other junk that fills the garage.
All that consumer behavior, and the manufacturing, distribution, and the use, repair and waste it entails, keeps ‘fouling our nest.’ Nevertheless, we typically see no further than the crowded freeway inhibiting our arrival at our latest vacation ‘getaway.’ Globalization is just what it implies: befouling the entire planet to feed our insatiable consumerism in the endless pursuit of expressing our hubris.
We sail toward the edge of Earth-System collapse, oblivious to the terminal nature of our collective behavior. At the same time, our imaginary past perfect world remains grounded in the imperfect assumptions of our techno-industrial consumer culture. Unlike its gramatical definitions, the illusory perfection of the past had never been completed when the industrial-consumer era began.
Well, I suppose the present is already extreme in a number of ways. Shielded within our consumer bubble, we have no idea how extreme things can get, except within video games. However, some of the early victims of climate chaos and ecological collapse traumatically experience how extreme food deprivation, political and economic collapse, and life as a refugee can be.
Pick the worst disasters you are aware of, such as extreme storm damage, massive crop failures due to extreme draught or floods forcing unexpected emigration in search of survival, or unrelenting massacres in resource wars emerging around the world. Most folks, even experts who are aware of growing climate chaos and ecological collapse, do not grasp the level of depopulation and complete societal transformation that will occur before some new equilibrium is even possible within our increasingly unstable Earth System as we move deeper into the Anthropocene epoch. I just bought a new bicycle.