10/09/2005

Daily Kos: Playing Chicken with the Apocalypse

Playing Chicken with the Apocalypse
by Devilstower [Subscribe]
Sat Oct 8th, 2005 at 14:30:25 CDT

Here it is, another blasted diary about the end of the world. The end of the Democrats, and the end of Republicans. The end of Coca-Cola, baseball, apple pie, and Chevrolet. It's even about the
end of Canada and televised hockey, so don't start feeling too comfortable up there.

Blood-dimmed tides? Check. Centers not holding? We got 'em. Rough beasts? And how.

All this brought to you with no nukes, no Jesus -- meta or otherwise -- coming down in a cloud, and only the slightest dash of bird flu.

* Devilstower's diary :: ::
*

The Apocalypse? Again?
Those happy few who've read my diaries before may note that I already did a diary called The End of Everything in which I speculated that both science and technology might be running on fumes, with little left to offer in the way of discovery or advancement. As far as doomsday scenarios go, the one advanced there was pretty definitive. Do we really need another gloomy, the-sky-is-falling, kiss your children goodbye diary from this "the glass is half empty, and oh by the way it's a leaky glass" pessimist guy?

Yes. Yes, you do. And it goes like this...

Just one little thing after another
In 1979, science historian James Burke hit PBS audiences with a jewel of a show called Connections. The theme of Connections is just what you might expect from the title: the interconnectedness of things, including a great number of things you might not expect. With tremendous verve, some sly British wit, and a little greasing over the details, Burke went through a series of
spirited explanations and often humorous reenactments to show how events that seemed disconnected, actually touched each other at numerous points. How did a certain type of slate found in Iranian rivers lead to the development of the both the modern monetary system and the atomic bomb? What could the creation of the stirrup have to do with the fact that people in the UK and US speak English? Burke's romps through time and space showed how money, diet, science, music, personal relationships, chance meetings, greed, religion, and pure dumb luck all interacted to give us the world we live in today. Chamberlain stumbles on Little Round Top, and "Dixie" is the national anthem. Give Mozart a different girlfriend, and we might all be speaking Polish (and no, I'm not even going to try and extend that scenario).

At their best, Burke's extrapolations reflect the "butterfly theory" of history, showing how every stone makes new ripples in the pond. At their worst (which means the bulk of Connections II, and Connection
III), it's still a fun sort of Six Degrees of Gottfried von Leibniz -- a scientific history trivia fest.

While the bulk of the connections illustrated in Burke's show dealt with events over large spans of time, he also discussed how individual actions could exert great effects at a distance. For example, take the 1965 "great blackout." One faulty old relay at a power plant near Niagra Falls caused a blackout that spread across New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York. Thousands of people were trapped because of that one relay. Airliners were rerouted, traffic hopelessly gridlocked, and hospitals plunged into darkness. People hundreds of miles away died because of that little relay. (Sadly, the one fun fact about the blackout, the baby boomlet that followed, appears to be a myth.)

What was true of our electrical system then was true now. It's hugely delicate, and so enormously complicated that it often takes months of investigation to get an idea of what happened when something breaks. We've fixed most of the issues that caused trouble in 1965, but new problems have replaced them. The electrical grid is like an gigantic circuit board. Some of it neatly soldered and with nice new chips, other sections are all raggedy bare wires and old flickering tubes. My father used to complain about those huge flashlights that take 4, 5 or more D-cell batteries. His rule was "every time you add a battery, you square the odds of the thing really working when you need it." Our electrical grid is running on a metaphorical googolplex of D-cells.

The grid isn't the only complex system around us. Consider what it takes to deliver fresh, potable water to a city of millions, water that often starts hundreds of miles away. Imagine what it takes to treat it, the armies of men and women who maintain the pipes, the equally large facilities for disposing of waste water. Other systems are just as complex, but less visible. The corned beef behind the counter of a 33rd Street deli may have been raised in South Dakota. It ate winter feed trucked in from California and was protected by (or tainted by, depending on your POV) antibiotics grown in a German lab. It went to a stockyards in Kansas City, got butchered and packaged in Springfield, and spent time in a cooler outside Chicago before both truck and rail were involved in delivering it to your sandwich. Every day, literal tons of produce, meat, bread, and fixin's pour into the city.

Somewhere out there, there's a rusty old part, or a dead D-cell, just waiting to bring any or all of these complex architectures down.

The Finger on the House of Cards
Tipping point has replaced "the straw that broke the camel's back" in our vocabulary. Was Hurricane Katrina the tipping point that made the American public realize it takes more than platitudes to be a leader? Was the appointment of Miers the tipping point in cleaving Bush from his conservative base?

When New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell, wrote his book The Tipping Point in 2000, he had a little more restricted view of the term in mind. A tipping point in Gladwell's view is not something as massive as Katrina. It's the tiny things. The little things that add up. The final drop that causes a bucket to overturn.

Gladwell illustrated his ideas with examples from a 1990's syphilis epidemic in Baltimore, to the American Revolutionary War. In this short book, he brought to bear both the terminology of marketing (Paul Revere was effective in raising colonial support before he was a social "connector" as well as an information "maven) and epidemiology. Behind both sets of terminology is the idea that most changes -- whether it's the spread of a germ, or a technology -- occur when small groups of people change their behavior. These changes generate little ripples that then

You've heard this idea before. It's not too off from the idea of the old idea of a meme -- a discrete thought or idea that gets transmitted from person to person like a conceptual virus. It also touches on the idea of "consensus reality," in which we all agree on the rules that make up the world around us. In many ways, this conceptual world can be just as difficult to maintain, just as complex, as the technological foundations of our civilization. These are the stories we tell ourselves, and if something contradicts one of those stories... it can cause a kind of mental blackout. You don't have to look any further back than the aftereffects of Katrina to see that, not only was there huge physical damage and an administrative failure of epic proportions, there was also an epidemic of altered conceptions.

These ripples of ideas can be more powerful in affecting our actions than any technological breakthrough. Abolition was brought about as much from a shift in how people thought about slavery as it was by force of arms. So were most other social changes. Before these changes, even the idea of change is hard to grasp. After the change, it's difficult to conceive how anyone could have ever thought differently.

Because our world is built as much from ideas as steel, it's also vulnerable to a breakdown in those ideas. The Rwandan genocide wasn't caused by a natural disaster (though it was influenced by events as diverse as bad weather , a drop in global coffee prices, and the murder of two presidents). It was a disaster of thought, an epidemic of murder that took more than million lives in one horrible spring. People were killed by their neighbors. Students were slaughtered by teachers and teachers by students. The social bonds, that consensus of normality, was shredded. The same sort of break down has happened many times before. It'll happen again.

Like cars running at high speed down a multi-lane freeway, the wonder is not that there are occasional accidents. The wonder is that it ever works at all.

The Foot on the Accelerator
Speaking of wonder, by now you're likely wondering where I'm going with all this. I promise you, it's not going to be all vague gloom and doom -- because I'm getting to the specifics.

Only a couple of weeks ago, Jerome a Paris published his Whiny Frog diary, complaining about the lack of attention given to energy issues. Since then, there have been a series of good diaries from other sources (including Meteor Blades), one of Jerome's dairies has made the front page, and we've had direct feedback from a governor on energy issues in his state. We've even started on the idea of forming a coherent "open source" energy policy.

It's quite a turn around for the subject. In fact, considering all the things we have to think about -- all the issues, all the news, all the candidates -- is it too much? Are energy issues bogarting the recommended list? Does energy really deserve this much attention? It does, and here's why.

In 2003, Richard Heinberg put out a little book with the somewhat cute title, The Party's Over. If that title makes the book seem sort of light and fluffy, the content is anything but.

Heinberg's contention, backed by a small army of statistics, is that not only have we passed peak oil, we've passed the era of cheap energy. For a century, the world has luxuriated in a bath of readily available hydrocarbons and has, oblivious to the damage we were causing the environment, turned that abundance into a fantastic abundance of food and goods. We are oil addicts.

It was this wealth of cheap resources that lifted us into the Industrial Age. Not only did it bring factories making $200 sneakers and iPod Nanos (I love mine), it brought the Green Revolution. All but the most barren places in the world were made to produce a new abundance of crops. Even if "a rising tide raises all boats" has been misused by politicians of all stripes, cheap energy really did buoy up world population and living standards. In fact, the last couple of generations living in the wealthiest countries have experienced a kind of cultural hedonism unthinkable a century before.

Cheap energy has defined how we live, where we live, and who we live with. It's made the suburbs possible. It's scattered families over continents. It's made it possible to transport goods around the world for less than it takes to make them in your home town. It's also fueled a demand for more cheap energy -- and an unbreakable assumption that such energy is available. Sure, maybe it means poking holes in the last wild places. Maybe it's deep ocean hydrates. Or wind. Or solar. Or tidal power. We plot to put hydrogen fuel cells in our cars. We plant corn, switchgrass, and soybeans to produce biofuels.

In all of this, we assume there's an "out." Make the right choices, turn left at the next policy intersection, and we'll reach a happy destination. We'll be able to keep on keepin' on, doing what we've always done, only better. Clean, hydrogen cars will sweep into shiny solar powered cities, and we'll all have Playstation 9's hooked up to 100" OLED TVs.

Ever see one of those cartoons where someone is trying to calculate the way to some fantastical result? There are a thousand mathematical symbols on the left side of the chalkboard, and the desired result on the right. In between is that magical phrase: "and then a miracle occurs." We expect the miracle.

Only according to Heinberg, that's not going to happen. Despite the presence of the word "party" in the title of his book, the operative word is "over." According to his numbers, there is no miracle on the way. Even if we make all the right decisions (and he doesn't think for a moment that we will), the world as we know it is already done for. Industrial society stormed the planet on the back of cheap oil, and it's about to exit stage right. High tide has already passed, and as the water starts to go down, it's going to go way down. Fast.
Think about some of the consequences of this truly post-industrial world (some of this is from Heinberg's book, more from my own fervid extrapolation):

* Putting the worst first: 2/3rds of everybody dies. The complex web of fertilizer, fuel, and machinery that makes agriculture possible in many parts of the world, and delivers the bounty of the "breadbaskets" to where enough food can't be raised, falls apart. Cue the four horsemen. Without cheap energy, starvation, disease, and war are the inevitable results for most of the world's population.

* Dwindling energy resources over the coming decades will lead to resource wars in the Middle East, Asia and eventually in America and Europe. I'll go further than Heinberg: I find it extremely unlikely that nations faced with complete dissolution would not unleash a few nuclear parting shots.

* Fuel prices become so expensive that it becomes impractical to travel long distances, either by car or plane. In fact, it becomes impractical or impossible to even manufacture many of the things we take for granted, because the parts can't be brought together at a reasonable price. In many ways, people's lives look, not like those of their parents, but more like those of a medieval peasant, who lives in a very small space, using products almost all of which are just as local.

* Chaos. Plain and simple. Against the kind of social and technological changes that an abrupt end to cheap energy would bring, there is no social, political, or commercial institution that would survive. Organized religion might make it, in some alternative Canticle for Leibowitz sort of way, but don't even count on that.

The technical networks that make our lives possible are complex, fragile, and utterly dependent on cheap energy. The social networks that make our lives possible are complex, fragile, and utterly dependent on cheap energy. Cheap energy is going to end. Soon.

Any questions?

Is that it then? Are we doing nothing but arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? If Heinberg is right, then yes, we are. Hold all the marches you want. Elect who you want. Take all the recreational products you can get, 'cause buddy, the future is going to suck anyway. And if you might want to book that trip to Alaska. The best that Heinberg is able to offer is the idea of a "managed collapse," in which he proposes that with great political courage on our part, and unprecedented international cooperation, we can achieve the same results (most people dead, the rest living in Medieval Land), but do so in a way that leaves the survivors in a softer, greener version of hell.

My message to Mr. Heinberg: that's the one thing I can promise you is not going to happen. People and institutions will not surrender their lives or their comforts willingly, and certainly not peacefully. If the end comes as nasty as he suggests, then we better hope that the descendants of cockroaches or squids make better use of our fossilized remains when it comes their turn in another half a billion years.

That's how important this issue is. We either win on this one (and when I say we, I don't mean Democrats, or Americans, I mean human beings) or we die. Messy.

We have to devote our energies to filling in that chalkboard. As hopeless as it may seem, we have to find the miracle in the equation. So the next time Jerome, Meteor Blades, or someone else posts a diary on energy policy, pay attention like your life depends on it. Because it does.

Daily Kos: Playing Chicken with the Apocalypse

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