I remember watching the street in front of my boyhood home being repaved. The bulk and power of the construction equipment made a lasting impression on me, as bulldozers, cranes, steam (or hydraulic) shovels, pavers, and dump trucks are pretty imposing pieces of machinery. But the one that really fascinated me was the steamroller. What the steamroller lacks in majesty, compared to the glacier anyway (a natural process, I note), it makes up for in fanciful temporal reconceptualization. Watching the steamroller work requires one to think in terms of slow process. It’s also a well-worn cliche in cartoons that villains and heroes alike are frequently flattened by steamrollers only to reappear in the next scene no worse for wear. Roadrunner, Tom and Jerry, The Naked Gun, A Fish Called Wanda, Austin Powers, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? all have steamroller bits in them, always slapstick in tone.
The implied threat of the steamroller, which is different from other heavy equipment, is not merely the specter of death but a slow, agonizing, bone-by-crunching-bone crushing accomplished not by stealth, strategy, or speed but by slow, steady, obvious, undeterred, mindless force. I don’t know of any sort of irrational fear that stems from steamrollers, though, unlike the silent scream or catatonia some experience faced with other looming threats. Because the steamroller works in slo-mo, one feels safe knowing that it’s possible to play in the streets and alight out of harm’s way at the last moment. So being caught under a steamroller represents either a grave miscalculation or the mark of rather extreme stupidity.
So what steamrollers are figuratively bearing down on us at the dawn of this new millennium? I can think of a few.
China (and India)
Even though China’s birthrate for 2006 was 13.25 per 1,000 population, slightly lower than the U.S. birthrate (14.14) but higher than that of the European Union (10.0), its population of 1.3 billion guarantees that the world will be swarming (even moreso than now) with Chinamen by midcentury. (Data courtesy of The World Factbook.) India’s numbers are more striking: 22.01 birthrate and population of nearly 1.1 billion. Now that both China and India have adopted Western-style capitalism, it’s fully foreseeable that they will be clamoring for their share of resources and using their market force to obtain it. Will Western ideologies (especially democracy and Christianity) similarly be overwhelmed by their Asian counterparts (Communism and Buddhism)? Maybe we’ll just get a lot more Indian and Chinese cuisine.
The Rise of Islam
For similar reasons having to do with sheer demographics (birthrate and immigration), Muslims are poised to become the dominant minority in most of Europe by 2025, and following that, the dominant political power across the globe. Mark Steyn believes this will create a veritable ideological siege, with America as the sole remaining representative of Western values. His book is America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It. According to Steyn, Islam is also characterized by a fundamentalist will to power, which is undercut in America by the politically correct fetish for multiculturalism. I’m not sure how to rate Steyn’s characterization (he spouts some pretty absurd stuff in this interview), but his prognosis nonetheless looks inevitable.
This is the one I understand least well. But the arguments usually go that the U.S. dollar is living on borrowed time, being propped up by foreign investments that stand to lose if a collapse occurs. Further, the Chinese currently have their currency tied to the dollar, and oil is traded in dollars. If (or when?) the euro replaces the dollar as the benchmark currency, it’s warned that the house of cards will fall.
This one is the least clear. The gist of it is that our old identities formed of race, religion, culture, and nationality are no longer sufficient to handle the perils of global conflict and transformation, that we need a new form of global identity. This website has quite a bit of info. I find this a rather rosy, optimistic view. The future I think more likely to occur is closer to the one depicted in the recent movie Idiocracy. It will be profane, ignorant, cruel, and utterly irredeemable, assuming we survive. We will revert to our animal nature, though we will still have use of considerable technology. I don’t contemplate this much, as it’s too disturbing.
This issue has been prophesied for years already, but it’s now reached the public consciousness despite being largely ignored in the mainstream media. The timeline for this transformation is more protracted, but it’s the trump card, as it will eventually trigger, following on the heels of the current wave of mass extinctions (see this and this), a rapid human depopulation and a fairly radical reorganization of civilization — again, assuming we survive.
What these all have in common is their slow-moving inevitability, like the steamroller. We can probably see them coming, which is how I can blog about them, but we’re hopeless to combat them except in the adaptive sense. John Gray put it in Straw Dogs better than I can:
The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth — and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction .… Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs — even if the result is ruin. When times are desperate they act to protect their offspring, to revenge themselves on enemies, or simply to give vent to their feelings. These are not flaws that can be remedied. Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mold. The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational.