February 21, 2012

Vicious Circle Principle

I came across this gem from Rick Santorum recently while trying to mind my own business. In general, I try not to think about Rick Santorum; I don't see how anything good can come about by thinking about Santorum. He's clearly running for the wrong office; rather than president, he should compete in Vatican City for the job of Pope on a Pre-Vatican II platform. Anyway, here's Rick:

“What they have done? And I referred to it the other day and I got criticized by some of our, well, less-than-erudite members of the national press corps who have a difficulty understanding when you refer to someone’s ideology to the point where they elevate Earth, and they say that, well, men and humanity is just of a variety of different species on the Earth and should be treated no differently.”

He continued: “Whereas, we all know that man has a responsibility of stewards of the Earth, that we are good stewards and we have a responsibility to be good stewards. Why? Because unlike the Earth, we’re intelligent and we can actually manage things.”

Yes, I realize it's mostly gibberish; it's hard to follow what he means by referring to "men and humanity is just a variety of different species on the Earth," but perhaps this is no less articulate than the mean level of political discourse. I think Santorum is advancing a Dominionist view of the relationship between one primate, Homo Sapiens, with its complicated central nervous system, and the planet on which that species, for now, is forced to dwell.

It so happens I've been making my way through a very long book by Craig Dilworth, a polymath professor at Uppsala University in Sweden (I think Dilworth is from Canada, originally), who published Too Smart For Our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Humankind in late 2009. Mr. Dilworth does not agree with the thesis that humans "can actually manage things," and that it is this techno-grandiosity which will lead to our inevitable extinction, and in the not too distant future. (Yes, the possibility occurred to me that Prof. Dilworth might want to spend a lot more time in a Southern latitude and soak up some rays.)

Dilworth concedes that we are smart, of course, as mammals go. This is the root of our problem, as follows: Other species cannot really exceed the carrying capacity of their habitat, at least not for long. They die off when this happens, and fall back to a level which is sustainable, given the available resources and territory.

Humans, however, have created conditions which Dilworth calls the Vicious Circle Principle (VCP). This is actually the story of our "uniqueness." It's fairly easy to understand. When human populations surge, mankind solves the problem with technology. These technological fixes work (we're smart, after all), and not only allow the support of the existing population, but create a surplus which allows additional growth. For a while, a period of stasis is maintained until burgeoning population once again strains against the carrying capacity of human habitat. We then develop another technology fix, and the process is repeated.

As the technological fixes accumulate, they begin to interact with each other in unpredictable, and often dangerous, ways which are not appreciated by humans until problems begin to show up. For example, prior to the Green Revolution in agriculture, humans were straining to feed the world's population, leading to such books as Paul Erlich's The Population Bomb (widely attacked by Catholics of Santorum's Pre-Vatican II persuasion, for obvious reasons, since the godless Erlich was proposing birth control, of all things). The Green Revolution, involving the massive use of nitrogen inputs and fertilizers derived from petroleum, powered increased yields in basic crops, creating a surplus which allowed the Earth's population to increase from an inadvisable 3 billion in 1966 to a preposterously over-the-line 7 billion today. The Green Revolution also had the effect of draining the Ogallala Aquifer in the Great Plains through overuse, halving the original topsoil from 6 feet to 3 in America's breadbasket, and also of creating massive dead zones at the mouths of all major rivers (because of nitrogen and pesticide run-off from agriculture), thus heavily impacting another food source, marine life.

The Green Revolution permitted sustained population growth and encouraged the exploration for, and use of, unprecedented levels of fossil fuels. Burning such fuels released CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and, at the interface of the world's oceans and the air, enabled the formation of carbonic acid, which has had the effect of acidifying the oceans, destroying the lowest end of the marine food chain (phytoplankton and other creatures). Rising ocean temperature (an effect of global warming) has bleached out and destroyed much of the world's oceanic reefs, depriving marine life of habitat and food sources.

The physical layout of modern Western life (and increasingly in Asia and Latin America) has become heavily dependent on the private automobile, a technical fix which originally helped with the mechanization of agriculture and then enabled the swelling populations to live far from city centers and commute to specialized occupations, burning more fossil fuels, increasing the CO2 content of the atmosphere and disrupting the climate on which the Green Revolution also depends. All these people, spread out over such vast areas, required, long, inefficient transmission lines for electrical power, massive burning of coal to generate electricity, and the rest of the interactive infrastructure of modern life, all of which were devised in response to previous needs to cope with population growth and improve the "standard of life," and which all act in concert under the rules of the VCP.

The Earth's 7 billion people now find themselves up against what Dilworth considers an end point. Previous technical fixes, at lower levels of population, at least had the advantages of a functioning ecology and plentiful resources. Now, however, we have messed everything up so badly in such complicated, intertwined, inextricable ways (with so many complicated feedback loops involving so many poorly-understood physical processes), and we are now so short of such basic essentials as fresh water and high-density energy sources, and arable land, and reliable climate, and...well, you read the newspaper.

The idea being: we're really up against it. Rick Santorum actually looks like a guy who might have been a Steward on the "Love Boat" or maybe on an old Pan Am flight, but I don't think it's the national press which is "less than erudite." It's this dumb cluck Santorum and people who think as he does who present the clear and present danger to survival. Although that's essentially just a "bootless cry to mute Heaven," as the Bard says in the sonnet, an attempt to blame another idiot now, when the damage was done so long ago. We overshot the mark in the distant past, and if Santorum wants an education system which portrays the Flintstones as historical fiction, it won't make too much difference for present purposes. I think Dilworth is gloomy because he's right, and it appears we're going to be the first species that ever thought itself right out of existence.

February 19, 2012

The Obama Gambit

First of all, to state the obvious, if Barack Obama were the ordinary type of American President, that is, a white guy from a somewhat privileged background with a room temperature IQ and a sketchy resume (the apotheosis of such specimens being George W. Bush), we would never hear a word about "Birthers" or Kenyan ancestors or the rest of this racist nonsense. We all know this to be true; the rage, the intemperate screaming from people like Orly Taitz, the Queen of Birther Nation, would just never happen. Look at the old pictures (such as that above) of the intolerant Southerners who made the lives of African-Americans a living hell in the Jim Crow days; look at those faces, those masks of hatred and bigotry, that irrational madness that was Southern racism. That's what "Birtherism" is, all dressed up in its Neo-Fascist finery. The pretense of "protecting the Constitution" is a lot of happy horseshit; sadly these days, nobody really cares about the Constitution anymore, except for a few diehards like Glenn Greenwald, Jonathan Turley and even, on my better days -- me.

Unfortunately, the list of those who don't care much about our Constitutional framework must also include Barack Obama himself. I have come around gradually to the idea that Mr. O, that preternaturally gifted political chameleon, has grokked in his pitch-perfect way that the current political consensus is that the Constitution can be safely bargained away, that the Bill of Rights is just a negotiable, political "issue," and that the Beltway doesn't have time in its mad scramble to raise campaign cash and line up lobbying jobs to worry about the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and Ninth Amendments, to name just the most important and most serially-abused of the original charter.

Obama knows that he can get away with this approach. I imagine, in our debased civics culture, that the average Man on the Street is unaware of the content of the Bill of Rights; indeed, some studies have suggested that the majority of those interviewed, when not told of the origin of the rights being described, have found the first Ten Amendments vaguely "radical" or maybe even "Communist," and that there is little chance, starting from scratch, that we would enact the same set of basic civil liberties again.

I find that passing strange, but then - it's probably just me. So anyway, to return to the theme, the text for this Sunday morning sermon: I don't know exactly what I expected, but I was sort of hoping that Obama would not treat Constitutional rights, or the whole question of the impartial application of the rule of law to everyone, as just another politicized "issue" to be bargained away when convenient to do so, that he would not immediately succumb to this Look Forward, Not Backward mantra that he used to evade all difficult questions about looking into the obvious war crimes committed by the previous Administration, and all his other sell-outs.

But he did. He's got a big job, the biggest in the country, and with that job comes the responsibility to make tough decisions, decisions that might make it extremely uncomfortable, for example, to stand in group photos with "all the living Presidents" in the Oval Office on account of your Attorney General is busting your predecessor for multiple-count violations of the international Convention Against Torture and the War Crimes Act. Naturally, such a scenario is unthinkable when we reflect on the true nature of the ever-accommodating, always-compromising, go along to get along President, who is guided by one thing and one thing only, the effect of a given decision on his reelection chances. And then in his second term, the effect on his golf schedule.

Thus, Obama has taken his place in the gradual evolution of the American Presidency from the days when we had strong and resolute leaders, such as Teddy Roosevelt, FDR or Harry Truman, people who were willing to make hard decisions when the circumstances demanded them, to the modern version, where the office is really more a part of the Public Relations industry. The whole idea is to be vaguely inoffensive, to be lenient and to let everything slide, to never make a member of your powerful Peer Group in the least bit uncomfortable or inconvenienced. If we are offensive and violent, it's always at the expense of some completely overmatched Muslim country over there someplace that we bomb into the Stone Age while here at home we worry and fret primarily about whether Americans are exhibiting sufficient "demand" for consumer goods and services, in order to "get the economy moving again."

I don't think that's really unfair at all, as a characterization, as a description of Mr. Obama's modus decidendi. Thus, the question: how do you get excited about the reelection of Obama for a second term if you look at things that way? I'm continually amazed at the way liberal commentators in the media have gotten on the Obama bandwagon, people such as Randi Rhodes or Andrew Sullivan, who used to positively excoriate George W. Bush for doing things such as escalating the war in Iraq, or running a due process-free concentration camp on Cuba, and yet simply overlook the exact same offenses when committed by Mr. Obama, as he escalates the war in Afghanistan by a factor of three or refuses to shut down Guantanamo, for fear of looking "soft on terror." Or the easygoing acceptance by the same liberal pundits of assassination of American citizens on Presidential whim with no objective standards and no explanations.

The point being, if you continually adopt practices for the sake of looking "tough" and "realistic" that undercut basic American civil liberties, and establish the atmosphere of a police state, all in the proclaimed effort to "save" the American way of life from the evils of terrorism or whatever it is that we say we're doing, don't you eventually arrive at the point where there's nothing much left to protect? And shouldn't Obama be talking about that?

Thus, that is the central mystery to me of the Obama Gambit. Not the Kenyan grandfather. I don't care about the Kenyan grandfather, I am perfectly content to believe that Barack Obama was born in Honolulu in August, 1961, an American citizen, as American as I am, as or more American than his Birther antagonists. That's all a ridiculous sideshow, a disguised form of saying that a black man should not hold what the Birthers regard as a white man's job. I just wish we had an American citizen, born in any state of the Union, of any color or mix of "races" (as mythical as the whole concept of "race" actually is in light of our common African Mother), who would stand up for American citizenship.