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Today's Read: 16 Minutes.
Today, we're going to talk about three doom loops. That are like giant wrecking balls, battering away at our future, civilization, planet, right down to our well-being, relationships, and souls.
What's a doom loop? By now, it's a phrase you might begun to hear more and more often. It's used almost casually these days. But way back when those of us whose job it is to really understand the world and the future saw troubled times ahead, economists, social scientists, risk scientists, we began to use this phrase—in a formal, technical way. Here's what it really means.
A self-perpetuating process, where risk in one element of a system increases risk in another, which increases risk in the first. Runaway, sudden destabilization can result, because the system accelerates out of control.
A two-way risk exposure, a “vicious circle”. The phenomenon is also known as a “doom loop” and “diabolic loop” owing to its devilish implications for systemic stability.
Take a look at the world. What do you see? What you should see, immediately, is that...things aren't going well, and that's an understatement. The UN Secretary-General famously called this an "age of global boiling," not just the anodyne phrase warming anymore. Meanwhile, we're trapped in a global cost-of-living crisis, that's making everday life even more of a struggle than it already was in every corner of the world.
Why is that? Why is all this coming to be? Because of three doom loops.
Let's begin with the cost-of-living crisis. What's going on here? Prices have skyrocketed—and by and large, our leaders are baffled. We're going to understand it for a while, as societies, because we're way behind the curve, but much of this sudden inflation's driven by...climate change. Sure, the war in Ukraine and Covid played a role—but that's in the past tense. So why are prices still high...and rising? India's the world's largest rice exporter—and it just banned rice exports, because of...climate change. It doesn't take a genius to see the link, but our economists and politicians don't want to admit climate change is already having ruinous effects on our economy, because, well panic and chaos would probably ensue, and they might even have to take responsibility for the mess they've made.
So what's being doing about rising prices? Central banks are raising interest rates, to eye-watering, stomach-churning levels. That's because it's all they know how to do. Literally all. You probably think a central bank is some kind of god-like institution with all-encompassing superpowers, but the truth is, mostly, they think they're limited to doing one thing: raising or lowering interest rates. And so they're raising them, the idea being that prices only rise this fast due to an "excess of demand," meaning people have too much money, which is overheating prices, as people demand more and more.
Do you see anyone with too much money? Any...average person? Anyone not named Musk, Bezos, or Gates? I didn't think so. Incomes have been stagnant in much of the world for the last decade or two—and now they're falling in real terms. So the problem, prima facie, can't be too much demand, people having too much money.
What does raising interest rates do? It makes the cost-of-living crisis worse. As incomes stagnated, people went into debt to make ends meet. Not just in America. Remember Squid Game? That was a metaphor for South Korea's personal debt crisis. So now imagine that people have to pay more for...credit card debt...car payments...insurance...mortgages...rent. The cost-of-living crisis is turning into a cost-of-living catastrophe.
Worse, raising rates doesn't fix the problem. It only makes it worse. You see, to solve the underlying issue here? We need investment, and higher interest rates are the opposite of investment. They raise risk, they make it harder to raise capital, they make it more difficult for projects to be viable. Remember India banning rice exports? We need to reinvent our agriculture as a civilization, or we're not going to have food shortly, and inflation will just keep soaring. That's going to take a dozen Manhattan Projects—but higher interest rates do the precise opposite of all that, because of course now more of more resources, more of our public and private purses, are going to pay...interest...instead of towards productive, long-term investment.
So the cost-of-living crisis is turning into a cost-of-living doom loop. Climate change is causing a surge of inflation, that's just going to keep going, unless you think we're not going to have accelerating levels of droughts, crop failures, and infrastructure breakdowns as the planet boils. But instead of solving that problem, central banks are making it worse. In both proximate and ultimate terms. Proximate terms: now, everyone's paying way, way more interest. That leaves less over for the public purse to invest in infrastructure, agriculture, fixing climate change. Meanwhile, there's a double whammy, because investing in it becomes that much harder in an economy squeezed of capital.
It's precisely the wrong approach.
Prices rise. Incomes fall. Rates rise. Investment slows. Prices rise. Incomes fall.
That brings me to doom loop number two: the politics-climate doom loop. What happens as people grow poorer? Remember, real incomes are falling, and that's what "getting poorer" means. If you feel like you're struggling these days, like you're getting poorer, that's because you are. As that happens, polities destabilize. We know this without a shadow of a doubt, from every single period of decline in history, both modern and ancient. Think of the Weimar Republic becoming Nazi Germany. Think of Britain turning to Brexit.
So as economies shrink, people turn to fanaticism, extremism, lunacy, in despair, fear, anxiety, rage. That creates fertile soil for demagogues to plant the bitter fruit of hate in. They rise to power on a tide of adoration—like Trump has. They form an unbreakable psychological bond with their flock, a cult-like one, because they're seen as omnipotent surrogate Father or Mother Figures, in a hostile, unsafe world. The demagogues, meanwhile, begin a feedback loop—they amplify those underlying concerns into paranoid-delusional persecution fantasies, like the "Great Replacement," or "Satanic liberals drink kids' blood!"
This is why democracy's in sudden, shocking decline—precisely because people aren't doing well these days, and many of them are giving up on democratic values, wondering: what's the point, if all I get is instability and despair? Why shouldn't I turn on my neighbours, friends, colleagues? Maybe hate, injustice, and lies will get me what justice, truth, and equality never did. Hence, a new wave of authoritarianism and fascism's rising around the globe.
But what does that rising tide of authoritarianism and fascism and nationalism do? It...does nothing...about climate change. Less than nothing. The example I often use is Sweden, which put a far-right party in power, and its first move was to...abolish the Environment Ministry. But the problem's much, much bigger than that.
Trump and Biden are neck-and-neck. Imagine what happens if Trump gets re-elected, or if he just manages to seize power, anyways. The fight against climate change as we know it is over. America's emissions start to rise again. The world says to itself, well, if they've given up, then what's the point of us trying? They're the most powerful and largest economy there is, after all. All the treaties and agreements we have fall apart, as Trump gleefully pulls out of them. What little progress the world's made is shattered, more or less for good. We have this decade—just this one—to begin solving the problem, and that opportunity's gone for good. We head into a future of severe, perhaps runaway, warming.
Doom loop. The climate-politics doom loop is very real. We're right on the precipice of not just "losing" the battle for a livable planet, and that's when we have agreements and treaties and generally recognized efforts to fight for one—but having the world's lunatics, who've risen to power, keep gaining power? It'd more or less seal our fate, consign to us a planet of 3 or 4 degrees of warming, perhaps. Tipping points hit, and once that happens, once the ice melts, the forests burn, the permafrost melts—there's no going back. Think of how startlingly extreme the last few months were—humanity's first Extinction Summer—and then imagine that future.
Living standards fall. People turn to demagogues. Demagogues renege on climate promises and investments. Living standards fall.
Now think of how those doom loops work together. The cost-of-living doom loop is making people poorer, fast. What does that do? It destabilizes polities, and turns people towards nationalism, authoritarianism, fascism. And what do those do? They gleefully don't just abandon the fight against climate change, they're already teaching things like being a climate denier is like standing up to the Nazis, meaning those of us who understand and are concerned by it are basically like Hitler and Goebbels. This is how crazy the luantics are, and yet they're gaining power. And yet as they gain power, of course, people only grow poorer, because they're not solving any of the real problems to begin with—they're just scapegoating innocent people in hate and rage. That's not going to grow more rice, plant more trees, slash carbon emissions, or put out megafires.
See how those two doom loops already...fuel each other? Cost-of-living doom loop: people get poorer. That accelerates the climate-politics doom loop. Which...makes people poorer. Here we have doom loops working hand-in-hand to accelerate one another. Formally, that's called "bifurcation," meaning that when elements of systems accelerate one another, it can swing out of control, suddenly, fast, and irreversibly. This is the trajectory we're on right about now—we're right at the edge of such a bifurcation point, and if we hit it? Bang, it's lights out and game over. If that sounds like hyperbole, just remember what happens to the planet if Trump's back in power. We don't have one anymore.
That brings me to my third doom loop. This one's about...the rest of us. The ones who aren't lunatics, fanatics, deniers, radicalized by despair, rage, and ruin, externalizing our own feelings of self-hatred and worthlessness, projecting them onto innocents, to create scapegoats to blame and hate for a troubled world's growing set of problems. What about the...rest of us?
We're demoralized. Dispirited. Dehumanized. Look at the world. This should be an age of revolutions, in everything from politics to economics to society. Instead, we've got devolutions. Giant, quantum leaps in regression, like Florida banning books and making saying gay illegal, Texas stopping "suspicious" women from using highways, the return of bigotry, the resurgence of old conspiracy theories, like those about the Jews, or "replacements" of the true of blood and pure and faith, or secret cabals running the world. The lunatics are rising to power, and they're winning, sadly. So much so that even pointing that out makes me, to some people, "controversial." But it's just a cold-blooded fact. Think I'm kidding?
Happiness among girls and young women has hit its lowest level since 2009, according to “devastating” polling for Girlguiding, which shows that nine out of 10 seven to 21-year-olds are worried or anxious.
In figures that Angela Salt, the UK movement’s chief executive, said showed “girls and young women have been let down”, only 17% aged seven to 21 now feel very happy compared with 40% in 2009.
The sharpest drop in happiness has been among seven to 10-year-olds. Only 28% say they are happy compared with well over half in 2009. There has also been a big rise in anger among 11 to 21-year-olds that “adults have damaged the environment” and their generation will “have to deal with it”. One girl told the researchers: “If I am honest, I am scared our world will fall into ruins and we won’t be able to do anything about it.”
Think about how jaw-dropping, how apocalyptic, those numbers really are. That's from the UK, but the trend's felt globally. What do they say? What does it say when 90% of people under the age of 21 are worried and anxious? And when you ask, they say things like "our world will fall to ruins?
We're dispirited. Who? The good ones. The ones who want a better future for everyone. Humans, all of us, animals, forests, oceans, trees. Who don't spend their days obsessing over who they hate—or how much more money they can never spend they're going to hoard. Who aren't wasting their lives sowing the seeds of disinformation, rage, paranoia, collective delusion, for the sake of money, power, and fame. Just...everyday...normal...decent...people.
We're dispirited and demoralized precisely because the lunatics seem to have risen to the top of...everything. Government. Financial systems. Tech. Media. How is it that in a summer where the world boiled...the New York Times...still has climate deniers...as star columnists...on its payroll? History's going to laugh in bewilderment. But for the rest of us? The lunatics are crowding us out. Out of the institutions which once belonged to us. Think of the way that in Florida, the fanatics have seized universities. The way the Supreme Court in America's overrun with extremists, to the point it's seen as illegitimate...and yet...there it is...laughing all the way to absolute power.
The doom loop goes like this. The more the lunatics crowd the decent people out of a society, it's institutions, organizations, the more disprited and demoralized the decent and good people get. And the more the lunatics laugh in glee, and proceed to crowd them out, even further. They do it by altering a democratic society's norms of tolerance, peace, coexistence, and nonviolence, to an authoritarian one's norms of intimidation, harassment, supremacy, hate, and outright violence.
That's how societies lose something even deeper than their economies, their social contracts, or their democracies. Their spirits. Their very moral souls. The bad guys crowd out the good guys, laughing, rubbing their noses in the dirt, and the good guys, startled, bewildered, baffled, slowly start to lose heart. The bad guys, sensing it's working, redouble their efforts, and grow even more hateful, lash out more, threaten open violence. And when a society's heart stops beating? That's when there's no going back.
Think about the world today. How the process above's become normalized. Say something, and you don't know who's going to suddenly jump up, shout, and start snarling death threats at you. Over...nothing. For pointing out facts, or caring about the future, or valuing decency and common sense. We just accept that sort of abuse, wearily, as everyday life now. And we pretend it has no effect. But it does. It has chilling effects. It corrodes our wills, weakens our hearts, and saps our spirits. It's demoralizing us, and so a doom loop's setting in, where, dispirited, the good guys are being crowded out by bad actors, who are more relentlessly abusive, gleefully violent, aggressively idiotic, and openly brutal, every day, which crowds out the good guys even more, and on and on.
Bad actors crowd out decent people, with abuse, intimidation, disinformation, propaganda, and violence. Decent people retreat from public life. Bad actors intensify crowding out decent people.
Now. When I say "doom loops," it doesn't mean: "we're doomed!!" Let's talk like adults. There's going to be a certain kind of person who immediately scoffs at the very idea of doom loops, and yet doesn't know that the world's most thoughtful economists and social scientists have been studying them for over a decade now, and before that, complexity theorists at the cutting edge of physics and biochemistry pioneered the idea. This isn't some kind of fringe "take." These are concepts everyone should know—sophisticated notions of how our world really works, beyond old paradigms of linearity and one-way, single-variable cause and effect. The idea of a doom loop is elegant and powerful...science.
So what does the above mean?
Remember how we recently discussed how there are structural holes, where there should be global public goods? Those are things like peace, nonviolence, basic rights for everyone, cooperation, or even more concretely, public health, finance, education, functioning worldwide systems for basics, whether utilities, food, medicine, water. What happens when there...holes...where global public goods should be...and absences...where there should institutions to bring them to life?
Doom loops set in instead. There's an old saying, nature abhors a vacuum. So does political economy. What are public goods, really? They're just...virtuous circles. My education, health, sanitation, benefits you, and as it does, you're freer, in turn, to do things with your life that benefit me. But when those virtuous circles don't exist, the doom loops above set in. Instead of, for example, investing in our big problems, from economic stagnation to climate change...living standards fall...which tilt people, as despair becomes panic...towards authoritarians, demagogues, bad actors...who blame it all on scapegoats...and living standards fall further, anybody's real problems having long since been forgotten and neglected. As all that comes to be, norms of sanity, common sense, decency get shredded, by lunatics, frothing with paranoid-delusional collective persecution fantasies, simmering in rage, burning with hate...and decent people retreat into whatever shelters, cocoons, are left.
All the above is intimately related to a startling lack of global public goods. You might say, again, in the terms of complexity theory, that it's one or the other, because like nature, political economy abhors a vacuum: either you have virtuous circles, or you have doom loops. Stagnation's like a tiny precipice on the side of a great, towering mountain, that you're bound to fall off, one way or another, an unstable point, and there are only two "dynamic equilibria"—falling to the bottom, or climbing to the top. That's where we are today.
I'm not saying that these doom loops...doom us. That's not the point. The message is to prevent them hitting that point. Think of an exponential curve, bending upwards. There's an inflection point, right at the bend. That's the tipping point, if you like, the point of no return, the turning point. We're not quite there yet. We're in the stage where whirlpools form, not where they're roaring and sucking everything around them in, fully, yet. We don't want to hit the inflection point. Because if you've understood all the above, these are nonlinear processes. They're not lines. There's no going back after the inflection point, because doom loops, remember, self-perpetuate—one element's risk feeds the other, and vice versa, sending the system into a runaway state, spinning ever faster.
That's the point of much of the work of the 21st century. We don't really think about it that way, but we should. When we use terms like "adaptation" or "mitigation" to climate change, for example, often, we miss the larger theme, purpose, point. We're trying to intervene, before the doom loop really starts moving. It's forming, but when the wheels interlock and spin up, then intervention becomes next to impossible. Our task is stop all these processes from hitting their inflection points, and that comes in many ways. Economically, politically, socially—but even, when you think about the human spirit, in gentler, more personal, yet no less profound ways.
That's why we made all this an Issue. The future? It's up to us. But we're going to have to redouble our efforts, and really mature into a truer, deeper understanding of what's at stake, if we're to create the one we need, versus chaos and conflict on a dying planet, which is where we're heading...right about now.
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