THE FUTURE ISN'T WHAT IT USED TO BE (2007)

“I think everything is just going to blow up,” a friend remarked over lunch recently, as we discussed the quickening pace of cultural change. He meant ‘blow up’ as shorthand for general confusion, widespread malaise, ethnic tensions, resource wars, explosions and Murphy’s Law gone mad.

My friend isn’t optimistic about the world’s prospects. Like a lot of people, he even has doubts about his own lifestyle. During lunch, he spoke of his habit of consuming copious amounts of Hydro power with his high-end computer and home entertainment equipment. “I’m as bad as anybody else,” he said, shaking his head.

We joked about our complicity in a system we both believe to be unsustainable, and our doubts about reforming the system from within. Our token, eco-conscious efforts count for something (blue-boxing, composting, half-assed vegetarianism, etc.), but we know it’s not enough.

Obviously, I’m not the only one having this kind of discussion with friends. For those of us who think about this sort of thing, we don’t usually talk about it all that freely or with great ease. This isn’t a common topic for the family dinner or the company picnic. But once in a while, we’ll open up and express a secret conviction: The jig is up; time’s running out and we’re all heading off the cliff in a Stretch Hummer. Or more succinctly, we’re screwed.

Another friend, a retired prof, has put together a well-reasoned, trenchant pamphlet on how BC can survive the collapse of economic globalism. Others are even less optimistic; one of my wife’s relatives has expressed the belief that the human species won’t be around in a few more generations. She’s not alone; according to polls, 72 percent of British Columbians fear the world will end in two to three generations unless concerted action is taken on global warming.

Simply put, more and more people are losing faith in the system – the system being the consumer economy and the kind of foreign policy necessary to maintain our living standard. They’re convinced things have gone so far, for so long, and that the collective behaviour is so entrenched, that there is no way out other than to wait for the system to collapse and then pick up the pieces to try to build something more sane and sustainable.

A big factor in these glum tidings is the collective sense that the times are moving faster and getting stranger as they do. Most of us have the feeling that events are speeding up out of control.

In the 1970s, the French sociologist Georges Anderla tried to measure the rate at which information changed. Using the binary notation to convert all human symbol systems into the language computers use, he calculated the rate at which the bits the units of information had doubled since the time of Christ.

The doubling, he determined, has occurred in ever-smaller time increments over the past 2,000 years. The first doubling lasted from 0 AD to 1500 AD. It then took from 1500 to 1750 for information to double once again. By the late twentieth century, it took only from 1967 to 1973 for information to double.

By the late eighties, information theorists were claiming that information was doubling every 18 months. Bear in mind that this binary calculation doesn’t necessarily mean knowledge per se; it includes all cultural information, from academic journals to ham radio broadcasts to gross-out film comedies.

By the late nineties, the idea of cultural acceleration had moved from the obscure argot of futurologists to the millennial musings of US talk radio host Art Bell, who pegged it “The Quickening.” Bell’s notion was pretty much undefined, beyond the sense of things picking up pace. But he struck a definite chord in listeners, who called in to offer news oddities and their paranormal anecdotes as evidence that things were going at a breakneck pace to who knows where, and getting more bizarre as they went. Bell’s all-purpose catchphrase became a best-selling book and a middlebrow seine net for anything new and unusual.

The Quickening: Today’s Trends, Tomorrow’s World
offers the half-enthralling, half-appalling vision of Homo sap hurling out of control toward some kind of cosmic comeuppance. According to one frequently cited claim, the Sunday New York Times contains more information than a medieval peasant would have encountered throughout his entire life. Perhaps this is one reason why we’ve become the first people in history to know so little about so much. With all this freely available knowledge, far beyond the capacity of any individual to absorb the barest fraction of it, why try to remember any information subject to sudden, radical change? From the latest scientific theories to the borders of troubled lands, it’s all up for grabs. The average American high school student can no more place Iraq on a map than you or I could name the varieties of quarks in an atomic nucleus. (Yet most of us can name all the Simpsons.)

A more rigorous assessment of cultural change is seen in the recent work of Canadian sociologist Thomas Homer-Dixon. In his 2006 book
The Upside of Down, he cites the usual suspects for problematic change: global warming, energy scarcity, population imbalances and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. What concerns Dixon is that these trends are not unconnected, and that together they create negative feedback loops, in which each one amplifies the effects of the others. He calls this deadly phenomenon “panarchy.”

When it comes to our need for energy, Dixon writes, “Our rich western societies aren’t that different from poor developing societies, or for that matter, ancient Rome. All of our societies require enormous amounts of high-quality energy just to sustain, let alone raise, their complexity and order.”

Civilization can only maintain its current state through a cheap, abundant supply of oil. No renewable alternative sources come close in energy output (the closest is solar power). And for all the complaints about rising fuel costs in North America, gasoline is still cheaper here by volume than bottled water. Yet if the “peak oil” experts like Richard Heinberg, Matt Simmons and others are correct – that we are about to hit the halfway point in global oil reserves – increased scarcity will become an even greater factor in international and domestic tensions. (It’s now blindingly obvious that the war in Iraq was about securing Mideast oil and protecting the petrodollar. In fact, as noted in a March 24, 2003 White House press release, the original White House tagline for the 2003 invasion was “Operation Iraqi Liberation” (OIL). But Karl Rove’s cynical jokesters were being a little too obvious and the name was quickly changed to “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”)

According to Homer-Dixon, we First Worlders live so far out of equilibrium with the carrying capacity of the environment that the collapse of our civilization is a very real possibility. Historian Jared Diamond, author of
Guns, Germs, and Steel, considers this such a probable scenario – especially given the historical record of vanished civilizations – that he titled his recent book just that: Collapse. Similarly, urban theorist Jane Jacob’s last book bore the uplifting title Dark Age Ahead.

I once overheard someone at a party offer a capsule account for our persistent historical habit of war: “The whole male gig is build and destroy, build and destroy, build and destroy. And women always get to clean up the mess.” But does this picture of historical inevitability, from Agamemnon to Halliburton, mean we’re fated to play out the same dreary scenario of little boys smashing each other’s sand castles, with the waves sweeping away their tiny flags and pennants?

Some believe our willingness to buy into dystopic projections is largely a function of modern communication systems. In this view, things are neither better nor worse than before; it’s just the widespread availability of fast-reporting media that makes it seem so. Scary stories once told around campfires have been processed and packaged into high-end, prime-time frights of future catastrophe. (Y2K, anyone?)

As they say in the news business, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Conflict sells, while the countless stories of people around the world cooperating and conspiring for a better future get short shrift and less coverage. Consider the phenomenon of microcredits, which have transformed people’s lives in the Third World by allowing them access to small loans. Or web sites like Kiva.org, which enables First World residents to send microloans directly to Third World members. These may be small as individual efforts, but, in terms of global change, the collective effects of such connected, altruistic initiatives may be seismic. The open source movement – in which anonymous individuals contribute to the building of freely available software and databases – demonstrates that the impulse to contribute for a greater good, rather than compete for self-advancement, has been woefully underrated by consumer culture.

With no shortage of bad news, we all want to hear news of workable solutions, and new ways of thinking. We want to believe that if we’re going to be around for a global transformation, it’ll be one we can live with. This brings us to the “spiritual” take on cultural change.

Decades ago, the French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin reworked the Christian apocalypse with his idea of an “Omega point,” a time at which the planetary mind, the “Noosphere,” awakens from the sum of interconnected human thought. In retrospect, the Noosphere sounds a lot like the Internet. And there does indeed seem to be a planetary awakening of sorts occurring, courtesy bloggers and webmasters. The Internet may be a mixed bag, but on the plus side there’s a wider spectrum of debate in these ungoverned fairgrounds than is found under the circus big tops of the mainstream media. With the latter dominated by flacks and self-censoring careerists, the cultural conversation has largely migrated to the Internet. The blogs are leaving the newspaper editorial pages behind, and it may not be too much longer before the respectable print-based pundits find themselves at the children’s table.

Hunter S. Thompson’s aphorism still stands: “When things get weird, the weird go pro.” One of the weirder pros on the cultural change circuit was the late Terrence McKenna, a carnival barker for a lower-case apocalypse, who riffed off the ideas of de Chardin. To this author of fringe ideas, the sense that things are going faster (and getting stranger) foreshadows a near-term transformation of the human species. McKenna believed that increasing synchronicity, among other distortions of the 9 to 5 reality, is the shadow, projected backwards across the historical landscape of what he called a “hyperdimensional object” at the end of history: the unitary end goal of human spiritual/material evolution. He believed that the human imagination will ultimately take us there – whatever “there” means in this context.

Evolution may be far stranger than we think, McKenna believed. The Internet, interfacing of humans and machines, pharmacology, nanotechnology and the merging of databases are all part of this “hyperdimensional object” pulling us forward in time. But we will get the future we deserve, depending on our intent. “All of this is coalescing toward the potential of a truly demonic or angelic kind of self-imaging of our culture... And the people who are on the demonic side are fully aware of this and hurrying full-tilt forward with their plans to capture everyone as a 100%-believing consumer, inside some kind of a beige-furnished fascism that won’t even raise a ripple.”

Using the notion of the “timewave,” his eccentric measure of cultural change, McKenna prophesied that information acceleration will peak in the year 2012. This apparently came independently of the work of writer Jose Arguelles, and others, who believe humanity and the world will undergo a transformation when the fifth Maya Great Age completes its cycle on December 21, 2012.

In Daniel Pinchbeck’s
2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, the New York author has a guardedly optimistic take on 2012 and the Mayan calendar. Yet toward the end of this psychedelic memoir, Pinchbeck’s shamanic journeying leads him to believe that he himself is the reincarnation of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl – or at the very least, his mouthpiece. Needless to say, skeptics weren’t persuaded by this bit of plant-based knowledge.

The 2012 prophecies offer a multicultural twist on a persistent Judeo-Christian theme: the End Times. Many fundamentalist Christians are quite cheered that things are getting worse rather than better. If the situation continues to decline in the Mideast and even at home, for the true believers this is simply Biblical prophecy playing out to its cinematic finale. There is no effective way to respond to the fundamentalists’ claims, except perhaps cite these words from an Iraq war protest poster: “The Rapture is Not an Acceptable Exit Strategy.”

Whether it’s the Revelations of the Old Testament or the revelations of Daniel Pinchbeck, we have every right to be suspicious of prophecy, given its track record (The Marxist withering of the state, the Nazi Thousand Year Reich, etc.). The notion of future salvation, including the magical thinking that informs The Secret, seems reminiscent of the post World War II “cargo cults” of New Guinea and Melanais. At the war’s end, the allies’ cargo stopped coming, so natives made mock airstrips, airports and offices and even constructed “radios” made of straw and cocoanuts, to draw “GI Joe” back. We may find these primitive ideas amusing, but how different are they from Judeo-Christian/New Age efforts to solicit supernatural forces through prayer, sacrifice and credit card orders?

I’m not saying there are no such things as “supernatural” forces; it’s just that clever monkeys probably shouldn’t rely on angels, extraterrestrials or the “universe as a store catalogue” to save their hides. The economy’s energetic inputs flow from the finite planet and the biosphere’s material abundance is not an infinitely renewable resource. We’re embedded in the material world and we can’t avoid the spiritual test of difficult choices, just because we find it unpleasant.

Whatever the merit of his 2012 musings, Terrence McKenna was always a tough thinker. “The apocalypse is not something which is coming,” he insisted. “The apocalypse has arrived in major portions of the planet and it’s only because we live within a bubble of incredible privilege and social insulation that we still have the luxury of anticipating the apocalypse. If you go to Bosnia or Somalia or Peru or much of the Third World then it appears that the apocalypse has already arrived.”

We live in one of the areas of greatest privilege on the planet, and however messed up things look around us and beyond, we can’t discount the collective weight of our efforts, especially when virtually every healthy First-Worlder still has more clout than a pedicab driver in Bangladesh and a greater voice than a seamstress in the Maldives.

If there’s anything to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s assertion, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience,” it seems to me that our temp work on Earth is likely less about us manifesting miracles than mastering mundane tasks, like remaining human in a world that seems increasing hostile to human values.

For instance, I’m watching things speed up in my own city, Vancouver, as legislators tighten the noose around society’s most defenceless members. In the leadup to 2010’s Olympic orgasm for developers, the city council has passed laws to keep street people from sitting on park benches or reclining in parks. Behind this crazy-making effort to create a “civil city” is a conception of humans as rubbish. It’s both a metaphor and a screaming red flag for the world we are creating – or rather, destroying. In many urban centres across North America, this kind of sociopathic civic-mindedness has become the new normal.

As capitalism enters its cancer stage, we are watching the scars and sores emerge on the body politic. That these eruptions are living, breathing people is pretty much what you would expect as things speed up and resources wind down and the shadow of fascism creeps across the land.

“Business as usual is no longer an option,” wrote Terrance McKenna. “There is no middle way. There is no Ozzie and Harriet third millennium scenario.” He believed the choice was between an enlightened world of limited, earth-friendly consumption, with technology as ally rather than enemy, and “… a hideous, nightmarish world, a Soylent Green kind of world…where people of privilege defend that privilege with tremendous establishments of armament and propaganda and the rest of the world slips into poverty, starvation, desperation and death. “This is the kind of world that rationalists fear, and it’s also the only kind of world they can imagine because they are bankrupt of inspiration and ideas.”

The response of the “rationalists,” wrote McKenna, are media which are “narcoleptic and deadening,” and doctor-prescribed psychotropic drugs which are “not transcendental and inspiring.” The rationalists’ largely unconscious game, he believed, is to keep the population anaesthetized as the collapse proceeds around us. But the author didn’t believe a dystopia was set in stone. He believed our species is approaching a fork in the road, where we will choose either the angelic or demonic path. We may quibble on the date – 2012 or whenever – but McKenna’s brand of apocalypse more believable by the day.

Perhaps with our limited capacity to see the big picture, we only pick up on the signs of cross-cultural sickness, without recognizing them as part of a healing process. But recognizing there is a sickness to begin with is the first step. Denial and repression aren’t healthy options. This is where the artists, musicians and creators come in, to do their age-old, canary in the coal mine shtick.

I’ve heard from so many people who are disgusted by the ascendancy of bullshit and hypocrisy over decency and truth. And even those who avoid the newspaper and evening news are feeling a free-floating anxiety about the world’s state. They may disguise it with cynical humour or ironic distance, but at its source, it’s about grief. I feel it myself. But there’s an odd thing about grief as an emotional state. It’s only a degree of separation, a hair-breadth away, from joy.

Knowledge, in some esoteric traditions, is considered a false crown. I suspect that it’s not cleverness, but compassion, that will test our fitness as a species. I have no academic citations handy for this, no journalistic references. The closest I can come is an anecdote from Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, about one of the twentieth century’s great minds, Aldous Huxley.

As the author of
Brave New World lay dying, someone asked what he had learned from a lifetime of studying spiritual practices and traditions, as well as his own experiences. His response: “It’s embarrassing to tell you this, but it seems to come down mostly to just learning to be kinder.”

Geoff Olson