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How Bad Will the Second Half of the 2020s Be? Or, Three Transformations at a Turning Point in Human History

How Bad Will the Second Half of the 2020s Be? Or, Three Transformations at a Turning Point in Human History

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Hi! How’s everybody faring in this…hellscape? Well, I hope, or at least as well as. Now. We’re about halfway through the decade. And maybe you’ve wondered: what are the rest of the 2020s going to be like?

I’m going to tell you, by doing my special Oracle of the 21st Century thing. I have to warn you, though, this is going to be a really brutal post to read, so, maybe don’t. Go do some gardening. Talk to the grandkids. Read some dumb bestseller. You already know the answer to the question, after all, don’t you?

I’ve been saying for a few years that we’re at a turning point in human history. All 300,000 years of it. And if you’ve been a little skeptical—Umair Must Die!—then, don’t worry, it’s about to all make a kind of horrific sense, like the scene in the horror movie where you’re shouting, “No! Don’t go into the basement! You don’t even know what’s down there!” And then they find out, and you do, too. 

I love movies like that. What I don’t particularly relish, though, is living in one.

So. White dudes of a certain kind hate it when I talk like this. I’m going to come back to why that matters, but for now, seriously man, check your privilege. They hate it because it rankles them on an unconscious level that a woman or minority’s talking about, shudder, the world, the big stuff, which is a form of power, which is the Eminent Domain of…yeah. So. Just relax. We’re going to walk into the goddamned basement together. Here, hold my hand if you need to.

Why The Second Half of the 2020s Will Be a Turning Point in Human History

History remembers certain ages as special ones. It even gives them Very Special Names. The Age of Revolutions, the Great Depression, and so forth. These are all turning points, some bigger, some smaller, but all, still operant at the macro level.

The second half of the 2020s are going to be just such an age.

History—meaning historians—will give it some grandiose name in the end. The Age It All Went Wrong. The Great Wreckening. The Era of Endings. You can choose whichever one you like. You know, by now, the one I prefer: the Age of Extinction. 

So what’s going to happen in the second half of the 2020s? Everything is. Everything bad you can possibly imagine, and then some. Now, that doesn’t mean Hollywood level—oh no, the aliens arrive, and wipe us out, which is usually a thinly veiled metaphor for People We Don’t Like and Maybe Even Used to Be Our Slaves. I mean it…far more…realistically…which is also far more chillingly.

Let me take you through it, bullet point style, for the sake of brevity.

Two Transformations, or the Road to Civilizational Collapse

Democracy’s going to die. Trump, at this point, is going to win in something approaching a landslide—do you seriously think young people and minorities are going to vote for Biden after being beaten, jailed, and called terrorists, for the Terrible Crime of…campus protests? Biden just blew up whatever small chance he had. But it’s not just America. India’s going to re-elect its own little dictator, the European elections will see the far right absolutely wrecking mainstream parties, and so on, and so on.

Now. Again, don’t interpret that like a white dude, please. “Democracy’s going to die” doesn’t mean that we all live in 1984. It just means what it says. Less than 10% of the world will probably be fully democratic by the decade’s end, and that’s an utter calamity. Even gentle Canada’s about to elect it’s own not-so-Canadian-and-gentle but far-right American style crackpots, for example. That’s really bad, because of course Canada’s a beacon of sanity in a world gone to hell.

Next up, the mega-scale impacts of climate change will arrive, exponentially—and wreck our economies in ways that are going to make today look like a cakewalk. So far, we’ve had just a small taste of what “climate catastrophe” really means. And certainly, the rich West has gotten away relatively lightly. That’s all about to change.

Lately, maps of extreme heat searing Africa and Asia were making the rounds on Twitter. No big deal, right? Who cares about those not-really-people, anyways? For now, the rich West’s gotten away with turning a blind eye to climate change. But over the next five years? A Big Bang is going to happen. 

Think of what’s made in and by Africa and Asia, not to mention the “rest of the world.” Maybe you didn’t hear about it, but coffee and chocolate prices have soared, because…you guessed it. The heat. The failed harvests. Multiply that by more or less everything in the economy. Want to know why inflation’s really not going down? I’m one of the better economists of my generation—so much so I recently single-handedly created the world’s first Green GDP. Nope, not point-scoring or bragging, just trying to teach you something. It shows us the world economy’s already 10% smaller than we think it is, once we adjust for carbon. For the average person, the translation is: prices are going to skyrocket, among many, many other awful, destructive consequences.

It hardly takes a genius to see what those consequences will be at this point. Let me cut to the chase. The basics will become unaffordable for many, right at the median. How much more are you spending on, for example, food, than you were five years ago? Ten? Now add: insurance, mortgage, rent, credit, etcetera. All skyrocketing, right? So much so that the average person in the world is now getting poorer. So. The basics: water, food, air, a place to live, whatever meager safety nets you can afford, medicine, education. All of these are going to become mega-unaffordable thanks to our good friend climate change. 

And even that’s sort of a mere beginning. What happens as people get poorer? They have less left over to give to governments. So what we economists call “fiscal space” is about to…not just shrink, but implode. Imagine societies of people paying as much more for the basics as you do now versus five years ago, only more so. Now imagine how much less there is left to invest in anything societies need, whether education, healthcare, or even fighting that very problem of climate change itself.

So. Let me boil the first two transformations down for you, in formal language. We face two of human history’s greatest shocks. One is a supply shock—climate change will dramatically reduce what and how much our civilization supply. That’ll lead to another shock—as a the supply ofwhat you might call “Civilizational Goods,” or global public goods, will fall dramatically. Remember Stiglitz’s seminal list of those? It goes like this: international cooperation, peace, justice, autonomy, and so on. All of those will become distant, unaffordable luxuries, and you can already see that happening in the death of democracy, Trump’s swift resurgence, the rebirth of global conflict, the inability of our global institutions to manage any of this chaos.

That brings me to the third transformation that’ll happen during the second half of this decade (as if the first two weren’t enough.) 

The Third Shock, Or Are We Living Through a Hidden Depression?

This one’s not a series of supply shocks, but a series of demand shocks. AI can’t really do much very well—didn’t you know, it “hallucinates,” which is what tech-bros call “lying,” I guess, and so on—and yet it’s going to absolutely rip apart the labor market. From teachers to doctors to poor ad execs to, ironically, “coders” themselves. Jobs are going to disappear, fast—and that’s a sad thing for many reasons, not least of which is: having livelihoods is how we keep our lives going.

Yet as jobs disappear, a massive hole in demand will emerge in economies. That’s just economist-speak for “people not having enough money to keep things going.” We’re already getting there, aren’t we? The latest GDP “numbers” were dismal, and like I said, my little invention of GDP 2.0 tells us the economy’s actually shrinking. All that’s going to be profoundly, rapidly accelerated by AI—and it won’t matter that people can still do the job better, because in the end, all that’s going to matter to extinction capitalism is…making even more money. 

What do holes in demand do? They trigger depressions. Now. Economics as we know it is obsolete, completely so, almost, and that’s because it’s run by white dudes of a certain kind for white dudes of a certain kind—it’s notorious for never letting women and minorities into the field. Remember when I said we’d come back to that? Here’s why it matters. It killed the field of economics. And now, we don’t have the vital insights we need to have to prevent any of the above.

“Depression.” It’s a term that was invented a century ago. It just means when GDP shrinks. But…for most people…the economy is shrinking. Real incomes aren’t going up for the average person, as inflation never seems to go down anymore. That’s…what…a shrinking economy…is…for people.

So why is it always “growing,” this economy of ours? It’s a statistical illusion. That “growth” goes to those at the very top, while more or less everybody’s founders, the effect getting worse the further down the income ladder you go. And it doesn’t even adjust, for Pete’s sake, for carbon, but when you do, as I did, you quickly find a shrinking economy.

So…is that a “depression”? This is where economics and it’s insane biases create real problems. To anyone sane, that feels a whole lot like a depression. Remember what created Nazi Germany? That’s right, the Great Depression did. And where are we all over again? Exactly. People feel like they’re in something very much like a depression. Because their economies are shrinking. But still, you can’t call it one, because then every mediocre economist who doesn’t even understand the basics of what I just taught you will come after hell for leather like Michael Myers on Halloween.

And not being able to even name any of this…we certainly have little to no hope of being able to treat it. So we’re stuck, politically, policy-wise, our leaders unable to figure out what the hell is even happening. And that, in turn, is because the paradigms they’re using to try to understand it are so obsolete they don’t explain much if anything anymore.

That’s part and parcel of my third transformation, by the way. Politics will just…be completely unable to solve any of these problems. It’ll be a deer in the headlights, at the precise moment it needs to act. On a dramatic, historic scale, to forestall, thwart, prevent, the series of calamities—“polycrisis”, gone mega—from proliferating, spreading, accelerating.

The Next Five Years Are Going to be Some of the Ugliest in History

All that’s what’s going to happen in the next five years. It’s going to be ugly. Much, much worse than people think right about now, sadly. Take a look at Britain: a few years ago, poor idiots who were cheering on Brexit, and now, many of them are regretting it the way you might regret taking a chainsaw to your legs. That is to say, intensely. The world is eventually going to feel the same way about the next half of the 2020s, but maybe only in the 2040s, or if we’re lucky, and sanity prevails, the late 2030s, or maybe, if we’re unlucky, not for quite some time, as people really dig in and embrace their favorite lunatics, crackpots, demagogues, manfluencers, and so on, even as the very folly they preach rips their lives apart…the Brexit Effect, if you like, writ large.

We’re at a turning point. History is going to remember the next five years, forever. Yes, humans will still be around, although when I see the preparations my lovely wife the doc is making for bird flu, even I shudder. 

Rarely have we seen so many macro trends converge at once, towards exactly the same point. In politics—the death of democracy. Of the planet—climate change, with a vengeance. Economics—failed paradigms, and total, ruinous mismanagement of economies. Societies—plunging into despair and pessimism faster, even, than the 1930s, as social bonds sunder, and spite and hate replace trust and community and togetherness. Geopolitics—or the issues of global public goods, and our growing inability to provide them, at precisely the moment we need them most.

It’ll be remembered as a shattering, ruinous age. A time of transformations, but not good ones. An age when democracy became autocracy. When prosperity became poverty. When the planet itself turned on us, poisoned. When meaning and purpose became nihilism and self-destruction. When modern societies turned anti and pre-modern, with a savage senselessness. And when the world continued to fall apart, until, at last, nothing much of it was left, except conflict, ruin, and the brutal, bitter, increasingly difficult battle for subsistence and survival.

History will look back on the next five years as a kind of counterpoint to the Age of Revolutions, The Enlightenment, or any number of moments when great leaps happened. It’ll see the half decade to come as the age we gave it all up, everything we once had, and threw it away, never knowing the miracle of it all to begin with. The age that so much went extinct, from democracy to prosperity and so forth, hence, my little phrase, “Age of Extinction.”

So. Buckle up. I know you think things are bad now. They are. You’re not wrong. But five years from now? You’re going to look back on today, and remember. What a world once could have been.

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