Things to come

by Gene Miller, January 2011

The New Year Message: not for the faint of heart.

So, in your version of the movie, who’s streaming across the border? Soulful young upstanding families? People calmly reading the classics as they walk? Tomorrow-eyed pioneers eager for organic farming opportunities in a new, healthy land? University professors, healers, poets, Pan-pipe-playing hippies wearing daisy-chain crowns, a vast creative community? And as they cross under the Peace Arch, we take them by the arm and lead them to a bounteous harvest meal and their new homes in Canada?

Give your head a shake and steady yourself.

It’s going to be the mouth-breathers, folks who think celerity is a vegetable. It’s going to be people like the sociopathic road-freaks in Mad Max. They’re not going to ask our permission; they’re going to sweep across the border in their gun-mounted Hummers, Cadillac Escalades and wilderness-destroying off-road 4X4s, clutching their broods of dysgenic, moon-faced young’uns and their slavering pitbulls. Drug dealers, weaponized nuts with the NRA bumper stickers, Republicans, prison refuse, twitchy survivalists, spooky evangelical Christians by the millions. We’re like children or some species of ruminant and we will be defenceless before them. They’re coming here not to give, but to take, take, take.

For those of you who think 2011 is going to be just like 2010, only more eleven-y, you are taking no account of rapidly shifting conditions. America is crapping out so quickly and conditions are changing with such speed that even the most thoughtful commentators are getting whiplash.

Please, cut out this column and tape it behind that embarrassing framed vacation photo of you feeding a Payday candy bar to a camel—yes, the photo on your home-office wall near the macramé plant holder. When you hear that first great thunderclap in the heavens, reread it, thinking: “Omigod, Miller wasn’t just off his meds! What do I do now? What do I do now?”

Too late, you hand-wringing wimp. Kiss your organic jam collection and your Siamese cat named Tikka good-bye. Shoulda listened to me and moved to Ten Thousand Mile House when you had the chance. Not that that would save you.

I know you’re thinking, “Oh, that Gene, he’s so flamboyant…so colourful.” But I don’t have a sufficiently fevered imagination to make up this stuff.

Alfred W. McCoy is Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At the beginning of December, Huffington Post carried his online piece, “The Decline and Fall of the American Empire: Four Scenarios for the End of the American Century by 2025.” It begins:

 

“A soft landing for America 40 years from now? Don’t bet on it. The demise of the United States as the global superpower could come far more quickly than anyone imagines. If Washington is dreaming of 2040 or 2050 as the end of the American Century, a more realistic assessment of domestic and global trends suggests that in 2025, just 15 years from now, it could all be over except for the shouting…

…When Washington’s global dominion finally ends, there will be painful daily reminders of what such a loss of power means for Americans in every walk of life. As a half-dozen European nations have discovered, imperial decline tends to have a remarkably demoralizing impact on a society, regularly bringing at least a generation of economic privation. As the economy cools, political temperatures rise, often sparking serious domestic unrest.”

 

McCoy labels his scenarios “Economic Decline,” “Oil Shock,” Military Misadventure,” and “World War III,” and while they may seem “melodramatic and unlikely,” as one commenter notes, almost no one capable of passing even a rudimentary sanity test could fail to acknowledge that we are witnessing an epochal re-mapping of global economic, scientific and cultural influences, and a long slide down from unchallenged American hegemony. Funny, but the gradual dislocation of the polar cap and the melting of the Arctic Sea ice seem not just like consequential environmental events of their own, but also apt tectonic metaphors.

Occasionally, folks have commented on my predilection for bad news. “Miller, with you the glass is always half empty.” Let me clarify. The glass is, in fact, three-quarters empty, so I’m not a catastrophist, but wildly hopeful. The glass-half-full optimists are, by comparison, completely delusional. Their minds are not their own and they are not to be trusted or followed. When the weather’s excremental, the catastrophist says: “It’s raining shit.” The optimist, with idiocy oozing from every synapse, says: “The sun’s going to shine again.” There should be a painless surgical procedure called an optimectomy. 

I recently witnessed an interesting literary example of idealized, mis-targeted optimism while viewing the prefigurative 1936 British science fiction film, Things To Come. The screenplay by H. G. Wells adapts his own 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come and his 1931 non-fiction work, The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind. 

Wells, whose self-chosen epitaph read: “I told you so. You damned fools,” was a utopian socialist who had hopes for an egalitarian future led by scientist-managers when all would have dignity appropriate to their role. In the film’s last moments—Oswald Cabal gives a “Speech to the Idea of Progress” to his friend and colleague Passworthy:

 

PASSWORTHY: My God! Is there never to be an age of happiness? Is there never to be rest?

CABAL: For MAN no rest and no ending. He must go on—conquest beyond conquest. This little planet and its winds and ways, and all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him, and when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time—still he will be beginning.

PASSWORTHY: But we are such little creatures. So fragile—so weak.

CABAL: If we are no more than animals—we must snatch at our little scraps of happiness and live and suffer and pass. [He points out at the stars.] "It is that—or this? All the universe—or nothingness…Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?

 

His dream may have been silly, but at least it wasn’t venal or corrupt. To dish up a helping of current social perversity, and to entirely ruin your hopes for a reasoned future, I direct you to www.resistingthegreendragon.com. This response to the environmental movement coordinated by the Cornwall Alliance, featuring various conservative Christian leaders, portrays environmentalism as “one of the greatest deceptions of our day” that is “seducing your children” and “striving to put America and the world under its destructive control.”

Your dream has come true, Mr Wells. We’re (intermittently) on the moon and we have achieved conquest over our own planet. But, like almost all conquest, it’s a bitter victory and a mixed blessing; and like that worrier Passworthy, we ask again: Is there never to be an age of happiness?

Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.