I don’t know what the next zeitgeist change will involve, but I do know it will be a radical change, much bigger than the previous zeitgeist changes of the last 125 years. In succeeding posts, I will give the evidence that this change will be bigger than that expected. Since I am a human being, my personal preference is that the change be under human control and not something forced upon the world. But that may not be possible. As a society we need to grow up, to realize that we have reached childhood’s end.
In 1952 science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein published story called “Year of the Jackpot”; then in 1997 Sebastian Junger published the novel The Perfect Storm. Both these works of fiction deal with the idea that when several cycles crest at the same time, the result is greater than would normally be expected from any one cycle cresting, which results in the year of the jackpot or the perfect storm. This is what the world will be seeing at the next zeitgeist change.
The next zeitgeist change may be several things, partly depending on your previous outlook on the world. If you worship Google, then you might expect that The Singularity will occur, as predicted by Ray Kurzweil. The Singularity is that time when AI (Artificial Intelligence) becomes so powerful that we all have to be worried/all our dreams will come true. If you are into Near Term Extinction (Guy McPherson) this zeitgeist change will involve the death of the last human being. Perhaps an asteroid will hit the earth, causing many deaths. Perhaps there will be an invasion of the earth by an alien species, and they will enslave us or eat us. We may see a major nuclear war, something which the National Security State seems to be hellbent on creating. We can’t be sure of what the future holds, only that something big is coming down the pike. But whatever it is, it will not involve self driving electric cars.
But what I think, paying attention to what is occurring on the earth, is that the changes will involve what is called climate change. Since the zeitgeist change in the first decade of the Twentieth Century, cars have become more and more omnipresent. Since the Great Acceleration started with the second Twentieth Century change at the end of World War II, we have been consuming more and more at an accelerating rate. Then after the third zeitgeist change, this acceleration has increased yet again as the markets have assumed extreme power.
In regards to climate change, people split into two groups: One group, called “climate deniers” maintain that there is no such thing as human caused climate change. The climate may be changing, the say, but the climate has always changed. The other group — call them “Climate Optimists” — says that the climate is changing because of man-made greenhouse gases, and we can stop this problem by replacing all the uses of fossil fuels — oil, gas, coal — with electricity that is generated by solar panels, the wind, and nuclear reactors. Being children of the Enlightenment, they think that technology will save us, after causing many of the problems that plague us. The writer Naomi Klein says that the first group — climate deniers — has a better grasp of the realities of the current situation than the second group. The deniers realize that if man-made climate change is real, to combat it will require a major change in the way we live, in the alteration of our best loved institutions, such as capitalism, and those threats are so great that they must deny that the climate is changing. The other groups imagines that some tweaks to the current system, such as elimination of fossil fuels, will change our system enough to avoid catastrophe and then we can continue with our system of growth and consumption. It is said that most people are for combating climate change if they do not have to change their lifestyle, an example of climate optimism. So we have a choice between the ostrich method of hiding one’s head in the sand, or moving the deckchairs on the Titanic.
But climate change is not the problem, it is only a symptom a a much larger problem: that problem is overshoot — see William Catton’s book of the same name. An example of overshoot is when the Road Runner chases Wile E Coyote off the edge of a cliff — he has overshot the cliff literally. But the coyote does not realize the problem until he looks down. We haven’t looked down yet. Overshoot means we have gone beyond the bounds of a finite earth in terms of resource use and waste disposal. The point of 100% use was achieved in the early Eighties, and at that time, instead of trying to cut back and limit our use we stepped on the accelerator and increased our usage to a greater degree than had been the norm to that time. Perhaps the tepid solutions suggested now would have had a chance of working if tried in 1980.
What the world society has now is what I call a Nodal Problem. The nodes of the moon – those points where the moon’s orbit crosses the sun’s orbit — the ecliptic — are symbols used in astrology with widely different meanings. One of the most used is in the discussion below. The North Node — also called the head of the dragon — is where we get our sustenance, and the South Node — the tail of the dragon — is where we expel wastes. In physics these are considered as a source and a sink. We have had a Jupiter problem at both ends of the nodes, using too much of everything and producing too much garbage. Earth’s people, and most obviously Americans, have acted as though there is an infinite source and an infinite sink. We have trashed the earth. We are about to see a Saturn problem at both ends of the Nodal axis.
The list in the following paragraph consists of a few examples of the overshoot overtaking us that have crossed my attention recently. Daily headlines will always add more details, and there are many more instances that could be used.
The last few years have seen the deaths of large number of mammals and even greater percentage of flying insects, what is being called the Sixth Extinction (see Elizabeth Kobert’s book of the same name). Every since the late forties when their use began, the world has seen increasing use of pesticide (which kill pests) and other poisons on our food crops. And while there have been fewer pests, there have also been fewer beneficial insects such as bees and butterflies. As a result of the deaths of insects — remember when a journey of a few hundred miles would result in a car windshield covered with dead insects — birds, which eat insects, have suffered massive declines. The results of out massive use of plastics has been well documented. It has been said that all seafood contains plastic, and that plastic ends up in you when you eat the seafood. There are cases of whales dying because there are so many plastic bags in their gut. But there is also overfishing of the oceans, which has been going on for some time, but with new, more industrial ways of harvesting the oceans, more fish are dying accidentally, and more fish are harvested for food for humans, resulting in a dieback of the oceans. If you read stores of how thick the fish were just a few centuries ago, and compare it to now, you will be shocked by how much has changed. Meanwhile, on land, humans are spreading out to cover more and more of the earth. This results in lack of areas for birds, insects, and mammals, and the closing of corridors that large land based animal need to get from one place to another. And there is an increasing lack of water, as the ground water is depleted and there is less snowfall in the winter, and of topsoil, which is vitally needed for growing food, which is being used or blowing away, partially because of bad farming practices. Everyone now has myriad toxic chemicals in their bodies, and even newborn babies have such chemicals. Not only do automobiles spew poisons in to the atmosphere, but tire dust is put out as the car moves along, and the amount of pollution from tires is greater than the amount produced by the internal combustion engine. It has been estimated that for the amount of iron produced by one apple in 1950, by 1995 25 apples were needed, and by 2015 36 apples were need, as the nutritional level of food decreases because of global warming and increase use of toxics on food. We have nuclear pollution that also needs to be cleaned up, from Handford Washington to Fukushima Japan. And rapidly expanding is the threat of electronic pollution, from smart electric meters to 5G networks. And of course there is an increase of greenhouse gases because of automobiles and the raising of cattle, among other things.
William Ruckelshaus was head of the EPA under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. He proposed the following solution in an article in Scientific American 1989. This was back in a time when Republicans were to the left of the Democrats of today. Both Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore have called Nixon the last liberal president. As neoliberalism started, the Republicans moved to the right, as Republicans are wont to do. The Democrats, instead of arguing from principles of Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, agreed with the Republicans but wanted their ideas to be more moderate. Thus the center of discourse in the United States moved to the right. And that action was repeated over and over again, with the result that those ancient Republicans are seen as liberal, a once prominent feature of the Democratic Party. In fact, in recent primaries, Bernie Sanders of Vermont captured much following because he was still a liberal (though technically not in the Democratic Party), a species that used to be found often in that party. Just as a thirsty man will drink brackish water, the voters gravitated towards Sanders.
What Ruckelhaus proposed was the need for a Sustainability Revolution, like the Agricultural (Neolithic) Revolution about 10000 years ago, and the Industrial Revolution about 300 years ago, though this time under human control and in short period of time. This is neither a new idea or a radical one, or at least not in the last century.
The current American lifestyle is not sustainable, but no one dares to say it. And many people are frustrated because they can not have the American lifestyle that they feel is owed them. It is very difficult to tell these people that that style of life is no longer attainable. And consider that if you make at least $30,000 annually in the US, you are in the top 1% of the world. And the other 99% want a better lifestyle, something closer to the American ideal. Are they to be told to shove it, that we Americans have already used of all the available resources and then some? That will not make most people happy. So it should be clear that restrictions need to be made. Perhaps American need to return to the standard of living that was enjoyed in the Seventies and that which is enjoyed by the Europeans. It is easier to reach sustainability if society is more equal (see discussion of the book The Spirit Level, mentioned in the last post). This is similar to the process during World War II, when it was necessary to limit the upper income people so that other people would feel better about limiting their lifestyle for the war effort, since many felt that if the rich people were allowed to increase their income, those who are not among the wealthy would not like to limit their life style.
Another thing to note, which is referenced in the title of this blog, is that we are coming off a 500 year party that started around 1500. As this party evolved, which opened up more of the earth to partying, and used more and more resources, and produced more and more trash, more joined in the successful party. As pointed out previously, the three zeitgeist changes of the twentieth century increased the partying even more. After a party, it is necessary to clean the party grounds and dispose of the trash. The other thing one must do is replenish supplies. We will see that the next zeitgeist change is one that only occurs every 500 years. Indeed, the Party is Over and we need to grow up.