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.

Small World, Big Change: Chasing the New Great Transformation

The cliché, “the world is getting smaller,” sometimes jumps right out at you in an incident or experience that is entirely unexpected. That happened to me one cool fall evening. My wife sat at a table at the entrance to the Torreon Marriott Hotel (a small part of a global story of transformation in itself), as I retrieved my jacket from the car. She introduced me to the gentleman with whom she was talking. Georg is some sort of international executive with BMW, who was considering an extended stay in Mexico to help establish certain BMW business interests there. He had just completed a seven-year stint in China. Georg speaks five languages and owns a home in the U.S. One crosses interesting paths in unexpected places in the small world of international travel. I sat down, anticipating an interesting conversation.

Naturally, topics ranged from cars – especially those “ultimate driving machines” – to international agreements on climate action. Georg confirmed how terrible the smog has been in Beijing. However, he assured us that it is getting much better since the government forced the move of over a hundred companies out of the city. Of course, that does not change the total carbon pollution resulting from Chinese industry, but it does provide a bit of relief to Beijing residents. Georg confirmed my impression that the Chinese, despite their massive current levels of carbon emissions, are taking a number of positive steps toward carbon constraint.

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Beijing Smog. Source: BoredPanda.com

I asked Georg if he knew of any incentives for conversion to electric cars in China. He replied that in Beijing today, a license for a fossil-fuel driven car is more expensive than the car itself, and it is very difficult and time-consuming to obtain. If you want to buy an electric car, the license is free and immediately available. Since a charging infrastructure is not yet built, electric vehicle drivers in Beijing can rely on mobile charging units simply by calling a company that will come and charge their electric car for a modest fee, while they work, shop, etc., at a particular location.

Like so many, Georg affirmed his bafflement over the U.S. election of Donald Trump. He indicated how ambiguous the consequences seem for implementing international agreements on climate action. We didn’t dwell on “The Donald.”

I suggested that development of battery technology seems to be progressing well. Georg confirmed my thought, stating that 250-mile range is available now and 350-mile range configurations are coming on line for production. For the U.S. that would eliminate the issue of range if we built a recharging infrastructure soon. However, in the U.S., the political climate remains dominated by climate denial, despite the incontrovertible science and growing public awareness. Politicians of all stripes talk of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, but they usually refer to roads and bridges for our fossil-fueled vehicles. Trump likes to assert that our airports are “terrible, terrible,” and need to be “modernized.” Airlines make public relations gestures around reducing carbon emissions, but no real plan to do so exists. Established economic interests dominate political decisions.

Mexico’s transportation sector is much like the U.S. Crowded cities with similar traffic jams punctuate vast open spaces. Neither have adequate rail transportation, except for industrial transport. In both, conversion to electric vehicles would require a deliberate government policy of establishing a network of recharging stations and incentives for conversion to electric vehicles. Of course, that will be a problem in the U.S. with its continued political culture of climate denial and fear of “liberal conspiracies” to control everyone by programs of climate action. Do we really have to leave climate progress up to Elon Musk?

The fundamental underlying fact is that humanity is now undergoing a New Great Transformation, much larger than the industrial revolution and vastly more crucial to our prospects on this planet. In 1944, Karl Polanyi, in his prescient book, The Great Transformation, predicted many of the problems that have resulted from the industrial revolution and subsequent proliferation of industry. The ecological consequences of globalization of the industrial system have reached far beyond anything he could have imagined.

Today we are already witnessing the early stages of a New Great Transformation that will change the role of humanity on earth forever. We must take action globally now if we are to make the big changes necessary for our own survival in the context of the converging crises that are leading to global chaos. We must act or suffer the consequences. The actions required themselves constitute a great social transformation.

We have already changed the world in entirely unanticipated ways. Vested interests in our increasingly suicidal path resist Big Change, seeking short-term profits while ignoring the obvious signs of a catastrophic future. Failure to take the extreme corrective actions needed to re-stabilize both the climate and ecological systems worldwide will be disastrous. We must take charge of the New Great Transformation; it is a matter of survival or extinction.

The world may be getting smaller, but its problems are getting much bigger than ever before imagined. We live within complex living ecological systems, long ignored by our economic and political elites. Our actions have destabilized those systems, yet we are utterly dependent upon them. That is the essence of our problem. Big Changes are already the reality we have inadvertently created. Our situation now calls upon us to change our behavior in ways that are unprecedented and very hard to imagine. The New Great Transformation is for humanity the point of no return. We must imagine a future that our world can tolerate.