Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Things fall apart

There is just too much going on right now. It's impossible to know what is most consequential, what short term outcomes will ensue, and what good or bad will result for the long term. This is not a time for confident prediction, and while we are always drowned in data-free analysis by non-experts, this would be a particularly propitious time for most pundits to shut up.

One of the few certainties about the world is that our actions have unintended, unforeseen, and largely unforeseeable consequences. With hindsight, they always appear foreseeable, but that's a fallacy that ought to have a name. (Maybe it does.) Japanese engineers and regulatory authorities protected their nuclear reactors with seawalls high enough for the tsunami that might be expected from a magnitude 8 earthquake, but they got a magnitude 8.9. They assumed a magnitude 8.9 earthquake was impossible because otherwise, it would not have been feasible to put the plants where they wanted to put them.

Dick Cheney and Ronald Dumsfeld (oh, did I just make a typo?) assumed that all they had to do was kick over the Baathist regime in Iraq and goodness would flower, because if they made any other assumption, they would have needed a plan for what the heck to do next and they didn't have one, but they really wanted to invade Iraq.

I really want K/G/Q/[h/~h]addafi [okay, you decide how to spell it] to be standing in the dock in The Hague while Libyans create a secular democracy, but I sure as hell don't know whether that is even possible, let alone the best way for the U.S. to help make it happen. I don't know what's going to happen with the damaged nuclear reactors in Japan, and I don't know what the consequences will be politically for nuclear power there and elsewhere. I know I want the U.S. and the world to dramatically reduce use of fossil fuels, but I'm also really not sure whether nuclear power -- perhaps in the form of a safer basic design, which does exist -- can or should be part of the path. It may well be counterproductive even granted acceptable safety, because of the enormous investment of fossil fuels required to build nuclear plants, the encouragement of energy-intensive and capital-intensive, centralized economic structures that they promote, and the diversion of political energy into the inevitable debates around them.

I could go on. But the point is, we all need to work very hard these days to generate more light and less heat. We need to be humble about what we actually know, not get dug into positions that seem right at the moment, and try to create a public discourse that's more about working together to find the right conclusion than yelling at each other until we get our way.

That doesn't mean I'm advocating for "civility" or "centrism" or "bipartisanship." Not at all. Sometimes my values are offended, and sometimes people just have the facts wrong. I'll say so, in no uncertain terms, when that is clear to me. My point is, there's a whole lot I don't know and it behooves us all to keep that in mind. Most of the professional gasbags, most of the time, don't know what the hell they are talking about, but they are paid to sound authoritative, or to engage in mindless shouting matches, because that seems to be the cultural norm. We need to get over it.


robin andrea said...

If this were Facebook, I would click the "like" link. Not much to say, but that I agree with you.

roger said...

IMHO, as we say, we will have both more nuke power and coal power because we will (stupidly) demand electricity.

davidknz said...

Best Nuclear Plant Ever: the one thats a safe 93 million miles from the earth. Stirling engines across the Sahara would provide for all of Europe. But the aftermath of Tomahawks on Tripoli might prevent such an agreement. The folly of fossil fuels.....