Thursday, May 9, 2013

Is civilization just a bubble?

Does anyone else notice the sour smell of failure emanating from the prostrate body of our civilization?

I've been planting trees, so I have that much optimism in me.  And I have great faith in humans' ability to muddle through whatever crises and disasters we encounter and create.  We are, after all, a species that colonized the Arctic with nothing but the materials at hand, that thrived in deserts, jungles, savannah, delta marshes and mountain slopes.  It will take utter cataclysm to wipe us out.  Of course, that's never out of the question.

I've written here about my pessimism -- a year ago, two years ago, three years ago, five years ago.  Civilization is a much more fragile thing than a species, and there are epochal challenges rising.

Now certainly, as the man said, "prediction is hard - especially about the future," so I have to take my misgivings, my readings of graphs and tea leaves and blog posts with the proverbial grain of salt.  But it is not all of that which fills me with pessimism -- rather it's the yeasty smell of a civilization-wide speculative bubble.

I've seen a few economic bubbles -- Tokyo real estate in the 1980's, the dot-com enthusiasm of the late nineties and the recent real estate crash.  Today a higher education bubble has inflated so gradually that people are barely aware of it.  (To say nothing of the global financial industry, which seems to have papered over global economic contraction with a vast bubble of its own.)

The economists will tell you that a bubble is caused by "exaggerated expectations of future growth," when the market value of a thing becomes deranged from the "intrinsic worth," and it all ends in a crash or the bursting of the bubble.  But it's not market failure I'm thinking of.  What the economists don't dwell on (because it would be embarrassing) is the amount of jargon-laden lecturing and hand-waving that goes on during a bubble about why the normal fundamentals can be waived as obsolete and how the trajectory this time is just upward and upward because - well because this time it's different and the critics and doomsayers are just lacking in faith, imagination and knowledge. 

But none of the arguments and reassurances put forth within the bubble really make sense.  If you are not caught up in the enthusiasm it can look implausible and delusional from the outside, and you can wonder about the powers and dangers of wishful thinking.  

What gives me the most qualms about the future is that we are surrounded now by that smell of inflated bubble.  We are encased within the familiar, heady atmosphere of sparkly, ungrounded optimism with its subtle acrid taint of flop sweat and curt defensiveness.  Climate change, energy depletion, the increasing fragility of the food system and our life support systems, economic contraction -- each one alone could threaten to derail or destroy our civilization, and yet each one - to the extent it even rises to a moment's prominence in the public discourse - is waived aside with airy assurances that all that needs to be done is being done - or will be done when it is necessary and convenient.  Critics and doomsayers are ignored or mocked as worrywarts lacking in faith and clarity of understanding.  

I've diagnosed these bubbles in the past.  Then I could stand aside from such speculations with wry complacency -- not so much when it takes down the food system.