I'd like to talk about the world these days, care to join in?
Hey, friends. I'd like to take a few minutes of your time to talk and converse. Please, feel free to join in. I'm not trying to make any points or whatnot, but I need to get this out of my head.
It doesn't take a rocket surgeon to see that there is a lot going on these days. I know that there's always a lot going on, but it just seems to be on my mind a lot more than it used to. I'm unsure if it's because things out there actually are heating up, if the current news cycle is finally paying some attention, if I'm just more interested/aware as I get older, or if it's some combination of these. Regardless, it just seems like there's so much to think about.
To begin, there's the domestic stuff. We have an inevitable recession coming our way sooner than later (recessions being a feature of our application of Capitalism, after all), and, of course, the mess in the other Washington. I'm doing my best to keep up with the impeachment, while not letting it really "get to me". As I get older, I find that I care more and more about the wellbeing of my country, and the utter shame that is this current administration makes me genuinely concerned for the health of our nation and the people in it. I cannot help but think to myself that I am watching the arguably most significant political crisis since Watergate unfolding before me - live, in real-time. It's wild, as you know that you live through history in the making, but you never really think that you're going to live through something of this caliber.
While I'm hopeful that our own brush with populism will turn out OK (our 3 branch government is remarkably robust), I still worry about us and the other countries that are dealing with it now too. We have Bolsonaro and Duerte, Brexit and Trump. We have the mess in Bolivia, and frankly I still don't exactly have my head wrapped fully around what the hell is actually going on there. We have the trickery of Putin and his loyal cronies. Even populism aside, we have the unrest and violence in Lebanon, Syria, Chile and Iran. And of course, let's not forget our friends in Hong Kong.
I look at the HK situation and feel extra helpless. I was 7 when Tiananmen Square happened, and I kinda remember it. I certainly remember tank man on the news, but that was about it. I see what's going on in Hong Kong and I cannot get past the feeling that they're literally fighting a losing battle for their lives. I can't imagine how they'll survive this without getting steamrolled, unless a foreign power steps in. You know that'll alter the course of the 21st century. I mean, hell. Even if things turn out rosy, this is still probably one of the most significant events of this century. And here I am, watching it in real-time again.
This isn't even touching on the literal concentration camps that China is running for the Uighur Muslims. Shit, even my own country is running camps for children right now. How TF does this even happen? By the time half of us even find out, these camps have already been up and running for a good while. What can you even do?
Then there is a the ever-looming specter that haunts us and feels inescapable: global warming. I don't think I need to elaborate on this one, just a quick peek at the fires and floods, droughts and melting glaciers says it all. Again, we're along for this ride in an enormous mechanism that individually we are wholly powerless against. I sincerely hope that we do manage to engineer our way out of the worst of climate change, but I am honestly not hopeful that we will limit our emissions enough to keep us under the 4° warming that we're seemingly on the trajectory for. I sure won't be alive in 2100, but my youngest nibblings just might - or at least their kids will be. What kind of world are we leaving for them?
How will these things affect and feed off each other? Will we look at the period between WWII and the early 21st century as one of unusual peace and prosperity?
This stuff keeps me up at night, and sometimes it feels like doing your best is just a vain exercise in futility. I know it's not, in that everyone doing their best would make huge changes, and that no matter what happens, I can go to my grave in good conscience knowing that I did what I could. Still, some days it all feels like too much, you know?
Anyway, thank you for listening to me, and letting me talk. There's a few people in my life that share the same concerns, but it's hard to find anyone to talk to about the breadth of all this shit that there is to worry about.
So, anonymous strangers on the internet, how are you feeling about the world situation these days?
That period of time also included the threat of nuclear war, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, colonialism, etc. and before that there were world wars, plagues, more colonialism, Mongol conquests, and other natural and human-made disasters going back as far as the ice age. The 1990s, in contrast, were an optimistic period for much of the world: the Cold War was over, dictatorships were liberalizing, climate change was a known problem that could be dealt before calamity, and technology was advancing. There was a feeling that 'history was over': the problems of the past were something for history books and we were finally on our way to a democratic, healthy, connected, and technologically advanced world.
Well, turns out that wasn't the case quite yet. Progress has been made but there's more work to do. And, really, I do think progress has been made despite all the problems we have. In much of the world there have been tremendous advances in women's rights, LGBTQ rights, tolerance for different religions and ethnic groups, disability rights, etc. as well as advances in medicine, agriculture, and how connected we all are with each other across cultures. It's just that society is still facing major challenges and the future is still uncertain.
If anything this is the standard human condition and we see that reflected in the world's ancient religions and philosophies. Buddhism teaches that one of the 'three marks of existence' is suffering; Abrahamic religions tell us that ours is a 'fallen' world where we've been cursed with toil and pain; and in philosophy there's a Stoic quote I like on this topic:
For thousands of years prophets and philosophers have dealt with the questions of personal suffering, the injustices of the world, and how to deal with both and live a good, moral, and happy life. There's no simple answer but I think there's comfort in knowing that everyone throughout history has had to contend with these questions. It's our turn to be alive so it's our turn to wrestle with life, and to do our duty to leave as good a world as we can for those who come after us.
I mean this to be a message of hope rather than hopelessness: people have always dealt with these problems but that doesn't mean that we always will. Many things are better now, some things are worse, and the challenges and potential suffering facing those alive today isn't uniquely bad in the story of human history. Despots and their regimes have always existed but people have still gained their freedom; the climate crisis is an existential threat but the worse things get the more people will dedicate to fighting it.
On an individual level, one thing I've learned in my personal life is that hopelessness and dwelling on the negative are tempting, natural, and self-destructive forces in the face of dire circumstances. I believe the same is true on a society-level scale. It's good to recognize and acknowledge the problems facing us but losing hope or dwelling non-productively (i.e. wallowing in misery rather than working on solutions) on possible-future catastrophes doesn't help and can only hurt us. A simple but surprisingly hard to follow rule applies here: if doing something hurts you and helps no one, don't do it.
That's not to say that we should ignore the world's problems and embrace ignorance, however. Far from it. An illustrative example: I watched Apollo 13 as a kid and one thing that confused me about that movie was that whenever something went wrong one of the first things they'd do is shut off the alarm. I thought, why would you want to do that? If something was seriously wrong wouldn't you want the alarm to keep going until you fixed the problem? It was only later that I figured out the answer: an alarm has to be aggravating to get your attention but listening to it drone on would drive you crazy—so you acknowledge the alarm, shut it off, and work on the problem when and if you can.
I think it's similar with our minds. When we have a serious problem, whether fears about climate change and despotism or something more personal, some deep part of our mind below conscious thought tries to motivate us to action by making us uncomfortable. If we can't solve the problem right away, however, this continuing discomfort can make us depressed and anxious. So the best thing to do, then, is to treat these thoughts like an alarm: acknowledge them and then shut them off so that you can work on whatever problems you can deal with.
As for motivating ourselves to do good in a sometimes hopeless world there's another Stoic quote I like. Keep in mind, the author was writing for himself and not for a wider audience and was trying to impress on himself the idea of doing his duty to help others. Though the subject is "doing good instead of lazing around in comfort" I think it can also apply to doing good instead of giving in to helplessness.
That might be a bit harsh at the end there but I like the message of following your nature and doing your duty, and if you believe your duty and nature is to make the world a little better then you have all the reason you need to not give in to existential despair and to do your part.
I don't really have anything to add, but I just want to say thank you for writing all that out. I'll be coming back to your comment whenever I start to become disillusioned with the world around me.
That was insightful and helpful, thank you.
It seems that basically, you can't individually do much but if you do the best that you can, then that's enough.
( sigh )
I keep coming back here, to expound, and it's just too mentally draining for me to unpack this subject now.
Really nutshell follow-up ... human nature is a problem. Our rapidly growing technological capabilities are clashing with our individual low-tech biological primate instincts.
We're definitely not designed to deal with change at the rate that is currently happening. Barring "surprise events" like war and plagues, people's lives usually didn't change a whole lot from generation to generation for the bulk of human history. If you were a farmer in ancient Egypt 4000 years ago, there was little reason to expect that your great-great grandchildren's lives would be any different than yours or your great-great grandparent's. It's not at all like that anymore, and it is frankly both scary and exhausting to even try and stay comfortably behind.
There certainly is a lot to worry about. Two issues that always concern me are the national debt and nuclear proliferation.
With the debt, in the US it's something like 21 trillion dollars. It seems to me that there will either come a time in the future where the government takes in 21 trillion more than it spends on citizens, or we'll default. The first choice sounds implausible and the second bad.
Regarding nuclear proliferation, I think back to the various close calls between the US and the USSR. What are the odds of going through the cold war without setting off a nuclear exchange? Now we have to run that experiment again with India and Pakistan, Iran and Israel, North Korea and whoever, and who knows how many more countries will go nuclear?
Second one is basically impossible. Especially considering most of our debt is owed to ourselves, roughly ~75%. If anything we print money, which would cause inflation. But still, our debt to GDP ratio is still not terrible. Most likely it will just take a decent amount of time running at a surplus.
I wouldn't worry too much about debt. Plenty other fish to fry.
Printing money to escape debt would fall into the category of taking more in taxes than we spend on our own population. Printing money incurs inflation, and inflation reduces the value of dollars that people currently have. If we settle debts by creating currency, that's the same as paying back our debts by taking value from people with money, and using it to pay the debt.
It's also not great that the debt is owed to our own citizens. If it weren't, if, for example, some foreign power owned all of our debt we could discharge it without hurting our citizens by defaulting, or consolidating the debt, or negotiating some cheaper deal, or just handing the foreigners a platinum coin while pointing at our huge military. As is, when we fail to pay the debt it will largely be American citizens who experience the loss, as the bonds they were certain were safe become less so.
Yeah, but printing money is also very unlikely. But inflating the dollar also only affects people's savings - in that way its almost redistributive in that those without savings aren't hurt as much once wages rise to match inflation. But again that is very unlikely, and I don't endorse inflation as a redistributive method.
Will expound later.