Posts Tagged ‘Collapse’

The past few weeks and months have reinforced my awareness that quite a lot of human habitation is precariously situated within a variety of hazard zones, predominantly but not exclusively along the coasts. The desirability of coastlines is obvious: life is especially abundant along such boundaries. Humans rely on other lifeforms for sustenance no less than any other organism, so exploiting available resources at the coasts is a no-brainer. Plus, we need fresh water, so habitation alongside lake and river systems have also been preferential sites when frontier communities were established.

Coastlines and riverbeds in particular are dynamic, changing over varying timescales as new conditions assert themselves. Some changes are quite substantial. For instance, there is evidence that a previous human civilization situated along the coasts during the last ice age (ending some 12,000 years ago) when sea level was about 400 feet lower was effectively destroyed and covered by the Biblical flood precipitated by ice sheets melting rapidly (within a few weeks, perhaps). Since then, sea level and global average atmospheric temperature have been remarkably consistent, but they’re slowly on the rise yet again. Causes may be up for debate, but there is little doubt that human civilization and industrial activity have contributed significantly.

Coasts are not being inundated all at once as before but by slow creep of rising tides onto formerly dry land. Once in a while, storm surges and tsunamis wash inland, warning of what’s to come as global warming accelerates, oceans (continue to) warm and expand, and sea level increases (by tens of meters if the most dire predictions prove correct). This is only one water-borne threat, rhyming with past human experience. Wild fires, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, sink holes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters are striking all around us with increasing frequency according to this source — one reason the world is sometimes characterized as a slaughterhouse despite its amazing profundity. The three most recent disasters that amaze me (N. American bias showing here) are the California wildfires, the Hawaiian volcanic eruption on the big island, and the earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska. No need to go back in geological time; each has ample precedent in recent history. Yet we persist in living in these hazard zones and will likely rebuild and repopulate them as opportunity allows.

Whether to recommend abandonment of known hazard zones is not entirely clear to me, though I’ve ranted about the foolhardiness of rebuilding. If history is a reliable indicator and a major extinction event (process) has already commenced, it’s doubtful that anything we do or don’t do will affect outcomes to any significant extent.

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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.

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.

We’re trashing the planet. Everyone gets that, right? I’ve written several posts about trash, debris, and refuse littering and orbiting the planet, one of which is arguably among my greatest hits owing to the picture below of The Boneyard outside Tucson, Arizona. That particular scene no longer exists as those planes were long ago repurposed.


I’ve since learned that boneyards are a worldwide phenomenon (see this link) falling under the term urbex. Why re-redux? Two recent newbits attracted my attention. The first is an NPR article about Volkswagen buying back its diesel automobiles — several hundred thousand of them to the tune of over $7 billion. You remember: the ones that scandalously cheated emissions standards and ruined Volkswagen’s reputation. The article features a couple startling pictures of automobile boneyards, though the vehicles are still well within their usable life (many of them new, I surmise) rather than retired after a reasonable term. Here’s one pic:

The other newsbit is that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now as much as 16 times bigger than we thought it was — and getting bigger. Lots of news sites reported on this reassessment. This link is one. In fact, there are multiple garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean, as well as in other oceanic bodies, including the Arctic Ocean where all that sea ice used to be.

Though not specifically about trashing the planet (at least with trash), the Arctic sea ice issue looms large in my mind. Given the preponderance of land mass in the Northern Hemisphere and the Arctic’s foundational role in climate stabilization, the predicted disappearance of sea ice in the Arctic (at least in the summertime) may truly be the unrecoverable climate tipping point. I’m not a scientist and rarely recite data or studies in support of my understandings. Others handle that part of the climate change story far better than I could. However, the layperson’s explanation that makes sense to me is that, like ice floating in a glass of liquid, gradual melting and disappearance of ice keeps the surrounding liquid stable just above freezing. Once the ice is fully melted, however, the surrounding liquid warms rapidly to match ambient temperature. If the temperature of Arctic seawater rises high enough to slow or disallow reformation of winter ice, that could well be the quick, ugly end to things some of us expect.

In the sense that a picture is worth a thousand words, this cartoon caught my immediate attention (for attribution, taken from here):

comforting-lies-vs-unpleasant-truths-640x480

Search engines reveal quite a few treatments of the central conflict depicted here, including other versions of essentially the same cartoon. Doubtful anything I could say would add much to the body of analysis and advice already out there. Still, the image called up a whole series of memories for me rather quickly, the primary one being the (only) time I vacationed in Las Vegas about a decade ago.

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We operate under a sloppy assumption that, much like Francis Fukuyama’s much ballyhooed pronouncement of the end of history, society has reached its final form, or at least something approximating it. Or maybe we simply expect that its current form will survive into the foreseeable future, which is tantamount to the same. That form features cheap, easy energy and information resources available at our fingertips (or wall plugs); local, regional, and international transportation and travel at our service; consumable goods only a phone call or a few website clicks away (since now everything is deliverable); and human habitation concentrated in cities and suburbs connected by paved roads (and to a far lesser degree, rail) suitable for happy motoring. Free public education, such as it is, can be enjoyed until one is presumably old enough to discard it entirely (at 16 years in the U.S. unless I’m mistaken and it varies by state), and higher education can be pursued as far as ambition and finances allow. Political entities from nations to states/provinces to municipalities will remain stable or roughly as they have been for the last 70 years or so, as will governments (as enshrined in documents such as the U.S. Constitution and its foreign equivalents). Suffice it to say, I don’t believe any of these things are capable of lasting much longer. Ironically, it’s probably true that what is described above is, in fact, society’s final form precisely because what follows won’t qualify anymore as a society.

The video embedded below (that’s a fat lady singing on the splash screen in case you missed the metaphor) is a recent presentation given by a climatologist to a group of meteorologists regarding the current state of our climate change predicament. There is nothing “sudden” about the presentation, as the title says; this information has been widely available for more than a decade and only ever gets worse with periodic updates of the relevant data.

The tone is not hysterical or alarmist but settles toward the end into observing a mere problem with communications or educating the public. The dispassion is not unlike the iconic phrase “Houston, we have a problem,” which soft-sells rather urgent issues. How anyone could possibly do anything but conclude that we’re irretrievably fucked (how soon no one quite knows) is beyond me. I tire of pointing out our situation, but since it hasn’t penetrated many thick skulls, I guess it’s worth another try.

I remarked in an earlier blog that artists, being hypersensitive to emergent patterns and cultural vibes, often get to ideas sooner than the masses and express their sensibilities through creative endeavor. Those expressions in turn give watchers, viewers, listeners, readers, etc. a way of understanding the world through the artist’s interpretive lens. Interpretations may be completely fictitious, based on real-life events, or merely figurative as the medium allows. They are nonetheless an inevitable reflection of ourselves. Philistines who fail to appreciate that the arts function by absorbing and processing human experience at a deep, intuitive level may insist that the arts are optional or unworthy of attention or financial support. That’s an opinion not at all borne out in the culture, however, and though support may be vulnerable to shifts in valuation (e.g., withdrawal of federal funding for the NEA and PBS), the creative class will always seek avenues of expression, even at personal cost. The democratization of production has made modes of production and distribution for some media quite cheap compared to a couple decades ago. Others remain undeniably labor intensive.

What sparked my thinking are several TV series that have caught my attention despite my generally low level of attention to such media. I haven’t watched broadcast television in over a decade, but the ability to stream TV programming has made shows I have ignored for years far more easy to tune in on my own terms and schedule. “Tune in” is of course the wrong metaphor, but suffice it to say I’ve awarded some of my attention to shows that have up until now fell out of scope for me, cinema being more to my liking. The three shows I’ve been watching (only partway through each) are The Americans, Homeland, and Shameless. The first two are political thrillers (spy stuff) whereas the last is a slice-of-life family drama, which often veers toward comedy but keeps delivering instead tragedy. Not quite the same thing as dark comedy. Conflict is necessary for dramatic purposes, but the ongoing conflict in each of these shows flirts with the worst sorts of disaster, e.g., the spies being discovered and unmasked and the family being thrown out of its home and broken up. Episodic scenarios the writers concoct to threaten catastrophe at every step or at any moment gets tiresome after a while. Multiple seasons ensure that dramatic tension is largely dispelled, since the main characters are present year over year. (The trend toward killing off major characters in others popular TV dramas is not yet widespread.) But still, it’s no way to live, constantly in disaster mode. No doubt I’ve cherry picked three shows from a huge array of entertainments on offer.

Where art reflects reality is that we all now live in the early 21st century under multiple, constantly disquieting threats, large and small, including sudden climate change and ecological disaster, nuclear annihilation, meteor impacts, eruption of the shield volcano under Yellowstone, the Ring of Fire becoming active again (leading to more volcanic and earthquake activity), geopolitical dysfunction on a grand scale, and of course, global financial collapse. This, too, is no way to live. Admittedly, no one was ever promised a care-free life. Yet our inability to manage our own social institutions or shepherd the earth (as though that were our mandate) promise catastrophes in the fullness of time that have no parallels in human history. We’re not flirting with disaster so much as courting it.

Sociologists and historians prepare scholarly works that attempt to provide a grand narrative of the times. Cinema seems to be preoccupied with planetary threats requiring superhero interventions. Television, on the other hand, with its serial form, plumbs the daily angst of its characters to drive suspense, keeping viewers on pins and needles while avoiding final resolution. That final resolution is inevitably disaster, but it won’t appear for a few seasons at least — after the dramatic potential is wrung out of the scenario. I can’t quite understand why these shows are consumed for entertainment (by me no less than anyone else) except perhaps to distract from the clear and present dangers we all face every day.

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.

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.

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Adding one, revising one. The added one is The Daily Impact, written by Tom Lewis, author of a couple books warning of the collapse of industrial civilization. Lewis appears to be a news junkie, so posts are often torn from the day’s headlines. He’s a good read and not afraid to be sardonically funny. The revised one is The Compulsive Explainer, written by Hal Smith. Blogs come and go, and I had thought that The Compulsive Explainer had stopped being updated last summer, but I see that the author merely switched from WordPress to Blogger without any indication. I suspect Smith isn’t much read (if commentary is a useful measure) but probably deserves to be, not least for his ex patriot perspective.

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