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

The Problem with Neoliberal “It’s Never Been Better” Triumphalism

Saying that humanity is currently the best off it has ever been (a dubious proposition in any case) is like saying “I’ve never been warmer” as you burn down your house.

Globe on FirePeople like Pinker have been trotting out stats to claim that we’ve never been better off. Those stats are questionable, based on a definition of  poverty that is beyond questionable. Meanwhile, in India, people eat less calories than they did 30 years ago. (I traveled in India and lived in Bangladesh 30 years or so ago. Eating less calories is unimaginably bad. That a small middle class and a new wealthy class has been created means little to those eating… less.)

But let’s wave that all aside. Let’s posit that human life now is the best it’s ever been.

Meanwhile, in India, people are dying in 50 degree C weather. France had a massive heatwave. Indian farmers are committing suicide in droves, in large part because of issues with ground water.

Extreme weather is getting worse, the permafrost is melting 70 years ahead of the consensus forecast, and so on. Ecologically, fish stocks are collapsing, the Amazon is being chopped down at a ferocious rate, more than one study has found collapses in insect populations at 80 percent or so, and others have noticed that without insects, you don’t have birds, and so on and so forth.

Blah, blah, blah.

Not only is no human an island, but humanity lives among other species, and they make our lives possible in ways we are barely aware of. Most oxygen in the world, for example, is produced by small ocean organisms, organisms which could have a mass die off.


So let us say that this is the bestest of best worlds, a Panglossian paradise.

Present prosperity is being paid for with future poverty, future mass death, and a non-trivial risk of human extinction. As for non-human species, they are already dying at a rate which will show up as the fastest mass extinction in Earth’s existence.

This is only a good bet if you are sure that you’re going to die before the bill comes due. That was a good bet for the GI Generation. A decent bet for the Silents and not a bad bet for about the first half of the Boomers. It’s a bad bet for everyone afterwards who expects to live to 70 or 80 or so (a normal human lifespan in most developed countries).

And, of course, it’s a bad bet if you actually, y’know, care about your children, or other people’s children, or the future of humanity when you’re gone. (Gonna be a shitty place to reincarnate too, if reincarnation exists.)

Now let’s bring this back to neoliberal “greatest time to be alive” triumphalism.

The sub voce message there is, “We don’t need to change, everything’s fine and getting better.”

But, if we’re living not just unsustainably, but in a way that will call Biblical level catastrophe within the lives of most people now alive and their children, perhaps we do need to change, and radically.

So this sort of triumphalism, even if it were true, would be a disservice to not just humanity, but life on Earth.

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.


Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – July 14, 2019


Scenarios for America’s Political Future


  1. We have to stop doing what we’re doing. It isn’t working.

  2. scruff

    Does anyone still believe that there will be a voluntary transition to a sane and sustainable way of living? No, stop laughing and answer the question seriously. Okay, great, so now what does that mean for your strategy? How long are we going to perform political theater under the pretense that these ridiculous half (of a percent) measures are going to make any difference?

  3. Stirling S Newberry

    “We have to stop doing what we’re doing. It isn’t working.”

    It depends on what you want. If test out “heat” as LD50, were are doing fine.

  4. Herman

    This is similar to the related claim (also put forward by Steven Pinker) that humans are becoming less violent and more peaceful. Even if you agree that humans are generally becoming more peaceful all it would take is one nuclear war to destroy Pinker’s peace thesis and this is not even getting into the possibility of the use of other weapons of mass destruction or the danger posed by robotic armies within the context of renewed Great Power competition.

    This is the nature of advanced technology. Yes, there are some great upsides but the downsides are also vast and potentially so destructive that it makes you wonder if it is worth the risk to continue with endless economic growth and technological development. The problem is convincing people to accept what will necessarily be painful lifestyle changes. This cannot be done on an individual level because it is too costly for an individual to give up the benefits of advanced technological civilization while their peers do not. For example, giving up the use of an automobile would put you at a major social and professional disadvantage compared to your peers.

    I don’t think anything significant will be done about the environmental issue until a huge catastrophe hits. History shows that people will make sacrifices and show solidarity if they are faced with a massive, existential threat. You saw this during World War II where people accepted sacrifices in order to defeat an implacable enemy.

    The problem is that climate change and other environmental issues are currently too abstract for most people to face in the same way they faced Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in the 1940s. That is why I think it will take a major disaster to wake people up and even that might not do it because people could still try to blame scapegoats for their problems. That is why there needs to be an emphasis on the problem as systemic and not just a problem of one bad group of people or political party or whatever.

  5. russell1200

    It is sort of sad that our most prosperous period was bought at the expense of much of the world blowing itself up, so that we were the only big economy left standing. Since that point, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of evidence that the modern industrial economy, or our odd supposedly post-industrial economy of today is a workable long term model. And that is even before you factor in the issues you noted.

  6. bruce wilder

    Neoliberalism is the ideology of the professional and technical classes that staff the upper rungs of the bureaucratic hierarchies which organize and manage the political economies of the world. It is an almost religious apology for the way things are, in much the same way, I suppose, catholic christianity and chivalry were in 12th century western Europe or the doctrine of divine right monarchy was in the 17th century.

    The thing that puzzles me about neoliberal complacency in our historic moment is not its self-affirming message — what else can a ruling class ideology be, after all, other than be self-affirming? — it is the rank ignorance of the mechanics of the world system it embodies. These are the “experts” in an organizing system that requires a lot of expertise and the ideological glue that holds it altogether as a functioning whole is in complete denial about the fundamental mechanics of how that world system works. I am thinking particularly, of course, about the neoclassical economics of markets, which studiously ignores bureaucracy and money, and gets (to me surprisingly little) grief from critics.

    It was not that long ago that the novelty of capitalism attracted many critics and theorists, Marx being the one we remember. Re-inventing capitalism (and aristocracy) seemed urgent in, say, Stuart England or France in the second half the 18th century, when feudalism was failing and fading. The crises of 1789 or 1848 or the 1870s, 1919 or 1932 or 1944 seemed like opportunities to apply new ideas about how the world could and ought to work. And, new ideas were applied, new structures created.

    It feels to me like re-invention ought to feel urgent circa 2008 (sic, yes it is 2019 eleven years after the crisis that changed nothing for the better — kinda my point here!), but the impulse to re-invent is blunted somehow. Perhaps by fear that anything we do now will bring down the structure itself?

    The complacency of neoliberalism feels increasingly brittle to me somehow. Denial is job 1.

    Concerning to me is the disinterest in how any thing about how the modern economy works as a practical matter. How is anyone — any agency of political governance — going to intervene if no one (no “expert” economist at least) can “model” the economy (intuitively or in simulation) with at least the sophistication that climate scientists are investigating and modeling earth systems?

    Maybe, Stirling is right and what is being denied is the implicit decision — implicit in the neoliberal world system — to kill off . . . a lot of life, including most humans.

  7. Alan Coovert

    As a baby boomer I feel regret and remorse for all non-human species and for all the children because we took their future and poured it into the gas tank of our 4 wheeled ecocidal profit machines and drove it over the cliff to oblivion. I remember the first Earth Day, it seems like a thousand years ago, and Silent Spring. But our mantra became “He who dies with the most toys, wins.” How terrible was that. I never had children because of war and the rumors of nuclear war. I live in a small house and own 3 bicycles but it wasn’t enough. Soon there will be no ice in the arctic and who knows how fast the catastrophe will come following that. I don’t have the guts to kill myself. I’m sorry.

  8. bruce wilder

    When i think about India, i would not say its “middle classes” who live their lives amid the appliances and structures of the modern world are “small”. The middle classes of India in number amount to a population quite possibly as large as the whole U.S. population. (The boundaries around this population are diffuse and fuzzy and a small but significant part of it is immigrating elsewhere.) It is composed primarily of a lot of people who are in a global “middle-income trap” economy like eastern european countries, but unlike eastern europe, the vast labor force in extreme poverty means an enhanced standard of living for the middle class people who succeed in securing a place in the advanced economy or government, as the price matrix for many services and products is depressed by the poverty economy. There is a horrifying level of precarity built in and debt peonage and suicide and begging in the streets are just symptoms of how easy it is to fall out.

    If food calories consumed have declined, i suspect the immediate reasons have to do with declining use of human bodies in place of machinery. Famine is not closer — though still close, always in India. India, in its odd hypocrisy, is, in most years, the largest exporter of beef in the world, surpassing Brazil and Australia and Argentina, but most Indians in India are at least semi-vegetarians. When you walk thru an Indian village, what you see is many low, traditional houses, with dung patties drying on the roof for later use as fuel and a very few modern houses of glass and concrete , spouting air conditioners and satellite dishes. A village school overflowing with children but few teachers or books.

    India has built an economy that has places for maybe 300,000,000 or 400,000,000 amid a population of 1,200,000,000. That is not a statement of resource availability in the long-run, which is harder to assess objectively. Even 300 million aspiring to modern consumption levels fulfill Gandhi’s prophecy of a swarm of locusts: on some level, you can say there are not resources to sustain 400,000,000 Indians in middle-class life, any more than the earth can 7 to 10 billion people in any life. I am saying something apart from the ultimate resource constraint about the structures of the modern economy. I am saying modern India has no use for most of its population. China is in similar circumstances, having built out a structure for no more than half of the population. (The U.S. has been running down its infrastucture, its manufacturing economy, its agriculture, etc. with more and more people discarded at the margins, but the percentages are still modest even as precarity is felt further up the social “food chain” and deaths of despair rise.)

    The reality of overpopulation is one aspect of what complacency is denying. The number of people living a better life in a technological, fossil-fueled world has increased since WWII but the number of people living in extreme poverty has not been reduced globally.

    Progress without imposing governing constraint is no progress. It is the system blowing up the system. And, this system was never built out for “everyone” in the first place.

  9. Ian Welsh

    In these cases it is percentages that matter. The percentage of Indians who are middle class is small.

  10. Hugh

    Pinker is right. The trick is learning to eat and live numbers. 5s I’ve heard are particularly nutritious.

    For the rich and elites, it’s really a simple binary choice: save the planet (and us) or keep the party and the looting going another few years. If you have ever seen a film of a swarm of locust, you already know the answer to this one.

    There are too many of us. We consume too much. We pollute too much, and we are destroying the biosphere that sustains us. We can but won’t manage our populations, consumption, and pollution down to sustainable levels. Lip service is paid to climate change, and overpopulation is simply ignored. So human population will likely peak at 9 billion around 2042 and then crash to 1 billion or less from disease, starvation, and war. Our rich and elites with their insatiable greed, crumpled designer suits, and empty bafflegab are gearing up to be the greatest mass murderers of all time. We should view them accordingly. The circus that is our politics with its clown politicians like the Donald, Lead by Doing Nothing Pelosi, the Great Hillary, Gobble-Gobble Mitch, Obama the Empty, Dubya the Dumb –is all there to distract us on our way to the gas chambers.

  11. bruce wilder

    “. . . until a huge catastrophe hits. History shows that people will make sacrifices and show solidarity if they are faced with a massive, existential threat.”

    We’ve had several crises since 1973, including the GFC of 2008, not to mention hurricane Katrina and a bunch of other events, and as far as I can tell it has been a whole lot of nada on net.

    If you look back at historical crises, that have marked major turning points in the history of particular nations or the world, it seems to me that reactionary forces are often very powerful for a long time. It isn’t like everyone sees the light and then rational policy becomes possible.

    17th century England struggled with the rank incompetence of the Stuart monarchy for at least half a century, had the contrasting example of the effective Cromwell, and only with James II fulfilling every Whig fantasy of arbitrary Catholic rule and the very great convenience of William and Mary as a ready alternative, they still barely managed the relatively conservative Glorious Revolution. And, still Tory Jacobites, pining inconsolably for divine right monarchy, plagued them for another half-century.

    In American politics, we tortured our economy with the gold standard and even after the total catastrophe of the Great Depression, Hoover and not a few others were adamant in defense of “sound money”. FDR had to pound hard and long with the most sweeping and arbitrary measures imaginable, create the whole mythology of Ft Knox and still, it wasn’t till Nixon that the last vestige of the beast was finally slain. Other countries, including the UK had painful experiences with the barbarous relic.

    The French Revolution, started out with what seemed like a promise of rational consensus on the shape of needed, liberal reforms, but it descended into tumult and, for a time, horror. Nothing was settled until Napoleon. And, many reforms promised before the Revolution did not finally take hold for seventy or a hundred years. The corvée and the octroi — taxes hated enough to be abolished at the commencement of revolution — were revived repeatedly. The Republic finally became permanent only with the Third iteration. Full separation of church and state — Laïcité — waited till 1905.

    I cannot help but wonder whether there is a Seneca’s Cliff effect that means that the pattern of crisis and reform that we experienced during periods of underlying or background economic growth might be quite different when we are fighting decline, depletion, accumulation of waste, and erosion of resources. Political delay when not only technical possibilities are advancing but the general capacities of human society are being carried along by the momentum of expansion is consequential, but it is possible to try again, often with greater odds of success.

    It is not really a cause for optimism to think that the world got a do-over on the grand crisis of the First World War, but that is certainly one way to understand why the Second World War seems more coherent in its institutional outcomes.

    It seems to me that the world may have several do-overs coming as crisis follows crisis, but why would we expect that practice would make perfect, when resources are fewer and options more and more restricted, the necessary scale of remedy ever more radical.

    Failure to resolve crises — and failure to resolve a crisis in adequate reform is at least as likely a priori as the success of adequate reform in any one instance — just makes the next crisis larger and more difficult, while the options and resources become less and less.

    There is always a element of kicking the can down the road in reforms proposed to respond in any political crisis, I think — the full rationale for reform is never implemented right away, “progress” in the future is promised to appease the aggrieved while offered in the form of standing still in the present to satisfy vested interests. Even if the promise is eventually redeemed, the delay is of material concern. But, does redemption depend itself on general “progress” in the economic background conditions and possibilities?

    If the world economy has as its task getting ahead of a process of climate change and ecological collapse that it is proceeding on its own clock and in response to processes set in motion already by past human action but not necessarily driven only by present human behavior — the present behavior being the only behavior that can be reformed or undone — won’t the tendency to compromise on a half-a-loaf with the rest promised for future delivery serve to keep the climate change / ecological collapse going.

    I hear people talk all the time already about “slowing” the rate of change, but I wonder if they realize that is not solving the problem. Humans have an accelerator, which is pressed close to the floor, but no brake as of yet. How much slowing is even feasible without great risk of compounding the problems? Taking our collective feet off the carbon additions accelerator entirely would not slow the pace of climate change appreciably, will it?

  12. Herman

    @bruce wilder,

    None of the crises since 1973 have been large enough to prompt a major change. The GFC hurt a lot of people and helped to spur a renewed critique of the neoliberal consensus but we are still far from major systemic change, particularly on climate change and other environmental issues. Even many on the anti-neoliberal and anti-capitalist left are overly optimistic about the environment, promising abundance and luxury communism to not only all Americans but everyone on the planet!

    The problem is that nobody wants to give up their lifestyle. Affluent Westerners want to maintain their extremely consumeristic lifestyle and millions in the developing world want to join them. I am not blaming poor people since most of them just want some stability and dignity. Instead, I am blaming the people who think they can have their cake and eat it too when it comes to consumerism and this includes many people on the left despite their ostensible commitment to the environment.

    Perhaps we shouldn’t blame anyone though, because most people don’t think deeply about these issues and politicians respond in kind. Most people know that they are powerless to change anything so they do not follow current events in any kind of serious way and those who do are often hardcore partisans who do so in the manner of sports fans, trying to obtain information to score points for their side. Politicians respond by throwing red meat to the base because those are the people who will get them elected, especially in primaries in the American system. The result is our current sclerotic system that seems incapable of grappling with the serious problems we face.

  13. Bill Hicks

    I was astonished to read recently that the number of billionaires in the U.S. has soared from about a dozen or so 40 years ago to thousands today. Even with inflation, it is quite obvious that nearly all the gains since Reagan have gone to the top 20%, with most of even that to the top 0.1%, Using GDP per capita as a way to measure how well being of the average citizen is disingenuous at best, and at worst (which is likely) represents deliberate corrupt academic fraud.

  14. bruce wilder

    @ Herman

    all true that

    that we have not acted is bad, but that a critical consensus — at least not in my humble opinion, a practical well-rationalized one about what needs to happen even in rough outline beyond “eliminate fossil fuel use” — has not formed and been heard and talked thru in either all corners of either elite opinion or mass public opinion indicates that we are not prepared to either have a proper crisis or make proper use of a galvanizing crisis when it comes along.

    there was a lot of mental preparation, you might call it, for the American Revolution, the Glorious Revolution, the American Civil War, the French Revolution, the Great Depression — high participation rate elite and public discussion of what was at issue, what was going wrong, what reforms were needed in the years prior to the Great Crisis cum revolution. The American Revolution had its Committees of Correspondence, the French Revolution its philosophes and salons and reading rooms. The Progressive Era had produced a tremendous volume of critique of social and economic architecture and set a precedent for institution building before the Great Depression called forth the New Deal.

    The crisis when it came became the occasion for radical reform because so many people were expecting radical reform. The political culture was plowed ground well-seeded, when the storm broke and the rain fell. (cheesy Metaphors on special this week only.)

    I think some people are trying, but there are apparently a lot of people at both elite and mass levels that are simply not engaged. Clueless in the extreme.

    I would count those who have been side-tracked by neoliberal nonsense a la Pinker per the OP as having been made clueless. People debating the classical neoliberal non-starter, carbon tax v cap-n-trade, seem to me as hopelessly lost as those waiting for Koch-funded PBS Nova to explain it all.

    The policy economics of IPCC reports is beyond pathetic (and it is making climate scientists angry, at last).

    We are getting only some of what we need to inform and prepare the public mind, and even what we are getting is half-a-story at best: the earth sciences story, but not the business end for policy change, the economics story.

    i would count MSNBC doctrine about the importance of rote denunciation of climate-change-denialism as counter-productive hijacking of genuine concern for corrupt partisan purposes.

    personal note: so many posts on one day is a symptom of something; i apologize for wanting something to do other than what i should do. I will slack off now and my apologies to Ian and the readers of comments for being annoyingly verbose today. troubled time for me, i leave it at that

    shutting up now. promise.

  15. someofparts

    “personal note: so many posts on one day is a symptom of something; i apologize for wanting something to do other than what i should do. I will slack off now and my apologies to Ian and the readers of comments for being annoyingly verbose today. troubled time for me, i leave it at that”

    So, I’m away for a couple of days and you try to steal my place in this community?

    Hope things get better for you, whatever your troubles may be.

    Also, your comments on a bad day are better than what most people out here can contribute on their best day. So, there’s that.

  16. Hugh

    There is no action, and there is no time. I have said for years now that we have until 2030 to have all our programs up and running to address climate change and overpopulation, not just here but around the world. Vast projects like these require years to build a consensus for, organize, marshal the resources for, and finally do. We are so far from any of this that it would be laughable if the lives of billions did not hang in the balance.

  17. Herman

    @bruce wilder,

    I would not feel bad about posting. I think you make a lot of good points. I think you are right about the lack of preparation for the current situation. I think the rapidity and severity of the decline of the neoliberal order has taken people by surprise. Just looking at all of the statistics about drug overdose deaths, suicide, alcoholism and mental and physical health problems in the United States is evidence that the decline has hit many people very hard indeed.

    Going back to what you wrote about the professional and technical classes, they have benefited from neoliberalism and they still make up the backbone of the institutional support for the system even if it is not working as well for them as it did, say 20 or 30 years ago. Professionals face growing work stress, tougher competition for a shrinking number of good jobs and the growing cost of education, but I still think that most of them fundamentally believe in the system, they just think it needs tweaking here and there

    Anecdotally speaking, most of the upper middle-class people I know are doing well, although perhaps not as well as they would like they are certainly better off than most. For these people Steven Pinker provides a reassuring narrative that things are getting better and whatever challenges we face are just bumps on the road of inevitable progress.

  18. Dale

    Hugh and others, thanks for mentioning human population as a primary contributor to our present predicament. I have been aware of this issue since at least 1968, the year I believe that Paul and Anne Ehrlich published their book “The Population Bomb”. We have know of problems with herbicides and pesticides since “Silent Spring”. Jimmy Carter warned of dependance on fossils fuels and even installed solar panels on the White House rooftop. The Club of Rome warned of resource depletion. And nothing that really mattered changed. Nothing. Since 1970 60% of wild animals have disappeared from the face of the earth. Recent articles tell us 80% of the earth’s insect population has disappeared; gone forever.

    We are in the midst of the sixth major extinction event on this planet. No simple change in political or economic systems will alter this anymore. As you all know, the 5th extinction event ended the reign of the dinosaur and ushered in the age of the mammal. We are going to disappear. No humans will be coming out the other end of this event. That is what extinction events do. That is what all the scientists have been trying to warn us about. O.K., theropods in the form of birds made it through. We humans won’t.

    Why not? All the large forms of dinosaurs died off. We supposedly are the top of our food change. Our activities, along with some natural events are warming up the planet and changing the atmosphere. We are acidifying the oceans. The Great Barrier Reef is pretty much gone already. There are huge dead zones off the the Mississippi River. They are also being recognized elsewhere on the planet. Once the single celled organisms that produce large quantities of oxygen in the oceans are killed off, once we have completed stripping the land mass of trees and photosynthetic plants, I would think that living at low elevations anywhere on the planet will be like living on the top of Mt Everest. How many humans will be able to breathe then? I live in one of the greatest wheat growing regions in North America. Soil erosion here is horrific. What soils are left have been denuded of most of their original organic matter. Wheat is grown primarily because of the synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides tilled into them. It is the same all over the planet. These synthetic compounds come from fossil fuels. Much of our antibiotics also are derived from fossil fuel sources. A similar argument can be made for building solar and wind generated power sources. So, you want to stop the use of fossil fuels? Really?

    Sorry for the rambling. But I doubt if we have the time or capability to change enough to effect a good outcome. We had a great but short lived by evolutionary standards run. Too bad we never grew up. If by some great stroke of luck humans survive this extinction event, they will be munchin sized, much like the dwarf mammoths that survived the last ice age on a small island in the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia. But even they died out several thousands of years ago. They couldn’t adapt fast enough for the rapidly changing environment they lived in. I doubt if humans will either.

  19. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    Well, we definitely won’t make it through the hardening times if we throw up our hands, wail in despair that nothing can be done, and sit down and wait for death.

  20. ven

    Death is an inevitability. Does extinction of human beings, arguably the greatest parasite the world has experienced, matter much? Perhaps this is just well-earned karma. The selfishness, fear and greed of individuals has led to the construction of hierarchical, inevitably exploitative structures (governmental, military, corporate) that have rampaged across the earth for the last bit of “shareholder value creation”. Our politics is one of plutocracy – it has probably always been thus, but there were illusory periods where light seemed to be at the end of the tunnel.

    The plutocracy has a supplicant, hierarchied professional-technocratic middle class (politicians, journalists, lawyers, consultants, accountants) who go to the same schools, who think in the same way, show little interest in what their system is doing to people and to the world. Their only life goal, which has been drilled into them since childhood, is to aspire to further advance up the ladder. It seems unlikely that they will risk anything to look outside the box, let alone act outside it.

    Chris Hedges quotes from Sheldon Wolin:

    “those who dedicate their lives to striving for justice in the modern political arena are like the classical heroes who can never overcome what the ancient Greeks called fortuna. These heroes, Wolin writes in “Politics and Vision,” rise up nevertheless “to heights of moral passion and grandeur, harried by a deep sense of responsibility.” Yet, Wolin goes on, “at bottom, [the contemporary hero] is a figure as futile and pathetic as his classical counterpart. The fate of the classical hero was that he could never overcome contingency or fortuna; the special irony of the modern hero is that he struggles in a world where contingency has been routed by bureaucratized procedures and nothing remains for the hero to contend against. Weber’s political leader is rendered superfluous by the very bureaucratic world that Weber discovered: even charisma has been bureaucratized. We are left with the ambiguity of the political man fired by deep passion—‘to be passionate, ira et studium, is … the element of the political leader’—but facing the impersonal world of bureaucracy which lives by the passionless principle that Weber frequently cited, sine ira et studio, ‘without scorn or bias.’ ”

    Wolin writes that even when faced with certain defeat, all of us are called to the “awful responsibility” of the fight for justice, equality and liberty.

    “You don’t win,” Wolin said at the end of our talk. “Or you win rarely. And if you win, it’s often for a very short time.

  21. Stirling S Newberry

    While I agree with much of what Herman writes, I take issue with “None of the crises since 1973 have been large enough to prompt a major change. ” We have made large changes – the developed world has shipped jobs out to the undeveloped world. This is big – unfortunately, it is nowhere close to the current size of the problems.

    DTD, to take one example, has largely been corrected.

    The problem is, old joke, we have run out of out.

  22. Stirling S Newberry

    The problem with “The Population Bomb” is it is wrong. Not that there is a population problem, but there are other things to get rid of. The real problem is this: the human race will, probably, survive. But will it survive with money? Money dies a great deal more quickly than species or environments, it also does not have the same track-record. Is the economy going to survive? Good question, no one has the answer.

    The Planet will still be here. Life will still be here. The human race will, probably, still be here. A lot of single examples, will not and many more will have a much harder time surviving.

  23. In all legend lay a kernel of truth, perhaps prescient even. If we survive, though the earth abides we will have turned ourselves out of the Christian Eden, out of Paradise, and the earth will become the stuff of legend: debated, denied, wars fought, blood spilt, a long sought after myth of the planet of our origins.

    The Christian nutballs are right, in all their ignorant arrogance: we can’t hurt the earth. We won’t destroy the earth. We’ll just destroy the only part of it we can live in/on.

    It’s an evolutionary iteration: billions will die, there’s nothing to be done about it.

    A few … will survive. That’s what matters.

  24. Hugh

    Depends upon what you mean by wrong. The Population Bomb was certainly wrong in its timing: 1970s-1980s, but Malthus will likely still have his revenge on us all. As Ian points out, Indians are consuming fewer calories now than 30 years ago. This is an indication that the benefits of the Green Revolution are gone. I do not see any new Green Revolution on the horizon. So what comes next? In 1950, the world population was about 2.5 billion. In 2050, it is expected to be 9.7 billion. The US will have at that point just under 400 million people, but will still slip from 3rdto 4th place in total population. Nigeria at 416 million will take over 3rd place. I would like anyone to explain to me how Nigeria can sustain 416 million people. The simple fact is that we would not be experiencing anything like the climate change, species extinctions, and environmental destruction if our population and energy consumption had remained at 1950 levels. The problem is that we have vastly exceeded the carrying capacity of our planet. We can do this for a while, but that period is quickly coming to an end. Unless some deus ex machina pops out of some cloud in the next 2 years, we are headed for a major collapse.


    Wealth is a disease and some of its many symptoms are impoverishment & immiseration.

    The Queen Of Versailles

  26. Willy

    In some form humanity will prevail. As has been suggested, it’ll likely be groups of munchkin scientists with their froggy child voices and assorted leagues and guilds. They’ll have created a well-planned network of sophisticated underground dwelling societies by then.

    Most of the monkey-see monkey-do common folk who’d confused materialism with spirituality, badly, will have died off, many as a result of having gnashed their teeth down to nub after having not been raptured. The rest will have been disappeared by robots in attempts to take the billionaire enclaves, like so many poorly planned Childrens Crusades. But the enclaves themselves wont be safe. Northward bound brown hordes will swarm them over in massive human waves, only to die after the WR104 ray gun blasts the earth.

    At the end of a bad day it’ll be the munchkins who inherit the earth. Don’t confuse their penchant for singing and dancing in unusual attire with folly. Rational of mind and short of stature, they’ll carry on living small and in harmony with what’s left of this planet.

  27. Stirling S Newberry

    Some points, Hugh:

    1. ” I do not see any new Green Revolution on the horizon. ” You are not under the gun to think of one, but there are 3 billion or so people who are. It is their minds that count.

    2. Nigeria. Eat insects. Next question.

    3. “1950’s” Given the choice between having children or anything else, bet on haven children in the medium term. Thus, we will almost always be on the ragged edge of disaster. Climate Change is in the DNA.

    4. The Planet has no carrying capacity. We have loads more population, heat is a totally different matter. Milutin Milanković and Hermann von Schelling should be on your read list. You can talk to me then. Right now, tu n’importe quoi. We have a continent to inhabit. (On the other hand, 2 Billion people will have made poor decisions.)

    I could go on, but you need to readjust to what really threats us (developed world people emitted a lot more, Nigeria is not the problem.)

  28. nihil obstet

    We need an economy supporting a social organization other than capitalism. That’s a major change in social relations, politics, personal ambitions, everything. The historical changes bruce wilder (who should keep commenting often) cites above, especially the transition from feudalism to capitalism, took centuries as the society and its elites figured out how to maintain a competent government and transfer power when necessary. In England, the Peasants’ Revolt occurred in the 14th c., followed by a century of internal warfare in the 15th c. and a police state in the 16th. Only in the 17th did it become a crisis of the legitimacy of the form rather than being experienced as individual failings of the aristocracy. The social crises that neoliberal governments have faced in the 21st c. aren’t nearly as serious and widespread as those faced by the feudal governance. The problem is of course that the spectacularly destructive economics and technology of today doesn’t give us the time for another couple of centuries for a widespread acceptance of a different social consensus.

    To get consensus for social change, we have to shape how individuals see the world. We talk for example about how individuals will have to give up their luxurious consumer lifestyle. Get rid of and/or rigidly control advertising and the individual push for “more, more, more” will at least be reduced. Meanwhile, we can note that once needs are met, “more” does not increase happiness. I’m not all in on insisting that individuals can solve structural problems (you know, “stop global warming by recycling your grocery bags” rhetoric), but working to condition people’s outlook is a necessary part of the struggle. As long as we accept that “capitalism gives me more things, and things make me happy”, we reinforce capitalism’s legitimacy.

    Some other fetishes: let’s not talk about defense spending, but call it what it is — war spending. Call out police state tactics where they appear. Undermine the current definitions of the “justice system” and “intellectual property.” And so on, so that people will be willing to hear and consider alternatives to what we have.

  29. Herman

    @Stirling S Newberry,

    Good point, that is true. Maybe we should say the biggest event since 1973 was not the GFC of 2007-2008 but the collapse of communism. For all of the faults of the old socialist states (including pretty terrible environmental records) they were the only large-scale alternatives to capitalism and their collapse or transformation into capitalist states opened up a huge new pool of cheap labor for capitalists to exploit, particularly in China. We could also include the oil crises of the 1970s and stagflation in the mix of factors that ended the relatively humane post-war consensus version of capitalism.

  30. someofparts


    “Once the single-celled organisms that produce large quantities of oxygen in the oceans are killed off, once we have completed stripping the landmass of trees and photosynthetic plants, I would think that living at low elevations anywhere on the planet will be like living on the top of Mt Everest. How many humans will be able to breathe then?”

    This is the one that worries me the most. What I foresee as our atmosphere becomes harder to breathe will be a big opportunity for some people to get rich making better and better portable oxygen delivery technology. Right now the best ones will fit in a book bag. The technology will be improved until the best units will be the size of a smartphone.

    They will also be extravagantly expensive, so only the very wealthy will be able to afford them. The millions of people who will die because they can’t afford them will be disappeared by the corporate press, who will suppress all mention of them.

  31. bob mcmanus

    Opened up an old book, Robert Tucker’s Lenin Anthology 1975. Realized it is way past time. Won’t be me, old and sick, won’t be Sanders, although as I have said Sanders may inspire the streets which I think is his not so hidden program. Maybe AOC (or Ilhan Omar) after Pelosi and NYC Dollar Democrats redistrict her out of a job, she is young and charismatic. Somebody needs to inform the young lady of her role.

    Time for Revolution. Read Lenin, Mao, Gene Sharp, whomever, but the strategy and tactics are to be aimed at violent revolution. (Shhhhh…..)

    Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. Don’t care what’s possible or plausible, only what is necessary. Rosa had it easier. Socialism now or we all die.

    Lenin is probably appropriate, vanguardism is probably necessary. What s to be Done. (Shhhhh….) And this is for the kids, not old cranks like me. Maybe they have better ideas (Extinction Rebellion)

    Doesn’t take a majority, although Blanquism is infantile. 10-20% with resolute leadership can do it. But taking control by any means necessary should be planned. Now.

  32. bob mcmanus

    Jesus, have I been banned from Welch. Okay then.

  33. Dale

    A couple of quick comments. I am not a fatalist, I consider myself a realist. I have a degree in earth science. I believe what my fellow scientists are attempting to tell the world. We are in the sixth mass extinction event in the earth’s history. Forget human history, economics, and politics for a while and focus on the earth’s history.

    With that in mind, what makes you think that there will be money in the future if humans do come out of this extinction event? Or society for that matter? If present societal and economic norms got us where we are, why would any survivors even think of attempting their use in the future? Isn’t that Einstein’s definition of insanity in a nutshell? Society and everything it stands for is entering this extinction event. Any future humans would be wise to try something else. As a clumsy example, the Incas had a very efficient and productive civilization without any kind of “money” as we use the term.

    I really appreciate the thoughtfulness and comments of all of you here. I’m guessing most of you are either retired old white guys like me, or late middle aged. Are there any “young” folks commenting? How about women? The reason I ask about women is that they really think differently than we men.


    Does anyone still believe that there will be a voluntary transition to a sane and sustainable way of living?

    Maybe this comment will make it through the filter or perhaps I’ve been banned for my comment about Spanish anarchists.

    Not me. I’m with you, I don’t believe there will be any such voluntary transition. In addition, I don’t believe there will be an involuntary transition either.

    Eat insects? What insects? I haven’t seen a bee all summer. My flowers are calling for them but there are none to be found.


    It’s fitting Trump should express feigned concern for those with kidney disease (while campaigning in Pennsylvania) considering millions if not billions will die from kidney failure in the next several decades due to dehydration as a result of apocalyptic heat waves induced by climate change.

    Already, 25% of El Salvadorans from the sugar belt region suffer from chronic kidney disease due to dehydration.

    The kidney has a very special place in the heart. ~ Donald Trump

    I’ll counter with this.

    Donald Trump’s head has a very special place up his ass.

  36. Hugh

    It is always interesting how if you let people talk, you don’t have to do a thing. They destroy their arguments for you.

    The Green Revolution was predicated on a mix of large scale farming, monoculture, heavy use of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, and not leaving land fallow. Anyone else see what’s wrong with this picture? In any case, whatever its contributions, they’re done.

    No doubt the millions of Nigeria will start erecting statues to Stirling any day now. “Eat insects” is right up there with “Let them eat cake.” I would invite everyone to go to the International Data Base at the Census or elsewhere and look at where population was in much of the world back in 1950, today in 2019, and projected to be in 2050, especially in places like Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Then ask yourselves if any of these places with their geography, level of development, civil society and institutions is even remotely sustainable. Then add in climate change, environmental destruction, etc. Pinker has obviously made a career BSing numbers. But there are still numbers, like these, you do not want to bet against.

    I could be a lot harsher but if you have an argument, state it. If you don’t, by all means set up pre-conditions to make sure you don’t have to come up with one.

    Finally, I assume you were trying to say “Tu dis n’importe quoi.” Untrue, but at least grammatical.

  37. bob mcmanus

    The surviving earlier comment is obviously self-refuting. I ran up against filters?

    There wasn’t so much lost save “Read Lenin” (I’ll see if the name is filtered.) Just started Tucker’s Lenin Anthology and the dude is wonderful. His very first published essay

    “The Tasks of Russian Social Democrats”

    is a great perhaps complete start, and good enough to deal with Adolph Reed vs Coates

    without as much alienation

    Oh. And I posited Ocasio-Cortez as a possible charismatic leader, a Lenin, after she gets redistricted out of Congress by Dollar Democrats

  38. Temporarily Sane

    Anyone who is waiting for people who belong to the Democratic Party to “save” America is going to be waiting a long time. Sanders, the indy-Democrat, is a milquetoast who talks a good line from time to time but when sh*t gets real, ole Bernie folds like a cheap suit (and his voting pattern over the years is very pro-status quo). He’s already “pledged” his support to Biden or whichever neoliberal candidate gets the nomination. Sanders 2020 is going to be Sanders 2016 all over again. Feel the burn, indeed.

    Media and pop culture darling Orcasio-Cortez puts on her game face and speaks about the horrific human suffering in the migrant concentration camps. Yet she can’t bring herself to say anything about the people of Yemen and other victims of America’s endless war and sanction foreign policy. She even tweeted a heartfelt tribute to the “great American”, and war mongering racist psychopath, John McCain when he shuffled off this mortal coil. You really can’t take any of these people seriously. They are ethically bankrupt frauds whose empathy and “caring” is always cynically selective.

    The liberal-left outcry over the concentration camps is telling. It’s very interesting how none of these upper middle class do-gooders making Nazi comparisons and shrieking and sqwaking about “the children, won’t somebody save the children” thought to drive, car pool or buy a bus, plane or train ticket to the border and “do something” about these ‘unprecedented horrors that are turning America into the fourth reich. (Shhh…now is not the time to mention the deporter in chief’s contribution to the normalizing of migrant misery.)

    And the brave warriors of Antifa, are they at the border drawing attention to the horrors in the detention camps? Nah, they were in Portland beating up a gay center right “fascist” journalist in preemptive self-defense and heroically attacking newspaper boxes.

    You really can’t make this stuff up. The left, for the most part, is a sad joke with no sense of self-awareness.

  39. StewartM

    Agree with nearly all of this, but you’re kinder to Pinker’s assertions than I am. Not only is most of the developing world not being helped, and often hurt, by his neoliberal economics (the degree of monetization of an economy is no sign of progress, often it indicates regression as people now have to pay for what they either had for free or could do themselves), but in his own backyard Pinker can’t deny that much of the population of the developed world has had their material prospects absolutely and undeniably hammered. The possible sole outlier is China, who didn’t follow the neoliberal model, and even there it’s not been popular and until very recently wages as percent of GDP fell after “free trade” was implemented.

    This is par for the course with Pinker. His contention that we are less violent than in pre-neolithic times is likewise very dubious. That’s because the population densities of hunter-gatherers is so low; the population of what is now France was about 2,000-20,000 people. If you suppose that war is all about competition over resources, with population densities that low, even if you hypothesize that we’re killer apes (and I think we’re clearly not) then at such low population densities the questions arise of ‘who exactly are you competing against and who are you going to fight?”. One doesn’t have to deny the capacity for aggression in humans (but remember, back then we shared the planet with some pretty nasty predators that would be the most likely targets of said aggression) nor deny that killings occurred (but think more ‘homicide’ instead of ‘war’).

    Finally, like Chomsky, Pinker denies that Sapir-Whorf is not valid. I think that’s in keeping with his denying the problems of his ideology; I see a real danger of English spreading over the globe leading us to increasingly inclined to think alike. The problem with English is that it tends to think of all relationships in terms of property and/or ownership. For example, Ayn Rand posited a flawed argument that the government taxing the rich to give to the poor was analogous to it taking one eye from a person with normal sight to give it to a blind man; her flaw was due to a language trap, as English uses the same personal pronoun–‘my’–to describe a host or different relationships…”my eye”, “my friend”, “my money”, in which ‘ownership’ could be inferred. But “my eye” is a part of me, “my friend” refers to an independent human being, and “my money” refers to ownership over inanimate thing.

  40. StewartM

    Oh, and I think you’re also spot-on about the generational aspect to this. Most of the boomer-bashing is at least overhyped. It’s the “Greatest generation” more than who took all the government goodies and then pulled the ladder up after it.

    (Reagan was of the GI generation, and most of his precursors and successors were not boomers. Heck, even Dubya and Clinton were on the cusp. Obama was the first boomer president, though I’ll admit he’s bad enough.

    Keven Drum has an article about this:

  41. Willy

    Beyond generations, there are other variables, including temperaments, which are equally important.

    I’m trying to get beyond just “blame the boomers”. There are always authoritarian power and control types trying to take advantage of the rest who aren’t wired that way. Easy-living boomers were more easily conditioned to be mindless consumers than hard-time silents, who had to be better at working together, spotting value, and doing cause-effect analysis.

    Take this one:
    “…taking one eye from a person with normal sight to give it to a blind man…”

    …begs the question, but wouldn’t you now have two workers providing up to twice the value? Ayn Rand wasn’t so good with the metaphors now, was she? Didn’t she wind up being more popular with boomers than she was with silents?

    I’m entertained by PragerU’s equally simplistic description of capitalism being like flower shops, where owners trading flowers for money = win-win. They stop right there and call it good. But they conveniently ignore actual reality, where the unregulated winner in the theoretical flower shop competition destroys all their rival businesses, grows into a multinational, employs price gouging and race to the bottom wages, infiltrates governments to maintain their status, to the point where it’s a win-lose, lose, lose, lose, lose condition.

    I don’t think boomers are dumber. They’re just more easily conned (or conditioned).

  42. Hugh

    Some boomers just got more conservative as they got older and more established. I have boomer relatives though that grew up as Democrats and stayed Democrat. They either don’t see or refuse to see how far right the party has drifted and how anti-New Deal it has become.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén