“I sometimes think I know too much history,” Dr. Joseph Tainter
says, his warm voice trailing into silence. The air conditioner hisses quietly inside his office while outside, past half-open venetian blinds, a lawnmower drones back and forth on the Utah State lawn. The white noise is soothing but our conversation is not: for the past ninety minutes, Dr. Tainter has been trying to convince me that, within three to six decades, industrial civilization is going to experience a rapid decline in complexity.
That's a euphemism for collapse.
The future has been on my mind for the past few years. You could call me an oral historian, a radio producer, or a sound artist, but labels are less important than work: I spend a lot of my time traveling America and creating projects that document how we think about the world.
I first met the Disquiet in 2009, when I was producing an audio series about the American present
. After three months of travel, I had asked 166 strangers about the most exciting and worrisome things in their lives. The respondents were diverse, from boiled-peanut vendors to financial analysts. As you would expect, their responses were equally diverse: an elderly liquor store owner celebrated that God put his rival out of business while a middle-aged woman worried that her daughter would never be able to afford health care. Patterns were scarce, but as the project neared its end, I began to notice a common theme.
Americans were deeply uncomfortable about the future. Beyond short-term political complaints and long-term career plans, there was a sense that our civilization was shifting precariously underfoot. Nobody could agree on the root cause, but they shared a narrative structure. Trespass. Punishment. Redemption... maybe.
The trespass could be anything from capitalist excess to withering family values, but in both cases, it resulted from our hubris. Punishment always came in the form of collapse, whether environmental or economic, abrupt or incremental. If the story continued, redemption could look like a Norman Rockwell painting, Star Trek, or a massively depopulated planet of sustainable farms.
If I was hoping to find our common humanity in something heartwarming, I was out of luck. Instead, from left to right, I encountered a primal sense that we are about to enter the punishment phase.
I wanted to dismiss this gloomy outlook as human nature. From Genesis to Prometheus (Greek legend or Hollywood extravaganza), we have a long, masochistic love affair with the narrative of overreach and punishment. This is, after all, the same narrative that rolls Cassandra out of bed in the morning, generation after generation, and she's usually wrong.
But what if we were expressing a collective awareness of some deep threat, like animals sensing the first shivers of an earthquake? Overall, the Americans I met seemed level-headed, not Cassandra-like. There was general agreement that the economy was rigged, money had eroded the democratic process and, for a minority of interviewees, environmental problems seemed to be escalating. Decay was creeping in, leaving an alarming number of people feeling powerless and overwhelmed. The Disquiet was bigger than a mere fixation with the punishment narrative.
In 2010, I asked over two hundred random Americans about their most difficult decisions
. It was a project designed to explore how people reflected upon the past, but many of the stories wandered into hopes for the future. The Disquiet surfaced again, appearing in offhand comments about people's inability to retire, ebbing material wealth, or sense of resignation.
The Disquiet seldom led to despair, which should have been reassuring but wasn't. Interviewees frequently chased damning indictments of the future with platitudes.
We've gotten through a lot of things.
Your generation will rise to the occasion!
Glad I won't be here.
After three months of talking to people about hard decisions, I'd come to appreciate our talent for synthesizing optimism out of a potent mixture of self-deception and blind faith. Even the strung-out father who abandoned his family and washed up homeless in Key West remained positive about his choices and future. Synthetic optimism is a great drug—it keeps us from going insane in the face of a reality that is frightening and difficult to control. Seeing it in my interviewees confirmed my suspicion that the Disquiet was real.
I decided to launch a new project, The Conversation
. It would be my way to dissect the future and slide it under my microscope. I would study the Disquiet.
Having interviewed hundreds of random Americans before, I decided that The Conversation needed to focus on people deeply immersed in thinking about the future, people who were tearing apart status quo ideas and working towards a radically different future.
In May of 2012, after several months of research, I began traveling America again, recording, editing, and posting my conversations online. Since then, I have spoken to a wide range of thinkers, from a neo-primitivist in Eugene
to an aspiring cyborg in Pittsburgh
, the former managing director of JP Morgan
to an artist embedded in Chicago's municipal government
. It was The Conversation that took me to Utah State University to meet Joseph Tainter.
Peering into so many different futures has been an alarming experience. Like the cross-section of Americans I met during my earlier projects, our visionaries agree on relatively little. Some are quite sanguine, foreseeing no problems that cannot be solved through technology or the tireless, upward march of history. Others, whose analysis I find more compelling, argue that our problems are not only real, they are tangled into a single, hellish Gordian knot.
Several of these thinkers, people like philosopher Timothy Morton
or Land Institute founder Wes Jackson
, have the ability to describe the existence and interplay of massively complex global systems. Talking to them left me feeling that I had drawn back the curtains of reality just far enough to glimpse a cosmos of whirling gears.
Do you remember the first time you learned about astronomy and were crushed by the realization of your own insignificance? This felt the same way—electrifying but also a little nauseating.
My exposure to systems thinking amplified two concerns that had been gnawing at me. First, technology has allowed us to create such an interdependent world that a crisis in one area is a crisis in all areas. Second, the systems are too complex to be fully understood, let alone intelligently controlled. Each system, from the ecosphere to the economy, is an essential part of the creaking tower we call modern civilization. It's a tower supporting seven billion people. It's also a tower we're dismantling beneath ourselves.
The Disquiet had struck again, but this time it struck me.
I worry that we are confronting our biological and intellectual limits. Assaulted by the complexity of our own civilization, we retreat into progressively smaller intellectual fortresses, making it ever harder for us to communicate about the problem, let alone see its full scale.
We are the hapless creators of a problem too large to be solved. Think-tanks, prophets, and supercomputers cannot tell us what the crisis will look like or when it will arrive, but we viscerally know it's coming and it's going to hurt.
This is the Disquiet. Though we try ignore it amidst the reassuring clatter of everyday life, it stands patiently outside our window. At the end of the day, when the kids are asleep and the buzz of synthetic optimism has worn off, we see it through the dark glass and lock eyes.
The Conversation grew out of my desire to understand the Disquiet I had seen in other people's lives. It has achieved this by making the Disquiet a feature of my own life. Left with no alternative, I have chosen synthetic optimism over despair and, embracing my naiveté, I persist in trying to make the future a little better. But in my more honest moments, I can hear the tower creaking and I find myself guiltily hoping, just like the boomer generation, that this whole mess of civilization collapses beneath somebody else.
Maybe, like Joseph Tainter, I should be asking if I have learned too much.