There are bad years, and then there are years like 2023. Go ahead and admit it—was it one of the worst years of your life? Maybe even the worst year of all? You’re not alone. We’ve discussed reams of data and evidence recently showing just how badly the world’s faring, and people are doing—I call it the Modern Crisis of Being. Well-being’s plummeting, and that doesn’t mean “wellness,” but how our lives are actually doing.
2023 wasn’t just a bad year. We now live in times that history will regard as a turning point in the human story. Only we’re not turning in the right direction. Imagine a river, forking into two branches. We’re being carried along now by tides of rage, resentment, and regress—at the precise moment we should be making better, wiser choices. Is this what we human beings are limited to? Circles of folly, on an endless wheel of suffering? Are we capable of more? Such is the central question of this age, and realize, too, just how big, deep, and defining it is, cutting right to the root of us, paring us to the bone, revealing our truth in bitter detail.
Let’s put 2023 in perspective. Summer brought with it the arrival of climate change’s mega-scale impacts with a stunning, shocking fury. Times like these are so tumultuous that we scarcely now remember a few scant months ago. But temperatures shattered, on land, at sea, in the air. Megafires erupted. Crops failed. Droughts spread. And systems, too, began to crash—insurers pulled out of California, for example, one of the world’s richest regions, by a very long way. The sudden impact of climate change at these furious level worried scientists, and that’s an understatement. We appear to be at or near the zone where tipping points are hit, sending us into an unknown future, perhaps, of severe shock.
But that wasn’t how 2023 began—just a brief reminder of it’s midpoint. As the pandemic “receded”—not over, but banished, somehow from memory, speaking of it a taboo, everyone to play along with the myth that “Covid is over,” despite it still spreading this winter, hitting a peak of 1 in 3 people in America, for example—the idea was that…things would magically, instantly get better. That idea was a narrative shared by pundits, power figures, elites, who radiated a sunny optimism, having forced the myth of normalcy on us all yet again. Everything was going to be fine as 2023 dawned, they insisted.
And then the world fell into the jaws of a bitter, brutal “cost of living” crisis. In plainer English, just surviving became something bleak, getting harder by the day. The prices of basics surged and skyrocketed, from food to household goods. Meanwhile, incomes, of course, didn’t keep pace—welcome to life under predatory capitalism—but instead fell in real terms. People began to struggle, in unforeseen ways—not new in the human experience, to be sure, but new, perhaps, for them. American were stretched, for example, to the brink—by the autumn, a full 70% reported being “financially traumatized,” and the same percent lived paycheck to paycheck, the vast majority struggling just to pay the bills. Today, over half of Americans are “cashflow negative,” meaning: they’re broke.
Yet they’re the lucky ones. In our world, the mess we’ve made of it, the unlucky ones are, for example, the unfortunate souls selling organs to feed their kids, which is what Afghanis have resorted to under the Taliban.
The “cost of living” crisis was a body blow. A mega-shock, after a series of mega-shocks. The world didn’t go back to anything remotely resembling normal after the pandemic. Instead, now we seem to inhabit a shattered dystopia of broken societies, polities, and economies. Why is that?
The “cost of living” crisis went on to fuel yet another shock, the world’s sudden swerve towards the far right, its newfound embrace of demagogues and fanatics. Democracy had another bleak and crushing year, in over a decade of overwhelming losses for it. Even Europe’s mature social democracies, weighed down by stagnant economies, turned to their historical nemesis, in an eerie echo of history’s greatest mistakes. And in America? A grinning, jeering, sneering, screaming Donald Trump returned triumphantly to power.
There, the shock of the cost of living crisis was so acute that today, Trump bests Biden in the polls. Given the status quo, it’s hard to see how Trump won’t be elected. Yes, of course, the 14th Amendment should matter—we’ll save that discussion for future posts. For now, the point is the way that all these shocks intersected, multiplied, and fed one another.
You see, a curious thing is happening to our civilization now. It’s destabilizing and coming undone. There aren’t many examples of “runaway” dynamics in…anything. Usually, systems need energy, and produce diminishing returns. But self-accelerating dynamics are incredibly dangerous things, because they…propagate themselves. And this is the situation we face. The cost of living crisis accelerated the world’s shift to demagoguery, and the ongoing death of democracy. Meanwhile, the cost of living crisis was itself accelerated by climate change—economists won’t confirm it for another half decade or so, because the research takes time, and right about now, there isn’t much interest in it, but the skyrocketing prices of recent times are obviously driven by climate change, atop which what’s come to be called “greedflation” is piled.
Now we live in a profoundly different world. Think of how much has changed in one short decade. Economy: it’s gone from growth to stagflation. Our economies are nominally “growing,” but the average person’s fortunes are still diminishing, and that can only happen if and when the gains go to a tiny fraction at the very top. Politics: democracy’s gone from healthy to quite possibly facing extinction in our lifetimes, just 20% of the world fully democratic, declining at a rate of 5-10% a decade. Society: norms have been shattered, and rewritten, around cruelty, hostility, enmity, rage, stupidity, and the open contempt of truth, justice, equality, and freedom.
2023 was a turning point in all these ways. It was a terrible year for a reason. Not just one inflection point is being hit now—many are, all at once. Climate change is the obvious example. But far from the only one. Think about the economy: the age of stagflation we’re in now isn’t an anomaly, it’s the future, because we’re now out of easy sources of growth—in fact, we’re a civilization which doesn’t know how to make everything from food to raw materials to household goods without fossil fuels. Democracy, too, appears to have hit an inflection point, a deadly one, with European social democracy on the brink, and Americans openly embracing a man who flaunts being a “dictator” and speaks of the nation’s “blood” being “poisoned.”
So that’s why 2023 was such a terrible year. It was a series of inflection points, one after the other. To call them “shocks” even understates and obscures that point, because even a shock implies something temporary. None of these transformations appear to be temporary—take the example of Trump’s return: it tells that people haven’t come to their senses, after some kind of passing mania. Worse, these inflection points feed one another, politics destabilizing society destabilizing economics destabilizing climate and on and on, in a lethal circle of ruin, known as a doom loop.
History will look at us and say to itself, that was the era that they embraced a doom loop. Their civilization was on the brink, and it was evident in so many ways. And yet they chose not just to ignore it, but, in some kind of madness, turn towards it, strain their backs not against it, but for it.
I know how it sounds when I write stuff like this. But where else does the evidence leave me? Am I supposed to tell you everything’s rosy and fine? I’ve quoted you statistic after statistic, and I do it regularly. My job isn’t to be some kind of doomsayer—really. If the news was good, I’d happily tell you, and we’d discuss art, music, or books. My job is simply to help you make sense of the world. In times like these, the dominant narrative is badly wrong—and we all know it, because we feel it. We feel terrible about the world, ourselves, the future, where things are going, the collective human mind in a shockwave, afraid, anxious, uncertain—facts, not speculation, those feelings are exploding off the charts in historically significant ways now, and it’s for a reason. Nobody sane or thoughtful or wise thinks 2023 was a fantastic year—it was a terrible one, and we all feel it intensely, though we’re not supposed to talk about it. And yet all that itself is a clarion call. To wrest back what we can, while time still remains, of the beautiful and noble project called civilization.
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