April 27, 2008

Living in the Future

I am indebted to Kevin Phillips for another brilliantly insightful work on the current state of the union (the real one), this time out in a book called Bad Money, which deals with the long-term consequences of a number of converging crises, including the collapse of the housing market, federal debt and trade imbalance, peak oil, and global warming. It's a tour de force.

I've been reading books about the dangers which lie just up the road for as long as I can remember. Paul Erlich's 1968 Population Bomb, for example, which predicted that world population would double every 37.5 years, and that mass starvation would set in within 20 years or so. Erlich was right about population growth for the first forty-year period (3 billion to 6 billion people), but the so-called "Green Revolution" managed to keep pace with the food needs for a rapidly expanding population. It's not surprising that he took a lot of heat from the Pope and from Libertarians such as Julian Simon, who both argued that more humans were a good thing, not a problem.

I first read about CO2 build-up in the atmosphere in Robert Rienow's 1969 Moment in the Sun, who wrote about a 6% increase in greenhouse gases in the troposphere over pre-Industrial Revolution levels (280 ppm). We're now at 380 parts per million, or a 36% rise over such levels.

There have been numerous books about the rapidly increasing national debt and trade imbalances, and lots of others about the phenomenon of "peak oil," that hypothesized level where half the available petroleum has been extracted and the amounts remaining will be increasingly difficult to pump and refine. I've read a bunch of them, too.

Reading the news these days, it becomes apparent we've begun to live in that "future." It's different in many ways from the predictions. The mass starvation hypothesis in the 1980's did not come to pass, but now we're facing serious food shortages worldwide, mainly involving wheat, rice and corn at the moment, but the problem will spread. It would be fatuous to deny that these shortages are related to explosive population growth. The effects of global warming become more patent with shrinking Arctic sea ice, melting glaciers, acidification of the oceans, die-off of marine species and salt water intrusion from rising sea levels. The problem of peak oil is exacerbated tremendously by the emerging (and overpopulated) economy in China, which is now using the wealth transmitted to it by the United States to secure oil access from formerly reliable partners of the U.S., such as Iran, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. The sovereign wealth funds and state-owned oil companies, such as those in the Gulf Arab states, Venezuela and Iran, have eclipsed the former "Seven Sisters" of the American oil heyday and the big investment banks of Wall Street. These titanic business entities (which we have done so much to empower) now threaten our own financial sovereignty.

All of these developments are different in their details from the prognosticators' doomsaying, and in most cases that's because it was perhaps impossible to foresee the interplay between one set of problems (food production, e.g.) and another development such as oil shortages. The writers in the 60's and 70's could not have foreseen Reaganism (a cowboy actor as President?) and his foolhardy decision to run huge deficits while over-investing in the military. Indeed, going back to the era of Erlich's book, 1968, and moving forward, and passing through the Vietnam War and Gulf I&II, along with forays into Panama, Grenada and ten other places -- a serious argument could be made that the huge standing army and conventional armament maintained by the U.S. has been a positive hindrance, with no return whatsoever on money invested, and this misallocation accounts for a large part of the inability to deal with the looming enviromental and energy crises which have gained force. But always, the huge number of variables involved, and the feedback loops among them, leave anyone trying to make an educated guess about what will happen in twenty years vulnerable to large variances in actual outcome.

Those who do not want to change the status quo seize on this inherent and unavoidable inaccuracy as an argument for denying the validity of the futurist's main point. Some technological or "political" fix will solve the problem when it shows up, so calm down. The difficulty is that when the problem finally does manifest itself in all its awful living color, it's not only different, it's almost always a whole lot worse. The "fantasy" bias lulled mankind into thinking the incipient problems would evolve along the gentlest possible path.

So, as Kevin Phillips masterfully demonstrates, here we are. Living in the "future." The United States is seriously broke; we've popped the last bubble remaining to us (housing); the Big Money countries, such as China and the Gulf States, are losing interest in supporting our government or using the dollar as the benchmark for crude oil purchasing; countries which don't necessarily have our best interests at heart (China, Russia, Venezuela, Iran) are forming cooperative alliances; and the U.S.'s one play to carve out a reliable oil supply all to ourselves, the war in Iraq, has turned into a gigantic bust with no payout, while making the problem of insolvency significantly worse.

I'm not even going to mention that we have to deal with all of this while George W. Bush is the President. There's a limit to how many of my own fantasies I care to disabuse.

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