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The Omega Point, When Collapse Becomes Irreversible, Where Our Civilization Is, and Rethinking How We Think About the Future

The Omega Point, When Collapse Becomes Irreversible, Where Our Civilization Is, and Rethinking How We Think About the Future

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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Hi! How’s everyone? Welcome new readers, introduce yourselves in the comments should you feel so, many thanks old friends, and a Big Thanks to all who’ve clambered onto the ledge at the edge of the world with me so far.

Today we’re going to talk about…

The Omega Point

There’s this idea that’s been racing through my mind, and I thought the time’s come to share it with you. It’s called “The Omega Point.” 

What’s that? I think of it as the point at which collapse becomes inevitable and irreversible. It’s not perhaps precisely the event of collapse itself, but the turning point at which destiny’s sort of sealed. At which a threshold’s crossed, and can’t be uncrossed.

Let me put it to you in a nerdy way, and then I’ll give you examples. 

Think of probability. In “normal” times, the risk of collapse is low. In troubled times, it begins to rise. And after a time, perhaps, if those troubles go on long enough, simmer and boil over, collapse begins to become inevitable. The risk rises from say 25% to 50% upwards and upwards, and finally, at some magic number, let’s say 90%, 99%, collapse is all but assured. Even if it’s some way away in the future.

So what am I talking about here? Many things, but…collapse…for us, at this juncture in history…is an idea we need to begin thinking about very seriously indeed. Because in many ways, it appears to be beginning to happen all around us. What’s collapsing? What’s not, is the better question. Democracy, economies, stable societies, the idea of a peaceful and prosperous future, upward mobility, the sense of confidence and optimism that earlier generations might have had, to name just a few.

So we need to think about collapse. And no—I’ll come back to it shortly, but “collapse,” as I often warn, doesn’t mean The Purge or Mad Max. It’s not Hollywood fantasies. It’s more…real…and often…sort…maybe we need to speak of the banality of collapse.

It’s 50 degrees in Delhi, and water’s in short supply. In Mexico City, too, the water’s running out. In America, Trump’s poised to win the Presidency again, throwing the world into chaos. In gentle, wise France, a 28 year old from a far-right party’s about to win the biggest political upset in modern history…in the very country that resisted the Nazis. 

Our world is in deepening trouble.

If I ran a research lab with a mega-budget, as I used to do, one of the first things I’d investigate then, is collapse. We need—badly, urgently, yesterday, right now—theories of how things fall apart. Societies. Human organizations. What factors lead to collapse. Then we can begin to harden ourselves against all these threats, and maybe avert and ameliorate their worst consequences. I’d fund a hundred, a thousand, PhD’s in these new fields of “collapsonomics” and it’s opposite, “eudaimonics, which is the social science of a good life, and that’s sort of what the world’s missing right about now, not just for us humans, but for the planet, democracy, the future, etcetera.

I think we badly need to understand this, and I’ve sketched out a little theory for you so far. Normality. Things plug along. Nobody much worries. Troubles emerge. They grow. And almost invisibly, the Omega Point is reached—and collapse is baked in. I’ve tried to draw that for you in the chart above. 

British and American Collapse

Now let’s talk about a couple of examples of an Omega Point.

What’s the most obvious one? Brexit. At the time, apart from a minority who warned, it certainly wasn’t seen as an implosive, future-defining, permanently ruinous decision. But in retrospect? The warnings were precisely correct, and Brexit was sort of a textbook definition of an Omega Point.

I won’t bore you with descriptions of how broken Britain is now—suffice it to say that people are so angry that the conservative party which has basically all but a handful of elections for a hundred years is about to get wiped out, for good.

But—and this is the point of an Omega Point—it’s now too late. The damage has been done. There’s no going back. Britain is now permanently worse off, and dramatically so. No, it can’t just “rejoin the EU,” and I’ve explained why before—joining the euro as a currency is all but impossible for Britain, and for everything else, the EU will drive a hard bargain, and even then, it’ll take decades, and even then, Britain…just has too much catching up to do now to ever catch up. It can’t regain the position it once held in terms of power, wealth, influence, or prosperity now, period.

So has Britain “collapsed”? Remember when I said that “collapse” doesn’t mean The Purge or Mad Max? Today in Britain, things just don’t work. Precisely those that we associate with modern, functional societies. From healthcare to finance to jobs, which now pay one third as much for the same work as in, say America, right down to water. So in that sense, Britain isn’t really a modern, functioning society now—it’s fallen down to a lower level of development, perhaps one we associate with something like former Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe, and that fall down the ladder of human and sociopolitical development is what “collapse” really means.

Now think about America. I used to warn of a thing called “American collapse.” What did that mean? That The Purge would happen overnight? Of course not. Rather, a series of structural collapses. The social structure of society was buckling—the middle class becoming a minority, the bottom swelling outwards, the once-famed Dream dying. The economic structure of society was collapsing, too—upward mobility all but ceasing to exist, and then, downward mobility becoming the norm. Structure across generations was in trouble too—now, generation after generation did worse than the one before it. And of course the political structure was in deep trouble, fanatics taking over the right, and the center unable to maintain much institutional integrity (read: a functioning Supreme Court) in the face of all that.

Did all that…sort of…happen? Come true? Sure it did, and I think by now, that’s one thing that most Americans would agree on, because of course even Trump’s appeal is precisely that America’s “become a third world country,” etcetera.

So what was America’s Omega Point? It’s harder to pin down than Britain’s relatively easy one of Brexit. And that’s what makes the idea interesting, at least to me, the subtlety of it. America, I feel, had a series of Omega Points. There was the way that Trump was normalized, and the idea that he could win the Presidency laughed off by the establishment, who were “but-her-emails”ing Hillary at that very moment. There was probably Reagan’s proud creation of Reaganomics, which, in retrospect, is almost Soviet in its failure—no, the wealth didn’t “trickle down,” and no, unfettered greed didn’t turn out to be good for society. 

You can add to that list as you see fit. Many people would probably point to wars over public investment, or the way that civil rights never quite delivered on its promise, as the leaders of a progressive America were assassinated and killed off, from JFK to MLK, rendering the idea of building a modern society that much harder—each of those are probably something close to Omega Points, too, or at least moments that made the future probability and risk of collapse rise dramatically. Think of a probability distribution of collapse, and now put an event like MLK’s or JFK’s assassination into it—what happens? That number, whatever it was, explodes upwards.

All that’s sort of what I mean by The Omega Point.

Our Civilization’s Omega Point

Now let’s zoom out.

If I ran a mega-budget research lab like I used to do, what else would I do? I’d pioneer a field called “civilizaitonal studies,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Not history, not sociology, not economics, not psychology, but a synthesis of all those, towards understanding why civilizations rise and fall. Civilizations like ours, which is now in deep trouble.

Scholars today speak of “polycrisis” and “permacrisis,” and those are by now sort of clear to see in the world around us. But the larger question those concepts raise is this.

Have we reached our civilization’s Omega Point yet?

What would even be a civilization’s Omega Point? Think of the old studies of Easter Island, some of which are now coming under scrutiny—they chopped down the trees, until at last someone chopped one more down, and that marginal tree…tipped everything towards collapse. Doesn’t matter if the theory is “really true”—the model is surely tremendously insightful in helping us understand growth, collapse, limits, and boundaries. That marginal tree was a civilization’s—real or imagined—Omega Point.

So what about ours? You can imagine a series of Omega Points for our civilization. Have we already put enough carbon in the air, given our economy, and its inability to really cut emissions fast enough, to raise the temperature another…degree and a half? At that zone, tipping points kick in, taking us, fast and hard, it’s eminently possible, into true global boiling territory, four, five degrees, maybe more. 

Like so many Omega Points—and this is the problem we need to study—we don’t know, except in retrospect. And the reason I say we need to study all this stuff, and I mean that lethally seriously, mega-budget labs, etcetera, is that that isn’t good enough anymore. We can’t be this stupid as humankind now: only seeing Omega Points in retrospect. We need to be able to predict them now, and in the future, so that civilizations don’t hit them anymore

What’s another example of an Omega Point for our civilization? Inequality. Rising past some threshold that’s invisible right now—but fuels so much discontent that it yields a level of rage, fury, anger, and despair that basically seals democracy’s fate. Autocracy, in all its forms, rises, from theocracy to authoritarianism to fascism, and as it does, of course, a civilization unravels, first, pulling apart, and then, engulfed by tidal waves of conflict.

Have we already hit that point of inequality? I don’t know, and you don’t know—nobody does, which is why we desperately need to study all this—but right about now, given the way that fanaticism and extremism are surging off the charts around the globe, there’s a pretty good bet that if we haven’t hit it yet, we’re getting very, very close. Democracy, as I often point out, is at just 20% of the world anymore—and falling 10% a decade or so.

Where’s the Omega Point? Is it at 17%? 15%? 12%? 8%? Or have we…gulp…hit it already? 

Why We Need to Rethink How to Think About the Future

What I’m trying to say to you is to introduce you to thinking about the world through the lens of complexity theory. Nonlinearity. So we don’t just say anymore, well, maybe it’ll all go back to normal! That assumption of homeostasis is wrong. Human systems don’t work like that.

Rather, we need to understand that things have momentum, force, and feedback effects—vicious circles and lethal spirals. Democracy, hitting some threshold, probably has no chance of “bouncing back.” Enough of the world buying into nationalism and isolationism, 1930s style, doom us all to a depression, and maybe even a World War, and yes, I mean the word doom in that sentence, because, well, do you want to keep repeating the 1930s? And hit some threshold, too, in terms of temperature, and there’s no going back—bang, destiny’s sealed.

All those are Omega Points. Big ones. Way, way beyond the relatively small stakes of a Brexit or what have you. Civilizational ones. 

And right now? There’s no question more urgent in my mind than this one: where’s our Omega Point, and have we hit it yet?

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