Thursday, March 16, 2006


Recent studies suggest that the gradual warming of the oceans brought about by increasing greenhouse gases will result in more powerful hurricanes. That hardly seems unlikely, granted that hotter water means more energy is available to power up storms; but even if global warming doesn’t result in Hurricane Gimel bearing down on Biloxi one fine autumn morning, the enormous increase in the population of people living in areas subject to catastrophic floods guarantees that the next century will be the golden age of (semi-)natural disasters. As Mike Davis points out in his incredibly depressing book, Planet of Slums, “With the majority of the world’s urban population now concentrated on or near active tectonic plate margins, especially along Indian and Pacific Ocean littorals, several billion people are at risks from earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis, as well as from storm surges and typhoons.” If Davis had been writing copy for CNN, he would have added, “Even worse, upper middle class Americans may not be able to buy flood insurance for their second homes along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts…”

Speaking about reality’s irritating habit of letting more than one thing happen at once: it has been occasionally noticed that technological progress is proving far better at lowering the cost and increasing the performance of electronics than at supplying safe drinking water, affordable transportation, or decent health care. The inhabitants of the reeking slums of Mumbai may indeed be able to watch the irresistible advance of the ultimate tsunami on a HDTV, even if they have literally no place to go to deposit the bowel movements inspired by the brilliant visuals. What is less often noticed are the military implications of the unevenness of technological progress. I don’t know if SONY has a line of affordable IEDs in the works, but it’s a good bet that the wretched of the earth are going to be able to adapt the universally available consumer electronics to the work of vengeance. The presumption is that the Malthusian die back of the next hundred years will not discommode the First World very much because the poorer countries and peoples don’t have access to the means to so anything about it. Aside from the fact that the haves are vastly outnumbered by the have nots, it is far from clear that even the enormous investment in armaments of the U.S. can defeat the military potential of cheap electronics in the hands of sufficiently determined enemies. Does anybody know?

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