Don’t be scared, you’re not the only one

How’s your apocalypse going? Yeah, mine too.

Sending love to everyone right now. The chaos is overwhelming. Even more disturbing, it’s already normal. I write this as my windows are blanketed in smoke from the West Coast fires.

We’re hoping that 2020 is a blip on the radar. But at the same time we’re saying things like “when things go back to normal…” less and less. There’s unmistakable evidence that we may have entered a period of significant decline for the wellbeing of life on Earth. Everything from our health and safety to our food to our freedom of movement to our social cohesiveness to the future prospects of democratic governance and the existence of all other species on this planet are threatened like never before.

COVID-19 has exacerbated these things in one way, and in another finally forced us to confront the problems that we’d gotten used to ignoring. For those who were looking the signs were already there. Things like life expectancy in the US — the wealthiest nation in human history — starting to unexpectedly decline in 2015 for the first time in 100 years.

The decline is no longer something that happen or happen. It’s something that’s happening and will likely happening. It’s not happening to some theoretical future person. It’s happening to me. To you. To the people we love. It’s happening to .

So what are we supposed to do about it?

Limits to Growth

In a famous 1972 book called , four MIT scientists built a computer model of the world’s population, resources, pollution, and growth rates, and projected how they would play out in the future. The picture their model painted was dire: the end of economic and population growth and likely societal collapse sometime in the 21st century.

The reason is something they called “overshoot.” The natural world imposed a limit to growth that would catch up to us. Because of population and economic growth, we would increasingly use more of the Earth’s resources than it could replenish each year — even factoring in world-changing technological shifts. The authors write:

Yikes.

For the first thirty years after publication, was widely read and roundly criticized. The group who commissioned it, the Club of Rome, was often mocked for their pessimism in the face of accelerating economic and technological growth. Nobody likes being told that the cops are coming when the party’s still in full swing.

In the last decade the book’s reputation has improved for the worst possible reasons: the predictions made by its models have proven to be largely correct. Extrapolations made in 1972 about population growth, CO2 emissions, changes in food production, and other critical shifts have proven right, as have their problems. (The book’s Wikipedia page offers a good summary.) What they said would happen on humanity’s “standard run” — meaning no real changes to our policies or behaviors — has happened.

Their model projected different possible futures from where they were in 1972 to the year 2100. Here’s a graph of projected human wellbeing:

The line for humanity’s future that plummets? This is what happened when humanity continued the status quo. The projection whose numbers have continued to hold up. The trajectory we’re on right now.

The authors didn’t say exactly when this collapse would happen, but they gave some guidance: “Even in the most pessimistic scenario, the material standard of living keeps increasing all the way to 2015.” (The same year US life expectancy began to decline, btw.)

In 1972, 2015 felt like the distant future.

Now we’re living in it.

The end of resilience

How does civilization unravel? :

If you’ve ever been broke, you know exactly what it means to lose the ability to cope. The smallest thing going unexpectedly wrong can make everything go wrong. Your car breaking down can break everything in your life. You’re in a hole the second the car doesn’t start because you can’t pay for the repairs without going to work and you can’t go to work without a car and you can’t fix the car without taking from something else and on and on. For somebody else or for you at a different time this would be a speed bump. But when our resilience is low everything is a disaster waiting to happen.

It’s not a single tidal wave that knocks us over. It’s a series of many smaller waves that eventually overwhelm us.

This is what we’re experiencing now. Not just one crisis, but a cascade and now avalanche of them. Confronting a pandemic while fires are raging while trying to address systemic racism and sexism while trying to save our democracy while while while. If we could focus on just one we’d likely find it solvable. But when there are so many we lose our capacity to cope.

A new book called by Peter Zeihan puts where we are this way:

Technology does not save us

Naturally we hope for technology to provide a cure. The authors spend considerable time exploring how technology can help us.

In that earlier graph of projected human wellbeing, the lines that don’t immediately plummet represent potential futures where one of humanity’s main hurdles to growth is completely solved by a technological breakthrough. One line represents a future where pollution is erased by technology. Another represents a future where infinite food production is possible, and so on.

Even in these possible futures where the greatest challenges we face are completely and instantly solved by technology, the model finds that civilization would still collapse if the goal continued to be growth.

Technology is critical to humanity’s future but it will not save our current trajectory.

Equilibrium

The alternative to growth, according to the authors, is the pursuit of equilibrium.

While this might sound like some kind of dullsville where nothing changes, this couldn’t be further from the truth. This is simply a world with a different concept of growth:

We live in a universe of infinite potential, yet allow financial ROI to define what we think of as growth. As I put it in my book, a world of scarcity can become a world of abundance with a different concept of value. The idea of moving off of economic growth and towards a more holistic notion was unthinkable until very recently. Now it could very well be where things are headed. Kate Raworth’s is one powerful model for post-growth thinking. See my video on What’s After Capitalism or this piece on Post-Capitalism for Realists for others.

Post-COVID Circularity

For all the trauma and pain it’s causing, COVID might be doing us a favor in the long run. For one thing it’s causing us to become more resilient. In a post on “post-COVID circularity” in his excellent paid newsletter Breaking Smart, Venkatesh Rao writes:

Rao notes that this new circularity is “driven by a refreshingly selfish motive: personal lifestyle resilience.” This would suggest that this change will have more meaning than the empty and even harmful gestures at resilience that we’ve made to date.

He goes on:

These are all undoubtedly positive changes. They’re also evidence of a bigger evolution in values and how we see our self-interest. Our need for immediate personal safety is higher than ever, but our awareness of each other and our future selves is, too. Our choices and views of the future are changing. We’re starting to calculate future forced austerity into our decisions for the first time in generations. We’re broadening our Us. We’re acclimating to a new world.

Collective Courage

Where we are reminds of Pascal’s Wager in a strange way. Pascal’s Wager is the famous 2x2 graph that shows it’s more rational to believe in God than not. The upsides and downsides are clear, so you might as well just believe.

We have almost a reverse situation. All the outcomes appear to be damnation of one kind or another, and happiness seems like it’s moved off the board altogether. We feel helpless.

But if we look at the situation using our own 2x2 (the Bento) we see that we’re not helpless. There’s just a lot of work to do.

There’s Now work to stop the worst outcomes and make a better world. There’s Future work to prepare ourselves and our communities in case we fall short.

According to the authors of , we should start by “visioning, networking, truth-telling, learning, and loving.” Imagining a better future, connecting with others about it, being honest about where we are, and creating support and strength between one another. This is what builds our capacity to cope.

This is one of the lessons of the most prescient book about this moment — Octavia E. Butler’s . In her post-climate change apocalypse, the world has broken down into tiny fiefdoms, neighborhoods are surrounded by walls and are burned and looted if they aren’t, and resources are scarce. This becomes known as the “Pox,” short for Apocalypse, a period of societal breakdown lasting from 2015 (that year again) to 2030.

Butler writes:

It lost its capacity to cope.

Even as society lost its capacity to cope, some people persevered. How? By having purpose. By having a vision of the future worth working for. By having an Us to lean on. This isn’t just the case in science-fiction. This is the case in real life too.

I’ve been reading an excellent book by Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard called about Black Americans using cooperatives to create resilience and collective power in the face of centuries of racism. The larger systems actively worked against Black Americans so they created their own systems instead. When things are hard people pull together. More co-ops were created during the Great Depression than any other time.

These smaller communities tend to be provoked by extraordinary challenges. They create spaces that feel extraordinary in return. Consider this anecdote from about Sojourner Truth, a former slave who became an important voice of leadership, joining an intentional community called the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in the 1840s.

Even during slavery and the pre-Civil War period, people intentionally created and lived in a future world. They created strength and light during a time of darkness.

What can we do?

concludes that growth can’t save humanity and technology can’t either. But our own values and mindset can.

To date, we have failed in this mission. The standard run has only accelerated.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that we’re actively preparing ourselves and trying to do something about it like never before. One example is the Bento Society.

The Bento Society is a collective project with a thirty-year mission: to redefine what the world sees as valuable and in our self-interest. We try to balance our individual needs and our collective interdependencies. We try to see the future impact of our now actions. The same challenge lays out is the same problem we come together to confront. We’re still beginners in this. So was everyone once.

Here’s again:

Nobody feels good about the future. Nobody feels confident about what will happen next. Nobody actually knows what will happen. But it’s possible, with the right mindset and people around us, to look into the darkness, see it honestly for what it is, and not feel afraid. It’s possible to feel filled with purpose and energy instead.

It starts with getting off the couch. It starts with stopping the binge watching. It starts with engaging our minds, our families, and our friends in honest conversations about where we are and how we need to prepare. Not falling into a funk. Not panicking. Stepping into this moment the way our children are counting on us to. Not alone because we have each other.

In a recent Bento Society meeting people were asked to name three things they could do for Now and three things they could do to prepare for the Future based on our situation. It was a difficult conversation. But in the end we found much to work towards and much in common. This long list of things to do, and the group of like-minded souls who created it together, are among the many possibilities in front of us.

Invitation

The same group that made this list comes together each Sunday at 12pm EST on Zoom to share perspectives, ideas, and connect with one another. To join us, click here.

Mentioned in this post

Author of “This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World”; Cofounder of Kickstarter; Bentoist; http://www.ystrickler.com

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