The craziness has at least two ongoing processes, either of which would be sufficient for the parasite to kill the host:
1)The expansion of a national tendency in the United States toward international rape and pillage into a failed attempt at world hegemony supported by resource theft by the authoritarian leaders of the empire. A fabulously expensive and destructive effort viewed from almost any direction, but easy to understand from the point of view of motive. That's what a Cheney does. Like Tiggers bounce.
2)World-wide, the financial predator classes have adopted a market-based theology, complete with patron saints, St. Rand and St. Miltie, to justify an "ethic" of greed, and reify a sort of generalized catechismic business model of cheerful internal predation so pervasive that the beast of burden is staggering, collapsing, near death. I've always thought that, to justify this destruction the predators had to be so divorced from their prey that they could not see it's imminent collapse. That always seemed unsupportable, but I had no other explanation of events. And now we are to play "Austerity on Parade."
I think there's a better explanation, another thread of intent emerging that explains more, and more effectively. To understand that explanation, some background is needed. I ask the indulgence of those who are familiar with the work I'm about to paraphrase, and the patient attention of those who are not.
In 1970 the Club of Rome commissioned, and Volkswagen agreed to finance, a study to be done at MIT by:
Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III,
They were charged with the task of beginning to answer these two questions:
- Are current policies leading to a sustainable future or to collapse?
- What can be done to create a human economy that provides sufficiently for all?
"World 3" was a computer simulation developed by them and others to help answer those questions. World 3 modeled the relationship between a set of selected variables of central importance to human society and to growth, and the world's ecological systems. The model was never intended to produce numerical predictions, but was to be a way to see trends and estimate likely outcomes, if certain courses of action were chosen. It permitted alterations in basic assumptions as well as the numerical estimates of such things as resource discovery and exhaustion, topsoil erosion, population growth, global and regional temperature change and a host of others.
In other words, "What are we doing to the planet? And where might it lead?
Most importantly, "What might be the result if we changed--that? Or even that and that together?"
"Limits to Growth" was the resulting first book to detail their work and conclusions.
"Limits to Growth" was a courageous if imperfect blockbuster. The authors had no idea just what they had let themselves in for.
Why is that?
Because, in a nutshell, a large majority of World 3's projections of possible futures end in overshoot in ecological footprint leading to societal collapse before 2100, with huge declines in population, quality of life, life span, and in short, chaos. The authors present several possible courses of action that could lead to better outcomes, but during the thirty years since the work came out, only a little has been done that might take us in those directions. In 1972, all four lead authors believed a change of course was not only possible but likely. Today, only one remains a believer.
It should be no surprise that "Limits to Growth" was the target of endless attacks and criticism. Some were sincere and valuable, some utterly cynical or disingenuous. It triggered that greatest of all left-handed compliments: It became almost unmentionable in polite circles at the University of Chicago's department of economics, except when accompanied by expectoration. Same at the chamber of commerce. Two singular honors.
Over the next thirty years, World 3 was modified many times, it's basic programming language was changed, it's assumptions and equations updated endlessly to reflect better data, and it became World 3.3 It gained hugely in sophistication, but it's conclusions did not change.
It's available to anyone on a DVD, for the asking, if you wish to prove it to yourself, or to join the thousands who have tried to pick it apart.
The second book it spawned was called "Beyond the Limits", out in 1992, which discussed ecological footprint and overshoot as well as how the model had fared in the light of global developments over the intervening twenty years. In a nutshell, pretty well.
The latest book is "Limits to Growth. The 30-Year Update", copyright 2004. In my opinion, it's the best summary of the whole project yet.
I'm not going to attempt to repeat in detail the arguments relating to this long term project on both sides, but I will lay down some sources for those who would like to delve further into that morass:
- Yale economist Henry C. Wallich labeled the book "a piece of irresponsible nonsense" in a Newsweek editorial dated March 13, 1972. Wallich stated that technology could solve all the problems the authors were concerned about, but only if growth continued apace. By stopping growth too soon, the world would be "consigning billions to permanent poverty".
- Writing in the Michigan Law Review, Alex Kozinski, a Reagan-appointed judge, discussed "Limits to Growth" in his article "The Skeptical Environmentalist", calling the authors "a group of scientists going by the pretentious name of "The Club of Rome". He even got the name of his enemy wrong. His broadside was seized upon by numerous equally ill-informed or disingenuous commercial interests whose business model was threatened by any restrictions on environmental predation. He became the darling of many whose pipeline to profit was the art of externalizing costs onto the backs of the taxpayer or onto future generations.
-.Another angry critic of "Limits to Growth" was Lyndon LaRouche, who even wrote a book-length rebuttal called "There Are No Limits to Growth" and, characteristically, saw the work as a global Malthusian conspiracy to twist the minds of the innocent.
Puhleeze. I read most of this crap, while preparing this diary, in an attempt at intellectual fairness. In my opinion, there was little of that to be found in these authors. Tough, smelly going.
The most cogent critiques, until very recently, related to disagreements with the authors' treatment of the relationship between technological advancements and extractive practices, farming practices, etc. , maintaining in essence that technology can fix anything, and, secondly, a perceived insufficient deference toward the market pricing mechanisms' wondrous ability to stimulate research and development. In truth, same argument.
The authors argue that thirty years is plenty of time to evaluate the effects of market forces and technological development on the system. Since the first book hit the stores, the vast majority of technological innovation has come in the development of consumer toys and war-making technology. Only very recently has technology been seriously employed in developing ecologically smart things for the common good. Marketworld just does not do that very well. And the realities of exponential growth have shortened our response time to an increasingly narrow window, while our meddling in the planetary system has accelerated ecological change greatly.
As to the emotional element poisoning the scientific well, any attempt to study a question with deep social impact will engender deep emotions. Scientists have them too. The task is not to be emotionless, but to find ways to keep your feelings from poisoning the well of knowledge you wish to drink from.
One way to see if this attempt has been successful is to take a long view- revisit the results a few decades down the road. That's the aim of the book, and the authors maintain their results remain solid. Many others, including me, agree.
In 2008 Graham Turner published a paper called "A Comparison of `The Limits to Growth` with Thirty Years of Reality". Writing for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation , CSIRO, in Australia, he compared the past thirty years of reality with the predictions made in 1972 and found that "changes in industrial production, food production and pollution are all in line with the book's predictions of economic and societal collapse the 21st century."
Again, the model was not intended to be a predictive one. It was a trend-spotter, a vehicle for analysis and projection. But when the trends show a solid pattern of outcomes, even with altered initial conditions, when the model itself is updated to encompass thirty years of technological and social change, and still shows the same patterns, the model can be said to be predictive.
There are those for whom no body of evidence will ever be sufficient to call into real question their theology- that man was given dominion over the earth -by God, Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman, it's all the same in effect- and therefore a license to plunder the earth. But most of these critics do not see themselves as religious at all- they believe themselves to be honest doubters, "sceptical environmentalists", as above. Yet their tenacious hold upon the doily that 30 years' time have made of their criticisms is revealing.
Rescued by the Ugly Duckling?
Nassim Nicholas Taleb has an idea. A simple idea so powerful that it has attracted some of the lightning bolts left over from all the attacks on World 3.3. Ironically, it is in my opinion the best criticism of World 3.3 and of modeling in general that I've read yet.
Taleb is the child of politically prominent French citizens residing in Lebanon, and he attended the Grand Lycee Franco-Lebanaise, until the civil war drove him to take refuge in the family basement, and continue his studies more or less independently. Perhaps that explains his escape from the mold.
Taleb says that throughout our existence the events, the insights, even the art that has changed human life most powerfully have been and will be outside any modeling, any predictive process at all. Simply put, rare, powerful events do not offer any statistical handle for analysis because of their rarity. Well,--duh. OK. This is that sort of idea most disliked by the vested aristocrats of academic analysis- a simple idea that packs a punch far in excess of their elaborately assembled tools. The hammer as compared to the computer. Like those who built World 3.3, he's described by some as a reductionist, a purveyor of the childish oversimplifications of popular thought. But since Taleb speaks from a background as a trader and hedge fund manager, and these guys have a lot of skin in the game, his ideas have found a respectful ear in the world of finance.
Taleb sees a Black Swan Event as unpredictable, always surprising.
He sees them as potent, powerful beyond other events
Once recognized, Taleb believes these events are shoehorned into out knowledge structure by saying that the relevant data was there, we just didn't put two and two together properly, but now it's obvious.
Simply put, the events that change the world are extreme outliers- so extreme as to not be either predictable or even describable by existing modeling structures.
Suffice it to say he writes persuasively about an idea that to me has the very character of a black swan idea. Oh. Well-yes. Holy shit.
I suggest the Wikipedia entry as a fair introduction to his ideas, because the rest of the piece hinges on them.
Death By Sin
My personal introduction to LTG began around 1978 when I read it while doing a graduate course of directed study in social change with Phil Bosserman. Phil had just come back from a stint in Africa in the peace corps, and was en route to Paris to become the Emile Durkheim professor of Sociology. The book was still a magnet for spitballs. An angry target for the Very Serious Person opinion. This ability to draw hostile fire was by then not so much a result of substantive imperfections, but because of a problem with sin.
Anyone who read carefully, with any empathy at all, could smell the perfume of affection, of love, of hope for the world that wafted up from the pages of the book. Not from the data, or the modeling, but from the act of dedication that brought these people together for so long.
And it is surely a mortal sin for scientists to love the object of their research. Ask Margaret Meade.
Real scientists are cool, rational. They speak and write in the dispassionate exclusionist language of equations, they objectify and decolorize the targets of their intellect. To the VSPs of the day, these people were merely mushy propagandists, appealing to a gullible mass market audience.
A case can be made that objectivity can suffer when a bond of love is made, but then the work must be criticized for it's quality and content so the supposed prejudice might be revealed. In the case of LTG, it seemed to me that all the vitriol of the commercial interests and market theologists turned up only the technology issue.
By that time in my life, I had already had a significant career in the world of technology, and was better aware of it's limitations than most. I also had no cash on the table, having, by 1980, already bailed out of the American economic plane, so no tendency to believe what was profitable, or comfortable. We wanted only to cherish, to embrace the rich and lovely world, to learn from it, and to perhaps point the way for others. So we sailed away. We were gone for 14 years, and when we returned, the world of my youth was already gone. From both sides. We did not recognize much, and were glad beyond words that we had bailed out. Still, we had no desire to see the plane crash. We only wanted to not be on it, when it did whatever it's bloody-handed pilots did with it.
I had made my uneasy peace with the Cambodian border, with the Mekong delta, and was beginning to realize that my fellow explorers had been either co-opted or were so dispersed that if we were a vanguard, we were leading the way for no one.
Suffice it to say that my recent reading of the third book thirty years later only increased my admiration for the work done by the authors. It saddened me to learn that all save one had surrendered hope. In short, it was a revisiting of an old and well hated nightmare. We had set it aside, for love of the world, and made a choice to stick to what we did well- explore. Upon revisiting the Club of Rome, it appeared that they too were a vanguard for no one.
I no longer see it that way. I now suspect that their work is today widely accepted, but just not publicly.
1.The model is now mature, and has stood the test of time. The attacks and criticisms made over time have been addressed, or proved largely incorrect. Those that remain are not based on any real evidentiary analysis, but are largely ideological or theological in nature. They reek of denial, of self-deception.
2.The range of outcomes the model now shows comprise a strikingly similar family of curves. Even after 30 years of upgrades.
3.Only late-stage changes remain to us.
And then along comes Taleb, who points out the obvious to me, and offers a thin reed to breathe through. Pray for a Black Swan? I don't pray, and I'm not much of a gambler, unless forced to it. I look at LTG and world 3.3 as a body of solid research that must be dealt with. Therefore, it seems to me that these notions are likely true.
1.The world's major industrial nations have at their disposal plenty of modeling talent and research facilities, and as the objections to LTG melted away with time, they cannot have failed to thoroughly evaluate a work with such striking implications, and to have made their own models. Even if only to discredit it.
2. The inputs to World 3.3 have now been tweaked by many different people representing a very wide range of viewpoints. I think it is now clear that no matter what assumptions you make, any model truly attempting to represent an ecological reality will produce a family of outcomes roughly similar to those produced by World 3.3. The absence of competing models producing differing results that have stood the test of peer criticism supports this suspicion.
3.The actions and policies that can ameliorate the nastier aspects of these models' possible futures will have been picked through with a fine-toothed comb.
4.I think the events since the book's 2004 release have accelerated system processes so that, without herculean intervention the point of collapse may be undeniable within our lifetimes. World 3.03 still offers some plausible scenarios that could result in a non-catastrophic transition to a sustainable economy.
So when did the results of ecological modeling become reflected in public policy?
I think it began to soak through corporate and political denial somewhere around the early 80's, but if you are speaking of publicly acknowledged policy, the answer is "Never".
It's the "Kill the Messenger" thing, because if the news gets out, you've got chaos. And the destruction of a vast swath of fortunes, industrial empires and political influence.
Those scenarios that do result in a soft landing require the world's population to adjust to a society that consumes vastly less resources and energy, and farms in very different ways- in short, small, energy-efficient dwellings, mass transit where possible and muscle transit mostly, totally different farming technologies,--in general, a place with a different world view and definition of "rich", and "success". That's a hard sell for a generation of politicians who believe, correctly, that the average voter is struggling to remember his 8th grade geography.
Time is now much shorter- we have burned through thirty years, and done almost nothing. Who wants to admit that?
What politician wants to tell their constituents what the new normal really is likely to be?
Would YOU like to be the politician to tell the American voter, or any marketworld citizen, that most of their resource-intensive, energy slurping toys, like cars, are just -OVER?
That the future of residential architecture in the developed world- the rich world- is perhaps homes built from a couple remodeled shipping containers? That it might be a good idea to trade their Jet-Ski thrill for a pair of cotton shorts and a book on tai-che?
Right. "George, call security on the double, have them bring the squad and the car. Gotta go right now."
I think we all agree that visible government is mostly theater, but there is a layer beneath the stagecraft, perhaps several layers, where attempts at real policy do occur, along with (or mixed with) the predation.
Among the world's leaders, who do you think understands the implications of World 3.3?
GWB? No. Not a good fit with his world view at all- potentially mentally destabilizing, perhaps not even believable by him. And nothing would have been accomplished by telling him.
Obama? I have real questions about his endless obeisances to the gods of technology, to innovation. It seems that either he's not nearly as smart as he seemed to be, or he could be just deep in theater. But he must now be aware of a body of well-supported knowledge that bears so powerfully on his policies and governance, his legacy. He perhaps Krugners it.
Jamie Dimon, and his peers? I'd bet on the bankers getting it. They are accustomed to risking a lot on abstractions, models. I'd bet that they got it long ago, and are acting on what they know.
If you accept, as I do, the likelihood of elite acceptance of the research as plausible, several things make sense:
The acceleration of wealth capture- of predation by an entire class of kleptocrats, with the devil-may-care disinterest in the demise of the middle class. "Big deal. Their goose is cooked anyhow."
Among those still willing to even try to govern, the whole apparently pyrrhic notion of "austerity" could be a tactic to begin the painful, dangerous process of adapting public attitudes to radically lower standards of living that will soon come upon them, at a time when a host of scapegoats are available. As well as providing aide to the rapid wealth capture above.
The activation of plans to just pirate the world, such as PNAC and Full Spectrum Dominance, might make as lot of sense to an authoritarian personality who also demands dominance, such as those described as "double-Highs" by Bob Altemyer. Might also be a great excuse to do what they've always wanted to do anyway. What do you bet that the full dominance scenario has been modeled to death in their own version of World 3.3?
A Thought Game
Imagine that you are a fly on the end table, sipping spilled Coke and listening to the counsels of the mighty.
"Mr. President, Wickwit here has some model data he'd like to present to you. Glad you could be here today, Wickwit." (turning) "We think Wickwit's data relates strongly to the present circumstances, and it forms the basis of a lot of the council's recommendations over the last few yearsa."
(Wickwit takes the podium and fires up his powerpoint.)
"Mr. President, Blah blah blah blah the chart on the left, that's the projections of overshoot and -er, likely consequences under the three politically feasible options. Blah, blah Heritage modeling tracks the DOD work and all the stuff we got from Paris and elsewhere blah blah but on the right you can see our best-case outcomes, the line in red blah blah we know these are pretty amazing projections, but they've been checked six ways from Sunday, for thirty years. Blah blah since other options are politically impossible blah blah blah discrete bipartisan compromise blah blah---"
Consider the recent SOTU, and Obamas' washed-out delivery, the level of non-speak. Plug in whatever you see as germane data, about whatever world leader relates to your particular situation most importantly, and ask yourself: Does he gets it?" Or does he believe his own bullshit?
As for Obama, I think he gets it. Just a gut feeling, but I think he got hit between the eyes by a carefully packaged delivery sometime after inauguration, and is still trying to wrap his head around it. He looks and sounds like a man who has been slammed hard these days.
Who else might get it?
The eternally bloodthirsty neocons, and the still-powerful overlapping Cheney machine, and the bankers, and the policy-oriented intelligence analysts. I think they all get it, and that's more than enough.
I'm proposing we may well be in the middle of an attempt to manage a world-wide decline that is recognized as unavoidable and imminent. This may be a good time to do it, since the supply of fear and of scapegoats is at a high point. It's a perfect example of the process Kline described so well.
A perfect time to blame someone else for the "New Normal", and seize the chance to squeeze and run.
Some of the brightest wits don't see it at all. Again, the esteemed Paul Krugman is one, even though the craziness level in the policy world is high, and he remarks on that often. Are we then to assume, once again, that he disguises his real opinions in order to survive in his position?
Would that be so bad? We need him.
Some will say that the case is far from proved, Krugman may just see it differently, that it all may just not happen. Yup. And all the bugs ate the oil from the Gulf of Mexico, and Saddam probably hid the WMDs before we got there. Or ate them.
It's 30 years of well-financed work, state of the art equipment and careful thought, and a huge amount of peer review. Though the time frame can shift a fair amount from scenario to scenario, I think the work stands.
Can such a huge decline be managed without ever discussing it publicly? Perhaps, but it would be like attempting to get rid of a dead elephant in the living room, blindfolded, without admitting there are such things as elephants.
What if the world really talked about it? Would the world go berserk?
Will we not eventually reach a point when we must talk about it? Take collective action?
Perhaps not. Perhaps we too will strangle in our own shit, like another dark projection of Maltus' ideas.
But maybe not. If we can do it, the time to act, is now. After all, there is a wonderland to be saved. Perhaps a new normal that helps us to sip lightly at the nectar and give back in equal measure what we take, is not such a bad idea.
In the words of Daily Alice, as she knelt in the barred sunlight on her bedroom floor and said her morning prayers:
"Oh great, wide, wonderful, beautiful world ,
With the wonderful waters around you curled,
and the wonderful forests across your breast,
- Oh, world, you are beautifully dressed."
John Crowley, 1981
As for me, I'm starting a new business to save money for that freighter trip around the world. I want my girls to have at least a glimpse of it while it's still there.