There’s a fact that I think is crucial to understand. This decade is different. See how many things are going wrong at once? By now, the word “polycrisis” is entering the popular lexicon, as it should. Yet the deeper message? This decade really is…different.
How so? We’re going to take it step by step, so that you understand the point. We’ve hit a turning point in history. Big H history. Human history. That’s not a joke, exaggeration, hyperbole, drill. It’s a set of facts. And if we’re going to face the future in mature, thoughtful ways, we need to begin precisely here, at this understanding.
This decade is…
Let’s begin with the economy. It’s forecast to stagnate this decade, not (just) by me, but by every single body whose job it is to understand it, from the IMF to the World Bank. But that’s not even the really dire part. The global economy’s set to stagnate through the decade…with no sources of renewed growth or prosperity on the horizon, period. In other words, it’s just going to…stagnate…full stop.
Understand how different this is. There have always been slowdowns and downturns and recessions and even depressions. This isn’t any of those. It’s something…different. Deeply and elementally different. Downturns and slowdowns and so forth have to do with cycles and bubbles. But by and large, the trend of upward motion’s resumed, because there were sources of growth and prosperity. Briefly, they were (shudder) slave labour, then industrial technology, then information technology, then globalization. And now we don’t have any left.
In other words, we have reached a turning point. One of paradigmatic breakdown. When I say things like “the global economy’s out of juice,” or “the old model doesn’t work anymore,” that’s not a moral judgment, and it’s not something I’m making up, or something I want to happen. It’s empirical, real, factual, and well documented by now. But it’s not discussed beyond the levels of high governance and finance and economics almost at all. What are we going to do now, if the old model’s out of juice, and the global economy’s just set to stagnate…into oblivion? Just…sleepwalk over the edge of the abyss?
You see, I say we have to begin here, and now you might understand why, for a reason. The longer we ignore these basic truths and facts about the plight of our civilization in the 21st century, the longer it’ll take reinvention and renewal will take. Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s hardly a recipe for survival.
(By the way, we’ll discuss it in the future, but no, AI isn’t a source of growth. It’s a source of efficiency, sure, as in, it’ll automate grunt work and menial pink collar tasks—and thus create a wave of unemployment and shrink economies further. That’s not growth, it’s the opposite, and in this sense, again, you see in stark relief, just how different our plight is. Even technology now is out of juice to really fuel prosperity again, at least in these mundane forms, even if they’re dressed up as sexy and glamorous.)
What else is true about the world? Human development, aka progress, itself has peaked, and is now going into reverse. Not my opinion, not my “claim,” not debatable. A fact—the UN itself warns that its goals are now off track in significant, widespread ways, which are the most serious and comprehensive measures and indicators of progress we have.
Again, this is different. The economy’s now undergoing a phase change. And so is progress itself. Like the economy, sure, there’ve been downturns and hiccups in rates of progress and development—but we’ve never, let me reiterate that, never, seen a peak actually being hit before.
Ever. I said it thrice so that you understand how incredibly portentous this development is. What was human development? It was an exponential line, from a flat base. The base lasted tens of millennia, and in recent history, over the last few centuries, development and progress exploded. And now that appears to be peaking. All that. A trend that reaches through the entirety of the human journey itself. What could be more important than that? More historic?
See how…different…that is? It’s not that human progress hit a hiccup because there was a natural catastrophe here or there, or because there was a war, and it’s ending now. Those are anomalies. In trend lines. They come, they go, and the dynamic reverts to the mean, which in this case, was the exponential explosion in progress. But this? This isn’t that. It’s not an anomaly, a bad patch, because there’s nothing we can point to that’s a sudden “exogenous shock,” aka, a war, a volcanic explosion, a tsunami, that came and went, and hey presto, things are back to normal again. This appears to be something radically, genuinely different: a true peak in human progress itself. For the first time, ever, period, in all 300,000 years that we’ve walked the globe.
Think about that for a second. Go ahead and do the contrarian denial thing that Certain Kinds of Guys love to do if you must. Try and pick holes in it all you like. We’re not talking about theories, remember, but facts, and what they mean.
So. Both economics and progress appear to be undergoing phase shifts. Not temporary setbacks. Something else is happening. Something deeper, more fundamental, and more permanent. They appear to be changing form, into something else. We are seeing events, discontinuities, ruptures, that we’ve never seen before. That we never expected to see.
Think if we we went back a mere decade, and asked people: do you think that democracy will suddenly go into reverse around the globe? Just ten years ago—and most people would have chuckled, if not outright laughed, at the question. Why would…democracy…the most fundamental aspect of modernity…suddenly…
Peak and go into reverse?
And yet that’s what’s happening, too. Whatever index or set of indicators you choose to look at, and there are many, yet another phase shift appears to be happening. After centuries of growth and expansion, democracy too appears to have hit a peak, and is going into steep, sharp decline.
We’ll publish research soon that shows the rate of decline is about 5-10% a decade. That’s from a peak of less than 50% of the world ever being democratic. So at that rate of decline, the effective end of democracy could well be in sight within our lifetimes. I’m not saying that’s going to happen—that isn’t a prediction or a forecast. It’s an observation, a “could,” not a “will”—but if I wanted to make it stronger, I’d observe that the trendline shows no signs of slowing down.
Think about that for a second. And I mean really pause and take it in. Democracy, in the modern context, was born during the Age of Revolutions. It proceeded to spread and expand around the globe, and became accepted more or less as a universal aspiration, then as a set of universal human rights, if not by every country, because of course, sure, there are authoritarian regimes, then at least as a telos, an end. We came to assume that democracy was a state of nature, a natural moral end, as in, given enough time, it was just where everything would end up, because it should. And yet here we are.
All of that should make us stop and reflect. Seriously, deeply, hard.
Here we have the three Biggest Things There Are in Human Civilization. Economies and growth, progress and development, and society and democracy. And all of them appear to have peaked and are now going into reverse.
At once. At more or less the same time in human history. That in itself suggests even more strongly that none of this is an anomaly, because of course, here we have three mega trends showing precisely the same behavior.
See how striking it is when I put it that way? Let me emphasize, again, these aren’t my feelings, opinions, or conclusions. These are empirical facts, and I’m interpreting them for you in what I think is the most accurate way to put them, which is to simply say: all of these Macro Institutions Have Peaked and Are Now Going Into Reverse.
What does that all mean? It means a lot things, but let me pick out three implications.
We often talk about social or civilizational decline and even collapse these days—it’s OK to admit it, the feeling is widespread, as we discussed earlier, people around the globe profoundly pessimistic, expecting the future to yield only bitter fruit and failed harvests, basically.
This is what it is. Imagine you were an alien, or a time-traveller, and you looked at us. And you saw these three Great Transformations. Economies and growth stagnating into oblivion, no sources of renewed prosperity on the horizon, period. Development and progress peaking, after centuries, millennia, and beginning to glide downwards, as if gravity itself had stopped working. Democracy and governance beginning to crash and burn. What would you think? You’d probably say to yourself: that’s what decline is.
So here we have before us indicators of decline. Empirical ones. Numbers, statistics, which reflect the realities of millions and billions. They’re not just abstractions to be dismissed—they have profound, immense meaning, that cuts through history. We’re living at one of history’s greatest turning points, period.
Those indicators don’t say “collapse” in outright terms just yet. But of course that’s where you end up if…the line keeps going in the wrong direction. This is what we’re risking. We’re experiencing decline, now, not just at social, national, country levels, but at global, civilizational ones—that’s what these phase changes mean. It’s not a debate, it’s a fact, though many don’t want to accept, admit, or talk about it. That’s today, and the longer we remain in this posture of la-la-la I’m not listening, the more that the next steps happens. The risk of collapse grows.
So. Today: we’re beginning to experience decline, after centuries of growth, expansion, and progress. Tomorrow: we run the risk of decline turning into collapse. It’s not hard to see how that happens. Climate change races past the threshold of tipping points, and bang, widespread failures wipe out basics, from water to food to clean air. Banking and insurance systems melt down, prices go from high to impossible, conflict erupts, and authoritarianism goes from resurgent to dominant, as masses flock to demagogues in even more rage, fear, and despair. From here, that’s like reading a kid’s book.
The risk of collapse grows every day that we don’t get serious about where we are. Talking about it. Really seeing it. Grasping it. The sooner we do that, the faster we can begin to open space for change, at institutional, economic, organizational, normative levels. Then we can begin to move past the riven place we are now, fixated on scapegoats, hypnotized by bad faith actors, who sow dissent to reap power and fortune. When our side hides the truth, doesn’t want to talk about it, admit it, won’t acknowledge it, too, either, where is there left to go? What forward motion can take place? We end up in this place of paralysis, inertia, fatalism, and futility we’re in now.
We begin at the beginning, which is to recognize how serious our plight is. We are now at The Third Step. Human History’s Third Great Turning Point. One: the birth of civilization itself. Two: the Age of Revolutions. And now, three: we can see before us that our trajectory has peaked and is beginning to go into free-fall, economically, socially, and politically. Either we grasp it, and pick ourselves back up, reinventing our institutions, norms, values, agendas, purposes, or the trend lines take hold, and write the future for us, sending us backwards in time, plunging us into chaos, ruin, and misfortune.
A turning point. Which way will we go? Up or down, back or forward? Right now, we all feel tense, worried, afraid, frightened, because this is a moment of profound tension. That choice hasn’t been made yet. But it can be made by omission, too, which is what we’re doing right now, pretending like we’re not living in one of history’s greatest turning points. And the longer we do that, the more we go in circles, and eventually, wander right back into the desert.
We need to begin at the beginning, and understand where we really are. See ourselves, in this truest of ways. Then change and transformation become possible. Those are the choices, as ever, in history, which is watching us, wondering.
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