The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Political v.s Physical Tipping Points

Back in the 2000’s I belonged to the Netroots movement. Our mantra was “more, better democrats.” We ran primaries, fundraised and put pressure on politicians, on top of all the normal blogging stuff, much of which we were the first mass practitioners of.

We failed. Obama was our loss moment, as he bypassed us and was able to get our readers without having to appease us.

But Obama was something more important. The financial crisis of 2007-9 was a moment which would have allowed for radical change. An FDR figure could have changed the nature of America in their response to it, breaking up banks and other monopolies and letting a vast swathe of the rich go bankrupt and charging them with crimes, thus breaking their power for generations to come.

Obama didn’t do that. He didn’t even seriously consider it, instead he supported the Federal Reserve and Treasury in saving them and enriching them.

I considered it then, and now, a political tipping point. The financial crisis was the last real political chance to change the direction of society, globally (since an American response would have cascaded throughout the world, as it did), enough to perhaps stave off climate change and ecological collapse, since politically dealing with those required breaking the power of the wealthy.

The most important political tipping point was actually the neoliberal empowerment moment: 79’s election of Thatcher and 80’s election of Reagan. Clinton and Blair ascending to the top of the Democrats and Labor were the second political points, since each of them institutionalized the changes made by their Republican/Conservative predecessors. Thatcher understood well, noting that her victory was sealed by Blair.

For both climate change and ecological collapse to be stopped, for the physical tipping points to be avoided, we had to make a radical change in how we ran our societies. Continuing on more or less as we had before meant disaster. To be sure, the changes necessary were truly radical (though less so the sooner they were begun), but nonetheless they required political victory and destruction of the power of vested interests.

So while others were saying “we still have time”, I was looking at the politics and the realities of power and saying the opposite, “it’s too late, we missed the window”, because there was no political possibility.

The physical tipping point for climate change was reached this year or last year, I’m reasonably sure. The ecological collapse tipping point may have been somewhat earlier. The civilization collapse point has also probably passed, and I put that around 2020.

All along the road off-turns were offered. People laugh at Dennis Kucinich, but he wanted to do the right things and ran in the Democratic primaries multiple times. The fact that he was considered laughable even though his policy prescriptions were correct is exactly the problem.

While Corbyn came too late to turn the tide, his election and success, if it had been the precursor of serious political realignment, as was Thatcher, could have saved hundreds of millions of lives and made the process much less painful. Indeed his defeat is one reason (though only one) that I consider 2020 the turning point for civilization collapse. It was definitely the turning point for UK collapse.

Modern propaganda is mighty indeed, and Corbyn lacked the necessary ruthlessness to defeat entrenched interests, if it was even possible. Unlike Obama, however, he at least wished to do the right things.

And that’s the main point: whoever runs society must want to do the right thing. Physically we had plenty of time, if you look at it from back in the 70s, which is when I first became concerned as a child.

Politically, though, we did not have lots of time. Changes in ruling sub-ideologies and opportunities to break the power of elites are not that common, and we failed to do so at each possible political tipping point.

And so, here we are.

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  1. Curt Kastens

    In addition to political and physical tipping points I wonder if people can also specify what I would call a sociological tipping point, because that sound good to me and I can not think of any other word at the moment that might better describe this tipping point.
    I had written earlier that the only window(s) of opportunity for this climate catastrophe to be avoided was at the end of the 19th century, and maybe after WW1.
    What are the tipping points that I have in mind?
    Well one is certianly the Model T automobil. I would say that was a tipping point not only because it brought the automobile to the masses but because it created a vast army of people whose lives depended on producing automobils. And it produced a vast army of people who lives depended on providing the fuel that powered those automobiles. I am not an auto historian but I can imagine that the developement of the model t also had something to do with the developement of practical farm tractors, and therefore to agricultural industrialization which diverted a lot of workers from agriculture to industry and service jobs in things like tourism.
    Then of course air travel took off after 1930 creating another vast army of people dependent of the continuation of busniness as usual.
    Once the industrialized west became the gold standard for a good quality of life it became the standard that the rest of world aspired to.
    So if one wanted to solve the problems that we now face one not only had to come up with new systems for transportation and energy one would have to also come up with solutions for reemploying all of the people who would at least temporarily lose their jobs in established industries.
    It seems to me that by 1940 these problems were to big for humans to solve even if a lot of them had understood the problems at the time. I mention this not to give Regean and Thatcher get out of jail free cards. They were clearly dinkbutts. But I sometimes think that progressives do not fully apprectiate how bad they predessors were. Presidnet Kennedy might have been the sole exception among Presidents.
    I maintain that when he left office in 1961 President Eisenhower was not waring the American people about the dangers of the rise of the MIC he was secretly mocking the American people.
    Manuel Garcia maintains that we could have powered America, and therefore the world, with solar power. That may be true in a certian sense. I trust his math. But I think that Jervons Parodox would have kicked in and humans would not have shown the restraint neccessary to avoid destroying the environment anyways. Especially if they had not adopted a different kind of economic system. The system that we have requires people to do bullshit jobs to get fed.
    Not only that but the leaders of the worlds most powerful military institutions would have had to have rejected the primacy of their institutions and therefore the previlage and status of their positions. What are the chances that that would have ever have happened.
    Did I miss anything?

  2. Forecasting Intelligence

    Hi Ian,

    Great post as always. Along with Greer you are my top macro writers out there.

    As per my most recent blog post, what’s your take for the rest of the 2020s and beyond? How does those scary LTG BAU lines translate into reality? Which regions will get hammered the most.

    Greer in some recent comments suggested that the BRIC super-bloc that is emerging should emerge tolerantly well from this and will keep intact the key industrial civilisation metrics. Its striking that by 2024 when Saudi Arabia formally joins BRICS, the bulk of the global oil producers will be members of BRICS.

    The era of Western and US specific dominance is fading fast.

    But what does this all mean? Greer wrote just before the Ukraine war – see – that at some point in the 2030s Europe is likely to descend into regional wars starting in the most destabilised areas (think the Balkans and eastern Europe) and spreading to the core over a process of decades.

    Is that your take? What about the tens of millions of wish to move to Europe from Africa and the Middle East. Will this turn into state organised invasions at some point over the next 50 years as per Greer’s forecast?

  3. Watt4Bob

    Brings to mind JFKs’ famous quote;

    “Those who make change impossible, make revolution inevitable.”

  4. Watt4Bob


    Cargil, the giant grain trader outfitted their agents, world-wide with Model T Fords, as soon as they became available to allow them faster access to crop condition reports. Combined with the telegraph they knew crop conditions in near real time, world wide. A tremendous business advantage.

  5. Willy

    Modern propaganda is mighty indeed

    Because they make it cool. Not intelligent, empathic, necessary, or just plain “the right thing to do”, but cool. You be cool you be good with your survival tribe. Sad, but most folks are just wired that way. Not us, but them. Think back to who was cool back in high school then look up how they fared in adult life.

    Obama was made to want to be cool, then to be cool. You see it in his Choom Gang pics with the Panama hat. No way he was gonna Urkel it, get all geeked up about the climate and environment. That’s how you wind up getting locked inside your locker, minus your lunch money. Now had Obama been able to get jock ass kicked back at Punahou if they didn’t help him plant trees every Saturday… we hopey changers might’ve figured we had somebody more reliable. But we got suckered. People don’t change much past age ten. Attitudes maybe, but not the basic motivating drives. This is how ye knows them.

    How the hell Reagan and Thatcher came to be seen as cool is still a bit of a mystery to me. Their political spin machines got traction at just the right time?

    As for Kucinich, he was 5’7”. He’d look like a tourist if he wore a Panama hat. And pulling off that classic Slavic vindictive stare the way the equally short Putin can, only works well in Russia. Although Al Capone did pull off short, hat, and stare quite well back in the day.

  6. StewartM

    The problem is, that most people still learn “religiously” (learning ‘forever truths’) rather than scientifically (all knowledge is open to question).

    So–why this society cannot change is that vast swaths of people have learned well “there is no alternative to the current system”. That is what all conservative societies teach both in education and by myth and religion as it tells people that for most of them, a better (or different) life isn’t even possible. Try telling most Americans that they would get better outcomes through a national health care system, or universal housing, or free college, and many (save the young) reflexively spout Reagan.*

    (On Quora, I once ran into libertarian type who swore that hunter-gatherers were really uber-defenders of private property, instead of practicing “primitive socialism” (or communism). This guy really had come to believe there is really no alternative and never was).

    *– There is a point to distrusting the US government’s ability to do things right; as typically (Original Medicare being an exception) what the government does is to pay private capitalist firms to provide for the public good, and (of course) Western capitalists do what Western capitalists always do, given enough time—they provide ever-crappier service to the proles for the guv’mint largesse, to pad their profit margins, so what the average US-ian sees is ‘government service equal crappy service’. That’s true but only true because the government doesn’t provide the service directly via a capitalist middleman.

  7. StewartM

    Ooops, that last sentence should read:

    “That’s true but only true because the government doesn’t provide the service directly but via a capitalist middleman”.

  8. Feral Finster

    TL:DR: Don’t make excuses for people when they betray you.

  9. Curt Kastens

    Feral Finster;
    Your comment is rather cryptic. Did you accidently place it on the wrong thread?
    Noah Fence

  10. Hart Liss

    Arguably, we reached a tipping point as global warming was discovered and it became clear that none of our leaders, private and public, cared to do anything in response other than ignoring it as much as possible.
    And here we are. Nearly all the reporting on possible solutions is in the future tense, far, far from enough in the present.
    Some sort of disaster is happening now. Do what you can because you’re on your own. Our leaders still aren’t terribly interested yet.
    As for Biden’s IRA: it’s crumbs, which is to say a little bit better than nothing — til the GOP undoes it as soon as they can — if SCOTGOP doesn’t deal with first.

  11. Joan

    If Bernie had been elected I think he would have at least tried to do good things in terms of economic inequality and reducing reliance on fossil fuels. Unfortunately, I think both parties would have united against him and tried to delay or block such things at every turn.

  12. Jan Wiklund

    You might be right, but it is not because a few politicians were despicable that we are in the hell we are. We are there because we couldn’t defend ourselves.

    FDR could do the things he could because there was a huge wave of labour struggles in the US in the 30s, with occupations of factories and other mass resistance. This was a force that had to be accommodated, and FDR, the arch-opportunist, chose to do that. After 2000 there has been very little of such things, so the political class hasn’t bothered.

    One can go even deeper. There have been a few huge waves of economic upsurges in the world the last 1500 years or so – The Abbasid califate, Sung China, The Italian city-states, Holland, Britain, US – that have lasted a couple of centuries each. They have begun because a class faction has discovered a new and more efficient way to produce things, a new way that has in time revolutionized the whole society and made it richer. After a few generations, however, the class that has led the development has gotten tired, left the production sphere and settled down as rentiers. And the whole society has lost its energy and started to vegetate.

    Which is what happens in the North Atlantic region now.

    We can only hope that the rest of the world has the energy to start a counter-development.

  13. Jan Wiklund

    Oh – some literature to back up my view:

    – Charles Kindleberger: World Economic Primacy, Oxford U.P. 1996
    – George Modelski & William R Thompson: Leading Sectors and World Powers, U of South Carolina P, 1996
    – Bas van Bavel: The Invisible Hand, Oxford U.P 2016
    And with a glimpse of hope:
    – William R Thompson & Leila Zakhirova: Racing to the top, Oxford U.P. 2019

  14. Ian Welsh

    Largely agreed Jan. I pull out one thread at a time in articles.

    See, for example,

    The productive to rentier cycle is well understood.

    But that’s not what we’re dealing with here, not precisely.

  15. Jan Wiklund

    I said that I agreed with what you said, except that I don’t blame wicked politicians for the mess. It has deeper causes.

  16. Curt Kastens

    I mentioned above that there was a window of opportunity to prevent the collapse of industrial civilization that we now face, at the end of the 19th century and maybe another smaller window right after WW1. But on the other hand there was not way in hell that the scientists of that time had the ability to open that window. Those scientists would have had to unanimously convince the world’s economic and political leaders to develope a world wide political system that would not rely on direct inputs other than water, sunshine, and dirt. If only one country dissented it would have achieved military supiriority over all of the others., psychological supiriority as well.
    The bottom line is that our spiecies has not only been sentenced to death since the end of the 19th century it has been sentenced to death from the days that we started farming.
    Farming was in essence the original sin.
    I myself did not figure this out until earlier this year, or was it last year. I got in to a discussion with some guy, clearly much younger than myself, on the web site,, who writes under the name of Random Cool Stuff. I started off with the position that we are in this pickle due to bad (20th century) leadership. But he convinced me that we were doomed from the the time that agriculture developed, and that all the ills of humanity can be traced back to that event, including imperialism. slavery, misogeny, destruction of the environment, over population, and anything else important.
    It looks to me that humans have reached a point in which they no longer have the luxury of asking themselves what do they want to live for. But now only have the option of deciding what do they want to die for.

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