Monday, June 4, 2012

Human are like rats and cockroaches: the coming feudalism

Is that too sensational a title for a Serious Blog Post?

I took the bit before the colon from an article in The New Yorker of 14 May. It's a quotation from Michael Specter's The Climate Fixers: Is there a technological solution to global warming? The quote is attributed to Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist in the Carnegie Institution Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University.

Prof. Caldiera's quote in context (emphasis added):
"[...] Climate change is not so much a reduction in productivity as a redistribution," Caldeira said. "And it is one in which the poorest people on earth get hit the hardest and the rich world benefits" -- a phenomenon, he added, that is not new.

"I have two perspectives on what this might mean," he said. "One says: humans are like rats or cockroaches. We are already living from the equator to the Arctic Circle. The weather has already become .7 degrees warmer, and barely anyone has noticed or cares. And, yes, the coral reefs might become extinct, and people from the Seychelles might go hungry. But they have gone hungry in the past, and nobody cared. So basically we will live in our gated communities, and we will have our TV shows and Chicken McNuggets, and we will be O.K. The people who would suffer are the people who always suffer.

"There is another way to look at this, though," he said. "And that is to compare it to the subprime-mortgage crisis, where you saw that a few million bad mortgages led to a five-per-cent drop in gross domestic product throughout the world. Something that was a relatively small knock to the financial system led to a global crisis. And that could certainly be the case with climate change. But five per cent is an interesting figure, because in the Stern Report" -- an often cited review led by the British economist Nicholas Stern, which signalled the alarm about greenhouse-gas emissions by focussing on economics -- "they estimated climate change would cost the world five per cent of its G.D.P. Most economists say that solving this problem is one or two per cent of G.D.P. The Clean Water and Clean Air Acts each cost about one per cent of G.D.P.," Caldeira continued. "We just had a much worse shock to our banking system. And it didn’t even get us to reform the economy in any significant way. So why is the threat of a five-per-cent hit from climate change going to get us to transform the energy system?"
Specter's article brushes up against the question how in the heck do we think about what's going to happen in the event that humankind fails to avert catastrophic climate change that's coming down the pike, like it or not?

And believe in it or not, for that matter. I won't trouble readers with arguments about whether catastrophic climate change is coming down the pike. Another pullout from Specter's article explains why we really need to be beyond such nattering:
Late last year, Fatih Birol, the chief economist for the International Energy Agency, said that current levels of consumption "put the world perfectly on track for a six-degree Celsius rise in temperature. . . . Everybody, even schoolchildren, knows this will have catastrophic implications for all of us."

Those who don't believe in school or care about catastrophic implications for all of us can stop reading now.

I myself don't have faith in engineered solutions to massively complex problems, of the sort advanced by the subjects of Specter's article. I've written to this effect before (cf. Digging deeper holes, dateline a couple years ago), but the gist of my perspective can be boiled down to two words: unintended consequences. And that's in the best possible case, the case in which the engineered solution works. This concern about unintended consequences is at the heart of The New Yorker's article too.

IMHO, Specter portrays pretty clearly that efforts by brilliant, well-intentioned engineers -- scrambling to figure out what in creation can be done to help humankind and the planet as a whole in the face of willful ignorance and political paralysis -- are full-blown nuts. We're talking about one proposal to pump reflective chemicals into the stratosphere through a twelve mile long tube held aloft by a balloon. We're talking about another proposal to stir up entire oceans the way undergrads stir beakers full of liquids with those little magnetic bars on a chemistry lab bench, only, um, at greater scale.

Pretty hard to imagine unintended consequences in either of those scenarios, eh? Not. The Climate Fixers... is free to all comers on The New Yorker's web site, have a look for yourself.

What's most sobering and best-stated in the article is Ken Caldiera's scenario #1.

Global crisis? Yeah, yeah, yeah, we all know how to wring our hands over that. I have and do, often enough that regular readers' eyes glaze over when I get an apocalyptic rant on.

But when we stop. And take a deep breath. And think about how crises play out in the real world -- thoughts lead right down the moral sewer that Caldiera conjures: humans living like rats and cockroaches. Some will make it, others will suffer horribly. Pass the Chicken McNuggets, pleez.

Read "castle walls" for Caldiera's "gated communities" and it's not so hard to see that, in the optimistic view, we're probably rolling toward a new and savagely feudal dark age.

The pessimistic view? That's the "global crisis" thing. Full-blown apocalypse. The end of days.

Here's a thought: is a coming feudalism the reason why Steampunk is a popular trope in books and movies nowadays? Is there broad recognition, in a zeitgeist-ish sort of way, that clocks will soon run backward? That play acting at an alt-history with a soup├žon of 19th century spicing is a way of discharging horror at how deep we're really likely to sink?

I don't know. But I do wonder.

The tilt toward feudalism isn't just a speculative artifact of speculative catastrophe driven by it's-a-fact-thank-you-very-much climate change.

We know, of course, that there are still feudal cultures in the world, warlords as brutal as any who ever lived before our time; and human trafficking we might as well call slavery or serfdom. These cultures seep well beyond the borders of so-called broken states, well beyond regions and continents that most Americans prefer to think of as 'far away': Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa.

Yes, Martha, I mean we have human trafficking right here at home, even in the U.S. of A., as acknowledged by our own FBI. Where have those Chicken McNuggets gotten to, eh?

Here's Joseph E. Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate and professor of economics at Columbia University, on today's United States, in Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%, from last month's Vanity Fair:
It’s no use pretending that what has obviously happened has not in fact happened. The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent. One response might be to celebrate the ingenuity and drive that brought good fortune to these people, and to contend that a rising tide lifts all boats. That response would be misguided. While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall. For men with only high-school degrees, the decline has been precipitous—12 percent in the last quarter-century alone. All the growth in recent decades—and more—has gone to those at the top. In terms of income equality, America lags behind any country in the old, ossified Europe that President George W. Bush used to deride. Among our closest counterparts are Russia with its oligarchs and Iran.
That rising tide of yore? I'm thinking tsunamis and salt-deserts. I'm visualizing deep, deep doo-doo.

Here's how Michael Specter sums up a path toward drowning ourselves, literally and morally, that seems pretty feasible given the way our aggregate (but not collectivist) 21st century approach to catastrophic climate change spins:
Unfortunately, the least risky approach politically is also the most dangerous: do nothing until the world is faced with a cataclysm and then slip into a frenzied crisis mode. The political implications of any such action would be impossible to overstate. What would happen, for example, if one country decided to embark on such a program without the agreement of other countries? Or if industrialized nations agreed to inject sulfur particles into the stratosphere and accidentally set off a climate emergency that caused drought in China, India, or Africa?

The thought is enough to make you want to shut your eyes and stop up your ears. Alas, that won't make the problem go away.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Water, water everywhere and a lot of murky reasoning
Unvarnished truth is hard to swallow
Digging deeper holes

Thanks once again to the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies for the graph of world temperature over time; to Luigi Cannella via Fotopedia for the image of the castle at Craco in the deep south of Italy; and to the U.S. Navy on Flickr for the aerial view of Sukuiso, Japan on 18 March 2011.

1 comment:

  1. This post struck a nerve on Daily Kos the same day it was posted here; there are some great comments and links for those who are interested:

    this post on Daily Kos, 4 June 2012