The Long View 2006-01-18: Suicide, Iran & Environmental Collapse? Damn the Demographics!

I was first introduced to James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis' work with the Gaia Hypothesis through the simulation game SimEarth. A year ago I posted to an interview with Lovelock, and at the time I assumed that he was crazy things because he was old. I can now see that Lovelock was always crazy.

Lovelock is 98, and still around to give astonishing interviews. Margulis is not, but she was equally crazy. She did one big thing right, supporting the notion that mitochondria and chloroplasts originated as independent prokaryotes, and then massively went of the rails everywhere else.

Suicide, Iran & Environmental Collapse? Damn the Demographics!


Regarding the Oregon Suicide-by-Doctor law, which the Supreme Court has just upheld, let me repeat that I dislike this law as a matter of public policy. Nonetheless, the statute was valid. It did not contradict federal drug-control statutes, much less the federal constitution. The question, in fact, was enough of a no-brainer that it was an embarrassment to see that three justices were willing to say they thought otherwise.

Look, the Conservative Party is supposed to be the Principled Party. That means the party that is willing to accept defeat on a partisan issue if that is what is necessary to maintain the rule of law. Had a majority of the court voted to overturn the law, a specific evil would have been avoided, but at the expense of the rule of law and of the credibility of the justices. The court is going to need that credibility if the case that overturns Roe is to be seen as anything more than a press release from the Republican National Committee.

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And what of Niall Ferguson's credibility? A historian is always regarded with suspicion by his colleagues when he speculates about the future, as Ferguson does in the brief essay: The origins of the Great War of 2007 - and how it could have been prevented:

The devastating nuclear exchange of August 2007 [between, probably, Iran and Israel] represented not only the failure of diplomacy, it marked the end of the oil age. Some even said it marked the twilight of the West. Certainly, that was one way of interpreting the subsequent spread of the conflict as Iraq's Shi'ite population overran the remaining American bases in their country and the Chinese threatened to intervene on the side of Teheran.

Yet the historian is bound to ask whether or not the true significance of the 2007-2011 war was to vindicate the Bush administration's original principle of pre-emption. For, if that principle had been adhered to in 2006, Iran's nuclear bid might have been thwarted at minimal cost. And the Great Gulf War might never have happened.

We should note any such conflict today could not expand in the fashion of the First World War. In 1914, an algorithm of treaty obligations and diplomatic understandings ensured that, in a matter of weeks, the war would spread across Europe. (Ferguson has said otherwise; he's wrong.) Even the lesser European powers had deployable forces all ready to go. That was an unusual start for a major war, of course. Compare World War II, which arguably began when the Japanese pushed south into China in 1937 and was still adding major participants in 1941. That is the sort of slow accretion that an initial strategic nuclear exchange would exclude. Israel as a nation might not survive such an exchange. It would be surprising if the Iranian state survived. The wild card would be what would happen to Islam if the holy sites in Saudi Arabia were nuked and the hajj became impossible.

And of course, the hypothesis of an "exchange" is unlikely, too. Iran wants ballistic nuclear weapons to obtain a measure of immunity from regime removal by the United States. That would allow Iran to operate a terror network and conventional forces with a measure of impunity. That calculation would work until missile defenses can reliably stop short and medium-range ballistic missiles. We can expect that to happen at no distant date.

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According to James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia hypothesis, The Earth is about to catch a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years. As he notes more in sorrow than in anger in The Independent:

This article is the most difficult I have written...Gaia has made me a planetary physician and I take my profession seriously, and now I, too, have to bring bad news. ...She has been there before and recovered, but it took more than 100,000 years. We are responsible and will suffer the consequences: as the century progresses, the temperature will rise 8 degrees centigrade in temperate regions and 5 degrees in the tropics...Curiously, aerosol pollution of the northern hemisphere reduces global warming by reflecting sunlight back to space... We are in a fool's climate, accidentally kept cool by smoke, and before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.

Collapse is not quite so imminent that we might not hope to read all about it in Dr. Lovelock's forthcoming book, The Revenge of Gaia.

Regarding this article at hand, readers of Olaf Stapledon's First and Last Men may be reminded of the end of the First Men, who survived in the Arctic in a few small groups after Earth undergoes a sudden and violent heating. Elsewhere in this article, mention is made of a future ruled by barbarian warlords, which gets us back to Mad Max country. All in all, the article is an exercise in apocalyptic nostalgia.

Lovelock's assessment is that ecological collapse is irreversible. Some of the brighter environmentalists understand that this view might interfere with fundraising:

"If any of us back up behind that idea we might just as well slit our wrists," said Aubrey Meyer, the director of the Global Commons Institute, which campaigns hard for an approach to limiting greenhouse gas emissions known as Contraction and Convergence, based on moving to equal emissions entitlements per person everywhere around the globe.

The Gaia Hypothesis has a sensible version: the biosphere and the atmosphere interact over time to keep the surface temperature within a narrow range. That's probably true. However, there is also a nonsensical version, promoted at times even by Lovelock himself, that says the biosphere is a living thing, with many of the attributes of a deity. That is, to put it politely, a category mistake.

I am a great fan of decreasing CO2 and methane emissions, if only as a matter of better engineering. Actually, I am quite as capable of panicking about global warming as the next guy: when I woke up this morning, the temperature was 60-degrees Fahrenheit. By 8:00 AM, the sky was still so dark that the street lights were shining. Neither of these things is supposed to happen in the New York area in mid-January. However, the environmentalists are the last people I would ask for an explanation of what is happening or what to do about it. The environmental industry derailed nuclear power in the 1970s; today they advocate vacuous non-solutions like windpower. The really strange ones are trying to discourage hydroelectric power. And all their specific predictions have been wrong for 40 years.

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And demography is worse, if you believe J. R. Dunn in his article How Demography Fails. He takes particular aim at the notion that Europe must inevitably turn into Eurabia, a development that is now regarded in some quarters as inevitable as environmental collapse:

The argument is straightforward: the native European population is dropping, with birthrates in all countries below replacement level. The Muslim populace, for the most part unassimilated, is still expanding. One curve is going up, the other down. When they cross, Europe will have effectively come under Muslim control.

But is it truly that simple? After all, there’s a reason why you’re not reading this in a U.S. with a population of 500 million+, which is what demography foresaw in 1950. Or in the 2006 world of 8 billion souls, as predicted ten years later. And certainly not in the 21st century universally forecast in the 70s, in which a few survivors grub about in the ruins left by the Great Crash following a runaway population explosion.

Yes: where do they sell Soylent Green? Perhaps they will on Svalbard Island, when the remnants of humanity in that Arctic country grow peckish.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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