by Russ Linton
As a society, we are entering into a new phase, a new era. The arrival of this change has caught all of us off guard. Instead of preparing for the shift, we fight to maintain the status quo or maintain a storied past. We chase fictions. Blinded to the truth.
Most won’t recognize that we teeter on this precipice because the same desire which drove us to the brink is the one that obscures the unimaginable depths.
Speculation about peak oil simmered for decades. Fossil fuels were never considered an infinite resource. Whether due to scarcity or a shift in consumer demand, the peak would happen sooner or later.
The pandemic has only intensified this talk. Fewer miles driven, fewer airplane flights, a sea change toward working from home and away from commutes; toss in an electric vehicle, renewable energy, and battery revolution and peak oil may have happened in 2019.
The poster child for reckless consumption, oil’s reign as the driver of economies and a symbol of wealth may very well soon end. And the technologies which displace it may help end consumption altogether.
The developed world has been riding a wave of excess, both material and digital. Fossil fuels opened up transportation and industry. Wedded with the Information Age, internet storefronts allowed point and click access to a global marketplace. Beyond physical goods, this connectivity also provides a constant stream of data directly to - and from - the voracious consumer.
But what is consumed must first be produced. And the way we’ve chosen to meet these demands is through the exploitation of labor.
For material goods, that often means sweatshops in less developed countries with depressed economies. For consumption-driven activities that require local labor, this has resulted in the toxic “gig” economy, normalizing work without benefits for sub-par wages. For digital goods, the production channels are much the same; convincing creators that their worth isn’t in the money they make from their efforts but in the followers they gain that are then monetized by larger entities who return a meager portion of the proceeds to the creator.
Removal of barriers to entry happens in all of these cases. This nefarious barrier removal regularly consists of circumventing labor laws but is often recast as expanded opportunity. It creates an illusion of potential prosperity. Open the floodgates and the pie is cut into infinitesimally smaller and smaller pieces with little benefit to the worker. Only those at the top of this twenty-first century feudalism amass fortunes.
The third world country factory worker puts in their sixteen hours a day, paid pennies per hour by Microsoft, and walks away with a check larger than their normal subsistence lifestyle would offer. They can afford a few luxuries with their crumbs, though likely not the same products they are producing. Meanwhile, Bill Gates hoards enough wealth he struggles to give it away.
The Uber driver, one medical bill away from disaster, fights an unregulated crush of workers downloading the app, all trying to survive in a world where maintaining multiple, inadequate jobs has been sold as the new norm. And Uber’s newly-signed CEO inks a signing bonus of a hundred million dollars tied to stock prices ever divergent from the worker’s reality.
The content creator shovels out video after video, article after article, book after book, to meet the constantly shifting demands of faceless algorithms, their hours of toil only compensated if they drive traffic into systems they do not control. At the top, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos become centibillionaires able to toy with nation state-level projects like space flight in their spare time.
But what we must come to understand is that in each of these scenarios we are the consumed.
The push to quantize and monetize every aspect of our life was the natural endgame for uncontrollable consumption. We’ve fed the ultra-wealthy with our time, our bodies, our communities, and pledged undying loyalty to the cause of fattening their purse, not ours.
The damage being done by these practices reached a tipping point with the pandemic. Denying income inequality and outrageous wealth disparities become more difficult as the gap widens. Ignoring the ravages on our communities and personal lives, impossible.
Social media routinely subjects billions of users to a constant barrage of mental and emotional stresses, the architecture underpinned by what could be best described as an unregulated psychological and sociological experiment. Relationships fray along ideological differences enforced by algorithms. Public discourse degrades into quips and personal attacks. Our private lives become grist for the corporate mill.
In traditional media, the drive to produce has led to a fractured society. One where basic journalism, a cornerstone of democracy, gets crushed under the avalanche. The new standard of crowd journalism replaces thoughtful analysis with conspiracy, altering basic societal norms. In creative content endeavors, talent and ability become secondary to prolificacy because constant production is what causes the giants to thrive.
This self-devouring attitude of quantity over quality affects more than just the nature of work but also the fundamentals of our economy. The stock market in the age of peak consumption has become little more than a vanity metric for the oligarchy, divorced from any economic reality.
Stocks continue their meteoric rise in the face of an imploding job market and a global pandemic. They do so on the backs of a handful of companies who have captured entire industries in ways not seen since the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age. The popularity of ETFs and the sheer size of these companies – Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Tesla – ensures an out-sized portion of wealth automatically transfers to this oligopoly and their centibillionaire CEOs.
Despite their lopsided, nonsensical valuations and the threat they pose to free markets, these companies continue to accumulate wealth, feeding on the whole, hungrily devouring the constituent parts.
This can’t continue.
If the past is any indicator, the end will come with an economic collapse. War. The stress fractures have already begun to show.
America, once a thriving Democracy, has descended past partisan stagnation and into a deep test of its fundamental principles. Russia has charged into the power vacuum through brazen annexation of neighbors, the assassination of dissidents, assaults on foreign elections, and reckless cyberattacks on a monumental scale. China, once the world’s source of cheap labor and counterfeit goods has moved within reach of being the world’s top economy and embraced greater innovation. Whether they become a world leader or a vengeful pariah has yet to be seen.
A conflict between any of these powers could end civilization.
Populism in developed countries has reared up in response to these massive imbalances as well. But like the cannibalistic nihilism that spawned it, this populism veers more toward divisive stances based on granular identity or isolationist practices instead of addressing the root cause and promoting a common good.
That root cause? A technological and societal revolution deeper than any humanity has faced. One which will happen whether we want it to or not.
This revolution will do one thing we’ve failed miserably at in modern times – empower individuals. This won’t be the illusion of power provided by the internet Skinner box, or the false opportunity of the “gig” economy, or the trickle-down lie. This revolution will offer unprecedented individual self-sufficiency and sustainability.
Imagine a residential community which creates their own power. No external entity to answer to for the electricity to run their modern lives, any excess shared equitably through dispersed, renewable grids. Banking becoming a seamless peer-to-peer interaction, no middlemen imposing fees and unnecessary penalties. Food scarcity ended through the cessation of corporate control as individual homes print their own food. Food waste and alternative, naturally abundant sources used to supplement the process to ensure no individual goes hungry.
None of this is science fiction. All of this is possible. But we have to decide between a controlled transition or one of chaos.
Entire sectors need to be rebuilt. Entrenched legacy industries dismantled and reorganized. Transportation, manufacturing, banking, energy, nothing will escape the shift away from an existence of endless consumption to one of thoughtful, purposeful, decentralized creation.
No more time can be wasted on the lies of cannibalistic capitalism. Time will need to be spent retooling the world and rebuilding an economy soon to collapse under the unwieldy weight of bloated giants. Guiding laggards into acceptance so they don’t embrace violent resistance to the inevitable change will be crucial.
This isn’t a political or an ideological problem. This is a mere question of survival. Conflict today can vaporize cities, reduce countries to rubble. Embrace of retrograde policy could mire us in stagnation or drive us into a Dark Age right when the promise of a vibrant future has lit the horizon.
This Age of Consumption must end or we’ll soon devour ourselves.
Russ Linton: Danger, depth, and discovery. A former government agent, philosopher, and forever explorer, I’m now a wandering author delving into worlds both real and imaginary.
Find Russ at www.russlinton.com.
Support Ad-Free, Reader-Funded Independent Commentary
Become a monthly supporter:Become a Patron!
Can't do monthly? Make a one-time payment via PayPal: