Post with 2 notes
One of my favorite passages in Darwin’s Origin of Species is one in which he compares the fossil record to a book:
For my part, following out Lyell’s metaphor, I look at the natural geological record, as a history of the world imperfectly kept, and written in a changing dialect; of this history we possess the last volume alone, relating only to two or three countries. Of this volume, only here and there a short chapter has been preserved; and of each page, only here and there a few lines. Each word of the slowly-changing language, in which the history is supposed to be written, being more or less different in the interrupted succession of chapters, may represent the apparently abruptly changed forms of life, entombed in our consecutive, but widely separated formations.
Darwin himself notes that the metaphor goes back at least to Lyell.
Given that hominids have been evolving for at least five million years since we split off from the other primates, and perhaps for as long as eight million years, the history of our direct ancestors is sufficiently long that it, too, participates in this metaphor.
That is to say, human history is a history imperfectly kept, and written in a changing dialect. Of this history we possess only the final volume — ourselves. If we attempt to read the book of our history knowing only the language we speak today, that history will rapidly become incomprehensible to us. It has been said that the past is a foreign country — they do things differently there. They also speak another language. We must learn to speak the language of the past in order to understand the past on its own terms.
In the fullness of time, should a confluence of good fortune and responsible action preserve our civilization so that it, too, someday possesses a history sufficiently long that that history becomes part of the geological record, then the history of civilization, too, will be a history imperfectly kept, written in a changing dialect.
Each word of this slowly-changing language, being more or less different in the interrupted succession of chapters, may represent the apparently abruptly changed forms of civilization. In historiography, we speak of these abrupt changes in the history of civilization as periodization.
In the case of the stratigraphy of civilization, however, the metaphor will be made literal, as our methods of record keeping, which have gained in sophistication, completeness, and comprehensiveness since the advent of this historical period sensu stricto, make the book of the history of civilization an actual book — except that (to make yet another qualification) by the time civilization is millions of years old, an “actual” book is not likely to be “actual” at all, but rather “virtual.”
Post with 1 note
At the request of a friend I went to the McMenamins’ 14th Annual UFO Festival at Hotel Oregon in McMinnville, Oregon. I’ve just returned from the event and am writing this while my impressions remain fresh in my mind. It was a pretty weird feeling, like being the only atheist at a tent revival or being an observer at a political rally for a candidate whose candidacy one opposes.
I heard more than an hour of looney UFO conspiracy theories from Linda Moulton Howe, who is apparently a wildly popular speaker on the UFO lecture circuit, I met Nick Pope, and Peter Davenport of the National UFO Reporting Center introduced himself to me and showed himself to be an affable and pleasant fellow, notwithstanding my presence as a token skeptic.
After Mr. Davenport patiently explained some particularly intriguing recent sightings to me, I dismissed it all by saying, “facts have no meaning outside a theoretical context” (i.e., the familiar philosophical idea that all observations are theory-laden). He said that this was a sweeping statement to make, and I agreed that it was.
Most people, of course, regard the UFO fest (supposedly one of the larger of such get-togethers in the US) as a source of fun and as a way for local businesses to make a little money, but I think that my friend believed that if only he could get me to listen to some presentations that I might be “converted.” Not only did I remain obdurately skeptical, but seeing and hearing UFO conspiracies up close makes me all the more likely to react against something I would otherwise simply ignore.
I felt physically ill when Linda Moulton Howe was telling her audience that human beings are the result of genetic experiments by space aliens, and sicker still to see her audience’s enthusiastic response to this claptrap.
Ultimately, however, I am a Jungian when it comes to UFOs: things are seen, and the fact that things are seen points to something important in the human experience. There is no question in my mind that the whole vast network of interconnecting conspiracy theories (I recommend A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America by Michael Barkun if you’d like an introduction in how these conspiracy theories overlap and intersect, to employ a Wittgensteinian turn of phrase) is a modern mythology, as Jung called it.
It has become more and more obvious to me as I have been thinking about Big History over the past few months, that people routinely employ whatever conception of “big history” they happen to have on hand in order to contextualize their knowledge and to give meaning and value to facts. Not surprisingly, the big history conception that most people “happen” to have ready to hand is comprised by the traditional eschatoloogical views they learned as a child and have mostly not thought to question. This is the theory with which their observations are laden.
While there is a vigorous and vocal contingent of individuals in our time who believe in literal interpretations of traditional eschatologies, there are far more people who realize the inadequacy of these views while still hesitating to ditch them entirely. Thus it becomes an incredibly powerful cultural idea to borrow ideas and images from traditional eschatology and combine them with bits and pieces of contemporary thought, which is exactly what you find when people like Linda Moulton Howe tell an nodding audience that Jesus and the Buddha and other great figures from the religious tradition were space aliens, and then the space aliens can then be contextualized in turn in bits and pieces of contemporary science.
All of this is a textbook case of what I recently wrote about in Scholarship and Bullshit: an indifference to the distinction between the true and the false that Harry Frankfurt identified as the essence of bullshit. But it is more than “mere” bullshit, because it is bullshit that resonates with contemporary audiences, and it resonates with audiences because it is a modern myth drawn from modern experiences.
Post with 7 notes
Recently in Existential Risk and the Death Event I quoted philosopher Edith Wyschogrod regarding, “the quantification of the qualitied world,” which process is one of the central and distinctive features of our industrial-technological civilization.
We have scientific, social, and legal institutions that quantify time and space. We quantify temperature with a thermometer; we quantify wind speed with a anemometer; we quantify snow pack with a simple measuring stick. Economists try to quantify all kinds of subtle features of the world that are problematic in the extreme to quantify (like the dollar value of a life). We quantify effort and interest. If we go to a therapist, we are asked to quantify our pain or our anxiety on a scale of one to ten.
Even as the institutions of our industrial technological civilization push us in the direction of ever greater quantification of the qualitied world, we know that we are falsifying features of the world even as we quantify them, and we know that the “data” we produce in the activity of quantification has definite (perhaps even quantifiable) limits in terms of its accuracy and efficacy in delineating the world.
We use this data to improve our manipulation and our organization of the world; we even construct computer programs to systematically “mine” this data for unexpected insights. We do all of these things even as we know that our data are “wrong.” It has been said that, “round numbers are always wrong.” And so they are. Statisticians and other quantifiers of data are well aware of the limitations they face, and so they have named the particular errors that are intrinsic to the quantification of the qualitied world.
There are “finite precision errors” which result from the rounding of numbers (even if it means rounding at the tenth decimal place) and there are “finite dimension errors” which result from breaking up a qualitied continuum into discrete portions, as when we divide the rainbow into red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. We know from recent work in chaos theory, focusing on sensitivity to initial conditions, that the finite precision errors of rounding can result in very large differences once these very small rounding errors are added up by a sufficient number of iterations, and we know that, however detailed our color wheel, it is never going to capture the continuity of color as we experience it.
Science is replete with theoretical abstractions, useful over-simplifications, formal and conceptual thought, and the use of mathematical models, all of which are familiar devices of rationalism. We have good reason for employing these devices of rationalism — they are effective both in predicting and controlling nature — even while we know that the scientific map we have constructed of the world is not identical to the territory. We employ the devices of scientific rationalism knowing their limitations, and our knowledge of their limitations is part of what makes them effective, and keeps us honest about what we’re doing. But we do not say that these limitations are falsifications any more than we say that science is a lie because it makes use of concepts that falsify the world. It would be tendentious in the extreme to say, “Science is a lie.” In fact, if we did say so, it would be a metaphor meant to communicate something other than the relationship of science to facts.
I mention the explicit formulation, “Science is a lie,” not as a thesis for consideration, but as a parallel to the equally explicit formulation, “Mythology is a lie,” which is something that Joseph Campbell talked about. As a scholar of mythology, Campbell apparently encountered this attitude with some regularity, and in some of his books he described some particular episodes in which he found himself in conversation with individuals who baldly stated that mythology is a lie.
There is a typically amusing passage from Campbell in which he described his experiences during a radio interview on a book tour. The radio interviewer began the exchange by asserting that a myth is a lie:
“The word ‘myth,’ means ‘a lie.’ Myth is a lie.”
So I replied with my definition of myth. “No, myth is not a lie. A whole mythology is an organization of symbolic images and narratives, metaphorical of the possibilities of human experience and the fulfillment of a given culture at a given time.”
“It’s a lie,” he countered.
“it’s a metaphor.”
“It’s a lie.”
This went on for about twenty minutes. Around four or five minutes before the end of the program, I realized that this interviewer did not really know what a metaphor was. I decided to treat him as he was treating me.
“No,” I said, “I tell you it’s metaphorical. You give me an example of a metaphor.”
He replied, “You give me an example.”
I resisted, “No, I’m asking the question this time,” I had not taught school for thirty years for nothing. “And I want you to give me an example of a metaphor.”
The interviewer was utterly baffled and even went so far as to say, “Let’s get in touch with some school teacher.” Finally, with something like a minute and a half to go, he rose to the occasion and said, “I’ll try. My friend John runs very fast. People say he runs like a deer. There’s a metaphor.”
As the last seconds of the interview ticked off, I replied, “That is not the metaphor. The metaphor is: John is a deer.”
He shot back, “That’s a lie.”
“No,” I said, “That is a metaphor.”
And the show ended.
Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, Chap. 1, pp. 1-3.
So there you have it. One could easily imagine a similarly unproductive conversation between a scientist and an interviewer, with the interviewer stating, “Science is a lie,” and the scientist responding, “It’s not a lie, it’s an abstraction.” In fact, these kind of conversations go on all the time, although they don’t often reach this level of explicitness. Usually, the fundamental disagreement remains submerged and the result is mere confusion.
Recently, and most famously in the work of Richard Dawkins, a number of contemporary thinkers have decided to treat the phenomenon of religion as a failed scientific hypothesis. This is the idea behind Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and several others have followed suit, such as Victor Strenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Not surprisingly, this is not a very helpful approach to the study of religion. This is the contemporary equivalent of saying, “Myth is a lie.”
Anyone reading this who has read anything else that I have written will be aware that I would have far more in common with Dawkins than with any of Dawkins’ critics, but the scientific naturalism that I share with Dawkins does not blind me to the fact that, whatever religion may be, it certainly is not a scientific hypothesis, and to treat it as a scientific hypothesis is certainly to get it wrong. But it is understandable how this confusion came about. To invoke Joseph Campbell again, Campbell often noted that it is an exceptional feature of the Western tradition — the same tradition from which science and methodological naturalism emerged — to insist upon the historicity of its mythology.
The danger here is that science can be given precisely the same treatment, mutatis mutandis, as the scientific debunkers of religion are giving to contemporary mythology. There is a precise parallel between the quantification of the qualitied world and the historicity of the ahistorical (or eternal) world. To treat science qualitatively when it approaches the world quantitatively would be to get science as wrong as one gets religion when one treats mythology scientifically. And I say this not because I want to spare the hurt feelings of religious believers, but rather because I do not want to see a mess made of science if science should be asked to be something that it is not.
Post with 2 notes
The Ongoing Revolution of Production
Recently in Technological Unemployment and the Future of Humanity I didn’t manage to touch on all the themes that I had wanted to review, and of course the idea of technological unemployment is a large and complex phenomenon that admits of detailed treatment.
Industrial-technological civilization, with its continual change of science creating new technologies that are engineered into new industries that replace old industries, is not only unprecedented in human history, it continues to be unprecedented as long as it endures because (to put it in Marxist language) the industrial processes of a technological economy continually revolutionize the means of production. And not only production: capitalism revolutionizes industrial organization, distribution of goods and services produced, and all aspects of the industrial economy.
The factory system of the early industrial revolution revolutionized production, and then the emergence of a class of white collar workers in private industry revolutionized industrial organization, and then the shift to a service economy revolutionized the role of services in the economy. There may be latent potentialities in the industrialized economy, waiting to be revolutionized, that we, today, do not even recognize.
The Danger of the Stationary State
At present one of the central concerns with the revolutionizing of production is continued automation, which is steadily eroding the position of the human laborer. With increasing structural technological unemployment over time there will be enormous political pressure to create “make work” jobs in order to try to maintain the economy status quo, and to tolerate static or declining productivity in order to accommodate the retention of established jobs.
Sabotaging productivity to retain inefficient jobs in the workplace is a lot like protectionist legislation: everyone can see the irrationality of it, until it is their job that is eliminated or their industry receiving protection or subsidies. The end result is the same: economic stagnation, and all the institutions of feudalism recreated in the context of an industrialized economy.
What happens when a society makes a decision that stability and continuity is more important than innovation and technological change, whatever advantages these forces may have? You get what John Stuart Mill called “the stationary state.” (I wrote about Mill’s conception of the stationary state at some length in my book Political Economy of Globalization.)
Mill was concerned to convince his readers that the stationary state wasn’t as bad as it sounds. Here is what Mill wrote (in part) about the stationary state:
A population may be too crowded, though all be amply supplied with food and raiment. It is not good for man to be kept perforce at all times in the presence of his species. A world from which solitude is extirpated, is a very poor ideal. Solitude, in the sense of being often alone, is essential to any depth of meditation or of character; and solitude in the presence of natural beauty and grandeur, is the cradle of thoughts and aspirations which are not only good for the individual, but which society could ill do without. Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing food for human beings; every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up, all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as his rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a weed in the name of improved agriculture. If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or a happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it.
This is a truly fascinating passage, since it shows Mill to be an environmentalist before anyone spoke of environmentalist, to be a theorist of the end of history before Kojève and Fukuyama had worked this Hegelian vein, and to be a bell weather of unchecked population growth long before this became a political issue. In short, Mill was prescient.
The painful reality of creative destruction
The revolutionizing of production that Marx observed was called “creative destruction” by Joseph Schumpeter. The creative destruction of capitalism entails not only the destruction of obsolete industries and obsolete production methods, but also all of the employment opportunities predicated upon the products produced by obsolete industries and by obsolete production methods.
The painful reality of capitalism’s creative destruction is that individuals must seek new and unfamiliar forms of employment for which they are probably not fully prepared and at which they are probably not entirely competent. It is much easier to continue to day the same thing, day in and day out, than to master a new task, hence the socio-political pressure to maintain a stationary state.
Why, then, do we allow the process of creative destruction to revolutionize societies the structures of which are predicated upon the structure of industry? If you look at the way the vast majority of people lived 300 years ago and compare it to the way the vast majority of people live today, the answer to the question should be obvious.
Whatever moral or social criticisms we may make of capitalism and the industrial-technological civilization that it has built, we must honestly acknowledge that most people live longer, healthier, and wealthier lives as a result of this ongoing revolutionizing of production. The social transformations entailed by this revolutionizing change are often painful, but ultimately rewarding in a very concrete way.
Sauntering Toward the Division of Labor
In a famous passage of The Wealth of Nations in which Adam Smith discussed the difficulty of passing from one task to another in the manufacture of a product, in order to demonstrate the superiority of the division of labor, Smith wrote:
A man commonly saunters a little in turning his hand from one sort of employment to another. When he first begins the new work, he is seldom very keen and hearty; his mind, as they say, does not go to it, and for some time he rather trifles than applies to good purpose. The habit of sauntering, and of indolent careless application, which is naturally, or rather necessarily, acquired by every country workman who is obliged to change his work and his tools every half hour, and to apply his hand in twenty different ways almost every day of his life, renders him almost always slothful and lazy, and incapable of any vigorous application, even on the most pressing occasions. Independent, therefore, of his deficiency in point of dexterity, this cause alone must always reduce considerably the quantity of work which he is capable of performing.
A similar observation might be made in regard to passing from one career to another, or passing from one economic paradigm to another: a man “saunters” a little when passing from one job to the next (and in our time, with unemployment benefits guaranteed by law, employees may “saunter” between jobs as long as their unemployment benefits last), and entire populations “saunter” when more or less forced to make a change from one economic paradigm to another.
Because Adam Smith explicitly recognized the productivity and efficiency of the division of labor, that does not mean that he was blind to the downside of the kind of work, and the kind of workplace, that resulted from the effective elimination of “sauntering.”
In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilised society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.
Smith didn’t put it like this, but it is human nature to saunter, and when forced by the circumstances of one’s work to apply oneself in a way that does not come naturally, it is an understandable response to retreat into oneself and to relinquish any idea of the greater good or conceptions of the world beyond merely private interest.
Gödel’s Lesson for the Future of Industrialized Society
The revolutionizing of production that Marx recognized and the creative destruction of which Schumpeter wrote are not confined to industry: they shape the whole of industrial society. In other words, society is revolutionized and society on the whole experiences creative destruction. These forces even reshape our intellectual life, which Marx would have dismissed as the “ideological superstructure,” but which must be recognized as at least co-equal with the economic infrastructure.
It follows from this that our ideas of society and social organization must be continually revolutionized or well will not be able to understand what is happening to us, and we will have no conceptual infrastructure capable of expressing the changed conditions of industry, work, and labor. If we continue to employ our outdated concepts we will, most certainly, get our analysis of our contemporary society wrong, and our prescriptions for ameliorating whatever evils follow from that society will be at least as mistaken and misleading.
It is at this point that we see the true dangers of the Millian stationary state — a danger Mill himself did not see. Another name of the stationary state might be “the finite state.” If we limit ourselves to a finite conception of the world, we relinquish the possibility of forming new ideas ad infinitum which can advance the condition of our thought to keep pace with the restless change in life imposed by capitalism.
In my post Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics I quoted Gödel as follows:
“Turing … gives an argument which is supposed to show that mental procedures cannot go beyond mechanical procedures. However, this argument is inconclusive. What Turing disregards completely is the fact that mind, in its use, is not static, but is constantly developing, i.e., that we understand abstract terms more and more precisely as we go on using them, and that more and more abstract terms enter the sphere of our understanding. There may exist systematic methods of actualizing this development, which could form part of the procedure. Therefore, although at each stage the number and precision of the abstract terms at our disposal may be finite, both (and, therefore, also Turing’s number of distinguishable states of mind) may converge toward infinity in the course of the application of the procedure.”
“Some remarks on the undecidability results” (Italics in original) in Gödel, Kurt, Collected Works, Volume II, Publications 1938-1974, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 306
And I commented:
To suppose that human moral evolution had come to an end with the advent of the idea and implementation of liberal democracy, however admirable this condition is (or would be), is to suppose that we had tried all possible ideas for human society and that there will be no new ideas (at least, there will be no new moral ideas unless we change human nature through biotechnological intervention). I do not accept either that all ideas for society have been tried and rejected or that there will be no fundamentally new ideas.
Gödel is right. The human mind is always developing and changing. Because the mind is not static, it formulates novel ideas on a regular basis. It is a fallacy to conflate the failure of new ideas of achieve widespread socio-political currency with the absence of novel ideas. Among the novel ideas constantly pioneered by the dynamism of human cognition are moral and political ideas. In so far as there are new moral and political ideas, there are new possibilities for human culture, society, and civilization. The works of the human mind, like the human mind itself, are not static, but are constantly developing.
What I wrote in that post, under Gödel’s influence, about social and political ideas holds also for the economic ideas that are central to industrial-technological civilization: the mind is constantly developing and changing, and because of this the mind is capable for formulating novel economic conceptions.
An obvious example of this is that, when Mill wrote, he did not even consider the possibility of earth-originating economic activity expanding into the endless reaches of space; Mill’s imagination failed him, or maybe he had the idea as a passing fancy, but realized that it would be dismissed as fantasy, just as today it is still dismissed as “science fiction.”
It is fallacy to suppose that we are stuck with a finite stock of ideas, just as it is a fallacy to suppose that there are only a finite number of possibilities for political society, for economic organization, for the administration of justice, for social institutions, or or any other human activity.
We do not need to settle for a static, stationary conception of the human future; our aspirations can be as dynamic as our imagination is free to conceive as-yet-unactualized possibilities.
Post with 5 notes
I just had the good fortune of attending the first night of the book tour for Annalee Newitz’s just published book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction (a book so new, in fact, that the official publication date is still officially in the future, on May 14, or May 31, depending on which source you consult). Newitz is also the founding editor of the popular website io9.com — a website that I have referenced in several posts. The event was held at Powell’s Books in downtown Portland.
The author began her talk by saying that she began her book with the assumption that humanity is doomed, and she would simply spell out the mechanism or mechanisms by which we would reach our certain end. As her work progressed, her point of view developed and she became more confident of the future survival of humanity. She said several times that she doesn’t think there is really any serious question as to whether humanity would survive.
In studying mass extinctions, she came to note that there are always survivors, and she thought that human beings are well-placed to be the survivors of any future mass extinction events. I agree with this. Although she did not cite David Quammen’s essay Planet of Weeds, this was quite similar to her point of view — human beings are the “weedy species” par excellence, and as a result we are likely to endure far longer than other, more fragile, more vulnerable species.
Another interesting observation the author made was how completely the world is biologically transformed by a mass extinction event. She said that the recovery of ecosystems after a mass extinction event was the recovery of an essentially “new” planet — for example, we live on almost a completely different planet than that inhabited by dinosaurs. This is the fungibility of the biosphere on a very large scale.
While the author didn’t use the term “existential risk,” this is what the book is about, although the author choose to consider those existential risks that have been posed to earth-originating life since its beginning — impacts, vulcanism, radiation, and most of all climate change precipitated by other events. Since climate change might be triggered equally by carbon in the atmosphere released by massive volcanoes or carbon in the atmosphere released by the burning of fossil fuels, mass extinctions so triggered might be anthropogenic or non-anthropogenic.
Not long ago in my post on the BBC story How are humans going to become extinct? I mentioned that Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute is focusing on “threats we have no track record of surviving,” The author, by contrast, spoke about those existential risks that are well established throughout the long history of life on earth, and the resiliency of life on earth despite repeated mass extinctions was the basis of her optimism for humanity’s survival of mass extinctions yet to come.
In the strict sense of existential risk, these known risks are pricisely the existential risks against which we can effectively “insure” ourselves against if only we have the responsibility to take the appropriate action. If we widen our scope, however, to pass beyond existential risk to existential uncertainty, one’s confidence level cannot be so high, precisely because we have no track record of survival, and no knowledge of what exactly we are facing.
Post with 1 note
There were several items of interest in the Financial Times today, starting with a cover story (”Obama backs rise in US gas exports”) on US government approval of natural gas exports. Industries wanting cheap gas lobbied to keep the gas in the US and to limit exports, but sanity (and a competitive global market) seems to have prevailed (for now).
The Financial Times story by Richard McGregor in Washington and Ed Crooks in New York says,
The North American shale revolution over the past decade has unlocked large reserves of gas that were not previously accessible at commercially attractive rates. US gas prices have fallen to levels about one-third of the cost of LNG imported to Europe, and one-quarter of the cost of LNG in Asia, a development with the potential to upend global markets.
Strangely, the Financial Times story on US natural gas exports is subtitled, “New weapon in national security arsenal,” which seems to harken back to the mercantilist era, during which international trade was considered a disguised form of warfare. What the story really meant, however, was that the US wants to use its potential energy leverage in the way that petroleum exporting nation-states used their energy leverage to obtain political concessions.
Again, to quote from the article:
Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, said late last month that the US’s new “energy posture allows us to engage [with the world] from a greater position of strength”.
On the front page of the second section of today’s Financial Times was another story on the continued expansion of the fossil fuels-based economy, “Repsol to help Angola map its vast oil reserve” by Guy Chazan in London.The correspondent notes that this initiative in Angola is partly due to Repsol having been burned recently in Argentina:
The deal with Sonangol highlights Repsol’s intensified focus on exploration in the wake of last year’s seizure of its YPF unit by the Argentine government. That move deprived the group of one of its biggest generators of cash. Since the expropriation, Repsol has been selling assets in an attempt to cut its net debt and keep its investment grade credit rating.
This is something that I wrote about in The Persistence of Populism: Re-Nationalizing YPF in Argentina.
More to the point for the burgeoning carbon economy, the particular technology that Repsol will employ in Angola (a proprietary technology it has not previously allowed any other company to use), training Sonangol technicians in the use of its subsurface imaging technology, may have applications in other “pre-salt” potential oil fields offshore Brazil and the Gulf of Mexico.
The article includes this quote:
“The eyes of the industry will be on Kwanza,” says Didier Lluch, Repsol’s exploration director for east and west Africa. “It has all the makings of another Brazilian pre-salt.”
With the expanding shale gas industry, and the oil industry exploiting new technologies for oil exploration, it seems that peak oil is not yet on the horizon, and that peak carbon-based fossil fuels is even farther in the future.
This is good news for “business as usual” in the economies of the industrialized nation-states, as we are seeing increasing transition of transportation infrastructure being fueled by natural gas (even as diesel prices continue to climb), but it is problematic for global climate change.
Although natural gas is a far cleaner burning fuel than oil or coal, it is still a fossil fuel, and its burning still produces CO2 and contributes greenhouse gases and hence to the warming of the planet.
The vigor of the fossil fuel economy means that there will be plenty of time for alternative technologies to be improved and to come down in price until they are competitive with fossil fuel technologies.
However, burning fossil fuels at always increasing rates for the coming decades, perhaps for the next century or two, means ever greater greenhouse gases and a greater threat that we might pass over a threshold and experience rapid global warming, which would result in sea level rises that would threaten all the world’s major coastal cities and the vital port and shipping services that they make possible, and which in turn keep the global economy humming along.
Nobody knows the answer to the problems posed by continuing to burn fossil fuels at increasing rates, and if anyone pretends to know they are a fraud. Recently I read somewhere (I can’t recall the source) that the sudden release of carbon stored up over millions if not billions of years of the early terrestrial ecosystem soaking up sunlight and storing it, now released over the past two hundred years of industrial-technological civilization, is a vast geophysical experiment, and no one knows how it will turn out.
Just as significantly, we can’t close Pandora’s box — or, if you prefer another mythological metaphor, we can’t put the genie back in the bottle — because we can’t just shut down industrial-technological civilization with the flip of a switch. There is no “off” switch for civilization.
Moreover, the consequences of shutting down civilization, even if it were possible, would be sudden and catastrophic, while the threat from the fossil fuel economy is incremental and gradual. Due to human psychology, which orients us to the immediate danger, because that is what threatens our survival and our reproductive success, we cannot viscerally feel the longer-term, incremental danger, therefore we cannot respond to it with the same urgency.
Human evolutionary psychology is as much a matter of our evolutionary history as fossil fuels are part of the planet’s evolutionary history. We will now see, in the coming decades and centuries, whether these evolutionary histories, now tied together by industrial-technological civilization, can long endure.
Page 1 of 59