Beta Culture: ‘Yeah, We’re Fucked.’ Now What?

Big Boy 1I’ll tell you about one of my sort-of-hidden motivations behind my thoughts about the necessity of Beta Culture.

I’ve told this anecdote at least once here, but I’ll repeat it: I was in New York City a few years back, specifically to meet PZ Myers at a Seed Magazine event, and I got to meet a climatologist at the same time. Drink in hand, and jokingly, one of the first things I said was “Tell me the truth. Are we fucked?” Dead seriously, he replied “Yeah. We’re fucked.”

Some years before that, I had this revelation about how to think about the future. The thing was, I could SEE certain things that were going to happen, but I lived my life on automatic, as if only NOW was the important bit. The revelation was that I should live as if that future, the stuff coming down the pipeline as sure as graduation looms for a hard-partying high school senior, was a real thing.

No, I’m not saying any of us, including me, can predict the future.  But we can look at the trends around us, and follow them out to some fairly-certain end point. The problem we have is that when that fairly-certain end point looks bad, we flip over into an instant optimism that roadblocks us from following through to preparative action. For instance:

1. No, the oil can never run out!
2. Okay, maybe it will run out, but it will take a long, long time.
3. Sure, the oil’s gonna run out, but hey, somebody will invent something!

The end of petroleum as a viable widespread energy source? Yep, gonna happen. Already happening. But SOLAR, right? Sure, except for all the things petroleum is used for that has nothing to do with energy. Plastics, for instance. Asphalt for roads – a shitload of roads, roads that have to be repaired and repaved constantly.

But we’ll find workarounds, rights? Yes, probably, but they’ll cost more, in energy, in funding, in the direct drain on your own personal wallet. Everything about life will be a little bit – or a lot – harder.

The cool thing about oil is that it has been so cheap.  The other cool thing — which flips over into being a huge disadvantage if there’s no oil to feed into it — is that we have a massive civilization-wide infrastructure built with petroleum (and coal, the other fossil fuel) in mind.

The point is, have any of us ever considered the one more option?

4. The oil is running out. It really will run out. There’s nothing that can take its place, so things are going to get really, really bad.

That instantly offends something in you, doesn’t it? Why would anybody say such a negative thing? And why bother to think about it? Because Intelligence! Because Inventiveness! Because the Soaring Unbeatable Human Spirit! Because the Good Old American Can-Do Attitude! Right?

Switching back from talking about oil and onto the more general subject of civilization-wide problems: What do we do if the solutions don’t work, or actually make things worse? What do we do if we wait until the last minute to try to solve the problem, so that panic is the most widespread reactions?

Here’s David Suzuki talking about that INEVITABLE last minute:

We optimism-addicts refuse to really grapple with Suzuki’s idea. Instead, we gaze out at the world and think only about all the technological wonders in store.

But how about this? NASA Study Concludes When Civilization Will End, And It’s Not Looking Good for Us.

According to a new study sponsored by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, we only have a few decades left before everything we know and hold dear collapses.

Or this?  Superbugs Could Kill 10 Million Each Year By 2050.

Back in 2000, I had this idea for a book, The Next 30 Years, and half of it was going to be about coming technological and social goodies, the positive progress that might be made. The other half was going to be about certain challenges to be faced, the not-so-good stuff that, extrapolating from ongoing trends, was very likely going to happen. Some part of it would be about, well … not the End Of The World, but a definite crash that would pretty much wreck civilization.

I didn’t write it. One reason was time and energy, but another was that I couldn’t bear to think about certain bits I’d be writing about. Book or no book, though, nothing I was thinking about back then has changed except we’re coming up on halfway through that 30 year period.

So. What’s my solution?

I don’t have one. Or rather, I think there isn’t one. I think we’re fucked, seriously. Civilization is due to suffer catastrophic failure, in 15 years or less, by my guesstimate. I actually think I’ve seen signs of it since the 1970s, which means it’s already in progress, and the “catastrophe” is only the phase at which it will become undeniable to everybody. Given the already-obvious limits to resources, which will sharply worsen when the panic hits, most of us — most of the people you know — won’t survive.

But I do have this idea that there’s a certain number of sane, rational people who might be convinced to work together to get through it and create a saner civilization on the other side of it.

It’s a completely bombastic idea, I admit. But … why not? And who else is doing anything that will include US?

Thoughts on “Privilege”

privilege copyI’ve been hearing a lot about “privilege” lately, and I confess I continue to be disturbed by the subject, and how it is most often applied.

I recognize that I have ADVANTAGES over some other people. For instance, I have the advantage that I’m healthy enough to donate blood, strong enough to carry a neighbor’s groceries, perseverant enough to hold a job, bright enough to learn fresh skills or read a book in a day, creative enough to come up with novel ideas and think about things in new ways.

But I also have certain DISadvantages. I never finished college. I’m broke pretty much all the time. I’m abnormally short for a man. I’m 62, and have yet to accomplish some of the things I wanted to do. Considering my age and financial situation, I will probably never get to retire. I’m mostly deaf in one ear. I have no family, and only a few close friends. I’ve always lived on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

When I’m told I’m PRIVILEGED — usually because I’m Caucasian and male — I can’t help but hear it as an accusation, and a rather counterproductive one. Privilege is something you’re supposed to feel guilty about, as if the good stuff you enjoy through either birth or hard work is directly responsible for the crushing and disadvantaging of others. If you’re privileged, it’s your FAULT that Kelly Smith is sick, or handicapped, or female, or black, or homeless. Apparently the theory is that the guilt will motivate you to pitch in and help.

One of the most obvious flaws in the thing is that there’s no bottom end to it. If you have ANYTHING, you can be accused of privilege … compared to the person poorer and more wretched. The man with two teeth is PRIVILEGED over the man with only one. It also seems to me that the blithe accusation usually takes no notice that those of us gathered here near the common bottom, 50 levels below those with the REAL wealth and power, just aren’t all that privileged.

I’m still thinking about this, but it seems to me there’s something very ->Christian<- in the idea that guilt will make someone feel expansive and generous. My experience of it is that guilt usually constricts you, makes you small and fearful, less connected rather than more. You’re LESS likely to listen to those flinging guilt at you, more likely to withdraw and look for people who appreciate and accept you. I know I have liked less every person who’s ever said to me that I was PRIVILEGED. I have sensed blame and hatred and exclusion from them, rather than good will and desire to work at common goals.

I think the whole idea of pointing out “privilege,” throwing it out as an accusation, is a failed strategy. I don’t see how it even CAN work. It might help the accuser feel good to have someone to blame for some particular social ill (or all of them), but it won’t enlist people — people at their strongest, proudest, most confident and creative — in a good-willed effort to better our common condition.

My suggestion is that we all think before we sling out the too-easy accusation of “privilege.” Think about what we really hope to accomplish.

If it’s having someone to blame and hate, I don’t see that as a useful goal. Nor do I see people taking this approach as good partners in the larger battle.

Targeting people who might otherwise be allies — driving them away or smallifying them with guilt and shame — is strategically self-defeating.