There’s a notoriously bleak author who goes by the name of Pentti Linkola. He is little known outside of his native Finland, where he lives an ascetic existence in the forest as some sort of modern day Diogenes. His writing is bleak, but it’s worth reading. His central arguments arguments are that material prosperity merely delivers us existential despair and the human population urgently needs to be dramatically reduced to preserve the integrity of the natural environment we live in.
I am not genuinely under the impression that either argument is incorrect. To start with, I’m not genuinely entertained by material prosperity. We spend a lot of money on toys for children, because children are still easily entertained with toys. As we grow older, our own creations lose such appeal to us. I can count on one hand, the number of books, movies or video games I expose myself to in a typical year. If I look around me, I notice some people, particularly the middle-aged, spend a lot of time watching television, but it’s not so much because the material they expose themselves to is so entertaining to them. They simply live under conditions that prohibit them from doing anything else with their spare time.
When I look at my peers, other young men from my culture with a similar personality and socioeconomic status, I notice they generally keep themselves occupied in the same manner as I do. Video games, movies, novels, none of these have a very high appeal to them. They spend a lot of time day-trading cryptocurrencies, though they mostly lose money as the market hit its top months ago. Some are by now millionaires on paper, but they nonetheless keep endlessly pursuing the same dopamine rush they experience when they wake up in the morning and notice their position is in the green.
Are they insane? Or are they simply Darwinian actors, pursuing their own self-interest in a rational manner? Over successive generations, young men were shaped by evolution to pursue upward social mobility, as this enhances the fertility of themselves and their direct descendants. This is done by accruing wealth and material possessions that display such wealth. In previous centuries it meant men of my age would join the military and help exploit less technologically advanced ethnic groups. In today’s society, young men have every reason to believe their main path to wealth is to speculate on the price of digital nonsense.
To improve their physical appearance and their mental health, the young men lift weights, which raises their testosterone levels and thereby makes them merely even more prone to demonstrate the typical masculine risk-seeking competitive behavior. Look at your father, observe his waistline and you’ll understand why he’s perfectly content watching another rerun of Midsomer Murders with your mother instead. It’s the same reason you were perfectly content playing games with your friends before you hit puberty. Admittedly however, today’s young people are more prone to this competitive all-or-nothing behavior, because our social context has changed: Economic inequality has grown worse, while social media directly confronts us with people we mentally compare ourselves to, whom we wouldn’t have known about in previous eras.
Another problem I notice in my peer group is rampant drug use. My peers will quite readily take LSD bought on a darknet market on a typical weekend. We’re intelligent enough to know that “drugs” is an umbrella term for a variety of substances that have no proper cultural context built around their consumption within Western society. We understand that what would happen if we inject opioids or take amphetamines is different from what happens when we try LSD, nitrous oxide, salvia or plain old cannabis. These substances themselves are no severe problem and can be effectively used to self-medicate certain conditions.
What has to be acknowledged as a problem however, are the motives that lead us towards them. Intelligence leads to pursuit of novelty, dark triad personality types lead to risk-seeking behavior, but the hidden factor in the equation seems to be that regular impulses no longer entertain us. With any sort of entertainment available to us today, everything starts to seem trivial. There is no physical “addiction” that leads us to drop acid on a typical weekend. Instead, we simply need stronger impulses than other people, which causes a social disconnect from friends who can genuinely entertain themselves by simply watching a movie.
In previous decades, the population has grown dramatically in most nations, but today such growth is hitting limits. Simultaneously, the annual return on investments has grown to vastly exceed the annual increase in wages. The result is an increase in economic inequality and a decrease in social mobility. Simultaneously, social mobility is now more desirable to people than ever before, as the bottom of the social pyramid is getting culled. Note for example, how many people attend college these days. In earlier eras, many people could afford to attend college too, but chose not to because they had no genuine desire to do so and no motive. If you were an eighteen year old high school graduate you could find a white-collar job, marry and buy a house, so why bother attending college?
The solution to these type of problems has historically been catastrophe. When economic inequality hits record high levels and there are no meaningful social roles for young men to occupy anymore, catastrophe generally struck. In some cases, the young men banded together under the flag of whatever revolutionary movement was in fashion and overthrew the established order. In other cases, war between nations broke out, a plague struck or ecological overshoot brought ruins to society.
Once this happens, your “investments” are suddenly worthless. You bought houses in a big city because you were betting on a growing population leading to more demand for the physical space you own. If we suddenly have half as many people but just as many houses however, those houses aren’t worth much. In other cases, you simply find yourself faced with a government or squatters who seize your “investments”. The sudden shortage of poor young men also leads to a dramatic increase in wages. Note for example, how the Black Death brought about an effective end to serfdom. Serfs were free to move off their lord’s land again and many spent a lot of time idle, because wages had doubled or tripled in many places.
When young men have their main priorities in life addressed, they become mentally able to devote themselves to more trivial activities again. Surveys show that today’s millennials don’t go out a lot, drink less and overall lead much more conservative lives than previous generations. One important reason for this is the simple fact that they spend a much greater share of their time “getting their shit together”, than previous generations did. When work is done, there’s time for play. When more work is needed to achieve the same result however, there’s simply less time left for play.
If we had an outbreak of plague today, a lot of our problems would be solved. Climate change would self-evidently cease to be a problem when vast swathes of agricultural land were occupied by forests again. More importantly perhaps, the speculative housing bubble that leads people to dwell in overpopulated apartment complexes would be addressed too. Houses are a good investment because there’s a shortage of them. Entire big cities today are filled with empty apartments, bought by rich people as a store of value. Unemployment would cease to be a problem too, because the efficiency per worker goes down. Two thousand people living together in a remote village need a mayor, a pastor and a doctor. A thousand people living together in a remote village will still need a mayor, a pastor and a doctor.
The big problem I notice in my direct environment is that the present situation we live in leads to dysfunctional behavior. Men who have no legitimate means for social mobility available to them other than ten year tracts of education start to misbehave. I have friends for example, who earned a lot of money selling drugs online, before exit-scamming. This is simply the only viable tract for social mobility available to them, as they don’t have the patience to pursue a ten-year long Phd tract.
Humiliation and servitude today still exist, but they exist under different names than in the past. To earn a minimum wage picking up the phone to help middle-aged people with their computer problems is a humiliating and humbling existence. It’s not innately humiliating, for a refugee from a third world country it might very well feel dignified, but for young men in Western society it’s humiliating because we’re culturally conditioned to socially compare ourselves to people who were born into wealthy families who make a living as celebrities or running their father’s company. Consider how in the Western world, it’s a proud existence to own your own land and to grow food. In rural parts of Africa however, that’s a humiliating existence: People who don’t have to farm grow long fingernails, to show to the world they’re not at the bottom of the social pyramid.
I don’t see an easy way to solve these problems. Humans are social creatures and inevitably socially compare themselves to others. If you have the kind of money that allows you to bribe politicians, buy up companies and found a family dynasty, you’re going to feel better about yourself than you would if you’re stuck pursuing a college degree or working at a dead-end job, unable to buy a house and start a family.
It’s human nature to pursue power. We want to have the power to influence our environment and we want to have the wealth to avoid being ruled by other people. People on welfare who are forced by the government to pick up trash in exchange for their monthly payment end up committing suicide. Why do they commit suicide? Communist refugees who visited Western supermarkets in the 1990’s would spontaneously start crying and insist this must be a fake supermarket meant to make it seem like we are wealthy.
Those same people on welfare forced to walk around town picking up trash, can afford to buy tropical fruit in supermarkets that would only be available to royalty in the 16th century. However, they don’t care about their actual material day to day reality. What they care about is that the classmates they had back in elementary school are now adults and will see them picking up trash while they’re on their way to their own white collar job.
We can pretend that we simply don’t care about the game. For example, you can claim that you’re fine with picking up other people’s trash, because you spend eight hours a week doing it, while we spend forty hours at an office. The problem is, denying the validity of the game is a tacit admission that you lost it. In a similar manner, you can’t forever convince yourself that you inhabit a “tiny house” and have no children, just to reduce your ecological impact. You’re definitely not convincing me, unless you remove those pictures of your cross-Atlantic vacation from Facebook. Alexander the Great reportedly once said that if he could not be Alexander the Great, he would want to be Diogenes instead. However, I would argue that if Diogenes himself had to choose, he would prefer to be Alexander the Great rather than Diogenes too.
Humans socially compare themselves to each other, it matters far more to them than their practical day to day existence. We don’t want to be at the bottom of the social pyramid, a burden to our relatives that will end up filtered from the gene pool. That’s how young men end up fighting in trenches or selling drugs on the streets: You either survive and end up wealthy, or you die and avoid living as a burden on your kin. When you understand this, you understand that autism, or, blindness to your social context, is a blessing in disguise.
Today’s young men however, are stuck in a worse situation. If they’re reasonably intelligent and attracted to women who are cognitively comparable to them, they’re going to be faced with women who generally earn higher salaries than them. Our modern society has very little need for people who can kill or carry around heavy objects, it has a high need for people who can smile politely to customers. I don’t feel like dancing around the simple fact that human social dynamics for thousands of years have revolved around men providing the material conditions that allow women to nurture and raise children who are genetically related to said men. Those social dynamics have now broken down and if you think that has no problematic consequences you’re terribly naive. It’s no coincidence that relationship stability between men and women has simultaneously broken down.
In a similar manner, we have to understand the explosion in violence from predominantly young single men. These are overwhelmingly men with no meaningful social role to occupy in society. Historically, men who lived under such conditions have always revolted. In a rural village it might mean murdering a patriarch and seizing his concubines for yourself. Today it means that teenage boys shoot up their classmates. The solution proposed to this outburst of male anger is to ban guns, as if that’s somehow going to solve the problem of men who find themselves feeling powerless and emasculated. Rather than addressing the actual problem we wish to silence the voices of despair, because we can’t think of a genuine solution to the problem.
If you consider these various problems isolated from each other, it’s easy to come up with a techno-fix to solve them. If we make cars run on electricity we can solve global warming, whereas the other ecological consequences of having seven billion humans around have other techno-fixes in their own right available to them. Rampant income inequality can be solved through a basic income in combination with some wealth taxes, the emancipated college-educated breadwinner women will then surely be eager to find husbands who are content watching Netflix and spending their days pushing baby carriages around.
To me however, all of these various problems are related to each other and to human nature. We are a species that goes through boom-bust patterns, like most other species. To be born near the end of a boom is a difficult situation. As the end of a boom approaches, the bust doesn’t start to look like a horror scenario, but as a form of salvation. Human history is full of apocalyptic cults that preached imminent catastrophe, because the only solution people could see to their conditions was an imminent catastrophe. Imagine living in rural India today, with a choice between toiling the eroding soil or migrating to a slum near a mega-city home to millions. Wouldn’t you be eager for an apocalypse yourself under such conditions?
To me, it seems naive to assume there is a solution to our situation other than catastrophe. Historically, situations like our were solved by such a sudden catastrophe. Young men who help out babyboomers with their computer problems for a living end up occupying a more necessary and dignified role when a catastrophe breaks out. Suddenly they are needed to protect their families, to fight wars and to repair the damage to our infrastructure.
Speculative bubbles that lead to tremendous wealth inequality come to an end when there is an abundance of land and physical property again. The reason we fight over square inches of dirt, is because we happen to live near our carrying capacity. However, the solution to this problem is not one I can bring about for you. I don’t have the means or the knowledge that would allow me to unleash an Ebola plague that suddenly halves the world’s population and makes it affordable for teenage boys to buy a house at age eighteen and to drink the tears of babyboomer landlords for dinner.
The only solution I have available for you, is dissociation. It’s perfectly possible to be a happy young man, if you don’t have to interact in a rational manner with the environment you live in. There are different means of dissociation available. You can start up a computer and play a game in which you’re trying to survive a zombie outbreak or reign as a medieval king who colonizes the lands of heathens. You can also buy a gas canister and inhale nitrous oxide, to imagine for a moment you’re no longer a human being on Earth. I see them everywhere on the ground in the streets of my hometown for a reason. Those are not genuine solutions of course, but those are the kind of options young people seek out in situations where the game is rigged against them.