Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Chicken Little or Just a Little Chicken?

Neither actually. The title is in honor of today’s publication in Nature of the genome of the domestic chicken. Meanwhile, I’m not particularly alarmed by recent political developments, though I certainly expect the outcome to be unfavorable for the United States. I’ve reached the time in my life when I find that external events have little lasting effect on my equipoise, either because I have an ever decreasing stake in the game or, more likely, because I’ve finally finished bulletproofing my vanity. My selfesteem unthreatened, I’ve risen above it all like a soap bubble, trivial and very temporary but round and perfect. Besides, though unfortunately my money's not in Euros, I mostly share the complacent European take on the Grand Fiasco. I calculate that the American empire is more likely to blow itself out in a noisy squall than to take the planet down with it in a terminal hurricane. So far, at least, we’ve been very careful to avoid a confrontation with anybody really dangerous so our Middle Eastern adventures have something of the staged and cheesy quality of a professional wrestling match, albeit the phony contest leaves all too many real corpses lying around. In this respect, Mr. Bush’s obvious lack of personal courage is a very positive factor. It’s hard to imagine these blowhards picking a fight with the Russians or Chinese.

America is not the world, and our misfortune is not necessarily a tragedy for humankind. Indeed, as Emmanuel Todd points out, loss of primacy may not even be a disaster for the Americans. The U.S. is a very rich and powerful country and will probably remain relatively rich and political significant even after it finishes impoverishing and humiliating itself—200 years after Napoleon, Paris remains a wonderful place to live and Washington may turn out to be a similarly agreeable monument to vanished pretension. Anyhow, as a rule, though everybody claims to be surprised when it finally happens, the decline of states and societies always takes longer than expected. It’s not quite time to start selling sombreros and colorful plaster piggybanks to Canadian tourists.

I go through phases of being similarly sanguine about the consequences of our neglect of the environment. Despite the interminable attempts of right-wing op-ed writers, most people knowledgeable about global warming don’t expect the Northern hemisphere to turn into a double boiler. Indeed, unless there really is some catastrophic tipping point, a real but modest possibility, global warming won’t ruin the Earth because its inexorably increasing effects will make international countermeasures inevitable. The people who project future energy prices for the utilities already routinely factor in the cost of CO2 recapture into their estimates of the economics of coal-burning power plants because in the long and even medium run, the opinions of this or that politician won’t matter. Willy-nilly we’ll have to restrain greenhouse gas emissions because, by definition, realities don’t give a damn about what anybody thinks. Just as the U.S. will eventually have to cut back on deficit financing even if Bush becomes dictator for life, even the Cato Institute will end up supporting global emission caps. Because the administration dragged its feet—and knuckles! —about global warming, the price of dealing with the problem will much higher than necessary but the resulting poverty, sickness, and death won’t necessarily make a good special effects movie. Let’s look on the bright side.

I also moderate my pessimism with a sometime belief in the Caucasian Cargo Cult of science. Like any other projection, guesses about the economic, political, and environmental future are based on assumptions about boundary conditions. For example, Marx’s prediction of the collapse of capitalism, indeed, his whole view of the human prospect, was vitiated by a drastic underestimation of the productive power of technology. I’m well aware that my own thoughts about what may or may not happen in the next several years similarly depend upon an estimate of the advance of technology. Maybe nanotechnology or some other Great Pig will arrive at the last moment and usher in a Rabelaisian millennium of sausages and mustard or, at the very least, ensure that even the humblest family will be able to enjoy the apocalypse on a high definition plasma screen in their cozy abandoned coal mine.

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