Dystopia, Utopia, or Drift?

Looking forward into the future is no easy task. It is hard to decide what to believe will happen next, and nearly impossible to predict a few years or decades down the line. So many variables, so many viewpoints, so many things are just not the same as we had expected them to turn out today. Now, the unexpected has become the rule, and a lot of us do not like the profound discomfort that causes. So, how can we look beyond today’s surprises and expect to see what is coming soon, much less later.

Of course, we live in a culture whose faith in “progress” is both deep and profoundly flawed. Maybe we just have an embedded optimism gene, but I think not. We do have a history of amazing good fortune, at least for some, and a trajectory of economic growth that seems unbounded. But it does seem to be reaching its limits. The die-hards still project their faith in technology and “free markets” to pull any rabbit out of the hat if the need arises. I used to see no end to the potential for new technology in every realm, but no more.

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Utopia may be more distant than we think.

Technology, after all, is a highly political matter. It is not just what’s possible, and that is not just anything we want. It is also about what someone pays for. Utopian dreams have become ever more expensive to realize, because there are limits.

For a while at the end of the twentieth century, the study of the future became quite popular. So called “Futurists” forecasted all manner of good things and a few possible trouble spots down the line and into the twenty first century – that would be now. We do not seem to hear so much from futurists these days. Or am I just not listening anymore?

As it turns out, although nobody knows for sure, everyone has an opinion about the future. Yet so many feel no need to base their opinions on facts or trends observed. In fact, most of the time opinions are not fact-based. Facts are what people selectively use to bolster their opinions, ignoring any facts that happen not to be consistent with closely held beliefs. Psychologists call that syndrome “confirmation bias.”

As things have developed in recent years, I have paid more and more attention to how confirmation bias interferes with rational thought and distorts public policy. Politicians face increasingly complex international, ecological, economic, climate, social, and just about every other kind of problem imaginable. Yet, they miserably fail to address these critical issues because they completely fail to “get it” and act in the public interest. But there is much more to it than confirmation bias, which is, for politicians at least, a convenient vehicle to carry them to the deepest levels of corruption.

If facts do not favor a political cynic’s position, well, they can just trot out “alternative facts,” conjured solely from the politics of the moment. Why? Because, they base their decisions not on rational analysis of the situation in context of the public interest, but on personal self interest in gaining wealth and power for themselves. (Now, that is a rather blanket statement about politicians and it is not true of many politicians, just the majority.)

Sarah Chayes has written a book called Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security. It focuses mostly on what she discovered from many years of direct experience in working with citizens in nations such as Afghanistan, and as a defense official trying to get the higher ups to see the futility of both military and diplomatic efforts that produced both corruption and terrorism out of the impossible positions such policies put people in.

I think Chayes’ work is highly applicable to the situation within the United States of America as well. Her on-the-ground work shows clearly how shortsighted officials corrupt social and political systems. Such highfliers focus more on their political careers than on the realities their work ought to address.

The result is denial, corruption, and failure to achieve the progress that U.S. mainstream economics and politics always claims but increasingly rarely achieves. As the last vestiges of democracy fall to the Corporate State, drift becomes Dystopia.

Malthus, Mistakes, and Missing the Obvious

I’ve been reading a very interesting book lately. It is all about scientific ideas or theories that the authors of its many small chapters believe are impeding scientific progress in a wide variety of specialties. The book is called, This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress (New York: Harper Perennial, 2015). Edited by John Brockman, the theme is based on the famous quote by theoretical physicist Max Plank (1858-1947) to the effect that a new scientific truth triumphs not by convincing its opponents, but because opponents eventually die off. Opponents of new ideas are usually older than those who come up with them and are usually “believers” in the dominant paradigm of the time. They resist changing their beliefs.

Yes, scientists can hold on to their notions of truth in the face of new evidence or ideas just as vehemently as the rest of us. The idea of inevitable progress is one such idea. We must make our progress, despite the claims of “rational optimists.” We must make progress by facing reality and dealing with it; progress won’t happen just by believing it so. That is what hopeful realism is about.

Most of the several dozen chapters that I have read out of the 285 or so in Brockman’s book are quite thought provoking if not downright enlightening. The chapters range from one to three pages long, ideal for a quick perusal in anyone’s reading room. I began reading way over my head when I was a child; I was fascinated by the graphic illustrations in The Scientific American. I tried to get the general idea, just reading right past complex formulae about which I didn’t have a clue. Well, I was only twelve. Some of the chapters in Brockman’s book gave me a similar feeling: way over my head in any technical sense. But even reading the chapters on topics related to the ephemeral unified “theory of everything” or the “singularity” in theoretical physics, or the idea of infinity and the extent of our universe, I could get the general idea. Anyway, it is all good intellectual exercise.

Of course, I am much more familiar with some of the topics discussed, such as economic growth, about which I have written a number of posts here. IQ is a topic that has always been controversial for me as a social psychologist. Issues around the confusion of correlation with causation have always intrigued me as a problem in research methodology, as has the question of anecdotal versus experimental evidence, and the issue of timing in causal analysis. So, I have enjoyed reading these diverse discussions of controversial ideas in various sciences.

Misreading Malthus

But when I read Matt Ridley’s chapter on Malthusianism, I was flatly annoyed. I had been annoyed similarly many years ago on reading Julian Simon’s claims that extensive economic growth should not raise concerns over resource depletion because it involves improved productivity and that population growth contributes to prosperity, not resource depletion. Ridley, a self-proclaimed “rational optimist,” dismisses the Club of Rome’s “Malthusian tract,” The Limits to Growth, despite the fact that its forecasts have been right on target over the decades since its publication. It has always been amazing to me how some writers can preach their “theories” in the face of mounting and even incontrovertible evidence – e.g., the climate deniers whose outlook on the petro-industrial system is quite similar to that of Mr. Ridley.

But the essence of my irritation is really quite simple. Timing is everything. Ridley obtusely exploits the short-term burst of industrial growth in the West to claim validity to the absurd idea that endless economic growth is somehow sustainable on a finite planet. He conveniently ignores the fact that western prosperity has been achieved on the backs of indigenous peoples across the globe, ever since the first European “explorers” began pillaging their lands and enslaving them. That is more than annoying. The “ingenuity” that turned material resources into capital was and remains grounded in violence perpetrated against diverse peoples and environments almost everywhere.

In predicting a quasi-Malthusian population crisis, Paul Ehrlich had been premature in his book, The Population Bomb, back in 1970, but he was not wrong. Technology did delay the clash of population growth with resource depletion, in large part because economic growth has been mainly confined to the Western industrial nations that have plundered resources from every continent. Population growth has had much less impact on the environment in the “developing” world, despite having been faster than in the West. That is because poor people living under oppressive regimes backed by the western industrial nations, consume very little energy or other resources. Poverty in the third world has been more extreme in part because of the imperial resource extraction from the “underdeveloped” nations that allowed techno-industrial growth in the West. But if the rest of the world had the same rates of consumption as the U.S. and Europe, global resources would have been depleted already. So, technology did facilitate growth in productivity, allowing the West to sustain a short-term prosperity through the latter half of the 20th century. That pattern cannot be sustained and is already showing major signs of impending collapse.

Irrational Optimism

Enter climate disruption, about which Ridley has nothing to say in this short chapter. However, his dismissal in his book, The Rational Optimist, of the not so optimistic forecasts resulting from massive and diverse data sets processed by hundreds of climate scientists worldwide disqualifies him as a “science writer.” Rather, he acts as a propagandist for the naïve optimism that dominates the extractive industrial culture that he so vehemently defends against any evidence that it has problems. His blind faith, not science or evidence, drive his foolish arguments that we have nothing to worry about. If the dominance of favorable ratings by other optimists on Goodreads and Amazon is any indicator, one thing we do have to worry about is the persistence of this a priori optimism in the face of an observed reality we must face if we are to retain any hope of achieving human survival in the next half century.

The mistakes about population growth are not Malthusian as Ridley claims. They are found instead in his myopic “Simonist” ideology of endless economic growth that simply denies the environmental and human impact of profligate extractive capital. The complexities of global demographics today have been given far too little attention. Ridley’s quasi-religious faith in human ingenuity is part of the technophilia that continues to culturally prop up the global capital-growth project. If the destructive trajectory of industrial “civilization” is allowed to continue just a little longer, the forecasts of Thomas Robert Malthus will soon seem understated. They will be mistaken only in the details of the collapse of a global techno-industrial system of plunder that he could not have predicted.

To Vote or Not to Vote: Is That Really the Question?

No, it’s another false dilemma. In the U.S., we are obsessed with two beliefs. One is the idea that the world can be changed and/or everything can be made right again if we only vote in the right politician as president. This contributes to the corporate-media driven “horse race” mentality that buries the issues under the personalities and blunders of the candidates. Well, Obama proved many such idealists (optimists) wrong. The second idea that many have come to believe is that to vote is to accede to a rigged system that oppresses us and only pretends to give us a choice. These pessimists find the political process entirely futile. Optimists and pessimists are both fatalists – they assume that our fate is sealed. Partial truths coexist with outright illusions. The illusions tend to dominate.

Let’s take the current example of the Bernie-Hillary dilemma and the brace of buffoons in the Republican Clown Car. One position I’ve heard expressed on social media recently goes something like this: Don’t vote at all; it’s a betrayal of your independence and freedom since they are all liars and crooks and none of them will act in our interests; anyway, the system is rigged. Well, even that extreme statement is a partial truth. But is it something we should act on, or refuse to act on? Absolutes are always illusions.

Socialism, Centrism, and the Clown Car Entering the Arena from the Far Right

Of course, politicians usually frame their messages to avoid offending as many constituents as possible and play to voters’ hopes and fears to curry our favor. They also try to steer clear of any statement that would offend their large contributors. They even sometimes give weak criticisms of, for example, Wall Street financial manipulators. However, they know that the Wall Street money in their campaign coffers is secured by private commitments of support. But that is also a matter of degree. Messages change over time, for either good or bad reasons. A genuine change of heart is to be commended for its honesty, if that is what has actually happened. The label, “flip-flop” has been applied ruthlessly, sometimes with a strong basis – think Mitt – and sometimes without justification. But it is not always easy to measure.

Hillary has changed her messages quite a lot over time. Is that a case of genuine evolution or merely a history of pandering to political fashion? The debate over that continues. Hillary supporters affirm the former; Bernie supporters suspect the latter. Tea Partiers “know in their hearts” the absolute truth, evidence be damned, literally. Parenthetically, Republican attacks on the pseudo-issues of Benghazi and her email server are pure smokescreen and demagogic attempts to smear her – one has even admitted so publicly. But Hillary’s coming to her currently – and equivocally – more “progressive” positions on several issues was so slow and tentative that it makes one wonder. How much of it was her “feeling the Bern” on her left?

Bernie, on the other hand, has been an eminently consistent politician for decades. His independence is characteristically Vermonter. That alone, of course, is an important factor in drawing the crowds despite a virtual mass-media blackout. (And, like them or not, he actually advocates specific programs meant to directly address massive growing inequality and the takeover of politics by the super rich, whose corporations own the media.) After all, we Americans love an underdog and we are so tired of the slick consultant primed-and-scripted candidacies. This alone makes Bernie refreshing. We get the clear impression that the Bernie you see is the Bernie you will get. Yet, nobody is without flaws. Progressives wonder about his seeming ambiguity over gun control – Vermont hunting interests – and his seeming ambiguity over Israel-Palestine – American Israel lobby. Well, two out of dozens is not so bad.

Messaging and Performance

The performance of Barack Obama, like that of so many others who gain office on high sounding promises, has not achieved much of the “change we can believe in.” Of course, he was ultimately stifled by the racist Republican Congress, leaving us to wonder what he might have accomplished. Like so many, I was initially taken by his eloquent oratory. But early on in his candidacy I saw figures showing where his big-money donations were coming from. That’s when I began to worry that he would be too beholden to the financial elites to act fully in the Nation’s economic interest. Sure enough, he appointed all the usual suspects from the financial elite, which had dominated the Clinton and Bush incumbencies. These were the guys serving the interests of Goldman Sacks and the other elite financial institutions that have been hell-bent on ruling the nation with their casino capitalism. It was their policy recommendations Bill Clinton had enacted, leading eventually, with Bush-Cheney help, to the collapse of the Wall Street casino in 2008. So, Hillary’s close corporate ties and the people she hires to run her campaign give one pause. Her “Third-Way” international interventionist tendencies demonstrated while Secretary of State, are a great concern too. So, who is one to vote for in an imperfect world? Or, should we bother?

Changing messaging to first gain the radical right and the Republican nomination then trying to appeal to the general electorate may have been the major factor that did in Mitt Romney. His father was not terribly inspiring, but he was believable more or less. The Donald’s “charm,” strange as it is, stems from his blatant exposure of the brash fact of “who he is” while demonstrating total lack of self-reflection. His aggressive denial of any fact he wants to hide about his questionable business practices is accepted out of public ignorance. Along with Carly Fiorina, he might be termed a “successful” failure. It would be pointless to go through the RCC (Republican Clown Car) to elucidate the paucity of serious intellect or realism on the campaign trail – it is sort of obvious. So, it is understandable that some would be so disgusted by the whole charade that usually makes the outcome of elections pretty much the same no matter who is elected. Style aside, that’s pretty much what happened in the Bush-Obama sequence, at least in the areas of endless war and endless subsidizing and covering for the financial elites.

Take What You Can Get and Demand More

So, this is where hopeful realism ‘trumps’ optimism and pessimism. Our reality is truly grave. Yet, while still breathing we can have some glimmer of hope. However, hope is delusional without action. So, I must vote (among other things), if only to write in Ralph Nader, who would do more to clean up the mess than anyone, if not assassinated first. As Chris Hedges has put it, “I fight fascism not because I will win, but because it is fascism.”

No president will be able to do much, no less all, of what is needed absent a massive transformation of congress. Real change must rise up from the people in a mass peaceful social movement for rescuing the planet and defending the greatest victims of the tyranny of wealth and the corporate state. But no small opportunity for any bit of progress should be dismissed. I will vote for the imperfect over the straight-up total disaster, in hopes that some benefit will accrue to the people and planet, rather than give up or knuckle under to the two-party party of plutocracy.