11 min read

The Despair of the World’s Brightest Minds, Why the World Isn’t Listening to Them, Why it Matters, Plus, What Failure’s Teaching Me and How it Feels

The Despair of the World’s Brightest Minds, Why the World Isn’t Listening to Them, Why it Matters, Plus, What Failure’s Teaching Me and How it Feels
The Guardian

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? I hope you’re all doing ridiculously well. Welcome new readers, many thanks to all for joining, and a Big Thanks again for all the amazing discussions we’ve been having. 

Today, we’re going to talk about…the future…how I feel…how the world’s intellectuals and learned people feel…watching a world melting down…and what it all means.

The (Growing) Despair of the World’s Brightest Minds

I’ve been sharing with you recently not just what I think will happen in the future, as I do—but now, how I feel about it. How a sense of failure haunts me, having warned for so long, predicting all that’s happening now, only to see it all come true, and being hated, basically, the more that I warned, in this perverse sort of abusive, toxic, stalkery relationship between me and power, or those above and below the fault lines of transformation.

I genuinely feel a sense of overwhelming despair. But at least I know that I’m not alone.

What do I mean? You’re here with me, of course. And the Guardian just published some very crucial research. I think everyone should read it, understand it, and reflect on it.

"An exclusive Guardian survey of hundreds of the world’s leading climate experts has found that:

77% of respondents believe global temperatures will reach at least 2.5C above preindustrial levels, a devastating degree of heating; almost half – 42% – think it will be more than 3C; only 6% think the 1.5C limit will be achieved."

Now, those numbers are devastating, but what’s even more interesting is that the Guardian did qualitative research, too: it asked the scientists how they feel. And they feel…

The task climate researchers have dedicated themselves to is to paint a picture of the possible worlds ahead. From experts in the atmosphere and oceans, energy and agriculture, economics and politics, the mood of almost all those the Guardian heard from was grim. And the future many painted was harrowing: famines, mass migration, conflict. “I find it infuriating, distressing, overwhelming,” said one expert, who chose not to be named. “I’m relieved that I do not have children, knowing what the future holds,” said another.

Their overwhelming feelings were fear and frustration. “I expect a semi-dystopian future with substantial pain and suffering for the people of the global south,” said a South African scientist who chose not to be named. “The world’s response to date is reprehensible – we live in an age of fools.”

“The big difference [with the most recent IPCC report] was that all of the scientists I worked with were incredibly frustrated. Everyone was at the end of their rope, asking: what the fuck do we have to do to get through to people how bad this really is?”

“It is the biggest threat humanity has faced, with the potential to wreck our social fabric and way of life. It has the potential to kill millions, if not billions, through starvation, war over resources, displacement,” said James Renwick, at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. “None of us will be unaffected by the devastation.”

"I am scared mightily – I don’t see how we are able to get out of this mess,” said Tim Benton, an expert on food security and food systems at the Chatham House thinktank. He said the cost of protecting people and recovering from climate disasters will be huge, with yet more discord and delay over who pays the bills. Numerous experts were worried over food production: “We’ve barely started to see the impacts,” said one.

I could go on—read the article yourself. You get the sense just from those few quotes, though.

These are the most learned people in the world, on a particular subject of grave importance. And they feel a sort of absolute, overwhelming despair.

What does that tell us? Teach us? Mean?

Why the World Isn’t Listening to Its Brightest Minds

You can judge for yourself what kind of list to put me on, bright mind, idiot, dork, let’s table that for now. The point’s this. Like me, the world hasn’t listened to them. “The world” is an unfair way to put it, though. Power hasn’t listened. You’ll hardly see any of this covered seriously in mainstream media, almost ever, apart from here and there by maybe the Guardian, and even then, it’s pretty short shrift. Mostly, here and there might be articles about a given impact or two, but there’s been no real effort by mainstream media to teach people how dire the picture is. Not just of climate change, but of…

Meanwhile, politically? We just learned that Trump offered oil companies the ripping up of any sort of environmental regulations or goals, for a billion dollars, to get him re-elected. So, there’s good journalism in that, and it even tells us there are good, bewildered people at oil companies—who else leaked it, after all?—but it also tells us how sort of insane the picture really is, because none of this is exactly hurting his re-election chances, which at this point, are incredibly strong.

So. Like me, you have a group of people here who’ve spent their lifetimes learning. And what they’ve discovered is dire. So dire that it threatens us as a civilization, in existential ways. And yet nobody’s listening.

Because power is more interested in preserving the status quo, and stalling off transformation, so it never has to change much of anything, institutionally, or systemically

Now let’s come to another side of the picture. I’ve spent a lifetime learning stuff. About economics, well-being impact. I’m one of my generation’s best economists, and I don’t mean that in a snobby way, I mean that everything I predicted came true, from Trumpism to the dire state of the economy now, to the skyrocketing of inequality, to the decline of democracy.

In social science, we see a similar picture to climate science. It’s that bad, that catastrophic. What do I mean? In planetary terms, we have a planet on fire. In socioeconomic terms, we do too.

Democracy’s dying—let me recite, sorry, yet again, the statistic for you, it’s at just 20%, dropping 10% a decade. We have maybe a couple of decades before climate change savages our economies in unimaginable ways—and we also have a couple of decades of democracy left, at this rate of decline.

Meanwhile, our economies are failing. Everywhere, we see more or less the same picture: declining, former “middle classes,” unable to reach the living standards they expected, or which their parents and grandparents enjoyed. In America and Europe, the middle class, such as it exists, and I don’t think we can really use that term much anymore, feels severely threatened. Meanwhile, the poor parts of the world that were supposed to get rich and develop this wonderful institution called a “middle class”…didn’t. China and India never got nearly prosperous enough to develop a middle class, and that’s why they’re not stable democracies. 

At the same time, aligning with all that, generations are plunging into downward mobility, the elderly can’t retire, and on and on. And alongside that, a fatal wave of pessimism, anger, distrust, and hostility’s sweeping the globe, as people’s well-being craters.

What does all that say?

What Our Civilization’s Brightest Minds All Understand is That We’re in a Planetary Emergency

We are in a planetary emergency.

In climate terms, yes. But in just as similar terms when it comes to the socioecnoomy. The planet’s on fire in both ways, and the situation’s just as dire.

And the world’s best economists and politicians all know it, and are saying it. Here’s Joe Stiglitz, for example, who we’ve discussed many times, who helped modernize economics, by creating ideas such as global public goods.

"Around the world, populist nationalism is on the rise, often shepherding to power authoritarian leaders. And yet the neoliberal orthodoxy – government downsizing, tax cuts, deregulation – that took hold some 40 years ago in the West was supposed to strengthen democracy, not weaken it. What went wrong?"

That might not sound as palpably in despair as the climate scientists above, but make no mistake, Stiglitz is saying that the paradigm’s failed, catastrophically so, and…

Here are Gordon Brown and Mohamed El-Erian and one of their friends.

"Three of the most internationally respected and experienced thinkers of our time, these friends found their pandemic Zooms increasingly focused on a cascade of crises: sputtering growth, surging inflation, poor policy responses, an escalating climate emergency, worsening inequality, increasing nationalism and a decline in global co-operation. They shared their fears and frustrations."

Here’s Angus Deaton, who coined the term “deaths of despair,” a genuinely eminent economist.

"Economics has achieved much; there are large bodies of often nonobvious theoretical understandings and of careful and sometimes compelling empirical evidence. The profession knows and understands many things. Yet today we are in some disarray. We did not collectively predict the financial crisis and, worse still, we may have contributed to it through an overenthusiastic belief in the efficacy of markets, especially financial markets whose structure and implications we understood less well than we thought."

Some of that language is more restrained than the climate scientists use, sure. But the message is very much the same.

We’re seeing the socioeconomic equivalent of climate change. We are in deep, civilizational trouble.

Power Resists Transformation, Or, How the Age of The Idiot is Getting Worse 

Now. Above, I’ve taken the trouble to introduce you to names you might not know. And there’s a reason you don’t know them. Have you ever wondered why you don’t know the names of many climate scientists? But you can, say, rattle off lunatics and crackpots by the dozen, from manfluencers to demagogues to those taking a giant shit all over society? The reason, you should realize, and maybe it’ll startle you a bit, is that many of the people above don’t get a hearing.

Some, like me, have effectively been blacklisted. That’s where Stiglitz is—American media will more or less never publish him, having decided, for whatever reason, that he’s too “controversial” or whatever (he’s not.) 

Whatever the reason, power’s decided that people don’t need to know this. These names, these figures, how much they’ve learned, and what they see coming next. That people maybe shouldn’t know this. Why panic them? Why bother? Why not just keep them in the dark, where, I guess, maybe, if we accept the conspiracy theory, it’s more profitable? 

I don’t want to sound like that, by the way, but what choice do I have? Wherever I look, power seems to me standing in the way of…everything. It won’t let us teach people about what we’ve spent lifetimes learning. It doesn’t think we deserve to be heard. 

It thinks our knowledge is worse than useless, because it threatens the nature and primacy of power.

And that, my friends, is a Very Bad Place for a Civilization to Be. When it’s most learned people are all basically ignored, because what they have to say is too alarming, troubling, and disturbing, and better not to sort of rouse the masses out of their pleasant slumber. But is it a pleasant slumber? Hardly—that’s why the fanatics are rising, around the world, now. People already know the future’s turned to shit, everything’s completely, Pardon My French, mega-fucked. They just don’t know why, or what to do about it, and that’s where knowledge comes in. 

But in the absence of knowledge, there’s a vacuum, and in that vacuum, demagogues, fanatics, and crackpots flourish, and so power’s bargain here is a fatal one: sssh, silence the learned, and that way maybe we can hang on a little longer. It’s not working out for anyone, even power.

Three Things Everyone Should Learn From the World’s Brightest Minds

So where does that leave us? 

I want you to understand a few things, which I think are pretty crucial for you to know.

The world’s most learned people are all more or less all in despair. Social scientists, economists, climate scientists. We are feeling maybe sort of like me—haunted by failure, wondering how we blew it, desperately asking “what the hell do we have to do to be heard?”

That despair doesn’t just come from a sense that people don’t care, but that mostly, we’re not allowed to get through to people even what we really think. How seriously fucked the future is. Every single time that we transmit this message, and those chances are rare, and getting rarer, power, especially mainstream media, feels the need to “counterbalance” it with the opinion of someone who’s…just a crackpot…a fool…maybe with a grand title…but certainly not anyone who’s spent a lifetime learning a damned thing about anything, and certainly anything civilizational or existential (all while calling us alarmists, or doomers, or whatever dumb shit phrase they’ll invent next, even as our predictions come true.)

The despair the world’s most learned people feel is more or universal, and it’s about how failed paradigms fucked the future. I sort of repeated myself there, but I want you to think about the parallel I drew in this little essay: how we face not just catastrophic climate change, but also the sociopolitical and socioeconomic equivalent of it, and that’s before we even get to the feedbacks and interplays between it all. We all sort of agree that things look incredibly bleak, and not in a “there’s going to be a recession” way, but in a “history’s watching, and civilization’s at risk,” kind of way. That’s different, and it’s sort of…startlingly bad.

Yet I also mean a certain kind of person isn’t really included in “brightest minds.” Those who put politics above knowledge, and that’s a cardinal sin in every field, especially my field of economics, where you’ll find plenty of hare-brained types who’ll claim all sorts of things, without ever really looking much at basic realities, evidence, facts, statistics, data. Those sorts aren’t the world’s most learned people.

They’re people who aren’t learning, and so you can’t learn from, either.

That might all sound harsh, but I think it needs to be said. When a civilization’s most learned people are all in states of despair, something is going very badly wrong. When they can’t get their most basic messages out, something’s going badly wrong. And when they’re pilloried for trying to teach what they know—know—perhaps the most crucial thing of all is going badly wrong, because a civilization can only descend into folly and ignorance.

Now. I said “the world’s most learned people,” and I mean it, but like I said, you don’t have to put me on the list, go ahead, after all, I’ve discussed how I feel I’ve failed and I just get hated the more I warn and predict so I barely share anything anymore anyways. So you don’t have to include me in “most learned people.” That’s eminently not my point. I’m way younger than many of the people above, and I’d say I’ve spent half a lifetime learning, so far, so take that for what it’s worth. It’s not about scoring dumb ass points for fame or cred or whatnot. It’s about getting real about what we face, how we’re not living up to it, and what it’s doing to us.

The Choice to Fail May Be All We Have Left

Now that you know all that, let me come back to why I decided to be brutally open with you about how I feel. Haunted, desperate, heartbroken. I knew that I’d fail, and I imagine many of the people above did, too. But I didn’t think that they’d hate me the way they do just for warning. I miscalculated how fragile power believe itself to be, how viciously it defends itself, and how to it, critical thinking is perhaps the greatest existential threat of all—the rest of the existential threats, the real ones, be damned, even if they’re to things bigger than power, which include it, like civilization, democracy, prosperity, order, continuity. 

I dwell on this mistake every day, the walking wounded. I talk to myself and repeat it, trying to understand what went so wrong. And as I do, I believe we had just two choices. One, be silent the way power wanted us to be, and watch all this just unfold. Two, try to teach what we knew, even if we were damned, tarred, and feathered for it, anyways. Neither was a good choice. This was a genuine dilemma, and we’ll speak more about that. But to me? There was only choice that ever made sense, because both probably ended in meltdown, but only one had even a tiny fraction of a chance—and a slender thread of honor, meaning, and purpose—for something better.

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