The end of the future as we knew it (Headlines from the Meltdown)


It’s the end of the future as we knew it (and I feel fine)

What a week! From food riots to fuel prices to more evidence of financial and economic meltdown, it was one for the history books.

But in fact what’s more important to notice than the significance of all this for history is its significance for the future.

To cut to the chase: We members of modern industrial civilization, especially we members of its current Western (especially American) variety, are no longer able to pretend that we’re going to live in a Star Trek-type utopia that emerges as the logical endpoint of the civilizational trajectory our collective lives have followed for the past several decades. Sorry, but it’s over. It’s just not going to happen. That future is almost certainly dead.

And this is a good thing. But instead of using this insight as a jumping-off point to expound on the soullessness of the future techno-utopia we have collectively envisioned — which is indeed a worthy topic — I’d like to make a different and, as it so happens, much more foundational point today:

That imagined future was never alive to begin with. In fact, NO future has ever been alive. The future does not exist! Only the present moment does! And this is profoundly liberating.

I leave it to you to verify this for yourself. You can do it either experimentally and experientially right now, right where you’re sitting, without moving a muscle, simply by becoming intensely aware of what truly is. Or you can track down some good books or articles, perhaps Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now or A New Earth (or why not read one of the several interviews available for free on the Web?). Or perhaps one or more of Alan Watts’s books or lectures. Or something by Ken Wilber. Or Josh Baran’s concise little book of nondual wisdom, 365 Nirvana Here and Now. Or either of Stephen Mitchell’s wonderful anthologies of excerpts from the written spiritual wisdom of the world, The Enlightened Heart (a poetry anthology) or The Enlightened Mind (prose). Or visit Douglas Harding’s Website and read some of the articles and do some of the provided awareness exercises. Or heck, just reread Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 6 about seeking God’s kingdom and letting the future take care of itself.

But in case you need a pointer or two (as I know I surely do myself), consider the following statements:

The only moment that’s truly real is this one right now, the one in which you are reading these words, breathing in and out, and experiencing whatever thoughts, moods, emotions, memories, and sense perceptions are present. Any thoughts about the future are pure anticipation or expectation. That future does not really exist “out there” as a real, solid, finished entity, like a portion of a film reel that’s just waiting to thread past the projector bulb. What we commonly call “the future” is simply expectation and anticipation — sometimes fearful, sometimes eager — that exist right now. The actual future never arrives. You are never “in the future.” You are always and only in the now, right in this moment, as new events, conditions, and circumstances arise.

Tangentially but no less importantly, the same holds true for the past. It does not really exist “out there” as some permanent record stretching out “behind” us with real substance. What we commonly call “the past” is simply memory and conditioning that play out right now, in this present moment. When you call up a memory, you are not actually conjuring up some sort of mental window on a really existing former moment. Instead, you are focusing attention on the mental-emotional-biochemical trace of a former “now” that exists right now in this moment.

In short, as various writers about spiritual matters (especially Alan Watts) have been fond of saying: THIS IS IT. Right now, this moment as you sit these reading these words, is all that’s real. There is nothing else. Your memory of accessing this blog and beginning to read these paragraphs a few minutes ago is nothing but a trace remainder of something that is no longer real. Any thoughts or expectations about what you’ll do or what will occur at any point beyond this moment are equally unreal. The expected future never arrives. What actually arrives or arises in the present moment is like nothing else. It is comparable to nothing. If we see it through the mental filter of past or future — that is, through the haze of what we expect or wish it to be — then we’re not really seeing it. We’re not really seeing reality. We’re comparing what’s real to a mental phantom that exists only in our own heads.

The great medieval mystic Meister Eckhart wrote,

There exists only the present instant…a Now which always and without end is itself new. There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence….The ‘now’ wherein God made the first man, and the ‘now’ wherein the last man disappears, and the ‘now’ I am speaking in, all are the same in God, where this is but the now.

The contemporary spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle has said,

One never experiences the future, nor the past. One experiences only the present moment. Whatever you do, think, or feel can happen only in the present moment, the Now. If you live in such a way that you continuously deny the present moment, it means that you deny life itself, because life is inseparable from the Now; it can unfold only Now. The past is a memory of a former Now; the future is a mental projection of an expected Now. Strictly speaking, nothing ever happened in the past; it happened in the Now. Nor will anything happen in the future; it will happen in the Now. It sounds almost simplistic or meaningless, and yet there is a deep truth in it: that life and Now are one.

My erstwhile informal guru, the late Scott Morrison, whom I’ve mentioned here in the past, wrote in his wonderful little book, There Is Only Now,

There is only now. Everything we call the “past” is nothing but present memory. Everything we call the “future” is nothing but fantasy and commentary, that is, present memory rearranged. If we continue to pretend that there is some other time or place to be, besides right here, right now, we are cruelly and pathologically deluding ourselves.

All of this is why the death of our collective vision of the future that’s presently underway is so profoundly liberating: because what we have been doing as we have gone about the great project of building a gargantuan technological society erected on an economic base of epic financialization is to pursue a vision of the future that’s divorced from reality, not only in its ignoring of natural ecological limits but also in its ignoring of the truth that the future is an illusion. All of our activity has been a protracted process of hedging our bets against the possibility of future deprivation and boredom. We have been sucking the life out of the present by living for the specter of tomorrow, even as we have chattered to ourselves that we are enjoying the good life and living high on the hog.

The death of our ability to imagine the future we have programmed ourselves to imagine can seem like a terrible blow. It can seem positively tragic. It can profoundly depress and discourage us with a sense of disillusionment. But to lose our illusions is actually a positive thing (unless we live in a Lovecraftian/Ligottian universe where sanity depends on ignorance and illusion, in which case all bets are off). And for some but probably not all of us, what may die in this process is not just a particular vision of the future — the one you see embodied in advertisements for cell phones, iPods, automobiles, restaurants, clothing, retail stores, television programs, computer platforms, tooth whitening products, exercise machines, financial institutions, pharmaceuticals, etc., etc., etc. — but the very idea that the future is real. Maybe, just maybe, some of us will experience an awakening to the present that does away once and for all with the fallacious notion that there’s really a future out there and a past behind us, and that we’re sandwiched between them and burdened with the weight of both.

As you read the excerpts from various commentators and news sources that follow, let this insight into the unreality of past and future remain lightly in the background of your awareness. Let it color your experience of reading the following word-montage of our current unfolding crisis, as it has obviously done for Carolyn Baker, who is quoted below (in the last of this week’s excerpts, “Recession, Depression, and Collapse” ) and whose words deserve to be highlighted here as well:

The world we wanted to have is not within our reach; the world we deeply dread is upon us. Meanwhile, the world we have known, ugly as it may be but nevertheless familiar, is vanishing before our eyes. Herein lies an opportunity to experience deeper layers of who we really are and what we are really made of. Collapse is compelling us to confront these issues, whether we want to or feel ready to do so or not. While I do not welcome the suffering this will entail, I do welcome the transformation of human consciousness and thus the evolutionary quantum leap it may offer us.

* * * * *

End of the world as we know it

Guy R. McPherson, The Arizona Republic, April 7

[Cardin comments: Dr. McPherson is a professor of conservation biology at the University of Arizona. He has been warning about impending civilizational and ecological catastrophe for quite a few years now. Presently it looks as if his predictions really are set to come true. Followers of the peak oil press sometimes classify this type of article as “doomer porn,” that is, the venting of catastrophic and apocalyptic predictions that appeal to people who get their jollies by contemplating the cataclysmic end of everything. It’s useful to know this, since the fact that there’s a market for this type of writing leads some people to write it for purposes of pure entertainment, disguised (perhaps even to themselves) as factual analysis. But having said that, it’s equally important to bear in mind that this doesn’t have any real bearing on the factual basis of the claims being made. To paraphrase Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil, just because a truth is unpleasant — or just because some people take pleasure in positing unpleasant truths — doesn’t make it any less true.

For additional illuminating commentary, read my introductory remarks to the next piece below (the one from The Dallas Morning News), since they apply equally here.]

Peak oil spells the end of civilization. And, if it’s not already too late, perhaps it will prevent the extinction of our species.

….Most of the world’s oil pumps are about to shut down. We have sufficient supply to keep the world running for 30 years or so, at the current level of demand. But that’s irrelevant because the days of inexpensive oil are behind us. And the American Empire absolutely demands cheap oil. Never mind the 3,000-mile Caesar salad to which we’ve become accustomed. Cheap oil forms the basis for the 12,000-mile supply chain underlying the “just-in-time” delivery of plastic toys from China.

There goes next year’s iPod.

….Within a decade, we’ll be staring down the barrel of a crisis: Oil at $400 per barrel brings down the American Empire, the project of globalization and water coming through the taps. Never mind happy motoring through the never-ending suburbs in the Valley of the Sun. In a decade, unemployment will be approaching 100 percent, inflation will be running at 1,000 percent and central heating will be a pipe dream.

In short, this country will be well on its way to the post-industrial Stone Age.

After all, no alternative energy sources scale up to the level of a few million people, much less the 6.5 billion who currently occupy Earth. Oil is necessary to extract and deliver coal and natural gas. Oil is needed to produce solar panels and wind turbines, and to maintain the electrical grid.

Ninety percent of the oil consumed in this country is burned by airplanes, ships, trains and automobiles. You can kiss goodbye groceries at the local big-box grocery store: Our entire system of food production and delivery depends on cheap oil.

If you’re alive in a decade, it will be because you’ve figured out how to forage locally.

The death and suffering will be unimaginable. We have come to depend on cheap oil for the delivery of food, water, shelter and medicine. Most of us are incapable of supplying these four key elements of personal survival, so trouble lies ahead when we are forced to develop means of acquiring them that don’t involve a quick trip to Wal-Mart.

On the other hand, the forthcoming cessation of economic growth is truly good news for the world’s species and cultures. In addition, the abrupt halt of fossil-fuel consumption may slow the warming of our planetary home, thereby preventing our extinction at our own hand.

Our individual survival, and our common future, depends on our ability to quickly make other arrangements. We can view this as a personal challenge, or we can take the Hemingway out. The choice is ours.

For individuals interested in making other arrangements, it’s time to start acquiring myriad requisite skills. It is far too late to save civilization for 300 million Americans, much less the rest of the planet’s citizens, but we can take joy in a purpose-filled, intimate life.

It’s time to push away from the shore, to let the winds of change catch the sails of our leaky boat.

It’s time to trust in ourselves, our neighbors and the Earth that sustains us all.

Painful though it might be, it’s time to abandon the cruise ship of empire in exchange for a lifeboat.

* * * * *

U.S. at a national crisis and turning point, and neither conservatives nor liberals know what to do

Rod Dreher, The Dallas Morning News, March 30

[Cardin comments: You really need to click through and read Dreher’s entire editorial. He’s the editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News. As such, his views have a large audience. That’s as it should be, because in this particular piece he nails the issue, and nails it hard. Read it. Let it sink in. Let it settle into your thinking, your emotions, your outlook. The biggest challenge facing us all isn’t material or practical, although such matters are of course of crucial importance. The biggest challenge is psychological. We Americans have lived ourselves into a cultural and civilizational dead end, gripped as we’ve been by a fundamental outlook and set of assumptions that are fundamentally out of touch with reality. Such a situation could only exist for a brief period until reality came crashing in. That’s what’s happening right now. As Matt Savinar has placed as the slogan at the top of the front page of his Website Life After the Oil Crash, “Deal With Reality or Reality Will Deal With You.”]

The economic crisis now breaking upon us will be both a political and cultural event that may well be a turning point in our nation’s history as consequential as the Great Depression. Which, by the way, is the historical standard to which some smart people –- like former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan –- are comparing this event.

When asked recently on National Public Radio why so many financial insiders are using such drastic rhetoric, Wall Street Journal economics editor David Wessel said the closer you are to the crisis, the more you understand just how “very frightening” it is.

The cultural roots of this crisis have to do with Americans’ refusal to recognize natural limits….For nearly a generation, Americans have had the luxury to organize their political fights around cultural issues like abortion and gay rights because economics haven’t been central to either politics or culture. And we have financed the illusion of sustainable progress through massive accumulation of debt, both personal and governmental. Prosperity masked decline; optimism occluded realism. As historian John Lukacs writes of the boom years in the current Chronicles, “The middle class habits (and virtues) of permanence, of saving, of passing their assets — and values — on to their children disappeared.” That now must change. The cost of our grand national experiment in living beyond our means is now coming due, and not just in the form of the housing crash. If the country indeed goes into a long, deep recession, forcing austerity and worse on the general public, the full social cost of casting aside traditional communal bonds and moral values — the beliefs that enabled people to thrive during hard times — will be painfully manifest. The psychological shock to the body politic will be sharp.

….Here’s the hope: Economic and related events will force a change in the culture toward sustainability and a revival in localism, personal asceticism and traditionalism. This, in turn, will produce a new, more responsible politics, one that keeps the excesses of a culture in material and social crisis from damaging the common good and public order. Here’s the fear: The cultural shift soon to occur will turn Hobbesian, producing a fearful, nationalistic, demagogic politics, and God knows what to follow.

We live in interesting times. And neither liberals nor conservatives are ready for what’s next.

* * * * *

Major powers play energy tug-of-war in Central Asia, April 8

It’s got all the makings of an international geopolitical thriller: World powers move their armies into a violent, remote, and politically fragile region brimming with valuable oil and natural gas resources; except it’s not fiction.

Central Asia is the scene of this powerplay. Europe is maneuvering to satisfy its energy needs while it cuts greenhouse gas emissions. China and India need the region’s reserves to quench their booming economies’ thirst for fuel. Meanwhile, the U.S. is challenging Russia’s traditional control of the region’s gas reserves — which are large — but not large enough for everyone.

Tense jockeying is underway — complete with corporate intrigue, diplomacy, and guns — as the United States, the European Union, Russia, China and India all vie for the right to build huge pipelines to get the oil and massive natural gas reserves out of the remote nations of Central Asia.

* * * * *

It’s time to start hoarding

The Daily Reckoning, April 11

All over the world, food fights are breaking out. Not because there is too much food or too little, but because it has gone way up in price. Of course, you could put that another way: the paper money in which food is priced is going down faster than usual. There’s no less food than there was five years ago. But there is a lot more paper money. Modern central banking was invented so that we should have paper money — and have it in abundance. Now, we have so much that it is causing food prices to soar. But food is hardly in a class by itself. When one bubble pops, the authorities immediately begin pumping up another one. After the bubble deflated in 2000-2001, for example, up came even bigger bubbles in residential housing and the financial industry. Now, both housing and finance are losing air. But the central banks are still pumping hard. Where’s the air going? Apparently into commodities. In other words, worldwide inflation of food prices is a monetary phenomenon, as Milton Friedman might put it, not an agricultural phenomenon.

….Of course, hoarding is exactly what a smart family should do. Most likely, there will be runs on other commodities too…and then a run on gold itself. People will want something real…something sure…something with which they can buy rice, without having to worry about it doubling in price two weeks later. That something, traditionally, is gold.

Hoard it now, while you still can.

* * * * *

Chaos Spreads as Food Prices Skyrocket; World Banks calls for action

Der Spiegel, April 10

Gunfire in Haiti. Riots in Cameroon. A government crisis in the Philippines. The effects of skyrocketing food prices have reached every corner of the globe. Now, the World Bank has called for world leaders to take action before it is too late.

….Unrest triggered by the higher food and fuel prices has been gaining steam across the globe in recent weeks. During a two-day riot in Egypt earlier this week, one person was killed. Cameroon has also seen street violence. In the Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo warned on Tuesday that rice shortages were exacerbating political and social tensions in the country.

* * * * *

U.S. food banks under siege, hunger soaring

Bill Moyers Journal, April 11

[Cardin comments: From the page linked to below, you can click to read a full transcript of last Friday’s story about hunger in America on Moyers Journal on PBS. You can also watch the archived video itself.]

The news at the grocery store is grim for many. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food prices rose by 4% last year, the largest increase in 17 years. And, the USDA predicts they will rise another 4% this year. Eggs are up 40% in the past year; milk up 26% a gallon; a loaf of standard bread, 20%.

All across the nation families, government agencies and food banks are feeling the pinch. So many people are in precarious straits our government figures 28 million Americans will be using food stamps this year, the highest level since the program began in the 1960s. Almost one in 10 people in Ohio get food stamps; one in eight in Michigan, and one in six West Virginians. The rising food prices make that assistance worth less and less and food banks and pantries are facing increased need and those same higher prices.

* * * * *

Blow to GE highlights depth of global crisis

The U.K. Times Online, April 13

It was, perhaps, the point at which the world began to realise that General Electric, the US industrial giant whose annual sales would eclipse the output of many a small country, is more than a maker of lightbulbs, jet engines, Hollywood films and railway locomotives.

On Friday GE issued its results for the first three months of the year. They were truly dreadful – far worse than Wall Street had been expecting. And Jeff Immelt, GE’s chairman and chief executive since 2001, readily identified the reason for the disappointment. He said: “Our primary short-fall was a decline in financial-services earnings.”

….It is GE’s size — with a turnover last year larger than the output of countries such as Colombia, the Czech Republic and Malaysia – that has given it the status of a bellwether of the US economy.

* * * *

The decline and fall of the American empire of debt

Andrew Leonard,, April 14

[Kevin] Phillips [author of Wealth and Democracy, American Theocracy, and American Dynasty] has warned for years about the inevitably malign consequences of what he calls the “financialization” of the American economy. Sometime in the mid-’90s, he writes, financial services overtook manufacturing as the biggest chunk of the U.S. gross domestic product. If you believe, as Phillips does, that all the furious activity on Wall Street masterminded by the likes of Citigroup and Goldman-Sachs and Merrill Lynch is just a bunch of speculation and froth that doesn’t actually result in the creation of anything real, then there has never been a better time for triumphantly pointing out [as he does in his newest book, Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism,] the disasters that ensue when the rest of the world also realizes that Wall Street is wearing no clothes.

This book’s thesis, now that a quarter century’s results are in hand, is that the eighties can be identified as the launching pad of a decisive financial sector takeover of the U.S. economy, consummated by turbocharged, relentless expansion of financial debt, and eventual extension of mortgage credit to subprime and other unqualified buyers. The two converging pumps helped to swell the housing, mortgage, and credit bubble that began imploding in the summer of 2007.

….As for oil, while at first it might seem a bit off-putting to find a chapter on “peak oil” in the middle of a book mostly devoted to financial shenanigans, the current price tags of a barrel of crude and a gallon of gasoline obviously pile even more stress on top of an economy already teetering after years of gross mismanagement….Dark times are ahead, he foresees, as the major powers of the world struggle for control of the world’s dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. But as this time of peril hastens toward us, the once mighty U.S. is no longer master of its own manifest destiny.

….My summation is that American financial capitalism, at a pivotal period in the nation’s history, cavalierly ventured a multiple gamble: first, financializing a hitherto more diversified U.S. economy; second, using massive quantities of debt and leverage to do so; third, following up a stock market bubble with an even larger housing and mortgage credit bubble; fourth, roughly quadrupling U.S credit-market debt between 1987 and 2007, a scale of excess that historically unwinds; and fifth, consummating these events with a mixed fireworks of dishonesty, incompetence, and quantitative negligence.

* * * * *

IMF says US crisis is ‘largest financial shock since Great Depression’

The Guardian, April 9

America’s mortgage crisis has spiralled into “the largest financial shock since the Great Depression” and there is now a one-in-four chance of a full-blown global recession over the next 12 months, the International Monetary Fund warned today.

The US is already sliding into what the IMF predicts will be a “mild recession” but there is mounting pessimism about the ability of the rest of the world to escape unscathed, the IMF said in its twice-yearly World Economic Outlook. Britain is particularly vulnerable, it warned, as it slashed its growth targets for both the US and the UK.

The report made it clear that there will be no early resolution to the global financial crisis. “The financial shock that erupted in August 2007, as the US sub-prime mortgage market was derailed by the reversal of the housing boom, has spread quickly and unpredictably to inflict extensive damage on markets and institutions at the heart of the financial system,” it said.

* * * *

For Many, a Boom That Wasn’t

The New York Times, April 9

The bigger problem is that the now-finished boom was, for most Americans, nothing of the sort. In 2000, at the end of the previous economic expansion, the median American family made about $61,000, according to the Census Bureau’s inflation-adjusted numbers. In 2007, in what looks to have been the final year of the most recent expansion, the median family, amazingly, seems to have made less — about $60,500.

This has never happened before, at least not for as long as the government has been keeping records. In every other expansion since World War II, the buying power of most American families grew while the economy did. You can think of this as the most basic test of an economy’s health: does it produce ever-rising living standards for its citizens?

* * * * *

Recession, Depression, and Collapse

Carolyn Baker at, April 11

No one walking away from a foreclosed home, no one declaring bankruptcy, no uninsured person staring in the face tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills needs a maestro or any other member of the ruling elite to tell them that not only are we in a recession, but we are on a fast-track to a depression that is going to make 1929 look like living in the lap of luxury. It’s called the collapse of Western civilization, and it is well underway.

….What I want the reader to understand is that collapse is already happening. Your resentment of the word doesn’t change the fact that it is occurring. Like Greenspan and Paulson, we all have the option of masking the realities of meltdown and continuing to wait for someone or something to “prove” to us that the world as we have known it is over.

Is talking about collapse scary? You bet. Does that mean we should avoid the word or “re-frame” it into something more “acceptable.” Only if we insist on living in denial. If we feel fear about collapse, does that mean that we are “living in fear”? Only if we feel nothing else about it except fear and allow the fear to paralyze us.

….The world we wanted to have is not within our reach; the world we deeply dread is upon us. Meanwhile, the world we have known, ugly as it may be but nevertheless familiar, is vanishing before our eyes. Herein lies an opportunity to experience deeper layers of who we really are and what we are really made of. Collapse is compelling us to confront these issues, whether we want to or feel ready to do so or not. While I do not welcome the suffering this will entail, I do welcome the transformation of human consciousness and thus the evolutionary quantum leap it may offer us.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on April 14, 2008, in Economy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I need to learn some gardening skills–fast! Overwhelming material this time… My mind is literally reeling.

  2. Jon – Yes, it’s all quite impressively dire, isn’t it?

    I never managed to reply in full (outside of the email I sent you) to your request on a previous “Headlines from the Meltdown” for information about any economists who are still expressing an overall attitude of optimism about things. This may not exactly be what you were looking for, but try this one from MarketWatch, dated just two days ago (April 22) as of right now:

    Corporate insiders on balance are betting on a rising market

    Obviously, this isn’t about the economy as such but about the stock markets. The gist of the article is that lots of corporate insiders are feeling and acting very bullish, as if they expect that the worst has passed. Who knows, they may be right. My hunch — and, as you know, I’m quite the amateur about these things — is that this is all a sucker punch, and that the markets are going to trend dramatically lower in coming months and even years. But the really pressing issue is that the stock markets have in many ways become unhinged from the real economy. They can’t remain that way forever, but for now it’s prudent to recognize that their behavior isn’t a good indicator of what’s really going on. When it comes to the real economy, it’s very difficult indeed to find anybody who’s willing to say anything besides, in essence, “Oh, crap.” Even formerly die-hard optimists and those who had a vested interest or even a mandate to put as positive a spin on things as they could (cf. Bernanke) are caving in and admitting that all indicators are very grim indeed.

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