Dec 31 2009

Why Do Some People Have Negative Feelings About the Future?

Musician/producer Brian Eno asks this compelling question in This Will Change Everything (Ed. J. Brockman, 2010) about our future,

What if we come to feel as though there were no “long term” — or not one to look forward to?  What if … we started to feel that we’re on an overcrowded lifeboat in hostile waters, fighting to stay on board, prepared to kill for the last scraps of food and water? … Suppose that people start to anticipate the future world … (as) the nightmare of desperation, fear, and suspicion described in Cormac McCarthy’s post-cataclysm novel The Road.  What happens then?

No doubt many people have  felt that way recently because of the financial Panic of 2008 and the subsequent great recession that we appear to be recovering from.  But I think Eno’s question looks beyond current problems, and there’s plenty of reason to take him seriously.  For example, historian Eric Hobsbawm refers to the interval after the collapse of the Peary/Panama Maslow Window in 1914 (due to WW I) until the end of the Cold War in 1991 as “the age of extremes.”  Writing in 1994:

For those who had grown up before 1914 the contrast was so dramatic that many of them … refused to see any continuity with the past. … The First World War involved all major powers … troops from the world overseas were, often for the first time, sent to fight and work outside their own regions.

Commenting on the “world economic breakdown” between World War I and II,  Hobsbawm asserts that,

Indeed, the proud U.S.A. itself, so far from being a safe haven from the convulsions of less fortunate continents, became the epicenter of  this, the largest global earthquake ever to be measured on the economic historian’s Richter Scale — the Great Inter-war Depression. In a sentence:  between the wars the capitalist world economy appeared to collapse.  Nobody quite knew how it might recover.

This feeling is echoed in an interesting book of essays by 22 authors and historians  published in 1949 on the “essential events of American Life in the chaotic years between the two World Wars.”  It’s title: The Aspirin Age, 1919-1941.

Eno speculates that our dark future might look like this: 

Humans fragment into tighter, more selfish bands.  Big institutions, because they operate on long timescales and require structures of social trust, don’t cohere; there isn’t time for them.  Long-term projects are abandoned; their payoffs are too remote … Resources that are already scarce will be rapidly exhausted … Survivalism rules. Might makes right.

 Although no one can predict the far future with certainty, there are 2 key points which do not support Eno’s future-world nightmare.

1. Hobsbawm himself provides clues to the answer by his comments on the peace and prosperity of the pre-1914 world (the Peary/Panama Maslow Window), and his description of  “a spectacular, record-breaking global boom from about 1850 to the early 1870s …”  which, as we see now, is the mid-19th century Dr. Livingstone/Suez Maslow Window.

The last 200 years reveal rhythmic, twice-per-century clusters of Great Explorations (e.g., Lewis and CLark), MEPs (e.g., Panama Canal), and, sadly, major wars (e.g., WW I) that are fundamentally linked with major economic booms. The booms trigger widespread ebullience that catapults many in society to higher  levels in Maslow’s hierarchy; their expanded world views make exceptional explorations and massive building projects seem momentarily almost irresistible. The last Maslow Window — featuring the Apollo Moon program — was in the 1960s.  All signs — including  ironically the Panic of 2008 — suggest the next Maslow Window should open on schedule by 2015, thus countering the likelihood of an indefinitely lingering, Eno-style dark age.

2. Equally importantly, the Maslow Window concept offers us the prospect of eventually being able to moderate global economic crises and conflicts that occur between Maslow Windows.  The first step in this planning process is recognition of the global effects of long economic waves on technology booms, international conflicts, and human expansion into the cosmos. 

And imagine what this will do for our morale!

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