At the beginning of every apocalyptic thriller there’s always a scene where the hero is getting ready for work, feeding the kids breakfast, dealing with a dog that has barfed in the living room, and generally dealing with the million minor stresses of every day life.
Meanwhile, on the TV or radio in the background the news is cycling through the usual mundanities of petty crime and traffic and local weather, except thrown into the mix there are always a handful of Easter eggs: warnings of nuclear sabre-rattling by jumped-up third-world dictators; quirky reports of bizarre weather patterns in Europe; a fun little hit about a couple from the midwest who swore they saw an alien spacecraft collecting samples in a field behind their house.
These scenes play a key role in setting up the narrative, in three ways. First, they establish the family ties that will provide the emotional basis for the film. Second, they foreshadow the crisis to come that will drive the plot. But most importantly, these movies always have the lone scientist or researcher who knows what is going on, but who is dismissed by everyone as crazy or conspiracy minded. Their job is to both flatter the viewer (we know what’s coming) but also to warn us: there are patterns out there, in nature, in human affairs, in the cosmos, that we are too busy with our daily lives to notice. And our indifference will lead us to our doom.
I was reminded of these scenes today, as I watched my social media feeds explode over news of the indictment of President Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his associate Rick Gates. And maybe it’s because I’ve been reading a lot of Robin Hanson recently, or maybe it’s because the normally happy contrarian Tyler Cowen seems to have become enormously pessimistic. But I felt, not for the first time, that this real-time obsession with all things Trump is keeping us from noticing the broader patterns that are at work in our lives, and of which Trump is at best a mere symptom, at worst an irrelevant distraction.
I’ve been trying to make a note of some of these apocalyptic-thriller moments as they pass by:
Some of these are jokes, others I think we should take more seriously. But in general, the bigger patterns I think we should be looking at are concentrated in five main areas: Economics, politics, demographics, medicine, and the natural world.
On the economics front, I remain convinced that Tyler Cowen’s “great stagnation” thesis is both true and profound. We seem to have hit a period of long-term low growth, and it isn’t clear how we’re going to get out of it. It doesn’t make me any happier to observe that even Cowen seems to have lost the optimism that punctuated his initial statement of the argument.
On politics: More and more people in the West are losing faith in democracy, and it has nothing to do with Donald Trump. The lack of trust in democracy and the growing openness to authoritarian rule, especially amongst the young, is very disturbing.
On demographics, I don’t think we’re close to coming to grips with the wide-reaching consequences of an aging population, not least of which is the way societies get increasingly risk-averse the older they get.
When it comes to medicine, I’m scared witless by the antiobiotic resistance crisis, or what England’s chief medical officer, Sally Davies calls “an antibiotic apocalypse”.
Finally, as if climate change wasn’t enough to worry about, what with the disappearance of the Antarctic and everything. But nature itself — the buzzing, blooming plenitude we take for granted — seems to be emptying out. The bugs are disappearing. So are the animals. Increasingly, I worry my kids will grow up in a world that is like the future London of William Gibson’s The Peripheral — empty and desolate.
Maybe some of this is just temporary. Maybe some of these fears are overstated, and maybe we’ll figure out solutions to the ones that aren’t. But I also worry that this isn’t just a partial list of mostly manageable problems, but that there are dozens, if not hundreds of similar patterns or trends or phenomena that we’re ignoring or downplaying or simply not seeing.
More generally, I’m worried that Robin Hanson is right: we are living in a “dream time” in which we are free riding off the social and economic surplus we gained from grabbing the low-hanging fruit of the industrial revolution and ceasing to have any kids. But this highly maladaptive situation can’t last, and we’re heading (back) to a quasi-medieval world where everyone lives at or near a subsistence level, and where, eventually, “most everything worth knowing will be known by many; truly new and important discoveries will be quite rare…. Wild nature will be mostly gone, and universal coordination and destruction will both be far harder than today.”
Hanson thinks these people will be mostly happy, and maybe he’s right. What will come, will come, and our descendents will probably have as much contempt for us as we do for those who came before us.
But it also seems to me that there has to be a middle ground here, somewhere between the real-time rhetorical virtue-narration of the Twitterverse on the one hand, and the out-of-Eden post-Matrix fantasies of the distant Age of Em on the other. And in that middle ground, I think there are patterns and trends that we can control, or at least manage or manipulate, but only if we’re actually paying attention.
Which is why I think that we’re making a big mistake in treating the victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton as the apocalypse, and why we need to stop flipping out every time Trump goes golfing or insults a military widow or forgets that Puerto Ricans are Americans. Doing so has its satisfactions, as does keeping a running tally of the number of lies he tells while in office. But it’s not the game, and it’s not even a sideshow to the game.
I’m increasingly convinced we’re missing the forest for the tweets, and unless we get a grip, it’s going to cost us dearly.