Monday, January 09, 2006

A Dissonant Vision

I noted, way back on June 8, 2004, Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. There, at the end of chapter 2, Sowell explains that
[t]he dichotomy between constrained and unconstrained visions is based on whether or not inherent limitations of man are among the key elements included in each vision....These different ways of conceiving man and the world lead not merely to different conclusions but to sharply divergent, often diametrically opposed, conclusions on issues ranging from justice to war.
Thus, in chapter 5, Sowell writes:
The enormous importance of evolved systemic interactions in the constrained vision does not make it a vision of collective choice, for the end results are not chosen at all -- the prices, output, employment, and interest rates emerging from competition under laissez-faire economics being the classic example. Judges adhering closely to the written law -- avoiding the choosing of results per se -- would be the analogue in law. Laissez-faire economics and "black letter" law are essentially frameworks, with the locus of substantive discretion being innumerable individuals.
By contrast,
those in the tradition of the unconstrained vision almost invariably assume that some intellectual and moral pioneers advance far beyond their contemporaries, and in one way or another lead them toward ever-higher levels of understanding and practice. These intellectual and moral pioneers become the surrogate decision-makers, pending the eventual progress of mankind to the point where all can make moral decisions.
That observation helps to explain why persons who hew to the unconstrained vision -- liberals, that is -- also have become apocalyptic in their outlook: the environmentwill kill us, our food is poisonous, defense is a military-industrial plot, we're running out of oil, we can't defeat terrorism, etc., etc., etc. I will make the connection below but, first, let's hear from Joe Kaplinsky, who reviews a book full of such apocalyptic tripe -- James Howard Kunstler's, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (bolded emphasis added by me):
As recently as a decade ago it was unusual to encounter books predicting the imminent collapse of civilisation and probable extinction of the human race. . . . Today such works are common. The core elements of the litany are predictable: climate change, disease, terrorism, and an-out-of-control world economy. Other elements such as killer asteroids, nanotechnology or chemical pollution can be added according to taste.

James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century clearly fits the genre. While not neglecting any of the usual suspects, Kunstler builds his litany around the increasingly fashionable panic over oil depletion. The Long Emergency has received a warm welcome, featuring on the front covers of both the leftish British publication the New Statesman and Pat Buchanan's old-right American Conservative.

The picture of the future put forward in The Long Emergency is truly grim. The best-case scenario is a mass die-off followed by a forced move back to the land, complete with associated feudal relations. As the title implies, this is to be an ongoing state rather than a crisis to be overcome . . . .

The successes of science and the Enlightenment present a conundrum for green pessimists. How to explain away the failed predictions of collapse from Malthus on, through to Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome in the 1970s?

. . . Conceding that Malthus may have got his facts wrong here, Kunstler wants to rehabilitate Malthus' larger point: a focus on mechanisms of social restraint as a counterpoint against the claims of Enlightenment optimists such as Godwin and Condorcet. . . .

Kunstler also puts forward a second explanation for the successful economic growth of the twentieth century: oil. 'Malthus was certainly correct, but cheap oil has skewed the equation over the past hundred years', he says. He claims that oil, and fossil fuels more broadly, have been responsible for the gains of the twentieth century, from agriculture to medicine to transport.

Furthermore, Kunstler claims that this was a one-shot deal. Having used up our oil he thinks we are about to descend back into Malthusianism - for which we are worse prepared, because we have invested so much economically and psychologically in a modern world that is unsustainable. Our past progress, he thinks, is only setting ourselves up for a fall. He calls suburbia and the motorcar the 'greatest misallocation of resources in history'.

The deeper theme of The Long Emergency is not oil so much as human powerlessness. The projection of all the products of human resourcefulness on to fossil fuels is only one example of this. Another example is disease. . . .

Kunstler's discussion of emerging diseases is headed 'Nature Bites Back'. Such a notion endows Nature with intentions, interests, and intrinsic moral value. Yet without pausing to defend such implausible assumptions, Kunstler ploughs straight on: in 'response to unprecedented habitat destruction by humans and invasion of the wilderness, the Earth itself seems to be sending forth new and much more lethal diseases, as though it has a kind of protective immune system with antibody-like agents aimed with remarkable precision at the source of the problem: Homo Sapiens.'

Human beings are pushed to one side, as puppets or parasites, while nature is endowed with superhuman powers. It is this process which transforms any of the difficulties we face from problems to be solved into warnings of apocalypse to come.

The most striking example of the sense of powerlessness is as it applies to Kunstler himself. He has long argued against suburbia and the car, in favour of a 'New Urbanism'. In places it is perhaps possible to read The Long Emergency as a revenge fantasy. Embittered at his inability to convince others that they should change their ways, Kunstler takes refuge under the wing of Nature's avenging angel. He can be ignored (he attributes this to a psychological flaw in his detractors); the inhuman laws of nature cannot. . . .

The global economy, or perhaps even any economy based on monetary exchange, is apparently an 'hallucination'. Only a low-energy, local economy in which we are in touch with the land, claims Kunstler, can avoid the destructive effects of entropy. . . .

. . . But entropy doesn't have any mystical qualities. It is a thermodynamic variable like any other. There is no more reason to connect a breakdown of civilisation with an increase in entropy than with, say, an increase in atmospheric pressure or the Earth's magnetic field. Kunstler's discussion of this topic is plain and simple pseudoscience.

His underlying argument about human powerlessness also cannot stand. In abolishing old problems, progress brings new problems. How could it not? The new problems can sometimes appear larger than the old, existing on a global scale. But this just arises from human society operating on a global scale, which carries with it the benefits of global cooperation, trade and travel. History shows that exchanging older problems for newer, sometimes greater, ones has been a good bargain.

The capacity to solve problems expands faster than the problems themselves. It is harder to defend a modern city - with skyscrapers, highways, and energy infrastructure - against a flood or an earthquake. But alongside the technologies that enabled us to build modern cities we have created solutions that make them resilient to natural disasters. That is why life is better in the more developed parts of the world.

While it is always possible that we will stumble at the next hurdle, science confirms that we have a good chance of flourishing in the future, too. The core of The Long Emergency is the anxiety that problems will outweigh solutions. It is summed up by Kunstler's complaint that by following the path of progress humanity is continually setting itself an exam. Alienated from progress he has no answers himself and fears we are relying on a few techno-geeks to come up with a fix. He is haunted by the question, what if we fail?

This question assumes overwhelming significance for Kunstler because he seems to believe we must fail. A more reasoned approach balances it against two other questions. What if we succeed? Everything worthwhile in human culture and civilisation has come from such successes. What if we do not try?
The emphasis on social restraints -- to a Leftist of Kunstler's ilk -- means social engineering writ large. He wants a society that operates according to his strictures. But society refuses to cooperate, and so he conjures historically and scientifically invalid explanations for the behavior of man and nature. By doing so he is able to convince himself and his fellow travelers that the socialist vision is the correct one. He and his ilk cannot satisfy their power-lust in the real world, so they retaliate by imagining a theoretical world of doom. It is as if they walk around under a thought balloon which reads "Take that!"