That Was the Year That Was

The title of Michelle Goldberg’s overview of the past year in The New York Times is “The Anniversary of the Apocalypse”. I thought “apocalypse” was too much, but Merriam-Webster says it means “a great disaster”. That’s fair. In what follows, I’ve removed all descriptions of particular offenses:

In the terror-struck and vertiginous days after [the] election a year ago, as I tried to make sense of America’s new reality, I called people who lived, or had lived, under authoritarianism to ask what to expect. I wasn’t looking for concrete predictions — one of the disorienting things about that moment was that no one, no matter how learned, had any idea what was happening — but for insights into how the texture of life changes when an autocratic demagogue is in charge.

A secular Turkish journalist told me, her voice sad and weary, that while people might at first pour into the streets to oppose [him], eventually the protests would probably die out as a sense of stunned emergency gave way to the slog of sustained opposition. The Russian dissident writer Masha Gessen warned that there’s no way, with a leader who lays siege to the fabric of reality, to fully hold on to a sense of what’s normal. “You drift, and you get warped,” she told me.

They were both right. The country has changed in the past year, and many of us have grown numb after unrelenting shocks. What now passes for ordinary would have once been inconceivable….

… this nightmare year has upended assumptions about the durability of the rules, formal and informal, governing our politics. There’s a metaphysical whiplash in how quickly alarm turns into acceptance and then into forgetfulness….

Hannah Arendt once wrote of the role vulgarity played in undermining liberalism in pre-totalitarian societies: “The temporary alliance between the elite and the mob rested largely on this genuine delight with which the former watched the latter destroy respectability”…. In this administration, crassness has become a weapon, annihilating social codes that once restrained political behavior, signaling that old standards no longer apply.

Lately, the pace of shocks has picked up, even if our capacity to process them has not….In another administration this [take your pick] would have been a major scandal. In this one it barely registers.

How can America ever return from this level of systematic derangement and corruption? I wish there was someone I could ask, but we know more about how countries slide into autocracy than how they might climb out of it. It’s been a year, and sometimes I’m still poleaxed by grief at the destruction of our civic inheritance.

In moments of optimism I think that this is just a hideous interregnum….

Hey, all we have to do is win more elections, like we did tonight in Virginia and New Jersey. Or we could get the opposition to develop a sense of shame. One of those should be manageable.

Some of This News Is Related (and We’re All Another Day Older)

The Wayne County (Michigan) prosecutor has charged 54-year old Theodore Wafer of Dearborn Heights with second-degree murder, manslaughter and illegal possession of a firearm. He shot Renisha McBride in the face after she crashed her car on his street at 2 a.m. and came to his house, apparently looking for help.

At least one semi-facetious observer recently suggested a link between this kind of thing and the end of the world as we know it. On a related topic – what we’re doing to the planet – a leaked report from a U.N. commission predicts that climate change will reduce the global food supply in coming years, while the world’s population grows (albeit at a declining rate) and the demand for food increases.

An ex-soldier writing in the New York Times accepts the idea that we’ve entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, a concept some scientists have adopted in order to reflect the massive effects we’re having on the planet. The ex-soldier argues that we should think of our civilization as already being dead, just like he used to think of himself as already dead when he was stationed in Iraq. Maybe he’s right and a more fatalistic attitude toward the effects of climate change would make us behave differently. We might go calmly about our business and make lots of necessary changes. On the other hand, we might do even less than we’re doing now.

There is also quite a big difference between one particular soldier dealing with the next few hours of his life and 200 nations composed of 7 billion people doing something about the next 100 years. Global climate change is, after all, a perfect example of the problem of the commons”, i.e. “the depletion of a shared resource by individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one’s self-interest, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to the group’s long-term best interests” (Wikipedia)An economist writing in the American Economic Review admits that:

as the US and other economies have grown, the carrying capacity of the planet—in regard to both natural resources and environmental quality—has become a greater concern….While small communities frequently provide modes of oversight and methods for policing their citizens…, commons problems have spread across communities and even across nations. In some of these cases, no overarching authority can offer complete control, rendering common problems more severe.

Yet he concludes that “economics is well-positioned to offer better understanding and better policies to address these ongoing challenges” (maybe he felt the need for an upbeat ending).

Still, the U.N. Climate Change Conference is underway in Warsaw. There are people advocating for a steady-state economy in which population growth and the use of natural resources are limited. A group of eminent scientists recently said that the “evidence indicating that our civilisation has already caused significant global warming is overwhelming”, but it’s still possible to limit the increase to a sustainable 2 degrees Centigrade if we act quickly. 

Meanwhile, China has just decided to remove its restriction on city-dwellers having more than one child, which will mean another million or two young Chinese every year, and Japan is substantially cutting its greenhouse gas reduction target in order to compensate for shutting down its nuclear power plants.

In other news, Andy Kaufman is, unfortunately, still dead.

The Weight of the World

There is a funny scene in Annie Hall in which the young Alvy and his mother visit the doctor. Alvy is depressed because he’s learned that the universe is expanding. Eventually, it will all come apart. So what’s the point of doing homework?

We rational adults understand that it’s silly to worry about what’s going to happen to the universe billions of years from now. Nevertheless, like Alvy, I’m troubled by a situation that is way too big to worry about.

The good news is that I’m nowhere near as troubled as Woody Allen’s alter ego (or Woody Allen himself). If I had homework, I’d do it all, pointless or not. But I figured I’d share my concern here, since confession can be good for the psyche.

It seems to me that the world is too big and complex to function. By “the world”, I don’t mean the natural world. Remove human beings from the world and it would chug along just fine. I mean the human world, the world that we’ve created, the world of fiber optic cables, water treatment plants, international air travel, electrical grids, server farms, Amazon fulfillment centers, health insurance for dogs and the global market in fruits and vegetables.

I walk into my local supermarket and am confronted by an array of apples, oranges, broccoli, lettuce, some of which was transported to our town from thousands of miles away. Consider the number of grocery stores in America and the rest of the world, all of them selling fruits and vegetables. Where does all this stuff come from? How can this gigantic cornucopia be produced and distributed so that it can make its way to our shopping carts in an edible condition? Can this system really work? I don’t think so.

The whole enterprise, i.e. human civilization, seems like a giant house of cards.

I mean, have you ever considered the number of pipes running under Manhattan? The amount of fresh water that’s consumed every day by a billion Chinese? The number of ingredients that go into a package of frozen Swedish meatballs?

I have – and it’s a lot.