By Andrew Potter
Biblioasis, 123 pages, $15
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For the past two years, the so-called "Doomsday Clock" created in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been set at 100 seconds to midnight, its symbolic hands portending a fiery nuclear catastrophe and the end of the world.
In his provocative and cogently-argued new book On Decline, Canadian political philosopher and former journalist Andrew Potter sees a very different version of the apocalypse: a long, drawn out and dismal scenario in which governments and other institutions simply cease to function effectively in the face of increasingly grave crises. For Potter, our long-held collective assumptions about social and economic progress, democracy, reason, science and technology are all being overturned, to be replaced by stagnation, irrationality and extremism.
On Decline is just the latest in a series of slim and timely titles in the "Field Notes" series from Windsor-based publisher Biblioasis. Much like the freely distributed pamphlets of previous centuries, intended to stimulate public debate and promote political change, the series has tackled topics in the public interest including social and political risk, property and its relationship with policing and the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Accordingly, Potter’s book concentrates on presenting a concise political argument. He first establishes that much of our technological progress since the Industrial Revolution depended on resources that were readily available but are now depleting rapidly, and now our politics are floundering as climate change presents a mortal threat to our civilization. Far from realizing the widely anticipated future of jetpacks and flying cars, our era has seen the pace of technological progress stall not so much because we are bumping into the limits of our knowledge but, Potter argues, as the result of strangulating politics combined with a lack of co-operation and the will to achieve broad social goals.
Potter holds both the far right and far left responsible at least in part for these conditions, noting with surprise how the political spectrum has reversed polarity: the "woke" left has become so obsessed with enforcing conformity by policing language and behaviour (he refers to them as the "ctrl-left") that the countercultural mantle of rebellion has been assumed by the nihilistic alt-right.
Our obsession with the politics of identity, Potter argues, is a luxury born of not needing to devote so much of our psychological and social energy towards actual survival, allowing us to instead seek status through our beliefs and associations. The social dimensions of consumerist status-seeking is a theme Potter has touched on in his previous books, The Rebel Sell (with Joseph Heath, 2004) and The Authenticity Hoax (2010), but here he makes plain that the consequences of the resulting social fragmentation could be terminal.
Potter explains that our instinctive, emotional reactions which served us well when we were foragers and hunters living in dangerous environments — to which we needed to respond quickly in order to stay alive — are now being exploited by social media companies to short-circuit and supersede our higher-level and longer-term reasoning skills, and at a time when they are needed most. All of these forces Potter sees converging over the past two years in the global catastrophe of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the serial institutional failures experienced in so many advanced democracies to adequately respond to the emergency.
In his closing pages, Potter offers some measures of hope that we can throw off our illusions, abandon our tribalism and re-embrace democratic ideals in time to adopt clean energy technologies and reduce the impacts of climate change. The alternative, he warns, is irreversible and global decline.
Like its historic ancestors, On Decline deserves a wide general audience and should be required reading for the incoming federal government.
Michael Dudley is a librarian at the University of Winnipeg.
By Andrew Potter
Biblioasis, 123 pages, $15
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