From the Brownstone Institute
French President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech not long ago in which he made a rather shocking prediction about the future of his nation and presumably the rest of the world.
“What we are currently living through is a kind of major tipping point or a great upheaval … we are living the end of what could have seemed an era of abundance … the end of the abundance of products of technologies that seemed always available … the end of the abundance of land and materials including water….”
The G7 leader’s words of warning about the literal end of material prosperity caught my eye in a way that most headlines do not. I also noticed that Paris switched off the lights on the Eiffel Tower to save a meager amount of electricity, providing a potent symbol to underscore Macron’s message about the “End of Abundance.”
In this era of economic chaos, disrupted supply chains, ruinous inflation, a severe energy crunch in Europe, tensions between nuclear superpowers, and extreme political polarization, plus intense worries (in some quarters, at least) about climate change, there are emerging signs of a belief in the once unthinkable: the possibility that Progress with a capital “P” may no longer be assured.
It should be obvious at this point that Covid-19 lockdowns and related pandemic policies, including the printing of trillions of dollars to paper over the intentional disruption of society, played a major role in bringing about today’s negative economic conditions. These conditions could last a very long time, particularly considering the mild political blowback to Covid chaos that we saw during the midterm elections. Brownstone’s Jeffrey Tucker has written about the potentially far-reaching effects of lockdowns:
“But what if we aren’t really observing a cycle? What if we are living through a long shock in which our economic lives have been fundamentally upended? What if it will be many years before anything that we knew as prosperity returns if it ever does? … In other words, it is very possible that the lockdowns of March 2020 were the starting point of the greatest economic depression in our lifetimes or perhaps in hundreds of years.”
The worst depression in hundreds of years? That would be since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, more or less. The Bank of England, incidentally, just warned that the UK is facing the longest recession since records began. The historical forces we are living through now might be so big that most of us might not even recognize them until much later.
Taking the long view, we should ask ourselves: were lockdowns the initial cause of the chaos we are experiencing, or were they the unfortunate result of a larger historical phenomenon that we are just now beginning to understand? As Tucker noted, “[i]n the 1930s, no one knew that they were living through what came to be called the Great Depression.” So it is fair to ask, would you know if lockdowns were the first crisis of an era that will one day come to be called the “End of Abundance?”
Thinking the Unthinkable
The “End of Abundance” is a radical concept, but then again so is shutting down the whole world.
The utterly radical nature of the ideas that gave rise to Covid-19 lockdowns are striking. In August of 2020, Anthony Fauci wrote that the goal of his policies was nothing less than to “rebuild the infrastructure of human existence.”
During that time we heard the constant refrain from Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, and other world leaders: “Build Back Better.” And from the Davos technocrats at the World Economic Forum (WEF) we have heard talk of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” which to them means “merging the physical, digital and biological world” in order to fundamentally change “what it means to be human.”
Locking down the population and subjecting it to draconian restrictions is, for some reason, absolutely central to their vision of changing “what it means to be human.” Bill Gates and other influential elites have pointed to the Covid-19 response as their template for addressing future challenges, and have even floated the possibility of future climate lockdowns (no, sadly this is not a conspiracy theory).
The million-dollar question that many have tried to answer is, “Why now?” Why, at this point in history, do elites insist on the power to lock down the world? Why, after decades of post-World War Two prosperity, have so many abandoned values that are fundamental to our civilization? Why, in the second decade of the 21st century, are we taking a nosedive off the elevator of “Progress?”
There is no shortage of theories as to “Why now?” There are many critics of the WEF’s “Fourth Industrial Revolution” and the “Great Reset,” for example, who say that elites have cooked up imaginary challenges like climate change and “saving the planet” as excuses for the exercise of tyrannical power, in what amounts to a big scam.
I am not satisfied with those kinds of answers, even though I think they contain elements of truth, given that elites obviously use certain issues as a pretext. To my mind, environmental concerns definitely are not a scam (although the “solutions” often are). What has been happening since March 2020 is much bigger than a scam. The radical ideas underlying the lockdown mentality simply must have a more radical motivation behind them. These people literally just tried to shut down the entire world and reboot it like a malfunctioning computer!
If you are looking for the most profound motivation possible for the incredibly radical lockdown mentality and the vast destruction it has wrought, I would submit that you could do no better than the “End of Abundance.” And what does “Abundance” mean exactly? I think it can be summarized in a single word: Growth. The “End of Abundance” means the End of Growth.
Imagining Limits to Growth
“We don’t know how to make a zero-growth society work,” conservative tech billionaire Peter Thiel said in an interview for Unherd, in which he claimed that Covid-19 lockdowns resulted from the long-term stagnation of growth and innovation in our society. His argument is that as society has slowly stagnated over the past several decades, we have tacitly abandoned the aspiration to growth, leading to a sort of malaise that has “resulted in something like a societal and cultural lockdown; not just the last two years but in many ways the last 40 or 50.”
Thiel contends that limits to growth are not inevitable, but that the belief in limits is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. He calls this “a long, slow victory of the Club of Rome,” the global think tank that published the famous book—some would call it infamous—The Limits to Growth fifty years ago.
His statement “We don’t know how to make a zero-growth society work” is spot on. Limits of any kind are anathema to growth-based, industrially developed countries in which everything is built on the premise of perpetual growth.
This is why, for most people, the end of economic growth is absolutely unimaginable. But not for everyone.
For me, the end of growth has been something of a preoccupation for about ten years, since I first read The Limits to Growth. My reaction to the book was similar to Thiel’s only in the sense that I agree that the end of growth would be a cataclysm for our growth-based society. Unlike him, I do not see the limits to growth as merely a self-fulfilling prophecy, but rather as an accurate description of the very real physical and biological limits of a finite planet.
The premise of The Limits to Growth, based on a major study conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is that natural resources and the capacity of the planet to absorb industrial pollution are limited, and therefore infinite economic growth on a finite planet is impossible. The original study, which has been reviewed and updated over the years, projected various scenarios in which an end to growth of the global industrial economy—a long-term decline in industrial output, the availability of non-renewable natural resources, industrial pollution, food production, and population—would start at some point in the first one-third to one-half of the 21st century. Right about now.
The Limits to Growth was extremely controversial from the moment it was published. Prominent Western leaders attacked the notion of limits as a dangerous delusion. The Right refused to accept limits, believing that human ingenuity and technological innovation will always overcome whatever ecological limits exist.
After briefly preaching limits, the progressive Left abandoned that faith, too, and now believes that limits can be overcome with some combination of activist government and “green” technologies like solar panels and wind turbines (e.g. the “Green New Deal”). Even climate-change models that predict catastrophic levels of warming this century assume global GDP growth through the year 2100.
The vast majority of people in our society, both Right and Left, have never taken the idea of limits to growth seriously. But what if you are in that small group of people who have taken the concept seriously? And what if you have stuck to the basic belief that infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible? What might you have expected to see at this point in the 21st century?
Chaos, essentially. The breakdown of the social contract. Civil strife. A mental-health crisis. Declining life expectancy. The spread of irrational beliefs. The destructive urge to tear down rather than build up. Dangerous levels of inflation. A global food crisis. People eating crickets and drinking cockroach milk. The extinction of two-thirds of the Earth’s wildlife. The disruption of fragile supply chains. The rapid accumulation of debts.
The printing of vast amounts of money. A quarter of American adults so stressed they cannot function. Plastic pollution (like five billion Covid masks) filling the oceans. Wildfires and floods. Diesel fuel shortages. Unprecedented financial and economic dislocations. Scary new terms like “poly-crisis.” Desperate grasping for solutions. Warnings from the United Nations that we are at risk of “total societal collapse” due to climate change, ecosystem failure, and economic fragility, and urging the “rapid transformation of societies”. Add to that list a procession of global leaders making strange, grandiose declarations about the need to “rebuild human existence” and “change what it means to be human.”
In other words, if you were waiting for the limits to growth to start kicking in at this point in the second decade of the 21st century, you might have expected to see the kinds of disturbing things that we have been witnessing in recent years. Dennis Meadows, lead author of The Limits to Growth, has said that the projections of his fifty-year-old study “resemble what we are experiencing” in the world currently.
Meadows has not criticized Covid lockdowns, but he has confirmed that his study showed “growth was going to stop around 2020”—the year that the whole world just happened to shut down—and would be accompanied by all sorts of unpredictable and potentially extreme “psychological, social, and political factors.” It should be further noted that the head of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, gave a speech on October 1, 2019, mere months before global lockdowns, in which she warned of a “synchronized slowdown” of the global economy covering “90 percent of the world,” creating “a serious risk that services and consumption could soon be affected.”
The coincidences in timing are remarkable. The predicted end of growth, an actual slowdown in global growth, and the lockdown of the entire globe all converged in 2020. Does this necessarily mean The Limits to Growth was right, or that lockdowns were a direct response to limited growth? No, but again the current state of the world is eerily consistent with the pandemonium that you might have expected had you taken the concept of limits to growth seriously.
Speaking for myself, when I first became aware of the implications of the limits to growth in 2014 and 2015, I told my close friends and family, “The 2020s will be chaotic.” Three months into the start of the new decade, when the whole world suddenly came to a grinding halt, I began to recall the prediction I had made. Three years into one of the most chaotic decades in history, I am beginning to worry that I was onto something.
Interestingly, whether you believe that biological and physical limits to growth truly exist, as I do, or you believe that limits to growth are merely a figment of some fevered Malthusian imagination that has somehow manifested itself in the real world, as Thiel seems to think, the result is arguably the same: the “End of Abundance.”
Limits and Lockdowns
Thiel is not the only one who has linked lockdowns to the limits to growth. While almost everyone on the environmental Left supported lockdowns or at least refrained from speaking out against them, there are a handful of heterodox environmental thinkers—those who tend to be skeptical of partisan narratives, corporate power, and technocratic “solutions”—who have connected the dots between limits and lockdowns.
The British novelist and essayist Paul Kingsnorth, for example, has written that “we have no idea what to do about the coming end of the brief age of abundance, and the reappearance, armed and dangerous, of what we could get away with denying for a few decades: limits.”
Kingsnorth, an Orthodox Christian and an unorthodox environmentalist (he calls himself a “recovering environmentalist”), has vigorously criticized the technocratic response to the pandemic, observing that Covid “was used as a trial run for precisely the kind of technologies…which are now increasingly sold to us as a means of ‘saving the planet.’” He says that the Brave New World that the technocrats are trying to build, with its machine-like desire to exert control over everyone and everything, is unable to recognize limits of any kind, whether natural or moral.
Professor Jem Bendell of the University of Cumbria is one of the few on the environmental Left who has spoken out against authoritarian Covid policies. He is known for his “Deep Adaptation” paper describing the severe disruptions to society that he believes will result from climate change. He has criticized lockdowns, mandates, and other non-democratic responses to the pandemic, suggesting they are a form of “Elite Panic”—a panicked reaction of a social elite to a disaster event, with a focus on measures of command and control—which parallels a potentially similar panic among elites regarding climate change that “could inspire leaders to curtail personal freedoms.”
Panic, the desire for control, and the curtailment of personal freedoms. Yes, I find that to be a very good summary of the story we have been living for two and a half years.
If we dig deeper into the assumptions and beliefs of Western elites, it becomes clear that they are afraid that the global economy, especially their own way of life, is threatened by “limiting” factors. This fear is a driving force behind their support for lockdowns and other radical ideas they have concocted in an attempt to overcome those limits and protect themselves. Panicking elites in Western society may not specifically believe in the “limits to growth,” or use those words, but they feel in their bones that systemic global risks are getting worse.
Lockdowns, it is crucial to recognize, are not a mere sideshow in the “End of Abundance” drama. They play a starring role. Remember, as Thiel said, we do not know how to make a no-growth or even a low-growth society work. Only through some radical new approach to governance can a stagnant or declining economy be managed.
When the economic pie is growing everyone can get a larger slice, but when the pie is shrinking everyone must share the pain, unless a small number of powerful people find a way to seize a bigger slice of a smaller pie at the expense of everyone else. That is what lockdowns were all about.
Lockdowns and “The Mindset” for Coping with the “End of Abundance”
In the novel, Gone with the Wind, the Southern aristocrat Rhett Butler described his philosophy of profiting from the disintegration of the Old South. “I told you once before that there were two times for making big money,” he said to Scarlett, “one in the up-building of a country and the other in its destruction. Slow money on the up-building, fast money in the crack-up.”
Western elites appear to have a similar attitude toward the “crack-up” of the Old Normal.
For years the elite Davos crowd has been active in making plans for the end of the world as we know it. They have extensive plans to profit from “green” energy and other ostensibly “sustainable” responses to environmental limits: insect protein, fake meat, gene-edited crops, factory foods, capture of carbon dioxide, etc. They also tend to own “doomsday” compounds and underground bunkers—Thiel has a luxury bolthole in New Zealand—and spend substantial time and resources planning for catastrophic end-of-civilization scenarios.
The Italian scientist Ugo Bardi, a member of the Club of Rome who co-edited the fifty-year update to The Limits to Growth, has compared bunker-owning elites to those of the collapsing Roman Empire. “We see a pattern,” he says. “When the rich Romans saw that things were going really out of control, they scrambled to save themselves while, at the same time, denying that things were so bad.” Many elites fled to their bunkers during the pandemic, as Covid-19 brought their long-simmering fears of social disruption to the forefront.
Technology writer Douglas Rushkoff’s recent book, Survival of the Richest, documents in detail the habits of mind of uber-elites who have been prepping for social collapse. His book is based on a talk he was invited to give to a group of five ultra-wealthy men, including two billionaires, in 2017. Rushkoff thought he had been invited to speak about the future of technology, so he was surprised when the men only wanted to ask questions about something they called “The Event.”
“The Event,” wrote Rushkoff. “That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.” Read that again. Unstoppable virus. This was over two years before Covid-19.
The five powerful men’s interest revolved around a key question asked by one of them, the CEO of a brokerage house. He was desperate to know, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after The Event?”
“This single question occupied up for the rest of the hour . . . . [H]ow would he pay the guards once even his crypto was worthless? What would stop the guards from eventually choosing their own leader?
The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers – if that technology could be developed “in time.”
I tried to reason with them. I made pro-social arguments for partnership and solidarity as the best approaches to our collective, long-term challenges . . . . They rolled their eyes at what must have sounded to them like hippy philosophy.
Rushkoff calls the outlook of these five men—a representative slice of the power elite in Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Washington, DC, and Davos—The Mindset. “The Mindset,” he writes, “allows for the easy externalization of harm to others, and inspires a corresponding longing for transcendence and separation from the people and places that have been abused.” Those with The Mindset, he says, believe that they can use their wealth, power, and technology to somehow “leave the rest of us behind.”
Does The Mindset sound familiar? It should, because it is a great description of how global elites (and their white-collar functionaries in the laptop class) responded to Covid-19. They pushed all the pain of locking down society onto average people, while seeking to avoid the catastrophic consequences. (Rushkoff has not criticized Covid-19 lockdowns in these terms, as far as I can tell, even though he deftly described “The Mindset” behind them).
In 2020 and 2021, the richest and most powerful huddled in their luxury compounds as they used their influence to shut down large swathes of society and declare a “high-tech war” on the virus.
The world’s ten richest men literally doubled their massive personal fortunes in one year, as did Fauci—“fast money on the crack-up” remember—even as their lockdowns caused economic conditions to crater, undermining everyone’s prospects over the longer term, including their own. Average people suffered the collateral damage of a non-functioning world. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide were pushed into hunger and dire poverty.
In short, a powerful class of panicked elites used lockdowns to seize larger slices of a shrinking pie, and they used technology to keep the masses from getting too rowdy as their slices got smaller. The tech-enabled social controls that regular citizens were subjected to—contact tracing apps, QR codes, vaccine passports, social-media censorship, etc.—served as the sort of technological “disciplinary collar” that the men at Rushkoff’s meeting had dreamed of.
Lockdowns were a perfect expression of The Mindset for handling a major disruption to the global economy that prevails in ultra-elite circles (no, this is not a “conspiracy theory,” it is just how these people think). And like it or not, most of the people in these circles believe that humanity is now faced to one degree or another with the mother of all crises: the “End of Abundance.”
They are looking to a future of lockdowns, mandates, mass surveillance, censorship, underground bunkers, fake meat, factory-farmed bugs, and digital “disciplinary collars” as they “change what it means to be human” and “rebuild the infrastructure of human existence.”
These are not the words, ideas, and plans of confident leaders who believe in a bright future for their people. These are the words, ideas, and plans of self-interested leaders who are preparing to profit from a dystopian future of some kind, and above all to protect themselves.
This is the kind of thinking that attends the decline or collapse of a nation, empire, or civilization. If Western leaders had confidence in a future of robust growth, they would not be trying so furiously to tear down existing social, economic, and cultural arrangements and build them back “Better.”
How to Respond to the “End of Abundance?”
So what is the correct response to the potential “End of Abundance” and the lockdown mentality it has spawned? Right now, there are two general responses.
Those who resisted Covid-19 lockdowns, mostly on the Right, want to beat back the worst excesses of the New Normal. They have been disappointed by the relatively mild political blowback to the Covid fiasco, and ultimately hope for a political movement that will facilitate a return to a golden age of post-World War Two growth, freedom, and the American Dream. The last thing they want to do is give the people who foisted lockdowns on us more power, or adapt to a world of no growth.
Those on the progressive Left who supported lockdowns actually long for a New Normal. They are losing sleep about climate change, Covid-19, new pandemics, worsening inequality, the dreaded MAGAs, and an uncertain future. They are believers in the Brave New World sold to them by the woke technocrats. Progressives believe that future limitations can be overcome if we trust “Experts” and “The Science” and mercilessly punish “Deniers.”
Can either of these strategies prevail? The Right’s strategy of returning to the good ‘ol days neglects the fact that social, economic, and environmental conditions have drastically deteriorated in the last 50 years. This deterioration is precisely why most Western elites and virtually all of the biggest players in the market—Big Tech, Big Pharma, Big Finance, Big Media, Big Ag—have gotten on board with the New Normal, i.e. profiting from some kind of crack-up of the Old Normal.
The Left’s strategy of trusting in new technologies and grand central plans is no more realistic. “Green” energy cannot “solve” climate change because it is probably impossible to convert the world to green energy, or power the economy with it, and attempting to do so would itself cause enormous damage to the planet. All the elaborate technocratic plans for saving the planet—smart cities, cricket cakes, solar farms, sun-reflecting chemical clouds, social credit systems, misinformation task forces, stay-at-home orders—will surely solve nothing and can only bring about a centralized tech-enabled dystopia that primarily benefits elites.
Personally, I am sticking with the view that The Limits to Growth got it pretty much right fifty years ago. Infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible. Nothing can change that. Not “The Science,” not the “Free Market,” not the “Green New Deal,” not the “Great Reset,” not Lockdowns, and not any technology, ideology, grandiose philosophy, or radical scheme. This fundamental reality—the clash between our finite existence and our infinite material ambitions—is why we are in an unprecedented social, economic, and ecological crisis.
And even if I am wrong about that, “The Mindset” of a panicked elite class which no longer believes in a future worth striving for, and which aims primarily to protect itself at the expense of everyone else, virtually ensures societal decline. “Great civilizations die by suicide,” wrote the famed historian Arnold Toynbee, an act that he said was usually committed by a small class of elites who shift from leading to “dominating” everyone else.
So I cannot imagine a lasting return to the Golden Age of growth that conservatives dream of, or the birth of a Brave New World that progressives fantasize about. I think we will all be living in a world that few dream of and even fewer fantasize about: a world of limits.
As Paul Kingsnorth has written, “[w]hatever we think our politics are…we have no idea what to do” about the problem of limits. To the extent any positive outcome is possible, I think it can only emerge from a long, slow process of decentralization. As the global economy strains under the weight of limits, a network of local economies, cultures, and political systems may arise that will serve human needs, and the needs of the planet, better than the centralized dystopia that most Western elites envision.
If some sort of humane decentralized response to a world of limits fails to emerge, we have already had a preview over the last two and a half years of a centralized response to the “End of Abundance.” As Macron put it in his speech, “Freedom has a cost.” He and his allies in the halls of power intend to eliminate that cost from their bottom line. This is their only vision for a future of limits.
But perhaps you feel that all talk about “limits to growth” or the “End of Abundance” is hogwash. Maybe you are convinced that anything less than growth forever and ever is unthinkable. Maybe you believe that the global economy will triple in size over the next three decades and US GDP will smoothly expand from $25 trillion to nearly $75 trillion by 2052 (with a serviceable $140 trillion national debt), as the Congressional Budget Office projects, without any serious damage to the planet or nasty “Fourth Industrial Revolution” to spoil the fun.
Over the long term, regardless of temporary ups and downs, the underlying realities that gave rise to the radical lockdown “Mindset” are not going away. If your understanding of freedom, democracy, and the good life depends on perpetual growth, the constant march of Progress, and ever-rising material standards of living, I hope that you do not eventually find yourself with no choice but to open wide, hold your nose, and eat the bugs.
Better to swallow the bitter reality of limits.
Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe infinite growth on a finite planet is possible, and a return to a golden age of growth is just around the corner.
If We Only Knew
From the Brownstone Institute
Last September, I released a video in which I explained my moral objection to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate being implemented by my employer, Western University. That video went viral.
Since its release, I have watched the video only a handful of times, and not once at my direction. I find it hard to watch, it being an acute reminder of the unfathomable world in which we now live.
But I have wondered, why did it resonate so much with people? Was it because I had the science right about the mRNA vaccines? Maybe.
Was it because I gave a good ethical argument against the mandates? I think so, but that surely isn’t the whole story.
Or was it something else?
I’ll let you think about that and offer my answer in a little bit.
One thing that video did is it instantly and irrevocably gave me outlier status. It put me on the outside of a system that has no tolerance for questioning or independent thought of any kind.
How many of you, at some point over the last two years, felt like an outlier, a misfit? How many of you felt like a foreigner within a new operating system in which conformity is the social currency, its reward the ability to keep your job, preserve your reputation, and avoid the censure of rebellious thought?
For its devoted followers, the stigma and bother of questioning that system is too costly, too inconvenient. But for you, it’s the price of conformity that is too high, and the need to question and, possibly resist, too hard to ignore.
It’s this social operating system that singled me out, expressed its intolerance for my nonconformist ways and, ultimately, did its best to string me up in the proverbial public square.
Until last September, I lived the quiet life of an academic, removed from the world of politics, podcasts and protests. I published in journals only a few colleagues ever read. I taught ethics, but it was always theoretical and, often, relied on the entertainment value of fantastical thought experiments like:
“What would you do if a trolley was barreling down a track toward five people inexplicably tied to it?”
Teaching ethics, I always felt, honestly, like a bit of a hypocrite, trying to envision what one would do if a crisis arose, or criticizing history’s moral villains. My work mattered, or so I told myself, but only in a big-picture way. There were no acute moral crises, no bioethics emergencies, as a good friend used to tease.
Not until last September, anyway, when all the theory culminated in what felt like the supreme ethical test. Faced with the decision to comply with my university’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate or refuse and lose my job, I chose the latter, for better or worse, and was efficiently terminated “with cause.”
I failed the test spectacularly according to my colleagues, our public health officials, Justin Trudeau, the Toronto Star, the National Post, the CBC, and even the NYU ethics professor who said “I wouldn’t pass her in my class.”
When I spoke at events at the height of the crisis, when almost unfathomably, we couldn’t even legally gather to do what we are doing today, I talked a lot about science and evidence, and why the mandates are unjustified and harmful. But I couldn’t imagine doing that now. And I don’t think that’s why you are here today.
We have all drawn our battle lines on that front and we aren’t seeing much movement across those lines. The pro-narrative position is alive and well. Conversions are uncommon and mass revelations unlikely.
Events are starting to impose vaccine passports once again and masking is returning. A Moderna plant is being built in Quebec…with production to beginin 2024.
And, honestly, I don’t think the situation in which we find ourselves was generated by a miscalculation of the data in the first place but by a crisis of the values and ideas that led to it.
So when I was invited to speak today, I started thinking about where you are these days, I wondered about your stories. What are your experiences of alienation and cancellation? What would you have done differently over the last two years if you could go back? What keeps you on the road less traveled? Are you ready to forgive?
So what I offer today are some thoughts on the themes of regret and endurance, thoughts on how we created the deep culture of silence that now stifles us, and what we can do now to move through it.
First, regret. Regret is, simply, the thought that it would have been better to do otherwise. If you give your friend expired milk that makes her sick, you might think “It would have been better first to check its expiry date.”
If you comply with COVID public health measures that end up causing harm, you might think “I should have questioned the lockdowns before McMaster Children’s Hospital reported a 300% increase in suicide attempts last fall, the vaccine rollout before the mandates came along.”
But the vast majority of us who should have known better, done better, didn’t. Why not?
There is no doubt that the government response to COVID is the largest public health disaster in modern history.
But what is interesting is not that the authorities demanded our compliance, that our sycophantic media was too lazy to demand the right evidence but that wesubmitted so freely, that we were so ready to trade freedom for the assurance of safety that we inverted the demands of civility to the point where we applaud sarcasm and cruelty.
And so the question that keeps me up at night is, how did we get to this place? Why couldn’t we see it coming?
I think part of the answer, the part that is hard to hear, hard to process, is that we did know. Or at least the information that would have allowed us to know, was available, hiding (we might say) in plain sight.
In 2009, Pfizer (the company that claims to “profoundly impact the health of Canadians” — no doubt) received a record-setting $2.3 billion fine for illegally marketing its painkiller Bextra and for paying kickbacks to compliant doctors.
At the time, Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli said the case was a victory for the public over “those who seek to earn a profit through fraud.” Well, yesterday’s victory is today’s conspiracy theory. And, unfortunately, Pfizer’s misstep is not a moral anomaly in the pharmaceutical industry.
You might be familiar with some of the notable moments of the industry’s history of collusion and regulatory capture: the thalidomide disaster of the 50s and 60s, Anthony Fauci’s mismanagement of the AIDS epidemic, the Opioid epidemic and the SSRI crisis of the 90s, and that just scratches the surface.
The fact that drug companies are not moral saints should never have surprised us.
So we really can’t say “If we only knew” because the evidence was there; the collective ‘we’ did know.
So why didn’t that knowledge get the traction it deserved? Why did our blind adherence to “follow the science” lead us to be more unscientific than at, arguably, any other time in history?
Do you know the parable of the camel?
One cold night in the desert, a man is sleeping in his tent, having tied his camel outside. But as the night grows colder, the camel asks his master if he can put his head in the tent for warmth.
“By all means,” says the man; and the camel stretches his head into the tent.
A little while later, the camel asks if he may also bring his neck and front legs inside. Again, the master agrees.
Finally, the camel, who is half in, half out, says “I’m letting cold air in. May I not come inside?” With pity, the master welcomes him into the warm tent.
But once the camel comes inside, he says: “I think that there is not room for both of us here. It will be best for you to stand outside, as you are the smaller; there will then be room enough for me.
And with that, the man is forced outside of his tent.
How could this happen?
Well, it seems you can get people to do just about anything if you break the unreasonable down into a series of smaller, seemingly reasonable ‘asks.’
It is the humble petition of the camel — just to first put his head inside the tent — that is so modest, so pitiful, that it seems unreasonable, even inhumane, to refuse.
Isn’t this what we’ve seen over the last 2 years? It’s been a master class in how to influence a person’s behaviour one step at a time by encroaching a tiny bit, pausing, then starting from this new place and encroaching again all the while making us feel somehow beholden to those who are coercing us.
We got here because we consented to tiny encroachments that we never should have consented to, not because of the size but the nature of the ask. We got here not because we fail to see the harms we do or because we consider them to be a reasonable sacrifice for the sake of public good (though some surely do).
We got here because of our moral blindness, because we are temporarily unable to see the harms we do. How can little things like collateral damage and “autonomy” and “consent” possibly stack up against the deep, blinding devotion to the idea that we are “doing our part,” saving the human race?
Let’s go back to the camel for a moment.
One way to describe what the camel is doing is to say he is ‘nudging’ his master’s behaviour for his own purposes, in much the same way we have been nudged over the last two years.
I mean that literally. The COVID response of most major world governments was framed by the nudge paradigm, a form of behavioural psychology that uses the active engineering of choice to influence our behaviour in barely discernible ways. Based on the 2008 book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the paradigm operates on 2 very simple ideas:
- Someone else, a supposed expert, will make better choices for you than you could make for yourself
- It is right for that person to make those choices for you
The real-world actualization of this model in the UK is MINDSPACE, a behavioural insights team (or “nudge unit”) composed largely of academics from the London School of Economics.
Some of the unsurprising insights of MINDSPACE include the fact that we are deeply influenced by the behaviours of those around us and by appeals to ego (i.e. we typically act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves proven, I think, by the virtue-signaling practices of masking and social media vaccine stickers.)
Our equivalent of MINDSPACE is Impact Canada, housed within the Privy Council Office, which not only tracks public behaviour and sentiment but plans ways to shape it in accordance with public health policies. This isn’t a secret. Theresa Tam bragged about it in an article in the Toronto Star last year.
These “nudge units” are composed of neuroscientists, behavioural scientists, geneticists, economists, policy analysts, marketers and graphic designers.
Members of Impact Canada include Dr. Lauryn Conway, whose work focuses on “the application of behavioural science and experimentation to domestic and international policy,” Jessica Leifer, a specialist in self-control and willpower, and Chris Soueidan, a graphic designer responsible for developing Impact Canada’s digital brand.
Slogans and hashtags (like “Do your part,” #COVIDvaccine and #postcovidcondition), images (of nurses donning masks that look like something from the movie Outbreak), and even the soothing Jade green colour on the “Get the facts about COVID-19 vaccines” fact-sheets are all products of Impact Canada’s research and marketing gurus.
Even the steady flow of more subtle images — on billboards and electronic traffic signs — normalizes the relevant behaviour through the subtle suggestion and justification of fear.
With greater than 90% vaccination rates, our nudge unit’s efforts are wildly successful.
But why were we so susceptible to being nudged in the first place? Aren’t we supposed to be the rational, critical thinking descendants of the Enlightenment? Aren’t we supposed to be scientific?
One of the great lessons of the last two years is just how much we are all affected by fear. The world’s nudge units masterfully manipulate our fears according to a precisely calculated cadence. But this is a dicey business.
If we feel helpless, fear appeals will make us defensive but, if we can be made to feel empowered, like there is something we can do to minimize the threat, our behaviours are highly moldable. We need to believe, for example, that the little mask we theatrically don at the entrance to the grocery store will fight a deadly virus, that the injection we take will save the human race (or at least give us the reputation for doing so).
But where did the idea that we should be manipulated in these ways come from?
None of it happened quickly and it didn’t start in 2020. Our moral blindness, our moral panic, is the culmination of a long-term cultural revolution and a devolution of our core institutions. As Antonio Gramsci, founder of the Italian Communist party, proclaimed, to achieve socialism’s triumph in the West, we must “Capture the culture.” And what he envisioned to do so was what Rudi Dutschke described in 1967 as a “long march through the institutions.”
Gramsci’s followers created, as Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind, the powerful cultural left. With the universities as their laboratories, the West’s radical leftists for decades taught students the virtues of relativism and groupthink.
These students graduated, worked their way up their respective professional ladders, molding each of the institutions we have been trained to trust: academia, medicine, media, government, even the judiciary. Molding them with the guiding ideology of the “politics of intent” which assumes that, if your intentions are noble and your compassion boundless, then you are virtuous, even if your actions ultimately lead to disaster on a colossal scale.
There is no accountability in the politics of intent. No apology. No autonomy. No individuality.
This is what’s behind social activism, progressivism, wokeism, neoliberalism, purity politics and the cancel culture that seems to run roughshod over reason in the frenzied rush to protect “acceptable” ideas.
And this is why language came to be the ammunition of the COVID war: because it is the most expedient and effective capture-the-culture tool. Think of everything from “Self-isolate” to “covidiot” to, of course, “Anti-vaxxer,” the linguistic scalpel that carved society up at its joints. Even the fact that “COVID” came to be capitalized (in the US, Canada and Australia, in particular) has an effect on the weight we give it.
These insidious shifts in our language help to entrench a social operating system that has proven its ability to reshape society without limitation, that led to my termination, that upheld the suspension of Dr. Crystal Luchkiw for giving a COVID vaccine exemption to a high-risk patient, that made Tamara Lich and Artur Pawlowski political prisoners, that saw narrative spin at its finest as our Prime Minister testified (under oath) at the Public Order Emergency Commission in Ottawa yesterday, that demands amnesty for the (apparently) innocently ignorant, and that brought us all together today.
If this is the cause of our moral blindness, how do we cure it? How do we ‘wake people’ up to the harms of what we are doing?
As the Belgian psychologist Mattias Desmet says, jarring awake an acolyte of this system is like trying to wake someone up from a hypnotic state. If you try to do so by giving arguments about the effects of pandemic measures on children starving in India, for example, it will be futile because you are relying on ideas to which they give no psychological weight. Like the hypnotized person who feels nothing when a surgeon makes a cut, evidence that runs counter to the narrative is outside their focus of attention.
I have, personally, yet to hear of a case of someone being convinced of the absurdity of the COVID narrative on the basis of reason or evidence alone. I worked for months with the Canadian Covid Care Alliance to provide evidence-based information about COVID but I didn’t see any real traction until I made a video in which I cried.
Why did you cry when you watched that video? Why do tears well up when we meet at the gas station or while walking the dogs?
The answer, I think, is that none of this is about evidence and reason. “Effective versus ineffective” was never the point. It’s about feelings, on both sides. Feelings that justify our purity obsession, feelings (for many of you here today, I suspect) that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” as Hamlet’s Marcellus quipped, and that we don’t matter.
Do facts matter? Of course they do. But facts, alone, will never answer the questions we really care about. Let me say that again. FACTS, ALONE, WILL NEVER ANSWER THE QUESTIONS WE REALLY CARE ABOUT.
The real COVID war is not a battle over what is true, what counts as information, what it means to #followthescience; it’s a battle over what our lives mean and, ultimately, whether we matter. It’s a battle over the stories we tell.
Do we keep telling the seductive story of statism (which is what happens when we ask the state to assume authority over all spheres of our lives)? Do we outsource our thinking and our decision-making to the state that says:
- Don’t worry about providing for your family, we offer welfare;
- Don’t worry about taking care of each other when sick, we’ll give you free health care;
- Don’t worry about caring for your aging parents, there’s long-term care for that;
- And now insurance and overdraft and lines of credit, and even perfect student loan forgiveness?
Do we tell the story that our individual lives don’t matter, that we are expendable for the sake of the greater good, that technology will purify us, that if only we elect the right leaders, all our problems will be solved?
Or do we tell a better story? A story according to which our leaders are just a reflection of ourselves, that making ourselves wiser and stronger and more virtuous will always be better than relying on the state to make us healthy, safe and good, a story according to which we keep reaching for what we all deeply crave: meaning, mattering, and connecting with the humanity in others. This, I think, is a much more compelling story and the one we need to tell as we continue to fight.
So, where do we go from here?
Much has been written about the moral qualities of today’s outliers. In an eloquent letter to the unvaccinated narrated by Del Bigtree: “If Covid were a battlefield, it would still be warm with the bodies of the unvaccinated.”
Very true, but lying there alongside them would be anyone who refuses to outsource their thinking, who refuses to wallow in the comfort of willful ignorance, and who keeps trudging along through the darkness without a lantern to light the way.
Moral endurance is a problem these days. Empathy is low, and not just on the pro-narrative side. I don’t know about you but the feeling I can’t quite ignore or reconcile these days, something I am not proud of as an ethicist or a human being, is a palpable feeling of being numb. Numb to the repetition of history’s atrocities, numb to the laziness of the compliant who helped to create the world in which we now live, numb to inauthentic pleas for amnesty.
Those who have been speaking out are growing tired and we don’t even know what round of the fight we are in. With the injury of time, even the most devout can fall away, and what once seemed a noble, unrelinquishable goal can start to lose its force in the haze of shifting crises. And it will be a long time before the choir of humanity sings our praises, if it ever does.
But those who can persist are the ones, I believe, who will one day lead us out of this moral catastrophe, those who can remind us that more rules, restrictions, and signals of our apparent virtue are just a veil over our moral emptiness.
You might wonder, what if I’m ignored? What if I’m not brave? What if I fail?
The truth is, we all fail… every day. It’s unavoidable. But I think the greatest human failure is to pretend that we are gods, saints, or perfect heroes, that we can be made pure and invincible.
We all want to be the hero in our own story, of course — to slay the villains around us. But it’s turning out that the real villains are living inside us and growing stronger every day.
The true COVID war won’t be fought across the aisles of our parliaments, in our newspapers or even in the boardrooms of Big Pharma.
It will be fought between estranged sisters, between friends uninvited from Christmas dinner, between distanced spouses trying to see something vaguely familiar in the person sitting across from them. It will be fought as we struggle to protect our children and give our parents dignity in their last days. It will be fought in our souls.
Is COVID amnesty possible? Of course it is… if we hold onto our willful blindness, if we whitewash our mistakes. It is possible if I forget that within the last year, my prime minister called me a racist, that police came to my door, that I stayed home while friends sanctimoniously went to restaurants without me, that I lost rights that only the truly unreflective enjoyed, and that I am trying to teach my 2 year-old how to play and imagine and hope while the world crumbles around her.
But to “forgive and forget” will only solidify our brokenness. We need to look our mistakes in the face. We need to say our sorries. And we need to mean it.
We are going to be in this war a while longer and there will likely be more casualties than we can fathom in this moment. As Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark Strand wrote, “…. if only we knew how long the ruins would last we would never complain.”
In the meantime, we tell our stories. We tell our stories because this is what we’ve done for thousands of years to make sense of our fears, to communicate with people from other tribes, to give our ancestors some degree of immortality and to teach our children. We tell our stories because we believe a cry in the dark will eventually be heard. These stories are what set a crisis in context. And sometimes a crisis can be productive.
In 1944, Jean Paul Sartre wrote an article for the Atlantic about those who fought against the occupation of France. Sartre begins the article with an apparent contraction:
“Never were we freer,” he wrote, “than under the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, and first of all our right to speak. They insulted us to our faces….The deported us en masse…. And because of all this we were free.”
For Sartre, it isn’t our circumstances that control us; it is how we interpret them. Sartre said they were unified because they all experienced the same fears, the same loneliness, the same uncertainty about the future.
And it was the courage of those who resisted suffering amidst all of this that led them out of it.
Leading us out of this will be up to those who, for some reason, choose resilience over helplessness, whose need to question is as natural as breathing, whose voice rings out in the silence, and who can see the humanity in others through the thick fog of shame and hatred.
It will be these outliers — people like you who were brave enough to be here today — that will make us look back on this moment in history and say, “Never were we freer.”
Chinese Rise Up Against Lockdowns that Elites Advocated in the US
From the Brownstone Institute
Mainstream headlines are alight with stories about protests of unprecedented proportion that have erupted across China in response to Xi Jinping’s draconian Zero Covid lockdown policies. I post these with the caveat that, owing to both the unique restrictions on information from China and our media’s false pretense of hawkishness in order to retain the public’s trust, stories about protests and instability in China are perennially exaggerated.
That there have been protests against the Chinese Communist Party’s lockdowns is not surprising, however, given how horrendous those policies have been. Exaggeration aside, during China’s lockdowns, most residents haven’t been allowed outside their homes even to get food. Meal deliveries are frequently inadequate and rotten and medical care is often inaccessible. Covid health status apps are strictly enforced. Those who test positive for Covid are taken to sparse, overcrowded quarantine camps resembling prisons. Infants are separated from their parents. Pets are killed.
I post these, too, with the caveat that stories of the CCP’s Zero Covid policies are often exaggerated as well, owing to both the establishment’s pretense of hawkishness and the consistent media narrative that during the response to Covid, at least we didn’t have it as bad as those poor Chinese who had to experience a “real lockdown.”
Wow, that’s some bad stuff. It’s an open question why the CCP remains so obsessively dedicated to this policy of Zero Covid; theories range from bureaucratic inertia to “saving face,” to a test of loyalty for Party members, to keeping “the science” alive, to simply putting on a show to reassure international onlookers that the CCP really does believe in what it sold them and at least they don’t have it as bad as in China. It remains to be seen whether these protests will result in any real change in the country’s direction.
But in the meantime, it’s worth remembering who it was exactly who advocated these insane Zero Covid lockdown policies and urged us to emulate them: Our own media elites and health officials.
Here’s the New York Times touting the Chinese “version of freedom.”
Here’s the Washington Post wishing the US was more like China.
Here’s the New Yorker on the secrets to China’s “success.”
Here’s Salon whining about America’s failure to “learn” from China’s success.
Here’s CDC Director Rochelle Walensky on the incredible results China was able to “achieve” with their “really strict lockdowns.”
Here’s former CDC Director Robert Redfield on China’s “control of their outbreak.”
Here’s former CDC Director Tom Frieden on how China used lockdowns to “crush the curve.”
Here’s Anthony Fauci advising India to “learn from China” as late as 2021.
Here’s Bill Gates praising China’s “authoritarian response” and blaming America’s failure on “freedom.”
Here’s WHO Assistant Director-General Bruce Aylward rubber-stamping the CCP’s lockdowns into global policy.
Here’s former Surgeon General Jerome Adams toeing the line.
Here’s Neil Ferguson on how China led the way.
Here’s Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of the once-esteemed medical journal the Lancet, touting China’s response.
Here’s Devi Sridhar urging the UK to copy China’s “early and hard lockdown.”
Here’s professors Gavin Yamey, Gregg Gonsalves, and Angela Rasmussen defending China’s data.
Here’s the Financial Times attributing China’s “success” to Xi’s “strict lockdowns.”
Here’s Canada’s former Health Minister Patty Hajdu defending China’s data.
Here’s Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam on the “key lesson” to be learned from China.
Of course it’s no accident that Matt Pottinger and Deborah Birx, arguably the two most important officials behind lockdowns in the United States, got their idea of virus containment from China as well. As did Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who signed the first lockdown orders in the western world.
In 2020 and 2021, these calls for Western nations to emulate China’s lockdowns reached a fever pitch. But you don’t even need to look that far back. In fact, just yesterday, Washington Post journalist Taylor Lorenz defended the CCP’s Zero Covid policy amid the widespread protests that had erupted among the Chinese public.
Even some Covid “moderates” like professor Francois Balloux continue to toe the line that China’s lockdowns were effective.
And two days prior, Anthony Fauci gave a sworn deposition describing how China had inspired the advice on Covid containment that he issued to the United States.
As protests continue to erupt across China and Zero Covid is lain bare as the moral and intellectual catastrophe that is always was, it’s worth remembering that if we’d taken these officials and media elites seriously, the entire free world would look very much like China does today. Moreover, not a single one of these officials or media elites has been held to account or even lost their position. On the contrary, several of the most important pro-lockdown officials have had their exploits glorified in hagiographic memoirs, and some, such as UK SAGE advisor and 40-year British Communist Party member Susan Michie, have been given big promotions.
This in sharp contrast to the countless professionals who lost their positions due to noncompliance with Covid mandates, or those—as I found out the hard way—who’ve been censored for the mere suggestion that we may need an inquiry into why all these elites suddenly felt it appropriate to advise their countries to adopt one of the CCP’s most ruthlessly totalitarian policies.
It’s possible that when we get to the bottom of this story, we’ll find that these elites had perfectly good reasons for treating China’s data as real and treating Xi Jinping’s lockdowns as a legitimate public health policy, and a perfectly good explanation for why they couldn’t share those reasons with the public. But somehow, that doesn’t seem likely.
Republished from the author’s Substack
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