Here’s a tiny question. How much does a day really count? I ask because it’s easy to focus on the minutiae these days. Even they’re head-spinning. A President who marks up a map…with a Sharpie…to cover up a hilarious lie? What the? So: our days consist of: what did he tweet? What did Jake and Chris say about it? Did you see what she wore? Wait, what was the latest scandal, outrage, peccadillo of the moment. We live in strange times. Yet we also live in momentous ones. Do we know that part? I’ve come to think the following.
The next three thousand days will be something very much like our judgment days. The next three thousand days — the next decade — will decide the fates of the following things: the planet, life on it, democracy, and freedom. The next three thousand days will decide the fate of human civilization.
Our existential threats right now are the greatest ones in history. Yes, really. Climate change and mass extinction, to name just two, make yesterday’s seem small in comparison. They’re so vast that they’re head-spinning. We don’t know how to process them. They make our hearts pound with an unknown grief and a new kind of sorrow. And yet we barely have time for our feelings. Because our great existential threats will either be defeated this decade — or they will rise like a many-headed monster, a hydra, to overwhelm us, reaching a point where they probably can’t be defeated at all. Tipping point. Breaking point. Turning point. Judgment day.
(By the way, I’m sorry to sound grandiloquent and apocalyptic. I don’t mean to, and I don’t like to. I prefer disco, chocolate, puppies, and walks in the park. But I have to talk to you in these terms — if I’m honest with you, at least, about what I see: four historic existential threats to human civilization, and how they’re linked.)
Let me begin with the obvious judgment — the clearest existential threat — before us. Climate change. The next decade — as the UN’s warned us all — is it. The point at which we either stop climate change — or tip into irreversible catastrophe. Catastrophe of what kind? The truth is that nobody really knows. Will the oceans rise by a few inches — or a few feet? The truth is that in one way, it doesn’t matter so much. Even the smallest level of “irreversible catastrophic climate change” means that most of the following cease to exist: our great cities, our food and water, our economies, stability, our (Western) lifestyles of easy, idle, pointless consumption to make ourselves feel powerful and strong. Poof! All gone in a flash. Climate change is the simplest existential threat whose power and fury will be decided once and for alll — this decade. Get it wrong, and we wreck the globe for centuries, millennia, perhaps permanently, producing changes that can never really be undone, forking the paths of the sun, sea, and soil in strange and terrible ways.
The slow death of a habitable planet also means that life as we know it is dying off. We’re in the midst of deep history’s first human-made mass extinction. The problem, of course, is that life as we know it provides, in technical parlance “support services”, or in plain English the stuff that we need to live, too. The trees provide us air, the rivers water, the soil crops. With the ongoing death of the bees, insects, fish — the bottoms are being ripped out of our ecosystems, and they promise to crumble in on themselves. All while being attacked from the literal top, scorched by a furious sun. Mass extinction is an existential threat just like climate change — only it doesn’t have nearly the same recognition yet in pop culture, though it should. And just like climate change, whether we have a colossal mass extinction, or just a terrible one, will be decided this decade, too. Are we going to kill off merely 25% of the species on earth, or close to 50% — or something more like 75%? The tipping point for us, too — for human civilization — lies somewhere in those cold, anodyne numbers.
The hard truth about both climate change and mass extinction, though, is that so far there’s only one political economy that’s proven capable of reducing either. Only Europe — alone in the world — has managed to reduce carbon emissions and (theoretically, at least) increase biodiversity. Why? Because Europe is a social democracy — and a social democracy is capable of investing in its trees, rivers, soil, animals. It is capable of nourishing them, just like it’s capable of nourishing people. Hence, Europe — along with Canada — is an island of sanity in a world crumbling into the abyss.
The rest of the world isn’t a social democracy, though. It’s part of America’s global capitalist system. India, China, the Middle East, Central America, South America. All these regions essentially feed American capitalism’s voracious appetite for raw materials, minerals, oil — at any price. What do all these countries and regions have in common? Well, most of them were bombed, invaded, or destabilized by America — to create that global capitalist system. Any time a people wanted another political system — communism, socialism, social democracy — America would invade, and usually, as in Iraq and Chile, install a dictator capitalism could “do business” with.
That brings me to my third existential threat. American capitalism’s imploding into fascism. America itself is the bellwether, the prime example: it now has all the institutions of a properly fascist society, as much as Americans don’t understand it or can’t admit it — concentration camps, kids tortured in them, “raids” which terrorize entire cities, dehumanization as an everyday feature of public life, second class citizenship, all the stuff above done by private “subcontractors” for profit and power.
But American capitalism isn’t just imploding into fascism in America. It’s imploding into fascism in all the places that bought heavily into America’s capitalist system. It’s not a coincidence that China’s pioneering a kind of techno-fascism, while India’s made millions of people suddenly stateless, in the throes of an aggressive bombastic hyper nationalism. Both these countries were the key suppliers of America’s capitalist global system, China goods, India services — and both are imploding into fascism for exactly the same reason America is.
Capitalism has many ills. And when they all mount at once, the result is fascism. Capital’s main effect is obvious: it increases capitals’ share of income, but not labour’s share. The result is a spiral ever growing inequality. A working class aspires to become a middle clss and a middle class aspires to become rich — but both only find a perpetual struggle to subsist, to ride a treadmill of status through buying and owning more stuff. Despair, loneliness, social fracture, alienation ensue — as people feel exploited. An intellectual and political class that comes to blame “others” for the resentment and fury exploitation breeds. The whole edifice begins to collapse on itself — because, in the end, most of society remains too poor to consume the very glittering prizes, mansions and superyachts and hypercars, that capitalism perpetually dangles before it as the only measure of a person’s inherent worth.
So fascism is rising around the globe, as America’s global capitalist system implodes, because it produced inequality, exploitation, egotism, greed, rage, and fury — not anything resembling prosperity, fairness, gentleness, wisdom, courage, and truth. It’s hitting nation after nation.. It’s the nations closest to America that are fracturing into fascism — India and China today, tomorrow, second-tier players in America’s system, like Mexico and Brazil.
You might think, if you’re a certain kind of America — “who cares if those countries become fascist?!” Ah, my friends. Countries that were once partners choosing authoritarian-fascisms instead also usually means they become enemies. And so competing fascisms in America, China, and India also set the stage for real, violent, and lasting conflicts between them. That’s the nature of my fourth existential threat:
Now. Perhaps you can see my fourth existential threat already. A world of rising extremisms is also a world where democracy is in retreat. But as troublesome and wearisome as democracy seems — especially today — we should all want more of it.
Why? Because as we’ve discussed, democracy — of the most advanced and sophisticated kind, social democracy — is the only political economy in the world capable of resisting any of my existential threats. Europe hasn’t just been the only region in the world to reduce carbon emissions — it’s also the only in the world to resist fascism successfully so far.
(While Americans point to Europe as a warning, the truth is that Europe’s insulated well from fascism by social democracy — witness Italy’s hard-right government falling recently. It’s America’s capitalist system that’s imploding into fascism. Why is that? Because capitalism and democracy cannot coexist as equals. One must master the other. In social democracy, capitalism is not the equal of society. It has a purpose, a place, and a reason to exist beyond mere profit.)
Democracy should best be seen as a ladder. At the bottom lie nations like America — just a few decades out of being apartheid states, with no real progress to becoming sophisticated democracies at all. At the top lie true social democracies, like European ones, with advanced, cutting-edge human rights constitutionally guaranteed — like healthcare, education, safety, transport, media, income, even dignity.
My fourth existential threat, then, is democratic decay — but it means a very, very different thing than when American pundits say it. In my language, it means: “the world is making little progress up the ladder of democracy. The world should be evolving towards social democracy, which is the most advanced kind of democracy there is, much, much faster. Why? Because social democracy is the only political economy in history that’s proven itself capable of repelling and conquering the existential threats of climate change, mass extinction, and authoritarian-fascism.”
Take it slow and reread that if you need to — it’s the crux of everything. It means something like this.
If we as a world make progress towards social democracy — which means sophisticated democracies in which people have advanced human rights, that then must be invested in, with cutting-edge social contracts and institutions, that provide people healthcare, education, a living, a planet — then, my friends, we have a chance to defeat climate change, mass extinction, and fascism. Climate change, mass extinction, and fascism can only really be undone by looking understanding why our fourth existential threat matters, democratic decline…and building social democracies around the globe. Now is the time in which we either understand that our three existential threats are linked by our fourth — or we don’t, and tomorrow goes on like today…which is too late.
If that happens, if tomorrow ends up like today, then the first three existential threats, climate change, mass extinction, and fascism, will probably rise to levels that they can’t be managed or defeated at all. Then the world enters a period of chaos, of violence, of might making right, of wars for water and air and land by fascist state against fascist state, each of which is trying to shunt off its “others”, it’s “parasites” and “liabilities”, to another weaker nation, using technology, surveillance, drones, bombs, bots, and body-armored paramilitaries. Sound like a pleasant future?
The next three thousand days are our judgment day. Our turning point…or tipping point — or our breaking point. The next three thousand days are going to decide the fates of the planet, life on it, the world, democracy, and freedom. In lethally real and shatteringly concrete ways. The next three thousand days will choose whether human civilization merely endures and perseveres, or prospers and soars, or declines and quite possibly collapses altogether.
The battle for the future has already begun, my friends. You’re part of it whether or not you want to be, or think you are. The question is whether or not you know it. It’s easy to think the days don’t count. To let them slip by in a haze of outrage, fear, and cynicism. But our grandkids and theirs will judge us on what we do every single day now. Days have never counted more than ours.
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