Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, September 16, 2005

A season of Cassandras

Anyone can claim to be reading the zeitgeist, but here's what I perceive.

Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy, and the curse that no-one would believe her. It seems a lot of people are feeling like Cassandra nowadays.

I scarcely need to review the list of prophecies that are just now sneaking into the mass media collective consciousness, but scarcely touching our political discourse.

  1. The global peak in oil production may happen tomorrow, or in 20 years, depending on who you ask, although I would say the people who argue for 20 years have an interest in believing that, whereas the people who say "right now" have no obvious bias. Regardless, due to growing demand and extraction from more difficult places, oil is going to keep getting more expensive, and then there won't be as much, period.
  2. Meanwhile, the U.S. just continues to import more and more of it, and more and more natural gas as well (that will peak sometime after oil, but not a whole lot later). That means an Amazon of dollars flowing abroad, and serious national vulnerability,
  3. which, along with more general national idiocy, causes us to squander hundreds of billions of dollars every year on the most powerful military in human history, equal to the rest of the world combined, invade Iraq and hemmorhage more hundreds of billions, while corrupting our national culture and cultivating the ill will of most of humanity.
  4. Unfortunately, peak oil isn't going to slow down global warming (it's too late), and it might even make it worse. There's plenty of coal in the ground to last for hundreds of years (most of it in Siberia and China), plenty of schemes to convert it to gas or liquid to substitute for petroleum, all of which would be much, much worse than petroleum when it comes to every form of pollution, including CO2.
  5. That means more violent tropical cyclones (more research confirming this is out today), and rising seas, which threaten more destruction such as we have just seen and the permanent inundation of what are now densely populated and economically important coastal areas,
  6. along with drought and ecological disruption and possibly even a catastrophe such as the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet or a shut down of the Gulf Stream.
  7. Then there is the likelihood of major global epidemics, including the near certainty of a global pandemic of virulent influenza (the H5N1 strain currently infecting birds in large areas of the world), to which humans have no immunity, possibly killing tens or hundreds of millions of people and shutting down global commerce.
  8. In the face of these world historical challenges, the U.S. economy is a gigantic ponzi scheme, pumped up with trillions in borrowed money,
  9. but the nation's rulers are just planning to borrow hundreds of billions more to buy off the citizens of the Gulf Coast in time for the next election while moving ahead with their plans for yet more massive tax cuts for the rich.
  10. Already weakened by Katrina, rising oil prices, and the trade deficit, the economy may well prove unable to withstand the next blow -- another major hurricane, an epidemic, a further spike in oil prices, a significant terrorist attack -- and in any case we are doing nothing to address our problems now and a sane and competent future administration will have great difficulty finding the resources to act effectively.

Oh, I've left out a few things, such as nuclear proliferation and increasing social inequality, but who's got time to keep reading? Now, it isn't possible to assign meaningful probabilities to any particular scenario, and the worst may not happen for 20 years, who knows? I'm not personally a true expert in any of the directly relevant fields, from petroleum geology to meteorology to economics to infectious disease control, I just try to learn what I can about what seems to matter. But lots of people who are experts are having palpitations. It all comes together to mean that the American Century is over, maybe with a whimper, maybe with a bang.

About the only politicians who seem to be taking any of this seriously are fiscal conservatives who are worried about the federal budget deficit and want to cut spending -- not on the military, obviously, and they haven't actually said on what because, uh, actually, there isn't a whole lot else left to cut, unless we go ahead and eliminate Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, although I suppose we could do without the State Department, FEMA (hey, it's better than nothing, or at least it could be), the EPA, CDC, NIH, and the rest of HHS. Oh yeah, that happens to be exactly the stuff we need if we're ever going to do something about all of the above. Fortunately, we have a president who is strong and resolute, who holds decent moral values, and is willing to bring God back into the public sphere; and heroic journalists who will never betray their anonymous sources named Karl Rove.

There is an opening though, right now. The curtain of censorship has been rent, at least briefly. Maybe there are some honest people in influential positions who will rip it down. I'm counting on it.

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