Happy Doomsday to You!

08/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Newsflash: It's the end of the world (again), and I feel ... aw, forget it. I guess at this point it's kind of a toss-up between bored, giddy, melancholy, and irate, in no particular order. Still, the most recent apocalyptic homage seems somehow more sobering this time, perhaps due to (a) the source and (b) its bluntness. To wit, courtesy of The Independent (UK) and its recent article, "The planet's future: Climate change 'will cause civilization to collapse'":

"An effort on the scale of the Apollo mission that sent men to the Moon is needed if humanity is to have a fighting chance of surviving the ravages of climate change. The stakes are high, as, without sustainable growth, 'billions of people will be condemned to poverty and much of civilization will collapse.'"

This dire projection arises out of a massive report (due out next month) titled "State of the Future" -- backed by organizations including Unesco, the World Bank, the U.S. Army, and the Rockefeller Foundation, and containing insights from 2700 'experts' around the globe. Weaving together strands of economics, politics, environmentalism, science and technology, energy, and peacemaking, the story is deceptively complex and oddly reductionistic at the same time, concluding that the slippery slope to self-annihilation was largely precipitated by the current economic crisis: "Too many greedy and deceitful decisions led to a world recession and demonstrated the international interdependence of economics and ethics." Just as crucial is the green-sounding incantation that "sustainable growth" will somehow save us, despite the oxymoronic and impracticable nature of the concept.

Given the report's sponsors, it's not terribly surprising that the economy figures centrally in the analysis. Equally revealing are the paeans to 'scientific and technological progress' as promising trends in the battle against Armageddon, with the report noting that supercomputers working as fast as the human brain and nanotechnology working at the level of atoms offer potentially revolutionary breakthroughs that could stem the tide of decline. Even here, however, there is an ambivalence noted in the sense that "advanced technology allow[s] fewer people to do more damage and in less time, so that possibly one day a single individual may be able to make and deploy a weapon of mass destruction," although the dilemma is expressed more in the propagandist terms of the "war on terror" than in the ethical conundrum of relying upon technology to save us from itself.

The report specifically valorizes the worldwide web as "the most powerful force for globalization, democratization, economic growth, and education in history." By this point, it's fair to ask whether this report is intended as a warning to humanity or as an advertisement for the global security apparatus (note how neatly democracy and education are equated with the workings of the global economy!) -- a point driven home by the polemical insight that technological advances are "giving birth to an interdependent humanity that can create and implement global strategies to improve the prospects for humanity." Indeed, the central positive thrust of the argument is that the silver lining in the "global warming/global recession" crisis is that this might finally be the wake-up call we need:

"The good news is that the global financial crisis and climate change planning may be helping humanity to move from its often selfish, self-centered adolescence to a more globally responsible adulthood.... Many perceive the current economic disaster as an opportunity to invest in the next generation of greener technologies, to rethink economic and development assumptions, and to put the world on course for a better future."

Intermixed with this call for what appears to be a form of 'engaged quiescence' -- i.e., "the sky is falling ... but we've got it covered, so keep surfing!" -- is actually a reasonably sophisticated analysis of how global conflict takes hold under conditions of scarcity and depletion. There exists a very rich body of literature in the field of "environmental security" about precisely such matters, and this report taps into that by observing that we are likely to face exacerbated crises over essentials including water, food, and energy in the days ahead. As populations grow and resources wane, this line of reasoning suggests that competition increases and conflict almost inevitably ensues. And in fact, the U.S. military has been preparing for precisely this eventuality, as noted last year by Dr. Tom Clonan in The Irish Times:

"Under the auspices of the US department of defense and department of the army, the US military have just published a document entitled 2008 Army Modernization Strategy which makes for interesting reading against the current backdrop of deteriorating international fiscal, environmental, energy resource and security crises.... [T]he 90 page document sets out the future of international conflict for the next 30 to 40 years -- as the US military sees it -- and outlines the manner in which the military will sustain its current operations and prepare and 'transform' itself for future 'persistent' warfare. The document reveals a number of profoundly significant -- and worrying -- strategic positions that have been adopted as official doctrine by the US military. In its preamble, it predicts a post cold war future of 'perpetual warfare.' According to its authors: 'We have entered an era of persistent conflict ... a security environment much more ambiguous and unpredictable than that faced during the cold war.' It then goes on to describe the key features of this dawning era of continuous warfare. Some of the characteristics are familiar enough to a world audience accustomed to the rhetoric of the global war on terror. 'A key current threat is a radical, ideology-based, long-term terrorist threat bent on using any means available -- to include weapons of mass destruction -- to achieve its political and ideological ends.' Relatively new, 'emerging' features are also included in the document's rationale for future threats. 'We face a potential return to traditional security threats posed by emerging near-peers as we compete globally for depleting natural resources and overseas markets.'"

There are some interesting synergies between the 2009 "State of the Future" report and the 2008 "Army Modernization Strategy" report, not the least of which is that both have the fingerprints of the military-industrial complex on them. This fact alone doesn't necessarily invalidate the conclusions reached, but it does ask us to dig a bit deeper. The 2009 report can be read as a palliative of sorts, politically savvy enough to give voice to our legitimate fears and scientifically credible enough to assuage them at the same time. The 2008 report likewise draws upon our fear of terrorism and the emerging 'other' to prepare us for (and justify) perpetual warfare over resources and markets, which the 2009 report implies is basically inevitable and thus quite predictable (i.e., not particularly noteworthy). Taken together, the upshot is that technological progress and sustainable growth can save us before it's too late, but only if we utilize our might wisely to secure the resources we'll need to make this happen -- in the interests of all of humanity, of course.

To its credit, the 2009 report links ecology and peace in a meaningful way that is often absent from the mainstream dialogue: "This is not only important for the environment; it is also a strategy to increase the likelihood of international peace." And yet, in the end, the director of the Millennium Project, which authored the report, argues that we need three basic things in order to turn this ship around and stave off the end of days: better agriculture, healthier meat, and electric cars. In other words, we don't really need a full-on paradigm shift after all, but simply a 'kinder, gentler' version of the one we have now ("green meat," anyone?). This fits thematically with the 2008 report's call for a downsized, computerized, and more efficient military apparatus -- basically echoing the nascent mantra of 'technology and sustainability' as saviors of our way of doing business.

Completely absent in this calculus is any sense of what we can (and should) do in our own lives. Nothing is said about living more simply, consuming less and more locally, working more cooperatively, being more peaceful, and treading more lightly on the earth. There's no call to grow food, unplug from the net, ride a bike, or stop shopping. Precisely the opposite is offered, namely that institutional solutions based on science and economics engaged at levels beyond our mere capacities are working fast and furious to save the day. Who knew that the apocalypse could be so comforting and user-friendly?

Yes, it's the end of the world as we know it ... and it really is all fine. Well, except for that little "civilizational collapse, mass starvation, and perpetual warfare" thing right up ahead. But no worries -- it's all to be expected, of course, and therefore it's basically under control. Now please excuse me while I enhance democracy and forestall a global cataclysm by purchasing a new green supercomputer online...