Archive for May, 2015

I’m not quite yet done with the idea behind this post, namely, that certain insidious ideas permit problems that more wizened thinking might avoid. If I were less judicious, I might say that lousy ideas generate many of our problems, but cause-and-effect and correlation links are too subtle to draw unambiguous conclusions. Along those lines, I’ve been puzzling the last few weeks over the Middle East, including (of course) Israel and North Africa. Everyone seems to have a pet theory how to put an end to endless violence and mayhem in the region. Most theories call for (further) bombing, strategic or otherwise, of one faction or another. Clearly, that’s not really a solution, since wreaking even more havoc and violence solves nothing, and it’s equally obvious that no pat solution exists. The situation has become a multigenerational, multinational conflict that perpetuates itself, the original provocation(s) having been long forgotten or subsumed into more recent events. Such events include no small amount of meddling and destabilization by the United States and its allies, plus economic difficulties that have people in the streets agitating for a reasonable share of what’s available, which is diminishing rapidly as overpopulation and industrial collapse ramp up in the region.

Reasons why conflict arises are many, but let’s not lose sight of our response. Statesmen of an earlier era might have been predisposed toward diplomatic and economic responses. Indeed, foreign aid and restructuring plans such as those that followed WWII might be examples of a better way to deploy our resources now to achieve desirable results for everyone (here and there). So why do today’s government policy- and decision-makers with their fingers on the buttons — those holding the presumed monopoly on the use of force — now so frequently resort to bombing and decades-long armed response, entailing boots on the ground, air strikes from carriers positioned in the region, and now drone warfare? Destroying people, infrastructure, industrial capacity, and with them means of living peaceably does not make us safer at home, unless there is something they know that I don’t. Rather, considering the apparently unlimited availability of arms to various factions (in high contrast with, um, er, well, food and jobs), it seems obvious that we’re seeding revolution while radicalizing populations that might prefer to be left alone to work out their own problems, which frankly would probably involve armed conflict. So in effect, we’re painting the bullseye on our own backs (and have been for a long time as the self-appointed World Police with strategic interests extending quite literally across the globe), uniting disparate factions against a common enemy — us.

So let me ask again: what makes this possible? In an era of psychotic knowledge and managed perception (and to a far lesser extent, managed consent), many leaders have developed bunker mentality, where everyone is a threat (even from within) and they (whoever they are, it hardly matters) all always poised to come for us and take away our vaunted freedoms (rhetoric alert). Never mind that the reverse is actually more true. I’ve argued before that bunker mentality goes hand-in-hand with Cold War paranoia drummed into the heads of folks who were children in the 1950s and 60s. Too many duck-and-cover air raid drills during primary school left indelible marks on their souls. Younger G-men and -women are undoubtedly infected by the meme now, too, by frequent security briefings that make the world look far more dangerous (to us) than it actually is, not unlike so many police shows on TV that overstate by a large margin the frequency of, say, street shootouts. (Fatalities from automobile accidents and obesity far outstrip losses from terrorism and other existential threats. Go look it up.) Fruit of that propaganda is our current fight-or-flight response: always, always fight; never, ever take flight. The mouth-breathing public is on board with this, too, always ready to throw down with reckless, half-wit commentary such as “bomb them back to the Stone Age!” Yet a few noisy pundits are beginning to suggest that the U.S. transition back to a more isolationist policy, perhaps sitting out a conflict or two rather than engaging reflexively, thoughtlessly, and pointlessly. Isolationism was our stance prior to WWII, having learned in the American Civil War and WWI that warfare absolutely sucks and should be avoided instead of relished. Living memory of those conflagrations is now gone, and we’re left instead with bullshit jingoism about the Greatest Generation having won WWII, quietly skipping over wars we lost gave up on in Korea and Vietnam.

For a long time, people have tried to draw connections between TV and videogame violence and actual crime. The same is true of pornography and rape. No direct links have been demonstrated convincingly using the tools of psychometrics, much to the chagrin of crusaders and moralists everywhere. Yet the commonsense connection has never really been dispelled: if the culture is positively saturated with images of violence and sexuality (as it is), whether actual, fabricated, or fictional (for the purpose of dramatic license and entertainment), then why wouldn’t vulnerable thinkers’ attitudes be shaped by irrational fear and lust? That’s nearly everyone, considering how few can truly think for themselves, resisting the dominant paradigm. Imagery and rhetoric deployed against us throughout the mainstream media is undoubtedly hyperviolent and hypersexual, but we’re smarter as a people than to succumb to such lures and lies? Sorry, even without peer-reviewed studies to show direct causation, that just doesn’t pass the straight-face test.

Following up the idea of resource consumption discussed in this post, I stumbled across this infographic (click on graphic for full-size version):

The infographic wasn’t published on Earth Day (April 22), but it might should have been. Also, concern with what starting date to use when naming the current geological epoch after ourselves (the Anthropocene), while perhaps interesting, is more than a little self-congratulatory — but in the darkest sense, since we wrecked everything. I have nothing further to say about the futility of naming a geological epoch after ourselves considering how it marks our self-annihilation and soon enough no one will be left to know or care.

Let me describe briefly what else the infographic shows. In the extremely tiny slice of geological time (1760–2010 CE) shown along the x-axis, we have been on a gradually rising trend of consumption (measured by human population, air pollution, energy use, large dams, and more recently, number of motor vehicles), which is mirrored by a decreasing trend in available resources (measured in tropical forest area and number of species). The author, Haisam Hussein, notes that around 1950, trends began a steep acceleration (in both directions), which have not yet reached their limits. Of course, there are limits, despite what ideologues may say.

To recharacterize in slightly more recognizable terms, let’s say that the entire human population is the equivalent of Easter Islanders back in the day when they were cutting down now-extinct Rapa Nui palms as part of their ongoing project of building monuments to themselves. The main difference is that the whole planet stands in for Easter Island. And instead of palm trees, let’s say our signature resource is a money tree, because, after all, money makes the world go around and it grows on trees. Easter Island was completely forested up to about 1200 CE but became treeless by around 1650 CE. The trend was unmistakable, and the mind boggles now (hindsight being 20/20) at what must have been going on in the minds of the islanders who cut down the last tree. Here’s the equally obvious part: the planet (the money tree) is also a bounded (finite) ecosystem, though larger than Easter Island, and we’re in the process of harvesting it as fast as we can go because, don’t ya know, there’s profit to be made — something quite different from having enough to live comfortable, meaningful lives.

So we’re not yet down to our final tree, but we’re accelerating toward that eventuality. It’s unclear, too, what number of trees constitutes a viable population for reproductive purposes. When considering the entire planet as an interlocking ecosystem, the question might be better posed as the number of species needed to maintain the lives of, say, large mammals like us. Aggregate human activity keeps whittling away at those species. Of course, the last money tree isn’t a physical tree like the Rapa Nui palm; it’s a social construct where ROI on continued mining, drilling, manufacturing, harvesting, building, paving, transportation, distribution, etc. runs its course and all profit-making activity comes to a screeching halt. The so-called shale oil miracle that promised eventual U.S. energy independence only a few moons ago has already busted (it was going to anyway as production tailed off quickly) and job losses keep piling up (tens and hundreds of thousands worldwide). Consider that a small, inconsequential brake on accelerating trends. Where things get really interesting is when that bust/halt spreads to every sector and food/energy supplies are no longer available in your neighborhood, or possibly, just about anywhere unless you grow your own food well away from population centers.

Virtually every failed bygone civilization provides evidence that we, too, will proceed doing what we’re doing heedlessly: cutting down trees until at last there are no more. Again, the mind boggles: what could possibly be going on in the minds of those holding the reins of power and who know where we’re headed (to oblivion) yet keep us pointed there steadfastly? And why don’t more of us regular folks also know our trajectory and take to task our leaders for failing to divert from our trip into the dustbin of history?

I’m not in the business of offering pat solutions to intractable problems plaguing modern society. That’s the mandate of government, which aims to manage the affairs of men and women as well as possible — yet typically fails abysmally. (Recurring war is an obvious example of inability to discover better solutions, except that war is now relished as a profit engine in a world gone mad, so it’s become desirable.) Rather, my interest is directed to attempting to understand the ways the world actually works. Perhaps that is too pointlessly abstract until such understanding is put into practice and acted upon, not just in policy formations but in legislation, incentives, and behaviors that make differences in how we live. However, so many well-meaning policies of the past have led us down the primrose path that I hesitate to suggest my understandings are in any way superior to or would lead to more effective policy than those formulated by folks whose mandate it is to address problems of social organization head on.

Accordingly, teasing cause-and-effect or correlation out of the hypercomplex interactions of myriad moving parts (people mostly), each possessing agency and ambition, is tantamount to chasing a chimera. Curiously, Paul Chefurka, whose writing and thinking I admire, revealed in comments at Nature Bats Last (April 2015) that he only recently abandoned his search for root causes behind the imminent collapse of industrial civilization, and with them, plausible solutions and/or ways out of the quagmire. Whereas some might take such an epistemological collapse as their cue to punt and say, “fuck it, let’s party,” I still find myself struggling to makes sense of things. So it occurs to me that without recommending root causes or solutions of my own, it may be nonetheless worthwhile to observe that specific problems often proceed from generalized attitudes that may be amenable to change. Put another way, it’s our own attitudes that give rise to our problems or make those problems possible. Let me take as an example just one issue, which is one of the larger elephants in the room.