Tuesday, June 10, 2008


A friend suffered from downed trees and frightening moments during the latest wave of tornadoes and high winds to hit the Midwest. We were talking about how, in an era of global warming, the apocalypse can arrive as a series of slow, minor aggravations rather than a big world-shattering boom. Broken social scenes may characterize our slow demise more than mushroom clouds.

Then it suddenly hit me: In an era of instantaneous communications and 24/7 awareness of others via twitters and emails and blogs, global trends and crises of all types are moving in sl0-mo. Francis Fukuyama was half-right in his End of History rant. After the cold war and regional ethnic struggles, there's history all right, but sudden paroxysms of violence or confrontation are rare. When in the 21st century have we seen the times of the French Revolution, or 1848, or 1968, when decades of history take place in a single week? Instead, we have slow crises in Zimbabwe or Thailand or Ukraine or the Czech Republic that take months to unfold. Even when a natural disaster hits China or Burma, results and responses can take weeks when instantaneous responses are virtually required. And, as Michael Klare pointed out in an article on the latest oil wars, consumers were hit with a sudden wham during the 1973 oil embargo, but the arrival of peak-oil pricing comes with the aching inevitability of the frog placed in a pot of water that is slowly brought to boiling point.

One political factor that brings on this slowness is the transparency that results from a real-time global communications network. Dictators used to massacre large groups of people with impunity. Now, even a closed society like Burma can't implement a crackdown on fewer than a dozen people without the world knowing in a matter of hours. Authoritarian leaders are wracked with indecision these days, and that of course if a good thing.

But there may be some kind of natural response that the planet is providing to all the 24-hour party people. As we get to be more hyper-aware of the human universe, we lose sight of very slow natural processes. And our over-attention to the human news around us may increase our pathology. Nature somehow may be giving us oscillatory rhythms around some unknown clock, telling us to slow down, reminding us that no matter how finely and quickly we slice this universe around us, the trends driving human behavior will not suddenly explode or shatter before our eyes. Or maybe this is the natural slowing down experienced just before the tipping point - the last few grains of sand added to the pile arrive with excruciating slowness, before the inevitable high-speed avalanche begins. I sure hope it's the former.

1 comment:

Ruth said...

I hope it's the former too. I have a feeling humans will adjust, slowly, but quickly enough to keep surviving, well at least some of us will survive. This is a very interesting essay.