Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Radical Discontinuity

As you might surmise, I don't watch Glenn Beck, but according to some of his critics who I do follow he hawks various products that are supposed to help you survive the collapse of civilization. I'm not sure how you're supposed to microwave the freeze dried lasagna during the tribulations, but whatever.

Beck is of course a professional paranoid and his entire stock in trade is irrational fear. He doesn't specify the nature of the coming apocalypse, but I imagine the idea is that Obama declares the Islamocommunofascisto One World Order, sends in the Mexican Army to seize your guns, followed by the Martyrs of the New Caliphate to impose Sharia law on all of North America, whereupon the Patriot Militias and the Oath Keepers rise up and the economic infrastructure gets wiped out in the crossfire.

I don't think all that is very likely but I do sometimes contemplate the ineffable problem of how much to invest in preparing for low probability, very high impact events. The giant rock from space is sufficiently improbable that I don't lose sleep over it. (Although a Tunguska scale event could happen any time, it is extremely likely that it would occur over a densely populated area and even if it did, the impact would be local.) But there are some fairly horrifying possibilities that people don't like to think about but are worth some consideration.

The prospect of nuclear war, sad to say, has not evaporated. The biggest worry would seem to be events spiraling out of control in the Asian subcontinent, ending in a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan. The catastrophe would not only be regional. It would have global climatic effects causing crop failures for more than one year. We absolutely must rid the world of nuclear weapons. Let's talk about that, and make it the urgent political issue it must become.

Then there is the perfectly plausible, though unquantifiable probability of a novel pathogen causing a global epidemic and mass die off. HIV proves that we can't necessarily figure out how to control a pathogen quickly. Fortunately, HIV is not easily transmissible, but something that is could indeed produce a new Black Death. This time it wouldn't be limited to a single continent. We plod along with virological and bacteriological research, slowly build public health infrastructure. Maybe we'll be ready for whatever comes along and maybe we won't. There's really no way to say whether we ought to invest more in this particular worry. We should, however, certainly do more to stop the evolution of antibiotic resistance.

Then there are the Yellowstone and Naples supervolcanoes. I won't go into that, you can google it if you're interested. Could another financial crisis cause the economy to grind to a halt and then just sit there in gridlock, with commerce paralyzed? (Think of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Galapagos, if you have read it.)

Notice I don't include terrorism on this list. It's already going on around the world all the time, and it adds up to less death and destruction than ordinary crime. In the march of civilization, it's background noise, except for the immense social amplification it gets. Even a single loose nuke could only destroy one city. Major bummer, but not the time to break out your Survival Seeds.

Global climate change and peak oil are indeed happening. They will produce what Jim Kunstler calls the Long Emergency. Civilization will muddle through with a lot of pain and dislocation,but the grocery store and the monetary economy will still be there, even if you personally are poorer, or perhaps drowned. I'm certainly worried about the ongoing plutocratic destruction of our republic, aided and abetted by Beck and his fellow lunatic fringers, but that's a different category of catastrophe.

The point of this no doubt depressing post is that we can't assume that the basic structure of our lives will be at all similar ten years from now, or even tomorrow, and that any and all long range plans should be viewed with great skepticism. On the other hand, there could be some astonishing technological breakthrough providing unlimited clean energy and everything will turn wonderful, who knows?

So my advice is, we need to do something about the problems we clearly can do something about -- viz. nuclear weapons -- and keep trying to learn more about the problems we can't necessarily fix yet. Meanwhile, keep a week's worth of emergency supplies around if you're the worried type -- ordinary canned beans and a few gallons of water are fine -- and fight to keep your republic. I expect to be over my flu like illness tomorrow whereupon I will return to sanity.


Chynna Clugston said...

I liked your comment on the Sullivan article I read today so much that I had to look you up. You, I like. Keep up the great writing. I'm enjoying your blog.

Cervantes said...

Thanks, I think you're coming from Balloon Juice? I like John Cole too.