We are living through a time when we can see with our own eyes, if we choose to look, that we are running out of resources. Our air is dirty, our water laden with chemicals, our soils a shadow of their former microbe-rich selves, our mines yielding more dirt and less precious metal per bucket and, most importantly, our fossil fuels sapped of energy. I doubt many reading this see themselves as part of the problem but we all are, to some extent. We swallowed the lies of the advertisers, turned into mindless consumers of stuff we didn’t need. People were sold a dream of plenty just at the point when nature started to succumb to our greed. But we didn’t see it until it was too late.
We saw the Earth as a vast resource, even when reduced by telecommunications and air-travel. How could human beings ever harm the Earth? But we did and most of us had no idea what we were doing. We grew up in a world of ‘rights’—the right to clean water, wholesome food, education, freedom from pain, freedom of speech, the right to vote and take part in our democracy. But there are no rights if those rights are not afforded us by others. Who are those others? Who knows.
In 2018, the UK had a positively Mediterranean summer; even Scotland hit 30oC and beyond. Social media was alight with stories of fear about the future. But, as before, the media machine rolled on to the next story once the mercury dropped again. A few months passed and it was the tenth anniversary of Lehman Bros. filing for bankruptcy, and the global financial collapse that followed. Again, fears were expressed with numerous plays and interviews about the collapse, whether it had changed the world of finance (no) and whether such a thing could happen again (yes).
We have always been afraid of something—abject poverty in the days before the welfare state; Communists and nuclear war once there was a welfare state; and today we have a whole basket of boogeymen—terrorists, immigrants, the left, the right, the bankers, the state, the corporations—take your pick! Yet the real threats we face are more likely to be hunger and disease because we are turning soils to sand, refusing to invest in social infrastructure such as health care and sanitation while we still can and, it has to be said, we are becoming more numerous and more demanding of dwindling resources.
If ‘the masses’ share a common fear, then those ‘in control’ have to be seen to protect us from that fear. It used to be the priests, guiding us away from damnation and towards eternal life. Then came the industrialists, providing jobs and guiding us away from a life of peasantry working the land. Then the philanthropists, guiding us away from slums and workhouses and towards a bright new future of education and equity. Then the socialists, guiding us away from greed and towards cooperation. What do we have today, after decades of the latest lie—individualism? Trump, tax havens, AI, Amazon and Uber! Is it any wonder that so many people are isolated, lonely and depressed?
As I’ve said elsewhere, our problem is that we won’t accept that nature simply cannot keep giving what we think we need. How can we pull millions of people out of poverty, giving them access to clean water, green energy, decent food and sanitation while consuming less? How can we decouple progress from consumption?
Too few can bring themselves to see a future without copious amounts of energy to throw at problems; too few appreciate the signs of nature failing as species die out; too few recoil at the need by so many here in the UK for payday loans and food banks. Come on people, if we live in the so-called ‘rich’ world, what’s going on? Well, what’s going on is the beginning of a new era, a scared new world, if you will, where more and more people lose the things they took for granted—and all the while, the truly rich get truly richer.
I am fully aware that it is a rare individual who can take in a story of less, of suffering, a story without hope. But I feel time is too short for platitudes like making poverty history, for false optimism like electric cars and asteroid mining. We’re in the shit and we need people to accept that so they will prepare for what’s coming. While no one knows what the future holds, if you look around and pay attention, you can hazard a guess and it’s no land of plenty.
Mandy Meikle is aware that the ‘cheery pessimist’ ain’t so cheery these days. Well, you try getting your head around global economics! I originally wrote this as a possible Foreword for an improbable book, then realised it might stop people from reading said book, should it ever materialise!