Doom and gloom

In the late 90’s one of my best friends started on the slippery slope to full immersion into fundamentalist Christianity. By this time, we were in different colleges and communicating less and less, usually via AIM (rememeber that?!?). Whatever denomination he settled on, it was one of the sects that believed we were living in the end times. This was preposterous to me. One of his primary arguments was the recent increase in war and natural catastrophes. Nonsense, younger me countered, this shit’s been going on forever and it’s probably not getting appreciably worse. At the time, I had no idea if my rebuttal was true or not, but I was absolutely certain that a divinely prophesied apocalypse was nothing to be taken seriously.

My argument was made with the naive, myopic conceit that things will generally stay the same. Things (vaguely) would get a little better or worse, technology would continue to increase, benefiting some more than others. Basically, my bubble of a life as a middle class, straight white dude would maintain a sense of equilibrium. I’ll get up in the morning, go to work, go home and relax, or do something. Tomorrow will be pretty close to yesterday. Next week will look similar to the previous week. Work will mostly suck, but I’ll have a place to sleep, food to eat, and clean water to drink.

I constantly think about how extremely narrow my life experiences are, and that life looks completely different to different people in different times and different places. What’s normal to me is shared by relatively few people that have ever existed. Most people weren’t born into a white, Roman Catholic, middle class family in the rust belt in the early 80’s. Even within that subsection, things can look and feel wildly different based on any number of environmental factors.

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In an interview with The Concourse, Walter Scheidel, Professor of Classics and History at Stanford, discusses his new book The Great Leveler which 

draws on thousands of years of history in civilizations across the world, and reaches a rather staggering conclusion: Extreme violence, plague, or total social collapse are the only things that have ever successfully leveled out inequality in societies. ‘Four different kinds of violent ruptures have flattened inequality: mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state failure, and lethal pandemics,’ he writes. ‘I call these the Four Horsemen of Leveling.’

The interview is definitely worth reading in full and I intend to get the book at some point. Scheidel manages to inject a little optimism that is shot down in a way that’s darkly humorous:

Is there anything hopeful or constructive that people concerned about inequality can take from these findings?

Scheidel: That’s what the history is, whether we like it or not. It doesn’t mean that it always has to be this way. It doesn’t mean that there’s no alternative way of improving things, it’s just we haven’t found it yet… History doesn’t determine the future. It just gives a sense of what’s easy and what’s hard.

And yet, this is the line from your book’s conclusion that jumped out at me: “Only all-out thermonuclear war might fundamentally reset the existing distribution of resources.”

Scheidel: Which is technically true. [Laughs]

Income inequality has been getting worse and worse for some time. How long are the socioeconomically disadvantaged, unluckily born into less privileged situations, going to remain relatively docile, as income inequality continues to increase? A reckoning may be on the way if the ruling classes aren’t able to find ways to pacify the masses, with increasing numbers of families sliding out of the middle class. Sports, entertainment, and mind-altering substances have been useful distractions alongside the ever-present need to secure shelter, food and water. I wonder if a tipping point will be reached and what that will look and like.

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The religion-based doom and gloom believed by my old friend may have a factual basis, but obviously not in the way he thinks. The prospect of numerous apocalypses divorced from religion are ubiquitous, and eschatological preachers no longer have a monopoly in that area. There are innumerable shapes it could take: climate change, gamma ray blast, impact event, supervolcano eruption, nuclear war, famine, plague, and as described above, societal collapse caused by untenable income inequality.

The secular evangelizers are not spewing the inane blather of manipulative purveyors of dogmatic faith. They are individuals who dedicate their lives to studying long term historical trends and empirically investigating the secrets of the cosmos. Or, if not them directly, then the journalists, writers, reporters and bloggers who summarize their premonitions.

I’m loathe to mention our glorious leader and I’m purposefully trying to limit his mentions in my blog, but it’s obvious income inequality, not to mention the other listed apocalypses, isn’t on his radar (except, perhaps, for his venerable adviser’s hard-on for war with Islam). No, foremost among his list of things worth throwing money at is our already bloated as fuck military, a useless wall, and god knows what else.

I haven’t had to deal with any of the phenomena that evoke the idea of impending personal, societal, or global apocalypse. Again, I wonder what that would look and feel like. My interest is not in the minority: we are culturally obsessed with the idea. Hollywood blockbusters are the the most saccharine manifestations of this, portraying collapse in the form of easily digestible entertainment with little constructive thinking required. Such cultural representations are largely ephemeral in our consciousness, and not likely to cause much more than a small amount of cognitive dissonance – after all, collapse may not even occur and, if it does, it will be in the undetermined future. We’ll go on consumed with our daily lives, but there are storm clouds on the horizon that we are only dimly aware of. One day the clouds, perhaps soon, perhaps later, will arrive.

Hey! check out this pair of BFF’s: