It’s the year 2023 and…
How did you expect the year 2023 to be, anyways, way back when? Not…like this…I’d bet.
Here we are, and the world is now beginning to crumble around us, in earnest, accelerating, going off the rails, imploding, so fast now that sonic booms of ruin now emanate around the globe in a constant, never-ending hum. I say this kind of thing, and perhaps, sometimes, you might think I say it for effect. But I don’t. I say it because…sigh. Why do I say it? Is it meant to exasperate you? Depress you? Scare you?
These things are better left unsaid. But let’s come back to that, because it’s the way we’re supposed to (not) talk about the world these days. Gaslight me, quick, someone, put me out of my...
“Crumble around us.” What do I mean? Let’s consider just the last few days in history. Not one but two countries embraced the far right in less than a single week. Now, when I say that, and of course the implication is “that’s not a very good thing,” it’s not a “political” point. It’s just a fact. We have never once seen anywhere in history fanatical right wing choices lead to anything positive, really, economically, socially, politically. Go ahead, feel free to shoot me down with counterexamples. The Weimar Republic ended wonderfully, I’m sure. Caesar totally fixed up Rome for another thou—Oh wait.
One of the great global trends of our age is an ominous one. Democracy’s in steep, sharp decline. This should worry all of us intensely. Does it? Do we notice it as much as we should? Democracy is of course modernity’s crowning achievement. And yet. One week. Not one country but two, throwing it into the dustbin. That ominous trend is now accelerating out of control.
One of the countries which embraced the far right was the Netherlands. That, too, is particularly troubling. It’s one of the first times that a mature European social democracy has turned its back on….so much. History. Truth. Modernity. Reality. And succumbed to the global anti-democratic wave. And no, just because we “elect” fanatics doesn’t mean in the slightest that we’re exercising democracy, which is about freedoms, rights, certain modern values of equality, liberty, truth, and justice, all of which, of course, are under severe, sustained assault now. A mature European social democracy is the last place we should see the anti-democratic wave cresting. It is—it’s already hit the rest of the world. And yet this moment, too, tells us that there’s no immunity against this contagion, and also, that the wave of folly, hate, and rage isn’t…
There it is, still spreading. Again, let me emphasize, this isn’t “about politics.” There is a very good reason that thoughtful people think of the far right as a menace and a danger—does it really have to be spelled out? Are we in such a profoundly stupid age that we have to say the words that history etched out in blood and bones, time and again, for those who seem to have gone deaf, dumb, and blind? Is this really where we are, that Europe forgets what the far right made of it, not so long ago, a human lifetime, the blink of time’s eye. The last time, only ashes were left.
There’s a reason. We should all know the reason. I think we all do know the reason. That such movements, moments, mistakes are precisely what’s warned about and against. And yet here we are, watching history repeat itself. In so many awful, thoughtless, foolish ways. We confront the sheer unbelievable weight of human stupidity itself. Stare not into its abyss, but at it’s rictus grin. They call Milei in Argentina "El Loco." We all know. Even, especially, those of us making these foolish choices.
Do you know that sinking feeling you have? What it means? Why you have it?
We are watching a civilization self-destruct.
What else happened, just in the last few days? “The world is on track for a “hellish” 3C of global heating, the UN has warned before the crucial Cop28 climate summit that begins next week in the United Arab Emirates.” And meanwhile? “The mean global temperature briefly crossed a critical threshold of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels likely for the first time.” In human history, that is.
What does all that mean? We know the lessons of history, but willfully ignore them, seduced by demagogues, treading on our better angels in rage, until their tender spines snap. But the lessons of futurity? They promise to be even more…terrible.
The world is on track for three degrees of warming. Only it’s not, because of course, three degrees isn’t a stable equilibrium. Well before that, closer to two and a half degrees, perhaps, more or less every single planetary tipping point we know of is hit. There’s just one exception, the Antarctic ice. But the rest of them, from permafrost melting, to boreal forests gone, to ocean currents a tangled, broken mess—all tipped. And that takes us into a place we don’t understand, can’t comprehend, and aren’t prepared in any way for, which is four to five degrees of warming. At those temperatures, civilization itself as we think of is unlikely to be possible.
You should know the score by now. Water, clean air, food—at those temperatures, good luck supplying them to ten billion people, let alone habitable zones, public health, or anything resembling a modern social contract. We don’t have any idea what life looks like at such temperatures, but what’s for sure is that it doesn’t look anything like this. Do we turn into Frank Herbert’s Fremen, conserving every last drop of water, jealously? That was a deeply intelligent future. Perhaps there’s a dumber, more brutal one—the Purge meets Fahrenheit 451 by way of the Hunger Games.
What’s for sure is that any notion of a positive future is obliterated, right down to the last iota, by this trajectory. No form of human progress is possible whatsoever—all that’s left is conflict on a dying planet, and that means that fascists, authoritarians, lunatics, and crackpots surge to the top, as bewildered masses flee from reason, truth, sanity, and democracy in fear and bitter rage. Just like…I didn’t even have to end that sentence, did I?
That brings us to the resurgence of Donald Trump. He just promised to “maximize fossil fuels” if he’s re-elected. No, don’t laugh yet, the real punchline’s this: Americans trust him on the economy. With it. Think about that for a second. Insurance companies are already pulling out of states because they can’t afford climate damages now. Go ahead and ask yourself what ten more years of fossil “maximization” does to economies. I’ll tell you, so you don’t have to guess. As damages intensify way past breaking point, which is where we already where last summer, and insurers fled, banks crash, economies convulse, businesses pull back investment, and this stagnant economy turns into something closer to a Greater Depression.
Not my opinion.
I know what it sounds like this when I write words like those above. Who am I? I don’t know who I am anymore. Does anyone? But I know who I’m not. I’m not an activist. I don’t have a political bone in my body, really—I don’t belong to a party, or lobby, or advocate, or volunteer. I’m just a guy. Like so many others. I don’t want to write any of this. What good does it do me? None whatsoever. But what I feel I have is a sort of moral duty, I suppose, to at least share with you the facts.
All we are discussing above are facts. There’s nothing complicated about them. I can complicate them, sure, by talking about how instabilities intersect, and complex systems interact—but there’s no need to. Just the facts themselves should trouble us all deeply these days, because they say the same thing, more or less all of them. I can keep going with facts: the immense concentrations of wealth and power, which only grow, and serve no real purpose other than vanity, or hierarchy, if you like, the dismal state in which we find ourselves emotionally—traumatized, savaged, beaten, bloodied, betrayed by one another, bearing witness to the stupidity of history repeating itself, in all the worst ways.
Just the facts, please ma’am. Who am I? Who are you? Who are any of us anymore? What’s been taken from us, and what do we have left? Do we retain our humanity, anymore—isn’t even that much contested, too, now, in the most awful, pathetic, and disgraceful ways? Just the facts are enough to set my hair on fire, and maybe you can be a carrier of this flame too, even though none of us want to be.
They all say the same thing, only it’s a message that’s many things, in many ways. It’s tragic, but not just that. It’s also wince-inducingly stupid. It’s mind-shatteringly pathetic. We should have been better than this. We deserve more from each other than this. We needed to give more to the future than this, but all we had was taken from us in the present, and what was left?
It’s the year 2023, and things are going quite badly in the world. That’s a polite way to say it, that even a pundit could crack a grin over.
We’re watching a civilization begin to self-destruct. Convulsing in hate, rage, fear, and despair. That’s the impolite way to say it, which I suppose, is the kind of thing I shouldn’t say, because, after all, what do you with that terrible knowledge?
Who am I? Who are you?
I don’t know who I am anymore, in the old ways. The guy that transformed marketing and branding. The guru. The dude you’d see on TV every once in a while. Gone. Poof. And I’d bet you feel that way, too, about yourself, a lot these days, because we all do. As the old world crumbles, our old selves disappear, too, like they were never really there at all. But hidden in every apocalypse is a revelation.
I know who I am. I know who you are, too. We’re keepers of the flame. A flame has many hues. Truth, beauty, goodness, mercy, faith, hope, courage, kindness. All the names of love. We keep the flame burning, even if it’s with our souls, turning to dust and ashes, as they bear witness. To the tragedy of all this. The stupidity of it. The futility, the folly, the disgrace, the pathetic justifications, the everyday horror, the banal idiocy of it all. Tell me you don’t feel some measure of that these days, and I’ll show you a liar.
You and me. Now. In this moment. This juncture. In the human story. Who are we? What are we? All the other titles, roles, selves, disintegrate. Keepers of the flame. It’s kept alive only in a secret place, called the human soul. What dies, when civilizations crumble? Is everything lost? What’s our job, task, challenge, purpose? Somehow, my friends, it’s come down to this. The wind roars. There’s a candle in a pair of lonely, trembling hands, flickering at midnight. And the path winds through the valley of the shadow of death. We might not make it. But will something remain of the flame?
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