When I'm 164

By Gene Miller, March 2015

Past cultures were gone in a generational eye-blink. Strap in, brothers and sisters!

It just hit me: I’m 71; I might live another 25 years and get to see how it all turns out. I mean, my mom died precisely on her 96th birthday (no, I did not sing “Happy Birthday” as she expired); and Doutza, my adoring 28-year-old ex-fashion model wife, and our two gorgeous and talented children want me to live forever. Okay, that last bit’s pure fiction. Doutza’s 31.

I’ve been reading synoptic reviews of the apparently silly and execrable but eye-popping movie “Interstellar.” Near future, Earth in ecological collapse (like that could ever happen), humanity decimated and reduced to agrarian survival, last viable crop (corn) failing, time running out, helpful aliens, wormholes to other habitable planets, Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, black holes, happy endings. 

Can’t wait for the sequel, in which we ruin our new planet, and aliens figure out we’re assholes and close all the wormholes. I’m morally offended that director Christopher Nolan thought it was a good idea to reward humanity with another planet when it couldn’t manage its own. But, then, Nolan’s in the sequel business, whereas I’m Old Testament.

So, is there a question here? Well, yes, a personal one, and I’m inching toward it. Facing the prospect of another two dimes and a nickel aboveground, I wonder: What are the odds they will play like an apocalypse movie? Reader Patrick Skillings, in a recent letter to Focus, took the position that I have only to look in the mirror for an answer: “Miller’s... analysis of life on this planet is not a dystopian future, [but] a dystopian present. [Because of his cultural and political bias, his] often intelligent concepts are set aside as hyper lunatic ravings.” 

Not “ravings,” or “lunatic ravings,” but “hyper lunatic ravings”—a reminder that if you’re craving ravings, go with a pro. First 20 callers will receive a free “Soylent Green” DVD.

Honestly, only here in Candyland could anyone conclude I was, like, full-dystopian. Out in the real world beyond our borders, where life and truly unmanaged hysteria happen, I’m middle-of-the-road at best. But here in our Panglossian delusionarium-by-the-sea, our very own Oz filled with munchkins and good witch Glindas, I’m Mr Crax O’Doom.

As those who know me will attest, I’m a very sunny and hopeful person who just tends toward the view that everything’s going to end badly soon, all will be taken away, and we’re in for a world of pain. This may seem like a logical contradiction, but, honestly, is it so hard to conceive of a pessimistic optimist—a worrier still willing to make an effort?

I use emergency and catastrophic prospects as literary tools, intentional flourishes to bring a sense of urgency to issues and to underscore our need to respond to the very real challenges before us. Not so wrong, I think, particularly in a place whose reflex response is to file urgencies in the “Later” box. The dream Times Colonist headline I yearn for some Tuesday morning, after its every-Monday publishing hiatus, is: “World Ends Yesterday.” 

My grandparents brought Russian melancholy and resignation to America from Saint Petersburg early in the 1900s, along with an immigrant’s trio of high hopes, low expectations and culture shock. Their Americanized kids—my parents—never fully outran the privations of a generation walloped by the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, or upending by the existential worries of a catastrophic Second World War. I was born in 1943—a “war baby”—and while I can’t say that I left heel marks in the war, the Nazi miasma remained a living memory, framed my sensibilities and left me to this day attuned to the jeopardy and menace embedded in writer Adam Gopnik’s startling observation: “On purely Darwinian terms, all coexistence is competition held briefly in equilibrium.” 

Or, to move all of this intellectually down-market, I harmonize with William Bell who, in 1961, recorded a B-side for Stax Records: “You Don’t Miss Your Water ‘Til Your Well Runs Dry.”

A lot of us imagine that the historic record told in books lives only in some abstracted factoidal dimension. We think: “That’s then, there and them; not now, here or us.” The small urgencies, pleasures and complacencies of the day take up most of the bandwidth, and we quickly grow fuzzy about history as it disappears behind the curve. Who among us walks around daily reflecting on the cultural apex or social collapse of past national or imperial empires? Still, it is a fact that civilizations and cultures have imploded or vanished like blown dust, and many are now just fitfully remembered; near-fictions, really. 

Perhaps the most compelling (and cautionary) lesson in history, both natural and human, is that everything, including nations and civilizations, has an arc. From my dabbler’s study of history I get that nature fosters climax—the triumph and highest expression, a culture’s “gilded age”—followed, often closely, by collapse or decline (decorous or otherwise). The capacity for robust social self-renewal, the “will” to continue, diminishes, or turns elusive. Entrenched interests—economic, religious, cultural, political—become rigid, defensive, and unresponsive. Various forms of social rot set in and become entrenched. Often, this is accompanied by the violence and repression associated with collapse. Considered in the setting of natural process, nations and empires are like lurid tropical blooms.

I carry the Good Book with me everywhere: the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2014, Ninth Edition. WEF Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab in the introduction emphasizes current “transformational shifts in our economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological systems” and concludes: “enhanced systemic risks.”

To justify his concern about amplified risk, Schwab may in his reveries have been channelling troglodytes like US Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (and the millions who share his sentiments) who has pledged to rid that country’s laws of “climate change junk-science” that inhibits economic growth, and who has also promised to de-fang the Environmental Protection Agency by getting it out of the business of mandating and managing air and water quality—spuriously believed by many to be, well, you know, cornerstones of environmental protection. 

Or maybe Schwab studied the disproportionate and Croesus-like claims upon US wealth by the top one-tenth of one percent and the gutting of the middle class (increasingly mirrored in Canada) and drew nervous parallels with the conditions that led to earlier social implosions. (Here’s a charming historical note: Roman Emperor Nero of fiddling fame was rumoured to have dipped captured Christians in oil and set them on fire in his garden at night as a source of light.)

Wall Street executive Steven Rattner recently commented in the New York Times: “To only modest notice, during the [midterm election] campaign the Federal Reserve put forth more sobering news about income inequality: Inflation-adjusted earnings of the bottom 90 percent of Americans fell between 2010 and 2013, with those near the bottom dropping the most. Meanwhile, incomes in the top decile rose.” Burning Christians, latter day.

In a panel discussion on growth and stability on 24 January, senior editor at Fusion, Felix Salmon, said there was a consensus at this year’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos that global inequality is getting worse. He said quantitative easing had been expected to result in the power of capital decreasing and that of labour increasing. But that has not happened. Instead, Salmon said the conversations he had during the Davos summit revealed overriding pessimism over growing inequality. The result, he said, could be that the next big revolution will be in regulation rather than innovation.

I’m drawn to these concerns exactly because the authors keep a sober if nervous eye on the near-horizon, out where the future is being made. 

Chen Fengying is director of the Beijing-based Institute of World Economic Studies. Here is an excerpt from her “World Economic Prospects in the Next Ten Years”:

“The world economy will follow a trend that may be defined as ‘chaotic,’ ‘changing’ and ‘new.’ It is ‘chaotic’ because the West will continue to wrestle with the aftermath of the financial and economic crisis, ‘changing’ because the international financial and economic system will be transformed, and ‘new’ because patterns in world power will undergo great changes. [This] mega-crisis embodies big risks, fundamental reforms, and great opportunities.”

Chen doesn’t answer the question, “Risks, reforms and great opportunities for whom?” but let’s note that “Mandarin For Dystopians” is sold out on Amazon and at bookstores. 

Strap in, brothers and sisters! ?????????!

Originally published in TomDispatch and picked up by The Nation and other online journals, historian Alfred McCoy’s lengthy 2010 essay “The Decline and Fall of the American Empire,” may have you clutching for the Gravol. He notes:

“So delicate is their ecology of power that, when things start to go truly bad, empires regularly unravel with unholy speed: just a year for Portugal, two years for the Soviet Union, eight years for France, 11 years for the Ottomans, 17 years for Great Britain, and, in all likelihood, 22 years for the United States, counting from the crucial year 2003 [the Bush administration’s rash invasion of Iraq].”

However, a disputatious reader of McCoy’s piece responds (reproduced verbatim): “Who cares if america falls as a economic super power or whatever because we are still so cool and we have the cutest clothes and the cutest hair. Also, we still have really good music.” 

Including that chart-topper “You Don’t Miss Your Water ‘Til Your Well Runs Dry.”

Gene Miller, founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences, is currently co-writing 50 by 20 with Rob Abbott. The two are also about to launch 50x20.com—a companion website dedicated to championing exceptional North American sustainability initiatives and accomplishments.