December 21, 2012

The End of the World Didn't Happen Today

Just one of many ways to bring it all to an end.
On this day, according to the Mayan Calendar and the hordes of New Age experts who make their living looking for such portents, the world will have ended. Again.

We like the end of the world. Hundreds of millions of dollars a year go into exploring various and sundry ways the world will end - in TV shows, movies, video games, novels, even serious conferences. Asteroid strikes, tsunamis, earthquakes, black holes, rogue planets, expanding suns, supernovae, killer biohazards, the plague, nuclear war, zombie infestations, rogue weather, Chthulu-esque demi-gods, vampires vs. werewolves, strangelets, divine retribution, global flooding, alien invasions, Nemesis, Aphosis, false vacuum phase shifts, brane collisions, it's rather remarkable just how many ways there are to turn out the lights, once and for all.

There's something eminently satisfying about going out with a bang, like the dinosaurs did when an asteroid slammed into the Gulf of Mexico 65 millions years ago. Except they didn't, really. Oh, no doubt there were quite a few dinosaurs for which that fateful collision truly was the end of their world. However, the day after the asteroid, there were still quite a few T-Rexes wandering around - a bit dazed and confused perhaps, but they still managed to successfully take down a stegosaurus or three for breakfast. They were there a week later, and a month ... indeed, by all indications they were still going two or three million years after Game Over.

What ultimately did the dinosaurs in was bad weather. In India the collision of a breakaway piece of Antarctica and the Asian subcontinent had caused the crust to become particular thin over a hot spot region deep within the Earth's core, and it opened up a whole series of volcanoes, initially cooling the atmosphere with all of the sulfur being released, but ultimately warming it again as nickel, normally held deeply within the core of the Earth, made its way in great concentrations to the surface. As it cooled, the nickel provided a critical substrate necessary for the flourishing of a form of methanogen, a methane consuming microbe that generated copious amounts of carbon dioxide. In the end, the planet became too hot for the plants which fed the huge appetites of the stegosaurs which in turn fed the t-rexes, and the giant dinosaurs that needed vast amounts of food to support themselves ultimately ended up starving (or more likely dehydrating) to death. Meanwhile, the much smaller mammals and tiny dinosaurs that could get by on a miniscule fraction of the food survived, the mammals by burrowing and hibernating, the dinosaurs by taking to the air. This happened over the course of two to to three million years, still relatively fast by evolutionary standards, but far from the "death raining from the sky" eye-blink that makes for such good cinematic fodder.

 We like "game over" endings. A good ending makes for a satisfying read, and a poor one, one where too few threads get tied up, makes us feel dissatisfied with the work. You want the villain to be dead at the end - want so that he can't get back up and menace the heroes one more time. You want the prince and princess to get married to resolve that awful teenage-angsty hormone-driven sexual tension, so they can go on happily with the rest of their lives. You want the war to be over. A good story builds tension, and at the end of the narrative that tension needs to be released and resolved. Life as orgasm. Even when the ending is horrific, one where everyone dies a particularly grisly death, the desire for closure is stronger.

Ironically, a part of this has to do with the implicit assumption on the part of the reader that, by hearing the narrative, they will in the end be a survivor. They will be alive to tell the tale, not rotting in an anonymous grave somewhere. The fact is that, every day, it is the end of the world for somebody, but in all but one case, those somebodies are not you.

However, great closures are also critical for societies overall. The US Empire is in decline. It has been for several years. Historians, who are masters of the narrative, are already looking for the smoking gun, the one event that definitively says that the Third Age is over (to borrow from the recent Tolkienesque interest) and the Fourth Age is begun. They're looking for the day that Gollum bit off Frodo's ring to recover his Precious before tumbling, fatally, to his doom in Mt. Doom. (For a man who invented two complete languages, Tolkien was remarkably inept at naming mountains). 

On this day, the bad guys are vanquished, and the good guys can start building something new again. Yet today it's hard to tell what that "something new" is - or rather, it's easy to tell, but hard to chose from the plethora of something new's that are currently in vogue. For the Libertarian, that something new is a society where the intrepid hero defeats the evil government to become a master of his own fortunes. For the Liberal, that "new" is a world where oil is no longer pumped from the earth, where we live in harmony under a benign government of the people, at one with nature in our tree-enshrouded sanctuaries, away from the gun-toting yokels and religious nuts. For the Fundamentalist, the "new" is a world where a benign god looks once more upon His people, bringing them peace and prosperity while the evil unbelievers burn forever in the pits of Hell, in the ultimate of punishments.

Curiously enough, the villains in one person's narrative are the heroes in another. This again brings up the problems of narrative tension. An arbitrary apocalypse in the vast narrative always favors the listener's own tribe in the same way that it favors themselves. Your tribe will remain, if scattered and sorely beleaguered, while the evil tribes will get theirs. Those few that remain will see the wisdom in banding with your tribe and your way of thinking, at least in the main.

However, life is seldom that neat, and endings, when they do come, are seldom swift and absolute. Instead, the visible signs of a transition, a change from one social regime to another, are usually symptomatic of broader but generally less immediately tangible changes. We're hitting resource peaks in the first half of the twenty first century that will have major ramifications for the next three or four hundred years. Climate change will cause various regions to lose or gain economic and hence political power. Our economic system is in flux right now because the foundations of those economies are shifting, both due to the aforementioned resource peaks and to the innovations that we have unleashed in the last century. 

We have an unprecedented degree of understanding both about we do and what we don't know about the universe, and the transition from physical discovery to materials engineering to commercialization is occurring in a breathtakingly short amount of time. Our ability to innovate with our economic systems is also unprecedented, and this in turn means that we can make economic experiments (meaning mistakes - offshoring, anyone) and recover from them within a surprisingly short interval.

Yet the need for narrative is still there, and that is perhaps the challenge of political, social and economic innovators moving forward. For too long the narrative has been that the story is coming to a close, that the survivors will be ones with the greatest amount of money, land socked away up in the mountains, arsenals of heavy machine guns waiting for the coming zombie hordes. What's so disturbing about this particular narrative is that the zombies in question are thinly disguised latte-sipping urban liberals, drinks in one hand full of rotting milk and coffee; the fear being that the world really is coming to an end, the cities with all of these people with their big government regulations and reprehensibly open social policies (women's rights! gay marriage! unions!!!) are going to overwhelm the god-fearing farmers and ranchers of the Real America.

Ironically it is a narrative that's also promulgated by the suburban financiers and senior managers - the ones that may work in downtown New York but have a home in the Hamptons, or that control their empires from Dallas but are driven in by chauffeur from the Park Cities or Lakewood. They too fear the zombies, but in this case the zombies are the undesirables that will drive down home prices, will cause cracks in the illusion of absolute mastery that they maintain around themselves. These are the people most invested in the status quo, the ones that see the visions of sustainability and lower economic inequity as a direct threat against their own wealth and station. They are concerned about the New Money, because New Money often comes from undermining the paradigm that helped establish the Old Money in the first place (which was itself once New Money), and today that New Money is increasingly coming from the young, technically competent engineers, scientists, creatives and advocates who recognize the dangers and limitations of the status quo. At one time, this force was helping to prop up the Old Money, but as times and technologies change, the gulf between these two forces widen.

In a way, the younger generation is shaping its own narrative, one that's increasingly at odds with the status quo. They see the future and are worried by it, which means they are adapting far more quickly to it. A winnowing process is going on, one in which the most salient technologies are enhanced, while the less salient are diminished. Biotechnologies, information science, nano-engineering and alternate energy development are all critical. As a generation they have less use for corporate religion or giant conglomerates - they view businesses simply as vehicles to apply capital to solving problems, and view religion as being increasingly private and self-directed. They drive less, and are far more comfortable working and playing with people that may be thousands of miles away than their predecessors. Their mantra increasingly is that too much power in the hands of anyone - government or business - is bad, and are becoming increasingly proficient with the ability to make decisions collectively with astonishing speed. These people do not respect existing institutions, but instead see them as being relics of another age that are no longer germane to them.

For these people, the end of the world is nowhere in sight, other than as an excuse to throw a good party and an opportunity to remake the world according to their own narrative. To them, this is exhilarating, to others, this is terrifying. In the end, though, they will be the ones writing the next chapters. For now, it is perhaps best to know that this grand story is ... to be continued ... 

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