21st-Century Malthusian Angst: Can We Survive?

Is our current pace of development sustainable for human civilization?

Posted Jan 02, 2019

I don’t know if history necessarily moves in 100-year cycles, but there is a certain 21st-century angst emerging. As if we are seeing the early stages of what could be the crisis to come. The 9/11 attack was certainly an obvious punctuation mark, the starting gun for the rat race ahead. I think we are being forced to think about the way our world is set up, in ways that are alarming and frightening. When our illusions disappear, we start to see that the foundations underneath our lives are crumbling.

The 20th century was about ideology, about the colossal damage that erupts when nations put themselves above all else and accordingly collide. We were like fighting children, unfortunately armed with guns and bombs. By some miracle of fitful diplomacy, we stalemated the Cold War, and the world survived.

No longer preoccupied with this game, we Americans didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves, so we moved into domestic technology, personal convenience, videotapes turned into DVDs, records turned into CDs turned into MP3s, phones turned into cell phones, computers and the internet took over, and so on. It gave us the comforting feeling of progress, and it helped unify the other “developed” nations under an umbrella of convenience. Faster, safer, smarter.

Then 9/11 shook us out of our reverie; our technology was pitted against us with old-fashioned low-tech guile. Part of the old world was still angry, disgusted even, with the rest of us. It was another version of revolution, the have-nots spiting the haves. It wasn’t about having technology or material goods necessarily, as the terrorists were mostly educated, well-off citizens. It was about not feeling that those things were enough in and of themselves. Not feeling that the here and now could be its own religion, that science made us fulfilled in our own lives, despite the fact that most of the capitalist world was joining in the celebration. Others felt left out on some level, yet proud of their old stubborn ways. Screw those corrupt, happy infidels. Give them a taste of their own medicine.

Shocked, we realized our shield of progress was fragile and easily damaged. It was like the Ewok party at the end of the Star Wars trilogy had been crushed by another small but angry spoilsport. Our Cold War narrative, where the big bad commies lose to the capitalist heroes, had jumped into a new story.

And what is that story? That we don’t have a story perhaps. That these narratives in and of themselves are just distractions, smoke and mirrors, for the fact that we are flimsy bugs on this strange dot of a planet, hanging on for dear life in the midst of a cold unfeeling void. So long and thanks for all the fish I say.

Yes, beyond existential worries, we are learning that our planet is finite, our resources are limited and running out. We have taken the other larger narrative, that of the Industrial Revolution, and driven it nearly to its obvious conclusion, the pillaging of the planet. With our unending capacity for narcissism and myopia, humankind has wreaked havoc in the playroom only to realize that all the toys are now broken.

Global warming may not be the end of us in and of itself. It may reshape some borders, render Canada and Siberia the next superpower—it won’t necessarily take us out. But that is cold comfort because we have crossed too many red lights, too many flashing warning signals with reckless speed. We already created the atomic, then hydrogen, then nuclear bomb, and have the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of Hiroshimas stored away, ready to be released to the newest lunatic shortly. That might take care of us. Or it might be the nightmarish environmental stink emerging from awakening economic juggernauts like China, outlined with cold horror in numerous articles. 

We’ve never really thought much about the consequences of industrial progress or the scientific revolution. The mass quantities, the crude efficiency with which we produce and farm and build and excrete waste. Environmentalism was more the haven of self-absorbed rich liberals who wanted to give their lives a holier-than-thou purpose. The “smug cloud” once described in South Park. Now it turns out some of their rhetoric is coming true. On another front, there is infighting from economic pressures due to mass corporatization and changing job markets (which many have cited as leading to right-wing political waves as well). There is the tragic, unappetizing prospect that our current morality, based on the value of each human life, may eventually mean the end of us, as our initiatives towards better health care, better nutrition, and the like means too many people, and too little world to sustain them.

How can we achieve balance, the harmony that earmarked earlier Eastern empires, with their respect for nature? Do we need to turn the clock back a little bit and lay off the originally Western-based technofever? Do we need to value the yin and yang more than the phallic upward arrow? (Many Japanese films, a la Miyazaki, suggest a need to restore this balance, an insight gained in the face of their atomic trauma.)

I don’t necessarily suggest that people pursue some of these almost comical recent green initiatives like living in log cabins without running water and electricity, or hand-picking weeds from Central Park that have dog piss on them, or using compost “toilet” holes in the ground. The recent international movements scapegoating immigrants out of misplaced economic anxiety are also abhorrent and troubling. I think we do need to think about where everything comes from, how it is made, who makes it, who profits, and who suffers. We’ve been living in our reverie too long.

It makes too much sense that people got sick after working at Ground Zero, that officials had no idea that the building was made of toxins, or that such a structure, if pulverized, would cut up our lungs. We don’t think about what goes into a building, what it is made of. We just build it, stacking it high in the sky, stretching our laws of physics to their limits, until the laws bring it down as well.

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