Do you ever have that “We might actually be completely fucked” feeling?
(No. 1) Looking for truth about the future, by Ty Montague and Stephen P. Williams
Photo by Roxanne Desgagnés on Unsplash
Welcome to the first issue of Our Dark Secrets.
Can we let you in on a secret? We humans have been spending the principal for the last several hundred years. Despite our efforts to replenish our resources — primarily by discovering new methods of extraction — the gap between what we generate and what we use is growing faster than duckweed. And so are all the excuses, obfuscations and evasions about who is responsible (each one of us) and why (look into your role — there you will discover your dark secrets). This newsletter is our untutored, yet passionate, attempt to find a good path forward — if that’s possible. While we can predict the disastrous outcomes of inaction, we will not know the consequences of serious action until we try it.
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From the department of Why
Why do we have dark secrets?
We all carry dark secrets about the future of the world, and our role in shaping that. We might feel the world has taken an alarming turn towards fascism. Or we might suspect that flying to London on a whim emits more carbon than we can justify. Yet often, instead of speaking up, we keep our heads down to avoid rocking our precariously balanced boat.
In this newsletter, we’ll explore the secrets that many experts believe are in the process of killing all of us. We hang on to a thread of hope that this could change. But mostly we want to be realistic and see where that takes us.
Please share your own dark secrets as we look for ways to cope with the mess we’ve all gotten ourselves into. We want to hear your ideas, in comments, threads and guest posts, about energy, desire, politics and need.
This is the first iteration of a work in progress. With your input we hope to evolve into a publication that provokes, informs and engages. Please join us.
From the department of confessions
Is it all going to shitareee?
By Ty Montague
I’ve had generalized, lurking feelings of doom for quite a while. Longer than I can remember. I have also been afraid to talk about these feelings outside of a very tight circle, lest I be deemed a pessimist. Pessimism is a dirty word in our culture, where optimism and capitalism go together like peanut butter and jelly.
These days, optimists get invited to conferences to speak about how innovation and growth are going to solve all of our problems. Optimists get on the cover of TIME or Fast Company. Pessimists just need to take some time off to get their shit together, maybe do some pushups until they rally and rejoin Team Optimism. I was an optimist for quite a while – a real one. Then I was a pretend optimist. Lately I’m finding it harder and harder to pretend.
I’m pretty sure you know what I’m talking about. Lots of data shows that I’m not alone in this. And how could I be? We’re all witnessing the same stuff – the political hellscape of polarization and the recent project of gleefully disassembling our republic. The seemingly daily mass shootings. The culture wars in which the most basic human rights are being lost. As a backdrop, the slow-motion but inexorable climate disaster, underpinned by the mindless consumption of… everything. And underneath it all, the unrelenting drum-beat that continued economic growth is the only way forward – that we can and we must innovate and grow our way out of this mess.
Lately I think to myself… hmmm. Nope. I want that to be true. I really do. But every cell in my body is telling me no! Not going to work! Not going to work for the planet. Not going to work for the 80% of the planet’s human population that doesn’t live anywhere near the level of wealth we enjoy in the US (and never will). Or the 80 percent of the population of the US whose standard of living has not improved since 1975. Not. Going. To. Work.
And so here’s the other thing: what do I know? Nothing, really. I’m an ex-ad guy who has spent the last 10 years building a business transformation company based on the optimistic notion that capitalism can be saved if we convert to a new form of it – stakeholder capitalism. I still think that’s a good idea. But lately, it too, feels insufficient. The proverbial re-arranging of the deck chairs. The problem may be -- and this is hard for me to write -- the problem may be capitalism itself. Which leads to the question: what does one do with realizations like that? Where do you put the feelings? They don’t seem to belong at work. And keeping them bottled up inside doesn’t seem healthy either. But for me, and many people I know, the feelings of doom aren’t going away. They’re getting stronger.
And again… WTF do I know? I’m not an economist. I’m not a sociologist. I’m not an ecologist. I’m not a futurist. So one of the things I have started to do lately is try to understand more about economics, ecology, energy and the future. I continue to read books and listen to podcasts in search of answers to three questions: One, what’s really going on here? Two: is there anything to be done about what’s really going on here? Three: if there is something to be done, do we have the will to do it?
I will admit that, so far, my discoveries have been a little bleak.
So along with my friend and fellow questioner Stephen P. Williams, I’m going to start to share the things I’m learning here. And if you’re reading this and find any of it at all resonant, I’d appreciate it if you shared other books or resources that have moved the needle for you. Maybe together we can start to find some answers? Seems worth a try. The alternative is hopelessness and that doesn’t sit well with me.
From the department of cryptography
I have a secret
By Stephen Williams
My old school stereo is fed by a Sonos device, with various enhancements. That device is fed music by the Qobuz high rez streaming platform. I usually turn the stereo on in the morning and leave it on until night, the lights glowing and ready even when I’m not listening to anything. And here’s where my dark secret of the day lies: When I leave the house to walk the dog or go to an appointment, I walk past the stereo and invariably glance at the glowing red light that says it is on, even though the music is off. Usually, I leave it on even though I’m not going to use it for a while. I always have the thought that this is wasteful, and wrong, yet I persist.
The logic is internal and, so far, indecipherable. I tell myself it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of planetary destruction. I also tell myself it doesn’t matter that my TV, computer, AC and microwave are all constantly in a “readied” state, burning small amounts of electricity so that they will turn on instantly when I press a button. There’s a nearly 100 percent chance that your machines also are always on. Otherwise, you would have to wait for your Roku or or wifi to load for 20 seconds or so every time you used it. This is true for all of us.
The average American home has 44 electronic devices that “turn on” instantly at our command. I was shocked to discover recently that these idle machines consume about 25 percent of household electricity used in America. It does not seem possible. But it is.
I think it matters and I’m not sure why I ignore it.
Am I going to do something about my own wastefulness in this regard? I’d like to say yes, but I’m not sure. (Curiously, since writing this, I’ve been turning my stereo off. I find that writing about my behaviors makes them too immediate to ignore.)
What would you do? Please share your thoughts.
From the department of book reviews
Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change
by William R. Catton
University of Illinois Press, 1980
Reviewed by Ty Montague
I just finished a prescient book called Overshoot. It’s a weird feeling to read a book in 2022 that was written in 1980, especially because the whole book is an incredibly well researched and documented warning about difficulties to come in the future due to the fact that we have already (in 1980!) overshot the “carrying capacity” of planet earth. Let’s go further into that idea:
In any ecosystem there is a finite amount of energy available to living things. And the history of life on planet earth is the history of a life-or-death wrestling match between living things to control access to as much of that energy as possible. When one species “wins” (and this has happened many times in many different ways over billions of years) it takes up more and more energy, snuffing out other species and using their energy until there is nothing left to conquer. Now here’s the thing: in every case, what happens next is that the population of the “winning” species always “overshoots” the actual carrying capacity of the environment. Every time. In exactly the same way. The book is full of examples of this, but here’s the consistent pattern: as the final sources of energy are uncovered or wrested away from competitive species, population growth rockets far above levels which would be sustainable over the long term. There is a sharp peak to the population, growth stalls, and then “die off” begins as the population crashes back to the actual sustainable carrying capacity of the environment. To compound the issues, often the carrying capacity itself has been reduced by the degrading effects of having to support an unsupportable population (overgrazing, erosion, pollution, etc.). So, depending on the extent of that damage, in some cases the new carrying capacity is zero… everybody dies. The winners become the losers.
A great example is probably sitting within reach of you now: when making wine, crushed grapes (a huge energy source) serve as the perfect environment for yeast to procreate. Yeast is introduced to the crushed grapes and the yeast population rises fast. One of the products of yeast metabolism (we call it fermentation) is alcohol… a substance that is actually toxic to yeast. So the yeast population explodes in the energy rich environment. And for a while, it’s a yeast party like no other. To an average individual yeast fortunate enough to arrive early on the scene, it must look like Eden – growth potential in the future appears to be limitless. But as the population rises, so does the production of alcohol. The yeast start feeling unwell. Then they start to feel really terrible. But they persist. In my mind’s eye I imagine that there might be a few young yeast that start asking questions “Hey! Maybe we should slow down?” “This doesn’t seem to be working anymore!” And, “Anybody else feeling worried about the future?” Obviously, those yeast are ignored. As the environment gets more and more toxic, population growth slows, ends. And then, due to a combination of lack of available energy and environmental toxicity, it all crashes to zero. And then humans get drunk on the after effects of this primal battle.
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You get the idea – It’s a fairly short trip from yeast and grapes to humans and carbon. The book goes deep on that as well as on many other important and related topics. Sitting here in 2022 looking around at the world I’d say the warnings in Overshoot have been pretty much ignored and I’d also say that so far the book is extremely accurate. So… hang on tight folks because apparently you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
The book led me to an organization called Earth Overshoot which celebrates Earth Overshoot Day - the day in any given year when human activity on the planet exceeds the ability of the planet to to regenerate those resources. In 2022 that day will be July 28th, one day earlier than last year. The graphic that portrays the history of overshoot day (day one was in 1971) is sobering, as it points out that today we would require 1.75 earths to maintain even current population and energy consumption. That’s without any further growth. Mull that for a moment.
I recommend that you read Overshoot. It’s full of great new (to me) language and captivating ideas for describing why things on our planet are the way they are, and how things are likely to end for us if we ignore some of the basic principles of nature (which we currently are… flagrantly). This book should be much more famous.
From the advice desk
Our Dark Secret suggests:
Track your secrets today. See what fears — and solutions — they lead you to.
Use the comments section to tell us what you discover.
We are seeing dramatic change, the status quo is unlikely to survive. There are a few hopeful directions which have some vague links, but are connected. The solarpunk movement visualizes a better future. The reimagining of Society in "Game B". The connection of indigenous thinking (Tyson Yunkaporta). Add a bit of Nora Bateson and Hanzi Freinacht and you could end up with a hopeful world.