Future Shock and the Greening of America

June 19, 2015

What I find fascinating is our limited ability to make sense of trends unfolding in real time.

During our recent breakfast meeting in Berkeley, author/blogger Jim Kunstler suggested that the coherence of eras waxed and waned, and the present era was incoherent. By this he meant the narratives being propagated by the status quo no longer align with reality, and often conflict with one another, resulting in incoherence.

There is a time lag of many years between fast-changing events and our ability to make sense of them, i.e. construct a coherent account or narrative of what we collectively experienced.

Each era has its Big Events and trends, but the last era with truly ground-shifting changes that affected virtually everyone in the nation in one way or another was the 1960s. 9/11 increased airport security but other than that, the changes wrought by the Global War on Terror (GWOT) only heavily impact narrow slices of the state and populace--the armed forces and security agencies.

The same can be said of the Global Financial Meltdown of 2008-09: the Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) destroyed the yield on savings, but the daily-life effects on most people have been relatively restrained compared to far more disruptive eras; some have seen their portfolios skyrocket in value, but most households have seen their real net worth decline. Social welfare did its job of providing a safety net for those who lost their jobs in the recession.

The 1960s visibly changed society in a few short years, and less visibly, the economy. Two books published in 1970, at the end of the tumultuous 1960s, attempted to weave a coherent narrative of what everyone was experiencing: Future Shock and The Greening of America.

Given that these books were embedded in the era, it's not surprising that some of their points appear naively off the mark to present-day readers: Future Shock: what the Tofflers Got Right and Wrong.

Toffler's definition of future shock is a personal perception of "too much change in too short a period of time". I wrote about Future Shock and Douglas Ruskoff's Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now in Present Shock and the Loss of History and Context and previously, about Effort Shock and Future Shock.

What I find fascinating is our limited ability to make sense of trends unfolding in real time. The Greening of America, for example, posited three types of consciousness.

"Consciousness I" applies to the world-view of rural farmers and small businesspeople that arose and was dominant in 19th century America. "Consciousness II" represents a viewpoint of "an organizational society", featuring meritocracy and improvement through various large institutions; it dominated the New Deal, World War II and 1950s generations. "Consciousness III" represents the worldview of the 1960s counterculture, focusing on personal freedom, egalitarianism, and recreational drugs.

Would we agree to these rough categories today? Society seems too fragmented to fit into only three categories; I outlined nine socio-economic classes and felt I was generalizing: America's Nine Classes: The New Class Hierarchy.

If Future Shock and Present Shock have any predictive value, then we must conclude the speeding up of change is eroding our ability to make sense of present-day trends, as the velocity of change is outrunning our ability to construct coherent narratives.

But just as a parlor game, let's ask: are there three modern-day equivalents of consciousness 1, 2 and 3?

I propose three basic categories:

1. Those who still believe the Status Quo narratives of meritocracy, a just central state, the market can solve everything and whatever it can't solve, the central state can, etc.

Those in this class are finding the gulf between their Master Narrative and reality is widening to the breaking point.

2. Those who are losing faith in the Status Quo narrative but are resigned to its eventual messy demise.

Those in this class indulge in dystopian visions of the future, a world of zombies and warlords. This seems to serve as distraction and entertainment while also offering a rough-and-ready narrative that matches various data points.

3. Those who have lost all faith in the Status Quo narrative but see its demise as enormously positive and a huge opportunity for the planet and individuals.

I am of course in this camp. The only way forward is through the remains of the wasteful, bloated, corrupt and terribly destabilizing Status Quo. As it fissures, more cracks will appear for what is currently marginalized to become mainstream.

We can give up, or we can busy ourselves with widening the cracks and making best use of the opportunities that are arising from the systemic failure of the old arrangements.

This essay was drawn from Musings Report 15. The Musings Reports are sent weekly to subscribers ($5/month and major contributors ($50+/year).

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