Choices and ‘the future’
In one of the interminably recycled conversational conceits online, two interlocutors say roughly the following:
“If we just quit eating meat (or insert your own hobbyhorse), that will contribute substantially to reducing greenhouse emissions.”
“Is that our only choice? Grazing ruminants are part of a healthy ecosystem. We can have meat, but less, and only meat that has been ecologically raised.”
Which conceit are we describing? The one where a person — one 7.8 billionth of the “we” in question — adopts the role of global monarch or deity in the theater of his or her own mind and discusses magical “choices” that will rehabilitate the imaginary regent’s imaginary notion of this broken world.
I like fantasies, too. I often imagine that I’m the President just so I can do fun imaginary things, like publicly telling the Clintons to shut the fuck up before I sic the whole DOJ on the Epstein case, or holding a press conference where I say, “I regret to announce that things are going to get a hell of a lot worse, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.” Or during a national broadcast I detail media ownership and declare Black Rock an enemy of the people. Or I order the armed forces to close down US bases abroad and come home. Or I cancel all debt . . . all of it (I know, real Presidents maybe can’t do that . . . but my imaginary one can). See . . . it’s fun. In each fantasy, I’m immensely powerful and I’ll be hailed down through history for correcting humanity’s aberrant path.
I remember meetings — when I still did those infernal things — where agendas were constantly overthrown by “ideas.” It’s fun and easy to roll out lots of ideas, and it provides many “I’m smart, too” opportunities. Meetings in the Army worked, because this shit was stepped on like so many cellar spiders. Popping off with an idea was a risky venture, because the person in charge of the meeting was likely to say, “Good, bring me a feasibility study in the next 24 hours,” whereupon one had to do exactly that . . . and never interjected another “I’m smart, too” comment again.
When someone proposes (regurgitates, actually) that “we” all quit eating meat, as one example, someone needs to tell them, “Good, bring me a feasibility study.” One in which you detail every step that has to be taken to accomplish that Global Veganism outcome. The rain will cascade down on the old Denial Parade.
What are we denying? We are denying the glaringly obvious (but too scary to acknowledge) fact that — in the real world — our most pressing and often horrifying problems are the excrescence of an encompassing reality which is simultaneously too complex to fully apprehend and a reality that is describable but inaccessible to solutions. No one ever wants to admit this. Perhaps we believe this can lead only to despair. The denial of our situation as insoluble — beyond points of no return — is one side of the coin, the other side being just the simple denial that the problem exists. Denial of, say, global warming (from the right) and denial of its invulnerability to voluntary action (from the left) . . . are both still the same coin: denial.
We watched Don’t Look Up last week, the Netflix film that made a killer comet the analog for global warming, and ever since then I’ve found myself (and others) defending the film from its most obvious bourgeois critics who want you to associate their too-subtle-by-half hit pieces with a mediated air of sophistication you’ve been programmed to crave (also in fantasy). The most honest aspect of the whole film, intended or not, is that the comet is going to hit. Neither technology nor the security state have the capacity — much less the willingness — to make the increasingly scaled-out-of-reach fantasy solutions . . . feasible.
With the comet, at least, everything is tied off neatly. We all have that last goodbye, and the suffering will soon be over.
With climate collapse — combined in the real world with international rivalries, nuclear weapons, climate and war refugees, a capitalist epoch in stage-four metastasis, and generalized social inertia — there will be no quick and painless termination of suffering, no decisive global apocalyptic moment, and no solutions. We have already passed the point of no return. Mathematicians may be able to invent scenarios where this is no longer true, but we should say to them . . . bring us a feasibility study. One that takes into account the politics of 194 polities, power struggles and personalities within those polities, and all the other stuff that is inflected in the infinitely complex and evolving Real that we’re trying so desperately to deny.
That’s not despair talking. I’m Catholic, and we believe that despair is a terrible sin. This is as close as possible to a realistic account that I can give right now, and the other thing I learned from the Army was that any plan which inaccurately or insufficiently accounts for the real conditions in which a mission is carried out will result in mission failure.
The big solutions are past. It’s all damage control and bricolage now. The most important thing people can do — which many will not — is learn to dance with a different, more unpredictable, and often dangerous world. The world won’t be destroyed (unless the worse methane predictions come true); but over a painful and often seemingly slow period of time, our children and grandchildren will face a future headed toward something like Haiti writ large — failing grids and ecological devastation, in which we all try to find new footholds. Therein are the choices of the future, one about which technocrats and academics can no longer encompass with their categories.
We can’t “see” the future. In Mammon’s Ecology, a book I wrote way back in pre-pandemic 2018, I speculated on what it would take politically to “get through this.” The book was mostly about how general purpose money works environmentally, and most of the prognostications were dire. The final chapter, however, was a Kassandra polemic of sorts, saying that the window of opportunity for political correction was closing. One of the first steps in passing through this window was the social democrats beating the Democratic establishment. Welp . . . that failed. The rest of the chapter now lies in ruin. Someone should have told me, “Do a feasibility study.”
The rest of the book, I’m sorry to report, is turning out to be true. This is your President speaking: “I regret to announce that things are going to get a hell of a lot worse, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.” All we have left to rely upon is love and improvisation.
(Oh yeah, Happy New Year!)