March 02, 2012

Saturday Morning Essay: Timing the end of the human race for maximum electoral effectiveness

I recently attended a lecture by Avner Cohen, a senior fellow in nonproliferation studies at the Monterey Institute, who was visiting San Francisco to discuss his book, The Worst Kept Secret (about Israel's nuclear bomb arsenal) at the Jewish Library on Ellis Street. Cohen, an Israeli, was refreshingly realistic about the mega-hyped Iran-Israel-U.S. standoff. His essential point: everyone is bluffing: the Iranians about developing a nuclear weapon, the Israelis about launching a preemptive attack, the U.S. about virtually anything it says or does on the subject.

In the heat and noise about Iran & the Bomb, we often lose sight of the data point that it is the official, consensus opinion of America's spy agenices; the Iranians themselves; the IAEA (the watchdog agency in charge of compliance with the Nonproliferation Treaty); many Israeli experts (including Avner Cohen, who is immersed in this stuff all the time), and generally anyone without a specific agenda to push, that there is no conclusive evidence that Iran is actually trying to build a nuclear bomb. They are enriching uranium, as they are permitted to do under the terms of the Nonproliferation Treaty, but not to the 90%+ level (U-235 or fissile component) necessary to go kablooey.

At the same time, Avner Cohen hardly thinks that there is any kind of solution at hand, because there isn't one. If Israel launches a bombing attack against Iran's enrichment facilities, Cohen estimates that at the very outside such an attack might set back the Iranian program two years, and probably less than that. If Iran is permitted to proceed with enrichment unmolested, then it is probable they will, over time, acquire the means to enrich uranium to the 90% level, and enough Iranian nuclear scientists might survive the current spate of "mysterious deaths" (such as riding in cars which are approached by motorcyclists who attach magnetic bombs near the gas filler tube; hey, it could be a coincidence) to design and build an atomic bomb. It's neither particularly easy nor particularly difficult; you can Google the basic ideas for the two ways of bringing two subcritical masses of fissile material together (U-235 or plutonium) (implosion: Fat Man; gun-type: Little Boy).

Sadly, at this point in history, it's just a little too accessible to anyone, regardless of intentions. Thus, Stephen Hawking's idea that we ought to figure out a way to transport some human DNA to another planet, because he can't see us lasting another one thousand years on this one. Although my go-to comprehensive polymath thinker, Professor Craig Dilworth of Uppsala University in Sweden, author of Too Smart For Own Good, might find such an idea a self-defeating contradiction in terms. Writing about our ancient ancestors in the Upper Palaeozoic, living the good life (if they had only known it) with plentiful game, an unpolluted environment, lots of polymorphous, pre-Santorum sex, leisurely lifestyle, with only an occasional raid by cannibalistic fellow humans to harsh their dolce vita, he notes:

"As intimated in Chapter 4, you could say that we were from the beginning not biologically equipped as a species to handle developing technology, which our eradicating a huge proportion of the genera of the world's large animals when we were still in our hunter-gatherer stage makes clear. If technological development were truly an aid to the survival of the human species, it would not have led to the elimination of a significant part of the population's resource base...Something is wrong with technological development in the hands of humans - but then, you could say, something would be wrong with technological development in the 'hands' of any organism."
If this is true about clubs, stone-tipped javelins and lances, bows and arrows, which were sufficient in the hands of the early Sapiens to bring about the "overkill" of the mammoths and other Big Meat food sources, what do you say about 10-megaton hydrogen bombs? Are humans "biologically equipped" to handle those? I'm going to guess: No. I think it is such considerations which lead to the dour, tentative, perplexed way that people who know the facts about nuclear stand-offs, such as Avner Cohen, wind up talking about the problem. Cohen says, well, maybe there will be a successful revolution in Iran. Maybe negotiation could still bring about a solution. Maybe we can rely on the good sense of the leadership in Iran, who have no desire to see Tehran reduced to a large crater of fused glass. Maybe we can rely on President Obama to lead us out of the wilderness:

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama warned that he is not bluffing about attacking Iran if it builds a nuclear weapon, but in an interview published Friday, Obama also warned U.S. ally Israel that a premature attack on Iran would do more harm than good.
A "premature attack." "More harm than good." And if we wait, it will do more good than harm? (I used to think that Obama's pronouncements made sense at least on the superficial level, but did not stand up to logical scrutiny; now I think he's abandoned even the patina of rationality.) Cohen thought the danger point, this year, was the period in the two months just before the American elections. With the American media pounding the drums for some more bombing, demanding some sort of payback for this dastardly plot in which Iranian agents worked with a Texas used car salesman who contracted with an FBI agent posing as a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the ambassador from Saudi Arabia a trusted ally which two former United States Senators have sworn in recent affidavits was probably involved in an operational way with the attacks of 9-11...hold on a minute, I need a breather here.

The point is, we need to bomb Iran. Avner Cohen may say it's futile, but that's not the key point. In September and October, the calls for bombing Iran are going to reach a crescendo, Avner said, and if the Israelis attack then, then Republican pressure on Obama to support the bombing raids is going to become overpowering. If the O Man wimps out, the booboisie of America are going to have their answer to the question: can Obama keep us safe? Or does he have the courage and good sense to throw American military might behind an action which could easily spiral out of control, involving the Chinese, Russians and Indians, who support Iran (and its oil supply), all nuclear-armed countries, in the valiant attempt to buy us that less-then-24-months of not having to think that maybe Iran is working on an atomic bomb?

So you can see what Obama means by "premature." He's telling Netanyahu not to bomb just before the November elections, thus forcing Obama's decision in a way which could foul up his reelection chances.

We've come a along way since the Cro-Magnons.

February 27, 2012

America's Desperate Struggle to Remain Obscenely Wealthy

I'm still working my way through Craig Dilworth's Too Smart For Our Own Good, a highly informative compendium of the world's ailments and their human causes. I particularly appreciate Prof. Dilworth's explanation of the evolutionary instincts which explain the intransigence of Homo sapiens when faced with what is obviously not working anymore.

One recurring concept is the idea of territoriality, which exists in both an individual form (where it plays out mainly in the sexual sphere) and the social mode, which in modern times takes the form of patriotism (scaling up the aboriginal idea of tribalism). These are extremely powerful, determinative influences on our thinking and behavior.

Dilworth's book made me rethink the rationale for the first Gulf War, for example, "Desert Storm." Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, thus posing a threat to our oil and, by extension, our "nonnegotiable" (in Dick Cheney's immortal description) lifestyle. It's not easy to convince several hundred thousand young men and women to lay their lives on the line to keep gasoline cheap at the pump. It doesn't have quite the nationalistic zing of stopping Hitler's conquest of the modern world, for example. This is where the concept of territoriality, in the disguise of "patriotism," fills in so admirably as a motivating force. If one tinpot dictator decided to overrun a neighboring kingdom operated by another set of burnoosed crooks and rule both sand piles, what is really the difference to us other than the economic consequences? And aren't the economic consequences solely and only the result of the elevation of the personal auto running on gasoline to a sort of God-given right in this country? Thus, it was necessary to invent myths about premature babies snatched from their incubators by Iraqi's heartless thugs and other tall tales as a cover story (or at least an accompanying narrative, since President George the First was actually pretty candid about what we were doing) in order to sell the war and play to the territorial instinct.

Dilworth cites some very interesting statistics. For example, of the Earth's 7 billion human beings, about half (3.5 billion) try to get by on less than two dollars a day, or $730 a year. The Third World exists primarily as a kind of plantation for the developed countries of the First World; the developed countries extract necessary minerals (oil, bauxite, iron ore, copper and many other things) from Africa, and poor Asian countries, "investing" in such countries in order to perform such extraction, and as a result the 25% of the total population living in the First World uses about 17 times as much energy per capita as the wretched of the Earth, and vastly more of the minerals extracted than do the countries where the stuff is found. This "investment" has inflated the economies of the poor countries and disrupted ancient tribal life, so that to get by millions and millions have moved to urban cities (such as Lagos, Nigeria) and taken up residence in shanty towns where they live out their brief life spans (life expectancy measured from birth is about 40 years in sub-Saharan Africa), dealing with epidemic malaria and HIV infections.

Back here at home, we compete on the "liberal-conservative" continuum by one-upping each other on symbolic gestures. For example, you drive a Prius while I drive a less efficient Ford, or you put your iMac in sleep mode while I, in my wastrel way, just leave the thing humming away. Because of the intensity of the territorial instinct, this sort of lunatic meaninglessness largely passes unnoticed in our conversations: we take our futile gestures seriously, and "liberal guilt" is largely about whether our personal lifestyle choices seem ethical enough, even if they are totally, completely irrelevant, measured on a real scale of effectiveness (the competition arising from the other form of personal territoriality, based on sexual instincts).

It is gratifying to see Dilworth praise the work of the "early" environmental thinkers and writers, such as Barry Commoner (The Closing Circle), E.F. Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful), the Club of Rome (Limits to Growth) and Paul Erlich (The Population Bomb). When the Earth's population was about 3.5 billion, Erlich predicted, a little over 37.5 years ago, that humans would double in number in about...37.5 years. Similarly, Commoner was writing in 1971 when carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere were up about 6-7% higher than pre-Industrial Revolution levels (270 parts per million). Such CO2 levels now hover at 380 ppm, or an increase of about 41%. It isn't much comfort now to realize they told us so, and anyway, in this country (incredibly enough) we deal with our massive cognitive dissonance by simply denying that the greenhouse effect is real. Well, denial got us where we are today; why mess up a good thing?

It's not a point that Dilworth makes in exactly these terms, but one trend that I have noticed, in reflecting on America's "environmental movement," is that we have definitely accomplished some laudable things, such as (in particular) the Clean Air and Water Acts and the Endangered Species Act, all in the early 1970's. Such developments as the catalytic converter and improved fleet mileage have arisen from these movements, and Lake Erie is now less likely to catch fire spontaneously. However, when you think about it, one thing an honest observer might have to admit is that we never actually change anything which would...actually change anything. Not in real lifestyle terms, not in terms of the real "transactional business" (as Thoreau called it in Walden) betwen a human being and the planet which supports him. This is the key to seeing the effect of territoriality on our thinking. Many among us (the Christians foremost) pay lip service to the idea that "all men are brothers" et cetera, but no one gets hysterically excited enough about this laudable slogan to begin suggesting that maybe Americans should not use 17 times as much energy per capita as the poor use in Lagos or Mexico City or Manila. That would be really inconvenient, you know?

It is estimated that the grinding debt service performed by Third World governments to pay back the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, as the result of corporate "investment" in Africa and other poor areas of the Third World (which allow Western corporations to cart away the mineral wealth while employing a fraction of the locals), subtract so much of the national wealth from such Third World countries that about 500,000 children die each year from lack of health care or sanitary water supplies. Oops: our bad. But you're obviously a Commie if you think this means that Chevron or Citibank shouldn't get paid.

Having hit a resource wall, with oil now over $100 a barrel, and the massive debts used to prolong a privileged lifestyle weighing on our prerogatives, we're getting pretty pissed off. How are we going to get the economy "growing" again, so it can resume that upward-sloping trend line to which Nature's God and the Laws of Nature entitle us? We don't want to wind up like a garbage scavenger in Lagos or a rag picker in Manila, do we? We're paying nearly five bucks a gallon for gasoline (about 2-1/2 times the daily subsistence of half the world's human beings). Is there someone we can go to war with and get this straightened out?

We are, indeed, a unique species. Brilliant, stupid, self-defeating, oblivious and suicidal all at the same time. I'm not sure, however, that the honeybees and cockroaches are going to miss us.