A Rational Optimist's Reluctant Case for Panic

As European rugby fans look back with regret on (yet!) a(nother!!) chastening weekend, one of Monday’s papers put up a poll: When do you think a northern hemisphere team will next win the World Cup? There was a choice of the next five tournaments, 2019 to 2036. (Plus ‘none of the above’, one assumes…) Which got me thinking about something that has been nagging at me for a while. On this kind of timescale - a few years to a few decades into the future - I just don’t think people are very good at conceiving of fundamental change. Rather, and more-or-less regardless (so I contend) of how well informed we might be about the facts of global social, technological, or environmental change - we sort of assume that life will carry on just about how it always has within our experience, with incremental developments maybe, but without major upset. So while the players at major sports events will change, the basic pattern - a big, multi-week jamboree involving mass movement of people around the world, major new infrastricture, huge inputs of cash, energy, water, and so on - will remain, we expect, essentially identical. Hence we start planning for the 2036 World Cup now.

Certainly, this has always been my belief. Although I’ve been concerned about environmental issues for as long as I can remember, I consider myself (favourably, of course) to be towards the optimistic end of rational. So I find it very hard to believe that any of the properly charismatic species will ever really be allowed to go extinct; and I have this powerful faith (i.e., belief without a shred of evidence) that we as a society will in the end, when it really matters, pull something out the bag on climate change. To a certain extent, parenthood enforces such an outlook - first of all we convince ourselves that we are bringing life into what is basically a favourable world; and then we try to ensure our kids have childhoods as good - preferably better - as our own were. Incremental change, on an overall upward trajectory.

But a couple of things I’ve read recently have shaken that stubborn optimism of mine, to the extent that I’m starting to find casual talk of a 2036 World Cup faintly ridiculous.

First, Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. Read as a primer in Marxist theory, in economic and industrial history, in neoliberalism and its sinister symptoms, it is compelling. I was less convinced by some of the projections - for instance, his energy analysis seems shaky and whilst Wikipedia is wonderful, it bears an awful lot of the weight of Mason’s arguments about a future of unlimited free stuff and no need to work. (Oh, and his data visualisations are just awful.) But it’s a terrific read nonetheless (subject, I hope, of a full post in due course); and it is, in parts, terrifying. For instance, in laying out the looming pensions crisis - evident already in the imminent downgrading of my own (excellent, public sector) policy. And the economic consequences of taking climate change seriously (as he argues that we must), which include a collapse in the share value of some of the world’s largest companies, if (when!) we tell them that large fractions, perhaps 60-80%, of the assets on which this value is based - as yet unburnt fossil fuel reserves - must stay in the ground. In fact, I was convinced enough to adapt the title of his ninth chapter for this post. And, reluctantly, I'm leaning towards seeing our current, post-crash situation as more than a painful period of austerity that will end as soon as we vote the nasty posh boys out of office, but rather as a sign of far less pleasant things to come. As Mason puts it,

“The OECD’s economists were too polite to say it, so let’s spell it out: for the developed world the best of capitalism is behind us, and for the rest it will be over in our lifetime.”

The second key book for me has been David Mitchell’s wonderful novel The Bone Clocks. I’m a long-time Mitchell fan, I just love the worlds he creates, and suspend my disbelief willingly for his forays into the supernatural simply because of the power of his characters and the beauty of his prose. The Bone Clocks follows one of his most vivid creations yet, Holly Sykes, through six intertwined novellas and across seven decades, from the 1980s to the 2040s. And it is the final section, set in rural Ireland in 2043, that presents such a stark imagining of a drastically different future. Here is Holly, a few years older than me but basically of my generation, who has lived - as I have - with the rise of technology into every aspect of life; but who in her 70s is now experiencing the ‘endarkenment’ - chaotic times of 21st Century tech that still works occasionally, of power for those who can generate their own energy or grow their own food, or who have the might to take that from others. My copy of The Bone Clocks includes a short interview with Mitchell, in which he is asked whether this dystopian end to the novel reflects his own view. “Yes”, he responds,

“I’m afraid our civilisation is defecating in the well from which it draws life. We’re leaving our grandchildren a hotter and less secure world… We’re intelligent, but we’re not wise.”

Now I’ve read similar sentiments countless times from environmental prophets of doom, but taken alongside my research into the implications of population 10 billion  for this adventure, as well as Postcapitalism and the rest, I find myself concluding that life in twenty or thirty years time - and forget the grandkids, this is for me, for us - might very well be very different from how it is now. So I’m actually not too fussed about losing perks from my pension, simply because the I can't really imagine the plan of retiring comfortably sometime in the 2040s panning out…

The optimist in me still thinks of the resilience of nature - a different, feral, nature maybe, but nature nonetheless - and of humanity. Sure, we’re seeing the what Kevin Gaston call’s the ‘extinction of experience’, the sad loss of connection with nature; but as I’ve written before, I think baselines shift: people just get used to this new normal and find joy where they can. I fervently hope my kids get to see some real nature, but I know too that they won’t regret what they have not known; that regardless they will be complex, connected, happy-sad members of the 10 billion.

But I will regret.

And thus underperforming sports teams are placed in proper perspective.