A Reflection on Our Times

1earthMost commentary on the American presidential election focuses on the qualities of the candidates and recent events in American political history. Pulling back the lens offers a more expansive view.

Hegemonic powers have risen and fallen throughout human history. The declining hegemon abandons the soft power of persuasion for the hard power of armaments. It wastes blood and treasure in foreign adventures.

Financial manipulation and economic chaos predominate as the hegemonic currency goes into decline. Today, slowing growth worldwide, uncontrolled printing of money, negative interest rates for many government bonds, declining oil prices, and manipulated financial markets are all facets of a system at the edge of collapse.

We all know that a growth economy cannot expand without limits. Population growth is a tremendous multiplier of economic activity and resource depletion. The Holocene is the sixth great age of extinctions. Climate change, toxic chemicals, habitat destruction, resource depletion, and many other factors drive the myriad human and ecosystem diseases of our time. The fabric of life itself is unraveling.

Disparities of wealth grow deeper as natural resources of food, water, and other necessities of life grow scarcer. Drought and wars drive refugee populations to seek desperate refuge in the West. Barriers rise on frontiers around the world to stem the flood of the desperate.

Technological innovations are an under-reported disruptive force. Robotics and information technologies are replacing human workers. Bill Joy described how weapons of mass destruction are now joined in lethal import by technologies of mass destruction. Joy listed biotech, nanotech, and robotics. We could add synthetic chemistry and the whole intersection of information technologies with every domain of life.

As the drivers of conflict grow stronger, weapons grow more compact, powerful, and diverse. Technological society turns out to be acutely sensitive to disruption. Cyber attacks are the new norm, driven by hackers, non-state groups, and governments. Financial systems, electoral systems, power grids, and all forms of personal information and communication are open for exploitation. The net effect is a rebalancing of force in asymmetric conflicts. Those guarded by conventional power are vulnerable to state and non-state attacks from myriad sources.

When we focus narrowly on the minutiae of the American election, we lose this sense of context. The same forces are producing uprisings on the left and the right in Europe. These same forces foment a new nationalism in a re-arming Japan, a new assertiveness in China’s military policies, a right-wing president arming death squads against drugs in Indonesia, a new authoritarianism in Turkey, a further move to the right in Israel, Russian nationalist aggression, and militant Islamic terrorism..

Our time resembles the 1930s. Historian Adam Hochschild evokes this time in his magnificent new book Spain in Our Hearts. He describes the Spanish civil war and the rise of left- and right-wing forces in Spain, the United States, and Europe in a time of similar economic and political chaos.

Perhaps nothing conveys such a time better than Yeats.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

What is to be done? I need not add to exhortations of the solutions literature. Gary Snyder offers this:

For the Children

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us,
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light.

There may be more wisdom in those last three lines than meets the eye.

A lady asked Ben Franklin, as he left Independence Hall at the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 on the final day of deliberation, “Well, Doctor, what have we got – A Republic or a Monarchy?

Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

8 thoughts on “A Reflection on Our Times

  1. Michael
    Such a good and broad commentary on our situation! I love hearing your thinking about all this and how you end– a real challenge to all of us to keep doing what we can for the world, even as it shakes. Thank you.
    I hope you are well in these wild days. warmly as ever Tom Yeomans

    • tom thanks for these kind words.

      you are a blessing and ever in my heart and thoughts.


  2. Thank-you for including poetry in your otherwise heady description of the “times”. Language and the choice of words has never been more important. Simple straight forward loving kindness in everything we do is our future. Delusions are inexhaustible I vow to end them!

    • thank you anastasia.

      brother david steindl-rast says some things can only be said with poetry.

      it is the only form that can carry the freight, he says.


  3. Thank you for the long view, Michael. It confirms the dread and feeling of darkness many us feel…and that Trump’s appeal to darkness cannot be offset simply by the Democratic assertion that all is well.

    With best wishes,


    • ilene thanks for these kind thoughts.

      i remember our conversation with deep gratitude.

      warm best,


  4. No worry about a permanent unraveling of Life. Life systems will regenerate easily once humans are gone (undone by–in my opinion–their own successes and hard-wired fatal flaws). Fascinating article describes:

    Earth Without People By Alan Weisman, Sunday, February 06, 2005
    What would happen to our planet if the mighty hand of humanity simply disappeared?
    Book-length expansion of the article:
    The World Without Us is a non-fiction book about what would happen to the natural and built environment if humans suddenly disappeared, written by American journalist Alan Weisman and published by St. Martin’s Thomas Dunne Books.[1] It is a book-length expansion of Weisman’s own February 2005 Discover article “Earth Without People”.[2] Written largely as a thought experiment, it outlines, for example, how cities and houses would deteriorate, how long man-made artifacts would last, and how remaining lifeforms would evolve. Weisman concludes that residential neighborhoods would become forests within 500 years, and that radioactive waste, bronze statues, plastics, and Mount Rushmore would be among the longest-lasting evidence of human presence on Earth.

  5. ellen thank you for this — beautiful and important point.

    warm best,


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