Faith in progress

by Henry on January 30, 2005

Brad DeLong spares me the effort of completing a half-written post about how badly Gregg Easterbrook= misses the point of Jared Diamond’s wonderful Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond isn’t arguing that material circumstances trump human inventiveness but that they structure it. Still, there’s another aspect to Easterbrook’s review of Diamond’s new book which is worth discussing. In Easterbrook’s closing paragraph, he says:

Diamond fears our fate was set in motion in antiquity—we’re living off the soil and petroleum bequeathed by the far past, and unless there are profound changes in behavior, all may crash when legacy commodities run out. Oddly, for someone with a background in evolutionary theory, he seems not to consider society’s evolutionary arc. He thinks backward 13,000 years, forward only a decade or two. What might human society be like 13,000 years from now? Above us in the Milky Way are essentially infinite resources and living space. If the phase of fossil-driven technology leads to discoveries that allow Homo sapiens to move into the galaxy, then resources, population pressure and other issues that worry Diamond will be forgotten. Most of the earth may even be returned to primordial stillness, and the whole thing would have happened in the blink of an eye by nature’s standards.

This crystallizes something that I’ve been struggling to articulate for a while. It seems to me that there’s a shared attitude towards science among various right-leaning technophiles (Glenn Reynolds being a paradigmatic example). Roughly speaking, they tend to agree with science when it suggest new possibilities for human beings (the Singularity! nanotechnology! conquering the universe via spaceflight! longer lifespans!) and to strongly disagree with scientific results or prognoses that suggest fundamental limits to human beings’ can-do ability to prevail over their circumstances (global warming, ecological collapse).[1] This comes out very clearly over the course of Easterbrook’s review, where it becomes clear that Easterbrook’s objection isn’t to the specifics of Diamond’s arguments – it’s to the very notion that material limits might determine our collective fate, a contention which Easterbrook bizarrely describes as ‘postmodern’. This faith in boundless possibilities is at best a-scientific, and at worst pseudo-religious feel-good claptrap along the lines of Easterbrook’s previous muddled attempts to reconcile cosmology and religious belief. Of course, it may be true that future discoveries will enable us to leave the Earth, conquer the galaxy, exploit the “infinite resources” of the universe etc. But half-assed appeals to the limitless opportunities of the future aren’t an argument; they’re a statement of faith. It’s a wonder that Easterbrook should have been asked by the NYT to review a serious book; it certainly shouldn’t happen again.

Update: A commenter over at Brad’s points out that Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth’s wicked corporate satire, The Space Merchants, anticipated Easterbrook’s basic argument over fifty years ago.

The Conservationists were fair game, those wild-eyed zealots who pretended modern civilization was in some way ‘plundering’ our planet. Preposterous stuff. Science is always a step ahead of the failure of natural resources. After all, when real meat got scarce we had soyaburgers ready. When oil ran low, technology developed the pedicab.

fn1. While Easterbrook isn’t a global warming skeptic as such, he is skeptical about many of its adverse consequences.

{ 65 comments }

1

Brad DeLong 01.30.05 at 11:30 pm

Glad to be of service…

2

Sean 01.30.05 at 11:30 pm

Easterbrook is struggling because the book doesn’t fit into his conceptual framework. When he says that Diamond attributes the dominance of the West to “coincidence,” he means that Diamond doesn’t attribute the success to the intrinsic superiority of the people in the West, but rather to the superiority of their circumstances — people of essentially similar innate abilities scattered throughout a world of diverse opportunities. In Easterbrook’s world, if you’re doing better, it’s because you deserve it.

Okay, I can’t explain the “postmodern” bit — that’s just weird.

3

PZ Myers 01.30.05 at 11:56 pm

It’s even simpler than that. He seems to have skimmed both books, and didn’t understand either one.

It read like a book report from someone in the lazier half of one of my sophomore classes, and it was in the NY Times?!?

4

aj 01.31.05 at 12:34 am

From Easterbrook’s review:

”Guns” asked why the West is atop the food chain of nations. Its conclusion, that Western success was a coincidence driven by good luck, has proven extremely influential in academia, as the view is quintessentially postmodern. Now ”Collapse” posits that the Western way of life is flirting with the sudden ruin that caused past societies like the Anasazi and the Mayans to vanish. Because this view, too, is exactly what postmodernism longs to hear, ”Collapse” may prove influential as well.

Yes, well there has been a longstanding academic consensus that the linguistic turn should be explained as the direct result of plate tectonics.

Easterbrook also writes:

My guess is that despite its conspicuous brilliance, ”Guns, Germs, and Steel” will eventually be viewed as a drastic oversimplification.

Eventually? Maybe along with skimming the books, he should have at least skimmed the already-published reviews. Diamond got a lot of glowing reviews, but there’s been a lot of criticism as well.

Incidentally, did anyone else notice that Easterbrook felt the need to point out that Greenland is an island? What does he think of his audience?

5

Jonathan 01.31.05 at 12:36 am

I made a very brief comment about this on my blog, but his reference to last century’s rationalists left me very puzzled. But that’s just a little thing. I can’t wait for Michael Crichton’s review.

6

sd 01.31.05 at 12:39 am

sean wrote:

“In Easterbrook’s world, if you’re doing better, it’s because you deserve it.”

This is at least as bad an example of mis-characterization via simplification as Easterbrook displays in his piece. One can quite legitimately believe that cultural factors unique to the broad arc of Western Civ are responsible for the dominance of Western societies in the modern world without attaching any sort of value judgement to the outcome, much less any value judgements to the currently-alive people who find themselves members of either contemporary US/European or contemporary Sub-Saharan African societies.

Nowhere in Easterbrook’s piece does he suggest that Americans or Europeans deserve world dominance.

But then again his brother is a Reaganite federal judge and he himself once wrote a piece saying that Bush environmental record was better than its often portrayed so maybe he deserves everything he gets.

7

Brad DeLong 01.31.05 at 1:03 am

Re: “Nowhere in Easterbrook’s piece does he suggest that Americans or Europeans deserve world dominance.”

Yes he does. He suggests that it is a good thing to give Westerners reason to boast about there accomplishments…

Most interesting, perhaps, is Easterbrook’s apparent belief that coincidence is a bad thing. The natural alternative to Diamond’s ecological determinism would seem to be chance and coincidence–pure luck that Cromwell did not take ship for America, etc. But Easterbrook appears to believe that Western dominance is not the result of coincidence and not the result of ecological determinism.

What does he think generated it? Providence, in that God has assigned a unique civilizing mission to first western Europe, then Britain, and now the United States? Genetics, in that people of northwest European stock are in some way a superior genetic elite? What is going on here?

8

derrida derider 01.31.05 at 1:23 am

Its not quasi-religious faith that makes people optimistic about the power of human ingenuity to meet new challenges, but simple induction; we’ve faced and beaten worse in the past.

I used to think that the apocalyptic tone of much environmental commentary was just a bad marketing tactic – now I realise its genuine enough, but systematically underestimates human adaptability.

9

sara 01.31.05 at 1:48 am

It’s a wonder that Easterbrook should have been asked by the NYT to review a serious book; it certainly shouldn’t happen again.

The Times, by the way, does not produce serious reviews of serious books. It farms out reviews of books to reviewers of the opposite political camp, because then the review can be written quickly and there will be plenty of snark. This is OK over Sunday coffee, but it is entirely trivial.

Serious academic reviewers are asked not to write a review of the book they wish they’d written, e.g. Easterbrook probably has in mind “The Triumph of Western Civilization as Will and Idea.”

10

Andy 01.31.05 at 1:52 am

The apocalyptic tone of some environmental commentary is really another echo of eschatology. Feminism and Marxism, to pick two other modern, uh, -isms, are the same way. I used to have some respect for Easterbrook, based on his early writings on the space shuttle and DIVAD, but it’s been worn away to nothing in light of more recent gaffes and worse.

11

Ophelia Benson 01.31.05 at 1:53 am

“It’s a wonder that Easterbrook should have been asked by the NYT to review a serious book; it certainly shouldn’t happen again.”

Oh but it’s not a wonder at all, the Times does that all the time. They’re careful to get people who don’t know the subject to review non-fiction books. It’s immensely irritating, and has been for years.

12

PZ Myers 01.31.05 at 1:55 am

“We’ve faced and beaten worse in the past”?

Woo hoo! I’m going to live forever!

13

John Emerson 01.31.05 at 1:59 am

The kind of induction D.D. refers to was called something like “the Russian-roulette fallacy” by Feynman (with regard to a space disaster). The more times you win, the more confident you get.

The idea that science, by its very nature, finds solutions to all problems and makes good things possible, is a form of wishful thinking. But we’ve been in this bubble for quite awhile when it’s been firly true (though there’s a tendency to forget the failures, especially because so many claims are mad that a fair number of them always are valid.)

But nonetheless, science often tells you what you can’t do — entropy, conservation of matte-energy, speed of light, perpetual motion, squaring th circle.

A second characteristic of technophiles is a strong tendency to deny that anything good can be accomplished by social norms, government action or voluntary collective action. Many respect no social forms other than science and the market.

14

Jon H 01.31.05 at 2:08 am

“Its not quasi-religious faith that makes people optimistic about the power of human ingenuity to meet new challenges, but simple induction; we’ve faced and beaten worse in the past.”

We’ve also shit the bed number of times.

And I don’t believe it’s accurate to say we’ve “beaten worse”. When, exactly, have we managed to beat a situation when a resource dried up too quickly to be replaced?

Often, the way we’ve “beaten” such situations has been to move, and take over an adjacent unafflicted territory by force. That’s not innovation.

15

bob mcmanus 01.31.05 at 2:22 am

Science fiction is the new eschatology.

I blame the evolutionary biologists for much of this. “The finch mutated its beak and thus was able to eat seeds during the dry season.” Way,way too much emphasis on the successes. What evolution actually shows us is that most mutations or adaptations fail, and almost every species becomes extinct.

The biologists’ interest and emphasis on successful adaptations allow the Easterbrooks and many others way too many opportunities for distortion.

16

Ophelia Benson 01.31.05 at 2:27 am

“And I don’t believe it’s accurate to say we’ve “beaten worse”.”

Yeah, I was just thinking the same thing. That’s not ‘simple induction.’ The fact that humans have come up with solutions to particular problems and threats in the past doesn’t mean that there is no conceivable other problem that they couldn’t come up with solutions to. That would be a tad absurd, surely. One can think of counter-examples so easily. Suppose an earthquake that made the Boxing Day quake look like an upheaval in a bowl of jello. Or suppose a direct hit by a meteor the size of Richmond Park. Or suppose global crop failures. Or all-out nuclear war. Or a pandemic that would make the 1918 flu and the 1348-9 Black Death look like a case of the sniffles. And those things are all perfectly possible. Technological humans have been around for a few thousand years. We haven’t exactly dealt with everything the cosmos could possibly throw at us yet.

17

Eric Farnsworth 01.31.05 at 2:28 am

I was irritated by Easterbrook’s review too, largely for his shallow understanding of Diamond’s arguments (or just ignoring what he disagreed with?). But mostly I am really tired of people saying that business as usual will be just fine, and if not, we’ll just colonize space. I think Diamond’s greatest contribution is to remind us that we all need to eat, and to have a realistic look at what we eat, where it comes from, how much it costs, and whether we can keep this up for the long term. Here in Kansas it is obvious to anyone who bothers to look, that there is a direct relationship between diesel fuel burned by farmers, and the amount of food they produce. So it is fair to say that we are “eating” oil. This cannot go on forever, and I believe that Jared Diamond makes a good case that we will not be able to support our current population without it. My question to all those who complain about the negativity of people like Diamond (who I believe is trying really hard to be optimistic) is this: Do you know where your food comes from? Will it keep coming from there when diesel is twice its current price?

18

Eric Farnsworth 01.31.05 at 2:29 am

I was irritated by Easterbrook’s review too, largely for his shallow understanding of Diamond’s arguments (or just ignoring what he disagreed with?). But mostly I am really tired of people saying that business as usual will be just fine, and if not, we’ll just colonize space. I think Diamond’s greatest contribution is to remind us that we all need to eat, and to have a realistic look at what we eat, where it comes from, how much it costs, and whether we can keep this up for the long term. Here in Kansas it is obvious to anyone who bothers to look, that there is a direct relationship between diesel fuel burned by farmers, and the amount of food they produce. So it is fair to say that we are “eating” oil. This cannot go on forever, and I believe that Jared Diamond makes a good case that we will not be able to support our current population without it. My question to all those who complain about the negativity of people like Diamond (who I believe is trying really hard to be optimistic) is this: Do you know where your food comes from? Will it keep coming from there when diesel is twice its current price?

19

John Isbell 01.31.05 at 2:32 am

The day 2 + 2 = 5, how sweet will that be!

20

Ophelia Benson 01.31.05 at 2:36 am

“Do you know where your food comes from?”

Exactly. I don’t think we realize what even one globally bad summer could do – even before we think about fuel prices. Just one global bad harvest. I get the fan-tods thinking about it sometimes.

21

felixrayman 01.31.05 at 2:57 am

But mostly I am really tired of people saying that business as usual will be just fine, and if not, we’ll just colonize space.

Yeah, that always reminds me of a Simpson’s episode:

Marge: “Homer, that’s your solution to everything: to move under the sea. It’s not going to happen.”
Homer: “Not with THAT attitude.”

22

aj 01.31.05 at 3:07 am

It also reminds me of the Simpsons episode where the town ends up on top of so much garbage that they finally pick everything up and move Springfield a few miles away.

So maybe that whole galaxy idea isn’t so far-fetched.

23

tom 01.31.05 at 3:26 am

Technological overoptimism vs. hard choices, sacrifices, planning, changing course. Optimism always carries the day until it is too late. Probably had the same argument on Easter Island. But the pessimists just didn’t understand. To quit building those big heads would sacrifice the Easter Island dream, the Easter Island way of life.

But this time the problems are global, not local. There’s nowhere to move, unless you, like Easterbrook, believe we can just pack up and find some other galaxy.

24

Chasseur 01.31.05 at 4:15 am

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biosphere_2

I’m always thinking “what part of finite do you not understand”? Cos for now, it’s finite. Playing chicken before you’re sure you got an out is really not smart.

I love this–
http://econot.com/page3.html
–assclown’s concluding line about his love of nature…

“The natural world,” he says, “is an inspiring setting and inexhaustible resource for the creative work of human beings.”

25

TTT 01.31.05 at 5:07 am

This is the same Gregg Easterbrook who, in his antienvironmentalist book “A Moment on the Earth,” advocated that humans should genetically re-engineer all wild animals into being plant eaters. Because then they’d be nicer and not so mean.

Hey, I bet once we colonize outer space, we can re-engineer whatever nasty ol’ space predators we find!

26

robotslave 01.31.05 at 5:31 am

This book review doesn’t deserve exhaustive refutation, people. All it merits is a Shorter Gregg Easterbrook.

27

Dan Simon 01.31.05 at 7:43 am

This comes out very clearly over the course of Easterbrook’s review, where it becomes clear that Easterbrook’s objection isn’t to the specifics of Diamond’s arguments – it’s to the very notion that material limits might determine our collective fate, a contention which Easterbrook bizarrely describes as ‘postmodern’.

No, Easterbrook’s review is full of valid objections to the specifics of Diamond’s largely absurd arguments. It’s true that in his previous book, Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond compared the New and Old Worlds in some interesting ways. However, in his current book, Collapse–the one Easterbrook actually reviewed–Diamond departs from his earlier, more circumspect approach, and absurdly extrapolates from a few cherry-picked historical examples to the ridiculous conclusion that history teaches us, first and foremost, to be apocalyptic environmentalists like Diamond. I’ve already briefly skewered that conclusion here, and Easterbook adds some more ammunition against it.

Granted, Easterbrook then ends his review on a fanciful note, imagining future colonization of outer space as a solution to man’s problems. I’m as doubtful as anyone of that vision of the future. But the choice isn’t between Easterbrook’s technological triumphalism and Diamond’s environmental millenarianism. Indeed, the same rational skepticism points towards rejecting both extremes together, for the same reasons, and assuming that humankind will muddle through on planet Earth much more effectively than, say, the Easter Islanders did.

28

Joe O 01.31.05 at 7:46 am

I was a little thrown by the “p.c.” and “postmodern” alegations. I have heard “guns germs and steel” attacked as “p.c.” by people who want to emphasise racial IQ differences. The thing that mainly pisses those guys off is Diamond’s aside on how he thinks that the average New Guinia tribesman is smarter than the average westerner. (It isn’t like genetic determinism could be the reason for the rise of Europe over China.) This type of genetic argument doesn’t appear to be what Easterbrook is doing.

Here is an attack from victor davis hanson’s site on “Guns, Germs, and Steel” that shows the roots of Easterbrook’s allegations of “p.c.” and “postmodernism”.

http://victorhanson.com/articles/thornton010505.html

The first paragraph incudes this hacktacular sentence:

“Clinton’s and the academic establishment’s endorsement of Diamond’s book is not surprising, for it validates and justifies some cherished received wisdom of liberal intellectuals, ideas that, at a time when the West is under assault by an alternative vision, are woefully misguided.”

29

Sebastian Holsclaw 01.31.05 at 7:47 am

“Technological overoptimism vs. hard choices, sacrifices, planning, changing course. Optimism always carries the day until it is too late. Probably had the same argument on Easter Island. But the pessimists just didn’t understand.”

Hmm, I wonder what you would think about the social security debate….

There is no crisis, you know. :)

This seems to be another one of those cases where one’s willingness to accept negative predictions on a particular topic has a lot to do with one’s general ideology. I’m guilty see Iraq vs. global warming. But it is something to keep in mind.

30

derrida derider 01.31.05 at 8:20 am

I love the way people read a short comment and assume all sorts of other things about the commenters’ views.

For the record, I am not a market fundamentalist – there are many things that governments can do that the market just can’t (including addressing some types of existential threat). That said, resource exhaustion tends to be a relatively slow process and markets innovate very well in response to slow, systemic changes in prices. Greed really is a marvellous motive for invention.

For the record, I am a passionate opponent of Dubya’s excellent adventures.

For the record, I hold that global warming is a serious problem which should be addressed with serious policy (the most important of these is taxing fossil fuels properly to take the costs of global warming into account).

But given our proven ability over the last couple of million years to survive ice ages, etc, and given that Easter Island type human extinctions have been rare events, and given that our ability to manipulate our environment improved immeasurably a few millenia again and has done so yet again in the last couple of centuries, it’s most unlikely that humans are currently risking extinction or anything like it.

The russian roulette analogy is fine as far as it goes, but surely the question is how many empty chambers there are for each full one. And past experience demonstrates that either we have been extraordinarily lucky or that this particular revolver has an awful lot of empty chambers. I think the latter far more likely – which is all the point I was making. Our chances of thriving for another few centuries at least are excellent.

Chiliasts have been wrong time and time again. Why should I not assume that their next cry of “wolf!” is a false alarm?

People just love the frisson of thinking the end of the world is nigh.

31

derrida derider 01.31.05 at 8:21 am

I love the way people read a short comment and assume all sorts of other things about the commenters’ views.

For the record, I am not a market fundamentalist – there are many things that governments can do that the market just can’t (including addressing some types of existential threat). That said, resource exhaustion tends to be a relatively slow process and markets innovate very well in response to slow, systemic changes in prices. Greed really is a marvellous motive for invention.

For the record, I am a passionate opponent of Dubya’s excellent adventures.

For the record, I hold that global warming is a serious problem which should be addressed with serious policy (the most important of these is taxing fossil fuels properly to take the costs of global warming into account).

But given our proven ability over the last couple of million years to survive ice ages, etc, and given that Easter Island type human extinctions have been rare events, and given that our ability to manipulate our environment improved immeasurably a few millenia again and has done so yet again in the last couple of centuries, it’s most unlikely that humans are currently risking extinction or anything like it.

The russian roulette analogy is fine as far as it goes, but surely the question is how many empty chambers there are for each full one. And past experience demonstrates that either we have been extraordinarily lucky or that this particular revolver has an awful lot of empty chambers. I think the latter far more likely – which is all the point I was making. Our chances of thriving for another few centuries at least are excellent.

Chiliasts have been wrong time and time again. Why should I not assume that their next cry of “wolf!” is a false alarm?

People just love the frisson of thinking the end of the world is nigh.

32

John Landon 01.31.05 at 8:21 am

When all is said and done Diamond’s attempt to explain the rise of the modern (aka the rise of the West)is a non-starter. Geographical contingency is in fact not explanation at all, although it puts a sort of PR wrapper around a controversial topic charged repeatedly with Eurocentrism (cf. Jim Blaut’s Eight Eurocentric Historians, however).

33

bad Jim 01.31.05 at 9:32 am

Our future has been predicated upon increasing energy use for the last few hundred years, and the stories we’ve told ourselves have reflected that history. Of course, fifty or sixty years ago we were telling ourselves that by now we’d be using clean atomic power for everything, and of course we’ve since learned that fission power requires a not terribly clean fossil fuel, and we haven’t been able to domesticate fusion.

The thought that we’ll be able to continue forever in our current fashion is congenial to all who are now, or aspire to become, affluent consumers. It’s also the only outlook acceptable to the interests dependent upon a future in which energy consumption continually increases, which includes a large proportion of the world’s industries.

I’m pessimistic. While I think it likely that we may be close to a peak in oil production, it seems clear that we’ll be able to extract coal for another century or so, and it appears increasingly likely that there’s at least as much carbon available in methane hydrate deposits in the ocean as in the resources we’ve exploited up to now. Our biosphere probably won’t be saved by the exhaustion of fossil fuels.

Human ingenuity has saved us in the past and it may yet. It’s now telling us to stop what we’re doing. We’re making things worse very quickly and we have no choice but to grow up, change course, and switch to a sustainable future.

It’s silly to claim at the same time that unspecified technological advances will soon save us and that our best earth science is wrong.

34

x 01.31.05 at 10:42 am

Its not quasi-religious faith that makes people optimistic about the power of human ingenuity to meet new challenges…

No, it’s not quasi-religious faith. It’s not even optimism. It’s only complacency towards an industrial and economic system for which immediate profits are a higher priority than the hassle of having to meet environmental requirements. It’s a lot simpler to deny the environmental problems are even there. Call all environmentalists wackos, and proceed to deplete resources as usual. Maybe add a PR department to boast about how many hybrid cars you’re producing, and how you have an entire research department studying the prospects of renewable energy, while you continue to drill new oil wells. It’s good for company image. When the media are doing all the PR work for you, it’s even better.

35

Brett Bellmore 01.31.05 at 12:14 pm

“Exactly. I don’t think we realize what even one globally bad summer could do – even before we think about fuel prices. Just one global bad harvest. I get the fan-tods thinking about it sometimes.”

That’s the advantage of being meat eating omnivores, you know; Have a really bad harvest, and you can always eat the grain yourself, instead of feeding it to livestock. A “global bad harvest” would just about depopulate Africa, but it would have little effect in the US, aside from forcing us to adopt a more vegitarian diet.

My objection to the global warming hysteria is simply this: We don’t yet know enough to be sure what we should do! Maybe global warming will be a disaster. Maybe it will have net positive effects. Maybe it’s the only thing holding that over-due ice age at bay, and if we lower CO2 levels the glaciers will start marching. We don’t know.

Our top priority right now has to be getting to know, not acting before we know. Just don’t do something, stand there!

36

Gremmie 01.31.05 at 1:33 pm

This is a copy of my analysis of Easterbrook’s review published in the NYTimes forum, Jan 30.

Greg Easterbrook represents the worldview that E.O.Wilson, the great conservation biologist, labeled “exemptionalism”. Basically, they reason that man’s innovations in technology will save us from resource depletion and ecological collapse. We are thus exempted from our failure to live within the constraints imposed by a finite earth. This view is common among conservatives who may be experts on economics but are extremely lacking in ecological understanding.

An example is Greg’s refutation about the impending extinction of many of the earth’s mammals because, according to Greg, few of these mammals live on islands. True literally, but absolutely false ecologically. Due to the fragmentation of habitats into smaller and smaller parcels all over the globe, many of the earth’s species are now inhabiting islands of man’s creation. The probability of extinctions increases greatly as these parcels are whittled into smaller and smaller fragments. Sadly, a public that has no understanding of the evolution of species is not likely to have much comprehension of the factors that drive the extinction of species.

As for his faith in technology to save us from the depletion of oil, Greg cites the promise of green power. To counter his argument I take the example of ethanol from corn, a “green power” promoted by agricultural interest groups. ADM’s propagandistic ads tell the gullible that we can “drive on corn forever”. Such mythologies are cited as gospel by conservatives and have gained acceptance by the media and politicians alike. What we are not told is that converting corn to ethanol requires as much energy in the form of fossil fuel inputs as are derived in outputs in ethanol. Also, if all the available agricultural land area were converted to growing corn for ethanol, this liquid fuel would substitute for just a tiny fraction of our oil consumption. The environmental costs of growing corn are not inconsequential either. Green? Only to petroleum and coal industry, the fertilizer and herbicide salesman, the seed dealer, the corn farmer, the ADM exectutives and the politicians who pander to their votes by supporting ethanol subsidies.

Globalization, the increasing interdependence of all people on earth, has not made us more immune from collapse. With evolution and adaptive radiation, both species and cultural diversity assured the long term survival of life on earth. We have reversed this trend by shrinking,encapsulating, domesticating, spreading invasive species, and stilling the restorative powers of natural ecosystems and native cultures. Globalization has only temporarily removed some the limits that earlier restricted the growth of local cultures. We are now almost all supported on the same trunk created by the centripedal pull of globalization. There is a limit to how much we can substitute tecnological services for ecological services. The exemptionalists look at this as opportunity for further economic growth. Environmentalists see it for what it really is — global overreach and inevitable collapse.

37

Jack 01.31.05 at 1:35 pm

Brett,

The problem with your plan is knowing what counts as just standing there. At the moment we are increasing our CO2 output. Is that inaction?

Of course your argument is formally similar to the precuationary principle. The difference is that you are worried about a threat to economic growth while environmentalists and many others are worried about global climate change. One important consideration is that global climate change might not give us a second chance while we can always burn the oil later.

38

jet 01.31.05 at 3:17 pm

Hmm….So where in your calculations do you allocate for the millions who go further into poverty and early death due to a world economic slow down? Global Warming schombal warming. You’re gonna have to answer a lot of unanswered questions before Global Warming is going to triumph the advances of globalization.

As for Western Culture and why it dominates, the Punic wars kind of sum that up nicely. Codified individual rights, the resultant decentralized culture, and the scientific/military evolution from wars of annihilation.

39

Sebastian Holsclaw 01.31.05 at 3:31 pm

“Of course, fifty or sixty years ago we were telling ourselves that by now we’d be using clean atomic power for everything, and of course we’ve since learned that fission power requires a not terribly clean fossil fuel, and we haven’t been able to domesticate fusion.”

Arghh. Uranium is not a fossil fuel and it isn’t particularly more worrisome than burning coal.

40

jet 01.31.05 at 3:55 pm

Jack said “global climate change might not give us a second chance”

Oh right, so the IPCC is claiming the sky is falling? And if we don’t curb global warming we’ll all die and only the cockroaches will remain? Do you even know what the IPCC is claiming or do you get your information from Hollywood action flicks?

41

John Emerson 01.31.05 at 4:48 pm

The problem with what Brett says is that people with an axe to grind will always claim that we don’t know. There are STILL people who make their living doubting that smoking causes cancer.

The biggest global warming skeptics are ideologues, futurologists, economists, and oil inductry flacks. (Not climatologists, though they’re always able to scrape up a few contrarians). That should tell people something, but it often doesn’t.

Oddly enough, a lot of technophiles go on an antiscience kick as soon as it interferes with their science-fiction plans for the future. I often hear Lomborg type “cornucopians” (Lomborg’s name for them) denouncing the whole climatology profession as corrupt and politicized, and even orthodox centrist economists often feel their wrath. For example, Krugman.

Yes, Krugman is a centrist. A strong free-trader, moderately liberal on most issues. He despises Bush because Bush is a destructive, know-nothing rightwing fanatic. Centrists can despise wingers without losing their centrist cred. (Except with the wingers themselves.)

42

Brooksfoe 01.31.05 at 6:08 pm

My question to all those who complain about the negativity of people like Diamond (who I believe is trying really hard to be optimistic) is this: Do you know where your food comes from? Will it keep coming from there when diesel is twice its current price?

Maybe it’ll finally start coming from Africa, South Asia and South America, where it should have been coming from in the first place if not for US, European and Japanese farm subsidies.

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Jim Harrison 01.31.05 at 6:40 pm

Jared Diamond is a pretty commonsensical guy who hedges his conclusions because dogmatism wouldn’t go very well with his empiricism. That he’s getting denounced as some sort of Postmodern treehugger shows how distorted debate about environmental issues has become, mostly because an enormous amount of money has gone into defending the status quo, much of it into the pockets of the purchased voices that have replaced public intellectuals over the last couple of decades.

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Brett Bellmore 01.31.05 at 6:46 pm

“The problem with what Brett says is that people with an axe to grind will always claim that we don’t know.”

While that’s technically true, I do follow this at least a little, and it’s my perception that the models have not yet “converged”, that they’re getting significantly different results every time they refine them more, every time they add in some new feature to the model.

When they reach the point where they add more refinements, and the results don’t significantly change, THEN it will be reasonable to make some decisions.

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Jack 01.31.05 at 8:09 pm

jet,
where do you find increased US economic growth translating into reduced starvation in Africa?

US gdp is unusually reliant on use of fossil fuel — about a third more than the EU per $ so it isn’t a law of nature that reduced oil consumption means reduced gdp.

So I guess that you think the threat of global warming is less than the threat of curtailed economic growth? Fine, but we aren’t doing nothing while we don’t take action just as we wouldn’t be doing nothing if we froze, let alone stopped, CO2 emissions. Even without definitive proof but I don’t think the balance of scientific evidence or even commercial opinion is with you. Insurance companies have a rather different attitude than do the oil companies.

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Matt Austern 01.31.05 at 8:48 pm

One problem with saying “we don’t know” is, indeed, that we never know with certainty. If certainty is our criterion for doing something unpleasant to avoid a disaster, then we’ll never avoid disasters. And yes, part of this is that there will always be dishonest flacks who pretend there’s less certainty than there really is, but the other part is that certainty about the future just isn’t what we’ve got in this world. We can’t be certain that driving off the edge of a cliff will be a bad idea. Maybe there’ll be a soft landing; it’s been known to happen.

There’s another problem, though. If someone honestly believes that finding out what to do should be our top priority, then shouldn’t they be acting like it’s a top priority? Where’s the call for (for example) increasing funding in climatology by a factor of 20? What kind of top priority is something, if the only thing that priority suggests we do about a problem is sit around and wait and hope that it does away?

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rob 01.31.05 at 9:09 pm

This is a little off thread – and I should confess I haven’t read either ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ or ‘Collapse’ – but Jet’s assertion that decentralization has been the driver of the success of Western cilivization seems really weird to me. The success, militarily and economically, of Western societies in comparison to African, American and Asian societies coincedes more or less exactly with Western societies undergoing heavy-duty political centralization. The Spanish conquest of Southern America followed directly after the unification of the country under one monarchy, for example. The idea of the state, as we know it, begins to exist in the era immediately after the reformation, and while it may be a case of correlation without causation, the reason Europe was able to dominate the globe in the next two and a half centuries strikes me as having something to do with the ability to project superior power because of that centralization, since they weren’t technologically superior to all the societies that they colonized (India, the Far East) or defeated militarily (Turkey).

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Jim Harrison 01.31.05 at 10:11 pm

In re the comment about European centralization or the lack of it, I’m reminded of a remark of the French historian Braudel: “Europe is diversity itself.” While a single overlord came to dominate the other Old World regions—Turkey, India, China, and Japan—no one European power was ever able to unify the continent and supress its rivals. From the time of Columbus when it was Spaniards against Portuguese to the Scramble for Africa, colonization and trade were promoted as part of an endless, indecisive struggle for supremacy.

If the a grayhound actually caught the rabbit, he’d stop running.

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jet 02.01.05 at 2:04 am

Jack,
2.2 trillion dollars of profit was earned last year by US foreign holdings. The globalized world means that when one market slows down, another market feels the pinch. If you don’t think that a recession in the US woudl translate into closed factories in China, you haven’t visited enough sweatshops in your tour with GreenPeace.

Rob,
I think you are looking at it from the wrong point of view. You need to look at the meta context of western culture. For starters, we’ll go back to the beginning of western culture to the ancient greeks. How did a small, desolate, under-populated loosely knit bunch of cities (they certainly weren’t city states at this point) kick the crap out of the 70 million strong, al-mighty Persian empire?

Why did Spain produce a leader as able bodied as Cortez? What factors made Cortez sucha good leader? Could it be that power was not located in central authorities? That his soldiers had the right to sue him for incompetence (and they did)? That his actions would be reviewed by not only his own soilders, but courts and the government? Who would review the Aztecs generals? What Aztecian soldier could question his leader? What persian slave-soldier could question his emporer? The fact that Spain was just centralized into one nation does not change the fact that power was much more decentralized than in Mexica. And that is what I mean. Western generals didn’t face the wrath of their emporer when they got home. They faced the wrath of their citizen-soldiers as soon as the blood started to dry. When you speak of centralization of Spain as a state, trust me when I say that 1000 years before Spain, Persia was much more centralized.

On a side note, it would be a humorous, yet stomach turning debate to discuss the morality of the Aztecs and Spanards, and who would have been in the right by 21st century western morals :P

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jet 02.01.05 at 2:16 am

Doh, correction. The US had 2.2 in sales in other countries, not profit (I wish).

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jet 02.01.05 at 2:42 am

While I’m making corrections, let me make this one: “When you speak of centralization of Spain as a state, trust me when I say that 1000 years before Spain, Persia was much more centralized.” is wrong. I don’t mean as far as state hood but as far as how power in the culture was handled. 16th Spain had codefied rights for its citizens. Not many other places outside of Europe did.

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Jack 02.01.05 at 8:25 am

jet,
so your SUV is really saving lives?

Anyway, are you both sure that reducing fossil fuel consumption would be so economically diastrous that attempting to moderate use of it would lead to mass poverty and sure that when oil runs out and Chinese demand is as big as US demand there won’t be serious problems?

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Jack 02.01.05 at 8:43 am

jet,
for an argument from a well not poisoned by greenpeace

http://www.slate.com/Default.aspx?id=2112608&

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Heiko Gerhauser 02.01.05 at 9:38 am

I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding here.

Techno-optimists like myself argue that we already have the technology available to avoid extinction of the human race from energy shortages, resource shortages or environmental problems like global warming.

Reference to space is about potential possibilities.

If they don’t occur, we can happily live, 10 billion of us, for billions of years on Earth at living standards exceeding current US standards by a fair margin, without any new technological developments. Accumulation of capital (eg wind turbines) alone is enough to get us from where we are now, with plenty of people still poor, to there.

If they do happen, we may have trillions of people strewn all over the galaxy in a few thousand years.

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rob 02.01.05 at 11:09 am

Jim,

Empires are not the same thing as centralized states. Although the Ottoman Empire, for example, was ostensibly unified under a single ruler, there was relatively wide-spread devolution of power, so that the ruler of Egypt was able to rise up and overthrow the Emperor in the 1830s. Likewise, the Mughals never managed to conquer the whole of the Subcontinent, and tended to use a semi-feudal system to administrate the areas they did, meaning that power was not heavily centralized. If diversity is all that matters, then these societies should have been able to repel European encroachments, since the devolution of power kept them diverse and they had the threat of external enemies (the Europeans in the case of the Turks, and the Southern Indians and Central Asians in the case of the Mughals). I think the ability to project power is the key thing, which is significantly increased by the centralization of decision making and authority which accomopanied the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century in Europe.

Jet

I think you’ve misunderstood what I meant by centralization, which may well be because I misunderstood what you meant by centralization. To my mind, Greek city states were very heavily centralized because almost all political power within a given state was reserved to a single body – a monarch, a group of oligarchs, or the citizens assembled in the forum. In contrast, the Persian Empire wasn’t very heavily centralized because the authority of the Emperor had to be exercised through intermediaries at great distance who could create clienteles of their own. In the sense of centralization as being the opposite of plural sources of political power, the Greek states, simply by virtue of their relative size, must have been more centralized than the Persian Empire, which merely because of the difficulty of ruling a large area must have had disparate and competing political authorities. Emperors may be de jure absolute, but are almost never de facto absolute, and what is de facto is more important.

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jet 02.01.05 at 2:36 pm

Rob,

Good points, but I still think we are ships passing each other in the night. When I speak of decentralization, I mean that in most Greek states, especially pre-Alexander, the polis held the power. A large minority of the people being ruled, were the rulers. Whether that was an oligarchy or a large group of citizens (like those who ordered Aristotle killed), the power was dispersed to those who did the fighting, generaling, and running of the economy. While in Persia, the actual application of power was much less centralized do to the size of the empire, the power was still centralized in a tiny minority of theocratic rulers who all answered to the word slave. The emporer spoke to his reagents by calling them his slaves. That pretty much sums up my point. Greek armies developed better methods of fighting because their soldiers could act on their desires to not get their asses handed to them in the next fight. While a Persian army simply had the cowards executed and fought the next battle the same way. The Greek soldiers could vote (sometimes) to get better equipment, or vote to elect their new general. The Persians had the emporer’s new favorite pet appointed as their general. The Greeks fought to minimize their deaths and maximize their enemies. The Persians only fought to win, who cared how many slave-soldiers died doing it. And off and on, that is the story of western culture throughout the years ending with my point that the soldiers directly under Cortez took him to court for incompetance. Is it even imaginable that the generals of the Persian armies appointment didnt’ come down to the decision of one man, be it the emporer or one of his flunkies? Or that an Aztecian or Persian soldier could bring charges against their general, or have a say in who their general was?

One method leads to the weeding out of the bad and the evolution of warfare. The other method is more static and would always evolve slower. So Western culture and how it fought evolved faster do to the Greek tradition of giving the people power.

But in a world full of abominatinons, what Western culture did with their military might was an abomination of abominations, although it is hard to cry for the destroyed Persians or crushed Aztecs.

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jet 02.01.05 at 2:45 pm

Rob,

To respond to what you said to Jack, I go back to my decentralizing of power as to why the West could always project more power than their Eastern/American counterparts. More Greeks killed Greeks than Persians killed Greeks. That was because the Greeks had a much better combat system. The reason they had a much better combat system was because the people doing the fighting had a say in how he would be fighting. This led to better equipment, formations, weapon choices, and more importantly, much better Generals. But I seem to have left out the most important fact of all. When the polis of Rome learned of the defeat at Cannae, they simple shrugged it off and voted, for the most part, to raise another army and fight to the last man. Wouldn’t a more slave/non-citizen empire have had trouble raising more armies that size, or if they could, keeping the soldiers from fleeing the horrible Hannibal? It might also be a good point that Greek equipment was better than Persian. That Roman equipment was better than African. That Cortez might as well have had lightsabers compared to Aztecian weapons. That military evolution can be driven by the fact that the people who did the dieing had a say over how they fought.

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jet 02.01.05 at 2:52 pm

Rob,
heh, one final note. Persia projected a far larger number of men into Greece than Greece ever did in Persia. The Ottoman empire managed to project quite a bit of men into Europe. The Muslim empire of 8th-9th century Africa had no problem projecting large numbers of men into the Iberian pennusula. The supior ability of Western civ to project men outside of Europe was a relatively late occurance that didn’t happen until the crusades. Before then, the large Asian and African empires always had the edge (as far as projecting more men).

I promise, no more posts, I’ve made all the points I’m capable of makign on this :P

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eyelessgame 02.01.05 at 5:54 pm

I’m distressed by the small number of liberal futurists out there. I share the faith that we *can* solve problems with technology — this is obvious, since we see the solutions right here — the question is whether we *will*.

Because, as Diamond points out, civilizations can fall. Ours has the potential not to — but only the potential, and for as long as we deny the danger, we increase it. My heart is with the people who say “we can make it to the stars” and firmly against the people who say “we must lower expectations and live smaller” — but I am terrified by the fantasy that it’s inevitable that reaching the stars is inevitable.

It was inevitable for the Romans, too.

And I couldn’t ask for a better statement of the fantasy mindset than this quote, upthread:

the same rational skepticism points towards rejecting both extremes together, for the same reasons, and assuming that humankind will muddle through on planet Earth much more effectively than, say, the Easter Islanders did.

The thing missing here is the realization that “Easter Islanders” are “humankind”.

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eyelessgame 02.01.05 at 5:55 pm

I’m distressed by the small number of liberal futurists out there. I share the faith that we *can* solve problems with technology — this is obvious, since we see the solutions right here — the question is whether we *will*.

Because, as Diamond points out, civilizations can fall. Ours has the potential not to — but only the potential, and for as long as we deny the danger, we increase it. My heart is with the people who say “we can make it to the stars” and firmly against the people who say “we must lower expectations and live smaller” — but I am terrified by the fantasy that it’s inevitable that reaching the stars is inevitable.

It was inevitable for the Romans, too.

And I couldn’t ask for a better statement of the fantasy mindset than this quote, upthread:

the same rational skepticism points towards rejecting both extremes together, for the same reasons, and assuming that humankind will muddle through on planet Earth much more effectively than, say, the Easter Islanders did.

The thing missing here is the realization that “Easter Islanders” are “humankind”.

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eyelessgame 02.01.05 at 5:57 pm

I’m distressed by the small number of liberal futurists out there. I share the faith that we *can* solve problems with technology — this is obvious, since we see the solutions right here — the question is whether we *will*.

Because, as Diamond points out, civilizations can fall. Ours has the potential not to — but only the potential, and for as long as we deny the danger, we increase it. My heart is with the people who say “we can make it to the stars” and firmly against the people who say “we must lower expectations and live smaller” — but I am terrified by the fantasy that reaching the stars is inevitable, and that our foolish choices don’t have potentially fatal consequences.

And I couldn’t ask for a better statement of the fantasy mindset than this quote, upthread:

the same rational skepticism points towards rejecting both extremes together, for the same reasons, and assuming that humankind will muddle through on planet Earth much more effectively than, say, the Easter Islanders did.

The thing missing here is the realization that “Easter Islanders” are “humankind”.

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eyelessgame 02.01.05 at 6:07 pm

I’m distressed by the small number of liberal futurists out there. I share the faith that we *can* solve problems with technology — this is obvious, since we see the solutions right here — the question is whether we *will*.

Because, as Diamond points out, civilizations can fall. Ours has the potential not to — but only the potential, and for as long as we deny the danger, we increase it. My heart is with the people who say “we can make it to the stars” and firmly against the people who say “we must lower expectations and live smaller” — but I am terrified by the fantasy that reaching the stars is inevitable, and that our foolish choices don’t have potentially fatal consequences.

And I couldn’t ask for a better statement of the fantasy mindset than this quote, upthread:

the same rational skepticism points towards rejecting both extremes together, for the same reasons, and assuming that humankind will muddle through on planet Earth much more effectively than, say, the Easter Islanders did.

The thing missing here is the realization that “Easter Islanders” are “humankind”.

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eyelessgame 02.01.05 at 6:43 pm

My sincere apologies. It didn’t just delay, it announced server errors. I promise to trust it next time.

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Brett Bellmore 02.02.05 at 1:58 am

You get a server error, it’s best to go off to some other site, and come back in a few minutes; You’ll usually find that your post did in fact “take”.

I think the chief advantage we’ve got over the Easter Islanders, or the Greenlanders, is that there are so many of us; We number enough to sustain real diversity, to explore multiple options at once.

Globalization could indeed take that away from us, blending us all together into a single world culture that moves in lockstep, but I think that trend is going to take long enough that we’ll get into space first. THEN all bets are off.

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Dick Eagleson 02.03.05 at 3:42 am

Diamond’s thesis is fundamentally nonsense – apples vs. oranges. No, scratch that – vegetables vs. animals.

His allegedly cautionary examples are all imperia that existed during eras when technological stasis was the lesson of history, the rational expectation and, in most ways, the ideal.

In contrast, our modern, transnational social order – of which the U.S. is the largest component and purest exemplar – has been “designed” to not only accommodate technological change, but to accelerate it.

The former societies were brittle. Move them even a little way beyond their design limits and they cracked up.

Modern society, in stark contrast, exhibits the qualities of toughness and ductility. It can absorb significant shocks without shattering and can reshape itself to meet novel challenges.

Scoffing at the possibility of scientific/technological feats that, however Buck Rogers-ish they may sound to the untutored, are well within the bounds of known physical law, has become a defining characteristic of the post-modern leftist worldview.

Thus, “post-modern” is a usefully denotative term. It refers to a leftism that is, in its essentials, pessimistic.

This sharply distinguishes it from modernist leftism – that of the 20th Century Marxist revolutionaries and their avant garde cheerleaders from the salons of 20’s Paris through 60’s New York – which was characterized by an integral optimism.

This optimism derived from a conviction – explicit in the form of Marx’s “historical inevitability” or less sharp-edged as a general sense of “the times” – that the world was going in “our” direction.

The more time went by, however, the harder it would get for anyone with a scrap of intellectual honesty to maintain this view. At some point between roughly 1968 and 1978 the tipping point was reached, then exceeded. Leftism detached itself from its moorings in reality and floated off into Cloud Cuckooland, gaining altitude and suffering progressive anoxic brain damage with each passing year.

As “the masses” increasingly made clear their disinclination to be “liberated” from their humanity, and even their lives, the symptoms of this decline could be seen in the increasingly farcical search for something – anything – that could plausibly take the place of “class” in the now-catechistic “class war.”

Race was, for a time, the – pardon the pun – Great White Hope. Despite massive efforts to install a whole new set of melanin-based fences and watchtowers, some of the damned darkies kept perversely wandering off the reservation.

Gender? Same unsatisfactory results.

Having pretty much exhausted the possibilities represented by regretably refractory humans, the next stop was animals – PETA and vegans and ALF, oh my!

The big advantage for the left from here on out was that there was no longer any possibility of having to endure embarassing backtalk by the objects of one’s alleged solicitude.

The relevance of this is that the only thread connecting modernist leftism with its increasingly feeble and degenerate post-modernist forms was the central conceit that it is morally necessary that everyone and everything subordinate itself to the rule of the left. Justifications may come and go, but megalomania is, at least on the left, immortal.

Given that rule is the end, the alleged means could be tailored to suit. It had to be something big, though. If it wasn’t big, there was no way to scare enough people into surrendering their liberty to the “vanguard of the proletariat” – oops, I meant the “protectors of the environment.”

Rallying the troops remaining after its previous litany of defeats, the left regrouped and marched bravely off to save the exploited vegetation from the ravages of unbridled capitalism. Spike the trees! Save the rainforests! Bring me a shrubbery!

Well and truly up against the wall at last, there was nothing for it but to go for the whole damn blue marble. Save the planet! Rescue Gaia! Stop global warming!

We infuriating technophiles had damn well better not figure out how to live, eat, keep warm and drive our SUV’s forever. What happens to the Revolution then?

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