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Doom Porn and Empty Optimism

I'm often accused of calling 783 of the last two bubble pops (or was it 789? Forgive the imprecision). Like many others who have publicly explored the notion that the status quo isn't actually sustainable despite its remarkable tenaciousness, I am pilloried as a doom-and-gloomer (among other things, ahem).

Fair enough, and I'm fine with the doom-and-gloom label (we have more fun!) as a generality. But many take any skepticism of the sustainability of the status quo as extending into some perverse delight in the prospect of collapse leading to a Zombie Apocalypse featuring black gunships and firefights over the planet's last case of refried beans.

That is a mis-characterization of my premise that whatever is unsustainable eventually unravels. We are not god-like (other than the Federal Reserve, of course), and so our heartfelt desire to render the unsustainable sustainable via the power of empty optimism will fail, as magical thinking can change our internal emotional state (happy happy, it will all work out without any inconvenient sacrifice or change), but it can't change the real world (alas).

This leaves us a choice: either 1) manage the unraveling with an eye on minimizing general adversity by investing our capital, resources and labor in transitioning to a sustainable economic model, or 2) squander our capital, resources and labor on propping up the final terminal phase of a waste-is-growth, hyper-financialized, hyper-globalized, perversely corrupt and unequal status quo in which the few exploit the many via their control of power and capital.

One analogy of this choice is pruning a fruit tree. If we let nature take its course, the most extended branch weighed down with the most fruit will break off under its own weight, an ugly splintering that puts the tree at risk. The alternative approach is to prune the most extended branches and thin the fruit to what the tree can productively bear.

That is my preferred approach to unsustainable systems.

The managed unraveling won't be "bad," it will simply be different. Those of us who look at our way of life as a system don't see much point in value judgments that characterize the unraveling of unsustainable systems as doom-and-gloom, any more than the overloaded branch breaking is anything other than gravity acting on an over-extended branch.

Those who reckon that the unraveling of the waste is growth Landfill Economy is a catastrophe are clinging to a brittle branch. A living branch is flexible and bends in the breeze; a dead branch is brittle and breaks.

The unraveling will be different but it doesn't have to be "bad." Black gunships won't have to blast the zombie hoards. The more likely path will be things simply fray and stop working reliably. Things that were always abundant may become sporadically scarce, or perhaps permanently scarce. Overly complex and wasteful systems will decomplexify, either via a controlled process or an uncontrolled collapse. Frugality will be incentivized, waste will be disincentivized. Phantom "wealth" will dissipate. Real wealth will be reassessed.

Capital, resources and labor will all be revalued. When stuff breaks down, there may not be enough capital, resources and silled labor to restore it to the good old days of endless abundance. What's valued now may well be revealed as worthless. What's mocked and ridiculed may turn out to be more valuable than what's currently praised and admired.

We've been trained to view optimism as the most important trait, and therefore one that must be displayed in public. If life gives you lemon, make lemonade, etc. Anything less than more of everything for everyone, forever is frowned upon as lacking the desired optimistic confidence in human ingenuity and the magical power of self-interest to solve all problems.

America has lost the ability to discern the difference between the empty optimism of magical thinking and grounded-in-reality optimism which focuses on assessing the resources at hand and making tough choices about how best to maximize the value of those resources. As a general rule, this means to invest more, we must consume less.

This confusion between empty optimism and grounded optimism based on realistic assessments, tradeoffs, experimentation and adaptability manifests in one absurd fantasy after another: the U.S. has built a grand total of two nuclear reactors since 1995, but we're going to magically build hundreds in the next few years to replace hydrocarbons.

We're going to seamlessly transition without any sacrifice of comfort, convenience or cost from jet-fuel powered aircraft flying at 590 miles per hour to all-electric aircraft recharged by solar panels and wind turbines. (Never mind the panels and turbines have to be replaced every 20 years; the future is unlimited.)

And we'll all be sitting around with our virtual-reality headsets getting rich buying and selling digital "value" in the Metaverse, while robots will do all the work and money will be printed and distributed to everyone. If we need to invest in whatever systems produce the robots, fine, we'll just print another couple trillion so we can have it all: invest and consume at whatever scale we desire.

Missing in all the pipe dreams is any grasp that the real world has constraints that are becoming consequential. Systems that have reached extremes of unsustainability--hyper-globalization, hyper-financialization and hyper-self- exploitation--will unravel first and unravel fastest. This isn't doom porn, it's simply the way systems work. All systems have constraints, and the constraints of unsustainable systems become consequential in non-linear dynamics.

I like my comforts and conveniences as much as anyone: we're all entitled to pursue our own interests. But to believe that the pursuit of self-interest will overcome all real-world constraints is magical thinking because there is no causal link between overcoming real-world constraints and self-interest.

We tend to solve systemic problems as a group, so cooperation is one of humanity's core selective advantages. On occasion the lone genius invents a new technology that solves scarcities and adds new comforts and conveniences, but relying on this one model of change is folly. Social innovations are just as important as technological innovations.

Just as common sense suggests pruning the deadwood and thinning the fruit is a better use of our time than waiting for the overloaded branch to break, we would be better served by eliminating the waste and friction in the current systems that don't add to our lives while consuming immense amounts of capital, resources and labor that would be much more productively invested elsewhere.

We would be better served by reducing our dependence on unsustainable systems such as hyper-globalization and hyper-financialization and invest in shortening long dependency chains, i.e. invest in self-reliance.

If we can't discern the difference between doom-porn and investing in self-reliance, then solutions will continue to be out of reach.

There is much more in the book on these topics. I invite you to read the first chapter (PDF) and the Introduction--they're free.


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