The Long View 2007-01-01: Whatever Can't Continue Won't

Here is John J. Reilly’s New Years’ predictions for 2007. Let us see how he did:

  • The Sunni Insurgency in Iraq. Flat wrong. This went on for another four years or so. And even after it petered out, the former Ba’athists enabled the later rise of ISIS.

  • Sub-replacement birthrates in advanced countries. Somewhat right. I was a little surprised by this one, since the US seems to be a bit of an outlier. Look at this chart, and then go look at any set of countries you want in the data set. There really was an uptick in several advanced countries in the late 2010s.

  • US Federal Deficit Spending. Tax revenues were trending up at the time. There was a huge jump shortly thereafter, but that was the housing bubble, and almost no one got that right.

US Federal Total Revenues and Outlays  By Congressional Budget Office -, Public Domain,

US Federal Total Revenues and Outlays

By Congressional Budget Office -, Public Domain,

  • Barack Obama. Clearly wrong. John’s partisanship probably didn’t help.

  • The Political Invective Industry. Also wrong. John missed out on Twitter.

  • Embryonic stem-cell research. Mostly right. The science really isn’t good on this, and John correctly perceived this.

  • Skepticism about climate change becoming a fringe phenomenon. Right on. This has definitely moved beyond the pale.

  • This wasn’t in the bulleted list, but John also correctly noted that the replacement for the Reaganite conservatism post GWB was going to be 1970s style identity politics.

Whatever Can't Continue Won't

If you are reading this, then I survived this year's New Year's Eve party: the point is uncertain as I write this on the preceding afternoon. So, in the spirit of gratitude for small favors, we will make a modest excursion down the via negativa. Here are some things that, I am pretty sure, will pass their sell-by date in 2007:

The Sunni Insurgency in Iraq: The traditional position of the Sunni minority in Iraq became untenable the last time Saddam Hussein left his office in 2003. The only question was whether they would exchange that position for a part in a national coalition, or whether they would prefer to be ethnically cleansed. Surprisingly (and some fraction of US bafflement about what to do next in Iraq arises from this), they have been leaning toward Option B. Time for them to change their mind is running out: this is the year when the Iraqi government will begin to have the military resources to conduct its own policy.

Sub-replacement Birthrates in Advanced Countries: This is not going to turn around in a year, but there has been considerable discussion of the issue and the beginning in France, Japan, and Australia of serious pro-natal programs. The issue could begin to surface in US politics this year: the matter has already been raised as one of the public-policy objections to gay marriage.

US Federal Deficit Spending: The predicate for this was always the position of the US dollar as the world's reserve currency: the money markets would absorb all the debt the US federal government chose to issue. There are good reasons for supposing that the US dollar will remain the principal reserve currency. I also don't quite see how there could be a run on the dollar: who would the dollars be sold to? However, the advent of the euro as an alternative currency means that there will now be upward pressure that was not there before on interest rates. We may see the Chairman of the Federal Reserve telling Congress that he cannot promise that there will be an adequate market for US sovereign debt unless the federal government increases taxes.

Barrack Obama: Perhaps his enemies arranged for him to have this much public exposure so early in his career. The result is the worst of all possible worlds: both a blank record and a a trailing pack of opposition political operatives eager to magnify his missteps.

The Political Invective Industry: Since the great age of snarky commentary began with the Clinton Administration, this has been a one-sidedly Republican enterprise. Throughout the period there have been Democratic editorialists at least as unhinged as their Republican colleagues, of course, but none was as much fun as, say, Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter: certainly none was as popular. Now, however, they cannot claim to be the voice of a populist majority. They also suffer from a lack of risible opponents. The new Democratic Congressional leadership may do some very foolish things, but there is no Newt Gingrich among them to symbolize their malefactions. Meanwhile, the bitter and second-rate Democratic commentariat has further cause for bitterness in that they are the dog that caught the car. They have already discredited George Bush to their own satisfaction, but the very fact the Republicans lost an election discredited their darker fantasies.

Embryonic Stem-Cell Research: Forgive me if I repeat myself, but this is looking more and more like a scam. Half the research money for the medical uses of stem cells (which in general do show promise) is going into the approach that presents the greatest theoretical difficulties and which is least likely to be of clinical use. The enthusiasm for embryonic stem-cell research differs from the enthusiasm around 1990 for cold fusion (which also got some public funding, by the way) in that the cold-fusion scientists believed what they were saying.

Skepticism about Climate Change: I think that this is the year when disbelief in climate change moves from minority opinion to fringe idea. The science more or less supports substantial recent climate change. The science also supports human activity playing a role. Be that as it may, the persuasion of the public in this matter has more to do with the fact the media have made it their business to report weird weather. That's not to say that weird weather is far to seek. It snowed in southeast Australia just before Christmas. That's like snow in Chicago in July.

Actually, what's most remarkable about the world today is the lack of plausible alternatives. The Reaganite conservative movement in the United States is dead, partly because its original deregulation agenda has been achieved and partly because it proved corruptible and inflexible in power. The opposition, however, stands for nothing but the multiculti patronage politics that could not tolerate the light of day in the 1970s and which has not improved with age.

Similarly, the international institutions designed to be the instruments of a small alliance of stable nation states has now become like a residential property whose apartments have been subdivided far past the point of safety and whose pipes and wiring are being stolen by the building managers in connivance with some of the owners. The only alternative offered to this system is American hegemony, an institution with no inherent legitimacy in the law of nations or, just as important, any institutional mechanism for coupling the hegemonic function to domestic politics or government.

I could go on in this vein, and indeed I will: that's why people have blogs. On the whole, though, I am not impressed by our problems. History is often more confusing than it is today.

Just watch.

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The Long View 2004-01-19: My Platform

American politics just keeps getting stranger and stranger. President Obama made a Red Wedding joke at the White House Correspondents Dinner. One might hope he thinks of himself as Tywin Lannister rather than Walder Frey, 

My Platform


Tomorrow we have both the president's State of the Union Address and the results of the Iowa caucuses, both of them key factors in a presidential election that already seems to have gone on longer than the Palestinian peace process. (I see that Iraqi Shiites are demonstrating against picking the new government by caucus; they're on to something.) Readers will have gathered that I am not altogether happy with any of the candidates, including the incumbent, though I intend to support President Bush in any case. It is too much for an individual voter to ask that any candidate be precisely to his mind, but there is no reason I cannot speculate about the perfect platform. Here is how I conceptualize What Needs to Be Done:

War & Peace

THE TERROR WAR should be prosecuted in a way that builds on the example of the Iraq campaign, which is that a lack of transparency in the matters of WMD and the hosting of terrorist groups could be lethal. This means that international institutions, such as the UN, should be asked to help only in the role of utilities. However, though the international system is decadent in many ways, this is chiefly a matter of the culture of the transnational class. The institutions themselves, in most cases, should be preserved. NATO in particular is part of the constitution of the West, and should not be allowed to fall apart.

THE CONTROL AND REDUCTION OF IMMIGRATION is the key to the terrorist threat within the United States. Also, if the border with Mexico is not brought under control, the US faces serious irredentist movements in the Southwest. That is more important than any economic consideration. The president's recent proposal to re-instate a guest-worker program is an invitation to catastrophe.


Law & Order

PUBLIC HEALTH, like the police function, is a feature of public order. The US is going to have a universal health care system eventually; businesses as well as individuals have begun to demand it. The question is whether we are going to have a manageable one. A single-payer system would collapse of its own weight, but a voucher system that allowed private insurers to compete would probably cost less than the current system.

CLASS ACTION LITIGATION directed at deep-pocket entities should be recognized as criminal extortion. This includes a large fraction of environmental litigation, the slavery reparations movement, and some of the activities of the Holocaust bar. The statutes governing the jurisdiction of the federal courts should be amended to make clear that US courts do not have universal jurisdiction in human rights cases. Additionally, genuine public representation should be required on the boards of the major not-for-profit foundations.


God & Mammon

THE CULTURE WARS should be deconstitutionalized. As a matter of public policy, the political branches of government should declare that the line of privacy-and-liberty cases, beginning with Griswald v. Connecticut and extending through Lawrence v. Texas, are not just wrongly decided, but incompatible with constitutional government. This will entail reprimanding the courts through the enactment of unusually specific constitutional amendments, notably an amendment that will state the institution of marriage in constitutional terms.

THE FEDERAL BUDGET DEFICIT does matter. It matters a lot.

* * *

On a less cosmic note, I must mention an example of the kind of journalism that gives American conservatism a bad name. I have subscribed to the Weekly Standard from the beginning. I recognize that little magazines sometimes print things for reasons that have little to do with disinterested analysis. Nonetheless, it is still jolting to see the sort of blatant industry-handouts that The Weekly Standard occasionally publishes.

A prime exhibit is "The Real Car of the Year," which appears in the January 19 issue. Written by Henry Payne, whose cartoons appear in the Detroit News, it complains that American-made zero-emission gasoline vehicles got less press at the recent North American International Auto Show than Toyota's gas-electric hybrid. Toyota's car, the Prius, gets 51 mpg, whereas Ford's zero-emission Focus gets 36; the prices are $20,500 versus $13,455 respectively. Noting that the two cars are solutions to different problems, the article goes on to explain why the problems for which the Prius was designed don't matter:

"But global warming is not an issue in the United States, where the Senate voted down the Kyoto Treaty 97-0. Nor is fuel economy an issue in a country where gasoline is well below $2 a gallon...Even the perennial political argument that higher fuel mileage would make the United States less energy dependent on the Middle East is a red herring. Europe, which taxes its gasoline to $4 a gallon, is still over 50 percent dependent on the vast -- and cheap -- oil resources of the Middle East."

It's embarrassing to have to answer points like these. Yes, it's a fine thing that the Kyoto Treaty was rejected; the Kyoto Treaty was a scam. Global warming, however, is not a scam. One can be cautious about the science but still recognize that the subject is as much an "issue" in the US as it is anywhere. As for the argument that fuel efficiency counts for nothing, all I can say is that it is unique in my experience. Europe imports half its oil from the Middle East because it does not have much of its own and the Middle East is where the oil is. Then there is the suggestion that there is nothing problematical about the role of the Middle East as the chief energy supplier to the developed world.

Let me put it this way: if a magazine publishes enough "arguments" like these, eventually no one will take it seriously about any subject in the world.

* * *

On a more cosmic note, readers who saw my review of Simon Conway Morris's Life's Solution might want to take a look at my appreciation of John Paul II's Fides et Ratio. It all hangs together, you know.    

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Ethics of Globalization by Peter Singer

It is a bit of an understatement to say that Peter Singer isn't one of my favorite philosophers. I do have to give the man credit for rigorous intellectual consistency however. He pursues the implications of his positions with single-minded determination. And since his starting points are largely those of the guiding spirit of the age, events keep catching up with his formerly extreme positions as the inevitable logic of those premises win out over ordinary human hypocrisy and moral squeamishness.

John's interest in reviewing this book stems from his interest in Universal States, polities like the Roman Empire and Han China, that occupy the ground state of the system of nations, a condition the world falls into when the energy to maintain a different system is no longer available.

Since we are nearing the time when this state of affairs is likely to occur again, it is worth looking back into history to see what happened before. There have been at least two bursts of cosmopolitanism in the West in the last two thousand years. People ask the same kinds of question in each such age. It is worth at least looking to see what they came up with.Unfortunately, it seems that is exactly what Singer did not do.

One of the most interesting sections here is John's critique of Singer's attempt to apply Rawlsian fairness in a truly global, universal fashion. It is worth re-quoting the argument in full:

In support of this proposition, Singer deploys some of those fables of utilitarian calculus that have become his trademark. They run like this: You are walking across a park on your way to deliver the prestigious Acme Lecture on Fine Ideas, when you see a small child fall into a well. There is no one else around to help. Do you rescue the child, even though that might make you miss the lecture, or would you continue punctually on your way to further burnish your academic career? (Well, would you? Would you?) Singer insists that people in developed countries are in exactly the same relationship to starving children in developing countries as the Acme lecturer was to the child down the well. Just as he could have turned aside, at real but bearable cost to himself, to save that child, so people in rich countries should sacrifice the luxurious excess of their standard of living in order to end hunger and disease in developing countries.

There is something to be said for this. In the last fifteen years, this argument has if anything gotten more popular. I suspect this argument wouldn't have near as much force in the Western mind if it weren't a retelling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, but dressing it up as modern philosophy allows us moderns to feel good about being moved by this example.

Unfortunately, the analogy to the people who do need help in the world is imperfect. If we were to extend the analogy a bit, what we see in most places of the world that need help is that the park is a sovereign nation, and the people of the park elected a man who turned into a tyrant, and he tossed the child down the well because the child's father was an opposition leader. And when we ship food to the park, the leader gives it to his cronies and lets the rest starve. We can send in a punitive expedition to kill the leader, but if we leave someone similar just takes his place. If we stay and try to impose some kind of good government, some fraction of the locals inevitably hate us and push back violently.

Not as pithy, but closer to the truth. There is something of this lurking in the background of Singer's argument, because he isn't an advocate of national sovereignty when it leads to human rights abuses. The really strange thing is that something like Singer's argument is exactly what led us to intervene in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 under W. I don't think anyone would plausibly consider Singer and George W. Bush to be intellectual bedfellows, but on this issue they are.

What I find so fascinating about John's support for the Iraq War is that many of his own arguments told against him. The argument John marshals here against Singer is that there is a countervailing principle of moral philosophy to the duty to help another human in distress: one should mind one's own business. To treat another human being as having moral agency is to respect the choices they make for themself, or themselves, even if it is objectively a mistake. This principle is buttressed by ordinary human ignorance. Usually, we lack appropriate knowledge to meddle in other's affairs in a helpful way.

As I keep pointing out, the giant mess the United States has made out of Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya and Egypt and Ukraine ought to be sufficient to remind us there really are lesser evils.

One World:
The Ethics of Globalization
By Peter Singer
Yale University Press, 2002
235 Pages, $21.95
ISBN 0-300-09686-0
Readers will be shocked to learn that “A Theory of Justice,” John Rawls's immensely influential general theory of ethics, has nothing to say about the rights and duties of individuals outside their own societies. In “One World,” the noted ethicist Peter Singer tries to close this global deficit. According to Singer: “The twentieth century's conquest of space made it possible for a human being to look at our planet from a point not on it, and so to see it, literally, as one world. Now the twenty-first century faces the task of developing a suitable form of government for that single world.”
There are in fact good reasons to believe that the world is moving toward the condition that Toynbee called a “universal state.” This prospect does raise ethical questions, both about whether people of good will should support the process, and about how such a state should be governed if it does arise. Singer's historyless treatment of the subject manages to miss most of the real issues. It does, however, suggest some principles that could turn the later 21st century into a planetary nightmare.
“One World” began as the Dwight Harrington Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy, which Singer delivered at Yale in November 2000. The topical justification for the book seems originally to have been the great anti-globalization demonstrations that began with “The Battle in Seattle” in December 1999, when a meeting of the World Trade Organization was met with protest and riot. The book has four themes: One Atmosphere (concerning the environment, especially global warming); One Economy (free trade, especially the operation of the World Trade Organization); One Law (chiefly the duty of humanitarian intervention); and One Community (how foreign aid relates to the general duty to relieve the condition of the poor).
The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon intervened during the lectures' transition to book form. The author's attempts to accommodate the new situation suggest a determination not to be distracted from his pet ideas. The One Atmosphere section begins with a grotesque comparison between the attack on the World Trade Center and the probable effects of emissions from SUVs. Singer asserts that, although the attack was spectacular, the emissions will result in global warming that will kill far more people. Both, he tells us, are examples of areas that require global governance, but global warming is clearly closer to his heart. “One World” is, to a large extent, just another instance of the relentless moralization of environmental issues.
Why should this be? Regarding global warming in particular, I suspect it's because the phenomenon makes such a wonderful unifying principle. Almost all economic activities have some implications for greenhouse-gas emissions. Economic growth, of course, is easily linked to issues like population control, which has a bearing on the global distribution of wealth.
The whole exercise is rather like a game we used to play in college: “What does that have to do with the price of milk?” The idea was to show how anything at all could be shown to have some bearing on that question. Consider, for instance, the surface temperature of Mars. That is obviously related to solar output, which is related to the weather on Earth, which is related to the price of cattle feed, which is obviously related to the price of milk. QED
Similarly, global warming can be used to show that just about anything people do or say has a global ethical dimension. I am inclined to think that global warming is a real phenomenon, and that emissions of greenhouse-gases occasioned by human activity are an important contributing factor. I also know that the projections of how global warming will affect human life in the coming decades are too speculative to take seriously. Global warming is not the key to a master philosophy.
Regarding the world's One Economy, Singer is not much distressed by the prospect that the World Trade Organization might undermine national sovereignty. What disturbs him is that the WTO does not use its position as an international gatekeeper to impose universal environmental and labor standards. The WTO's charter does in fact allow a member state to discriminate against goods that are produced in ways that violate the state's policies in these matters, but the WTO regards such claims skeptically. There is good reason for this. Domestic producers often use environmental and labor arguments to suppress competition, and the same devices are easily deployed against foreign trading partners. Singer, nonetheless, criticizes the World Trade Organization for leaving most environmental and labor standard issues to be settled in other forums.
The WTO was in fact designed to deal strictly with trade issues. The idea was to allay the fears of critics that the WTO would otherwise become too powerful. Good intentions rarely go unpunished.
The section that deals with One Law has the most to say about the mechanisms of global governance (or, to put it bluntly, world government). The occasion for these reflections is the need to ensure that national governments are not allowed to inflict gross and systematic human-rights abuses on their subjects. Singer maintains, plausibly enough, that humanitarian interventions against criminal governments are a duty of the international community, even if that means modifying or dispensing with the principle of state sovereignty.
The idea that sovereignty needs to be limited is scarcely new, and in fact the principle of sovereignty has been in decline since about 1900. A thought that never occurs to Singer is just why the international institutions created to replace it have so often made things worse. It is pretty clear, for example, that the collective security regime of the League of Nations inhibited the ordinary Great Power diplomacy that might have prevented the Second World War. More recently, we know that the spread of weapons of mass destruction has occurred largely under the cover of ineffective international inspection. As for military interventions to prevent massacre, they generally occur when the United States, and more rarely other states, can be shamed into using their own forces to take action. Never one to be deterred by reality, Singer wants the veto power of the permanent members of the Security Council to be eliminated. It is hard to see why any power would maintain a usable military establishment if the power lost control of it to an international body. He does suggest that a truly global military should undertake duties of this sort, but he does not explain why an international army would work better than other international institutions.
In this as in other contexts, Singer has nothing but bile for the United States. How dare the US insist that its nationals be excluded from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court? How dare the US insist on the maintenance of the Security Council veto? Such things are simply instances of might rather than right, Singer insists.
Well, no. In the international system as it has actually evolved, the US performs many of the functions of an executive. In many ways, the US at the beginning of the 21st century was less like a sovereign state and more like an international utility. It would be odd if the US did not have special “constitutional” status.
In the section on One Community, Singer attempts to expand Rawls's ethics to fit the globe. Rawls did treat international relations in “The Law of Peoples,” of course, but Singer quarrels even with the title. By Singer's account, it is a violation of Rawls's principles to allow nation states to play any analytical role in our ethical calculations of what we owe to others.
John Rawls famously laid it down that “fairness” for a society would consist of those rules we would choose “in the original condition,” before we knew what position luck would give us. Thus, for instance, we would choose that the handicapped be cared for, since we might belong to that group ourselves. According to Rawls, we would be more interested in preventing possible misery than in ensuring that we could enjoy the maximum possible luxury, so we would want a political and economic system that promoted the redistribution of wealth.
Rawls did not apply these principles between societies. Societies, and particularly states, owe each other duties and should live in a law-governed way. However, in his scheme of things, individuals in one society just do not have the same obligations to people in other societies that they have to people in their own. Singer will have none of this. For him, which society you are going to belong to is one of those things you don't know in the “original condition.” Surely you would want a reasonable standard of living wherever you happened to be born in the world? Thus, fairness requires that we value those near to us and those far from us in the same way. Inequalities of wealth between different parts of the world are therefore intolerable.
In support of this proposition, Singer deploys some of those fables of utilitarian calculus that have become his trademark. They run like this: You are walking across a park on your way to deliver the prestigious Acme Lecture on Fine Ideas, when you see a small child fall into a well. There is no one else around to help. Do you rescue the child, even though that might make you miss the lecture, or would you continue punctually on your way to further burnish your academic career? (Well, would you? Would you?) Singer insists that people in developed countries are in exactly the same relationship to starving children in developing countries as the Acme lecturer was to the child down the well. Just as he could have turned aside, at real but bearable cost to himself, to save that child, so people in rich countries should sacrifice the luxurious excess of their standard of living in order to end hunger and disease in developing countries.
Singer is willing to allow some scope to the principle of “partiality.” It is not irrational or unjust for us to take special care of friends and family, he will allow. Friendship and family rank among the great goods of life. However, these considerations do not affect the general principle that we owe a duty of aid to everybody. Now that technological advance has made it possible to carry out that duty, we are morally obligated to create the global political institutions that can do so.
Let me suggest that there is a fundamental ethical imperative to mind your own business. To some degree, simple respect for the moral agency of others requires that you let them make their own mistakes. Just as important, though, is the fact that other people know more about their affairs than you do. Despite his long list of occasions when humanitarian intervention was justified, Singer never quite comes to grips with the fact that the direst poverty in the world is not caused by a lack of foreign assistance, but by the crooks who run the local government. The simple transfusion of goods and foodstuffs from one society to another can make things worse. There is a literature about how food aid has destroyed local agriculture in some instances.
Singer is willing to allow that his global ethics does not answer the many prudential questions that arise whenever we design a given aid program. His chief concern is to establish the principle that some aid is always owing, and only special circumstances may excuse us from not rendering it in a particular instance. The fact is, though, that equally compelling principles tell us something else: first, do no harm.
“One World” does not purport to describe a full system of global ethics. Nonetheless, it does suggest many ideas that are systemically significant, though not perhaps for the reasons the author imagines.
For instance, the willingness of philosophers to use a speculative rhetorical device like global warming illustrates a characteristic failure of modern philosophy. Writing in “First Things” (February 1994), Paul Zaleski describes a little test he sometimes gives his students. He asks them to rank an odd assortment of things, such as “mouse,” “bag,” “man,” “angel,” “the sun,” “crab,” “the Taj Mahal,” “the Idea of the Good,” and so on. From a traditional metaphysical perspective, the top of such a list might be “the Idea of the Good,” or possibly “man.” His students, however, for the most part head the list with “the sun,” apparently on the principle that solar energy makes all the other items possible. Philosophical treatments of environmentalism often reason the same way. The mere size of the biosphere seems to be a sufficient substitute for metaphysical priority.
Perhaps more seriously, Singer has fits of evolutionary psychology. He tells us that there may well be a human predilection to genocide, inculcated in us by evolution. He also tells us that, just because there is some common human impulse to do something, the predilection cannot be adduced as a "reason” in an ethical argument. Thus, though we may have a natural tendency to favor our blood relatives, that is not a justification for doing so. The only ethics we need take seriously are those based on “reciprocity,” on some version of the principle that we should do to others what would want them to do to us.
This doesn't really work. No doubt, in the hypothetical pre-natal state envisioned by Rawls, we would make rules to assign goods on a reciprocal basis. However, the source for those goods will be intuitions and impulses, which Singer assumes arise from evolutionary history. Some ethical systems have criteria for judging nature, but Singer's does not appear to be one of them. Judging from “One World,” at least, it is not clear why the “findings” of evolutionary psychology could not be used as the desiderata for Rawls's utilitarian calculus. Such a philosophy could become a real global menace.
Singer also has his Marxist moments. He has the odd idea that the issues he raises are entirely new, and are simply the ideological consequences of new technology. He seems quite unaware that the political theory and personal ethics of the Middle Ages was “international” to a degree that the modern world has not yet recovered.
Happily, there are other paths to a global ethics. Reflection about “cosmopolis,” or “All under Heaven,” is as old as philosophy. This is not a subject where we need to start from the “original position.”
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly


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The Long View 2002-01-24 There is no time like the present

John wasn't a scientist, but rather a bright and well-read lawyer with an interest in science and science fiction. I think this made him a better analyst of trends and fads in science than those on the inside. John wrote extensively on natural philosophy, and the first links to his essays on that subject start to appear in this post. I've heard it said that most scientists eventually turn to philosophy in their old age, and what I would call natural philosophy was a matter of acute interest to my fellow physicists when I was in college. I always appreciated John's point of view on the implications of science.

There Is No Time Like the Present

I was persuaded of the reality of man-made global warming back in the mid-1970s, at much the same time and for much the same reasons that the idea first recommended itself to Al Gore. The notion of the artificial "greenhouse effect" is one of those intuitive, important-if-true ideas that appeal to science buffs. The hypothesis was not new, but in those days the first data were showing up to suggest a secular warming trend. I even remember realizing, or at least hearing, that the most noticeable effect would not be a general rise in surface temperatures, but changes in the mechanical behavior of the atmosphere. Weather patterns would be different. In some regions, global warming could even cause local cooling.

The most alarming prospects that global warming suggested to my liberal-arts-major mind turned out to be phantoms. For instance, there had been some early speculation that a runaway greenhouse effect might occur on Earth, as it had on Venus. The image of an oceanless Earth with a novel atmosphere seemed to chime with Revelation 21:1, 2 (as well as with Arthur C. Clarke's Against the Fall of Night, one of the first books I ever read). I have later learned, though, that Earth is just not close enough to the sun for that to happen. If Earth had a predominantly carbon dioxide atmosphere, as Venus does, the surface temperature would be around 130 degrees Fahrenheit, rather than its current 55 degrees or so. Earth would be a nasty place, but the oceans would not evaporate. (Incidentally, if all the ice on the surface of the Earth melted, the oceans would rise just 220 feet. The film Waterworld was not jut a flop; it was a badly researched flop.)