How American Collapse is Like Climate Change
The Challenges of Creating a Better Future
What makes having a vision for a better future so hard? So elusive? After all, we live in a world without many, don’t we?
Every day on Twitter, something curious happens. I say the words “American collapse”, and, as if I’ve pulled a trigger, people go into denial, shock, anger, fury. I get it. The idea of collapse isn’t just scary — it violates one of our deepest beliefs: that America is an exceptional success, the one true model for the world to follow. Cognitive dissonance, rejection, paralysis — you know the story.
And yet. American collapse, if it is like anything, is a lot like another Big Global Problem, climate change, in three ways. And I think that comparing them shines lights on the challenges— and necessity — of creating a better future.
First, though collapse is real, we debate it as if it weren’t. I need just — just — one sentence to prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt. The middle class is imploding, life expectancy is falling, and there is an authoritarian head of state. One of these three facts would point to collapse — but all three together are the world’s biggest neon sign saying: “collapse is here, visible, happening”. None of these things happen in functioning modern societies — thus they are vivid proof that one is being unmade.
And yet, in those rare instances that the idea of collapse is brought up, it’s a point of “debate”, just like climate change is. But the debate is entirely fake. The evidence that we need to disconfirm the null hypothesis (America isn’t collapsing, the climate isn’t changing) is abundant and convergent. All the facts, data, every last bit of empirical reality points in exactly the same direction.
Why, then, do we “debate” reality? After all, reality doesn’t care about our beliefs. How hard and furiously we debate reality is a measure of our own psychological maladjustment, neurosis, ill health, which only ever limits our power of social change: our ability to change, influence, shape reality in constructive ways. So just like climate change only points to our emotional limitations, our inability to process the truth of a fast changing reality — and thus change it — so does the irrational response to American collapse.
The second way that American collapse is like climate change is social and economic. Climate change is going to reshape the global political economy; in many ways, it already is. So is American collapse.
The global economy has been built on a very simple — and some might say very foolhardy — value exchange for the last several decades. Poor countries like China lend American consumers money with which to buy the goods those poor countries make. In other words, the American consumer has been the engine of global economic growth — and that growth has been consumption-led, not, say, driven by investment in public health, education, and so on. It’s been more about Americans buying useless trinkets at Walmart — and those aren’t investments, hence, global economic growth is slowing down now.
But the future is going to be even more problematic. The American consumer doesn’t really exist anymore. The average American has a flat income, no real disposable income after the insane costs of education, healthcare, transport — and almost no savings for emergencies. That’s what a shrinking middle means. And ashrinking middle class doesn’t have the money for trinkets anymore — much less luxuries. Hence, a huge shakeout in retail — and dollars flowing to companies like Amazon, who can offer the cheapest goods at the lowest prices. But you cannot build a prosperous global economy on the back of Amazon dot com. You can only build warehouses and factories staffed mostly by robots — and a tiny number of people getting very, very rich off this toxic value transfer upwards, while quality of life stagnates.
The global economy has no engine left. That is why growth is slowing, without much hope on the horizon.
And that brings me to the third way in which American collapse is like climate change. Solving these obvious problems is the only way out. That is what this age is really about: failing to solve these obvious problems, and debating their existence instead. Real problems don’t care about our fake debates — they just go on getting worse. Like a melting planet, or a global economy without an engine.
What should the engine of the global economy be? It shouldn’t have been naked consumption for so long — and definitely not just consumption by Americans, because they are already rich — and definitely definitely not just consumption by Americans instead of investment in Americans, because no one can really build a future that way.
The engine of the global economy should be investment. Investment in what? In people. Not in paper — stocks, currencies, and so on. But real investment in human lives. Whether hospitals, schools, universities, public healthcare systems, transport, research, and so on. Money should be pouring into investments that elevate the stagnant boundaries of real human potential.
The way out of this mess is fixing the obvious problems. One of those problems is climate change. Another one is American collapse. Both reflect a globe in deep, deep trouble, disarray, confusion. One without a clear, compelling vision of a better future.
You might think that having such a vision is impossible. I think, if you really understand the above, it is obvious. Invest in people. The old economy is dead. It’s taking the planet with it. Solve real global problems that are painfully obvious.
Putting into practice won’t be easy. But the vision for a better future itself? What prevents its from surfacing is our own emotional, cognitive, and social limitations, our dissonance with and denial of painful reality. And yet it couldn’t be clearer. It’s about solving problems, instead of debating whether they exist, while the world around us, laughing at our hubris, crumbles. It always is.