End Days

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Apparently the world will end this weekend. Again. Every few months or years, fundamentalists predict that they have discovered the date and time of the end of the world or, as it is sometimes called, the rapture. It may be based on numerology as the current one is or on the Mayan calendar. It may be based on mysterious communications from gods or aliens. It is mostly based on wishful thinking. And, so far, it never turns out to be true.

There are lots of ways the world—or at least civilization—could end. Some of them loom on the horizon but, they are hardly preordained. If the world comes to an end, it will likely be caused by human foolishness or human agency. Or an asteroid. Hardly the stuff of heavenly prophecy. I mean, if God wanted to end the world, surely he could come up with something better than throwing rocks at it.

It’s easy enough—and lots of fun—to tease people who suggest that prophecy has predicted the end of times. It’s a little unfair to do so, a bit like kicking a puppy for barking. Sadly, more than a few people are taken in and some lives have been ruined when folks follow the advice of these religious naysayers.

In any case, predicting the end of things has a long and happy tradition well away from the sweaty-faced prophets and weird cults of the world.

Take capitalism. People have been predicting that capitalism will fail and disappear ever since the first person called himself a capitalist—whenever that was. Marx was certain that his scientific materialism showed the days of the capitalist system were numbered. Yet here we are in the second stage of post-modern, post-industrial capitalism, and the world keeps ticking along, mostly using some form of market based economy.

I think it was Faulkner who said the past is never dead; it’s not even the past. Pretty profound for a guy who didn’t know when a sentence should end.

But he was certainly right. Just as William Gibson was correct in saying that the future has already arrived, it just isn’t evenly distributed.

Because no system—once invented—ever really goes away. Don’t believe me? I know people who still play vinyl records, take film photographs, and listen to radio – all of which were predicted to disappear years ago. And did you know you can still send a telegram?

More significantly, slavery, abolished in most of the world more than a century ago, still persists, not just in the dark corners of collapsed states but right here in Canada, the United States and Britain. The slave economy—often operating as an adjunct or as a shadow parallel to the capitalist system—still thrives with an estimated 11 million people caught in its net. And though some people call capitalism ‘wage slavery,’ it is sheer pedantry to suggest the two economic systems are the same.

And what about colonialism? Relegated to the scrapheap of history? Well, there aren’t a lot of western states still elbows deep in the practice, but take a look at what China is doing in Nepal, on the Indian border or in Africa or what the newly expansionist Russian empire is doing in eastern Europe and it’s not so clear.

The belief that we are at the end of an era—or at the dawn of a new one—is deeply embedded in the human psyche and in human culture. Predictions of the apocalypse are scattered throughout history like marbles in a child’s playground. We all—even so-called rationalists—seem to embrace one death cult or another. Yet, the more I see of the world, the more I believe we are all simply muddling through, making deals with entropy to get from one day to the next. Systems are as illusory as the predictions of their end.

So don’t worry, be happy. The end days come for us all—but we don’t have to drag the world down with us.

And that’s a bit more than ten minutes.

And really I should apologize—I’m in the middle of writing a novel of post-collapse recovery. As soon as I get to the hopeful part, I’m sure my blogs will get more cheery. Or not.

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Life on a knife’s edge

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As those of you who read my blog will know, I am definitely a glass half full kind of guy. I have argued and will continue to argue that we’ve made a lot of progress and will continue to do so if we exercise our agency to do so. I’m not one of those “new optimists” who think progress is inevitable and largely due to the ‘hidden hand of the market’ or ‘western-driven globalization.’ For one thing I’m pretty sure that the market and global capitalism work for the interests and because of the agency of a relatively small and coherent group of very rich people.

Still, some recent news reports have given me pause. Nukes and missiles in North Korea should alarm us all—though no more than in any other place. I’m more troubled by headlines that describe entire islands emptied of humans by record breaking storms. Or the news this week that for the first time in decades, world hunger is again on the rise. Or that diseases we should have eliminated are again a threat because bone-headed celebrities speak out about vaccination. Or new diseases are coming out of the tropics that might take us all down.

So I’ve been thinking like Fermi these days.

The Fermi paradox poses the question: if there are millions of technologically competent (i.e. as good or better than us) civilizations in the universe, why have we never detected even one?

There are several ways to answer this question. Some will say that we are God’s special creation and therefore unique in all the infinite reaches of space. To which I can only say—well, you’re certainly “special.”

More rationally, one might say we don’t yet have the technical sophistication to winnow out their messages from the background noise of radiation – but that argument, if it was valid ten years ago, is probably not valid now.

The most optimistic answer might be that they are hiding – deliberately keeping us from finding them until we are civilized enough to join the intergalactic club. Yeah, it’s one big conspiracy and everyone is in on it except Earth.

The most common response is this: as soon as a society is capable of transmitting signals—even accidental ones—across interstellar space, they are also capable of destroying themselves and inevitably do. The reason we don’t hear from advanced aliens is that they’re all dead. Dead by their own hands.

All it takes is a couple madmen whose dicks are… I mean, whose nukes are bigger than their brains to pretty much take us back to the Stone Age. Of course, they could always be replaced if there was the will to do so.

Much more concerning is the matter of climate change, which requires nothing to proceed to its inevitable conclusion other than we keep doing what we’re doing. There is some hope there, even now. Emissions have stopped rising—though they are still high enough to tip us over the edge and earth’s natural defenses may have reached their limit. Still, every year they don’t go up, there is a chance we will act to make them go down and actually reduce civilization-killing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Which is our only real hope.

Well, your hope—I’ll probably be dead before it all goes to hell. So if the glass is now half empty, maybe I’ll just order another round and party like it’s 1999.

And that’s ten minutes.

Walls

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Walls have long been a simple solution to complex problems. You know, good fences make good neighbours and all that. Spend a few days in civil court and you might find that’s not exactly true.

Still, whenever people have had a problem they have resorted to walls as a solution – either to keep people out or to keep people in. The Chinese built the Great Wall – which is not the only human construction that can be seen from space – to keep out the Mongol hordes. It was moderately successful. Of course it was built over many centuries so until it was done, the hordes could always go around.

Hadrian built a wall that is still standing near the ancient border between England and Scotland. He was worried about the Picts. And why not? Anybody who would paint themselves blue and fight naked in the Scottish climate would be someone to be worried about.

The Russians built a wall – though not in Russia. The built it along the borders between Eastern and Western Europe and most notably in Berlin. The purpose was not to keep people out but to keep them in. Many of those lucky enough to live under the Soviet heel often took to their own heels and headed west. The Israelis have built a wall to keep Palestinians out but not, unfortunately, to keep Settlers in.

The Americans have built walls along the Mexican border – a bit like shutting the barn door after 11 million horses have left but better late than… well, maybe a more rational immigration policy would serve them better than a very porous wall. Now Scott Walker, governor of one of those piddly-ass states somewhere in Middle America (I can never keep those insignificant ones straight) wants to build a wall along the Canadian border even though the cost estimates suggest it would bankrupt America once and for all. I for one am fully supportive – after Florida sinks under the waves and California finally burns down completely, we’ll need a wall to keep all those climate refugees from heading north to steal our water, jobs and women.

Now, for the first time in several decades, people in Europe are building walls again, threatening the central principals upon which the European Union is built – open borders and the free flow of people and goods across them. Hungary – led by a conservative government – is taking the lead here but they are not alone. England is fortifying the Chunnel to keep people from crossing from Calais and soon, I suspect, other countries will follow suit.

This is all in reaction to the crisis in Syria, Iraq and increasingly other parts of the Middle East – a crisis that is largely of the West’s making. Right now it seems impossible to get a handle on the magnitude of the problem let alone on possible solutions.

Still, I’m sure that a mixture of humanitarian compassion, rational negotiation and finding common cause against barbarians will serve us better in the long run than more walls, either physical or bureaucratic. It won’t be solved by America or Germany or Canada or Russia or China or Saudi Arabia acting alone but maybe together… That’s a wall worth scaling.

And that’s ten minutes.