Flying in the face of past lamentations, I’m eating my words more and more about social media these days. The initial rise of Facebook, Twitter, etc., seemed to muffle good voices and amplify the bad, the people or bots that, either as an occupation or as a deranged character trait, seemed to rejoice in ruining people’s day with insults and negativity. It’s not that hard, if one is sufficiently abysmal; anyone’s day can be ruined with the right choice of words. Maybe most depressing is the realization that it is just as easy to create bots designed for nothing but positivity, but either no one does that or the algorithms snuff them out.
However, through continuous filtering of these ‘people’ – not just talking about blocking those outside the echo chamber, but blocking offensiveness in general – what’s left can be some remarkably uplifting stuff that, without social media and all its foibles, we would likely never encounter.
Take Gurdeep Pandher, for example. Gurdeep lives in the Yukon, and without social media only wild animals within a 50 meter radius of his cabin would know of him. He has hundreds of thousands of followers who are better off for having found and followed him, and the kicker is that his foundation is built on nothing more than joyous solo dancing in wilderness situations. He sets up his camera, cranks up the music, and dances ‘bhangra’, a joyous spasm or arm-flapping and jumping around the likes of which I’d never seen before. He does it with a huge grin and the enthusiasm and positivity are infectious. He dances around in the snow and by rivers and all over the place, and now travels the country as a kind of grinning one-person army.
Like many other people, he has expanded his reach and took to Substack so that he could dance around verbally. Maybe his legs are tired. Regardless, he recently penned a piece worth reading: “Amidst Recent Global Issues, It Is Important to Have Compassion For The Hearts of Others, and Your own Heart”. As Gurdeep puts it, “The world is currently grappling with complex issues such as wars, which have a global impact on mental health.”
He’s absolutely right, and the next time it feels natural to blurt out how stupid everyone is, or how dumb they’re acting, it’s important to remember the context in which we’re all living. The information flow is relentless, omnipresent, and largely sensationalistic or negative. Or both. It’s just overwhelming, and honest experts admit they can’t make any sense of the chaos. And that’s the stuff of our viewing habits; it doesn’t even consider the tough place many find themselves in from either a post-Covid fractured social world or the grim economic one.
Sixty-two percent of Americans are living paycheque to paycheque (oops, guess that would be paycheck to paycheck). That stat reaches across many pay grades, but another does not: across the US, half of renters are paying what is considered to be unaffordable levels for rent. Here’s a Canadian one to blow your socks off: Tara Henley, an ex-CBC journalist now doing amazing solo work, points out in her excellent Substack column that the median average annual income in Toronto is $39,200 or $3,267 per month, while the average rent for a one-bedroom Toronto apartment is $2,594/month. Hello Walmart.
People are stressed to the max by the basics of life, or global turmoil, or horrific political sh*t shows, or a million other things. We are encouraged to be stressed by the weather.
It helps to refocus on that which makes our lives better, and that which we cannot mess with. There are pillars of reality that no one can spin out of existence. Food. Affordable, reliable energy. A roof over your head.
Just compiling that list of three basics of survival feels anachronistic, like a time warp back to life-advice from your great grandparents. We think we’ve moved far beyond worrying about those things.
We have not.
Be aware of those three, hold onto them, and be aware of the forces that try to either impede these things or diminish their relevance. Keeping eight billion people alive – fed, housed, heated – on a sustained basis is the greatest feat of humanity thus far, in my opinion. In the cosmic sense, we just got here – remember that in 1970, there were 3.7 billion people on earth. In the last 54 years, we’ve more than doubled that number by adding 4.3 billion.
Comfort allows us to wallow in the trivial. A few Google searches on New Years Day brought the following dizzying evidence: A search for ‘global food supply’ yielded 818 million results; a search for ‘Taylor Swift tour’ yielded 839 million. A search for ‘AI’ yields over 17 billion (to be fair, ‘AI’ does include Artificial Insemination and I don’t know but it could be that that topic has a not immaterial subset of the results…too much stress can lead to weird fascinations).
The AI attention-wave is symbolic of how we live these days. Something new on the horizon that is big enough to generate massive interest and fodder for news organizations to continue their quest for attention and relevance. (It’s telling that a similar NY day Google search for ‘climate change’ yields 2.2 billion results, about 12 percent of AI’s numbers. There are immediate clues as to why: a tidal wave of articles from circa 2019-21 bearing titles such as “‘Get scared’: World’s scientists say disastrous climate change is here” – an article that appeared in Politico in 2021; however a current NY day scroll of Politico’s home page shows two AI articles and not a single mention of climate change. Some people have been pointing out correctly for a decade that scaring people into reducing their quality of life won’t work, but, in yet another example of ‘you can’t make this stuff up’, the fear-lords think changing the terminology will do the trick.)
On the contrary, getting scared is not a solution, nor is panic. I recall the wise words of Professor Lupin, whom I watched along with the rest of the Harry Potter world over the holidays in order to escape the unreality of the current world, who said, “Fear makes people do terrible things, Harry.” Now, the guy is a werewolf, so comes from a completely different perspective, but still, he’s not wrong.
To be clear, there are great dangers in the world, including the weather. The ‘peace dividend’ of 1989 that was to come with the end of the Cold War seems now a historic absurdity with the global tensions unfolding. We are in the midst of the rise of BRICS+, an alternative to the world order that has called the shots for a century or more, and the West’s leaders and political elite don’t seem to have a clue as to how to deal with that. BRICS+ has nearly half the world’s population, and it isn’t hard to see further alignment with many developing countries looking to sign on.
It is hard to see how the year unfolds, of course, but a few things seem certain. The global bifurcation continues, with the west tying itself into knots about cows burping and gearing up for what should be the wildest and weirdest election of a global superpower in the history of humans.
But those preoccupations give clues to the bigger picture. Seven billion people are not as directly vested in that election, and they are most definitely worried about fuel, and food, and other unsophisticated things. They are also not just acutely aware but becoming empowered by the strong hand they hold with respect to the world’s supply of critical metals and minerals, and whereas a hundred years ago western countries would show up and take what they wanted, those days are long gone.
So we can expect far more (rightful) insistence from developing countries that they be free to develop to western standards of living, more of a focus on securing their future and staking a claim on a prosperous way of life. I guess that’s one of the advantages of a multipolar world; there are options.
But those options bring chaos. An excellent piece by Velina Tchakarova called “Shifting Sands: Navigating the new Geopolitical Landscape in 2024” lays out the big geopolitical tectonic plates that are shifting. Potent military conflicts are hugely consequential and testing/realigning international relations. India is a fast rising power, and the EU a diminishing one (who, like Monty Python’s famed armless and legless Black Knight – ’tis but a scratch’ – still speaks with the lost authority of 150 years ago). China and Russia are pushing into the vacuum caused by the US’ uncertainty and self-paralysis caused by the painful process of trying to dampen democratic pendulum swinging (the process that makes the US so powerful).
The focus in North America will therefore be, in the absence of even guessing at the unexpected events that are bound to occur and take our attention, on the US elections. How could it not? The two sides could not be further apart, insofar as public posturing goes, and yet each claims that they must win to “save democracy” in what is billed as a “fight for the soul of the nation”. If it wasn’t so serious it would be funny; how we full well know already that each party will receive a very similar number of votes overall, so we must conclude then that, the day after the election, one half of the country will, loathe the other half even more for either killing democracy or destroying the soul of the nation. Should be a fun day.
Beyond that, as the Google search results from earlier show, AI. AI is turning into a dominant theme in virtually ever industry, every sector, and even governmental institutions.
Behind AI’s wall of publicity is the massive energy demand no one is up for talking about yet. AI is going to place a huge new burden on global energy systems, a demand that is unfolding as quickly as chip manufacturers can crank out semiconductors. It is going to be massive, unstoppable, and upend everyone’s energy demand forecasts because no entity seems willing to sit it out.
Bringing this all back to Gurdeep’s wise words, we should try to be cognizant of the stresses people are under. As he puts it, ‘find hope and humanity’. Focus on the good things happening. Remove hate-filled people from your consciousness and social media feeds, even if they are ‘on your side’. Both sides are closer on most topics than we think, but the beasts keep the fire raging unnecessarily.
Take joy in productivity and achievements no matter how small. Maybe getting through a month without incurring debt is a victory; take solace and pride in that. Search out good news. Don’t let negativity bring you down. If you’re doing something that keeps humanity alive and the machine functioning, the one that keeps us all alive, take pride in that. Make some art, and take pride in that. If that’s not your thing, appreciate some artists. Plant a tree in the yard, or better yet five, you’ll feel better and all sorts of creatures will love you for it.
Have confidence that the off-the-charts power of human ingenuity will continue to make life better for more and more people. Maybe someone really does commercialize cold fusion or invent a miracle battery that works at scale and doesn’t destroy the environment to integrate. Good days are ahead if we tune out the villain-seekers.