There’s a particular feeling I used to get while watching certain movies, my body molded to a bed or comfortable lounging chair, wrapped in warm blankets, swaddled in the comfort of progress.

I would watch westerns depicting the harsh life of pioneers and cowboys on the rugged plains and bask in the negative pleasure of being so distant from that reality. I would watch movies about wars and feel anxiety for those cinematic bodies forced to fight and die in trenches and on foreign beaches, but also a visceral relief that I was watching them on Netflix or HBO, multiple decades and peace treaties removed from that awful history. 

I don’t know if there’s a term for this feeling I once felt, but it’s gone now — whatever it was. I can no longer watch movies about cowboys and Indians, and wars, and Nazis, and plagues, and lynchings, and Jim Crow without feeling a sense of dread and thinking these cinematic depictions seem like premonitions of a wild and chaotic future that is becoming harder and harder to distinguish from the increasingly unstable present.

This week, NPR reported that COVID-19 “is spreading faster than ever in China,” which could exacerbate global supply chain issues and hasten a worldwide recession and potentially pave the way for an even deadlier viral variant. Here in the U.S., experts are warning of a “tripledemic,” or the fear that cases of the flu, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are rising simultaneously. 

There’s the war in Ukraine, which is fed by and feeds into the global rise of authoritarianism. The threat of artificial intelligence. Nuclear annihilation. Climate change. Species extinction. Inflation. Crippling debt …

Upside-downside

About a decade ago, I read Thomas Homer Dixon’s 2006 The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, in which the Canadian author and professor pointed out our debilitating dependence on complexity. The book’s message is more prevalent now than ever.

“Most of us in cities are now so specialized in our skills and so utterly dependent on complex technologies that we’re quickly in desperate straits when things go really wrong,” Dixon wrote. “When we can’t drive, catch a cab, or take the subway, we have to fall back on such age-old methods of walking to meet our immediate needs.

“When, next, will we see people walking out of our cities — in the darkness of a mid-afternoon?” Homer-Dixon writes.

What’s happening to cities now might be even more disruptive than what happened in the wake of 9/11. Central cities are hollowing out, with COVID-19 and the ever-looming threat of yet another viral pandemic increasingly rendering them obsolete (Crain’s Chicago Business reported in April that Chicago’s central business district had a record-high office space vacancy rate of 21 percent in April). And what is a skyscraper without people working in it? Hint: It is wildly energy inefficient and of no practical use without easily accessible and cheap fossil fuels.

Homer-Dixon pointed out in 2006 that there have been five “tectonic stresses” accumulating beneath the surface of our modern societies. They include population stresses “arising from differences in the population growth rates between rich and poor societies, and from the spiraling growth of megacities in poor countries”; energy stress, and “above all the increasing scarcity of conventional oil”; environmental stress “from worsening damage to our land, water, forests, and fisheries”; climate stress; and economic stress “resulting from instabilities in the global economic system and ever-widening income gaps between rich and poor people.”

The resulting cascading and interconnected calamities we’re witnessing stymy our collective ability to articulate this chaotic reality. For instance, in a recent interview with the Financial Times, the American author Annie Proulx expressed her frustration with fictional narratives in the face of the real world’s overwhelming awfulness and absurdity.

“What was going on with the world — in terms of the natural world — just seemed so enormous and so compelling that my thoughts couldn’t get with the fiction,” she said. “It seemed frivolous and silly.”

Draining the swamp

Her most recent book on the history of wetlands, Fen, Bog and Swamp, might be read as a metaphor of our much larger biospheric loss and the author’s attempt to salvage a language for describing what’s happening to life on Earth.

“Proulx hypothesises [sic] that the loss of natural wetlands is key to understanding so many of the current disasters that plague us (‘runaway fires, viral pandemics, headaches, depression’) and that the ‘gulf of esoteric language’ has created a disconnect between ordinary readers and the climate science,” the Times’ Courtney Weaver writes.

Earlier this year, Homer-Dixon helped popularize a term that may or may not make it easier for the average person to think about our crisis-ridden moment: “polycrisis,” which occurs “when crises in multiple global systems become causally entangled in ways that significantly degrade humanity’s prospects. These interacting crises produce harms greater than the sum of those the crises would produce in isolation, were their host systems not so deeply interconnected.”

Over the last several months, an array of idiosyncratic thinkers have written columns and books either introducing the term “polycrisis” or playing on the theme of “multiple cascading shocks,” as the economic historian Adam Tooze defines the term in a recent Financial Times column.

Plenty of books published this year have emphasized overlapping and interconnected crises, including Megathreats: Ten Dangerous Trends That Imperil Our Future And How to Survive Them, by the prescient Turkish economist Nouriel Roubini (who predicted the 2007-08 crash).

Roubini focuses on a range of shocks, each of which “affirms all the others.” They include historically massive levels of private and public debt, rapidly aging populations in the West, deglobalization, climate change, wealth inequality, and pandemics, among others.

I’ve recently been reading history for some consolation (old newspaper clippings, in particular) and for a break from the mind-numbing habit of scrolling through the detritus of our era of peak distraction (I cannot articulate how addictive Facebook’s Reels can be, particularly when consecutive adorable pet videos come across my feed).

Not so depressed

Last week, while scanning the Dec. 23, 1936 edition of The Herald newspaper, which appeared less than a decade after the onset of the Great Depression, I was struck by its optimism.

“Merry Christmas!” announces the publishers just under the masthead and above “A Christmas Meditation,” and another story titled, “Gayest Yule Spirit in Many Years Finds Everybody Jubilant.”

There’s a distinct sense of material progress in the days leading to Christmas 1936.

“[Real] Candles as decorations on Christmas trees are a thing of the past, and from the safety point of view it is fortunate that such is the case,” notes one reader. “Electric lighting sets can add just as much to the decorative effect and are far safer.”

A building boom was happening across the west suburbs. For instance, the value of home building and repair permits in Oak Park jumped from $9,495 in November 1935 to $49,515 in November 1936.

And on the cover of the 1936 issue, The Herald reported on a new Oak Park organization formed “for the special purpose of eliminating trolley cars on tracks” and replacing them with buses with rubber tires.

“Prevailing public opinion is that the trolley car on steel tracks is obsolete, a nuisance, and should join the hansom cab in the limbo of the ‘one-hoss shay,’” the paper writes.

And yet a Herald reader was already complaining that they missed the old-fashioned Christmas, with the real candles and non-consumerist decorations. There are echoes of this lament everywhere nowadays. Nothing may be so uniquely American as our tendency to throw away things before realizing how much we’ll regret it. In our rush to replace trolleys with private cars, we forgot the value of public transit. In debt and politically dysfunctional, all we can do now is regret not having a better plan.

“The old-time family,” the reader noted, “gathered together to fashion tree decorations while they munched popcorn and homemade fudge, shared a holiday experience that knit them closer together for the entire year and made the occasion what it is really meant to be — a merry Christmas.”

I shouldn’t gloss over the fact that the world would be at war again in less than four years, fighting over stuff and space. Many of our grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents would be storming beaches, creating the ugly stuff of cinematographic beauty — the movies I can no longer bear to watch without feeling a sense of dread.

But I’m not wholly pessimistic. Engaging with the past always provides a uniquely human gift, which is the knowledge that we have the power to shape our future, perhaps principally through language and meaning-making.

So, this Christmas, give the gift of history.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

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