Elsewhere, Goldstone finds a predictable precursor to societal collapse to be ‘elite overproduction’ — when too many elite players are produced and have to fight over too few high-status positions. A moderate level of overproduction is beneficial, as it creates healthy competition and increases the quality of the elites that do end up occupying the most prestigious positions, in government, media, the legal world, and so on. But too much overproduction leads to resentful cadres of failed elites forming their own status games in opposition to the successful. They begin warring for status, attacking the establishment, which contributes to its destabilization. Goldstone finds these dynamics in the years leading up to the English Civil War, the French Revolution and crises in China and Turkey. Once again, we find chaos and history being made in the aftermath of the game’s expected rewards failing to pay out.
Storr, Will. The Status Game. William Collins Books; London; 2021. p. 115
One of the main points in my PhD dissertation on climate change and activism is that, in order for them to improve outcomes, policies to control climate change and abolish fossil fuels need to be sustained for decade after decade (§5.7, p. 201).
Only when there is confidence about the future direction of policy can individuals and firms make sufficient investments in post-fossil fuel infrastructure.
Likewise, if people think that policies to get off fossil fuels are changeable, they will exert their efforts to lobby the government to make those changes, instead of working to decarbonize.
Right now, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is demonstrating the dangers of policy instability: Rishi Sunak announces U-turn on key green targets. Also:
The backtracking on electric vehicles was most surprising. Just two months ago, the government promised a £500m ($643m) subsidy to Tata, an Indian conglomerate, for a new battery plant in Somerset. (And in July Michael Gove, a cabinet minister, had agreed the 2030 deadline was immovable.) Other carmakers immediately reacted angrily. Ford said the industry needed “ambition, commitment and consistency” from government, all of which had been undermined. Sir Simon Clarke, a former Conservative cabinet minister, asked how businesses should plan “if we respond to one by-election…by tearing up key planks of government policy.”
As always, it is vexatious and painful to see that our leaders don’t have a serious plan to avoid climate change catastrophe. The fact that they don’t shows how they see it as someone else’s problem: just a legacy of ruin that other people will need to endure.
I feel like I have been seeing increasing journalistic coverage about young people not wanting to bring new children into this world. Often the focus of these stories is economic, but I feel like there must be deeper climate-related motives too. The message older generations have sent is that they are quite happy to ruin the Earth for future generations if doing so will protect their personal interests. When their elders have made that choice — and keep voting consistently with it — perhaps the young deserve praise for not wanting to keep this species going.
Our ill feeling toward high-status players has been captured in the lab. When neuroscientists had participants read about someone popular, rich and smart, they saw brain regions involved in the perception of pain become activated. When they read of this invented person suffering a demotion, their pleasure systems flared up. Psychologists see this effect cross-culturally, with one study in Japan and Australia finding participants took pleasure in the felling of a ‘tall poppy’: the higher their status, the greater the enjoyment of their de-grading. The most venomous levels of envy were reported when the poppy’s success was ‘in a domain that was important to the participant, such as academic achievement among students’ – when they were rivals in their games.
An yet, as we’ve learned, we’re also drawn to high-status people: we crave contact with the famous, the successful and the brilliant. So our relationship with elite players is thunderously ambivalent. On one hand, we gather close to them, offering them status in order to learn from them and, in the process, become statusful ourselves. On the other, we experience grinding resentments towards them. This, perhaps, is the result of the mismatch between our neural game-playing equipment and the massively outsized structure of modern games. Our brains may be specialized for small tribal groups but today – especially at work and online – we play colossal games in which poppies loom over us like redwoods. Status is relative: the higher others rise, the lower we sit in comparison. It’s a resource and their highly visible thriving steals it from us. The exceptions we make tend to be for ambassadors from our own groups: artists, thinkers, athletes and leaders with whom we strongly identify. They seem to symbolize us, somehow. They carry with them a piece of our own identity, a pound of our flesh – so their success becomes our success and we cheer it wildly. To our subconscious these idols are fantastically accomplished versions of us: our copy, flatter, conform cognition overrides our resentment.
Storr, Will. The Status Game. William Collins Books; London; 2021. p. 97-8
It is hard to say when it began, because the stress and loneliness of the PhD blended into my post-PhD feelings, but it’s quite fair to say that I have been feeling consistently low at least since I learned that I would have to leave my old home in North York in March.
One big contributor is surely the feeling of anticlimax after the dissertation was released. This wasn’t some obscure academic tract about an issue of specialist interest, but a very current-day analysis of humanity’s most pressing problem. I was expecting, or at least hoping for, debate and pushback from people in the activist and policy communities. So far, the most substantial response to what I wrote has been a half-hour discussion with my brother Mica and his wife Leigh when they were visiting Toronto. In the dissertation I express my worry that — even though their aspiration and plan is to change the world — activists get caught up in routine behaviours like marches which occupy their time and effort but do little to change minds or policy. The total non-response to my research so far is a minor bit of additional evidence that activists aren’t generally too compelled by external analyses of their efficacy.
Another dimension is no doubt simple isolation. The layers have been stacking for me in that area: it’s harder to make and keep friends as an adult, it’s harder when you’re no longer a student, and it has become harder as people have pulled their social attention inward to a small group during the pandemic. Getting anybody to attend any sort of event has become substantially harder, and as corollaries the events that do happen have less attendance and energy and there are fewer events.
Another item for this decidedly non-comprehensive list is my sense that most of the people who I know (or, at least, peers and younger people — the dynamics of the affluent and established are different) are not doing well. People seem stymied in achieving the sort of adult lives they want, and especially in finding any sort of work which is psychologically and materially rewarding. It feels like to a large extent our parents got rich and retired, but most of us have never been able to move up into the positions they held at our stage of life. As with housing, there is a feeling that the older and best-off parts of the population have grabbed everything and are keeping it for themselves. This feeling becomes especially embittering when paired with the knowledge that they are actively choosing to hand over a ruined planet to their descendants every time they keep electing leaders who keep the future-wrecking fossil fuel industry going.
It is hard to escape the feeling that I have spent the last 20+ years building up for what I thought would be an intense period of intellectual effort, civilizational re-consideration, and mass political re-organization… and have found myself instead in an epoch where smaller-scale but acute disruptions have monopolized public attention to the point where we seem to be paying even less attention to the big trends than we were 10-15 years ago. It’s very hard to feel optimistic about the future, and it is simultaneously profoundly alienating when society at large is choosing to ignore the existential seriousness of the crisis which we are in. Living among people who are likely to be remembered as history’s greatest wreckers (on the optimistic assumption that anyone will be around with luxuries like paper and literacy to write the history of the present) carries with it feelings of rage and hatred against everything around me: the cars pumping out their fumes in a million lines idling behind red lights, the kaleidoscopic variety in our supermarkets at the same time as we are smashing the Earth’s biodiversity and capacity to support us, the elections that still turn on trivialities even though the consequences of our choices are as serious as death…
Feeling that our civilization is such a disaster is utterly isolating, since our fellow human beings cannot help taking that personally as a criticism and rejection of their own lives and priorities. Meanwhile, it’s impossible to have any confidence in the future. Over the last 20+ years, humanity has shown that we are totally capable of knowing the consequences of our actions and the stakes being played for and still choosing to ruin the world which we inherited. As much as I sincerely delight in the possibilities and experiences of life, I don’t know how to avoid the feeling of being a witness during the time of humanity’s downfall.
Unemployment among urban Chinese aged 16 to 24 has been running at over 20% for months, about double the age group’s pre-pandemic level. The official job numbers for this group are so stubbornly awful that China recently stopped publishing them altogether. Higher education is no longer a reliable ladder to a solid career. Our calculations show that in 2021 over 70% of those unemployed youngsters were graduates. Along with scarce jobs, they face sky-high property prices. Their modest dreams of finding work, buying a house and supporting a family seem increasingly out of reach.
Yet there is a growing feeling among young people that no matter how hard they study or work, they will not be rewarded with a better quality of life. They speak of neijuan, or “involution”, an academic word used to describe a situation in which extra input no longer yields more output. The idea was captured in “A Love for Dilemma”, a popular tv drama released in 2021. In the show, two characters liken the competition in educational attainment to an unruly audience at a cinema: someone stands up to get a clearer view, which obliges everyone behind them to stand. Then people climb on seats and ladders. But in the end, despite all of their effort, no one is able to see the screen any better.
People commonly assume that China’s wealth and power will rise and rise, eventually eclipsing that of rich western democracies. I am personally far more skeptical. An authoritarian and conformist society, led by a Communist Party that holds its own grip on power as the greatest good, has fundamental limits in innovating, productively managing societal tensions, and excelling. I think when your education system has systematically misled the country’s youth about their own history, you will end up with a society that struggles to understand itself well enough to cope in an area of disruptive environmental change.
Furthermore, China has copied many of the worst lessons from the capitalist west, and is building a car-based consumerist society of endless suburbs and shopping malls. That is not well suited to the harsh and destabilizing future which we all all building through our profligate fossil fuel use.
China’s demographics are also a major challenge to its ability to keep growing in wealth and power. Especially in a society that rejects immigration, having a huge bulge of retirees being supported by fewer and fewer working people may be even more of a challenge for China than for the west, given that the CCP’s claims to legitimacy now centre on maintaining order and sustaining growth, rather than any recognizable communist ideology.
Milan Ilnyckyj at July 2023 Critical Mass in Vancouver, by @jordanvegbike
By happenstance or grace I ran into the best Vancouver Critical Mass in years when the library ushered me out at 6pm. It was my first bike ride in 11 years, and my first e-bike ride ever, on a rental e-bike available right beside the mustering area north of the old art gallery.
Critical Mass is one of the most brilliant forms of non-violent direct action ever devised. Today’s Vancouver ride showed me the city like I never saw it in 22 years growing up, and felt like the safest bike ride I ever took. Safe in the middle, I never worried about a single car. There were pairs of kids on the back of long e-bikes; dogs in carriers wearing goggles; several audio mixes from portable speakers in different parts of the mass; and a lot of good grace and patience — as well as a great deal of overt support — from pedestrians as well as drivers.
We have arrived safe in North Vancouver via Kamloops, Lillooet, and Whistler — managing to avoid any major fire delays more by luck and Sasha’s dedication behind the wheel than by foresight and planning. He did all our driving in three back to back days, and did today’s stretch through the heaviest traffic, steepest and twistiest roads, and our only night driving of the voyage.
We worked in a few short pauses to enjoy the views from the mountains. I hadn’t realized how beautiful the area around Lillooet is, with a semi-arid landscape, rocky peaks overhead, and vertiginous drops into the river canyon. It would be a fine place to return in no hurry and with a tripod and landscape photography gear. A hot tip from a German man at a roadside viewpoint took us on a ten minute hike to a stunning panoramic view at 50.65983, -121.98589.
A stop in Pemberton yielded kimchi and pulled pork sandwiches and smashed fries, which seemed just right as our last rest and meal of the journey.
After a night in tents and three solid days of driving, the last stretch in the dark through Whistler and Squamish had Sasha showing his only noticeable fatigue of the journey, which we countered with lively songs and an effort I made to dance in my seat to kinetically counteract the idea of tiredness.
Our parents welcomed us late in the evening with great hospitality and kindness. Because of the fires and the importance of Sasha not driving when too tired, I had been planning based on a five day drive with two extra days for delays and detours. As a result, I am in Vancouver with five days before the next phase of this visit is to begin. To pack light, I omitted to bring any camera gear, so my hope of digitizing the family albums on this visit is set aside.
While the time together was joyful and rewarding, we did spend the day very concerned about the fire threatening Bechoko. I watched the news and fire map updates while Sasha kept up with friends over messages and social media. The danger there is great and everyone has been directed to evacuate, and the structures and environs of the community are in peril. All we can do now is hope that the three homes that have already been lost will be all that are taken, and then regardless of the actual damage realized during this fire season do what we can to support the people impacted. I wish this unprecedented fire season was having a decisive political effect, pushing the public and politicians to accept that it is madness and a profound and irreversible betrayal of the young to keep producing and expanding fossil fuels. It isn’t really prosperity when you get or stay rich by burning up the prospects of those who will come after you, but our cognitive blockages to accepting and taking responsibility for the consequences of our actions continue to paralyze us into accepting a world-wrecking status quo. I don’t know what can break that complacency, but the way in which we carry on heedlessly incinerating the future with our coal, oil, and gas dependence is setting us up to be justly remembered as the generations that squandered the common heritage of humankind for the sake of our own ease and enjoyment.
These linguistic evasions demonstrate both our continuing lack of seriousness about climate change and how the public policy agenda remains captured by the fossil fuel industry protecting its narrow interests:
We know that greenhouse gases are the cause and there is no solution to climate change without fossil fuel abolition, but we are stuck talking about a “phase down” instead of elimination, and using the magical idea of “abated” fossil fuels to use a technology that does not exist at scale (carbon capture and storage) to justify continued fossil fuel development.
CBS News reports that many Americans (including members of “Generation X” born between 1965 and 1980) have paltry retirement savings:
The typical Gen-X household with a private retirement plan has $40,000 in savings, according to a report this week from the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS). The figures are even more more alarming for low-income Gen-Xers, who have managed to stash away no more than about $4,300, and often even less, the group found. Across all members of the generation, some 40% don’t have a penny saved for retirement.
“Gen-Xers are fast approaching retirement age, but the data indicate that the vast majority are not even close to having enough savings to retire,” NIRS Executive Director Dan Doonan said in a statement. “Most Gen-Xers don’t have a pension plan, they’ve lived through multiple economic crises, wages aren’t keeping up with inflation and costs are rising. The American Dream of retirement is going to be a nightmare for too many Gen-Xers.”
Members of Generation X — the roughly 64 million Americans sandwiched between Baby Boomers and Millennials — aren’t the only ones struggling to meet retirement goals. Although boomers say they need $1.1 million for retirement, the median retirement savings is $120,000 for that generation, according to a recent study from Natixis Investment Managers.
The implications are worrisome. Will these people end up in severe poverty without government or family support? Or will governments need to increase taxation to provide universal benefits to people who haven’t saved? What consequences will the stress of these unfunded retirement needs have for families and the social support net?