Archive for September, 2018

I caught the presentation embedded below with Thomas L. Friedman and Yuval Noah Harari, nominally hosted by the New York Times. It’s a very interesting discussion but not a debate. For this now standard format (two or more people sitting across from each other with a moderator and an audience), I’m pleased to observe that Friedman and Harari truly engaged each others’ ideas and behaved with admirable restraint when the other was speaking. Most of these talks are rude and combative, marred by constant interruptions and gotchas. Such bad behavior might succeed in debate club but makes for a frustratingly poor presentation. My further comments follow below.

With a topic as open-ended as The Future of Humanity, arguments and support are extremely conjectural and wildly divergent depending on the speaker’s perspective. Both speakers here admit their unique perspectives are informed by their professions, which boils down to biases borne out of methodology, and to a lesser degree perhaps, personality. Fair enough. In my estimation, Harari does a much better job adopting a pose of objectivity. Friedman comes across as both salesman and a cheerleader for human potential.

Both speakers cite a trio of threats to human civilization and wellbeing going forward. For Harari, they’re nuclear war, climate change, and technological disruption. For Friedman, they’re the market (globalization), Mother Nature (climate change alongside population growth and loss of diversity), and Moore’s Law. Friedman argues that all three are accelerating beyond control but speaks of each metaphorically, such as when refers to changes in market conditions (e.g., from independent to interdependent) as “climate change.” The biggest issue from my perspective — climate change — was largely passed over in favor of more tractable problems.

Climate change has been in the public sphere as the subject of considerable debate and confusion for at least a couple decades now. I daresay it’s virtually impossible not to be aware of the horrific scenarios surrounding what is shaping up to be the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI). Yet as a global civilization, we’ve barely reacted except with rhetoric flowing in all directions and some greenwashing. Difficult to assess, but perhaps the appearance of more articles about surviving climate change (such as this one in Bloomberg Businessweek) demonstrates that more folks recognize we can no longer stem or stop climate change from rocking the world. This blog has had lots to say about the collapse of industrial civilization being part of a mass extinction event (not aimed at but triggered by and including humans), so for these two speakers to cite but then minimize the peril we face is, well, façile at the least.

Toward the end, the moderator finally spoke up and directed the conversation towards uplift (a/k/a the happy chapter), which almost immediately resulted in posturing on the optimism/pessimism continuum with Friedman staking his position on the positive side. Curiously, Harari invalidated the question and refused to be pigeonholed on the negative side. Attempts to shoehorn discussions into familiar if inapplicable narratives or false dichotomies is commonplace. I was glad to see Harari calling bullshit on it, though others (e.g., YouTube commenters) were easily led astray.

The entire discussion is dense with ideas, most of them already quite familiar to me. I agree wholeheartedly with one of Friedman’s remarks: if something can be done, it will be done. Here, he refers to technological innovation and development. Plenty of prohibitions throughout history not to make available disruptive technologies have gone unheeded. The atomic era is the handy example (among many others) as both weaponry and power plants stemming from cracking the atom come with huge existential risks and collateral psychological effects. Yet we prance forward headlong and hurriedly, hoping to exploit profitable opportunities without concern for collateral costs. Harari’s response was to recommend caution until true cause-effect relationships can be teased out. Without saying it manifestly, Harari is citing the precautionary principle. Harari also observed that some of those effects can be displaced hundreds and thousands of years.

Displacements resulting from the Agrarian Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution in particular (all significant historical “turnings” in human development) are converging on the early 21st century (the part we can see at least somewhat clearly so far). Neither speaker would come straight out and condemn humanity to the dustbin of history, but at least Harari noted that Mother Nature is quite keen on extinction (which elicited a nervous? uncomfortable? ironic? laugh from the audience) and wouldn’t care if humans were left behind. For his part, Friedman admits our destructive capacity but holds fast to our cleverness and adaptability winning out in the end. And although Harari notes that the future could bring highly divergent experiences for subsets of humanity, including the creation of enhanced humans from our reckless dabbling with genetic engineering, I believe cumulative and aggregate consequences of our behavior will deposit all of us into a grim future no sane person should wish to survive.

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rant on/

As the world turns and history piles up against us, nature (as distinguished from human civilization) takes hit after hit. One reads periodically about species extinction proceeding at an estimated rate of dozens per day (or even faster), 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than the background rate of evolution without anthropocentric climate change thrown in. Headlines usually read that large populations of plants or animals show up dead where they once used to thrive. When it’s insects such as crickets or bees, we often lack concern. They’re insects after all, which we happily exterminate from places of human habitation. Although we know they’re significant parts of the terrestrial food web just as plankton function as the base of the marine food web, they’re too small and/or icky for us to identify with closely. Species die-offs occurring with large mammals such as whales or dolphins make it easier to feel empathy. So, too, with aspen trees suffering from beetle infestations and deer populations with chronic wasting disease. When at-risk species finally go extinct, no fanfare, report, or memorial is heard. Here’s an exception: a new tree species discovered and declared extinct at the same time.

Something similar can be said of cities and communities established in hurricane alleys, atop earthquake fault lines, in flood plains, and near active volcanoes. They’re the equivalent of playing Russian roulette. We know the gun will fire eventually because the trigger is pulled repeatedly (by us or by nature itself). Catastrophists believe the planet across long time spans (tens of thousands of years) has always been a killing field or abattoir, though long respites between episodes can be surprisingly nurturing. Still, the rate of natural disasters has been creeping up now for decades. According to the statistics, we can certainly tolerate disaster better (in terms of death rates) than in the early 20th century. Yet the necessity of building out civilization in perilous locations is Pyrrhic. The human species must ineluctably expand its territory wherever it can, other species be damned. We don’t need no stinkin’ whales, dolphins, aspens, deer, bees, crickets, etc. We also don’t need no stinkin’ oceanfront property (Carolina outer banks, New Jersey shore, New Orleans, Houston) that keeps getting hit, requiring regular, predictable rebuilding. Let it all go to hell (meet you there!) ruin. The insurance companies will bail us out, just like taxpayers the federal government bailed out all those banks dicking playing around with the casino economy a decade ago (which, BTW, hasn’t abated).

The typical metaphor for slow death between major planetary catastrophes is “death by a thousand cuts,” as though what’s happening this time is occurring to us rather than by and because of us. I propose a different metaphor: Jenga tower civilization. The tower is civilization, obviously, which we keep building taller by removing pieces (of nature) from the bottom to stack on top. Jenga (say it everyone: Jenga! Yahtzee!) ends when the entire edifice crashes down into pieces. Until then, it’s all fun and games with no small bit of excitement and intrigue — not so much a game of skill as a game of rank stupidity. Just how far can we build until the eventual crash? It’s built right into the game, right? We know the dynamics and the outcome; we just don’t know when the critical piece will be pulled out from under us. Isn’t the excitement just about killing us?

jenga-falling

rant off/

Heard a curious phrase used with some regularity lately, namely, that “we’ve Nerfed the world.” Nerf refers to the soft, foam toys popular in the 70s and beyond that made balls and projectiles essentially harmless. The implication of the phrase is that we’ve become soft and vulnerable as a result of removing the routine hazards (physical and psychological) of existence. For instance, in the early days of cell phones, I recall padded street poles (like endzone goalposts) to prevent folks with their attention fixated too intently on their phones from harming themselves when stumbling blindly down the sidewalk.

Similarly, anti-bullying sentiment has reached fevered pitch such that no level of discomfort (e.g., simple name calling) can be tolerated lest the victim be scarred for life. The balancing point between preparing children for competitive realities of the world and protecting their innocence and fragility has accordingly moved heavily in favor of the latter. Folks who never develop the resilience to suffer even modest hardships are snowflakes, and they agitate these days on college campuses (and increasingly in workplaces) to withdraw into safe spaces where their beliefs are never challenged and experiences are never challenging. The other extreme is a hostile, cruel, or at least indifferent world where no one is offered support or opportunity unless he or she falls within some special category, typically connected through family to wealth and influence. Those are entitled.

A thermostatic response (see Neil Postman for more on this metaphor) is called for here. When things veer too far toward one extreme or the other, a correction is inevitable. Neither extreme is healthy for a functioning society, though the motivations are understandable. Either it’s toughen people up by providing challenge, which risks brutalizing people unnecessarily, or protect people from the rigors of life or consequences of their own choices to such a degree that they become dependent or dysfunctional. Where the proper balance lies is a question for the ages, but I daresay most would agree it’s somewhere squarely in the middle.

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have a new book out called The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (2018), which is an expansion of an earlier article in The Atlantic of the same title. (Both are callbacks to Allan Bloom’s notorious The Closing of the American Mind (1987), which I’ve read twice. Similar reuse of a famous title references Robert Bork’s Slouching Toward Gomorrah (1996).) I haven’t yet read Haidt’s book and doubt I will bother, but I read the source article when it came out. I also don’t work on a college campus and can’t judge contemporary mood compared to when I was an undergraduate, but I’m familiar with the buzzwords and ​intellectual fashions reported by academics and journalists. My alma mater is embroiled in these battles, largely in connection with identity politics. I’m also aware of detractors who believe claims of Haidt and Lukianoff (and others) are essentially hysterics limited to a narrow group of progressive colleges and universities.

As with other cultural developments that lie outside my expertise, I punt when it comes to offering (too) strong opinions. However, with this particular issue, I can’t help but to think that the two extremes coexist. A noisy group of students attending highly competitive institutions of higher education lead relatively privileged lives compared to those outside the academy, whereas high school grads and dropouts not on that track (and indeed grads of less elite schools) frequently struggle getting their lives going in early adulthood. Most of us face that struggle early on, but success, despite nonsensical crowing about the “best economy ever” from the Oval Office, is difficult to achieve now as the broad socioeconomic middle is pushed toward the upper and lower margins (mostly lower). Stock market notwithstanding, economic reality is frankly indifferent to ideology.

See this post on Seven Billion Day only a few years ago as a launching point. We’re now closing in on 7.5 billion people worldwide according to the U.S. Census Bureau. At least one other counter indicates we’ve already crossed that threshold. What used to be called the population explosion or the population bomb has lost its urgency and become generically population growth. By now, application of euphemism to mask intractable problems should be familiar to everyone. I daresay few are fooled, though plenty are calmed enough to stop paying attention. If there is anything to be done to restrain ourselves from proceeding down this easily recognized path to self-destruction, I don’t know what it is. The unwillingness to accept restraints in other aspects of human behavior demonstrate pretty well that consequences be damned — especially if they’re far enough delayed in time that we get to enjoy the here and now.

Two additional links (here and here) provide abundant further information on population growth if one desired to delve more deeply into the topic. The tone of these sites is sober, measured, and academic. As with climate change, hysterical and panic-provoking alarmism is avoided, but dangers known decades and centuries ago have persisted without serious redress. While it’s true that growth rate (a/k/a replacement rate) has decreased considerably since its peak in 1960 or so (the height of the postwar baby boom), absolute numbers continue to climb. The lack of immediate concern reminds me of Al Bartlett’s articles and lectures on the failure to understand the exponential function in math (mentioned in my prior post). Sure, boring old math about which few care. The metaphor that applies is yeast growing in a culture with a doubling factor that makes everything look just peachy until the final doubling that kills everything. In this metaphor, people are the unthinking yeast that believe there’s plenty of room and food and other resources in the culture (i.e., on the planet) and keep consuming and reproducing until everyone dies en mass. How far away in time that final human doubling is no one really knows.

Which brings me to something rather ugly: hearings to confirm Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. No doubt conservative Republican presidents nominate similarly conservative judges just as Democratic presidents nominate progressive centrist judges. That’s to be expected. However, Kavanaugh is being asked pointed questions about settled law and legal precedents perpetually under attack by more extreme elements of the right wing, including Roe v. Wade from 1973. Were we (in the U.S.) to revisit that decision and remove legal abortion (already heavily restricted), public outcry would be horrific, to say nothing of the return of so-called back-alley abortions. Almost no one undertakes such actions lightly. A look back through history, however, reveals a wide range of methods to forestall pregnancy, end pregnancies early, and/or end newborn life quickly (infanticide). Although repugnant to almost everyone, attempts to legislate abortion out of existence and/or punish lawbreakers will succeed no better than did Prohibition or the War Against Drugs. (Same can be said of premarital and underage sex.) Certain aspects of human behavior are frankly indelible despite the moral indignation of one or another political wing. Whether Kavanaugh truly represents the linchpin that will bring new upheavals is impossible to know with certainty. Stay tuned, I guess.

Abortion rights matter quite a lot when placed in context with population growth. Aggregate human behaviors drive out of existence all sorts of plant and animal populations routinely. This includes human populations (domestic and foreign) reduced to abject poverty and mad, often criminal scrambles for survival. The view from on high is that those whose lives fall below some measure of worthwhile contribution are useless eaters. (I don’t recommend delving deeper into that term; it’s a particularly ugly ideology with a long, tawdry history.) Yet removing abortion rights would almost certainly  swell those ranks. Add this topic to the growing list of things I just don’t get.