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

When the Ideas that Run the World Change

Real political change happens infrequently. The cycles are decades long. So, most recently, there was the crisis of the 70s which led to the rise of neoliberalism: Thatcher and Reagan. Everything that has happened since then, in the Western world and Japan, has been an unfolding of that. There are some important sideshows, but this is a neoliberal world.

Before that the Crisis of the Great Depression and WWII led to the post-war era. In the US, that runs from 1933 to 1980, essentially, but it was in crisis from about ’68 or so.

There are other such cycles, for example, in the early 1900s there was a collapse of support for Imperialism in Britain. It disappeared in a few years (I know a lot less about this). Everyone had to support it for decades, and suddenly they didn’t.

During a period where a sub-ideology reigns (all of these were capitalist periods, but they were very different forms of capitalism) it’s almost impossible to do things against the trend. The best you can do is grip on for dear life and try not to lose too much. You can, alternatively, go orthogonal: Neoliberals are basically okay with identity politics, so you can make gains there. Doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it can be done.

But the real fight is over the NEXT period, the transition. Key ideologues created neoliberal thought long before Thatcher and Reagan. When things go to hell (stagflation is the end point of the 70s) for long enough, people become willing to change ideologies.

They choose from the available ideas. Ideas with muscle and money, or which appeal to elites (if the elites aren’t being changed), have a better chance. But the key point is that if your ideas aren’t there, and being considered in the crisis period, you’ve already lost.

The conservatives were and are right: Ideas have consequences. Ideas are powerful. Next to physical facts, they are probably the most important factors in human existence (every invention is an idea first).

We are probably in a transition period. If we aren’t, we will be soon. Take this into account: Whoever wins this transition period will rule, if not the world, then a significant chunk of it. Everyone else will either be working out their ideas, resisting them, or trying to do something orthogonal to avoid them.

Finally, there are different types of ideas. Technological ideas are one subset. They aren’t as determinative as we moderns think. They determine the possibilities, but possibilities can lie fallow for a long time. Certain societies are possible with the steam engine, or the internal combustion engine. Composite bows and stirrups make other societies possible. The stirrup and composite bow were around for a long time before Genghis Khan showed what they could truly do. The Chinese invented gunpowder, the Ancient Greeks had toy steam engines.

So beware of over-determination, and also beware of the idea that histories and societies which didn’t happen–or have not happened–were therefore impossible.

Meantime, transition period, ho. Get to work, your enemies (and you have enemies) are.

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  1. Whoever wins this transition period will rule … what? A burned over cinder with an atmosphere gone Venus? Ten billion people on a ball of mud that long ago lost the capacity to sustain even one? Reaching for reference in popular culture a Mad Max world? Judge Dred? Terminators?

    What, exactly, will there be to “rule”? This is not a question for those who would “win”, but everyone with a stake in the future, every parent, every grandparent, needs to answer. It’s not about “winning” anymore. It’s about survival.

    For the record, as a parent, grandparent and soon great grandparent, while I harbor no personal animosity, if you don’t have kids you don’t have a stake in the future, and we are running out of time. I am sick of ignorant assholes who won’t pay taxes to support schools because they don’t have children, they can get the fuck out of my hometown, sick of racist assholes with no stake in the future interfering with my grandchildrens’.

    Anyone else paying close enough attention to note Dorian’s behavior this week matches that predicted seven years ago in a model of the collapsing North Atlantic Conveyor?

    It’s not about “winning”.

  2. Bill Hicks

    I’m with Ten Bears. Even if we don’t face an extinction level event, whatever remains after this transition is not going to have enough strength to dominate the world or even individual countries. Localism will be the norm, except it won’t be pleasant for anyone.

  3. Dale

    Ten Bears and Bill Hicks are correct. Absolutely nothing else matters without a viable planet to live on. We may have already lost this fight due to political malfeasance and public lethargy. Six to eight years and the game is over. Why the continuing babbling over which political/social/cultural system will come out on top? Think subsurface single celled life forms at the top of the food chain. That is what is left after the 6th Extinction Event is over. Really, really think about that.

  4. Chiron

    I seriously believe that next decade will change everything, from politics to climate and culture.

  5. Mark Pontin

    Ian, all this about the world now being in a transition period is generally true.

    However, you write: ‘Technological ideas are one subset. They aren’t as determinative as we moderns think, they determine the possibilities, but possibilities can lay fallow for a long time.’

    I think it depends on the technology. Specifically, we’ve never before had the biotechnologies we now have with their capabilities to reframe the terms of life itself.

    More specifically, Ten Bears and Bill Hicks are glooming, above, about the looming inevitability of global climate change. Let’s look at that.

    Cyanobacteria (blue-gree algae to you) in the Earth’s oceans photosynthesize – e.g. convert carbon dioxide, water and light into oxygen and sucrose, the sugar plants use for energy and for building new plant tissue ­– significantly faster and in greater quantities than any other life forms we know of. The Amazon doesn’t rate by comparison.

    So far bioengineering efforts with cyanobacteria have piddled around with using them to make biofuels or with more oddball efforts like re-engineering them so their photosynthetic capabilities can help heart-attack victims.

    (Really. See forex:

    But what if we could increase the photosynthetic contribution that all the cyanobacteria in the world’s oceans and other water bodies currently make in terms of fixing carbon and creating oxygen in the Earth’s atmospher? Because we probably can.

    Even more interestingly, about 15 percent of the carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere gets fixed every year by the cyanobacteria in the world’s water bodies.

    Not incidentally, that’s approximately the amount by which we’re off from the pre-industrial era. If some of the material that the cyanobacteria fix didn’t turn back into carbon dioxide — because cyanobacteria are preyed on by even smaller microorganisms called phages — the global warming problem might not just by halted, but actually reversed in a couple of years.

    So there are levels of this thing. First, you want to make phage-resistant cyanobacteria. Then you want to increase their photosynthetic capabilities.

    Here’s the next interesting thing. If this biotechnological intervention is feasible and someone did it with these very small organisms it could be, firstly, incredibly cheap, relatively speaking, compared to every other geoengineering or mitigation program that’s been proposed. Then, secondly, it could perhaps be done almost invisibly, because these organisms, cyanobacteria, are individually so small.

    In other words, hypothetically, someone or some group of someones could maybe carry out this biotechnological intervention without all the ‘Sinners in the Hands of Angry Gaia’ crowd and the ‘playing God — the horror, the horror’ crowd and the crowd that wants to end capitalism by invoking global warming (not that capitalism shouldn’t be ended, but that’s another story) ever even knowing that it was being done.

    In fact maybe, given that such a cheap reversal of global warming is possible, you _don’t want_ to tell people you’re carrying out this biotechnological intervention. After all, it’ll upset a lot of people’s ideological apple-carts that count on the inevitability and irresistibility of climate change.

    Scary, huh? Anyway, to bring this back to your original point, Ian, a technological possibility like this won’t be ignored as, for instance, the Roman ignored the industrial possibilities of the steam engine (a technology they in fact had) beyond using it to open temple doors. The Romans weren’t faced with existential risk if they failed to implement steam engines in their industries. We moderns, on the other hand, _are_ faced with existential risk by global warming. So we’ll be compelled to try applying these technologies to the planetary environment, I think.

  6. Eric Anderson

    Think globally. “[G]et to work” locally.

    And as to the fighting over what remains {supra}, I’m placing my money on a nature based theological outcome. Aldo Leopold thought our prospects are pretty grim until we undergo the 4th ethical transformation — internalizing a land ethic. Since his writings, we’ve done nothing but hit the accelerator on externalizing it. But, I’m certain opportunities to internalize a land ethic will be abundant in the years to come. Right, Ten Bears?

    And get this … the Gaia idea definitely qualifies as having been rolling around for a while.

    Ecosocialists unite! Dues paying member here, folks. You can be, too.

  7. Rick Jones

    >Key ideologues created neoliberal thought long before Thatcher and Regan.

    Very true. Lewis Lapham documented this in a Harper\’s Magazine article some years ago called, \”Tentacles of Rage.\”

    In it, he discusses how — following the debacle of Barry Goldwater — conservatives funded think tanks throughout the late-60s and the 70s to develop their ideology and supporting policy positions. When Reagan came along, he was a very, very effective mouthpiece for these positions.

    I had been hoping that progressives would have taken that lesson to heart and realized that another change was just over the horizon, and that they should be developing the next set of ideas. It saddens me that most of what I see is just a rehashing of old liberal tropes.

  8. Paul Harris

    Experimental Global geo- engineering, eh?
    We’ve been doing that for centuries and look where that got us.
    What was that definition of insanity again?

  9. Hugh

    I agree with Paul Harris. Natural systems are not linear. If you add something at point A and it takes you to point B, subtracting out that something does not take you back to point A. It all depends upon how your additions and subtractions work into feedback loops, or in uncontrolled situations, feed-forward loops. We are talking about multi-gigatons of CO2. Anything that would have an impact on these numbers needs to be considered carefully. One question that comes to mind is where does the carbon go with these cyanobacteria. It just won’t just go to cyanobacteria and stop there. Where does it go after?

    I agree also with Ian. I think the Quo vadis? discussion we should be having is about what kind of a society we want for ourselves and each other. What kind of a life do we commit to provide to each other? What level of fairness, sustainability, and population? What do we commit to to the peoples of the rest of the world in the face of climate change? I think we are all tired of the rants of children. It is time for us to act like adults, not just as individuals, but as a society, as a species.

  10. Ten Bears

    I’ve long butted heads with the ‘just take Man out of the equation’ crowd.

    Can’t ‘take Man out of the equation.’ Now moreso than ever.

  11. Jeff Wegerson

    Bio-engineered cyanobacteria – my mind leapt to Kurt Vonnegut’s Ice-9. Then as Buckminster Fuller roughly said, “there are a lot of planets out there with intelligent life, if this is one of the ones that doesn’t make it, well that happens.” Or as Louis Sullivan said to to Frank Lloyd Wright on the occasion of Wright’s asking about the tearing down of one of his buildings, “if you live long enough Frank, you will see all your buildings torn down.”

    But in the meantime…

    Ian’s sense that significant changes are in the air makes sense to me as well. Whether they will be too little too late matters not to our need to work for those directions we believe need work.

  12. HomoSapiensWannaBe

    The companion for Technological Determinism is Technological Utopianism — that new technologies will come along (soon!!) that will solve existing problems, many of which were caused by previous technological “solutions.” (Those dastardly unintended consequences…)

    We suffer badly from such utopianism. More technology and complexity seems to equal PROGRESS.

    Joseph Tainter wrote convincingly about the collapse of complex societies. Throughout history, mankind can only seem to add more complexity, which compounds chaos effects, and eventually leads to negative utility. We’ve added all that debt in the past few decades, but actual growth now doesn’t equal the added debt. The economic utility of such “growth” is increasingly marginal, even negative.

    We have ideas about what key resource shortages mixed with sociological drivers might cause total or partial collapses (oil, water, soil, social cohesion.) However, it is impossible to predict which one(s) will cause the cascade of collapse. Therefore, we have a systems situation equal to a predicament — one without any “solution.” What will be, will be.

  13. different clue

    Perhaps survival IS the new “winning”.

    If its the Last Man on Earth saying ” Hey! I won!” . . . . then what did he win?

    If its the Last Viably Reproducing and Self-Maintaining village or tribe or band on Earth saying ” Hey! We won!” . . . now we’re getting someplace.

    On the one hand, at 7 billion people and counting, nothing is sustabinable.
    On the other hand, ” I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.”

    Transition to Power-Down will work better the more people and cohesive society-loads of people are involved in the Transition to Power-Down process.

    About cyanobacteria, they release horrible nasty poisons. If we make cyanobacteria phage-proof, they will turn the oceans into thick green poison pea soup in which the only things that live will be the cyanobacteria and those decomposers who can endure the cyano-toxins long enough to decompose the dead cyanobacteria build-up.

    It might be better to try speeding up the rate and amount of photosynthesis across all different kinds of plant categories across all different kinds of ecosystems. And farming/gardening and livestock on pasture and range will be a very important part of those ecosystems. So turning them into persistent one-way carbon-capturisers and oxygen-releasers would be a good thing.

    But as to the Amazon supplying all our oxygen, no the Amazon does not supply all our oxygen.
    All our oxygen was built up over the last Five HUNdred MILLion years by plants ejecting oxygen from CO2 and welding the C to H2Os to make carbohydrates. So all the oxygen in the atmosphere is fossil oxygen in exactly reciprocal relation to all the fossil carbon separated from its stripped-off oxygen and hidden inside the earth.

    If organized mankind could truly dig up and burn ALL the fossil carbon there is, we would re-unite it with ALL the fossil oxygen up in the atmosphere, and we would have a truly oxygen-free de-oxygenated totally anoxic atmosphere. So a steady ramp-down to near-zero of burning fossil carbon is going to be important no matter what else we do.

  14. DMC

    India, at least, seems to be charging ahead with reforestation:

    The headline is needlesssly provocative but the up-shot is that volunteer activitiy in India is getting tens of millions of trees planted. The other half of the equation, that is often overlooked when in discussions of “the reforestation article” that made the rounds about a month back is mass sowing of industrial hemp on otherwise unsuitable land. Hemp requires very little water and actually prefers akaline soils, where very little else will grow. And, if I remember correctly, hemp does the best job sequestering carbon on an acre by acre basis of anything grown at industrial scale. It’s the short term aspect of increasing the over all biomass of CO2 breathing, O2 exhaling plants, while we’re all waiting for the trees to grow

  15. Ché Pasa

    I suspect we’ve been in a ruling paradigm shift for decades now, but even so, we (or rather Our Rulers, with whom “we” are too often confused) seem to be locked in the neoLibCon prison which is now violently spreading chaos in what could be its final act.

    But what, pray tell, is to follow?

    None of us know.

    Up to now — and still — nothing can budge the dominant neoLibCon belief and action system Our Rulers have employed to their extreme advantage at least since the ’80s and the collapse/withdrawal of the Progressive paradigm. It didn’t have to be this way, but it is. There are many reasons why, but among them I would argue that mainstream Progressivism had become so sclerotic and mindless with power and age and frail with defeats that it was easy for a vigorous new alternative (which of course denied there was any alternative to itself) to take over — which it did with a vengeance.

    The results are mixed. Those on top have gained immense wealth and power which they are understandably loathe to give up or share in any way. Those lower down the ladder (from which many rungs have been removed) have gained a little or not at all; some have fallen into a dark abyss and are largely forgotten. Yet overall, as always, “things could be worse.”

    And more and more in various places and at random times, they are.

    But to Our Rulers, these crises are all Opportunities for themselves to profit and further consolidate their power. If natural disasters aren’t enough, they’re more than eager and capable of creating more and ever more chaos and catastrophe — and profiting from it — whenever/wherever they want.

    I’ve long said “this is unsustainable”. And over the long term, I’m sure it isn’t, but how long is that Long Term to be? It’s already been generations. It could be many more generations before the current ruling paradigm itself becomes sclerotic and frail enough to push over with something new… whatever it might be.

    I’m often reminded of the history of the Roman Republic and Empire — which wasn’t quite what we often think it was. The Roman Empire for example did not end in 476 AD with the victory of Odovacar over Romulus Augustus. The imperial Roman system continued in the West for hundreds more years though picked apart and reimagined repeatedly until its imagery and ideas were consciously — if not conscientiously — revived a thousand years later. In the East, the Empire continued in slightly different garb and speaking Greek rather than Latin until succumbing to the Turks in 1453 — ie: almost a thousand years after the putative Fall of Rome. The Turks promptly reinvented and revived the Roman Empire they had just defeated, and it continued more or less intact until the overthrow of the last sultan in Constantinople/Istanbul in… 1922.

    Elements, of course, continue to this day, primarily in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and among the nation states (like the US) consciously modeled on Ancient Rome — at least as it was conceived in the 18th century.

    There was no real collapse or end of empire. Rather, it mutated over and over again.

    And that’s what I suspect we’ll see as the combination of chaos and catastrophe overwhelms the current ruling paradigm. There will be no collapse or end; it will mutate, and what it will become is already in preparation or prepared.

    It’s probably not what we think.

  16. Ché Pasa

    Forgive my various grammatical and other errors. (Romulus Augustus or Augustulus, etc.) Not only am I not as rigorous about these things as I once was, I’m wondering more and more how much they ever really mattered…

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