I was listening to Timothée Parrique talk with Nate Hagens on The Great Simplification. Parrique is entertaining and enthusiastic, not common qualities in an economist, much less one whose research focus is in the potentially doomy arena of degrowth. But he makes degrowth sound fun. I shared the podcast conversation on social media and attached a silly quip, pointing out that degrowth is sexy in Parrique’s hands. This morning I realized that’s actually not silly. Nor is it secondary to the “main message” that ecological economists need to promulgate. It is the main message. It is exactly the point of degrowth. Degrowth is a desirable future. We all want degrowth. Those who talk about economics in the real world really should make more of this decided advantage over neoliberalism. Degrowth leads to a sexy place where we all want to live. Neoliberalism forces us all to exist in solitary confinement until we die…
Throwing off this burdensome nightmare system is desirable. It’s sexy. It’s hopeful and joyful and wonderful. We will finally get to live. Perhaps actually catch happiness rather than futilely and hopelessly pursuing it. We will be able to take care of ourselves. We’ll have time to eat good food, sleep well, create beauty and utility, and yes, make love in the afternoon whenever we want. We will set the priorities. We will make the decisions of what to do with this world and our time in it. We will draw the lines around what is done and what is proscribed. We will make our own lives. And when we are in charge, we get what we want. That is super sexy!
The more I dwelled on this, the more I came to notice something… There is an age division. The older people are dour on future prospects (though few will actually experience much of the future, being old and all). And this is more than the usual sour grapes of age. They are uniformly quite sure that the future will be a world of unending misery. They call themselves realists, as they talk about things that have not yet happened and therefore do not exist… They say that it’s all going to fall apart. That there will be suffering and there will be death. And yes, there will be suffering and there will be death and it will all fall apart. Because it is already falling apart and it was all only ever held together by the suffering and death of billions of people for hundreds of years. Suffering and death is the central pillar of our economic system. And that’s just the human toll.
All falling apart and suffering and death are not prognostications for a nebulous future. This is a concrete present and a recorded and footnoted past. But the older people who write about the future are seemingly not too familiar with the realities of the system that is falling apart (that which has benefitted them to the extent that they can afford to spend time writing about the future that they will not experience, mind you). Older people do not understand that for most of the world, this system all falling apart is a damn good thing. In fact, when they talk about the misery, it sometimes feels like the horror they are contemplating is not that it’s all going to fall apart and suffering will ensue; it’s that some of this agony might finally touch on their lives — or at least on people who are like them. It feels disingenuous to maunder on about the misery of future collapse when this system that they are lamenting has caused monumental misery in the past and continues to cause misery in the present. I mean, what exactly is changing in the future? Just that — gasp — white people may be forced into sharing the pain.
But then you listen to younger people — even young white men of privilege, like Parrique — and they are lustily cheering on the collapse of our culture. What we have done to this planet is terrifying. (Parrique’s biggest fear is biodiversity loss… rightfully so…) What we have done to each other is mortifying. But the future is not all about despair. Their image of the future — a future they will inhabit fully with their lives, by the by — is… perhaps balanced is the best adjective. There is anxiety, there is grief, there is bewilderment; but there are also hope and joy and anticipation. The distinction is that they recognize that the future is theirs to make. It will include death and suffering and the loss of a great deal of that which we take for granted; but it will also include love and freedom and possibility. The future does not yet exist. There are trends, yes, but it is not fated. And what people choose to do will have an impact. If they get to choose to live as they want, well, that might be worth losing Facebook and weekends in the tropics and 24-hour shipping.
In any case, many of them see the collapse as the light at the long-awaited end. Along with the demise of the Euro-Western religion of individual profit, there is the end of the hate machine. No more churning bodies into monetary wealth for a few. No more isolation and aggression as the enforced norm. No more suffering of the many to benefit the few. One fundamental difference between old and young is that people like Parrique are one voice among many, not the only voice and view. In this younger generation, there is not one voice, one perspective, one path. There are many and many of those many have been experiencing suffering from this system for generations. Its collapse brings relief. You don’t hear many brown-skinned people of any age saying “keep it going”. You don’t hear much keening for domination and hierarchy coming from the Global South. (I suspect if you asked the trees, they’d say “tear it down” as well… probably are saying that…) When you allow that perspective into the narrative, the future not only looks less grim, it looks less given. Even within the context of biophysical breakdown, anything can happen when all kinds of people are allowed to live to their full potential.
Anything except the continuation of this system that has so benefitted the older generations of white people.
Older people are blinded by the past, of course. This is a common failing of old age. They want things to remain fixed, to remain as they’ve “always” been. Old people fear the changes that they may not be able to adapt to, and they fear the negation that this systemic collapse represents. They will have no place in the future even if they live to see it. (Which is unlikely… though boomers do have a rather fixed faith in personal eternity.) Worse yet, the role they have filled is now seen clearly for what it is. And it is not good. No amount of white-washing can cover up the taint. The choices they’ve made did not lead to well-being, not even for themselves. They have lived exactly wrong. That’s very hard to bear. So they don’t bear it, on average. They block out the void, the meaninglessness at the center of their lives, and they focus all the more on more of the same. Double down on keeping their familiar in place, even as it becomes increasingly impossible to not see that their familiar is devastating the entire world — themselves included (because every thing is included…).
So they are dour. They are deeply depressed. They have wasted their lives propping up this system, and most do not have anything to show for it. Not even within the terms of the system. They did not profit. (Or very few of them did, anyway, and those few are not much talking about collapse…) Most older white men, like everyone else, gave their lives so that a very few of them could rack up billions of dollars (not even real wealth… because there isn’t that much real wealth…). They did not benefit much, and their principle reward is the privilege of having a voice. So they use that voice to try to justify their lives. And that is very hard going.
Because objectively, no matter the measure of a life, a great number of them were bad people, harmful people, stupid people — which to many of them is the greatest failing imaginable. They were taken in, duped, hoodwinked, and used before being tossed out and forgotten. They did bad things for not much reason. They caused a great deal of this world’s suffering. And the only justification they have is that they were “just doing their job”. They kept their heads down, their mouths closed, and they did what this system demanded of them.
Well, so did the concentration camp guards, but still…
That is an unbearable conclusion to reach late in life. So most don’t. They make dour predictions — “You all won’t do any better. Look at the hell you face!” — and point fingers elsewhere. “Look at these lazy young people who don’t want to work”. (And yet said young people are building solid lives with their bare hands and almost no other resources or support.) “These welfare queens keep having babies just to get more hand-outs”. (And yet women living in poverty seem to principally desire rights to govern their own reproductive systems so they can… not have babies.) “Kids these days spend all their time staring at their phones.” (As if that were not the logical culmination of this system of isolation within the Market.)
Which is maybe not parenthetical. This is the world these young people inhabit. They have no other recourse but the tools of the master. They use this tool of isolation and mediation to build friendship because they have no choice, not because they want this. Nearly every young person I know looks at me with palpable envy when I say that I lived for over half a century without a cell phone or a social media account. And that — my unmediated life — is what they see when they contemplate cultural collapse — a world in which there are no cell phones or advertisements mediating their relationships.
Old people see only the erasure of their existence, considering both my cell-phone-less state and the screen-focused attention of the young to amount to nothing less than a personal affront, it seems. After all, they spent their lives building up this world and all its philosophy of segregation. Maybe that is the hardest thing to bear — they are being rejected, yes, but the damn kids are using their own tools against them.
Ultimately, it probably just comes down to this sort of jealousy. The young have the future, whatever it entails. They have a chance to make it their own, to make lives that are meaningful, beneficial, happy. Sexy. The older generations did not have that opportunity. (Or worse, they did not take it.) They had a life of “pursuing happiness” doing things that were obviously destructive, generally devoid of meaning, and rather tediously idiotic. Young people are escaping this system that has controlled, dictated and destroyed the lives of every body for the last five hundred years. The older folks who have not been destroyed have been the architects and masons in these prison walls. The young get out. They are rejecting the prison, turning away from it, denying its hold and legitimacy. The old… just get to die.
So I am not granting absolution, but I am absolutely granting them a bit of the empathy that they so greedily withhold from the world. I pity them, you see. Because nothing they’ve done was ever as good or wholesome — or sexy — as degrowth. And there is not now time left to them in order to rectify that. These dour prognostications are bred from a deep, unspoken, perhaps unrecognized, regret. I can imagine what it must feel like to be in their shoes. But then… I did not choose to be so well-heeled… for many reasons… not least of which is that when I got to the end of my walking, I wanted to know that I’d had a good journey, that I’d done good in the world. I don’t know if they all had that choice. Maybe some didn’t; maybe many didn’t. But obviously, they did not take it. And now they are dour, seeing only darkness in the shadowy realm of the yet-to-be.
Young people see life. Their life. The life they will build. They will make their own regrets, I am sure; but I highly doubt that propping up this destructive system will be one of them. They have the choice, you see. And they seem to be making it, in real time, now. They are showing us their choice.
Let it de-grow… while we dance and feast and make love in the streets!
©Elizabeth Anker 2022