Apocalypse Now?, Part 3: So Far, So Good?


You can hear the first part of our summer series, “Apocalypse Now?” here, and Part 2 here.

We’ve come to the end of the end: our third and final apocalyptic investigation (for now!).

In the first two episodes we faced a future of superintelligent machines and a nearer-term genetic revolution—all (still) a little sci-fi. But we’re closing with the apocalyptic anxieties of Right Now, and the beginnings of a reorientation.

That story begins with the 20th century, which our leadoff guest, Amb. Chas Freeman, learned his trade as a diplomat and advisor. It was a period of enormous development, in spite of the twin Armageddons of the world wars, with America rising to the top of the heap. And it set our species moving at a turbocharged clip—after 250,000 years of relative tranquility. We live pretty high up the hockey-stick inflection in every kind of graph measuring human growth and progress: consumption, carbon emissions, productivity, population growth, economic expansion, and computer processing power.

A few numbers for context. In 1900, there were 1.4 billion humans. Today, there are 7.3 billion. The “gross world product”—a roundup of all human-produced value—grew from about one trillion dollars to more than 77 trillion dollars over that same period.

When you dwell long enough on all the turbulence of the last century, it becomes kind of a miracle that we made it to this one. And yet, when it comes to carbon pollution, we seem to be stepping over our first threshold. Finally, planetary consequences. It’s a caution: can we count on the spaceship Earth to keep cruising at its incredible clip?


Our guest, the great investor Jeremy Grantham, reminds us if the population of ancient Egypt had grown at even 1 percent a year across 3,000 years, it would have increased by a factor of 9 trillion. (Instead it doubled.)

And yet our population is still growing at that rate, year after year. Economists tell us to expect even greater growth in GDP: 2 or 3 percent, year over year. Grantham warns us that what goes up must come down:

The people who [dismiss the possible end of growth] are really like the people falling out a very tall, burning building: “so far, so good, so far, so good.” Of course, the “so far, so good” argument can always be used, but anyone with a slight math tendency can see that compound growth is unsustainable.

Grantham calls this period “the race of our lives”—the last-ditch, hundred-year effort to step up technological development in order to convert our civilization into something sustainable, harmonious, equal and fair. He gives us a 50-50 shot of making it!


The activist-turned-novelist Paul Kingsnorth would put it a slightly different way. After a career of advocacy, he’s restarted life with his family, farming and writing in the Irish countryside. Where Grantham preaches collective effort on technological fixes, Kingsnorth preaches repair, if not quite retreat: working land, baking bread, unlearning dependencies and relearning skills.

The solution to the problem of apocalyptic risk in our society lives somewhere in the middle—between the technological crusade and the moral revolution.

A final production note!

We heard that the doomy tone of the past few shows was getting to some of our younger listeners—born at the end of the last century but determined to do some good in this one. So Christopher Lydon concluded the series with a reminder from the eternal optimist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote that “the World Spirit is a good swimmer.” From his first book, Nature:

All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobler’s trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world.

In other words: onward—ever onward!


Guest List
Amb. Chas Freeman
Nixon's translator in China, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia for George H. W. Bush, and author of Interesting Times.
Jeremy Grantham
founder and chief investment strategist for Grantham, Mayo, van Otterloo & Co.
Paul Kingsnorth
activist-turned-novelist of The Wake and the forthcoming Beast.

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  • Dan Tollman

    Awesome program. Worth the time to listen to. I’m going to download the transcript and discuss with my ‘next generation’. Don’t despair. Just do something….. (And vote.)

  • Potter

    Excellent show. I feel the closest to Paul Kingsworth in spirit but too, TerryT.Williams on the one hand, and Jeremy Grantham on the other. Grantham on zero growth confirms again what we (the world, it’s leaders and economists) should already know: we can’t go on this way.

    Charles Freemam, who I have been thankful for on ROS in the past as well for his political insight, I do disagree with regarding Brexit. His words on Kissinger’s advice were interesting.

    Congratulations on the series, to Max Larkin too, on your openness to do something meaningful, more meaningful, than What occupies us in the everyday media, so horrifying, sad and scary which leads to increasing despair. At this point in my own life,thankful for being able to appreciate the wonders we still have, I am also saying too that meaning in life is also connected to problem solving, stewardship, giving and kindness.

    • christopherlydon

      We do it for you, dear Potter. You are, comme toujours, the perfect model of the listener who comments. All blessings and thanks from all, including the Great Larkin.

  • christopherlydon

    Dept of Correction and Amplification: Emerson’s paean to the free-style power stroke of the world-spirit comes not from his early essay on “Nature” (1836) but fourteen years later, at the very end of his essay on “Montaigne, the Skeptic.” And it’s worth a fuller quotation, so cheerfully does it speak to Sam Madden and all our Millennials in this awful season of Trump and Clinton.

    “Things seem to tend downward,” Emerson wrote, age 47 in 1850, ” to justify despondency, to promote rogues, to defeat the just; and by knaves as by martyrs the just cause is carried forward. Although knaves win in every political struggle, although society seems to be delivered over from the hands of one set of criminals into the hands of another set of criminals, as fast as the government is changed, and the march of civilization is a train of felonies,- yet, general ends are somehow answered. We see, now, events forced on which seem to retard or retrograde the civility of ages. But the world-spirit is a good swimmer, and storms and waves cannot drown him. He snaps his finger at laws: and so, throughout history, heaven seems to affect low and poor means. Through the years and the centuries, through evil agents, through toys and atoms, a great and beneficent tendency irresistibly streams.

    “Let a man learn to look for the permanent in the mutable and fleeting; let him learn to bear the disappearance of things he was wont to reverence without losing his reverence; let him learn that he is here, not to work but to be worked upon; and that, though abyss open under abyss, and opinion displace opinion, all are at last contained in the Eternal Cause:-

    ” ‘If my bark sink, ’tis to another sea.’ “

  • Pete Crangle


    “When we look at modern man, we have to face the fact…that modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast to his scientific and technological abundance; We’ve learned to fly the air like birds, we’ve learned to swim the seas like fish, and yet we haven’t learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters…” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Great series. Thank you ROS.

  • The show was disappointing, but I guess structurally, there was no way around the finale being what it was – an echo chamber.

    With one exception, the participants had the smugness of a victor.

    Chas Freeman was there when it went down and blames institutions for their lack of humanism in making the myth of merit a reality + leaders have failed us.

    Paul Kingsnorth has his 2 ½ acres – the rest of us are left to question stuff.

    Jeremy Grantham will be living in his ‘organic’ (?!?) forest when the apocalypse occurs. Or maybe I’m not giving him enough credit to know when to trade up and out of his ‘investment.’ ( He’s long the forest and short by way of the apocalypse?)

    Terry Tempest Williams, the exception, was documentary – a proto-victim of the looming apocalypse.

  • Pete Crangle

    0. Salience at a Glance

    Summary: Global Gilligan is screwed. Probabilistically speaking, of course.

    Salient points of current intractability, following the Rule of Three’s:
    (*) Anthropogenic global climate change and ecocide
    (*) Neoliberalism
    (*) Permanent war

    A modest drill down of each point:
    (*) Anthropogenic global climate change and ecocide; a continued deterioration of the habitat and habitat resources due to industrialization (e.g. carbon energy extraction & transport, hydraulic fracturing, mountain top removal, big agriculture, CO2 emissions, toxic waste disposal, general pollution); rising CO2 levels; acidification of large water systems; glacial erosion; rising global temperatures; rising sea levels; increasingly protracted and extreme weather events; deforestation; soil contamination and deterioration; mass extinction; invasive species proliferation; increases in novel epidemiological disease events; all of which is wed to zero-sum habitat competition, population dislocation, refugee migration, immigration policy contraction; which is accompanied by a retreat into fundamentalism: religious, luddism, technocratic, market, nativism, xenophobia, tribal alienation, and the narcissism of small differences…

    (*) Neoliberalism fed by the rapacious excesses of predatory capitalism, austerity, globalization, outsourcing, offshoring, massive inequality, deregulation, resource exhaustion, endless repetition of boom-bust cycles, jobless recoveries, socialized risk for privatized profits, wealth contraction that is funneled upwards, privatization of public infrastructure, monetary and fiscal policy malfeasance and/or incompetence, legislative and regulatory malfeasance and/or incompetence; all of which is wed to zero-sum habitat competition, population dislocation, refugee migration, immigration policy contraction; which is accompanied by a retreat into fundamentalism: religious, luddism, technocratic, market, nativism, xenophobia, tribal alienation, and the narcissism of small differences…

    (*) Permanent war, erosion of treaty obligations and civil law (e.g. Geneva Convention Treaties, UN Security Council Resolutions, NDAA, War Powers Act, Patriot Act, Constitutional guarantees); weapon and surveillance proliferation; extra-constitutional domestic security and surveillance; market instigated instability both abroad and within the homeland; extrajudicial executions both abroad and within the homeland; escalation of cyber warfare, WMD proliferation and the looming potential for accident; non-human agency in espionage, surveillance, profiling, data mining, and archiving; escalated development, proliferation, and deployment of lethal, autonomous weapon systems where non-human agency will increase in target selection, acquisition, and go/no go decision capacity; all of which is wed to targeted assignation, zero-sum habitat competition, population dislocation, refugee migration, immigration policy contraction, which is accompanied by a retreat into fundamentalism: religious, luddism, technocratic, market, nativism, xenophobia, tribal alienation, and the narcissism of small differences…

    The salients are interconnected within a web of cause-and-effect rapport. Their impacts on human behavior have overlap, and yet, the existence of these problems, let alone a determination of the cause-and-effect, has become an exercise of indifference among the elite.

    Take away: We are at an inflection point where tribal alienation and the narcissism of small differences is interacting with, and being driven by, global planetary forces, neoliberalism, and endless war and domestic pacification (draconian security and surveillance).

    Recommendation: Do what you must with all the intention you can muster. It maybe time to confront the possibility of a dead end, perfect storm in the making. Perhaps, the magic ten percent will survive? Who can say for sure? Survival has always been a probabilistic dice roll. It may always be so. I will put the storm & stress to a 12 bar blues.

    1. Utopia Buzzkill or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love To Feel Your Pain

    CO2 reading for August 20, 2016: 400.42 ppm at Mauna Loa. https://scripps.ucsd.edu/programs/keelingcurve/

    The horizon has gathered itself, and delivers its relentless furies to us. The human species is in the process of becoming an externality in Nature’s spreadsheet. The technological developments that humanity has cultivated and unleashed in the era of mass industrialization, usually without discourse or transparency as to efficacy, safety, or long term effects, has brought us to the vantage point where we can legitimately consider the potential for a vanishing point. We offer up the public commons, the non-human world, and the systems of life support alike, to the myopic vagaries of proprietary, human expediency.

    Strictly speaking, the imaginative powers of the human species has been the primary engine that has made the intangible manifestly tangible. Moreover, this has been brought about through collective effort which tends to revolve around the following coarse grained view: Extraction, Harvesting, Refinement, Manufacturing, Distribution, Markets, Speculation, and Public Relations. Our activities of increasing abstraction cannot shed nor bury the physical connection and hold reality casts upon us — though, we separate ourselves more and more from reality, and each other. The market and media are ultimately atomizing forces for divide and conquer. Thus, we treat our habitat as a resource for profitable exploitation, not a home, nor a partner, nor an eco-system of robustness that can be made fragile and moribund. This is the first, and most important step one takes in the dehumanization of self, and then its outward projection. It is the sickness that infects a large and growing fraction of the human species.

    The Market, a quasi apocalyptic force itself — boom-bust cycles, jobless recovery cycles, product displacement cycles, downward wage pressures, etc. — is the ideological framework that organizes so much of human activity. It is a fiction, architected from collective imagination, made into non-fiction reality. The fiat monetary system emerges in much the same way. Determination of value, also, emerges in much the same way. It is important to remember, much of our activities are structured around fictional architectures made from collective, human imagination. The complexity that emerges is the stuff of superstition and religion; ideological sectarianism is one of many human blind spots that plagues non-peasant and non-nomadic human culture.

    Since our lives are attuned to the realization of imaginary forces, this also gives us a measure of control, and paradoxically, a measure of hopelessness, as these forces bring us suffering and a nearly intractable inertia once they take root. From human imagination we create institutions and ideologies of monstrous proportions and inertial vectors. Ideology is both handmaiden and outcome of hegemonic institutions, and likewise, hegemonic institutions are both handmaiden and outcome of ideology. One cannot thrive without the other, thus ideology and hegemony are wed together in western culture.

    The desire for, and necessity of, apocalyptic outcry is driven to a certain degree from living within institutional forces that have a dehumanizing effect upon our lives. And because of institutional inertia, an inertia we collectively create and maintain, we see no means of repair, redress, nor improvement. Legacy becomes the stranglehold that trumps our will and imagination. As Fredric Jameson wrote in “Future City”: “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.”

    Policy makers, specialists, corporate interests, speculative market forces, industrialization, etc. have essentially run amok. That is to say, the general population has the distasteful fate of serving the continued propagation and position of dominance of these institutions, in a disproportional rapport to the ability of these institutions to serve the needs of our humanity. From the perspective of the cultural west, there is a confluence of six hegemonic forces that have congealed into a unitary: Political, Economic, Media, Technological, Military, and Religion. Other hegemonic forces that play a role in this brew are science, education, medicine, and public relations. There are other ways to slice this, both finer grained and less meta-oriented, and there are other institutional forces in play, but the aforementioned forces are empirically verifiable. The means to observe their organizing unification is through their behavior in matters of existential crisis: war. It is in matters of war that we can observe that they become a reinforced collective for which lines of demarcation blur. Furthermore, they become the primary forces for which war is waged, and the spoils of the exercise, absorbed back into the culture.

    To answer Jameson’s conundrum, to envision a post-capitalism world, one must envision a post-political, post-economic, post-media, post-technological, post-military, and post-religion world. One must see a means of loosening their death-grip upon us, and undo the ideological framework they place upon our worldview. This would be fairly easy if these ideologies and institutions offered few payloads of virtue or efficacy. But, they offer, to put it in the parlance of the day: a mixed blessing. To tease out the virtue from the flaw may not be possible. Throwing out babies with their bathwater, tends toward the violent and reductionist, and candidly, propagates the human condition among a different fashion du jour. What changes are the cult-of-personality, not the human condition.

    Regardless, to address the problem of capital and political-economy, for which much of the current crises rests upon, it is not simply capital that has a hegemonic stranglehold upon mass culture, it is the interleaved institutional forces that have mass culture in an intractable bind. If our political structures weren’t teetering on collapse, one could argue that these ideological, institutional forces could be rehabilitated. It would require constant rehabilitation so they may satisfy one very important, primary concern: are they serving us, all of us, including nature, or are we serving them, disproportionately so?

    Problematically, our political structures are in decline, perhaps teetering on collapse. They are showing a lack of resilience brought about by neoliberalism and a permanent war economy. A permanent war economy twists and ultimately distorts reality beyond the point of rehabilitation for any cultural that thrives under its spell. Add into this mix that we live under the shadow of a growing global planetary crises for which our political-economy essentially ignores, and it is easy to become confident of a brutal outcome.

    Hence, our political-economy does not invite exercises in civil rehabilitation. The political climate sweeping the west especially, is a climate of growing misery that suggests the servicing of our institutions and their ideologies are reaching a tipping point of the proverbial house-of-cards. If the current crisis cannot be turned around, we face either physical apocalypse brought about by nature’s corrective power, or the intellectual, emotional, spiritual impairment of our species — and with it, our means of understanding and articulating ourselves and the reality we have heretofore, thrived in. As a species, we may disappear into a noisy, jabbering but ultimately, mute silence, whether we are rendered so by nature, or by bread and circuses.

    We have found ourselves in a sort of contemporary dark age. The stakes have never been higher. Events are in the driver seat, and we are being overtaken by them. This is not particularly new or unique in human history, except that the scale and scope of the problem has never been larger. It is the scale and scope that makes the situation dire.

    And so, it is from here, that I breathe a stoic, primitive yawp into the face of the de facto inevitable. A blues howl, of sorts. Twelve bars and a cloud of dust… best regards to ROS and their guests on this series.

  • Scott Ralph

    I found it rather disappointing to hear Chas Freeman shoot from the hip with respect to climate change suggesting that Canada would become more important as warning continues. What The ambassador likely does not know is that essentially all arable land in is the very south, and the rock formation known as the Canadian shield is the reason for this. Any highschool student who takes geography would know this.

    His remarks about China and their economic optimism gave no hint of their demographic ticking time bomb other economists like Mark Blyth has mentioned before. I felt he added little.

  • Potter

    I hope that this series, gets the exposure it deserves.

    The Trump quote: “we have extreme problems like we have never had before”, emphasize “extreme”. We should juxtapose this with his denial of climate change and expose the photo op in Louisiana for what it was. Add the readiness to pull the trigger, threatening the use of nuclear weapons. But right, he is at least ringing bells that need to be rung in general. But the disconnect, lack of ability, coherence, the con. I am remembering Burt Lancaster in Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry, much more entertaining as fiction and about our history with con men.

    Chas Freeman says we, the US, defected on global leadership. We defected? Or it could not be maintained? Or it was not the kind of global leadership we needed to begin with and more about hegemony? Obama was listening to voters who did not want us getting into dumb wars/ He was listening to people and his inner voice wise enough to know that war has consequences. He at the time was tired of not talking about about the real and urgent issues what we need to do at home, tired of sending our young to die in endless war. Obama was first going to or did move us somewhat towards a more multipolar world as well. Freeman sounds disappointed other direction that some of were disappointed. So now we are seeing consequences of consequencest, the halfway that Obama chose. On the other hand when Trump talks about us losing, what is he talking about?

    Freeman’s complaint is that we have no strategy. What would or could that have been or be especially at this point? We are not going to end terrorism by warring. It was especially hard almost shocking to hear Freeman saying (re Syria) “at least the Russians are doing something”. The other night the TV footage of Aleppo was showing more rubble being made out of rubble while rescuers were pulling people, children, as many as they could, alive and dead, whole and parts out of rubble.

    It took the little boy Omran to cause hearts to open again, for us to look again.

    The Freeman phrase: “we as a nation decided”. We did not decide as a nation. That was the problem. Our leaders, the ones who promoted the wars, the divisions, the gridlock, they betrayed us. The “Party of Lincoln”in particular ( Lincoln should roll in his grave) that Trump summons went for the “divided we fall” part.

    But the existential issues discussed here have been with us for decades.I did not hear Freeman admitting that past action and inaction brought us to where we are now. We have been ignoring these existential issues for decades. Wise leaders that compel don’t come often in history. Ours don’t rise and inspire at home or abroad and they don’t want the burden- or we don’t. So we start a compost piles and try not to about apocalypse.

    Freeman mentioned Kissinger who advised (re China) that revolutionary powers need to get “de-fanged by entangling them in the established order”. That kind of works for awhile if it can be done somehow.. But isn’t he saying it’s the established order that must be maintained? The repression of causes remain and re-emerge. The established order sooner or later must be challenged. Changing by incorporating (not repressing) our revolution at home would indeed make us great again. But what did Kissinger mean by “entangling”? With re China, what happened? And now what about Putin? So I thought it was a very interesting quote. You folks at ROS make me think….