The Vibe Shift at the End of the World
We Need to Talk for a Minute About Why it Feels a Lot Like the End of the World, Buckle Up
Is it just me or are the vibes out there really weird these days?
It was my friendly barista. I go to the little cafe with Snowy every day, a little haven of civilization. You can buy handmade ceramics and finely made little pastries and all kinds of interesting and fun things, alongside a coffee.
I know! It’s weird…as hell.
The energy’s off in the neighborhood, right?
It’s an old, historic neighborhood, full of musicians and artists and writers. Say it by its name, and everyone knows the kind of person who’s inhabited it for centuries by now.
“The world,” I replied. “It’s…I was talking to my wife about it the other day. I call it the Vibe Shift.”
I gave a dramatic flourish as I said it, and chuckled.
She laughed. But only because it wasn’t a joke.
She’s a musician. A real one. I try to be. We talk, most days, about that. Songwriting. The art of hitting just the right chord at the right moment. But out there in the world these days? It’s discordant. Wrong notes everywhere. The real sound of the feeling of this age is a bunch of keys hammered together on a piano, which make no sense, just a clangorous disharmony.
Do you feel it too? I bet you do. It’s hard not to. The Vibe Shift is real. So real that most days, I walk down the street frowning a little bit. Nothing feels right. It’s hard to put into words. But. Do you know what I’m talking about? Things used to feel…pretty OK. Maybe the sound of the world wasn’t a perfect, pure harmony — but it wasn’t this sharp-flat discord either.
Why is that, I find myself wondering? What’s the deal?
I suppose it’s the Vibe Shift at the End of the World. Sure, sure, there’s that guy. The one who’s piping up right now wagging a finger. “But this isn’t the end of the — “ Dude, we know. But it feels like it. Hello? As if climate catastrophe wasn’t bad enough. Decades of economic stagnation which have left youngish people with about as many prospects for survival as wild mammals. Rising fanaticism around every corner. Institutions failing, systems breaking down, runaway inflation, shortages, droughts, megaweather. Add to that list the brewing threat of nuclear war. “It’s not the end of the..!!” My man. What else do you need?
Hence, the Vibe Shift. This weird music I hear everywhere, discord. Clangorous, wrong notes. Emanating from people, places, headlines. The juxtaposition of New York Times articles about celebrity weddings with…the end of women’s rights as we know them. Instafluencers trying to sell young people a dead lifestyle of hyperconsumption…while the planet dies. Billionaires who’re hoarding all the money, while everyone else lives and dies in perpetual, unpayable debt. Our world is full of insane facts like these, which, put together, just seem bananas, mental, mind-melting. Discord.
People are wounded out there, man. They are hurting. And they don’t want to admit it. They don’t want to talk about it. I get it. Who does? In the Darwinian societies we’ve built, vulnerability is death. Only the strong survive. Admit a moment of weakness — and who knows what the outcome could be? Lose your job, family, home. Can’t be nice for even a moment — too risky.
So we walk around, nursing our wounds, but never really sharing them. People are startled when I ask them basic questions these days. “Hey,” I say at the little European dog park to the couple who’ve just moved over from Texas, “how do you guys feel about the end of Roe?” They go blank and sputter. Their faces go hollow with despair. They might be from Texas, but they’re not idiots. Yet they are dumbstruck by the question. We’re not supposed to talk about it.
Do you know what little interactions like that tell me? And I have them all the time. I ask people questions. How do you feel about this, that. Nuclear war. Climate catastrophe. Hey, your country’s running out of water. What do you feel about not being able to get baby formula? They struggle. Because they’re already struggling. And yet. What all that reveals to is something like this.
We’re supposed to grieve in private for the end of the world. We’re not supposed to share our feelings about it all, living through “times like these.” But what are times like these? No human beings who have ever walked the earth are experiencing what we are now — sudden, dramatic rises in temperature. Not in all 300,000 years of us. The last time this happened? It was the Triassic-Jurassic Extinction.
So there we are, going through an age of such utter, total, absolute, jaw-dropping calamity that no human being who has ever lived has experienced what we are. Climate catastrophe, mass extinction, the birds dropping dead from the sky, the water running out, the lights going out. And that’s not even all of them together — inflation, stagnation, unemployment, intergenerational inequality, fascism, etcetera. The 1930s? This is the 1930s on a dying planet.
We’re going through this, each of us. This horror.
And yet the social norms we have are left over from a now bygone age. In that age — let’s call it the industrial age — you were supposed to put your head down and work. Not talk about your feelings. Your feelings, if they mattered at all, were things to be therapized away. Oh, you have uncomfortable feelings! You poor thing! Get some therapy! Maybe take a pill! They’ll magically go away. The industrial age was about work. And it’s hardly any surprise then that feelings, too, became things we had to “work” at.
But work for what purpose? To eliminate the “bad” ones, and “maximize” the “good” ones. The industrial age model of feelings is pretty simple. Work hard. Buy stuff. Feel superiority based on status. You have a nicer car, house, bigger bank account? You symbolically killed all those with less. The fittest hunter brought the most meat home. The strong survive.
See the link? Our model of feelings, too, even today, is Darwinian. We’re not supposed, allowed, permitted, really to feel bad things. To feel bad about things.
And when we have those emotions — when we feel bad things, or when we feel bad about things, out there in our world, the very last thing we’re supposed to do is share those feelings. Because all we’re supposed to be is industrious worker bees, sweating away at the project of buying more stuff to give us the cheap thrills of status superiority. Feeling bad? About the world? What the hell is wrong with you, bro? Why do you even care? LOL!
Hence, most of us are in a daze. Our social norms tell us to grieve, alone, for the horror and terror of this moment. And it is real horror and terror. Anyone who denies that is, well, in denial. When birds are dropping dead from the skies, when the West is running out of water, when the rights of more than half a country are suddenly seized and stolen and torn up — that’s horrific.
It’s absolutely and legitimately terrifying to experience all this. Even just one aspect of it — climate catastrophe — would be terrifying enough. But all of it together? The fanaticism, extremism, broken economies, decrepit societies, failed systems, threadbare institutions, all of it barely hanging together by a mere thread, day after day — that’s really, genuinely terrifying.
The feelings are real. But our norms tell us not to share them. And our dominant model of feelings tells us not to have these feelings to begin with. Why feel bad for the world? “Hey, don’t worry about things you can’t control!” Another way to say: “focus on your work.” Or “work at those feelings!” Another way to say: “therapize them with a sledgehammer until they’re broken into bits — and then you’ll be happy again!!”
All of this is badly wrong. All of it.
We should feel bad about the end of the world. There is no reason whatsoever to be happy about it. And the cheap thrills we’re supposed to feel — buying stuff, dominating the rest — pale in comparison. They seem absolutely meaningless when the world around us seems to be ending because, well, they are. What’s the point? Of a bigger car or house or whatever when civilization itself seems to be on its knees? What’s the point of a nicer wardrobe when the fascists are charging like crazed bulls at government, and goring it to death? What’s the point of going to a tropical island for a vacation knowing it’s not going to exist in ten years?
The happinesses of yesterday don’t work anymore. They just don’t. Consumerism updated itself with a new rule — “buy experiences, not things!!” — but even that doesn’t work anymore. What experience would you like to be sold? Power? Fame? Servants? A view? What difference does any of it make when everything is failing?
As the happinesses of the industrial age fade, the anxieties of it are spinning out of control. Will I ever have enough money? Will I ever be secure? Retire? Be able to pay off my debts? The answer is: no, no, no. The anxieties of the industrial age, too, are about money and status — never having enough of it. The problem is that we are now downwardly mobile societies on a dying planet. Our civilization is going to get poorer every year now. It’s not like before — when the industrial revolution exploded the arc of prosperity upwards for centuries (with a little help from slavery and empire). That era is over.
So now we need to learn. To find new happinesses. That aren’t based on mindless, raw, aggressive material consumption anymore. Which aren’t about dominance of the rest by having more. Symbolically killing your way upwards in a status hierarchy by possessing more. Sure, you can chase those things — but by now, you should know: at the end of the world, they’re only going to leave you feeling empty.
This is the Vibe Shift. At least the way I think about it. Yesterday’s happinesses don’t work anymore. Yesterday’s anxieties, meanwhile, are growing acutely painful, on a downwardly mobile planet. And a whole new set of bad feelings, truly terrible ones, is emerging, too.
How are you supposed to feel about…birds dropping dead from the sky? Mass extinction? The temperature rising to a killing heat, year after year? Nuclear war? Fascism? The answer can’t be any of the following: ignore it, deny it, pretend it away, bottle it up, or go watch another Marvel Movie. And yet those are the answers we have, we follow, we obey. Because we don’t have better ones yet. We’re not supposed to share our grief, our pain, our terror, our horror. At a dying planet, the way it’s melting down into fascism, war, hate, spite, greed.
We’re supposed to good little industrial age people — worker bees who work hard at not feeling much of anything, except superiority. But that isn’t going to work anymore.
Because the result of this clash between inner and outer worlds is discord. The wrong notes I hear everywhere. Look at people’s faces. See how they move, talk, express themselves. There’s a kind of pain in it these days, isn’t there? A kind of weirdness. Too fast or too slow. Something unnatural. They are trying to keep all this pain, terror, horror private. Maybe even trying to deny it. All that takes a lot of mental energy, titanic effort.
“Hello, how are you?” “Why, I’m just fine!” Lie. Better to say: “Man, I hurt. Can you believe those bastards did that to women? And what about the planet? I am in pain. Sometimes I want to bend over double with the feeling of all that grief. You know?”
Whew, that’s a mouthful. But now we can talk. Honestly. About our shared realities.
And if and only if we do that, we approach the horizon of new happinesses. The ones we’re desperately seeking, only we don’t know it yet. What is going to be the true source of happiness for human beings going forward now? Buying more stuff? LOL. Get a clue! It’s going to be saving every last being on this planet that we can. Maybe we don’t grasp that yet, but three, five, ten decades from now? That is going to be what happiness is really about. Or how about rebuilding communities so they work again? Being the kind of leader that’s not a Trumpets demagogue? How about the kind of CEO who makes entire new careers like the above possible? Or founding the kinds of companies which do the real work of the 21st century — salvaging what we can of a dying planet and a foundering civilization?
That’s where tomorrow’s happinesses will come from. And the only way we are going to address the anxieties deep in our souls today is by getting on it. Doing it. Getting real and getting serious about it. We feel this anxiety, this sense of hopelessness and helplessness, because we’re stuck. And we have to get unstuck. We have to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and do the work. Not the industrial age work of pretending we don’t feel a damned thing. But allowing ourselves to feel the terror, horror, anger, anxiety, injustice, of living at the end of the world. Until we feel all that — what motivation do we ever have to change it?
The Vibe Shift is real. Living at the end of the world and pretending like everything’s fine? Of course it’s going to make people mental wrecks. Of course it’s going to produce a weird, creepy sense of discord everywhere you go. Everything’s not fine. And it’s foolish to go on pretending like it is, to keep what we’re all going through private, because, well, we’re all going through the sense of creeping doom at the end of the world. Let’s begin with the truth. No, it’s not fine. Man, I feel terrible about all this. Don’t you? Isn’t this horrific, awful, unfair, stupid, ignorant, foolish? Let’s talk and share how we are really experiencing this moment in human history, because it is an especially dark one.
And maybe then — and only then — we can get serious about fixing it.
Umair, June 2022