It’s a Great Time to Be Alive So Why Are We So Furious and Depressed?
It is a great time to be alive by almost every measure. At a global level, poverty is lower than it has ever been. People that had been mired in want and disease for millennia in China, India, South Korea, Brazil, Vietnam, and elsewhere, are joining the global middle class, or at least leaving utter abjection. For the first time, many of them have food and medicine, and the hope of health, long life, and education — in other words, what we would think of as “a future.” There are fewer wars with fewer people dying in them now than ever before in human history. Diseases have been eradicated en masse, anti-vaxxers notwithstanding. Even if all one could access on the internet was Wikipedia (and some days I wish that was the case) we, as a global citizenry, have widespread access to more information than ever before. And certain goods, like electronics, entertainment, clothing, and much food, are cheaper than ever.
Yet, it seems we are ever more depressed and furious at one another and everything. Our politics and lives are increasingly atomized and angry. Our trust in ourselves in our government, in anything, is waning. Though most pronounced in the United States and some othe parts of the rest of the “developed” world, this inchoate anger, fear, and depression is spreading across the globe.
Because we are all participating in the most epic crime you can imagine, but haven’t been caught. Yet.
We are all participating in the most epic crime you can imagine, but haven’t been caught. Yet.
The crime is our global economic system. The victim is the Earth and, ultimately, ourselves.
The perpetrators are all of us.
The judge and jury are our descendants, our children and grandchildren and theirs.
Your nationality doesn’t matter: Americans, Danes, Chinese, Swedes, Indians, Canadians, and Germans are all co-conspirators in this crime — your country’s dense cities, public transportation, recycling programs, and wind farms might reduce your sentence, but you’re still going to be found guilty.
Sorry, your politics don’t matter either. Conservative political machines across the world have enabled the crime to continue unabated and are concealing evidence of it and obstructing justice (in some cases literally) as we speak. But liberals went along for too long — it’s a little late to go to the cops when you’ve fled the scene of the crime. Maybe liberals will get a plea bargain for turning state’s evidence, but you’re still going to jail. Greens might get a commuted sentence.
And individually, I hate to say it, but your lifestyle doesn’t matter. Solar panels on your small house? Electric car? Organic groceries? You might get time served.
We are all guilty.
So like criminals who haven’t been caught, we are suspicious, paranoid, defensive, angry, sleepless and depressed. We are all living in the last act of GoodFellas: yelling at one another, looking for helicopters in the sky, and trying to eke out as much pleasure as we can before the certain end comes.
The United States is clearly feeling the effects of this all-encompassing guilt first because it is the most guilty — it built this system and benefitted the most from it for decades. But I can’t lay too much blame at our collective, clunky-sneakered feet; I think any country in our position would have behaved the same way. We were the last man standing after World War II. In our fifty-year hegemony thereafter, we got really rich. So it stood to reason that in the global economy that developed after the end of the Cold War, we would get slightly less rich, both relative to the rest of the globe and among our own middle- and lower-classes as relative to their past selves.
The United States is like the British aristocracy in this regard. They too were once immeasurably rich and titantically better off than everyone else. As the Industrial Revolution took off, a lot of people around them got richer and bought their way into the club. Then, in stages from the 1880s, the rest of the British people made themselves better off. And to some degree it was purposely at the artistocracy’s expense. The richest of those erstwhile nobles are still rich, but many of them have ended up in the same boat as the rest of the people, with perhaps a few more old family portraits and genetic defects.
Likewise, after World War II, the U.S. was immeasurably rich and titantically better off than everyone else. As the post-industrial economy took off, many select other countries got rich too and bought their way into the club. In the past couple decades, the rest of the world has been slowly making itself better off as well. And, to some degree, that happened purposely at the expense of the U.S. Like the old aristocrats, the richest Americans are still rich, but the rest are getting in the same boat as the rest of the world.
It just so happens that the boat we’re almost all now in is a lifeboat without enough drinking water and Hershey bars to go around.
That is what Trump tapped into and that many liberals and free-trade conservatives don’t want to admit — much of the rest of the world did get better off at the expense of the United States. They had to because that’s where all the capital was for decades after World War II. Most every maquiladora in northern Mexico is a former factory in Ohio or Indiana or Ontario. Most every electronics factory in South Korea or China could have been in California or Tennessee. Some countries made a conscious effort to keep high-value manufacturing and other similar industries prospering at home to keep the un- and semi-skilled employed and to provide social safety nets. The U.S. didn’t. (Blame federalism and our own politics.)
So the American middle class is poorer and has less opportunity than it once had.
But Mexicans, Koreans, Chinese, Indians, et al. are much, much richer. The wealth that was once concentrated in the U.S. has been spread around the globe. And as a result, much more wealth has been created than could have been had all those jobs and capital stayed stateside. And I’m glad those factories are in Mexico and China. But that’s easy for me to say; I was a lawyer whose job stayed right here and paid a lot more than it did in the ‘90s.
I think the plan was that workers around the globe would then unionize and get even richer, which would lessen the blow to the American worker by reducing the wage gap between them and those elsewhere. That didn’t work out. I think it had something to do with the capture of the U.S. government by global corporations right out from under its own nose due to shoddy election-financing laws, gerrymandering, and a lot of other arcane things no one paid attention to until it was too late.
Nation of temporarily-embarrassed millionaires that we are, and as accustomed to the good life as many of us and our parents were, the loss of dignified employment for a significant share of adults in the U.S. has been hard to take.
For good measure, let’s add in a dose of increasingly unaffordable housing, education, and medical care…you know, the things that matter.
We can see the results. Suicide rates up 25% since 1999. Skyrocketing obesity rates. More people than ever taking drugs for depression. More people than ever taking drugs that can cause depression. The opioid epidemic killing thousands and destroying families around the country.
All despite the fact that 4K televisions are just insanely cheap right now. Like, they’re just giving the things away. I know. Weird, right?
Meanwhile, the top 20% or so of income-earning families are doing more-or-less just fine, or at least about as well as they remember their well-off parents doing, and probably don’t notice these problems because they live and work and socialize largely only among themselves. The top 10% of income-earning families are the new American aristocracy. The top 1% are quite wealthy as always. And the top .1% are a new class of global plutocrats who are so rich they are just going to fly to Mars for the fuck of it.
That leaves 80% of Americans struggling. Many of them have struggled for a long time. But for many this is a new phenomenon.
To make matters worse, the super-wealthy and their courtiers have actively waged a cynical war on the truth, civic trust, and the very idea of using government as a force for good in people’s lives for forty years now in a nasty campaign of racism and scapegoating to save on their tax bills.
As well, our election laws are antiquated and bad and predicated on good faith that is in short supply, our elections themselves are now routinely called into question (wait until 2020), and much of the country doesn’t believe any of it anyway.
So it’s no wonder that our politics are nasty and warped and hateful and dishonest. It’s also no wonder that our most basic institutions are so cynically mistrusted that democracy itself may cease to function in the next few years.
What’s worse, all these terrible symptoms of a coming descent into dystopia are migrating across the globe: to the UK, to Hungary, to Greece, to Italy, to Russia, to Japan, to India. Some countries have better laws and better politics and are weathering the storm better than us. Some are doing much worse.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter because there’s one reason behind it all — all this rot and hate and fear. It is one reason that is slowly sneaking into people’s heads and making these problems inexorably worse.
It is the knowledge that the global economy that underlies all our problems is cooking the planet and stripping it bare and it is too late to stop it. We are mad men on a merry-go-round, laughing as it speeds up, crying as our fingers start to weaken, yelling at whoever we think keeps pushing the damn thing faster and faster, and, finally, screaming when we’re all thrown off. Worse, we don’t even know why we got on the merry-go-round in the first place and we certainly don’t know what the hell we’re still doing on it. But we can’t jump off now — it’ll hurt like hell!
The global economy that underlies all our problems is cooking the planet and stripping it bare and it is too late to stop it.
That’s why I say none of the above matters.
Don’t get me wrong — I try. Like a lot of people, I try. I have a solar-power system on my house. It is a relatively small house. It is close to where my wife works. We have an electric car. So maybe we do our best not to make it all worse.
But we probably don’t try our best. We also have a (“fixed”) VW diesel SUV to drive to my wife’s father’s farm two hours away — it’s safe, it can tow an occassional U-Haul trailer, and it gets better mileage than an equivalent gas SUV, we tell ourselves. But it’s overkill. We’ve been to Hawaii. We’ve traveled to Europe twice each when we were younger. I can’t help but throw away what seems like mountains of plastic packaging every week. I sometimes try to wash ZipLoc bags. But I give up. We used cloth diapers for four months, but once we discovered “12 Hour” diapers, we couldn’t resist. We use Amazon Prime delivery for a lot of shit — we could wait longer and group our purchases together better, but we don’t, and we still go to the store too. Our baby and each of us have mountains of clothers. We have two TVs and three computer monitors. We consume exotic foods from Central Market and Whole Foods that are flown all over the globe to cater to our every culinary whim regardless of season. We eat fucking sushi!
We could live without this shit. Maybe only eat sustainable sushi. We could. But it would be hard. So we just don’t. We just try.
Or, we try but only in ways that are convenient. Strangely, we try in ways that cost money, but not ways that save money. We lease the solar power system. We buy the electric car. We pay much more for a smaller house closer to work in the city. We don’t buy fewer, cheaper, low-impact foods. We don’t forgo global travel. We don’t only vacation in places we can get to by train. We don’t set the thermostat at 80 in the summer and 66 in the winter.
So we try, but not too much. So I try also not to get too sanctimonious about it. I wish everyone who tried didn’t get too sanctimonious about it. Because it doesn’t matter.
I don’t know whether the fact that none of it matters makes me hate more or excuse the outspoken environmentalist actors who live in huge, water-hungry villas in the parched, environmentally fragile, southern California hills. Am I much different? What’s a few thousand square feet in the grand scheme of things? On the one hand, a lot more people could live on this planet if we all lived like my family than like those self-righteous environmentalist actors with their huge houses and NetJet globe-trotting. On the other hand, this planet still couldn’t support us all if we all lived like my family either. So it doesn’t matter.
I remember the relentless cries of hypocrisy from conservatives about Al Gore’s private jet as he paraded around the world, scolding everyone about greenhouse gases. Then and now, I sort of get it. But then again, it doesn’t matter.
And when I say it doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t matter. When I drive through the endless, sprawling exurbs of the massive American Sun Belt metro area where we live, I am convinced that even our paltry efforts not to be unecessarily big contributors to he coming global ecological collapse are, as was said in the original Bladerunner, merely tears in the rain: Whole counties paved. Thousands upon thousands of jacked-up Powerstroke/Cummins/Dyna diesel four-door pickups to just to drive to Cabela’s or Sonic. Thousands more 11 mpg Suburbans to haul two kids to soccer practice. Thousands of acres of homes totally empty most of the day and mostly empty part of the day. Four and five bedrooms for three or four people. Beyond that, countless river systems inundated for reservoirs, the eternal Dayglo skies of light pollution, trees and prairies plowed under for farms to feed the cows to feed the people, the pesticides, the plastic.
And that’s just around one city in the U.S., which is big and fertile and relatively sparsely populated, and — at least for now — has enforced clean air and water laws. I can only imagine what it’s like to fly over the Netherlands, or China, or Java, or Burma, or the Brazilian rainforest. I’d like to find a flight that goes over the Amazon someday and get a window seat. Just to see how long it takes to fly over it and what I can see of the deforestation. Just to get a sense of how long we have left.
The Antarctic is deliquescing apace. Sea levels are rising. Tipping points loom. Stalled ocean currents. Diluvian coasts.
When will Bangladesh endure an epic flood that will send tens of millions of people fleeing on foot? How will India react? Will we in our lifetimes see some World War Z-level slaughtering spree of a sea of sea-fleeing refugees? What if the same thing happens to the Netherlands? Or Florida?
Will there still be wild elephants by the time my daughter is ten? Maybe a few. Not rhinoceroses though, they’ll be gone. Probably giraffes too. Tigers most likely as well. Certainly gorillas. All those animal stickers on the wall above her crib? By the time she’s in high school, they will just as well be dragons or griffins for as real as what they depict will be.
It doesn’t matter. It is too late. The system is too big. Too voracious. Any country’s laws can’t change it because it is far bigger than any country. Kyoto Protocol? Paris Accords? About as effective as issuing a speeding ticket to a self-driving Ferrari owned by a billionaire. Except with the added bonus that if the car actually went the speed limit, millions of people would be thrown out of work and have to live without luxuries they’ve grown accustomed too. See how the people react to the cop running the speed trap then. Oh, we have.
Think you’re off the hook because you’re from wind-powered, recycling, bicycling Denmark? Think again. Danish shipping giant Maersk is the largest container shipper in the world, worth $32 billion. It is basically the blood of the global-economic monster. How much of your Danish pension is invested in Maersk? It’s ships are filthy, carbon- and particulate-spewing leviathans. It is one of the biggest polluters on the planet, alone responsible for .11% of all industrial carbon emissions since 1988.
I shouldn’t single out Maersk though because it’s only #82 on the list of the Top 100 industrial carbon polluters who, among them, are responsible for 71% of all industrial carbon emissions worldwife since 1988. China’s state run coal industry is #1 by a long shot, but there’s a diversity of representation: the top ten includes companies from China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, the U.S., India, Mexico, and the Netherlands. And saying a company is “from” somewhere doesn’t mean much in the era of transanational corporations.
But it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter because all of those companies feed the same global economic system. And at its end, that system is comprised of and is designed to cater to each and every one of us. In fact, the whole list would be different if we didn’t all, ultimately, use so much oil because 99 of the top 100 industrial carbon polluters on that list are directly in the business of fossil fuel finding, extracting, refining, or burning. The one exception? Maersk. So, sorry Denmark. You might have pristine skies and beaches and be “carbon-neutral” soon (you’re obviously not counting Maersk), but you’re not off the hook.
But again we cannot point the finger of blame at the most carbon-polluting companies (or Denmark) because in the end, they serve us at our leisure (and only 10% of shipping is under Danish control). Blaming corporations for global carbon pollution is like a family blaming the laundry and dishes for the mess in their house. And blaming governments (at least for those of us lucky enough to still live in functioning democracies) is like blaming the maid.
Blaming corporations for global carbon pollution is like a family blaming the laundry and dishes for the mess in their house. Blaming governments is like blaming the maid.
So it doesn’t matter.
Most people look at charts like the one to the left and think “we” are only responsible for 11% of carbon pollution. But that’s bullshit. We eat all the food (or throw it away or feed it to other food) so the 9% from agriculture is on us. All that transportation is literally us moving around or some of us moving things around for the rest of us, so that’s on us too. Electricity? Well, that’s also directly or indirectly us. And as for industry, yes they’re building or doing stuff for other companies too but if you follow any industrial chain long enough it end up with something made or done for the capital-“u” Us.
So nothing matters. Based on what we know now there is no way things will change enough or soon enough to affect when we as a planet pass the point of no return, climatically, if we haven’t already passed it.
So like most of the rest of us, I do what’s convenient to do and hope for some technological miracle. How far off can cold fusion be?
Like most of the rest of us, I do what’s convenient to do and hope for some technological miracle. How far off can cold fusion be?
But I’m one person in the most carbon intensive country on Earth. And there’s so many people who still haven’t gotten to live how we in the “developed” world have lived for so long. How can I blame them for trying to?
At first, carbon-intensive “First World” lives represented the sort of safety and cleanliness and ease that humanity has yearned for since time immemorial. We were stil frugal for the most part. We didn’t flaunt, outside of the aristocrats and plutocrats. We just wanted warmth and health and a washing machine.
Then “Western” life began to represent a sort of earned opulence. We felt we’d worked hard since the Neolithic Age, so we had a right to enjoy ourselves with cars and TVs and summer homes. That’s what so many people on Earth are still trying to get: First some safety and cleanliness and ease, then a little, just a little, earned opulence. And what’s so wrong with that. It’s not like we were eating caviar and sipping scotch all day…
But somewhere along the way, sometime after the Soviet Union collapsed, we, that is those living near the top of the modern neoliberal system, just sort of forgot what it was all for. Or we didn’t care. Or we decided it wasn’t “for” anything any more. Then it all became unearned opulence. Opulence for its own sake. Decadence. Dissipation. Obscenity. The McMansion. The Hummer. Ski trips. Going to Thailand. Cigar Aficonado magazine. Gap years in Europe. Twenty year old kids going to Bali for concerts. Real World. Scotch. Sushi. Have you been dove hunting in Argentina? Oh you should go! It’s so cheap there.
That’s when we started to know we were guilty. Save the whales. Save the Amazon. “Global warming.”
Then a lot of the world starting to getting to that decadent point too. And that’s when it got really obscene. Indoor ski mountains in Dubai. Sushi everywhere. Scotch everywhere. Sushi delivery in little towns. Strawberries in December at Walmart. Entourage. Then subprime loans got everyone in on the action. Fresh fish from Ecuador in a supermarket in Belgium. H&M. Ikea. The $400 4K TV and the $14,000 childbirth. The $400 tax cut for waiting until you’re 72 to get on Social Security. Palm oil in everything. Everything in new impenetrable plastic packaging. Two plastic bags and a four-foot receipt for some gum at CVS. Eating avocado toast while wondering where all the monarch butterflies went. $10 Walmart boots. The lifelong student loan noose. $6 shorts at Charlotte Rousse.
It was then that we all started to know we were doing something wrong. Climate change. Melting arctic ice. Sea level rise. Snowless winters. Blizzards in April. 132 degrees in Hyderabad. 110 in Boston. Droughts. Neonicotinoids. Whatever happened to fireflies? Is that bee thing OK now? You don’t see as much roadkill anymore. Ten years ago this was the edge of town!
Not so many butterflies any more, but you can get avocados year ‘round.
We know it’s wrong. We know we can’t live like this. But we can’t stop. How can you when given our current lifestyles even having a child is an environmentally irresponsible decision.
We all know we’re guilty of a crime and just haven’t been caught yet.
And that’s why we’re angry and depressed when, objectively, for now at least, it is a great time to be alive. It’s why our politics are nasty. It’s why half of us don’t believe the truth when it’s staring us in the face if it comes from the wrong website. It’s why we can’t “afford” Social Security much longer, or Medicare, or Medicaid, or housing, or a college degree, or to have a baby.
It’s because we all are starting to suspect, deep down, that we’re not going to make it. So why plan for the future at all? Defer maintenance. Cut taxes. Keep buying. Keep spending. Keep living it up. As a country. As a world. And it is our fault. We are committing a crime by living this way and we’re all starting to know it.
So like guilty criminals, we are fearful and paranoid and angry. Did you see that helicopter?
Many of us, conservative by nature, choose to bury our heads in the sand. Justifying the crime by saying it was our divine right. Or denying it happened by disbelieving the science or claiming it is all a corrupt hoax. Or saying we won’t get caught even though we left our fingerprints on the gun at the scene because something will happen — God will rapture us the fuck out of here, or the science we don’t believe will come up with a miraculous invention to save us with massive carbon sinks, or cold fusion, or maybe just teleport us the fuck out of here. Somehow, some way, it is going to be OK.
But it won’t.
Others among us, liberal or progressive by nature, accept the truth. We know we did the crime. But we want to do something to make amends or to avoid the consequences. We know we need to do something. But we can’t be fully transparent with what it is. Because it would be disruptive. It would be shocking. It would be the “inconvenient” in An Inconvenient Truth.
Maybe in our system the way it is liberals and progressives and environmentalists and scientists and Greens can’t be truthful. They can’t tell people that they will need a special permit to drive any car that gets less than 40 mpg. Or that they can’t own a second home. Or that all new residential construction has to be in buildings at least ten stories high. Or that a steep carbon tax will have to be imposed. Or that thermostats can’t be set below 78. Or that you can only drive 55 mpg (we tried that one once). Or that certain carbon-intensive (or endangered) foods will have to be banned or rationed. They can’t say all that because they would lose elections, or more.
But that’s what has to happen.
They/we also can’t say it because they (we) don’t want it either, most of them/us anyway. How many union employees would car companies have to lay off if they couldn’t build SUVs any more? How many jobs will be gone if electric cars (without skilled-labor-intensive transmissions or thousands of other moving parts that are in internal-combustion vehicles) became mandatory? How would voters react if McMansions were federally zoned out of existence? Maybe all those workers would find other employment making solar panels, maybe those homeowners would enjoy their new efficient apartments and townhomes, but what happens in the disruptive interim? Bad shit.
Yet those are the things that have to happen.
So they won’t. Because in our system they can’t.
So that is why nothing matters, and that’s why conservatives hate liberals and liberals hate conservatives and most of us distrust and hate and fear each other more every day. Because we know we’re all guilty. Conservatives in their isolating and carbon-intensive exurbs. Liberals eating their carbon-intensive foods and engaging in carbon-intensive travel, and excluding others from their wealthy environs with NIMBY building codes.
No doubt many of us are being manipulated by a dishonest conservative media ecosystem. But we’re also being deceived by a “mainstream” media and political caste that makes it seem that if we just rejoined the Paris Accords and bought Priuses instead of Yukons that everything will be OK. It won’t.
We’re all guilty. And that’s why we act like it. And, just like in GoodFellas, in the end, we’re all going to get whacked or pinched.
(And I haven’t even gotten to the sixth mass extinction, the methane spike as permafrost in Siberia and under the Arctic Ocean melts, the oceanic microplastics crisis, antibiotic resistant bacteria, global debt default, the hardship of countries left out of the global economy entirely, the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, religious fundamentalist-terrorism, rising fascism around the world, collapsing fish stocks, the widespread lack of drinking water once the Himalayan glaciers are gone, and the list goes on and on.)
As was said in the most recent Bladerunner, we’re trying to hold the tide with a broom.
In a way I’m still glad I try, despite the futility and half-heartedness of my efforts. I know I could try more, but at least when I’m old and my grandkids want to know why all these horrible storms and droughts are happening across the world, or why so many people are dying, or why we don’t have enough food, or why there aren’t elephants any more, I can say I tried. At least a little.
I usually write humor. So I wish I had a happy ending to this essay. I don’t. I hope you will keep trying. Even if it’s only a little. Maybe I’ll try a little harder. But until then, I’m going to hug my daughter. And maybe tell her I’m sorry. She can’t understand me yet. But once she can, I hope she’ll forgive me. We should hope our children will forgive us all.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope they won’t need to. But that’s all it is. Hope.