• Hell of a life – Kanye West – and new year’s thoughts

    by  • December 30, 2010 • Everything Else • 8 Comments

    “Hell of a Life” (fragile video, stable lyrics) really hit a chord.

    I keep circling around this, trying to be sane in an insane world. It’s breaking me, or at least my ability to function in a lot of what people call normal life. I can’t get one eye off poverty and the environment. I’ve spread my bets all over the “low end” of global scenarios, stuff which makes government planners worry. But its made mincemeat of my personal life. It’s not the kind of capacity and mindset which has proven to be compatible with small time consulting, and the big guys aren’t buying anything which doesn’t tell them they wind up on top at the end of the day. And they don’t.

    I’ve had a very interesting month failing to finish The Future We Deserve. Usually my rule is “if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly” and that’s seen me through thick and thin. This felt a little different, and I realized that I could get a book out by Christmas, and that it would be the wrong thing to do. I wanted the “second decade of the 21st century” vibe, not a “honey I got you a book about the future for Christmas.” It’s not a pessimistic book, but it’s a book full of open heavy questions and deep expressions of vision and concern. So it goes back again, and I organize some workshops to support it. And what comes out is better, bigger and later.

    I’m still hoping to get a movement around this. Two dozen people, max.

    Non sequitur. Or not. Here’s the three big lies that have crystalized in my mind through December.

    1. Lie: one day everybody will be rich.
      Truth: the earth does not have enough natural resources to support the global middle class. The poor are dying of this already. 20 million a year, a third of all death.
    2. Lie: America and Europe will look much like this in 20 years.
      Truth: they haven’t really looked like this for three generations. It’s the borrowing which has maintained the illusion of wealth. Ask the Irish.
    3. Lie: Technology will save us.
      Truth: nanotechnology and biotechnology take all the problems of the nuclear age and make them cheap and self-replicating. We can’t handle it, we have no governance or risk management. We’re going to get walloped. Hard.

    Every time I hear somebody talk about open source bio I want to shoot them.

    The problem is that I trained myself, really over 20 years, to face reality. I can’t tell you much about my childhood – both of my parents were mentally ill, and I was a witness to and the subject of incredible violence. I had massive PTSD, put myself back together with a combination of meditation and therapy (and a lot of help from Judith Lewis Herman’s work) and by the time I was thirty I was sane, enlightened in a minor way, and moving from dealing with my personal problems to the onrushing global situation. I spent nearly a year at 7500 feet with chronic drug resistant pneumonia editing the Pentagon’s study on getting the US to zero oil consumption because I believed, at the time, that it was worth dying for. In 2006, after the book had been received at HQ with massive interest and acclaim, President Bush discussed America’s addiction to foreign oil during the State of the Union address, and we knew we had changed the world just that little bit.

    Now I’m pushing 40. The bets are scattered through the low end. My life is a wasteland because day in, day out, I’m staring directly at the stuff which our entire culture is dedicated to medicating and distracting us away from noticing because it might interrupt our victory celebrations over nature and over the poor, held daily at the mall.

    Friend, we’re killing the world and the poor. Stop.

    But how?

    I haven’t trusted myself enough to lead. In all kinds of ways, I’ve measured myself against the people from prior generations who did this thing and said, subtly and realistically, “I’m not one of those.”

    The sharp end of the conflict is that the 1.0 world lifestyle is around Cuba’s standard of living. We may well get Konarka and Nanosolar to bail us out on the energy side. But we’re still going to run into uncontrolled bio. Basic land use, too. There’s far more wrong in this world than carbon. And the myth is that we’re just going to muddle through.

    And we’re not.

    The combination of sharp intellect and massive trauma is dangerous. People feared I’d grow up into a Bond villain or Moriarty when I was a teenager, or worse, and frankly it’s the meditation that saved me (well, all of us) from that. But instead I’m locked in deadly combat with threats that most people outside of government can’t even see, and those inside government that you’d expect to be on top of this stuff, I don’t know. Maybe I haven’t talked to the right people, but the noises are Not Good. Did you know there’s no credible plan for evacuating cities and rehousing the population after a terrorist nuclear weapon? Neither did I, until I invented a plan and people in the know were surprised it was possible. Now imagine you’re me: do you stand down, or keep working? A pandemic flu boss at the UN had missed critical research on stopping flu transmission in public buildings (see artificial summer) done at Mount Sinai in the US. I figured out a way of not having our biometric gear used for political killings in Iraq after we withdraw. People with lives flinch unconsciously from chasing these problems down because of all the helplessness and terror that come up when you get a really realistic appreciation of the actual situation in Iraq or in a pandemic or (god forbid) in a nuclear terrorist event in a city or some of the other areas I’ve worked on. I don’t flinch, but I live in the crater formed by not flinching and actually processing this stuff in sufficient depth to go beyond the official planning envelope and into the actual core of these problems.

    The answers aren’t going to come from electoral politics. After all, when your job is to get people to vote for you every four years, can you tell them “look, we have to half our carbon consumption in 10 years and I don’t care if the French aren’t doing that, or your children are cold.” No, you can’t do it. Democracy isn’t delivering the kind of leadership we need for this job.

    I have been refusing to lead. I’m building tools for other people to use, some recognized authorities, others for whoever perceives the problem. I’m willing to talk about how it is, but I’m not willing, generally, to tell anybody what to do or how to think or what will happen. I’m willing to talk about the present and the past with some authority, but I’m very reluctant to talk about the future. And, yes, if I’d been born 20 years earlier I would have put everything I had into the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, predicting the near-certainty of a global thermonuclear war which would have killed all of us. Fortunately that was over by the time I grew up. We got lucky on that one – rather than everybody dying, nobody did. But for twenty or thirty years, the official doctrine of the world’s biggest and most powerful countries was to kill the entire planet with nuclear fire if they did not get their way economically, and the people who actually stood up and called bullshit on the entire mess were considered nutters. Greenham Common, for all of its nuttiness, was basically sane people responding fairly reasonably to the psychopathic behavior of the governments of the world in the matter of nuclear weapons stockpiles and strategy. The world branded them mad, but they were sane.

    You’re mad. Your society tells you that you are sane, but you are mad. You can get up every morning and go to work not thinking about the scalded golfball your children’s children may well inherit, or the four or five million kids a year who die on garbage dumps of bad water and no food. The people who live comfortably in the short term and are rich and famous reassure you that this is all perfectly normal and to be expected, and it’s not – it’s the massive pathology caused by generations of excuse-making as militarily successful groups stole the land and killed the resistance everywhere there was something worth stealing. It’s the logic of empire burned into your head, telling you that you have the right to be wealthy while the poor starve, and while the processes which generate your basic essential services murder the planet you stand on. And you’ve never seen the edge of your sanity until you look at the world, and imagine that all of those other people are just like you, and feel the pain of their lives just as keenly as you do, but with much, much more to really suffer about.

    Now tell me that I’m wrong.


    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


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