Checkmate-”All reasonable people agree that the future is either Mad Max or Waterworld; take your pick, end of discussion.”
In all of the descriptions of perilous situations that I have studied, arising during adventures on the high seas or in the high mountains, or during armed conflict, a single mistake rarely proves fatal. More often than not, death comes as a result of a sequence of bad choices which reinforce each other. These choices may not appear bad at the time—but they certainly do in retrospect! The end result is a situation in which no further steps can be taken that would not be either harmful or futile. This is the essence of checkmate: no moves left. At that point, none of the previous moves can be undone. Nor do they even exist, really: they have gone off to an imaginary universe populated by the regretful ghosts of those who didn’t make it.
As one should expect from a natural phenomenon, failure is fractal—observable at every scale. The same pattern of maladaptive strategy leading to untimely demise constantly replays itself at the level of viruses and bacteria, and all the way to individual plants and animals, populations, societies, countries and civilizations. Nature moves forward by canceling its unsuccessful experiments, which far outnumber its successes. Most people have come to terms with the theory of natural selection, and can understand individual and group failure. But over the last few decades—quite recently, in fact—it has become unacceptable to speak of accepting the failure of very large corporations, societies and countries as a terminal state. They are always considered to be in need of bail-out, reorganization, aid, reform, reconstruction, development and so forth. Perpetual degradation and decay followed by a headlong plunge into merciful oblivion is simply not on offer. Haiti will one day be prosperous, Somalia a model democracy, and perhaps even low-lying coastal and island nations can have a bright though wet future, provided the people there are fitted with snorkels to help them cope with rising ocean levels. When attempting to come to terms with the regularly observable demise of civilizations, and the forthcoming demise of this one, our failure to cope is complete: ancient pagan archetypes take over our thinking, our unconscious mind takes over, and we are transported to a realm of second-rate fantasy films. All reasonable people agree that the future is either Mad Max or Waterworld; take your pick, end of discussion.