We have literally never experienced such a thing before. A whole world…in lockdown? Economies literally…suddenly dying? What the?
The problem, though, is that we are likely to experience much, much more of the same. No, not unemployment claims. Shock. Harder, faster. Impossibly sudden. We’re used to living amidst a golden age of slow, steady lines, which gave us relatively stable lives — this much unemployment, that much growth, which means that much income for the average person, which meant you could buy this much, have this family, have such a life. But now we are beginning to live in a time where slow upwards trends, one after the other, are going to be shattered and broken, overnight — and left cratering, plummeting, falling.
This is now the age of shock. The age of stability is over. And you knew that much, because life over the last decade got a little turbulent, didn’t it? But that was just the beginning, something like the waters receding before the tsunami.
Coronavirus is the first of the Great Shocks — just the first. It should be a warning. A wake-up call. A much needed alarm bell to rouse us from the slumber of a quiescent industrial-capitalist civilization in decline, utterly unprepared for this new century.
Because there are many, many more shocks to come. Bigger, harder, faster. Shock: a sudden, ruinous, catastrophic change. In economic terms, to supply or demand, to prices, to resources and their availability. In simpler terms, to life as we know it. One chapter of human history — the predatory age — is now coming to an end, one titanic shock at a time.
The next one on the way, of course, is Climate Shock. Like Coronavirus, it won’t be just one shock. Coronavirus, like any good shock, will echo and resonate, reverberate and ripple — it will subside, and then return, ebb and flow. The same is true of climate change. It will be felt in increasing levels of calamity. Do you even remember, at this grim juncture, that just a few weeks ago, Australia burned with megafires? And a few weeks before that, the Amazon did? Those are little warnings of what climate change is to bring.
By the end of this decade or so, the megafires and megafloods will begin to rage out of control. The world’s great cities will find themselves at the mercy of rising tides. The seasons will change. Stability as we know it, which has been based on climactic certainty, will fall apart with it. Today, the world is locked down at home because of a virus. What happens when the megafires ravage a whole continent — and this time, they don’t burn themselves out? What happens when half a continent is flooded — every summer, so the waters don’t ever really recede? Here we are, today, sitting comfortably at home, even in our anxiety. Tomorrow, many of us won’t have homes to return to. Or the jobs, work, lives, families that go with them.
Climate Shock intensifying is going to look like this. This year’s fires and floods are discontinuously — unimaginably, unthinkably, impossibly — worse than the last. They last longer and spread wider and burn hotter and flow faster. Think of it as a plane crash. Turbulence, and then…freefall.
As a result, our economies and financial systems are going to seize up just like they are today — but much, much more badly. Insurers and banks and funds of all kinds will simply go bankrupt. Where will that money have gone — which, in the end, simply represents a populace’s pooled savings? The answer is that it will have gone up, literally, in smoke. Society will be plunged into a vicious cycle of trying to rebuild old resources — homes, hospitals, school, universities. As a result, few new resources will be built. As the financial infrastructure of a society implodes, so too the backbone of an economy — small and medium sized businesses — will go with it. Who will provide the credit and debt they need — especially as prices spike, amidst sudden scarcity? Where will their working capital come from? Bang!
As Climate Shock tears the backbone of economies apart, people will become something much more like nomadic traders eking out a living, traveling market traders of yore, than middle-class folks with stable, simple lives of jobs fixed in time and space with fixed salaries and so forth. Today, you might be able to get this gig in that city. Tomorrow, you might be able to sell a pallet of that on Amazon, to that town. Life becomes a game of survival — scavenging for dwindling resources atop the landfill of industrial society, to be sold on to those who need them even more desperately. This is what most “gig work” already really is.
Of course, mega-corporations will do very well out of all this. Provide the market to trade these scarce goods, like Amazon? Here’s a trillion. Own the world’s water? Here’s a trillion. And so forth. But for the average person, Climate Shock’s economic effects will be life-sundering.
As people become poor, as they lose their homes, savings, incomes, jobs, and have to turn to nomadic lives based on scavenging and gigging to simply make ends meet, the effect on social institutions will be ruinous. Would you want to have kids? How would you feed them? How often would you see them? We already see hints of this at work in America, as millennials simply forego sex, relationships, and families — because they have to.They can’t afford the most basic thing in life: sociality itself. What they do have is capitalism’s counterfeit: Fakebook friends and WhatsApp. They’ve settled for that — but as their true sociality declines, so too does their happiness and trust and meaning and purpose, because human beings are inherently social beings, who aren’t fulfilled without strong and genuine social bonds, not just avatars and online chit chat.
As social bonds are torn apart, societies, too, will simply stop working as democracies. Who has time for democracy when you’re trying to scavenge a living by selling this or gigging that? Who has the energy or room or passion for it? Who even cares about the hard work of self-governance and self-determination when you’re just fighting for self-preservation? Nobody, really. In fact, what you probably feel is a sense of resentment. If you’re being made to fight bitterly for self-preservation, so should everyone else. And so a kind of hardcore individualism is likely to permeate politics. As is authoritarian-fascism, because in times of trouble, people turn to strongmen for safety and security and strength, while looking for groups to demonize and dehumanize as weak and impure and parasitic. It’s a near-certainty, at this juncture, that the Climate Shock will take what’s left democracy with it.
Soon after the Climate Shock will come the Great Annihilation. Not human — don’t worry, this isn’t a movie. We live in the sixth mass extinction in history, the first human-made one. We are busy exterminating the very forms of life that we depend most on, in a particular way: the most vulnerable things go first. Insects, reefs, butterflies, bees. But those things make up the bottoms of ecological chains, and so ecologies are going to collapse like great towers whose foundations have suddenly been ripped out. The fish clean the rivers which feed the seas, the bees pollinate the flowers which nourish the rest, the insects turn the soil which grows the wheat. Do you see how all this Is connected? So what happens when it topples over? Bang!
Then the future will be truly catastrophic.
What happens when this harvest suddenly fails — the one a whole continent depended on? When this river — the one that a whole set of countries depended on — runs dry? When the topsoil’s turned barren, and there’s no way to easily replenish it? When the shore of a whole continent is suddenly invaded by a new species, because the fish have all gone? Bang!
By this point — about 2050ish, if we’re lucky, 2040 if we’re not — what happens is that humanity’s last and most crucial systems fail, catastrophically, finally, permanently. Food chains implode. Water tables turn to salt. Medicine can no longer be made. Chemicals are no longer available. Basic resources can no longer be mined. Here’s a small list of things that can’t be made without “ecological support services”, as the jargon goes, which just means “without using ecosystems as a whole as a vital resource”: insulin, antibiotics, milk, eggs, bread, vegetables, fruit, computers, cars, furniture. All these things depend critically on ecosystems functioning as wholes, to provide resources as basic as air, wood, water, and metal. But as the animals die off, none of those things are going to be easily available anymore. The resources we all take for granted and depend on are going to be either poisoned, dead, inaccessible, or gone.
What happens as a consequence? What little industry there is left shuts down. Economies die — and they don’t come back. Societies turn to violence to claim what’s left. Cities and regions turn on one another. Aggressive nations like America and Russia start big wars, ruled by lunatics and demagogues. People huddle in terror and fright and fear — or worse, robotically do the jobs authoritarians command them to do, which involved taking what’s left by force to give to a lucky few. Freedom, justice, equality, truth — all these things are distant memories by now, as is an age where people took such things for granted. The idea of civilization as we know it has come to an end.
That’s where the Age of Shock finishes. It isn’t a debate I’m trying to start by the way — instead, I want you to note a simple enough point. You can see how our civilization begins to ends from…right here.
Think of right here and now as a place — a strange peak to find yourself trapped on. From it, you can see the horizon of the end of a civilization. You can look back, and see the climb upwards, to. You can look across, also, and see a gentle plateau. A place you might, just might be able to reach — if only you had a little more rope.
We can still weave that rope. We can still save ourselves from the certain disaster ahead — but only over the next 3000 days or so. If we invest, massively, at a global scale, right now. In what? In everything. In healthcare, research, education, income, in nature, in life on earth. But our window is very, very short. If we don’t invest now, on a massive scale — a Marshall Plan for the world — in the next decade, then our path is inevitable: it ends in a shock so great civilization itself winks out. Not with a bang, nor even with a whimper. Pummeled to death, one shock at a time, until the heart and soul of civilization go out. Until people themselves are too weary and bruised to even remember the ideas of decency, of gentleness, of knowledge, of truth, of beauty, of freedom — of caring for one another in a world where self-preservation has become a desperate daily struggle.
You can see the beginning of the end of the world as we know it from right here, right now, in the surreality of everyday life in 2020: the shocks that will almost certainly bring our civilization to an end are now clearly visible. You — meaning each and every one of us capable of thinking clearly — can see them as clearly as rain on a summer day. They are not a mystery. Like I said, we can all see how it happens from here, right now, with chilling clarity. It isn’t some kind of sci-fi scenario anymore: it’s just simple, cold, brutal logic. What we lack, therefore, is something as simple as it is crucial. Will. The courage, grace, strength, to do anything about it. But “it”, this time, is the end of the world as we know it.
Maybe, then, this is what we deserve. Maybe this is the only destiny we ever had, as a civilization with roots in slavery and genocide and violence. Maybe the next civilization will do better, and that is the only way that the strange and twisted mess called human history can ever have worked. Maybe we have to start again, because the seed always contains the tree, and the whole forest, too.