Sunday, December 02, 2007

Good times for bad times

Having invested so heavily in it, I'm pleased to see that the bull market in gloomy pessimism has shown no sign of faltering recently.

These are indeed good times for bad times, and the sheer variety and seriousness of crises (whether emergent or already hatched) seem -- rather like extreme weather, CO2 emissions or nuclear proliferation -- to be accelerating at a dizzying rate.

As is the amount of discussion about them.

This is hardly an, ahem, earth-shattering observation; however, I thought I'd take a moment on this rather gloomy Sunday (here where we are) to point out a few worthwhile stops on the apocalyptic reading express.

If the recent IPCC report wasn't intimidating enough, Spiegel points to more recent research that, if anything, suggests it may have been overly optimistic in its conclusions.

From a somewhat different but most likely not unrelated angle, Tom Englehardt, in 'As the World Burns', raises some very good questions and suggests that 'peak water' might be just as serious a problem as peak oil.

Not only do we learn the intriguing fact that last month the governor of an American state led a crowd gathered in one of that nation's leading cities to pray for rain (there's faith-based policy making taken to its illogical conclusion), but Englehardt provides a lot of very useful links to some of the rare serious reporting on the big picture of water scarcity.

The problems in question, as he points out, are not only confined to developing countries (thought these, of course, will most likely suffer more, having fewer opportunities for reacting to shortages), but are also a serious (and possibly urgent) issue in more economically advanced countries.

"Resource wars" are things that happen elsewhere. We don't usually think of our country as water poor or imagine that "resource wars" might be applied as a description to various state and local governments in the southwest, southeast, or upper Midwest now fighting tooth and nail for previously shared water. And yet, "war" may not be a bad metaphor for what's on the horizon. According to the National Climate Data Center, federal officials have declared 43% of the contiguous U.S. to be in "moderate to extreme drought." Already, Sonny Perdue of Georgia is embroiled in an ever more bitter conflict - a "water war," as the headlines say - with the governors of Florida and Alabama, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers, over the flow of water into and out of the Atlanta area.


In my own admittedly limited search of the mainstream, I found only one vivid, thoughtful recent piece on this subject: "The Future Is Drying Up," by Jon Gertner, written for the New York Times Magazine. It focused on the southwestern drought and began to explore some of the "and thens," as in this brief passage on Colorado in which Gertner quotes Roger Pulwarty, a "highly regarded climatologist" at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

"The worst outcome?. would be mass migrations out of the region, along with bitter interstate court battles over the dwindling water supplies. But well before that, if too much water is siphoned from agriculture,farm towns and ranch towns will wither. Meanwhile, Colorado's largest industry, tourism, might collapse if river flows became a trickle during summertime."

Mass migrations, exfiltrations?. Stop a sec and take in that possibility and what exactly it might mean. After all, we do have some small idea, having, in recent years, lost one American city, New Orleans, at least temporarily.

Yes, and that 'small idea' is hardly encouraging, is it?

But the thought that has been preoccupying me a bit more recently is that we may actually lucky if the multifarious results of global warming are the worst thing with which we have to grapple.

Ron Rosenbaum, in 'Talkin' World War III' has done a nice job of rekindling all those nuclear war nightmares that used to keep me up at night as a teenager in the 1980s. There is part of me that thinks that at least a portion of the fear of the 'Islamic bomb' is sabre-rattling hype aimed at creating the kind of environment in which armchair strategists can enthuse publicly about the invasion of Iran -- or the US occupation of Islamabad -- and be seen as thoughtful policymakers.

Then there is the other part that realises that this issue -- while one that can be used for all kinds of wrong reasons -- is not something merely cooked up by the Global Neo-Con Conspiracy but is also a genuine threat. I don't have all that much trust in the wise use of the American bomb (or the British and French ones for that matter) let alone those belonging to Russia and China. But, as Rosenbaum points out, things are in many ways worse than in the bad old Cold War days (which were bad enough):

Let's pause here for a bit of comparative nightmare-ology. Not to diminish the horror of a "next 9/11," but 3,000 died that day. At the height of the Cold War, the estimate for the number of killed in a U.S.-USSR nuclear war ranged from a low of 200 million to a high of everyone, the death of the human species from an Earth made uninhabitable by nuclear winter. Or, as one nuclear strategist once memorably put it, "the death of consciousness."

It didn't happen back then, in part, we now know, because of blind luck (misleading radar warnings on both sides that could have been, but weren't, taken as signals for launch). And because back then, despite the madness of Mutually Assured Destruction deterrence doctrine, there were only two main players, both semirational monoliths with an interest in their own survival.

Now, there are at least eight nuclear nations and who knows how many "nonstate actors," as the euphemism for terrorist groups goes. And some of these nonstate actors have adopted an ideology of suicidal martyrdom, even when it comes to nukes, and thus can't be deterred by the reciprocal threat of death.
I can't say whether Rosenbaum's evaluation is overly pessimistic or not. Nonetheless, I can't really see that it's anything but fundamentally correct in identifying the problem.

The solution, of course, is something else. And, much as with global warming, I'm rather sceptical that there is a realistic one that doesn't have serious downsides.

Unless you think that the world is going to display the kind of cooperation and self-denial that, at least to my eyes, been less than common in its history.

This is shaping up to be a very fun century.

1 comment:

George said...

Yes, I believe that your concerns are right and they are shared by many but not enough people on Earth. I believe that K.R.Popper - "The Open Society", vol. I, and Robert Putnam - "Making Democracy Work" provide some strategies. The first says that we should use our judgement to make good decisions, the second that we should volutarily cooperate with our equals to support our interests.