You Can't Handle the Truth

Written by Richard Heinberg

Originally posted on

Movie buffs will recognize this title as the most memorable line from “A Few Good Men” (1992), spoken by the character Colonel Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson (“You can’t handle the truth!” is #29 in the American Film Institute’s list of 100 top movie quotes).

I hereby propose it as the subtext of the recently concluded Republican and Democratic national conventions.

At this point most people appear to know that something is terribly, terribly wrong in the United States of America. But like the proverbial blind man describing the elephant, Americans tend to characterize the problem according to their economic status, their education and interests, and the way that the problem is impacting their peer group. So we hear that the biggest crisis facing America today is:

  • Corruption
  • Immigration
  • Economic inequality
  • Climate change
  • Lack of respect for law enforcement
  • Institutionalized racism
  • Islamic terrorism
  • The greed and recklessness of Wall Street banks
  • Those damned far-right Republicans
  • Those damned liberal Democrats
  • Political polarization

The list could easily be lengthened, but you get the drift. Pick your devil and prepare to get really, really angry at it.

In reality, these are all symptoms of an entirely foreseeable systemic crisis. The basic outlines of that crisis were traced over 40 years ago in a book titled The Limits to Growth. Today we are hitting the limits of net energy, environmental pollution, and debt, and the experience is uncomfortable for just about everyone. The solution that’s being proposed by our political leaders? Find someone to blame.

The Republicans really do seem to get the apocalyptic tenor of the moment: their convention was all about dread, doom, and rage. But they don’t have the foggiest understanding of the actual causes and dynamics of what’s making them angry, and just about everything they propose doing will make matters worse. Call them the party of fear and fury.

The Democrats are more idealistic: if we just distribute wealth more fairly, rein in the greedy banks, and respect everyone’s differences, we can all return to the 1990s when the economy was humming and there were jobs for everyone. No, we can do even better than that, with universal health care and free college tuition. Call the Democrats the party of hope.

But here’s the real deal: a few generations ago we started using fossil fuels for energy; the result was an explosion of production and consumption, which (as a byproduct) enabled enormous and rapid increase in human population. Burning all that coal, oil, and natural gas made a few people very rich and enabled a lot more people to enjoy middle-class lifestyles. But it also polluted air, water, and soil, and released so much carbon dioxide that the planet’s climate is now going haywire. Due to large-scale industrial agriculture, topsoil is disappearing at a rate of 25 billion tons a year; at the same time, expanded population and land use is driving thousands, maybe millions of species of plants and animals to extinction.

We extracted non-renewable fossil fuels using the low-hanging fruit principle, so that just about all the affordable petroleum (which is the basis for nearly all transport) has already been found and most of has already been burned. Since we can’t afford most of the oil that’s left (either in terms of the required financial investment or the energy required to extract and refine it), the petroleum industry is in the process of going bankrupt. There are alternative energy sources, but transitioning to them will require not just building an enormous number of wind turbines and solar panels, but replacing most of the world’s energy-using infrastructure.

We have overshot human population levels that are supportable long-term. Yet we have come to rely on continual expansion of population and consumption in order to generate economic growth—which we see as the solution to all problems. Our medicine is our poison.

And most recently, as a way of keeping the party roaring, we have run up history’s biggest debt bubble—and we doubled down on it in response to the 2008 global financial crisis.

All past civilizations have gone through similar patterns of over-growth and decline. But ours is the first global, fossil-fueled civilization, and its collapse will therefore correspondingly be more devastating (the bigger the boom, the bigger the bust).

All of this constitutes a fairly simple and obvious truth. But evidently our leaders believe that most people simply can’t handle this truth. Either that or our leaders are, themselves, clueless. (I’m not sure which is worse.)

Hence the political primaries generated lots of feelings (anger, hope, fear), but revealed or conveyed almost no understanding of what’s actually going on, what’s in store, or what to do about it.

Now, I’m not proposing that the two parties are equivalent. There are some substantive differences between them. And in dangerous times, hope usually yields better outcomes than fear and rage (though hope is vulnerable to disillusionment and recrimination, which in turn lead back to fear and rage). Some of the Democrats’ ideas may help as we embark on our Great Slide down the steep slope of the Seneca cliff: for example, a universal basic income (not in the Democratic Party’s platform but consistent with its ideals) could provide a temporary safety net as the economy enters its inevitable long nosedive. Democrats at least acknowledge the problem of climate change, though they have few plans to do much about it (on this issue, the Republicans almost literally reside on a different planet). Meanwhile the Republicans’ reflex toward tribalism and division has the potential to turn social relations between America’s historically dominant European descendants and the nation’s various other ethnic groupings into a seething cauldron of hatred and violence.

But Democrats’ inability to provide a credible response to the zeitgeist of imperial decline could play into electoral defeat or failure either this time around or next. Trump offers a politics of isolationism and the image of the Strong Man, which may better fit the spirit of the times. True, any intention to “Make America Great Again”—if that means restoring a global empire that always gets its way, and whose economy is always growing, offering glittery gadgets for all—is utterly futile, but at least it acknowledges what so many sense in their gut: America isn’t what it used to be, and things are unraveling fast.

Troublingly, when empires rot the result is sometimes a huge increase in violence—war and revolution. The decline of the British Empire was the backdrop for World War I, which led to an even bloodier reprise a couple of decades later. Today the foreign policy establishment in Washington appears eager to pick a fight with Russia, and Hillary Clinton has a track record of dangerous interventionism (she’s won the endorsement of neoconservative hawks—both Republican and Democrat—who pushed for the Iraq invasion of 2003). Trump, for all his rhetorical belligerence, seems perhaps a bit less bellicose internationally, though his eventual foreign policies are currently about as easy to read as a Rorschach ink blot.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin is playing a peculiar role in the current contest. Trump and Putin have publicly complimented one another (one can only speculate as to the motives on both sides), while Hillary Clinton hews closely to the neocon-formulated State Department line that Putin is a dangerous strongman who threatens his neighbors. In fact, it is the US and NATO that have surrounded Russia with advanced weapons, reneged on agreements, and instigated regime change in Ukraine.

The Western powers’ ongoing provocation and demonization of Russia is pushing the world closer perhaps to nuclear war than was the case even during some decades of the Cold War. Against this frightening backdrop Trump has proposed (perhaps jokingly) that Russia hack Clinton’s emails. For her part, Clinton gives no indication that she will ratchet down the anti-Putin rhetoric; just the opposite appears to be in store—both during the campaign and the next four crucial years, when we are likely to face another (perhaps much worse) financial crisis along with escalating international tensions.

Could “we the people” handle a bit more of the truth? One would certainly like to think so. As it is, the US and the rest of the world appear to be sleepwalking into history’s greatest shitstorm (a somewhat more geeky and less scatological way to describe it would be as the mother of all Dragon Kings). Regardless how we address the challenges of climate change, resource depletion, overpopulation, debt deflation, species extinctions, ocean death, and on and on, we’re in for one hell of a century. It’s simply too late for a soft landing.

I’d certainly prefer that we head into the grinder holding hands and singing “kumbaya” rather than with knives at each other’s throats. But better still would be avoiding the worst of the worst. Doing so would require our leaders to publicly acknowledge that a prolonged shrinkage of the economy is a done deal. From that initial recognition might follow a train of possible goals and strategies, including planned population decline, economic localization, the formation of cooperatives to replace corporations, and the abandonment of consumerism. Global efforts at resource conservation and climate mitigation could avert pointless wars.

But none of that was discussed at the conventions. No, America won’t be “Great” again, in the way Republicans are being encouraged to envision greatness. And no, we can’t have a future in which everyone is guaranteed a life that, in material respects, echoes TV situation comedies of the 1960s, regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation.

Bernie Sanders offered the best climate policies of any of the pre-convention candidates, but even he shied away from describing what’s really at stake. The times call for a candidate more in the mold of Winston Churchill, who famously promised only “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” in enlisting his people in a great, protracted struggle in which all would be called upon to work tirelessly and set aside personal wants and expectations. The candidates we have instead bode ill for the immediate future. Given the absence of helpful leadership at the national level, our main opportunity for effective preparation and response to the wolf at our doorstep appears to lie in local community resilience building.

It’s the truth. Can you handle it?