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

The Bleak View of the World’s Problems (Or: They’re All Going to Have to Die)

The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole

The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole

So then, the simplest gloss of humanity’s problems is that the world’s problem is humans.

We have clear threats to our existence, threats which, at the least, will credibly kill hundreds of millions to billions of people. We have known about these problems for a long time (recently, a friend told me about learning the science of climate change in 70s high school) and we have done nothing.

Well, not nothing…in most respects, we made it worse. When we did do something, we knew did what we were doing was not enough.

This is a human problem, caused by humans. It is simple to say “Well, the more powerful bear more responsibility,” and this is true, but as a whole, these are the leaders humanity has selected (this doesn’t imply most people want them).

As a race, we have proven incapable of managing the collective action problem and the leadership problem.

This is true despite what appear to be our great success: We can take massive actions, but we cannot control our actions for the common good.

Common good does occur at times; sometimes it is even intended, but we repeatedly drive ourselves off cliffs.

WWII being the easily predicted consequence of WWI is a good example. But take another example: the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia. Understand that from the invention of agriculture, to today, about 10K years, Mesopotamia was probably the most advanced region in the world. Only Egypt and India were competitors.

Mesopotomia declined because they kept chopping down trees and draining swamps, and eventually turned their land into a desert or near-desert.

They had to know they were doing it, it was obvious. But they kept doing it.

We simply have never been good at collective action with a time-span beyond a generation. Sometimes we can act for three generations. And that, essentially, is it.  And those periods during which we manage to act for three generations are rare, and come out of successfully handled crises, like the Great Depression and World War II. They last as long as the generations which experienced and understood the causes of the crisis exist, and then as long as the momentum of whatever works they created last.

So the New Deal generation and the post-war liberals created institutions and infrastructure, which despite their problems, worked. When these entities started to fail in the 70s, they did not collapse and they continue to stand, buttressing against the worst. As each component has been destroyed, a crisis has ensued; the most recent example being the financial crisis, which was the result of the removal of laws that control the financial industry, put in place after the Crash of ’29 (the removal of these laws was signed by Bill Clinton).

The New Deal generation over-built: They created bridges and roads meant to last a long time. They laid down more infrastructure than needed. But they didn’t, and couldn’t, build forever-infrastructure.

Their great work has concealed the nature of the decline, the nature of the ongoing collapse.

But the accounts of work they put away is mostly gone, in many cases in deficit.

Those who replaced them, having never survived a real crisis by pulling together, do not know how to do so. They cannot run a society for the common good, nor a society for the future.

And so billions will die and there is a great die-off of non-human species.

The common good and future generations matter because they are a way of making sure that what economists call negative externalities don’t get out of control. When we think only of ourselves and a few people we care about, rather than thinking about everyone and everyone’s grandchildren, we don’t properly manage society’s real wealth: people, knowledge, and the environment.

And we haven’t.

And the problem is this keeps happening. Over and over again.

We have too much power, and we cannot control it, because as a species we cannot control ourselves.

We claim, at times, to be creatures of reason, but not only are we driven by short-sighted, selfish desires, even when we use reason, we use it as a slave to those selfish desires.

And so the only solution to our problems is going to be a lot of death. It is nature’s solution, “you have exceeded carrying capacity, now you will die.”

It is too late to stop a lot of it. But mitigation requires different leadership than we have now. That leadership must be replaced, and it must be replaced by whatever means necessary.

Meanwhile, we need to understand that we, the masses, are complicit. The leaders are worse, of course, but they are the leaders which have arisen from humanity. They are not separate, they are a symptom of our pathologies.

We must become different people, different humans, if this is to end. That is, perhaps, possible, since we do most of our adaptation socially.

It’s that or die, and possibly wiped out.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.


Martin Shkreli Proves that Your Life Is Meaningless to Elites


Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, and Inevitable Abuses that Inevitably Happen


  1. Ian Welsh

    No comments claiming climate change is not real will be approved for publication. This comment thread will not be derailed by that non-debate.

  2. Rich Puchalsky

    “Those who replaced them, having never survived a real crisis by pulling together”

    I generally agree with this post, but I think that it is somewhat US-centric. It seems to me to assume that the New Deal generation is the last generation everywhere to have had to come together in this manner. But Chinese society, for instance, had to come together around the end of the Cultural Revolution (which seems to me to have set a good deal of their current politics) and they are actually doing more about global climate change than anyone else.

  3. Wasn’t what Plato had to say about Atlantic something to the effect “they challenged nature, and were thrown down?”

    Wehave to stop doing what we’re doing. It isn’t working.

  4. Ian Welsh

    The Western world, which is most of the developed world, is on about the same cycle as the US, but a bit behind in the non-Anglo countries. Only a bit. You can see it in how sclerotic and incompetent most European leadership is.

    China is about 20 years behind our curve as best I can tell, which may be bad for them, but I don’t have a proper feel for it.

  5. Croatoan

    To me, the only models of how to live in these times are to be found in the Franciscan and Daoist teachings.

    At 51 years of age I am trying my best to be a model of how one should live. That is all I can do for my nephews, nieces and my friends.

  6. S Brennan

    Well said Ian;

    And thanks for mentioning the importance of the FDRists in handling a climate/economic/military crisis, which occurred almost simultaneously in time. FDRists [of both parties] made a great human leap forward by not by shirking their duty, but by embracing the task at hand. The FDR years 1932-1978 were years of great progress across humanity. wasn’t perfect. And we all know those who have nothing but criticism, most of whom offer up false utopian fantasies. One such fellow, Milton Friedman, whose abject failure in ALL matters haunts every aspect of his “dream”…Friedman’s “dream”, now reality, it is our daily nightmare. That Friedman’s utopian dream became a malignant hallucination should stand as stark reminder of where alternates to FDR’s policies have lead us…not just the USA, but almost all countries have suffered.

    While their were failures post JFK, FDRism ended when the CIA, working with the Gulf States, created the oil price spikes to “shock” the western economies into an artificially high inflation, leading to social instability…and into that breach marched the minion of darkness.

    “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” ― Milton Friedman

    That’s a fancy way of saying, nobody in their right minds would consider my ideas but, in a panic, a man will grab hold of anything.

  7. EmilianoZ

    I would say that the so-called “greatest generation” has been vastly overrated. With the twin apocalyptic shocks of the great depression and WW2, they should have built a system to last at least a century. It lasted 3 or 4 decades. They made one major mistake: the Vietnam war. The inflation that it created doomed New Deal liberalism. You could say that nobody’s perfect, that it was one flaw amid splendid achievements. But what a monumental error that was and one that showed who they really were: rabid anti-communists. Just like now you have rabid anti-russian Boomers making all that fuss about Trump/Putin.

    The Boomers have been much maligned, but to me it’s more a case of the apple falling not very far from the tree.

  8. GlassHammer

    “When we think only of ourselves and a few people we care about, rather than thinking about everyone and everyone’s grandchildren, we don’t manage society’s real wealth: people, knowledge and the environment, properly.”

    How do you get empathy/sympathy to spread and carry into the future without something akin to religion?

  9. Al

    Global capitalism isn’t working. “In capitalism, the fate of humanity is an externality that must be ignored.” I don’t remember who’s quote that is but I feel that it applies to this thread.

  10. ponderer

    “They are not separate, they are a symptom of our pathologies.”
    I tend to think it is the other way around. That the populace are a symptom of our leadership. The people in Maybery can lead their semi-idealic lives because there are basically competent decent people in charge and Mayberryians have had a chance to become who they are. But whether its the chicken or the egg at fault doesn’t matter. We are essentially powerless with the only chance of any positive change to come from working together in large numbers and the number of people willing to be rational as well as decent may never be sufficient. The coming crisis’s will either make us or break us, that’s for sure.

  11. realitychecker

    My, what a stark contrast appears between our actual present reality, and the glossy assumptions the modern left likes to rely on about how easily we can achieve a perfect child-proofed world.

    Just sayin’ . . .

  12. gratefulreader

    Doesn’t the appeal at the end, “we must be different people, different humans” exemplify the core paradox here, namely that We Humans are quite good at taking responsibility but failures at collectively being responsible? The masters of learning from mistakes but incapable as a species of not repeating them? As this piece astutely observes, we’ve never succeeded as a species in marshaling our reason and sense of self-determination into collective action for the common good or future society, at least in a sustained way. Why would that be different now? If we were capable, would we be where we are?

    Why, always, the call to change, the stir to agency? Maybe one thing we humans don’t do so well (or surely modern humans don’t do so well) is believe the truth applies to us too–even when we know it–quick as we are to pivot to the elixir of our own sense of agency. So we humans will always keep “doing something,” whatever we can or believe we must.

    There will be mass death. We aren’t going to stop it. Don’t we know that? Doesn’t the notion that we might just mitigate “the worst of it” serve to block out the mourning-in-real-time, or mourning in advance, of what is happening now and certain to get worse, what is almost certain to accelerate in magnitudes of tragedy and agony?

    Certainly doing something is better than doing nothing. How can we not at least try? Fair enough. But not much “different” about that.

    A whole lot of death. It’s from here to dead that is cause for shuddering. What suffering and loss will come — and what will it be to live through it (if we do) and to bear witness; what agonizing decisions or actions or sacrifices (or non-sacrifices) will shred the mind and psyche. I don’t know that we in the west today can comprehend, and how could we. The question isn’t if — it’s where and how and exactly how fast and how big and how personal. As it draws closer, the questions of “what then does one do” become narrower and more immediate and at some, possibly, unbearable. They say it’s an invisible God that makes you tremble, when you know in your bones what you cannot possibly know by reason or experience. God or no God, we wait, and tremble, for what will come.

  13. Hugh

    Climate change, overpopulation, and environmental destruction are all existential threats, and we don’t talk about them at all or just sporadically, –when we should be talking about them every day and seeing all our other problems through them. But we are confronted with these mountains of noise and competing narratives (Trump, Democrats, Republicans, Putin, China, etc.) that all define a world that soon won’t exist. The problems are clear as are most of the solutions: crash programs to move away from fossil fuels, mitigating climate change effects already baked in, social planning to reduce population, and sustainability, sustainability, sustainability.

  14. Webstir

    I really don’t know what all the fuss is about.
    All everyone has to do is rationally pursue their own selfish interests and a nebulous appendage will provide for the common good. Now, and forever.

    It is known …

  15. Webstir

    Speaking of nebulous appendages, and while I’ve got the mic …

    Adam Smith’s biggest blunder was a misnomer. Why did he dub his idea that the market runs most efficiently when everyone pursues their own selfish interest the “invisible hand,” and not the “invisible dick”?
    Pissing all over the little laborers after screwing them seems to be what those most deeply invested in capitalism do most efficiently.

  16. Saju

    “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” – Prof. Albert Allen Bartlett

    Expect overpopulation to get exponentially worse in the years to come.

  17. VietnamVet

    This is a most rational post in an era of epic irrationality; an escalating world war, rising inequality and the Holocene extinction. Can human beings take the pain of being Cassandra? Is knowing that others understand enough?

  18. paul

    Climate change, overpopulation, pollution aren’t the problems. They are symptoms of one problem. The one problem that we can do nothing to solve.

  19. China, do things about climate change. This is a gag, right? Have you been to Beijing?

    You can’t see the CCTV tower from a mile away…

    It’s is coming, the younger generation just needs to ban the lies that we make a profit from. It happened to the Victorian world, too. Longevity needs to be fixed as well, but that too, is relatively fixable.

    We just have to realize that it is a crime – and pay the consequences. People dying will do that – and the young are dying. Borrow money for games, rather than fixing things, is easier to fix than you might imagine. Our generation has to point it out – other generations have other roles. As for losses – people need lessons, real ones.

    The put it into economics – though econology is perhaps a more cogent word – and poof, problem solved. And our generation gets spat upon, which is appropriate.

  20. John

    The Seventh Generation view of the Iroquois nation is an example of humans coming up with a sustainable view. Of course the view didn’t help much to stop the Eurorape of pre Columbian Americas. And I don’t think it was a widely held view among the various old American cultures. Thinning the herd is just nature’s way of finding balance. Gonna be a rough ride.

  21. The Stephen Miller Band

    We have known about these problems for a long time (recently a friend told me about learning the science of climate change in 70s high school) and we have done nothing.

    Indeed. Anthropogenic Climate Change was studied & espoused by leading Scientists as early as the mid 70s. The Scientists were in the employ of the Fossil Fuel Cartels. I believe it’s then that the National Security State stepped in to manage the Existential Crisis. How has it (the NSS) managed it? By Full Steam Ahead on extracting every last drop and Pulling The Wool over The Public’s less-than-inquisitive Eyes.

    Don’t Feel Too Bad For Tillerson

    So, Exxon Mobil’s Scientists were the Original Climate Scientists and the Original Preachers of Manmade Climate Change. Yet it kept the public in The Dark initially and today, or increasingly for the last two decades, they (Exxon Mobil), and all Fossil Fuel Companies, are outright lying and they’ve hired, and are paying, an Army of Propagandists to dispute their own Scientists‘ ground-breaking research from the late 1970s and 1980s.

    So, what happened? The National Security State, that’s what. The National Security State is Evil and it’s hellbent on the destruction of Planet Earth and all Life on it, but not until it converts/transforms every last living thing into Money.

    If you want to live and you want a planet left for your children and grandchildren and future generations, you, we, must depose The National Security State NOW. If not, we’re Dead Men Walking and more than likely we already are.

    Neither Political Party is interested in True Change. A Global Economy is anathema to a Healthy Planet. Massive Global Migration (Immigration) is anathema to a Healthy Planet. Rampant Epidemic Consumerism is anathema to a Healthy Planet. Economic Growth is anathema to a Healthy Planet. Both parties have been usurped by The National Security State and are being directly staffed with recruits from Military Intelligence & The Military Corporate Industrial Complex. More and expanding War is the future which will further destroy the Planet at an ever-quickening pace. Fossil Fuels will be extracted until there is no one or no thing left to extract what’s left or there is nothing left to extract.

    And for those who don’t like it, well, Gina Haspel knows what do with People like that. You torture them for the fun of it and as an example to anyone who resists the steady march to Extinction and for that Gina and her Evil Ilk get promoted to the top of their respective organizations. These People, if you can call them that and I really don’t think we can, are Pure Evil and they worship Satan and call it God. How else do you explain their Blood Lust and yearning & clamoring for Perpetual War?

  22. Individuals may die but civilisation can continue to grow. Are we not much better informed and better off than all previous generations? Perhaps we should just be less preoccupied with mortality.

  23. Herman

    The Cold War prevented the development of long-lasting solutions to the problems of modernity. After the industrialized carnage of the first half of the 20th century we should have asked ourselves where we were going with all of our technological might and decided to be more responsible with our power. But the Cold War put an end to any hope of lasting change because it meant that Great Power competition was going to continue which meant no questioning of our belief in the doctrines of endless economic growth and technological progress. You also saw the development of the powerful military-industrial complex and security-intelligence apparatus that now dominates the United States and has had a huge impact on the world given America’s superpower status.

    You see the same problem at work today. None of the major industrialized powers can afford to give up on the ideas of endless economic growth and technological progress because that would mean falling behind in economic and military terms. The situation today might be even worse than in the Cold War because now the world is becoming multipolar and is starting to look more like the world before World War I with several major powers competing with each other.

    The period from 1945-1980 represents a kind of bittersweet period. A lot of progress was made but ultimately the biggest issues like the destruction of the environment were not dealt with. I don’t necessarily blame past generations because they were trapped in the logic of rational ignorance. It just doesn’t pay for most people to think deeply about big issues like the environment. Most individuals have a very, very tiny chance of influencing events so it makes sense for them to not be troubled by matters they have no control over. That is why so many people seem to be “sheep.” It is a rational way for people to deal with the world around them by putting most of their time and energy into their private lives and not worrying about big picture issues.

    Elites bear more responsibility for our problems but even they are trapped by the anarchic nature of the world of great power competition. Maybe some members of the American elite wanted to develop a more sustainable system but were forced to stay the course by what they perceived to be the more important Soviet threat. I think Jimmy Carter might be a good example of this. Carter had many good ideas about sustainable living and he seems to have always understood that we were careening toward disaster but what could he do to change America? Ultimately he had to play the pro-capitalist Cold Warrior just like every other president of his era. Once Ronald Reagan was elected the U.S. went headlong into “greed is good” ideology and we have been going downhill ever since, taking most of the world with us.

  24. “We claim, at times, to be creatures of reason, but not only are we driven by short-sighted selfish desires, when we use reason we use it as a slave to those selfish desires.”
    And unequivocal if ironic truth bears repetition.

    Also, there are two types of climate change denialist: The first, familiar to most, is the one who denies it exists, even if only the existence of the Anthropocene. The second, more tragic type is the one who’s in such denial that they think there exists an agreement or accord which, even if its recommended approach were implemented to its fullest, would do anything at all to mitigate the coming result of that which they readily admit exists.

  25. realitychecker

    Evolution prepared mammals to be good at preserving a territory that could support their survival needs.

    But evolution has had no opportunity to try and find a good solution to the problem of the entire planet becoming uninhabitable.

    Therefore, the future will be about fighting for survivable territory, an ever-shrinking supply.

    The intensity of the fights will increase as the supply shrinks.

    It would be a good thing for the left to start thinking differently about the place of fighting in the survival game.

    Maybe start by thinking seriously about the real issues involved in self-defense philosophy, for example.

  26. realitychecker

    Or maybe by deciding how we value an individual human life, for another obvious example.

  27. Willy

    Dusty Smith is about as lowbrow an activist as they come. A hillbilly intellectual who wears tee shirts, curses and smokes a lot of weed.

    Yet his theory that blind faith in religion is the gateway drug towards mindless groupthink-irrationality makes good horse sense. The theory is that people wishing for eternal reward after a brutish and short life, come to ignore all the obviously conflicted, irrational, unproven, and even evil “fairy tales” told in religious texts, to where their minds become so lazy they’re unconsciously conditioned to be easy suckers for evil powers that be that obviously mean society great harm.

    If yours is a business of death which any sane society would shun or ban, simply weave into your rationalizations “Gods will” and you’ll have an army of supporters who rarely ever question your true motives.

    I’m no an atheist apologist. I see the value that religion can have for the lives of many kinds of people. But I’ll speak out against excesses, especially those of the folly kind.

  28. someofparts

    In this country it will not surprise me if escalating deaths in flyover country reach epic scale while the cyber wealthy cluster in the cities aggressively refusing to notice any of it.

    Also, I think Adam Smith’s meaning of Invisible Hand was actually the opposite of the misuse that the execrable toad Milton Friedman made of it. Smith thought that the invisible hand of conscience would prevent landowners from starving tenants or merchants from shipping working class jobs offshore.

  29. Hugh

    I would date the end of the New Deal era to 1968, the year that the income share of the lower 80% peaked. My view of FDR is more measured. I see his primary goals as forestalling revolution and saving capitalism. This is the only way I can rationalize his getting the country out of depression by 1935 and then thrusting it back into depression in 1936 with tighter finance policies. And as I have said before, I also see Wilson as one of the century’s great villains. His Presidency marked the ascendancy of liberalism with all of its elitist, anti-populist, pro-corporate, interventionist hallmarks: the privatization of money creation with the founding of the Fed, participation in WWI, and the Red Scare raids which effectively split unions from their social movement base and spelled their ultimate decline and demise over the following century.

  30. Webstir

    Yeah, I get that. Which is why I included the “Now, and forever” part. Don’t question … just believe. Religion if there ever was one …

  31. S Brennan

    Some men rise to occasions, the vast majority do not. The frail firelight that civilization casts into the darkness burns upon the sacrificial flesh of the few.

  32. nihil obstet

    The coming problems — climate change and environmental degradation removing our ability to get adequate food and shelter from the earth — require social organization to address and so are difficult for individuals to make major improvements. We’ve gotten used to just accepting the problem that our leaders prioritize — the endless war. As several commenters have noted, it’s the decision after WWII to maintain a permanent military Keynsianism to address the problem of pumping up adequate demand for perpetual economic growth.

    Ending the wars and closing down the military maw opens the possibility of a saner economy, with the room and resources for a better life for us all. And wars aren’t something that appeal to our selfish desires. It takes pretty relentless fear flogging to get support for war.

    I think “Let’s shut down foreign bases” and “Let’s get our troops out of the Middle East” is more concrete and actionable for most people than “Let’s all buy electric cars”.

  33. @ nihil obstet

    I think “Let’s shut down foreign bases” and “Let’s get our troops out of the Middle East” is more concrete and actionable for most people than “Let’s all buy electric cars”…wars aren’t something that appeal to our selfish desires.

    I’d say few things appeal to most people’s selfish desires more than the liberal-version climate-denier fraud of “Let’s all buy electric cars..”*, since this perpetuates the Big Lie that the personal car as such is compatible with any meaningful action on the climate crisis or any of the other ecological crises (or social crises, for that matter). The car fetish, and America’s entire centrally planned economy based upon it, is at the core of ALL the crises. As for Middle Eastern wars, they’ve mostly been for the sake of fueling the cars.

    *Electric car, AKA fracking car, nuke car, mountaintop removal car.

  34. wendy davis

    lots of food for thought and consideration in both your post, ian, and the comment stream. but briefly, i wonder if folks folks consider that while amerika is home to roughly 4.5% of the world’s population, the usa gobbles up about 20% of the planet’s resources. in india, it’s been estimated that it would take 14 indians born to use a much as one usian child.

    given that 50% of the amerikan carbon footprint (not methane, that’s a whole ‘nother dark climate chaos ballgame) is the military, is it any wonder that the rockefeller-funded saints of climate crisis mckibben and klein have never, ever said anything akin to that major culprit, or intoned even the simplest anti-consumer-society mantra: ‘live simply so that others might…simply live’?

    which ‘notables’ in this society have blamed capitalism and factory ag and ‘green capitalism’ techno non-solutions gmo crops for killing soil microbes, polluting and decreasing aquifers across the nation? and of course it’s long been western corporations and bill gates and his ilk who’ve been bio-wrecking sustainable, small organic farming in africa, india, and in ‘our backyard’.

    even in 2012 at the rio sustainability conferences, the side meetings of the indigenous who’d caravanned to rio pegged it all correctly. (they weren’t allowed into the ‘real meetings’, of course.) see the cochabamba accords, for instance. whoooosh x 2.

    but yeah, by now i’m reconciled by now to the malthusian onion plan: ‘Scientists: ‘Look, One-Third Of The Human Race Has To Die For Civilization To Be Sustainable, So How Do We Want To Do This?’

  35. CC:

    It was known about in the 1960’s –

    Among others. Proving it took a little bit longer.

  36. bruce wilder

    I was trained as an economist and worked for a time in that profession (though not in the academy), so I tend to see things thru that prism. Economics is arguably the dominant theoretical doctrine of our politics; it explains (or “explains”) our political economy, it is a core part of most people’s education and certainly a core element in the education of the managerial classes — economics faculties and curriculum dominate business schools; economics is the foundation for our dominant political ideology, neoliberalism and economics and economists dominate many of the major national and international institutions that tie global systems of governance as well as commerce and industry together.

    You can certainly talk about the military-industrial complex and its vested interest in perpetual global war as a structural organizer of global politics, as some commenters have. That’s a major feature of the global system as it has evolved. But, it is embedded in the economics. Marxism went aground on its insistence that capitalist market hunger drove imperialism and failed to consider that 19th century imperialism might be a vestige of feudalism and its hereditary aristocracy cum warrior/thief caste. I would hesitate to embrace too facile an economic explanation of what drives the penchant for global war, but it does seem to be that, as the General said, war is a racket, and the new class of global capitalists have found it convenient to have handy a tool of violence to disable socialism and populism when they get out of hand, as well, of course, the profiteering opportunities afforded by advanced weapons development and marketing.

    I want to acknowledge violence and war and military power and organization, but the primary intent of my comment is to draw attention to the manifest and glaring shortcomings of economics as a framework for thinking collectively about policy and politics.

    Several commenters have mentioned religion as an organizing ideology. I put it to you that economics functions as a civic religion for the Western world. We think of religion in the West as preaching about sex, but that is not the primary social and political function of religion: rather religion is about legitimating authority in the hierarchies of power that characterize the status quo. (Or, in the case of heretical religions, as Marxism once was, attacking the legitimacy of those hierarchies of power and authority.) Orthodox religion tells us that things are basically OK. Oh, it channels discontent and dissent into harmless proposals for reform and restoration sure enough, but its main deal is reassurance that the Republic is Just, just as it is, in this the best of all possible worlds. Economics is tailor-made to fulfill this function.

    There’s a lot of ritual involved in religion. I won’t get into the functions of ritual in the organizing of political morality. In ancient societies, this was often tied to astronomy and prophecy, reading entrails or the omens appearing in the starry night sky. Just so, economists are endlessly telling us the opinion of the financial markets and “predicting” this or that consequence of policy, in sensational or lurid terms. It often verges on the ridiculous: Dow 36,000 or the predictions of Brexit catastrophes that read like the script of a Hollywood disaster flick.

    The priests of ancient Rome or Babylon took control of the calendar. Modern economists take charge of the Central Bank and economic regulatory institutions. Little bit scarier, especially since that makes the economists the gatekeepers on economic predation, letting the sheep into the corral for slaughter at whatever rate seems to them sustainable without revolution from below.

    Climate change and its consequences — the consequences certainly and indeed the driving force behind climate change, massive reintroduction of mined fossil carbon into the carbon cycle — are economic phenomenon manifest from and in economic processes.

    I think human beings — some few at least assuming the role of scientists on behalf of the whole mass of humanity — have done a remarkably good job of developing and deepening scientific understanding of the physical processes of climate, atmospheric chemistry, meteorology, and so on. The geologic and paleontologic record has been explored with remarkable swiftness and we are monitoring in real time sea ice cover and the ranges of habitat for many creatures, plants and whole ecologies. It is breathtaking to me to read and understand even a small fraction of what is being done, and the sophistication and care with which it is being done.

    But, it is not enough to prompt political action, I think because the core element — the economics — is total rubbish and progresses not at all. The economic analysis that accompanies the scientific analysis and mediates the science into policy proposals and approaches is just crap.

    I don’t know how many insulting hyperbolic insults I can heap on the “serious” economists to convey just how bad it is, but the point is that it is really, really bad and obviously so. At least it is obvious to my eyes and I don’t think that is due to any special genius on my part.

    It is 1600 and we have astrologers at court advising the ruling class about the portent of celestial omens while an asteroid is hurtling toward a collision with the earth, and we need the priests to build telescopes and rocket ships and a whole lot more — to organize an effort to deflect the danger in time. We are very close to the level of bad in the economics we can muster. And, I don’t see us doing anything much to get better at it. We build increasingly sophisticated climate models, but not so much is done to build even a minimally sophisticated economic model of the processes driving climate change or threatening the natural foundations of the human political economy. Most mainstream economics barely acknowledges that there are natural foundations.

    The economists would have us organize “markets” in externalities, a scheme that never gets very far off the ground and would not answer the need for fairly drastic* constraints on all energy use. There’s some prattling on about the insurance analogy, although I can tell you confidently that no one is going to sell the earth an insurance policy who isn’t a complete fraud. Economists project economic growth as a continuing linear process independent of anything except a magic “technology” with no apparent awareness of how congestion, depletion, ecological collapse and so on are likely to undermine the productivity of nature as a factor of production. Normal people, smart people have pointed out that it is not possible to have continuing linear economic growth on a finite planet, but such insights are met by dismissal by true believers among the economists.

    It all kind of merges with the standard doctrines cum bunk of mainstream economics, which refers everywhere to our “market economy” which is in fact an economy organized primarily by bureaucratic hierarchy.

    Some commenters have allowed that climate change is the predictable outcome of capitalism run amok. “No shit, Sherlock” is what I am tempted to say. But, reifying our present “system” with a label does not jump start the kind of study and shared understanding of how the social and political systems of the actual political economy work in detail. We need to know — our leaders need to know to enough to task appropriate experts with something like actual not the pretend expertise of astrologers (and my apologies to the astrologers, some of whom I have met personally who appear to me to do much good in the world motivating and manifesting important intuitions) and the rest of us need to know enough to hold leaders responsible and accountable — a great deal more than we appear to about the economic process of climate change. We need our understanding of the economics to come much closer to matching the impressive sophistication of the scientific models and shared understanding of the physical and biological and ecological processes.

  37. bruce wilder

    I put an asterisk on “drastic” in my comment about, because I think it important to qualify that I mean “drastic” in the sense of quantitatively very large by the standard of current rates of energy use.

    Whether it is really necessary for billions to die to bring energy use within the bounds of the earth’s capacity to assimilate the waste is not something I wish to endorse. Probably, Ian is right. Drastic action will be taken, by man or nature or most probably both in a little dance, to bring man’s energy use down.

    I would take a wild guess that in the very long-run, we could manage a population of one or two billion in a decent style of life alongside a planet left half-wild, half-managed, and it might be possible to get there by managed constraints that did not entail a massive die-off of all life in an global ecological collapse.

    The decent path requires that society as a body politic develop some higher degree of conscious, shared understanding of its own life processes, which is to say, its economic process and the consequences — at least enough not to eat itself out of house and home or shit all over its own nest. Good luck with that.

  38. atcooper

    It’s such a small thing, but we probably don’t have the capacity to wipe out everything. Maybe ourselves, but not everything.

    And the kids, through ignorance, won’t know that anything is missing. Comparisons to effects of enclosure have helped me somewhat.

  39. Peter


    According to NASA the US military is now in the fertilizer business spreading CO2 that growth gas around the world.

  40. scruff

    The coming problems — climate change and environmental degradation removing our ability to get adequate food and shelter from the earth — require social organization to address and so are difficult for individuals to make major improvements

    I think this is precisely backwards. Climate change and environmental degradation have come about as a *result of* social organization, and both are best mitigated by removing social organization from the equation. Back in 2003, there was a major shutdown of the power grid across the Northeast US, and as a result unprecedented recoveries took place in the atmosphere:

    The power blackout that hit eastern North America last summer may have made it darker at night, but during the day it increased visibility by up to 40 kilometres. US researchers have found that air pollution plummeted far more than they would have expected as the power plants shut down.

    The concentration of ozone was halved while sulphur dioxide levels fell by 90%, clearing the haze that usually sits over Pennsylvania. “We expected to see some decreases,” says Russell Dickerson of the University of Maryland in College Park, “but the reduction was bigger than we expected.”

    Of course, the power eventually came back online, and as a result the air pollution started up again. What would have happened had the power never come back on? Well, there wouldn’t have been 15 more years of pollution being pumped into the atmosphere in that location for a start. And sure, there have probably been some improvements made which have resulted in *less* pollution being produced per year than back in the 80’s and 90’s. But if you want to compare environmental effects, which situation is ecologically better, one in which less pollutants are being pumped out, or one in which *no* pollutants are being pumped out? That answer is obvious.

    Almost no one is suggesting reducing the pollution output to zero though, because the culture we live in sees it as a necessity. It’s not a necessity, either for any of the ecosystems on the planet (which did fine before such technologies existed) nor for humans (which also did fine and even evolved to current levels of magnificence before such technologies existed), but it’s all people know. The power from such plants both supports the social organization we follow now, and is produced by that social organization.

    Thing is, this is generalizable to virtually every human effect on the environment. What effect are you most concerned by? Carbon in the atmosphere? It’s a result of the social organization we have, and of work which supports the continuance of that organization. There will be improvements that reduce the amount of carbon being put into the atmosphere, but the best amount of carbon to be pumping into the atmosphere is none, and that case comes with less support for social organization and less social organization making it happen. Overfishing? Same deal. Destruction of wetlands? Same. Deforestation? River pollution? Species loss? Same, same, same.

    Truth is, when you remove civilized humans from the ecosystem – *any* ecosystem – the ecosystem improves in its health. The management of the environment is already taken care of, and not by people. It’s part of the source code, you don’t have to do anything to make it happen, it just happens. Of course, people *do* do things to control the management of the environment, because the source code as given does not favor humans over every other lifeform, and does not provide for excessive human wealth beyond and at the expense of every other lifeform. So if *those* are your end goals, then yes you have to step in and start managing things yourself. And in every case where you do that, you’re working *against* the ecosystem to meet your goals, which inevitably results in ecological problems. Why then do people always think that the solution to those problems is *more management*?

  41. Z

    The human species’ three step inborn algorithm to extinction is this:

    1. We need to be around people, so we congregate.
    2. The more we congregate, the more we procreate.
    3. The more we procreate, the greater the population density. The greater the population density, the more selfish and destructive we become.

    The only thing that can save ourselves is not ourselves.


  42. synoia

    ‘Scientists: ‘Look, One-Third Of The Human Race Has To Die For Civilization To Be Sustainable, So How Do We Want To Do This?’

    An optimistic estimate. I believe less than 500 million can survive, and those will come from people who are already “primitive.”

    If you are not living as a Hunter/Gatherer you and you descendants will die. Why?

    You and your descendants do not have the skills to survive.

  43. realitychecker

    @ Webstir

    OT, but interesting FYI a propos an earlier discussion, the New York Times has a front page article today on police “testilying” in New York lol.

    Great job, Times, all us lawyers knew this 35 years ago./s

  44. Ian Welsh

    America, by itself, is not destroying the world. Disproportionate, yes. Alone, too.

  45. realitychecker

    So many thoughtful comments here.

    Seems to me that so much of what we deplore could never have come about without the ability to concentrate wealth in some more convenient and concentrated form, so as to make endless and boundless accumulation possible, which in turn led to people making successful accumulation a sign of status and a tool of power over others.

    But once we accepted the concept of currency (or gold or diamonds, etc.), all things with almost zero real world value, then much of the future systems were already destined to become what we are all talking about today. Then the race was on to get and have the mostest of everything.

    All of that facilitated in various ways by the advice of religions that we would have a personal history beyond our physical deaths.

  46. ponderer

    It’s too bad there is no way to represent more than one or two generations out. Even if you could have representation for future generations in our government and provided some way to make them accountable for their performance it would still end in class war between the haves and have nots. Is there, after all, any way to get really rich that doesn’t involve selling out future generations?

    If there is a middle ground, or a path forward that would involve the interests of the largest number of people I think it is “accountability”. When we speak about “good” or “bad” governance from any point of view the truth that seems hardest to twist is accountability and actions. Is a government representative (forget the government as a whole, the bureaucracy is too large to confront) acting according to their stated goals, are they acting in the interests of the people. That’s easy to twist. I don’t have to expend any effort to tell whether Trump, Clinton, or Obama have taken a set of actions that they said they would. When Obama went against his word and supported FISA changes for compromised technology companies that was easy to recognize no matter which side of the aisle you sit on. When George Bush says there are weapons of mass destruction, but there aren’t any, again it doesn’t take an effort of impartiality. How to hold them accountable I don’t have an answer for. It baffles me that so many allow partisianship to substitute. Until we find a way, besides meaningless elections, there’s little hope for change.

  47. RWood

    This article by Kate Marvel expresses my view:

    We are the lucky ones who suffer little tragedies unmoored from the brutality of history. Our loved ones are taken from us one by one through accident or illness, not wholesale by war or natural disaster. But the scale of climate change engulfs even the most fortunate. There is now no weather we haven’t touched, no wilderness immune from our encroaching pressure. The world we once knew is never coming back.
    I have no hope that these changes can be reversed. We are inevitably sending our children to live on an unfamiliar planet. But the opposite of hope is not despair. It is grief. Even while resolving to limit the damage, we can mourn. And here, the sheer scale of the problem provides a perverse comfort: we are in this together. The swiftness of the change, its scale and inevitability, binds us into one, broken hearts trapped together under a warming atmosphere.

    And this article is another footfall of the theme:

    A new epidemic could turn into a pandemic without warning. It could be born in a factory farm in Minnesota, a poultry farm in China or the bat-inhabited elephant caves of Kenya – anywhere infected animals are in contact with humans. It could be a variation of the 1918 Spanish flu, one of hundreds of other known microbial threats or something entirely new, such as the 2003 Sars virus that spread globally from China. Once transmitted to a human, an airborne virus could pass from that one infected individual to 25,000 others within a week, and to more than 700,000 within the first month. Within three months, it could spread to every major urban centre in the world. And by six months, it could infect more than 300 million people and kill more than 30 million.

  48. bruce wilder



    And, in the meantime, a great many tote bag liberals think all they need to do is install LED lighting and drive a Prius, while waiting for Elon Musk to start revenue service to Mars. And, isn’t Russiagate shocking?!!

  49. BlizzardOfOzzz

    ‘Scientists: ‘Look, One-Third Of The Human Race Has To Die For Civilization To Be Sustainable, So How Do We Want To Do This?’

    An optimistic estimate. I believe less than 500 million can survive, and those will come from people who are already “primitive.”

    It’s hard to dispute this. The facts of our era have no precedent, so it’s hard to draw on historical analogies. Just how fragile are the cogs that stock supermarket shelves, which are the only possible food source for billions of people? They sure *seem* fragile. The most ominous sign is the declining trust in institutions, which seems to be accelerating. When people finally give up on the Powers — and really there could be any number of triggers — that’s when the chain reactions begin that may be impossible to stop. Zombie fiction like The Walking Dead bubbles up from the grim thoughts of a possible future we don’t want to dwell on. The Mayan civilization is said to have vanished almost instantly, with people suddenly dropping whatever they were doing and abandoning their houses.

    If you are not living as a Hunter/Gatherer you and you descendants will die. Why?

    You and your descendants do not have the skills to survive.

    I’m not so sure about this. My bet would be on the Mormons or other such groups, if there are any. In a crisis, the ability to cooperate trumps all, which depends on the the divine, and a people’s faith. The Catholic Church was the survivor of Rome’s refugees after Alaric & co finally decapitated its decaying body.

  50. BlizzardOfOzzz

    Nations that are big enough to muster a self-defense, but small enough to be tight-knit are looking good. I’ll bet Hungary survives — they are already getting a head start with a leader that knows the score.

  51. Simple test for your deniers, Ian, dogwhistling through the entire thread, from former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Action Hero, Barbarian, Terminator, Predator Killer, Kindergarten Cop: There are two doors. Behind Door Number One is a completely sealed room, with a regular, gasoline-fueled car. Behind Door Number Two is an identical, completely sealed room, with an electric car. Both engines are running full blast.

    Pick a door to open, and enter the room and shut the door behind you. You have to stay in the room you choose for one hour. You cannot turn off the engine. You do not get a gas mask.

    “Fertilizer gas” – I am rolling on the floor laughing my rosy red ass off.

  52. Willy

    We need our understanding of the economics to come much closer to matching the impressive sophistication of the scientific models and shared understanding of the physical and biological and ecological processes.

    Is the reason for this not being so, because “the science” of economics can be quite close to “the science” of politics, where the winners get to write history? IMHO, there seems to be more chess players amongst the astrophysicists, and more poker players amongst the economists, so to speak. Most PTB couldn’t care less about Hawking radiation. But the PTB care so deeply about economics that they’d want to ‘‘influence’ it away from the scientific realm.

  53. different clue


    Congratulations on sneaking your comment past Ian Welsh’s preventive filter against global warming denialist comments. Pretending that carbon skydumping is a good thing and will foster unalloyed plant growth without any downsides is an oh-so-exquisite end-run around the requirement that you not overtly deny the reality of global warming.

    If Ian Welsh decides to exclude comments pretending that the effects of man made global heatering will be beneficial not detrimental, then you will find your clever loophole to be closed.

  54. different clue


    Any ecosystem without humans will be better? Not necessarily. The ecosystem the EuroSettlers found in AmeriCanada was created by broadscale land management on the part of the Indian Nations. Indian fire management for huge gameland maintainance for huge game animal and game bird populations . . . massive terraforming throughout the Amazon River system, etc.

    I have read that Australia was a biologically nice place until the EuroAustralians took over from the AboAustralians and put a stop to Aboriginal land management and maintainance.
    Gary Paul Nabhan writes on one of his books about how two close-together ponds surrounded by Washington Palms show the difference in management by Tohono O’Odham nationals as against no such management. The unmanaged pond in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has some species of birds living around it. The traditionally managed pond just over the border in Mexico still under traditional Tohono O’Odham management has many more species of birds living around it.

  55. Brian

    I agree that a lot of people will have to die. Look, you either regulate your population by not having kids, or by war. Which is been the norm?

  56. Webstir

    Ian concludes, in part:
    “It is nature’s solution, ‘you have exceeded carrying capacity, now you will die.’ It is too late to stop a lot of it. But mitigation requires different leadership than we have now.”

    Ian, I don’t doubt you’re correct in the long run. But, I think we’re going to keep kicking the crazy can down the road for quite a while longer. Yes, our planet is overpopulated. Yes, we can predict that with increasing population pressure comes increasing political, economic, and cultural strife. Yes, our climate is going hell in hand basket in a hurry.

    I’m surprised I’m not hearing any discussion (not just on this thread, but anywhere, really) about nuclear fusion. And this is coming from one who has long been want to criticize those propounding the technological myth as humanities salvation. However, for those you like me on this thread (and I know you exist) just do a quick “nuclear fusion” news web search. Shit is moving light speed. Honestly, the cynic in me just wants to say it’s all bullshit. “Bah! Aintgonnahappen” a little voice in me says. But a stronger voice is telling me it is gonna happen. Humanity could free itself from all historic energy constraints in our lifetime.
    That’s a game changer.

    And yet, I’m hearing very little social analysis on the topic. As with most revolutionary concepts, I think it’s like trying to imagine a new color for most people, and so, they don’t. But the idea is revolutionary that we must imagine it. We must get in front of it from a class perspective. That different leadership we met have at any cost Ian is talking about? Yeah, it needs to support nationalized nuclear fusion.

  57. Willy

    Had Einstein been born and raised in the American south, we might not have nuclear fusion research at all. Imagine it’s 1905 and a young and unknown Einstein approaches the podium and nervously says: “I wanna talk to ya’ll bout nukular fishin.” Then he’s immediately pelted with the rotten fruit…

    I think nuclear fusion’s had one too many false “Here it is, folks!” moments for people to get excited about it yet again. Still, one could almost write a novel about all the game changing intrigue that could happen.

  58. Hugh

    Nuclear fusion has been just around the corner for the last 30 years. First, you need proof of concept, then optimize it, then build it out. Each of these steps take years and fusion research is still stuck in its first phase.

  59. scruff

    Any ecosystem without humans will be better? Not necessarily.

    Technically I made that claim about *civilized* humans, not the Native Americans or Australian Aborigines.

    Nuclear fusion: It won’t matter (or at least it won’t make anything *better*), because when you save poor behavior from the consequences of its actions you get more of that same poor behavior, leading to worse consequences later on.

  60. Sid Finster

    Apropos to your comment on Mesopotamia – China also was a competitor, and arguably the Cradle of Civilization.

  61. Ian Welsh

    My understanding, admittedly hazy, is that Mesopotamia was there, in bulk, far before China. What China and India are are ancient civilizations that survived semi-intact (yes, with change, but the same civ) thru to recent times.

    Egypt, which lasted longer than them, as recognizable civilizations (Aryan is a significant change from Dravidian) just died earlier–Assyrians/Greeks/Romans–then finally Christianity and Islam killing its distinctive religion which was bound up into its ancient culture.

  62. Peter


    After seeing all the deathwishes displayed in the last posts I’m glad to see someone can have hope for a less deadly future even if fusion power may not be available for a century or more. I studied Pulse Power machines almost 30 years ago and the fusion systems then had the same problems as those of today, containment and repeatability.

  63. S Brennan

    I am in rare agreement with Webstir, Fusion is coming, we are well past break-even now. Webstir’s fusion critics might blather the “conventional wisdom” in dated talking points, but there has been huge leaps in super-conductivity*. Super-conductivity*is key to a successful Tokamak and there are many others pursuing alternatives** with private monies.




  64. Billikin

    Z: “The more we congregate, the more we procreate.”

    Plausible, but empirically disproven. By the mid 20th century it was known that the most highly urbanized populations had the lowest birth rates. In the 21st century we know that those populations are not having enough children to maintain themselves.

  65. Webstir

    Ian and Sid —

    I think you’d be hearing some objections if there were any Iranians on this thread.
    Though theocratic rule is currently “imposed” in Iran, many there would claim their Persian culture “is” the ancient Mesopotamian culture of which you speak, and continues to be the oldest continuing civilization.

  66. Webstir

    S Brennan —

    And I too am in rare agreement with your jab at the conventional wisdom naysayers.
    I’m in my mid-forties and have maintained a layman’s interest in the subject for, oh, something like the last 30 years. And like many above thread had gotten yawnie about it. But that layman interest over the years has also kept me acquainted with the different advances and backtracking.
    Over about the past two years or so, though, the reporting has changed. There are multiple teams and massive lines of funding fueling a race to lay claim to the first full scale net energy production facility. They’re moving with Manhattan Project speed, determination, and lack of funding constraints.
    It’s going to happen in the lifetime of probably 90% of the people on this thread. And I think Willy is right too. A fucking novel (or multiple novels with different outcomes) could be written about how every non-tech consequence that humanity relies on will play out: legal, economic, political, ecologic, etc. But I’m hearing crickets on these fronts. All I’m hearing is how the tech is advancing.

    I worry that too many of us today simply accept that the evolution of tech is something beyond ordinary human’s power to control. Thoreau was wrong. We haven’t become the tools of our tools, so much as we’ve become the tools of our toolmakers.

  67. Ché Pasa

    Doom Blogging and End of Empire are foundational to the Internet and before that the Intranet, and before that in Western literature going back to the origins of literacy in the West.

    The neat thing is, it can never be entirely wrong. We are always on the edge of the Cliff of Doom. There are always too many people. Empires may rise, but they will always fall. Always. Climate changes, sometimes suddenly and catastrophically. We — as a species — may or may not survive this latest episode of Doom, but we’re already seeing plenty of individuals and random populations not surviving. As things get worse, so will fewer survive.

    As for the Course of the US Empire, I tend to use the fragmentation, decline and disappearance of so many 19th and 20th century empires as test cases and models. The empires may be gone but the constituent parts, and for the most part, the peoples of those former empires aren’t gone at all. Some are flourishing as independent nations.

    That’s not to make light of the devastation that typically accompanies the expiration of an imperial project. It’s not pretty. Civil wars are especially devastating (as we’ve seen over and over in the failed Anglo/US efforts to assert control in the Middle East, South Asia, Arabia, North Africa and so on and on and on.) But most people survive to carry on.

    I’m no Pangloss by any means. But neither am I a complete dystopian. Too many variables are in play, too many surprises yet to be revealed.

    At the moment, the US Empire is hanging on, but the palace chaos together with expansion of military adventurism is not a sustainable situation. How it will be resolved, if it is resolved, remains to be seen. But the current status quo will undergo substantial changes.

  68. Steeleweed

    I would say that while we have a great deal of knowledge, we lack the wisdom to use that knowledge properly. We call ourselves “rational”, but are much more likely to act based on emotions than reason. The part of our mind that has ‘executive control’ is not necessarily connected to the rational part.

    “Of all that I hold probable,
    only this I know:
    My wisdom only takes me
    where my folly wants to go.”

  69. wendy davis

    day or four late here, but @ synoia: that was a link from ‘the onion’, yanno, jest news?

    and @ peter: no, this sort of geoengineering:

  70. Peter


    The geoengineering at your link could be very dangerous and not repairable if it goes wrong. It’s good that the UN is discouraging it.

    The fact that higher CO2 levels help produce more plant growth is well known and used by greenhouses to improve their output. The NASA planet scans just showed a larger visible increase in plant growth than might have been expected after 40 years. Our military may be known for killing green plants with Agent Orange but at the same time their CO2 emissions were helping them grow back and spread.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén