I don’t think I’m better than anyone else at predicting the future. How events will play out, ‘where it’s all going’ as it were. However, although there are occasionally unexpected events, very few are un-expectable. Most important things that can be predicted are at some level pretty obvious and long in the making, and there are usually quite a lot of people who see them coming way off. In fact I would go so far as to say that almost all major trends are obvious to anyone who’s disinterested and paying attention, but for equally obvious reasons most people aren’t when it comes to most trends. The world is far too big and complex to pay attention to everything, and even when it comes to your ‘thing’, the scope for confirmation bias is significant.
I think I’m fairly aware of some of my main biases. It doesn’t mean I can avoid them, but at least Dear Reader can bear them in mind during what is to follow. I am pretty left-wing and interventionist across domestic and foreign policy, however I have a slight small ‘c’ conservative streak when it comes to social institutions. I have a tendency to assume the best of individuals and the worst of society and polities. And I generally think our worst days are ahead of us. Yeah that’s right, I’m a doom junkie.
I haven’t always felt this way. When I was in secondary school, I loved history, and read my text books from cover to cover several times, purely out of interest. I remember thinking in the late 90s and at the turn of millennium that for us here in Europe, it was by comparison a golden age. We lived in a time of unparalleled local peace and prosperity, and had done so since the end of the Cold War. I remarked on this to several people, including my parents, who I think thought I was loopy. I had a mystical fixation with the years 2010 and 2015, which I imbued with cosmic significance (hey, I was 15). Then the Second Intifada, 9/11, and the Iraq War happened. I was at a friend’s house watching the tense, anticipatory CNN livestream when the Iraqi flak batteries began to speckle the Baghdad skyline. We all stopped talking, and a few seconds later the now infamous ‘shock and awe’ began, as the vanguard of American airpower revealed itself in lens flare, fire, and grey, fungal plumes. In their wake came the ghostly and inexorable procession of tomahawk cruise missiles, heralding the definitive end of whatever golden era I had imagined for myself.
Lately I’ve been feeling the urge to prophesy again, to sort of imagine out what I believe, based on nothing more the hunches and a lot of reading. I don’t really place a lot of stock in any of this, but I feel a few things are coming to something like ‘a head’, and I want to log my feelings on them, if only to find out how wrong I am in 20 years time. I certainly hope I’m wrong. Don’t take any of this too seriously, definitely don’t take me too seriously, just come along for the speculative ride and get off wherever you feel like.
In the last month the US senate voted not to convict President Donald Trump following his impeachment by the US congress. Arguing the rights and wrongs of all this is largely pointless, as it’s a political process and we all knew it would happen. Why it happened has been written about extensively, and the near-term implications are certainly significant. But I actually think this gets the order of events backwards, and that things were set in course a lot earlier, when Trump was effectively named as co-conspirator in the trial and conviction of Michael Cohen. The only reason Trump was not tried and convicted as well is because he is the President, and as such cannot be prosecuted by a normal court (an oversight role reserved for the senate). One obvious implication of this is that if Trump were to lose the next election, or for any other reason cease to be President or be protected by the next President, he would be open to prosecution and would almost certainly be convicted.
The GOP committed hard to acquittal from the outset because it is a matter of survival, both for Trump and the party. His conquest of the republican base and their subsequent capitulation means their fortunes are now tied to his. But it’s not purely a defensive posture. One of the most successful aspects of the Trump administration has been the scope of its judicial capture at the federal level. Most significantly, the McConnell senate and the Trump administration have together transformed what should by right be a democratic majority in the supreme court into a 6:3 republican majority, with strong odds of a further nomination by the end of a theoretical second Trump term (sorry Ruth…). A second term would almost certainly allow Trump and the GOP to entrench themselves in a position of undemocratic minority rule, and protect them from the otherwise inevitable accountability of a future democratic administration.
Trump’s disregard for norms of conduct and propriety were apparent well before he was elected, and it has only gotten worse since. He is now in the position where if he stops being President, he (and possibly members of his family) will go to jail for a number of crimes. That is to say nothing of what might come of any further post-presidential probes or investigations once the executive privileges afforded by the office are removed. He cannot afford to lose, or more accurately, to appear to lose. When you bear in mind how close the next election is likely to be, Trump’s various tirades about voter fraud and ‘stealing’ elections, the 2000 election being decided by the SC Bush v Gore case, GOP packing of the courts, and the fact that Trump will end up in jail if he stops being President… well, I think you can see where I’m going with this. Unless Trump is resoundingly defeated at the next election, by a margin that is effectively beyond dispute, I cannot see him relinquishing power. He will challenge the result, he will refuse to leave office, and I think the SC will find in his favour if it goes to court. Among friends I joke a lot about “four more terms” (they hate this), but Trump has repeatedly insinuated that he might seek more than 2 terms. Aside from that, Trump’s son and daughter are both preparing to run as GOP presidential candidates, and are popular with the base. I personally wouldn’t rule out a brother-sister ticket in the future. In short, the stage is set for a hereditary kleptocracy, and if you don’t think that can happen in the US, well, a lot of us felt the same way about the prospect of ‘President Trump’ 3 years ago, myself included.
The model is well established at this point. Russia, Hungary, Turkey – a sham democracy is as viable as an explicit autocracy. In such states, the manufacture of consent is entirely deliberate, and on the American right a similar transformation is very close to completion. I think the worst is yet to come.
It was in 2012 that I realised we were fucked. As a child, I had been taught about the hole in the ozone layer, the ‘greenhouse effect’, and how the world was going to fix these problems. The Rio conference took place when I was 7 years old, and I remember my teacher talking to us about it in primary school. When I went to secondary school in 1996, we were taught about the mechanics of the greenhouse effect in geography class. A year later, the Kyoto Protocol came into effect, which was supposed to be the beginning of global decarbonisation. Here’s how that turned out:
For my entire childhood and early adulthood, the message had been that climate change was something we were going to fix. Then in 2009, the Copenhagen Accord was signed amid acrimony and cries of ‘Munich’. Between 1985, the year I was born, and 2011, annual carbon emissions roughly doubled. When I read this Rolling Stone piece as I was finishing my masters, I was struck not just by the article, but an unmentioned implication: actually tackling climate change would basically involve a market crash. You can’t remove most of the value of many of the most valuable companies in the world, and not crash the market. This idea has gained more prominence in recent years, but at the time it had not really dawned on the collective consciousness of climate wonkery. But sitting here today, it seems to me that the incentives against rapid decarbonisation are too broad and perverse, too deeply entwined with out sociopolitical structures, for us to avoid a 3.5-4 degree rise in temperature. And that, as it stands, is a best-case scenario if we contemplate some of the tail risks. 1.5 degrees is in the rearview mirror, we’re about to blow past 2, and carbon emissions haven’t actually peaked yet, even if their rate of growth has slowed. At this point it is delusional to expect anything less than a substantial disaster.
But it’s not just a matter of perverse incentives and Malthusian traps. There are also those who walk the Earth freely even as they deliberately burn it. Those driven by pure avarice, a world-consuming greed. Some conspiracies are real, and as terrifying as the abstract monstrosities of climate change are, their human conjurors are what really scare me.
Space is a place, and we’re going there. A lot of people find Elon Musk’s plans to colonise Mars absurd, but I think this is kind of a failure of the imagination. With regard to his utopian vision, I share that skepticism, but along the way it seems certain that the cost of going to space, and in particular the Moon, will come down dramatically. And if we can go there, based on past behaviour I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt that we will.
What we will do when we get there is just as predictable, because our behaviour on Earth is likely to be a pretty good guide. We are, as Ursula Le Guin put it, ‘extractivists’. This feature is arguably the one great commonality of modern human society, one which transcends borders, dogmas, economies and polities. Human extractivism rules the Earth, and where you find peoples who are not extractivists, you will find them marginalised, powerless, and all too frequently dispossessed of their lands so that the riches beneath can be torn out.
From the point of view of an even slightly imaginative dealer in commodities, space is full of things ‘waiting’ to be extracted. On Earth the forces of extractivism are now turning to the deep sea, an incredibly challenging and hostile environment. The deep sea is still relatively easy and cheap to get close to – the hard part starts when you get there. In contrast, the surface of the Moon and Mars are comparatively benign environments – we’ve sent many people to the former and many robots to the latter. We could goof around and play golf on the Moon, and the Mars missions have been able to operate for years beyond their original mission goals. In contrast, all but one of our deepest ventures to the ocean floor have failed. Getting to the surface of those distant worlds is expensive and difficult, but as it becomes cheaper and easier, and as the value proposition of lunar mining improves, the forces of extractivism will move with inexorable force to stake their claim.
Already, China is executing an extensive, long-view lunar programme, in addition to deploying what can only be described as the space equivalent of a navy. Despite guffaws from many quarters, the Trump administration’s decision to create a Space Force is one of the more sensible decisions it has made. We smirk at it for the same reason we smirk at Musk’s plans for Martian colonies. But pause for a moment and consider the players in this new great game: the United States military; the Chinese state; Putin’s Russia. And the man who has created the most successful space and electric vehicle companies in the world. None of these people are smirking.
I think to many of us, space still has the appearance of being a place of pristine, apolitical exploration, research and discovery. But this is already mostly a fib we tell ourselves. Within the next 10-25 years, technology will fully unleash the rapacious forces of extractivism and nation-state rivalry upon the great vacuum around us. There are many worlds left to despoil after we are done scraping the bottom of this one.
At this stage I find it almost boring to talk about the perverse effects the corporate internet has had on our public discourse (more accurately, I feel like I am being boring). I’ve done so on here before, there has been a wealth written about it elsewhere, yada yada yada. But one thing I haven’t talked about is the corrosive effect this might have on our inner lives. Not just our politics and tribalism and narrative spinning, but the rest of our social fabric, our families and friendships, our moral compasses. I don’t think you can cleanly separate those things, or expect the tide of dishonesty and lies in our public discourse to stop at the doorstep.
Lies are a normal part of human life, and they have existed ever since the cleverer monkeys realised they were not always best served by the truth. That’s not a defence of lying, just an attempt to ward off any historic exceptionalism (to put it another way, Facebook didn’t invent bullshit). Since the enlightenment, however, I think we have seen a decrease in the power of lies, and an increase in the power and status of truth. The sharing of knowledge and wisdom, the increasingly open critique of entrenched lies, and the democratisation of information, have all yielded tremendous results for humanity. The post-enlightenment period has not been an untroubled golden age of truth – in many places and often for long periods, certain lies have found fertile soil and done plenty of damage. But like rain in the desert, the overall effect on the landscape has been healthy. There has been green growth far from the valley, more rapid and beautiful and varied than anything we’ve seen before. But it is an open question as to whether it is a permanent reclamation, or just a fleeting bloom.
Speaking purely from a personal perspective, the signs are not great. Already I sometimes catch myself and my friends trading in kinds of falsehood, in political posturing and disingenuous arguments, in a way I’m quite sure we haven’t always done. I find myself limiting my speech to avoid exhausting, tiresome arguments, and I imagine they do the same. There is nothing wrong with censure where due, but even minor disagreements along a tiny subsection of the political spectrum seem to escalate into absolutist dogmatism. I am not some rational, logical saint in a sea of group-thinkers – I have no such illusions. I have felt the creep of tribalism into my interactions with others from within as well as without. We are not being frank with one another, not really. Indeed we are afraid to be frank with one another. These are people I love and respect, and I can only hope they feel the same way. Yet sometimes mistrust hangs in the air like damp. And with damp comes rot.
Every day, we are steeped in the dishonesty of our economy, media, politics and public discourse, attacked and disoriented by lies at every turn. It is predictable that it wears us down. We feel driven to reach for our own lies in defence of the things we actually believe, because the truth is often heavy and cumbersome to wield. Because fighting back with a better lie seems preferable to letting the worse lie triumph. It is hard, perhaps impossible to resist. But the result is that the worst of us make liars of the best of us.
I’m going to try not to lie any more. The tiny white lies that lubricate the social machine. The dirty, sordid lies to hide shameful behaviour. The vain, petty lies of maneuver. The lies you tell yourself despite knowing the truth. The lies you tell other people without even knowing why. Once I saw it in myself, I began to see it all around me. One great sickness, an epistemic pandemic, the symptoms appearing everywhere. And I think we have to fight it, each one within ourselves.
In a way that is the thread that ties the rest of this post together, it’s why it has such a stench of cynicism and pessimism. It occurred to me that I should write a more positive companion piece, but I’m not sure I have a serving of hope to go with this serving of despair. And even if I did, I would be consciously blowing it out of proportion, creating a false equivalence, an intellectual opiate. And that too would be a kind of lie.