Sunday, November 29, 2009

Taking a Break--Happy Thanksgiving!

I am taking a holiday break and expect to post again on Sunday, December 6. Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The trouble with apocalypse

Although for us the End has perhaps lost its naive imminence, its shadow still lies on the crises of our fictions.

When you read, as you must almost every passing day, that ours is the great age of crisis--technological, military, cultural--you may well simply nod and proceed calmly to your business; for this assertion, upon which a multitude of important books is founded, is nowadays no more surprising than the opinion that the earth is round.
                                      --Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending

The trouble with apocalypse is that most people have already seen it at the movie theater, watched it on television, read it in a book, or heard all about it from the pulpit. So inundated with the language of crisis are we that we have become immune to it. From the perspective of the historian our age has been chock full of "great transformations." And, it is, after all, the historian's business to write about great change even if he or she has to invent some.

The great energy crisis of the 1970s passes and is followed by an era of cheap energy lasting more than 20 years. The great run-up in energy prices in recent years is followed by a collapse in prices. The "worst economic downturn since the Great Depression" is now being followed by a ceaselessly heralded recovery. The much feared Y2K computer bug was either fixed or of little consequence on January 1, 2000. A modern plague has been in the wings for years, first as SARS and then as avian flu. Now that the H1N1 virus is here, it doesn't seem like the civilization-destroying event it was advertised to be. Even such events, despite the drama they propagate, create a certain cyclical continuity making them seem not all that remarkable. Once the worst is over or the predicted crisis fails to materialize, the fear that most people felt fades from memory.

Yet, the "cultural crisis," the "economic crisis," the "health care crisis," the "education crisis," and the "national security crisis" somehow continue. We momentarily look away from our computers, cellphones and flat screen TVs. Then, we are back again to our routine. Yesterday we had email, today we have email, tomorrow we will have email. On the short view, nothing much seems to have changed. The world appears to be moving closer to the technological utopia we have been promised.

For human beings, the apocalypse in its many forms "is a figure for their own deaths," Frank Kermode remarks in his classic of literary criticism, The Sense of an Ending. He adds, "[W]hat human need could be more profound than to humanize the common death?" And, so we are wired to listen, at least temporarily, whenever a storyteller of any type on television, on radio, on the Internet, in movies, and on the printed page hoists the flag of crisis. Any reference to crisis improves ratings and book sales. If what you're telling me isn't a crisis that requires my immediate attention, perhaps it can wait until later when I'm through looking at my email or watching my favorite spinoff of Law and Order.

Such is the environment in which those concerned about sustainability for human society find themselves. Peak oil, climate change, an impending food crisis, a water crisis, none of these truly captures the imagination of the broader public and rouses it to action. Perhaps the public is suffering from apocalypse fatigue. But that would be an incorrect assumption. One need look no further than the movie screen this holiday season. The movie 2012, a series of visual explosions based on various disaster scenarios and end time prophecies, is a runaway hit. The movie trailer tells us that one particular day in 2012 will be a moment that unites us all, very much "the common death" that Kermode discusses. And, the movie is not a cultural one-off. The same director gave us the climate change thriller, The Day After Tomorrow, which has grossed nearly $200 million at the box office. The appetite for apocalypse is endless and perennial. When I was in seventh grade (a long time ago), Alas, Babylon, a novel about a small town that survives after a nuclear war, was actually required reading.

What apocalyptic narratives do is elevate the importance of the trajectory of every person's life regardless of his or her station in society. If we're all in this together, then we can share in a great destiny no matter who we are. But destiny sounds like fate. What can one do if one is headed toward a great apocalypse? Pray, perhaps. Repent, maybe. But responding to such a gargantuan event calls more for attaining the right relationship with one's god than engaging in constructive social and political action.

While apocalyptic stories may seem as if they are about our collective path, for the individual they are really about an inward journey. That is why they can be quite good at filling movie theaters, bookstores, and churches. And, that is why appeals to the apocalyptic strain in culture are wrongheaded when attempting to move people toward actual concrete steps that can improve our collective prospects amid the unfolding calamities of the 21st century.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Amelia Earhart and the complexity problem

As I watched the recently released film about Amelia Earhart, I couldn't help thinking about parallels between her journey and ours as an industrial culture. The Earhart in the film noted that her path up to time when she attempts to circumnavigate the globe had been free of major mishaps and had led the public to underestimate the dangers of flying. When she attempts to fly around the globe, she has her first major accident which occurs early in the trip. It happens during takeoff and leaves the plane heavily damaged, but the occupants intact. Despite this, she makes repairs and begins her fateful second attempt three months later.

What struck me about this audacious trip was how many things had to go right every step of the way: the weather, the availability of fuel and supplies, correct navigational guidance from the expert navigator who accompanied her, the cooperation of those on the ground (especially worrisome in countries that had only rudimentary aviation infrastructures), and, of course, the mechanical and electrical integrity of the plane and its equipment.

There are many theories about what brought Earhart's flight to an end somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. One suggested cause was simple poor planning and preflight checking. The plane may not have been fully refueled before taking off from New Guinea to cross the Pacific.

The public had perhaps been lulled by Earhart's past successes into believing that she would succeed in any bold undertaking. In the same way we today believe that our vaunted technology will solve every problem we face including finding enough food and energy for a population that is estimated to hit 9 billion by mid-century while simultaneously addressing global warming. All of this will, according to our current ethos, be accomplished as the standard of living for billions across the globe is raised to that currently enjoyed by wealthy countries.

Earhart lost her way on the final leg of her journey because of multiple breakdowns: The direction finder on the naval ship stationed near the island where she was to land and refuel lost battery power; the radio operators on the ship could hear Earhart, but she could not hear them; the antennae of Earhart's plane may not have been well-suited to the needs transocean flights; a flight pattern meant to bring her plane over the island may have been incorrectly calculated.

Like her, our civilization does not realize that it may not have enough fossil fuel to make the transition to a renewable energy economy. To build such an economy we will have to use current energy sources which are mainly fossil fuels. If we squander that patrimony on current consumption and continued growth, we may find our energy infrastructure inadequate to our needs as the fossil fuel age winds down. And, like Earhart, we are not getting the proper feedback to tell us what to do, she from her radio and we from the market economy which fails miserably to anticipate and properly signal us concerning long-term challenges such as global warming and fossil fuel depletion.

Unlike Earhart, we as a civilization do not seem to understand the difficulty of our journey, that is, our necessary journey toward a sustainable system. She had expert navigational advice and at least a modicum of trepidation about what dangers lay ahead. We as a civilization are relying on such directional beacons as Daniel Yergin, Julian Simon, and a broad cabal of cornucopian economists across the world to guide policy, and their message amounts to,"Don't worry, be happy." The result is that nascent efforts to meet the ecological challenges we face are being overwhelmed by the imperative of growth at any cost. That growth is wiping out gains in sustainability not only by negating attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution of all types, but also by negating attempts to preserve and restore the fertility of the land and the productivity of the oceans.

We might as a civilization be able to address global warming. And, we might be able to address energy supply problems both by shifting to renewable sources and drastically economizing on energy use. And, we might be able to address the growing problems of soil degradation and food supply. And, we might even be able to devise a way to raise significantly the standard of living for billions (so long as we define that standard not simply as personal consumption) while minimizing our use of resources. But having to face all these problems at once significantly reduces our chances of solving any of them. In fact, they are all interrelated, primarily through the fossil fuel energy that is a significant contributor to global warming and the enabler of a modern agriculture. That agriculture, in turn, is simultaneously undermining the productivity of the soil while allowing us to feed (temporarily) an ever-growing population that consumes more and more resources every year.

Earhart had it much simpler. If any one of the problems cited above had not occurred, we might well be talking about Earhart's successful aerial circumnavigation of the globe.

Her aims were singular and focused: Get around the world in a plane. Ours as a civilization are multivariate and contradictory. Economic prosperity for a larger proportion of a growing population under our current infrastructure requires greater burning of fossil fuels, not less. Greater production of food requires either more land cultivation in the face of increasing urbanization which destroys farmland or more energy-intensive farming; either of these will only worsen global warming. Reducing global warming requires drastically less burning of fossil fuels and the reallocation of resources toward the deployment noncarbon-based energy on a scale and a schedule that would seriously erode people's standard of living, that is, as measured by current consumption.

Unlike Earhart who despite the complexities of her endeavor might have survived if she had gotten one lucky break, we are faced with needing virtually all our attempts to address critical problems to succeed simultaneously even though our current solutions are leading us in contradictory directions.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Immigration and our ecological predicament

Whenever the word immigration is mentioned, two polarized camps almost immediately emerge. One camp considers new residents an asset, bringing new ideas and entrepreneurial zeal to a society, while the other considers immigration a bane, bringing crime, disease, poverty and culturally disruptive practices.

Only very rarely mentioned by those opposing immigration is a concern that the host country has run out of carrying capacity and cannot afford to feed, clothe, educate and keep healthy any more people. Immigration opponents may claim that their home country cannot afford additional people. But, by this they do not ordinarily mean that the population and the economy of the country should cease to grow. They simply mean they do not wish to share any growth with newcomers.

The carrying capacity of many industrialized nations was probably reached several decades ago. If a country imports critical resources--oil and food come to mind--then it has in all likelihood overshot its carrying capacity. So, while lack of carrying capacity has some validity as an argument against immigration, it is difficult to apply in a globalized economic environment. This is because most wealthy countries import a significant portion of their carrying capacity. The destruction resulting from this importation takes place "over there" where the forests are leveled, the land is eroded, the mines are depleted and the rivers are poisoned.

Those in the importing country simply do not feel the effects of that undermining of world carrying capacity and therefore assume that carrying capacity has not been reached or at least that it has not been impaired by the standard of living in the importing country. The usual retort is that the water and air are cleaner today than they were 30 years ago in the importing country. What's not mentioned, of course, is that the damage the importing country is doing through its consumption has simply been shifted elsewhere.

Now, if we reframe the issue not as one of immigration, but rather as one of mass migration, we will complicate things even further. For much of the migration we are seeing today is from countries which export resources to wealthy nations. In other words, we are seeing mass migrations from resource exporting countries where carrying capacity is being systematically undermined toward countries that are importing that carrying capacity.

One concrete example is Mexico which has been exporting its carrying capacity in the form of oil for decades. It has also been exporting other minerals and foodstuffs as well. As oil production plummets in Mexico, the ability of the nation to function has become impaired. The government is having trouble keeping its population safe from drug cartels which now control a significant share of the country. Jeff Vail, a contributor to The Oil Drum and a former U. S. Air Force intelligence officer wrote in 2007 that he believed that Mexico was already on the path to collapse. He updated his views earlier this year and sees the process is actually further along.

What this means is that the already substantial flow of immigrants from Mexico into the United States is likely to turn into a torrent as economic opportunities and personal safety decline in Mexico. A government that relies on oil profits for 40 percent of its budget will be hard pressed to provide the economic activity and the social services to satisfy all of its population as oil profits continue to decline with oil production.

As similar dramas unfold elsewhere--Vail mentions Nigeria and Iraq--we can expect a rise in the tempo of migrations from countries that are exporting their carrying capacity to countries that are importing it. This will no doubt be accompanied by calls to limit immigration. If the flow becomes great enough, it might result in military action to close borders, at least temporarily.

If policymakers do not recognize that the decline in carrying capacity is one of the key drivers of contemporary mass migrations, they cannot hope to address the situation. And, simply shutting the borders when the flow of people becomes too great may turn out to be problematic for those wealthy countries that currently import a substantial share of their carrying capacity. How will they maintain an orderly flow of imports while at the same time exclude people who are not legally allowed to enter?

It would be felicitous if new policies were enacted to raise carrying capacity by drastically reducing consumption in wealthy countries and gradually reducing population everywhere. As long as consumption in wealthy countries remains at or near its current levels, those countries will continue to be on a collision course with mass migrations born of ecological overshoot and skewed trade relations--trade relations which have for so long allowed the wealthy to export their environmental degradation elsewhere and saddle the poor with the consequences.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The peace movement and the cornucopian view

If you want peace, work for justice.
            --Bumper Sticker (originally from the New Year's Day message of Pope Paul VI, 1972)

The above statement seems so much a truism that when someone says it, we rarely think to inquire about what the speaker means by either peace or justice. Let me formulate it this way. By peace, I will mean the absence of violent conflict within or between nations. By justice I will mean the just distribution of goods and services including such services as education and health care and the upholding of internationally recognized human rights for all people. I take this to be a good approximation of what those who say the above words or stick them on their car bumpers mean.

One key assumption behind such a formulation is that worldwide there is enough of all the essentials of a good life to ensure every person on the planet a decent existence. By decent I mean one characterized by good health and nutrition, adequate education and chances for advancement intellectually, culturally, materially and even spiritually. There may indeed be something to this assertion. According to the CIA Fact Book the estimated gross world product in 2008 was $69.62 trillion. Divide that by the current estimated population of 6.794 billion and the result is $10,247. That's $10,247 for each man, woman and child on Earth--not a princely sum, but certainly enough to provide a family of four in, say, India or Zambia a comfortable existence. Naturally, the cost of living is higher in rich countries, but then the public services and infrastructure are usually much better as well.

Such a distribution of the world's wealth is not only a political impossibility, but it would be seen by very many as unjust. This is because no one would be rewarded for efforts that produce a disproportionate amount of wealth, and many others who produce nothing would be given a windfall. The problem of incentives would intrude on such a leveling scheme; many would choose not to work in the face of a guaranteed income at this level. And, that begs the question of who would be left to work knowing that he or she could receive no more than the world average.

Such is the general outline of arguments by those who oppose any scheme of aid within and between countries. In practice certain European countries have achieved healthier, more productive, and less crime-ridden societies by guaranteeing minimum incomes as well as health care and other essential services. Nowadays, the aim of peace and justice advocates in this regard is usually to allow those at the bottom of the economic scale to reap a greater share of the benefits from economic growth. This is in lieu of taxing the existing wealth of the rich for immediate redistribution. And, here we get to the issue announced in the title of this piece: Most economic justice work is currently premised on the view that greater economic equality requires continued economic growth.

As such, those operating under this view assume that the natural resources required to attain the needed growth will continue to be available in the quantities required at prices that will make such equality possible. In other words, the seemingly politically impossible task of redistributing wealth will be sidestepped in favor of redistributing current income from future growth. This constitutes a wholehearted embrace of a cornucopian future; it recognizes no limits to growth that are implied by climate change, world peak oil production, and the rapid depletion of other resources including metal ores, water, soil and fish. And, if any of these limits are acknowledged, the resulting problems are assigned to the "technology will save us" category.

This is an important hidden assumption behind much (though certainly not all) peace and justice work. I've been thinking about this issue since being on a panel for an International Day of Climate Action event in my city. One of the issues the people who attended brought up was the enormous amount of military spending in the world, particularly by the United States. No doubt much of it is simply wasted, not even providing what the military strategists say they want. This includes fraud by contractors in pricing and quality, weapons systems forced on the military that it does not want or need, and inefficiencies of all kinds that are inevitable in any bureaucracy as large as the U. S. military establishment. People in attendance at the event also made arguments opposing America's two ongoing wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

But missing from the discussion--missing, that is, until I brought it up--was the primary reason the United States has soldiers deployed all over the world, namely, to protect (or arguably, to dominate) points of supply and transport routes for critical resources in which the country is no longer self-sufficient. Chief among these is oil, though the list includes all the major metals and a host of other critical items including fertilizers and natural gas. I suggested that our foreign policy is largely shaped by this deep dependency on the outside world for the basic materials that underpin our modern way of life. Until that dependency goes away, it is unlikely that our foreign policy will be re-oriented.

Therefore, I suggested a reformulation of that shibboleth so often heard in peace and justice circles as follows: If you want peace, consume a lot less. It's not nearly as inspirational as Pope Paul's original words, but in my view it is a truism nevertheless.