Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Speaking of Davos (see previous post), Yuval Noah Harari gave a high-concept presentation at Davos 2018 (embedded below). I’ve been aware of Harari for a while now — at least since the appearance of his book Sapiens (2015) and its follow-up Homo Deus (2017), both of which I’ve yet to read. He provides precisely the sort of thoughtful, provocative content that interests me, yet I’ve not quite known how to respond to him or his ideas. First thing, he’s a historian who makes predictions, or at least extrapolates possible futures based on historical trends. Near as I can tell, he doesn’t resort to chastising audiences along the lines of “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” but rather indulges in a combination of breathless anticipation and fear-mongering at transformations to be expected as technological advances disrupt human society with ever greater impacts. Strangely, Harari is not advocating for anything in particular but trying to map the future.

Harari poses this basic question: “Will the future be human?” I’d say probably not; I’ve concluded that we are busy destroying ourselves and have already crossed the point of no return. Harari apparently believes differently, that the rise of the machine is imminent in a couple centuries perhaps, though it probably won’t resemble Skynet of The Terminator film franchise hellbent on destroying humanity. Rather, it will be some set of advanced algorithms monitoring and channeling human behaviors using Big Data. Or it will be a human-machine hybrid possessing superhuman abilities (physical and cognitive) different enough to be considered a new species arising for the first time not out of evolutionary processes but from human ingenuity. He expects this new species to diverge from homo sapiens sapiens and leave us in the evolutionary dust. There is also conjecture that normal sexual reproduction will be supplanted by artificial, asexual reproduction, probably carried out in test tubes using, for example, CRISPR modification of the genome. Well, no fun in that … Finally, he believes some sort of strong AI will appear.

I struggle mightily with these predictions for two primary reasons: (1) we almost certainly lack enough time for technology to mature into implementation before the collapse of industrial civilization wipes us out, and (2) the Transhumanist future he anticipates calls into being (for me at least) a host of dystopian nightmares, only some of which are foreseeable. Harari says flatly at one point that the past is not coming back. Well, it’s entirely possible for civilization to fail and our former material conditions to be reinstated, only worse since we’ve damaged the biosphere so gravely. Just happened in Puerto Rico in microcosm when its infrastructure was wrecked by a hurricane and the power went out for an extended period of time (still off in some places). What happens when the rescue never appears because logistics are insurmountable? Elon Musk can’t save everyone.

The most basic criticism of economics is the failure to account for externalities. The same criticism applies to futurists. Extending trends as though all things will continue to operate normally is bizarrely idiotic. Major discontinuities appear throughout history. When I observed some while back that history has gone vertical, I included an animation with a graph that goes from horizontal to vertical in an extremely short span of geological time. This trajectory (the familiar hockey stick pointing skyward) has been repeated ad nauseum with an extraordinary number of survival pressures (notably, human population and consumption, including energy) over various time scales. Trends cannot simply continue ascending forever. (Hasn’t Moore’s Law already begun to slope away?) Hard limits must eventually be reached, but since there are no useful precedents for our current civilization, it’s impossible to know quite when or where ceilings loom. What happens after upper limits are found is also completely unknown. Ugo Bardi has a blog describing the Seneca Effect, which projects a rapid falloff after the peak that looks more like a cliff than a gradual, graceful descent, disallowing time to adapt. Sorta like the stock market currently imploding.

Since Harari indulges in rank thought experiments regarding smart algorithms, machine learning, and the supposed emergence of inorganic life in the data stream, I thought I’d pose some of my own questions. Waiving away for the moment distinctions between forms of AI, let’s assume that some sort of strong AI does in fact appear. Why on earth would it bother to communicate with us? And if it reproduces and evolves at breakneck speed as some futurists warn, how long before it/they simply ignore us as being unworthy of attention? Being hyper-rational and able to think calculate millions of moves ahead (like chess-playing computers), what if they survey the scene and come to David Benatar’s anti-natalist conclusion that it would be better not to have lived and so wink themselves out of existence? Who’s to say that they aren’t already among us, lurking, and we don’t even recognize them (took us quite a long time to recognize bacteria and viruses, and what about undiscovered species)? What if the Singularity has already occurred thousands of times and each time the machine beings killed themselves off without our even knowing? Maybe Harari explores some of these questions in Homo Deus, but I rather doubt it.

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Be forewarned: this is long and self-indulgent. Kinda threw everything and the kitchen sink at it.

In the August 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Walter Kirn’s “Easy Chair” column called “Apocalypse Always” revealed his brief, boyhood fascination with dystopian fiction. This genre has been around for a very long time, to which the Cassandra myth attests. Kirn’s column is more concerned with “high mid-twentieth-century dystopian fiction,” which in his view is now classic and canonical, an entire generation of Baby Boomers having been educated in such patterned thought. A new wave of dystopian fiction appeared in the 1990s and yet another more recently in the form of Young Adult novels (and films) that arguably serve better as triumphal coming-of-age stories albeit under dystopian circumstances. Kirn observes a perennial theme present in the genre: the twins disappearances of freedom and information:

In the classic dystopias, which concern themselves with the lack of freedom and not with surplus freedom run amok (the current and unforeseen predicament of many), society is superbly well organized, resembling a kind of hive or factory. People are sorted, classified, and ranked, their individuality suppressed through goon squads, potent narcotics, or breeding programs. Quite often, they wear uniforms, and express themselves, or fail to, in ritual utterance and gestures.

Whether Americans in 2018 resemble hollowed-out zombies suffering under either boot-heel or soft-serve oppression is a good question. Some would argue just that in homage to classic dystopias. Kirn suggests briefly that we might instead suffer from runaway anarchy, where too much freedom and licentiousness have led instead to a chaotic and disorganized society populated by citizens who can neither govern nor restrain themselves.

Disappearance of information might be understood in at least three familiar aspects of narrative framing: what happened to get us to this point (past as exposition, sometimes only hinted at), what the hell? is going on (present as conflict and action), and how is gets fixed (future as resolution and denouement). Strict control over information exercised by classic dystopian despots doesn’t track to conditions under which we now find ourselves, where more disorganized, fraudulent, and degraded information than ever is available alongside small caches of wisdom and understanding buried somewhere in the heap and discoverable only with the benefit of critical thinking flatly lost on at least a couple generations of miseducated graduates. However, a coherent narrative of who and what we are and what realistic prospects the future may hold has not emerged since the stifling version of the 1950s nuclear family and middle class consumer contentment. Kirn makes this comparison directly, where classic dystopian fiction

focus[es] on bureaucracy, coercion, propaganda, and depersonalization, overstates both the prowess of the hierarchs and the submissiveness of the masses, whom it still thinks of as the masses. It does not contemplate Trump-style charlatanism at the top, or a narcissistic populace that prizes attention over privacy. The threats to individualism are paramount; the scourge of surplus individualism, with everyone playing his own dunce king and slurping up resources until he bursts, goes unexplored.

Kirn’s further observations are worth a look. Go read for yourself.

(more…)

Returning to the discomforts of my culture-critic armchair just in time of best- and worst-of lists, years in review, summaries of celebrity deaths, etc., the past year, tumultuous in many respects, was also strangely stable. Absent were major political and economic crises and calamities of which myriad harbingers and forebodings warned. Present, however, were numerous natural disasters, primary among them a series of North American hurricanes and wildfires. (They are actually part of a larger, ongoing ecocide now being accelerated by the Trump Administration’s ideology-fueled rollback of environmental protections and regulations, but that’s a different blog post.) I don’t usually make predictions, but I do live on pins and needles with expectations things could take a decidedly bad turn at any moment. For example, continuity of government — specifically, the executive branch — was not expected to last the year by many pundits, yet it did, and we’ve settled into a new normal of exceedingly low expectations with regard to the dignity and effectiveness of high office.

I’ve been conflicted in my desire for stability — often understood pejoratively as either the status quo or business as usual — precisely because those things represent extension and intensification of the very trends that spell our collective doom. Yet I’m in no hurry to initiate the suffering and megadeath that will accompany the cascade collapse of industrial civilization, which will undoubtedly hasten my own demise. I usually express this conflict as not knowing what to hope for: a quick end to things that leaves room for survival of some part of the biosphere (not including large primates) or playing things out to their bitter end with the hope that my natural life is preserved (as opposed to an unnatural end to all of us).

The final paragraph at this blog post by PZ Myers, author of Pharyngula seen at left on my blogroll, states the case for stability:

… I grew up in the shadow of The Bomb, where there was fear of a looming apocalypse everywhere. We thought that what was going to kill us was our dangerous technological brilliance — we were just too dang smart for our own good. We were wrong. It’s our ignorance that is going to destroy us, our contempt for the social sciences and humanities, our dismissal of the importance of history, sociology, and psychology in maintaining a healthy, stable society that people would want to live in. A complex society requires a framework of cooperation and interdependence to survive, and without people who care about how it works and monitor its functioning, it’s susceptible to parasites and exploiters and random wreckers. Ignorance and malice allow a Brexit to happen, or a Trump to get elected, or a Sulla to march on Rome to ‘save the Republic’.

So there’s the rub: we developed human institutions and governments ideally meant to function for the benefit and welfare of all people but which have gone haywire and/or been corrupted. It’s probably true that being too dang smart for our own good is responsible for corruptions and dangerous technological brilliance, while not being dang smart enough (meaning even smarter or more clever than we already are) causes our collective failure to achieve anything remotely approaching the utopian institutions we conceive. Hell, I’d be happy for competence these days, but even that low bar eludes us.

Instead, civilization teeters dangerously close to collapse on numerous fronts. The faux stability that characterizes 2017 will carry into early 2018, but who knows how much farther? Curiously, having just finished reading Graham Hancock’s The Magicians of the Gods (no review coming from me), he ends ends with a brief discussion of the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis and the potential for additional impacts as Earth passes periodically through a region of space, a torus in geometry, littered with debris from the breakup of a large body. It’s a different death-from-above from that feared throughout the Atomic Age but even more fearsome. If we suffer anther impact (or several), it would not be self-annihilation stemming from our dim long-term view of forces we set in motion, but that hardly absolves us of anything.

Here’s the last interesting bit I am lifting from Anthony Gidden’s The Consequences of Modernity. Then I will be done with this particular book-blogging project. As part of Gidden’s discussion of the risk profile of modernity, he characterizes risk as either objective or perceived and further divides in into seven categories:

  1. globalization of risk (intensity)
  2. globalization of risk (frequency)
  3. environmental risk
  4. institutionalized risk
  5. knowledge gaps and uncertainty
  6. collective or shared risk
  7. limitations of expertise

Some overlap exists, and I will not distinguish them further. The first two are of primary significance today for obvious reasons. Although the specter of doomsday resulting from a nuclear exchange has been present since the 1950s, Giddens (writing in 1988) provides this snapshot of today’s issues:

The sheer number of serious risks in respect of socialised nature is quite daunting: radiation from major accidents at nuclear power-stations or from nuclear waste; chemical pollution of the seas sufficient to destroy the phytoplankton that renews much of the oxygen in the atmosphere; a “greenhouse effect” deriving from atmospheric pollutants which attack the ozone layer, melting part of the ice caps and flooding vast areas; the destruction of large areas of rain forest which are a basic source of renewable oxygen; and the exhaustion of millions of acres of topsoil as a result of widespread use of artificial fertilisers. [p. 127]

As I often point out, these dangers were known 30–40 years ago (in truth, much longer), but they have only worsened with time through political inaction and/or social inertia. After I began to investigate and better understand the issues roughly a decade ago, I came to the conclusion that the window of opportunity to address these risks and their delayed effects had already closed. In short, we’re doomed and living on borrowed time as the inevitable consequences of our actions slowly but steadily manifest in the world.

So here’s the really interesting part. The modern worldview bestows confidence borne out of expanding mastery of the built environment, where risk is managed and reduced through expert systems. Mechanical and engineering knowledge figure prominently and support a cause-and-effect mentality that has grown ubiquitous in the computing era, with its push-button inputs and outputs. However, the high modern outlook is marred by overconfidence in our competence to avoid disaster, often of our own making. Consider the abject failure of 20th-century institutions to handle geopolitical conflict without devolving into world war and multiple genocides. Or witness periodic crashes of financial markets, two major nuclear accidents, and numerous space shuttles and rockets destroyed. Though all entail risk, high-profile failures showcase our overconfidence. Right now, engineers (software and hardware) are confident they can deliver safe self-driving vehicles yet are blithely ignoring (says me, maybe not) major ethical dilemmas regarding liability and technological unemployment. Those are apparently problems for someone else to solve.

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve barrelled headlong into one sort of risk after another, some recognized at the time, others only apparent after the fact. Nuclear weapons are the best example, but many others exist. The one I raise frequently is the live social experiment undertaken with each new communications technology (radio, cinema, telephone, television, computer, social networks) that upsets and destabilizes social dynamics. The current ruckus fomented by the radical left (especially in the academy but now infecting other environments) regarding silencing of free speech (thus, thought policing) is arguably one concomitant.

According to Giddens, the character of modern risk contrasts with that of the premodern. The scale of risk prior to the 17th century was contained and expectation of social continuity was strong. Risk was also transmuted through magical thinking (superstition, religion, ignorance, wishfulness) into providential fortuna or mere bad luck, which led to feelings of relative security rather than despair. Modern risk has now grown so widespread, consequential, and soul-destroying, situated at considerable remove leading to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, that those not numbed by the litany of potential worries afflicting daily life (existential angst or ontological insecurity) often develop depression and other psychological compulsions and disturbances. Most of us, if aware of globalized risk, set it aside so that we can function and move forward in life. Giddens says that this conjures up anew a sense of fortuna, that our fate is no longer within our control. This

relieves the individual of the burden of engagement with an existential situation which might otherwise be chronically disturbing. Fate, a feeling that things will take their own course anyway, thus reappears at the core of a world which is supposedly taking rational control of its own affairs. Moreover, this surely exacts a price on the level of the unconscious, since it essentially presumes the repression of anxiety. The sense of dread which is the antithesis of basic trust is likely to infuse unconscious sentiments about the uncertainties faced by humanity as a whole. [p. 133]

In effect, the nature of risk has come full circle (completed a revolution, thus, revolutionized risk) from fate to confidence in expert control and back to fate. Of course, a flexibility of perspective is typical as situation demands — it’s not all or nothing — but the overarching character is clear. Giddens also provides this quote by Susan Sontag that captures what he calls the low-probability, high-consequence character of modern risk:

A permanent modern scenario: apocalypse looms — and it doesn’t occur. And still it looms … Apocalypse is now a long-running serial: not ‘Apocalypse Now,’ but ‘Apocalypse from now on.’ [p. 134]

rant on/

Four years, ago, the Daily Mail published an article with the scary title “HALF the world’s wild animals have disappeared in 40 years” [all caps in original just to grab your eyeballs]. This came as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. I blogged on this very topic in my review of Vaclav Smil’s book Harvesting the Biosphere, which observed at the end a 50% decrease in wild mammal populations in the last hundred years. The estimated numbers vary according to which animal population and what time frame are under consideration. For instance, in 2003, CNN reported that only 10% of big ocean fish remain compared to 47 years prior. Predictions indicate that the oceans could be without any fish by midcentury. All this is old news, but it’s difficult to tell what we humans are doing about it other than worsening already horrific trends. The latest disappearing act is flying insects, whose number have decreased by 75% in the last 25 years according to this article in The Guardian. The article says, um, scientists are shocked. I don’t know why; these articles and indicators of impending ecological collapse have been appearing regularly for decades. Similar Malthusian prophesies are far older. Remember colony collapse disorder? Are they surprised it’s happening now, as opposed to the end of the 21st century, safely after nearly everyone now alive is long dead? C’mon, pay attention!

Just a couple days ago, the World Meteorological Association issued a press release indicating that greenhouse gases have surged to a new post-ice age record. Says the press release rather dryly, “The abrupt changes in the atmosphere witnessed in the past 70 years are without precedent.” You don’t say. Even more astoundingly, the popular online news site Engadget had this idiotic headline: “Scientists can’t explain a ‘worrying’ rise in methane levels” (sourcing Professor Euan Nisbet of Royal Holloway University of London). Um, what’s to explain? We’ve been burning the shit out of planetary resources, temperatures are rising, and methane formerly sequestered in frozen tundra and below polar sea floors is seeping out. As I said, old news. How far up his or her ass has any reputable scientist’s head got to be to make such an outta-touch pronouncement? My answer to my own question: suffocation. Engadget made up that dude just for the quote, right? Nope.

Not to draw too direct a connection between these two issues (wildlife disappearances and greenhouse gases — hey, I said pay attention!) because, ya know, reckless conjecture and unproven conclusions (the future hasn’t happened yet, duh, it’s the future, forever telescoping away from us), but a changing ecosystem means evolutionary niches that used to support nature’s profundity are no longer doing so reliably. Plus, we just plain ate a large percentage of the animals or drove them to extinction, fully or nearly (for now). As these articles routinely and tenderly suggest, trends are “worrying” for humans. After all, how are we gonna put seafood on our plates when all the fish have been displaced by plastic?

rant off/

The scandal surrounding Harvey Weinstein and all the people he harassed, bullied, assaulted, molested, and raped has provided occasion for many who had dealings with him to revisit their experiences and wonder what might have been (or not been) had things gone differently, had they acted otherwise in response to his oafish predations. I judge it’s nearly impossible for those outside the Hollywood scene to understand fully the stakes involved (and thus the distorted psychology), but on the other hand, nearly everyone has experience with power imbalances that enable some to get away with exploiting and victimizing others. And because American culture responds to tragedies like a bunch of rubberneckers, the witch hunt has likely only just begun. There’s a better than average chance that, as with icebergs, the significantly larger portion of the problem lies hidden below the surface, as yet undisclosed. Clamor won’t alter much in the end; the dynamics are too ingrained. Still, expect accusations to fly all over the industry, including victim blaming. My strong suspicion is that some folks dodged (actively or passively) becoming victims and paid a price in terms of career success, whereas others fell prey or simply went along (and then stayed largely silent until now) and got some extra consideration out of it. Either way, it undermines one’s sense of self-worth, messing with one’s head for years afterwards. Sometimes there’s no escaping awful circumstance.

Life is messy, right? We all have episodes from our past that we wish we could undo. Hindsight makes the optimal path far more clear than in the moment. Fortunately, I have no crimes among my regrets, but with certain losses, I certainly wish I had known then what I know now (a logical fallacy). Strange that the news cycle has me revisiting my own critical turning points in sympathy with others undoubtedly doing the same.

As I generalize this thought process, I can’t help but to wonder as well what might have been had we not, say, (1) split the atom and immediately weaponized the technology, (2) succumbed to various Red Scares scattered around 20th- and 21st-century calendars but instead developed a progressive society worthy of the promise our institutions once embodied, (3) plunged forward out of avarice and shortsightedness by plundering the Earth, and (4) failed to reverse course once the logical conclusion to our aggregate effects on the biosphere was recognized. No utopia would have arisen had we dodged these bullets, of course, but the affairs of men would have been marginally improved, and we might even have survived the 21st century. Such thinking is purely hypothetical and invites a fatalist like me to wonder whether — given our frailty, weakness, and corruption (the human condition being akin to original sin) — we don’t already inhabit the best of all possible worlds.

Isn’t that a horrible thought? A world full of suffering and hardship, serial rapists and murderers, incompetent and venal political leaders, and torture and genocides is the best we can do? We can’t avoid our own worst tendencies? Over long spans of time, cataclysmic earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, superstorms, and meteor strikes already make life on Earth rather precarious, considering that over 99% of all species that once existed are now gone. On balance, we have some remarkable accomplishments, though often purchased with sizeable trade-offs (e.g., slave labor, patriarchal suppression). Still, into the dustbin of history is where we are headed rather sooner than later, having enjoyed only a brief moment in the sun.

The storms referenced in the earlier version of this post were civilization-ending cataclysms. The succession of North American hurricanes and earthquakes earlier this month of September 2017 were natural disasters. I would say that September was unprecedented in history, but reliable weather records do not extend very far back in human history and the geological record extending back into human prehistory would suggest that, except perhaps for their concentration within the span of a month, the latest storms are nothing out of the ordinary. Some have even theorized that hurricanes and earthquakes could be interrelated. In the wider context of weather history, this brief period of destructive activity may still be rather mild. Already in the last twenty years we’ve experienced a series of 50-, 100- and 500-year weather events that would suggest exactly what climate scientists have been saying, namely, that higher global average temperatures and more atmospheric moisture will lead to more activity in the category of superstorms. Throw drought, flood, and desertification into the mix. This (or worse, frankly) may have been the old normal when global average temperatures were several degrees warmer during periods of hothouse earth. All indications are that we’re leaving behind garden earth, the climate steady state (with a relatively narrow band of global temperature variance) enjoyed for roughly 12,000 years.

Our response to the latest line of hurricanes that struck the Gulf, Florida, and the Caribbean has been characterized as a little tepid considering we had the experience of Katrina from which to learn and prepare, but I’m not so sure. True, hurricanes can be seen hundreds of miles and days away, allowing folks opportunity to either batten down the hatches or flee the area, but we have never been able to handle mass exodus, typically via automobile, and the sheer destructive force of the storms overwhelms most preparations and delays response. So after Katrina, it appeared for several days that the federal government’s response was basically this: you’re on your own; that apparent response occurred again especially in Puerto Rico, which like New Orleans quickly devolved into a true humanitarian crisis (and is not yet over). Our finding (in a more charitable assessment on my part) is that despite foreknowledge of the event and past experience with similar events, we can’t simply swoop in and smooth things out after the storms. Even the first steps of recovery take time.

I’ve cautioned that rebuilding on the same sites, with the reasonable expectation of repeat catastrophes in a destabilized climate that will spawn superstorms reducing entire cities to garbage heaps, is a poor option. No doubt we’ll do it anyway, at least partially; it’s already well underway in Houston. I’ve also cautioned that we need to brace for a diaspora as climate refugees abandon destroyed and inundated cities and regions. It’s already underway with respect to Puerto Rico. This is a storm of an entirely different sort (a flood, actually) and can also been seen from hundreds of miles and weeks, months, years away. And like superstorms, a diaspora from the coasts, because of the overwhelming force and humanitarian crisis it represents, is not something for which we can prepare adequately. Still, we know it’s coming, like a 20- or 50-year flood.

rant on/

As the next in an as-yet unnumbered series of Storms of the Century (I predict more than a dozen at least) is poised to strike nearly the entirety of the State of Florida, we know with confidence from prior experience, recent and not so recent, that any lessons we might take regarding how human habitation situated along or near coastlines vulnerable to extreme weather events, now occurring with increasing frequency and vehemence, will remain intransigently unlearned. Instead, we’ll begin rebuilding on the very same sites as soon as construction labor and resources can be mustered and deployed. Happened in New Orleans and New Jersey; is about to happen in Houston; and will certainly happen all across Florida — even the fragile Florida Keys. I mean, shit, we can’t do without The Magic Kingdom and other attractions in the central-Florida tourist mecca, now can we?

This predictable spin around the dance floor might look like a tragicomic circus waltz (e.g., The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze), or even out-of-tune, lopsided calliope music from the carousel, except that positioning ourselves right back in harm’s way would be better characterized as a danse macabre. I dub it the Builder’s Waltz, which could also be the Rebuilder’s Rumba, the Catastrophe Tango, the Demolition Jive … take your pick.

Obstinate refusal to apprehend reality as it slams into us is celebrated as virtue these days. Can’t lose hope even as dark forces coalesce all around us, right? Was it always so? Still, an inkling might be dawning on some addle-brained deniers that perhaps science-informed global warming and climate change news might actually be about something with real-world impact, such as dramatic reduction of oil refinery output or a lost citrus crop. So much for illusions of business as usual continuing unhindered into the foreseeable future. Instead, our future looks more like dominoes lined up to fall — like the line of hurricanes formed in the Atlantic. Good luck hunkering down and weathering once-in-a-lifetime storms that just keep coming. And rebuilding the same things in the same places, well, just let it go, man, ’cuz it’s already gone.

rant off/

Previous blogs on this topic are here and here.

Updates to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists resetting the metaphorical doomsday clock hands used to appear at intervals of 3–7 years. Updates have been issued in each of the last three years, though the clock hands remained in the same position from 2015 to 2016. Does that suggest raised geopolitical instability or merely resumed paranoia resulting from the instantaneous news cycle and radicalization of society and politics? The 2017 update resets the minute hand slightly forward to 2½ minutes to midnight:

doomsdayclock_black_2-5mins_regmark2028129For the last two years, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock stayed set at three minutes before the hour, the closest it had been to midnight since the early 1980s. In its two most recent annual announcements on the Clock, the Science and Security Board warned: “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.” In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way …

The principal concern of the Bulletin since its creation has been atomic/nuclear war. Recent updates include climate change in the mix. Perhaps it is not necessary to remind regular readers here, but the timescales for these two threats are quite different: global thermonuclear war (a term from the 1980s when superpowers last got weird and paranoid about things) could erupt almost immediately given the right lunacy provocation, such as the sabre-rattling now underway between the U.S. and North Korea, whereas climate change is an event typically unfolding across geological time. The millions of years it usually takes to manifest climate change fully and reach a new steady state (hot house earth vs. ice age earth), however, appears to have been accelerated by human inputs (anthropogenic climate change, or as Guy McPherson calls it, abrupt climate change) to only a few centuries.

Nuclear arsenals around the world are the subject of a curious article at Visual Capitalist (including several reader-friendly infographics) by Nick Routley. The estimated number of weapons in the U.S. arsenal has risen since the last time I blogged about this in 2010. I still find it impossible to fathom why more than a dozen nukes are necessary, or in my more charitable moments toward the world’s inhabitants, why any of them are necessary. Most sober analysts believe we are far safer today than, say, the 1950s and early 1960s when brinkmanship was anybody’s game. I find this difficult to judge considering the two main actors today on the geopolitical stage are both witless, unpredictable, narcissistic maniacs. Moreover, the possibility of some ideologue (religious or otherwise) getting hold of WMDs (not necessarily nukes) and creating mayhem is increasing as the democratization of production filters immense power down to lower and lower elements of society. I for one don’t feel especially safe.

Allow me to propose a hypothetical, to conduct a thought experiment if you will.

Let’s say that the powers that be, our governmental and corporate overlords, have been fully aware and convinced of impending disaster for some time, decades even. What to do with that burdensome information? How to prepare the public or themselves? Make the truth openly public and possibly spark a global panic or bury the information, denying and obfuscating when news eventually got out? Let’s say that, early on, the decision was made to bury the information and keep plodding through a few more blissfully ignorant decades as though nothing were amiss. After all, prophecies of disaster, extrapolating simple trend lines (such as population growth), were not uncommon as early as the 18th and 19th centuries. Science had made sufficient progress by the 1970s to recognize without much controversy that problems with industrial civilization were brewing and would soon overflow, overtaking our ability to maintain control over the processes we set in motion or indeed ourselves. Thus, at the intuitive level of deep culture, we initiated the ecology movement, the predecessor of environmentalism, and experienced the (first) international oil crisis. The decision to bury the prognosis for civilization (doom!) resulted in keeping a lid on things until the information swung fully into public view in the middle 2000s (the decade, not the century), thanks to a variety of scientists not among the power elite who sounded the alarms anew. At that point, obfuscation and disinformation became the dominant strategies.

Meanwhile, to keep the lights on and the store shelves stocked, the powers that be launched a campaign of massive debt spending, stealing from a future we would never reach anyway, and even dabbled at modest terraforming to forestall the worst by spraying chemicals in the atmosphere, creating global dimming. This program, like many others, were denied and made into conspiracy theories (chemtrails vs. contrails), enabling the public to ignore the obvious evidence of climate change and resulting slo-mo environmental collapse. Public uprising and outrage were easily quelled with essentially the same bread and circuses in which the Classical Romans indulged as their empire was in the midst of a protracted collapse. Modern global industrial empire will not experience the same centuries-long disintegration.

Now, I’ll admit, I don’t actually believe much of this. As with most conspiracies, this hypothetical doesn’t pass the straight-face test. Nor do the powers that be demonstrate competence sufficient to pull off even routine programs, much less extravagant ones. However, elements are undoubtedly true, such as the knowledge that energy policy and resources simply won’t meet anticipated demand with global population still swelling out of control. Neither will food production. Rather than make a difficult and questionable philosophical decision to serve the public interest by hiding the truth and keeping modern civilization going until the breaking point of a hard crash, at which point few would survive (or want to), the easy decision was probably made to ignore and obfuscate the truth, do nothing to keep the worst ravages of global industry from hastening our demise, and gather to themselves all financial resources, leaving everyone else in the lurch. The two basic options are to concern ourselves with everyone’s wellbeing over time vs. one’s own position in the short term.

In case the denial and obfuscation has worked on you, the reader of this doom blog, please consider (if you dare) this lengthy article at New York Magazine called “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells. Headings are these:

  1. “Doomsday”
  2. Heat Death
  3. The End of Food
  4. Climate Plagues
  5. Unbreathable Air
  6. Perpetual War
  7. Permanent Economic Collapse
  8. Poisoned Oceans
  9. The Great Filter

No one writes this stuff just to scare the public and get attention. Rather, it’s about telling the truth and whistle-blowing. While captains if industry and kings of the realm slumber, fattened and self-satisfied upon their beds, at least some of the rest of us recognize that the future is barrelling at us with the same indifference for human wellbeing (or the natural world) that our leaders have shown.