On Trump, the apocalypse, and missing the forest for the Tweets

At the beginning of every apocalyptic thriller there’s always a scene where the hero is getting ready for work, feeding the kids breakfast, dealing with a dog that has barfed in the living room, and generally dealing with the million minor stresses of every day life. 

Meanwhile, on the TV or radio in the background the news is cycling through the usual mundanities of petty crime and traffic and local weather, except thrown into the mix there are always a handful of Easter eggs: warnings of nuclear sabre-rattling by jumped-up third-world dictators; quirky reports of bizarre weather patterns in Europe; a fun little hit about a couple from the midwest who swore they saw an alien spacecraft collecting samples in a field behind their house.

These scenes play a key role in setting up the narrative, in three ways. First, they establish the family ties that will provide the emotional basis for the film. Second, they foreshadow the crisis to come that will drive the plot. But most importantly, these movies always have the lone scientist or researcher who knows what is going on, but who is dismissed by everyone as crazy or conspiracy minded. Their job is to both flatter the viewer (we know what’s coming) but also to warn us: there are patterns out there, in nature, in human affairs, in the cosmos, that we are too busy with our daily lives to notice. And our indifference will lead us to our doom.

I was reminded of these scenes today, as I watched my social media feeds explode over news of the indictment of President Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his associate Rick Gates. And maybe it’s because I’ve been reading a lot of Robin Hanson recently, or maybe it’s because the normally happy contrarian Tyler Cowen seems to have become enormously pessimistic. But I felt, not for the first time, that this real-time obsession with all things Trump is keeping us from noticing the broader patterns that are at work in our lives, and of which Trump is at best a mere symptom, at worst an irrelevant distraction.

I’ve been trying to make a note of some of these apocalyptic-thriller moments as they pass by:



Some of these are jokes, others I think we should take more seriously. But in general, the bigger patterns I think we should be looking at are concentrated in five main areas: Economics, politics, demographics, medicine, and the natural world.

On the economics front, I remain convinced that Tyler Cowen’s “great stagnation” thesis is both true and profound. We seem to have hit a period of long-term low growth, and it isn’t clear how we’re going to get out of it. It doesn’t make me any happier to observe that even Cowen seems to have lost the optimism that punctuated his initial statement of the argument.

On politics: More and more people in the West are losing faith in democracy, and it has nothing to do with Donald Trump. The lack of trust in democracy and the growing openness to authoritarian rule, especially amongst the young, is very disturbing.

On demographics, I don’t think we’re close to coming to grips with the wide-reaching consequences of an aging population, not least of which is the way societies get increasingly risk-averse the older they get.

When it comes to medicine, I’m scared witless by the antiobiotic resistance crisis, or what England’s chief medical officer, Sally Davies calls “an antibiotic apocalypse”.

Finally, as if climate change wasn’t enough to worry about, what with the disappearance of the Antarctic and everything. But nature itself — the buzzing, blooming plenitude we take for granted  — seems to be emptying out. The bugs are disappearing. So are the animals. Increasingly, I worry my kids will grow up in a world that is like the future London of William Gibson’s The Peripheral — empty and desolate.

Maybe some of this is just temporary. Maybe some of these fears are overstated, and maybe we’ll figure out solutions to the ones that aren’t. But I also worry that this isn’t just a partial list of mostly manageable problems, but that there are dozens, if not hundreds of similar patterns or trends or phenomena that we’re ignoring or downplaying or simply not seeing.

More generally, I’m worried that Robin Hanson is right: we are living in a “dream time” in which we are free riding off the social and economic surplus we gained from grabbing the low-hanging fruit of the industrial revolution and ceasing to have any kids. But this highly maladaptive situation can’t last, and we’re heading (back) to a quasi-medieval world where everyone lives at or near a subsistence level, and where, eventually, “most everything worth knowing will be known by many; truly new and important discoveries will be quite rare….  Wild nature will be mostly gone, and universal coordination and destruction will both be far harder than today.”

Hanson thinks these people will be mostly happy, and maybe he’s right. What will come, will come, and our descendents will probably have as much contempt for us as we do for those who came before us.

But it also seems to me that there has to be a middle ground here, somewhere between the real-time rhetorical virtue-narration of the Twitterverse on the one hand, and the out-of-Eden post-Matrix fantasies of the distant Age of Em on the other. And in that middle ground, I think there are patterns and trends that we can control, or at least manage or manipulate, but only if we’re actually paying attention.

Which is why I think that we’re making a big mistake in treating the victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton as the apocalypse, and why we need to stop flipping out every time Trump goes golfing or insults a military widow or forgets that Puerto Ricans are Americans. Doing so has its satisfactions, as does keeping a running tally of the number of lies he tells while in office. But it’s not the game, and it’s not even a sideshow to the game.

I’m increasingly convinced we’re missing the forest for the tweets, and unless we get a grip, it’s going to cost us dearly.


On Trump, the apocalypse, and missing the forest for the Tweets — 5 Comments

  1. Hi Andrew,

    While I’m in total agreement with most of your list (I’m a geophysicist and climate change petrifies me), the graph showing young people’s declining faith in democracy is based on a rather dodgy interpretation of the data. See here for a breakdown:. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/12/05/that-viral-graph-about-millennials-declining-support-for-democracy-its-very-misleading/

    Also, there’s also something of an interesting paradox, in that as our society ages we will get more risk averse, yet the elderly were the demographic that voted most syrongly in favour of both trump and brexit, two of the most incredibly risky political decisions in decades. How do you reconcile these facts?

    • You could see the vote for Trump and Brexit as a reaction against multiple and rapid changes to economies, and wish to return to a more straight-forward and simpler era of greater control of nations by national politicians, i.e. less globalisation.

  2. While I find it refreshing every time someone grabs the microphone and tries to argue that “we’re missing the forest” or trees or tweets, the suggested alternative list of “truly important things” often disappoint. Your list of examples is no different. It seems to me that overviews of the problems of the world often miss the key problem, which is the fact that the human population has grown to a point that it is simply not sustainable on this planet without provoking a series of catastrophes. You point out that there are a lot of bugs and animals that are disappearing. No kidding! Paul R. Ehrlich wrote “The Population Bomb” (Population control or race to oblivion?) in 1968 and subsequently wrote in 1981 “Extinction” (The causes and consequences of the the disappearance of species). This is no coincidence. Notwithstanding the fate of the dinausaurs, humans tend to endanger animals – the more humans, the less animals. The more people there are, the more we surge past the point of “sustainability” and into the realm of “irreversible damage” to the environment. In this context, the fact that many boomers are approaching old age and that in the Western world there is no subsequent generational cohort to continue the “booming” expansion of the population is not a cause for worry, but relief, as it implies a possible reduction in the number of humans once the boomers expire. However, (1) the demographics of the “boom, bust and echo” generations in the Western world are not reflected in many other regions of the world where a huge portion of the population is under 15 or 20, and (2) every time people express concerns that there are not enough people in Canada, the government announces the raising of the numbers of immigrants that will be allowed in the country. StatsCan recently announced the results of the latest census and the number of recent immigrants in Canada is at record levels and just yesterday the Government announced record new annual immigration target levels for the coming years. In other words, the world population will keep growing and Canada’s along with it. Your list of worries is largely a list of symptoms and consequences that will keep growing as a result of another root problem that few people are discussing. Is it any surprise that the increasing number of humans on the planet exacerbates every conflict known throughout history? The bubonic plague killed 50 million people in the 14th century, and now the WHO is warning the outbreak in Madagascar may spread to Eastern Africa. Euphoria at the suggestion that the discovery of antibiotics solved the world’s epidemic problems was premature.

  3. Good post overall. I just want to push back on one of your low-level points, about the “losing faith in democracy” article. That narrative is based on a study where people were allowed to rate the importance of democracy on a 10-point scale, and young people were rather less likely than older people to rate the importance of democracy at a 10. But the young people still rate it very highly.

    I think a more reasonable narrative is that most people in Western countries see democracy as very important, although young people rate it as slightly less important than older people.

    This article discusses that ‘losing faith in democracy’ study by Mounk and Foa in more detail: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/12/05/that-viral-graph-about-millennials-declining-support-for-democracy-its-very-misleading/