A multiplicity of alternative futures is wrapped up in every moment of the present.
Strong trends create a sense of inevitability regarding the now. For example:
Water occupies 70% of the Earth’s surface. The Earth revolves around the Sun. The Moon revolves around the Earth. The combined gravitational forces exerted by the Sun and Moon as the Earth rotates generate tides. These are all “givens.”
These realities haven’t changed in a very, very long time. The expectation that there will be a high tide and a low tide is based on undeniably strong trends. The trends are so solid that it’s not even thought of as something that could or might change. But massive meteors striking the Earth (or the Moon) could alter this fundamental regularity and create a dramatically different present, instantaneously.
Strong trend lines are sort of like an autobahn, a limited-access highway, where traffic is automatic and moving at a predictable speed. Various disruptions of the basic pattern occur, but matters return to the mean quickly when considered through the lens of a geological time frame.
A distinctive feature of the Anthropocene is that many of the strong trends of the era are not yet well-defined.
A distinctive feature of the Anthropocene is that many of the strong trends of the era are not yet well-defined. The on-ramps to the autobahn are designing and inventing what our limited-access highways are in going to be.
While it may be true that there are many characteristics of the Anthropocene that are not yet truly known, many of the trendlines that are taking shape are deeply disconcerting.
Temperatures and, therefore, climate boundaries were fairly stable during the Holocene, the 11,000-year geological era that ended around 1850. Up till then, temperatures on the Earth kept within about a 1°C range. One could depend upon hot and cold in particular regions to stay within that limit. The temperature was a predictable wave function. But, since 1850, temperatures have been going up. An inflection point occurred in 1900 and rising temperatures are rapidly accelerating.
The climate influences every element of life. The extreme weather variations that are becoming commonplace are the Numero Uno Context Setter of the Anthropocene so far.
Graphic: European Environmental Agency
This is not a happy chart. If things keep on like this, everything is going to be in very deep doo-doo. If we Earthlings continue damaging the atmosphere, the ramp we’re creating will go nowhere. We are at an inflection point and most people are not paying attention, e.g., the activist US Supreme Court which just neutered the US Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to curb carbon emissions. It empowered many reactionary states governed by Republicans who deny the reality of climate change to continue their obstinate hostility toward science.
Coincident with the climate crisis, several other inflection points are also being reached in technology, the Earth’s population carrying capacity, the interconnectedness and immediacy of contact across the globe, the stability of sexual norms, and gender relations …the list goes on.
The relationship between democracies
and autocracies is a trend line that is very unstable at present. It could unfold in a variety of ways. Its future will have a great impact on the prospects of the Anthropocene’s continued existence.
I believe that the outcome of two present-moment dramas will exert significant influence on what the autocracy versus democracy superhighway will look like over the course of the next 20-50 years:
Donald Trump, his allies, and his supporters sought to overthrow the government of the United States through a violent coup on January 6th, 2021. If he and his close associates are not held accountable, the rule of law and of majority rule will become increasingly meaningless on the world stage. Raw power will become synonymous with government, as it is and has been with every dictatorship.
The ascendency of minority rule is being enforced by an out-of-step Supreme Court and imposed upon America by an outmoded electoral college system that tips the scales toward the interests and values of voters from rural states, many of whom are significantly less educated than their fellow citizens from urban areas.
Two of the winners in the last five presidential elections did not receive the majority of the popular votes but ascended to office through the electoral college. A third (2020) continues to be contested by the loser, despite clear evidence that he lost both the popular and the electoral college votes. Dominated by three Trump appointees, all of whom lied about their views on settled law during their confirmation hearings, and Clarence Thomas, who also lied during his confirmation hearing, the Supreme Court has increasingly become an instrument
of the Republican Party.
The electoral college and the Supreme Court are both pillars of American democracy. However, both trends, i.e., the meaninglessness of votes from urban states and the willingness of the Supreme Court to enforce laws and norms regarding abortion, gun regulation, and climate change (to name only three that are prominent) that only small minorities of the population agree with, are undermining the legitimacy of these institutions and creating unpredictable consequences.
Will these trends continue to go uncontested by an apathetic public for whom electoral politics does not matter or will they be contested by the reinvigoration of constituencies that have neither paid attention to politics nor been reliable voters in the past?
Alternatively, will mobs and organized militias, such as those that stormed the Capitol on 1/6/21, become the norms in the United States as electoral politics become completely outmoded and abandoned?
Innumerable predictions are being made on these questions, but I think that the wheel of Fate is still very much in spin. Much will depend on the results of the House of Representatives investigation of the 1/6 insurrection and whether Merrick Garland’s Justice Department charges, tries, convicts, and imprisons Trump and his close associates.
Doing so would surely result in riots and violence by devoted Trumpians, including those who make a lot of money off his brand and look forward to doing so again in the future. Being willing to confront and put down this rage would go a long way toward re-establishing accountability and the rule of law not only in the United States but also in every society where the democratic governance structure either holds sway or is seen as desirable.
It would also indicate that the world’s most prominent democracy has come to its senses and would, therefore, start to take a much more consistently sane approach to the massive problems created by the climate crisis, the changing conditions of employment created by the burgeoning role of technology, the resetting of norms between men and women and other dynamics in rapid motion during this inflection point period.
Not doing so essentially guarantees that the political autobahn presently under construction will be one of authoritarianism and alienation. Police state and surveillance tactics and manipulations such as those envisioned by Orwell in 1984
(and presently being enforced in Xi’s China) will become normative. In this instance, the Anthropocene will be a very short period, geologically. This dystopian period will culminate in environmental collapse and God only knows what will follow. They’d better be happy Or at least conforming!
Source: China Daily; credit: Reuters
Conditions in Ukraine present a similar picture of the struggle between democracy and autocracy, law and might.
Volodymyr Zelensky and his people are waging an incredibly courageous struggle against the brutal villainy of Vladimir Putin and his Russian supporters. As with the effort to bring Trumpism to justice, it is not at all clear at this moment how the battle will turn out. Again, many pundits and everyday people are sure of the outcome, but no one really knows. World War III may have already begun, although the acceleration of the conflict is moving slowly, as it did in 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland. Or, the Russian advance may run out of steam, resulting in victory for Ukraine at some point and the removal of Russian troops from Ukrainian lands.
If Trump and Trumpism avoid justice and if Putin’s campaign to destroy Ukraine’s independence are both successful, the deep cynicism that many – and perhaps, especially, the young – feel will harden into dangerous nihilism with frightening and dispiriting results accompanied by a great deal of violence.
If, on the other hand, they both lose, there will be a significant upsurge in hope and political activism in support of democracy and the rule of law worldwide. Not enough to overcome the eco-anxiety caused by climate change and other factors, but important.
If Trump loses and Putin wins, the prospects for WWIII and Russia’s collapse increase, especially if the Republican Party is deeply discredited in the United States and a young and charismatic Center-Left wins the Presidency in 2024.
If Putin loses and Trump wins, the United States will slide further into isolationism and a Fortress America mentality, Europe will have to face a wounded and adrift Russia with greatly diminished American support, China’s dictatorship will become more cemented, isolationism and nationalism will advance, and the United States will likely withdraw from the United Nations. Alliances will be based more on transactionalism than on shared values and trust.
Uncertainty, complexity, and the prospect of interminable chaos are characteristic of the Anthropocene at this point in its evolution, and that may always be so. It is important to do everything we can to create positive possibilities and avoid political regression. The climate crisis worsens every day and needs to be addressed with maturity and resolve.
What kind of superhighway do we want to have?