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

The World Has Always Been a Shit Show and It’s Always Been Beautiful

Well, as long as recorded history, anyway.

I see a lot of angst and a lot of worry and a lot of anger about events. We have gun and police violence in the US. The rise of Trump, the crises shaking the European Union, economic stagnation or decline in multiple major economies, a military buildup on the Russian border, a refugee crisis, and a Middle East and North Africa which looks shakier and shakier. In the Far East, China seizes more and more, bringing it into potential conflict with multiple nations.

The neoliberal consensus is crumbling, the far-right is rising, and the real left is beginning to rise as well (Corbyn and Sanders are significant, not sidelights, and not the only ones). In South America, the left is retreat, even in shambles, with the right resurgent.

We have onrushing climate change and some reason to believe that we have passed the threshold beyond which change will be much more rapid. Fish stocks are collapsed and collapsing, there is some danger of ecosystem collapse, and on and on.

The most likely next US president (Clinton) is a terrible warmonger who appears to have a deranged hatred of Russia, the only other country in the world with enough nukes to, well, destroy the world. And it’s not as if Obama hasn’t been ratcheting things up already.

So, yeah, good news, there’s some, but overall it’s looking bad. We’re coming up on an age of war, revolution, and very probably serious food and water shortages combined with a practically unprecedented refugee crises.

Fun, fun, fun.

Or, as the case may be, not.

It’s always been bad for some. There was the Great Depression. There was World War II. There were huge famines in China, war in SE Asia, including the Khmer Rouge genocide. Terrible atrocities in Indonesia.  And on and on.

Never in history has it been the case that large chunks of the world weren’t hellscapes. Some nations or regions managed peace and prosperity for generations, even occasionally for centuries, but those must be understood as beautiful outposts of peace and civilization, ever in danger of falling back into barbarism.  (Not that the actual barbarians were often so bad. The barbaric Celts may have done the occasional human sacrifice, but Rome enslaved half the world.)

Human memory is short. In historical terms, we don’t live long and we think our lived lives are “normal” even if, in fact, they were lived during one of those rare civilized prosperous interregnums.

We think that industrialization changed everything, but it’s not yet clear that it did. Industrialization mostly allowed Europe to conquer the rest of the world, really. It created some high standards of living in core regions, and advances in medicine allowed unprecedented increases in population.

But it’s not yet clear that industrialized prosperity, in the style to which we’ve grown accustomed (and which has never reached everyone), is more than just an interregnum. There may be some rather hard and ugly limits on growth and prosperity due to Earth’s limits, both in resources and in our ability to handle the pollution we have spewed. Add to that our complete overpopulation, driving entire species to extinction, and threatening the ecosphere.

Again, fun.

So, the bad times will soon be on us again, for those of us they aren’t already on, anyway. If we’re old or sick, we may avoid them. If not, we’re going to get it in the neck.

But why despair?

Even in bad times, there will be good. Most of history has been bad, but people have still loved, they have still enjoyed food, and the beauty nature so generously provides. There has always been wine (or bathtub gin). Life has gone on.

It’ll probably go on this time, and if we manage to drive ourselves to extinction (still unlikely) well, no humans will be suffering any more.

Enjoy your lives as best you can. Take joy in the real things of your immediate lives. The horrors that are happening to others are not happening to you and making yourself unhappy because others are unhappy does nothing to help them, and harms you.

That doesn’t mean “do nothing,” it means do what you’re reasonably able to do, and don’t sweat the rest.  There are billions of people on Earth, you aren’t personally responsible for this, and your contribution is not going to be the key if other people don’t also get off their asses.

Be realistic, accept no more than your tiny bit of blame, and then go eat a good meal, make love, and listen to some beautiful music.

Don’t destroy your real happiness over events for which you are almost entirely not responsible, and which you do not have the power to change.

The world’s always been hell for a lot of people, but there has always been beauty and love for many. If you can, be one of those who is kind to those whom the world is not. No more is, or can be, asked of you, certainly not that you crucify yourself: Your suffering will not redeem the world. Leave that to the messiahs, be human, and be as happy as you can.

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  1. V. Arnold

    Ian, I was prepared to hate your post; imagine my surprise when I didn’t. You make some good points which are particularly relevant for me.
    I live under a military junta and find it preferable to the faux democracy (it was bought just like the U.S.) it overthrew. Corruption is way down in a meaningful way. The junta is going after the galoots with a vengeance and getting clear results.
    My wife and I find ourselves quite happy and content in our lives; contentment being the key word. I’m not a happy fan, but rather a contentment fan.
    As you say, life just is (in so many words) and finding ones place is a key to peace of mind and a modicum of security.
    We always help when we can, the less fortunate, and living semi-rurally, the less fortunate are everywhere.
    I’m beginning to realize I’ve done all I can and deserve some respite at the age of 71. It doesn’t mean a retreat from life, but rather a little less active and more contemplative…
    Best to you.

  2. EmilianoZ

    And when death came for us, we were not afraid.

  3. Synoia

    The question about climate change is not “will millions die” but how many Billions will Die, and what and when will the new equilibrium bring?

    An estimate safe latitude is estimated at 43 deg N and South. That’s not absolute as the are southward adjustments for altitude.

    Africa is gone. South America a small part of Argentina, Europe a small part of Northern Europe, and a large part of Asia north of the mountain to te south of the Silk Road (also pretty inhospitable).

    My estimate is 6.5 Billion. N America and Asia are inhospitable for all but a few million (ask the Native Americans. The African Plateau might hold a small nuber (altitude) and isolated groups in Oceania.

    I also wonder if intelligence as we know it is an evolutionary dead end. The Dinosaurs were successful for hunderds of millions of years, and were extinguished by a meteor.

    We seem to have succeeded in a few 10s of thousands of years.

  4. TacJack

    Well said…finding balance amongst the growing chaos will be the challenge as the clock ticks inexorably towards disaster, as you stated so eloquently in the sentence, “Never in history has it been the case that large chunks of the world weren’t hellscapes.”

    A white male born in the South of the USA, I’ve lived a very fortunate life. For the longest time I have battled the evils of the South – racism, religious zealotry, destruction of the environment I covet, for there is nothing finer than the flat black waters of the Edisto and a bed made of Spanish moss.

    Yes, your missive was excellent, hitting a point a close friend and I have been examining quite closely during these times – how to find joy in the chaos, replete with the impending doom of the climate guillotine above us.

    It is no easy task, especially if one lives in a world of simpletons who place their hopes in a deity that does not exist rather than using their noggin to solve the ills.

    Yet it is possible to find pleasure, joy, contentment, and maybe even happiness in this theater of the absurd.

    Thanks for the article Ian.

    Quite kind of you.

  5. Memory

    I could go full-on contrarian on you, Ian. I don’t feel like it. You make some beautifully valid points.

    I’ll give the mike to the mos’ excellent Mos Def instead:

    Can we not feel joy while we struggle together for the good? Is it possible that the secret of joy is in the struggle? Maybe we don’t know how to struggle correctly. I’m going to die one day. I do not know when. I devote myself to the common good, finding joy in my connections with all of life in the meantime.

    Beauty and solidarity, cousin. And points for your usage of the word interregnum! I’m putting that word in my tool belt of words now.

  6. Hugh

    In the mind of the kleptocrat, there is no tomorrow. They loot without any regard for the consequences. Billions immiscerated? I got mine, jack! Yes, Virginia, those speeches Hillary gave to Goldman Sachs and those subcontractors Trump milked and bilked have real costs, just not the ones you were thinking of. Billions going to die from war, famine, and disease? Why worry? That stuff just happens to other people, little people. For them, they’ll just bribe the crew of whichever lifeboat looks the best on their way out.

    Sanders spending all his energy to get a few easily and soon forgotten lines in the Democratic platform shows how out of touch even the “best” of the Establishment is. I don’t expect much different from Corbyn. No reason to stop fighting what needs to be fought though.

    I park this here not knowing where else to put it. In yesterday’s job report, seasonally unadjusted (as in what really happened in June), 1.086 million jobs were created in the private sector. This was better than the 977,000 in 2014 and the 907,000 in 2015. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this was the peak of the summer hiring season. July hiring was 228,000 in 2015 and 168,000 in 2014. So there will not be any major July uptick in hiring. At the same time, year to date, 2016 hires remain behind 2015 by 138,000 and 216,000 behind 2014. In other words, 2016 is unlikely to make up the ground it has lost (equivalent to 2/3 to 1 month of hires) relative to the last two years.

  7. S Brennan


    I think this is an interesting development:

    Flynn has repeatedly called his shots and the balls have dropped; if Trump was the buffoon of the media’s projection, he would not consider Flynn.

  8. Chuck Mire

    Your article is a Postmodern take on Max Ehrmann’s 1927 Poem, “Desiderata”:

  9. Ian Welsh

    And his was a modern take on what the Stoics and Epicurians and Taoists knew.

    It has always been thus.

  10. S Brennan

    It looks like Bruce Dixon nailed it; Sanders was a “sheepdog”.

    And speaking of Judas Goat’s…if Trump picks this [see below] guy…he’s walking away from his independent voters and embracing a figure who has tried to impose his religion on others…in other words, more of the same old GOP that has divided the populace…and the kind of VP pick that would make Trump VERY disposable to the GOP elite…if Trump picks Mike Pence, he should avoid “grassy knolls”.

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