The Massive Danger of Societal Nihilism

Just a short while, a researcher by the name of Safa Motesharri came out with an article that got some support from NASA. NASA at least put some money in that study, and it caught on in the media that the story was an officially NASA sanctioned, supported or otherwise prominent study. It isn’t but that does not make the conclusions in the study any more relevant.

“Collapse is difficult to avoid,” largely because “elites consume too much” and will bring about “an inequality-induced famine,” the report authors found.

I have been hearing similarly despair laden phrases from other sources, and in some of this talk there are a number of a common themes.

– the world has a number of affluence, income and power elites
– these elites have massively increased in income, prosperity and power in the last few decades
– these elites overconsume labour, resource and energy resources
– this overconsumption crowds out people who are substantially less rich
– this “crowding out” is a form of displacement that can cause some form of global collapse
– this collapse can cause massive death of humans in the next few decades

If this is true, the simple series of premises is of considerable importance. The probable argument for mass human death ‘in a few decades’ is about as important a topic as you can envision. If such potential mass death were the result of a comet striking us in a few decades, then immediate action would be taken. We face however a problem that much of this die off would arguably be influenced by the consumption habits of extremely powerful elites, who have an active stake in using media, politics and corporate and financial sectors.

If a population of people of a hundred on an island would be in a state of severe overconsumption collectively, this overconsumption should be subject to calculation. Lets say that a hundred people on an island consume a thousand coconuts, a thousand fishes and a thousand side of pork and a thousand trees (as building material and firewood. In all three categories of resources we see visible decline – there is decline in coconuit trees on the island, as not enough seeds are available to grow in to new coconut trees, etc. In terms of consumption of resources, when there is power disparity an elite will allow itself to consume massively more than anyone else. So when any measures for collective rationing are proposed, the small minority who wields most extraordinary political and economic power would be hardest hit when the collective would be reduced to sharply reduce consumption to “rational” or “sustainable” levels. This would be especially true if some of the blame for the collective consumption can be argued to be the result of systemic overpopulation.

This is also true the real world, and probably more insidious in the real world. You can’t easily assess how much “the rich” over-consume, but that they do, we can be sure. So I conjecture that the more a certain class of elites have engineered opportunity to (criminally?) overconsume, the need for rationing will increase exponentially in the next few decades. And since the relative power of the hyper-entitled on the planet is still increasing relative to “the rest of us”, the odds we can on this planet even begin to agree on a more equitably rational rationing of available resources is also becoming increasingly unlikely. Democracy sure isn’t going to do the trick, and as of George Bush junior, and this newfangled business of “war on terror” (It does make you think now, doesn’t it?) there seems to be a handy infrastructure put in place as to quell any such attempts to come to sane constraint of human consumption on the planet.

I have often argued that the easiest (!) escape from this stalemate would be the invention of radical means for extending human life. This may appear as a tangent on the above discussion, but it is precisely how I regard the problem. For most people current states of overconsumption isn’t a concern, since “most people who currently overconsume can assume they have secured the prosperity of this genetic lines (their offspring) by means of rather liberal inheritance laws world wide, and they are only going to live for a few more decades. The world may suffer terrible climate, resource depletion, water table collapse, food scarcity unrest between now and 2035 (I.e., “the next few decades”) but fullblown collapse does not at this moment seem exceedingly likely. In the words of Cheney – The American Standard of Living is NOT negotiable, or the words of his eminent protege, “In the future, we’ll all be dead” is exemplary of this attitude of mostly white, anglosaxon, very rich and somewhat older men.

If this demographic would suddenly have access to safe and affordable means for life extension, they would have to contend to having to potentially live on a planet with sharply diminished resources and a lot more consumers, and a lot technologically more empowered consumers, “the next few centuries”.

There is a perverse rationality at work in the white, mostly anglosaxon, male, somewhat older men. They are driven by the urgency to amass resources, money, power and inalienable property for a relatively short pension cycle. Most do not anticipate living beyond their 80s, with very few notable exceptions. The world’s economy is driven by interests of the very powerful, and those interests have a functional shelf life determined by their personal expectations on how long they will live.

This increased short term interest can be represented algorithmically, where the number of policy decisions in banking, government, the corporate sector (and arguable – even in white protestant patriarchal churches) is more aimed at the very short term (years, rather than decades). Being not very religious myself I would invoke the subconscious when I point my accusing fingers at Judgement Day cult beliefs. In my personal analysis I would characterize these as de facto subconscious affirmation that the current reality on the planet has become dire.

I won’t spend a second on deliberating about emerging technologies and other solutions often espoused by technoprogressives, extropians, transhumanists and singularitarians. Yes there may be technological solutions, but you don’t take bets on the survival and general well-being of ten billion human beings.

Rhere comes a point when this will start to become pretty self-evident, and there comes a point when the majority of people in relatively more affluent and free countries, will get the message. If the majority of people “who can still make a political difference” becomes aware soon (say, within the coming decade) then they (we) still have a somewhat fair shot at implementing just the right amount of change, just in time. If however the people catch on more slowly,. then the global geopolitical elites (otherwise known as the 1% of the 1%) should be capable of engineering societal conditions where grassroots political resistance against any catastrophic outcomes makes little sense.

I am sounding a very serious warning here. In my personal life I am no stranger to nihilism and despair. I have seen it up close, I felt how it emerges and I have lived what it does to a human being. As soon as human beings lose faith in the potential for fundamental self improvement, they simply sit back and enjoy the ride. They no longer act, they expect to be served by others and they lose interest in the future as being of any tangible relevance. There is an even more sinister exponent of that, and it is an active, outright love of armageddon, an active and hungry looking forward to “getting it over with”. I have seen those sentiments during the cold war, where some people were so sick and tired of the pervasive threat of geothermal nuclear annihilation they’d rather welcome the event to happen soon than having to live with the fear for another year.

Once a sufficiently developed percentage of people actually get the idea the situation is pretty much hopeless, and fairly soon we are all going to perish horribly (which is at stake here, pretty much) then any arguments of “austerity”, “economic growth”, “morality”, “self-respect” will mean nothing. This statement itself is a guarantee for massive cognitive dissonance, as for most people to briefly entertain the very idea of total systemic collapse of the world’s infrastructures and affordances is literally beyond their capacity to entertain – and anyone who utters such ideas will be branded a troublemaker.

Crowds tend to be fairly decent mechanisms of future prediction. If you source a question to a crowd, the total consciousness of large amounts of people tends to act as a pretty decent predictor of what is likely to happen. So my prediction in turn with regards to the global collective subconscious is to insist is that we closely watch where the herd stampedes. This moment of a stampede isn’t very close – probably several years away – but the moment the majority of people catch on to how bad it might arguably become, is the moment that you will see a culture of nihilism we have not seen before on this planet. The moment where we all realize that no matter how efficiently we ration what’s left, and that large percentages of people will die, or be reduced to extreme developing world poverty, is the moment a lot of people will lose the capacity to care about the future, and be only interested in the very very short term.

Th breaking point of modernity will become, by and large, a crisis of faith. Once people collectively lose faith, there will be hell to pay. My estimate? Probably not before 2018, but certainly no later than 2025. When it happens it will make Arab Spring and Occupy look at dress rehearsals, and the end result will almost certainly be the most ruthless planetary dictatorship the planet has ever known.