Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” – is a contributor to WRAL TechWire. He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.” His exclusive columns written for TechWire are published on Fridays.
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RALEIGH – Things are becoming objectively awful for a broad swath of Americans. And they are likely to get worse. Young people can see this, and it is becoming a source of dread. The members of Gen Z see this. Millennials are quite familiar, having lived through multiple crises and no end in sight. Even Boomers are becoming conscious of this trend in growing numbers.
Just think about the world from a Millennial’s perspective. Think about what Millennials have witnessed. Born between 1981 and 1996, Millennials have experienced highlights like:
- The Columbine High School massacre (occurred in 1999 and marked the start of the modern mass shooting phenomenon)
- The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001
- The subsequent recession
- The Iraq and Afghanistan wars
- The financial crisis of 2008
- The subsequent great recession
- The rise of ISIS, the collapse of Syria
- The subsequent refugee crisis in Europe
- Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Maria, among others
- The Covid-19 pandemic with over a million U.S. deaths
- The politicization of healthcare
- The rise of climate change catastrophes
- The ongoing war in Ukraine
- Now the war in Gaza
If what’s past is prologue, it is easy to see why Millennials are on edge.
To stay sane, many of us have developed coping strategies. Maybe we have stopped reading/watching the news. Or we try to ignore the more depressing aspects of news coverage. We wear blinders. We ghost former friends and family members when they get into bad situations because we do not have the resources or stamina to assist them. While these mechanisms can help to some degree, there is no escaping reality.
Is there any reason to have hope for the future? Any reason to expect that things will get better in the years to come? Any reason to look for a light at the end of the tunnel?
Where’s the light?
There are two aspects to these questions:
- The first aspect is, “Could there be hope?” The answer is yes, there could be hope if our leaders and our societies were to somehow magically change into forces for good. Imagine if our leaders were actively making things better on every front that matters. Then there could be hope.
- The second aspect is the realization that “making things better” in any serious way appears to be impossible in most cases. At nearly every turn here in the real world, the broad direction of society is the opposite.
The purpose of this article is to disarm our coping strategies for a few moments, to take off our blinders, so that we can see how bad things really are. The hope is that a full realization of the problems we face might cause a change of direction.
Problem #1 – The climate change catastrophe
When it comes to the problems faced by humanity, the elephant in the room, the big kahuna, the 800-pound gorilla, is climate change. I recently wrote an article on the collapse of civilization due to climate change:
How climate change will cause the collapse of civilization – https://wraltechwire.com/2023/10/06/doomsday-authors-analysis-how-climate-change-will-cause-the-collapse-of-civilization/
The thing that makes climate change so difficult for an individual person to fathom is the fact that it has so many facets. The article lists 22 different aspects of climate change:
- Massive heat waves across the planet
- Global heating of 1.5 degrees C in 2023
- Huge, unprecedented, long-lasting wildfires in Canada
- Wildfires burning in the Amazon rainforest
- Arctic Tundra thawing out and tripping a climate feedback loop
- Other climate feedback loops getting ready to trigger
- The acceleration of Arctic warming
- The coming Blue Ocean Event in the Arctic to make Arctic heating even worse
- All the mountain glaciers are melting
- Rivers are drying up
- Aquifers are drying up
- Reservoir lakes are drying up
- Aquifers and farmland are becoming contaminated with salt water
- Massive droughts across the planet
- Massive floods in other parts of the planet
- Crop failures
- Heating and melting in Antarctica
- Heating and melting and rain in Greenland
- Significantly rising ocean temperatures
- Threats from the Thwaites glacier and other big Antarctic glaciers
- Sea level rise around the world
- Mass extinction events in every area
Despite the threat that climate change represents, and its rising severity, the world’s leaders are doing very little to stop climate change.
Here’s a small example of how intractable the climate change problem can be. In the United States, if someone wanted to have a glimmer of hope about climate change, they might have pointed out that electric car adoption was growing. The theory: if we can get gas-guzzling cars off the road and replace them with clean electric vehicles, it would help thwart climate change. This week, major auto makers announced that electric car sales are down and therefore manufacturers are cutting back on their electric car production. This video can help you understand the problem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8P95NFlAnmY
If not electric cars, then what will replace gas-guzzling cars? The answer is nothing, and thus climate change will accelerate.
Climate change in all its facets, along with an anemic response by the world’s leaders to the threat, is one gigantic vote for pessimism. If we want to be even more pessimistic, we can read articles like these:
- Scientists deliver ‘final warning’ on climate crisis: act now or it’s too late – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/mar/20/ipcc-climate-crisis-report-delivers-final-warning-on-15c
- UN report warns of catastrophic climate tipping points: California is nearing several – https://phys.org/news/2023-10-catastrophic-climate-california-nearing.html
- Why many scientists are now saying climate change is an all-out ‘emergency’ – https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2023/10/30/climate-emergency-scientists-declaration/
- 15,000 Scientists Warn Society Could ‘Collapse’ This Century In Dire Climate Report – https://www.vice.com/en/article/7kxdxa/1500-scientists-warn-society-could-collapse-this-century-in-dire-climate-report
If this isn’t enough to cause a bout of deep depression, there is plenty more.
Problem #2 – The Rise of Artificial Intelligence
AI has been in the news for decades. But approximately one year ago, AI leapfrogged in its capabilities with the announcement of ChatGPT. This AI tool became a viral phenomenon, growing faster than anything before it. The reason for its popularity is its amazing capabilities, and this is just the tip of the AI iceberg. There is now an expectation that we are on the verge of seeing AGI, or artificial general intelligence.
The problem is that these new AI capabilities will eliminate many jobs that humans currently hold. It is easy to find articles like these:
- Goodbye programmers: Team of AI bots develops software in 7 minutes instead of 4 weeks – https://vulcanpost.com/843379/team-of-ai-bots-develops-software-in-7-minutes-instead-of-4-weeks/
- The New York Times Help Wanted: Looking for an AI Editor to Start Publishing Stories – https://www.showbiz411.com/2023/10/27/the-new-york-times-help-wanted-looking-for-an-ai-editor-to-start-publishing-stories-six-figure-salary
- AI doomsday warnings a distraction from the danger it already poses, warns expert – https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2023/oct/29/ai-doomsday-warnings-a-distraction-from-the-danger-it-already-poses-warns-expert
- Google AI Chief Says There’s a 50% Chance We’ll Hit AGI in Just 5 Years – https://futurism.com/google-deepmind-agi-5-years
- Sam Altman Says He Intends to Replace Normal People With AI – https://futurism.com/sam-altman-replace-normal-people-ai
We have no way to comprehend how profound the coming transformation will be, because so many jobs will be vulnerable to AI and robot replacement. This video shows one aspect of what’s coming: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lIdVQbDmXM
At the end of the video, they gloss over the threat to jobs in an attempt to make things less dreadful. The reality: Anyone with a job should be worried about AI and robots taking over the workplace.
Problem #3 – Mass Shootings
Last week we witnessed a Top 10 mass shooting in the United States:
Mass shootings & the doomsday scenario hiding in plain sight – https://wraltechwire.com/2023/10/27/end-times-prequel-mass-shootings-the-doomsday-scenario-hiding-in-plain-sight/
The death toll of 18 put it just behind the Uvalde shooting in 2022 with 21 deaths.
These random, lone wolf shootings are one thing, but we are about to enter a much more intense phase involving organized groups of shooters. Many recent articles are sounding the alarm:
- Nearly one in four Americans believe political violence justified to ‘save’ US – https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/oct/25/us-political-violence-justified-survey
- Support for political violence jumps in U.S., survey says – https://www.axios.com/2023/10/25/support-us-political-violence-prri-brookings-survey
- Startling New Poll Finds Political Violence Gaining a Mainstream Foothold – https://time.com/6328179/political-violence-jan-6-extremism/
Imagine a scenario where a hundred shooters organize themselves and attack a soft target together with their AR-15 assault rifles. There could easily be 1,000+ deaths in a few minutes.
The second article says:
“The report found there is one thing the vast majority of Americans agree on: People across the political spectrum — 75% of all Americans — agree that American democracy is at risk in the 2024 presidential election.”
Which leads to…
Problem #4 – The potential collapse of American democracy
Imagine being a young person, and you need to legitimately worry about the collapse of your nation’s democracy. Not only that, but 75% of your fellow Americans agree with you. There is no other way to say it: this is messed up. For anyone living in 1993 (just 30 years ago) this notion would have seemed impossible. Even in 2013 (just 10 years ago) the notion was farfetched. Yet here we are in 2023 and the large majority of Americans fear that democracy could collapse.
Imagine so many people having this fear, and little or nothing is being done to prevent the collapse of democracy.
Problem #5 – The rising nuclear bomb threat
There are so many different reasons to be worried about humans using nuclear bombs, including:
- Russia has repeatedly threated the use of nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war
- North Korea is advancing its nuclear capabilities
- China is actively increasing its nuclear bomb stockpile
- Iran is on the verge of creating nuclear bombs
- Russia just revoked a nuclear test ban treaty
- The United States is creating a new nuclear gravity bomb
This is in addition to the overhanging threat of nuclear Armageddon between the United States and Russia, as described in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXv0UuKuIcY
The video opens with:
“I have literally had arguments with people from my generation saying that the #1 threat facing humanity is the climate crisis. Listen, it is terrifying and it’s a massive problem, but the problem that exists today in this hour as the minutes pass is nuclear weapons. We don’t see it in the headlines, but the threat of nuclear Armageddon has never been greater.”
Problem #6 – How to live a “normal life”?
Imagine that you are a young person trying to live a “normal life” in America today. If you are aware of what is happening in our world, you can see these five huge, overarching, existential threats as described above:
- The climate change catastrophe and its ability to cause the collapse of civilization through, for example, multiple severe crop failures.
- The rapid rise of Artificial Intelligence and its ability to soon eliminate the jobs of millions of people.
- The rise of mass shootings, and the likelihood that lone wolf shooters may soon metastasize into groups of shooters acting together.
- The potential collapse of American democracy – a fear that 75% of your fellow citizens share with you.
- The rising nuclear bomb threat, where the mere existence of so many bombs in so many hands pushes up the probability of their use.
It is an overwhelming amount of bad news to carry. The pessimism can be debilitating if we try to process all five things at once. And then stack on top of these five problems the other things that young people can plainly see around them:
- The current housing crisis, where there clearly are not enough houses to go around, where house prices and rents are rising rapidly, where corporations are buying up houses in bulk, etc.
- The fact that wages are not keeping up with the cost-of-living, such that 62% percent of Americans are now living paycheck-to-paycheck. So even if you find a job that AI has not yet taken, you may not be able to make enough money to pay for a decent standard of living.
- Rampant inequality, where the top 10% of Americans now own 70% of the nation’s wealth. And there is no end in sight.
- The healthcare situation, where insurance can be extremely expensive and, even with insurance, medical bills can lead to bankruptcy.
- The situation with social media, where it appears to be causing a mental health crisis for young people along with an increase in anger and radicalization for adults. The idea is that social media companies benefit financially when they foment anger and fear and hatred and division, and therefore the algorithms promote these things. Who wants to live in a society where gigantic social media companies can enrich themselves by intentionally spreading anger and hatred through the population? It makes no sense.
- Constant talk about either the collapse of the social security system or its intentional destruction, such that Boomers may be the last generation to receive social security and the following generations will not. This video is educational – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfZuB7XSFys
There are a number of other things we could discuss, but let’s stop here before depression overtakes us.
All these things together explain why the case for pessimism is so strong. It explains why it can be so dreadful and depressing to be living in today’s society. This trend seems both incredibly unfair and also demonic – as though the architects of modern society have given no thought to the needs of the people living in this society.
Is there anything that could turn this pessimism around? Really the only thing that would do it is a complete change in the approach that global leaders are taking. Leaders would need to create laws, programs, and systems that would build a strong case for optimism. For example, imagine that global leaders announced things like:
- The allocation of $10 trillion to fund a comprehensive science-based program to rapidly eliminate fossil fuels and solve the many facets of climate change.
- An approach to AI that eliminates the threat to millions of jobs without a simultaneous way to replace all those jobs with other income sources. Example: When self-driving trucks inevitably arrive and eliminate the jobs of a million truck drivers, what happens to all those truck drivers?
- Serious gun control legislation, mental health programs, and arrests that prevent both lone shooters and organized groups of shooters from wreaking havoc on society.
- The elimination of the threats to American democracy.
- A rational approach to the elimination of nuclear weapons.
- An aggressive solution to the housing crisis, which involves massive construction and other measures.
- An uplift in the minimum wage to $25 per hour, with automatic inflation adjustment, and a realignment of other wages. Think about how underwhelming wages have become compared to housing costs, medical costs, college costs, etc. Bring wages for every working adult in line with the real costs of living.
- Start deflating inequality with wealth taxes, higher income taxes for the wealthy, a reduction in CEO and executive pay rates, etc. Eliminate billionaires. Eliminate stock buybacks. Eliminate monopolies/duopolies. And so on.
- Fix the healthcare situation. There is a tiny glimmer of hope here in the capping of some insulin costs. Now take that idea and expand it a thousand-fold across the system. Example: The idea that Ozempic costs $1,000 a month is obscene. The idea that Covid vaccine makers raked in billions of dollars in profits is obscene. Eliminate these obscenities across the medical industrial complex.
- Truly secure the social security system. Eliminate the threats from saboteurs.
- There are active discussions on ways to fix social media. This week 33 states sued social media sites because of their effects on young people, and this is a start. Make these efforts far more comprehensive and effective. Make society better with social media rather than making it worse. This video is educational – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-668mxbuUxg
If we saw all these things happening in constant, highly visible, aggressive ways, there would be cause for optimism. The fact that we largely do not is why the case for pessimism is so strong today.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8P95NFlAnmY – Why EVs Aren’t The GreenTech Panacea || Peter Zeihan
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lIdVQbDmXM – See how Amazon is using new robots to deliver orders even faster
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXv0UuKuIcY – Threat of Nuclear Armageddon Has Never Been Bigger
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfZuB7XSFys – How the Super Rich Are Killing Social Security | Robert Reich
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-668mxbuUxg – How Facebook and Instagram spread hate and misinformation