I do not always wake up afraid. Some mornings I spring into consciousness with good cheer and joie-de-vivre. “Good day, beautiful universe!” I say to the sugar cane plants outside my apartment. “How marvelous it is to be a human being and not an industrially-farmed chicken or a piece of sand!” I think about how unlikely my existence was, how I am the culmination of a billions-year process, how beautiful and big the cosmos are. I am positively aglow as I bound out my front door: Think of all things I might do today! All the things I might see! I could draw a picture of a racehorse! I could run up and down the riverfront! I could eat a whole bag of gummy sharks! As a relatively healthy United States citizen earning a living wage in the 21st century, I am one of the most privileged human beings in the entire multi-millions year history of the species. Life should be nonstop elation.
I can’t help it, though: Some days I wake up very, very afraid. There’s a pit in my gut and I am nervous all over. I am worried… about something. It’s difficult to articulate exactly what it is. But I feel that if something isn’t done, quickly, things will be bad. I think part of it comes from my awareness that there are thousands of live nuclear warheads ready to destroy me at any moment. That seems a somewhat reasonable ground for agitation, no? The city I live in is also the subject of alarming headlines like “Fortified But Still In Peril, New Orleans Braces For Its Future.” The other day I had lunch with a friend who is a city engineer with a background in environmental science. He said that South Beach, Miami was likely to be underwater within my lifetime, and that it would be extremely difficult to stop this from happening. His opinion is shared by other experts. It was hard to finish lunch.
When I get too worried, I feel crazy. Look around you: Nobody else looks worried. The top headline in the newspaper is about the Saints game. (We won!) The big news at the moment is Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearings. These are extremely important, because sex criminals and liars shouldn’t be serving in high office. It doesn’t explain the fear though. Why am I afraid? Maybe there’s something wrong with me. I might have an anxiety disorder. Since my mood shifts seemingly arbitrarily (sudden fear one day, ecstatic joy another), the fault must be in myself rather than the world. Sit down. Have a beignet. Calm down. It’s fine.
Then I remember 2016. I spent that year very worried. It seemed like something bad was going to happen, that few people were noticing how plausible it was. Then the bad thing happened. The lesson I took from that was: Sometimes the gut knows what it’s talking about.
Lately, every time I return to my hometown in Florida, the fear comes back. I think it’s because so many of the things I knew and loved have been disappearing. First the bookstore shut down and was replaced with an upscale wine bar for douchebags. Then a lot of old buildings were demolished, and downtown started filling with gigantic new condo towers. The indie video store shut down, its community disappearing. My old school, once a free-spirited place, has started to look like a jail. Each time I go, a piece of the quirky, historic Florida has disappeared, and the lifeless sprawling “Villages” Trump-Florida has expanded a bit further.
These complaints are comparatively minor, so much so that I feel silly even making them. The changes are small. I suppose most people don’t notice them. But something just doesn’t feel right to me. Sometimes it’s quite obvious. The last time I went, the worst red tide in decades meant the shores were littered with thousands and thousands of fish carcasses and dead manatees and the entire coastline reeked of death. No one could deny that something was amiss. (No one, that is, except the governor of Florida.)
It could simply be irrational nostalgia that causes me to link the closing of the bookstores with the dying dolphins. I remember a time when I was a pudgy middle-schooler who wore billowy Hawaiian shirts, and the red tides weren’t as bad and the bookstore downtown had sleepy cats in it. I have written lately, though, that I think nostalgia is unfairly dismissed. Perhaps it’s the natural psychological reaction to the destruction of the familiar things that help us orient ourselves. For most of the 300,000 years of human existence, we have lived in pretty stable environments. Yes, there were incidents of mass destruction but on the whole things did not look entirely different within a single generation. Now, you can return to the city of your childhood and find it unrecognizable. The rapid pace of change can be disorienting; every time I pass through the Tampa airport, it seems to have been remodeled again, and I get confused and can’t remember where I am. Part of why I become afraid, I think, is that I don’t know what is going to change next, what thing I’ve gotten used to will suddenly be ripped out from under me.
Oh, and there’s also the small matter of the screams. One reason there’s this weird disconnection between my mostly pleasant experience and my alarmed inner state is that the worst and most painful things are out of sight, and I’m not the one they actually happen to. A million souls in prison, but it’s far away and I don’t need to notice. Billions and billions of animals leading lives of nonstop torture, but you don’t realize it until you read a news story like “3.4 Million Chickens Drown In Hurricane Florence.” The 40,000 people who kill themselves in this country each year, and the countless more who come close, show most of their despair behind closed doors. As my colleague Brianna Rennix has written, if inner torment made a loud noise, we would hear it coming from half the homes we passed by. I can’t stop thinking about what I’m not seeing: the evictions, the bankruptcies, the sickness, the death. The little Honduran children crying themselves to sleep in detention centers. Tens of thousands of people go to sleep each night on hard beds, in cheerless federal facilities, because they violated the strict rules about which geographic area you are allowed to live in without being taken away.
When I wake up afraid, though, it’s not simply because I’m suddenly aware of others’ pain. What I’m really worried about is that a certain nightmare I have will actually come to pass. That nightmare flickers in my mind every time I see some expert say that half of all colleges will soon be going broke. It’s a personal dystopia I have, a vision of a world where certain current tendencies travel to their logical extremes, and slowly the mixture of good and bad in the world starts to tip irreversibly in favor of bad.
In the nightmare, the colleges have shut down, or “refocused their programming on expanding sectors,” e.g., cutting history and pivoting to business and “e-sports.” As Michael Moore so plausibly shows in his new film, some kind of hideous terrorist incident, even if just a one-off, has allowed for de facto martial law, and a militarized police has become an outright military. Cultural institutions like museums, since they have a difficult time justifying themselves economically, are either shuttered or simply burn to the ground. Libraries, the most visionary of our public institutions, have their budgets ground down, because we “can’t afford” them. Perhaps they are replaced with Amazon stores. Everything gets privatized. The schools resemble armed compounds, and mostly operate as job training facilities (since, under free market logic, it makes far more sense to give children Skills than to teach them about useless rubbish like art history, which even liberals like Barack Obama make fun of). Some company like Amazon realizes that there’s a market in “full life packages,” offering to take care of people’s needs in company-created towns in exchange for indentured labor contracts. I have already spoken to friends who say they’d consider signing up for such a thing if it promised to erase their student debt. Oh yes, right, and debt: The divide grows between the tiny elite who control everything and the debtors who spend all their time working and worrying about their debt. The life expectancy gap continues to widen: The poor live shorter lives, the rich become immortal. We kill off most of the other animals on earth (they weren’t economically efficient), save a few kept in zoos to remind us what animals once were. As everything gets hotter, we become angrier, our minds more sluggish. We get used to emergencies: A megastorm destroys a city here, a flood wipes out a population there. Many of us barely even notice, because the endless scandals coming out of Washington are so impossible to turn our attention away from. And all of it just keeps compounding as time passes…
I’m sorry. I know that was all very bleak. I’m not saying it’s here now. I just wanted you to know why I get so afraid of the future, why some days there are just klaxons going off in my head blasting “DANGER” and making me desperate to do something. (It’s one reason I write 10,000 word articles; some stupid self-aggrandizing part of my brain thinks if I can just find the words to properly articulate the Problem that will stop it.) I hope I haven’t made you sad; I doubt I have that power, but I do know I’m not the only one who gets these fears. A lot of people in my generation are kind of “apocalyptic” in their thinking, and I think it’s in part because many of us do see this nightmare as a live possibility. In fact, certain parts of elite ideology seem to almost require it: The idea that schools should “prepare children to compete in the 21st century economy” is accepted without question, but it leads to the eradication of “useless” knowledge. A firm belief in the “rule of law” and the paramount importance of “national security” justify creeping authoritarianism. Unless we question foundational national dogmas, it’s going to be very easy for each successive step to justify itself.
You might not believe me, but I do have good news. I don’t actually think the nightmare is inevitable. I think it would be the inevitable result of letting certain contemporary tendencies continue unchecked. Unless environmentalism, humanism, socialism, animal rights, anti-nationalism, etc. become consensus positions, the world of 50 years from now will have many disturbing features. But I wasn’t lying when I said I’m also a very cheerful person. Not everything is gloomy! Human beings fixed the hole in the ozone layer. We got rid of widespread mass famine, and significantly reduced the damage done by HIV. Tensions on the Korean peninsula have subsided! Steven Pinker is not entirely wrong. People have always complained that everything is in decline, and it’s critical to maintain perspective: We could have been living during World War II or chattel slavery, and we are not.
In fact, it’s precisely because there is so much good that I still sometimes end up thinking I might be crazy. But then I see some other wetland turned into a parking lot, or hear about some other charming species disappearing (most recently: puffins and hedgehogs), or the worsening of drug deaths, or the further increase of Jeff Bezos’ wealth, and I think “No, this is going to go very badly.”
I am still, at heart, a utopian. If Anne Frank could end her days by affirming her faith in humanity, who the hell am I to become a cynic and go around prophesying doom? The thing is, even if the nightmare is plausible, it’s also so easy to steer a different course. As George Orwell said, the world is a raft, floating through space, stocked with enough provisions for everybody. How difficult can it be to ensure that we keep the raft afloat, and give everybody a reasonable share of the provisions? I often feel like the obstacles to progress are a myth pushed on us to keep us from trying, that conservatism counsels hopelessness because it doesn’t want us to realize how easy it would be to change everything. I wake up cheerful so many days, including today. A world where everyone gets to do that every day does not seem beyond reach. I have it so much easier than so many other people, and for those of us who are able, the least we can do is refuse to surrender to our fears.
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