Cold and misty morning, I heard a warning borne in the air
About an age of power where no one had an hour to spare …
– Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “Karn Evil 9, 1st Impression, Part 1”
Imagine that you just stepped out of a time machine into the mid-1930s with a case of partial historical amnesia. From your reading of history, you can still remember that the nation has been beset with economic difficulties for several years that will continue for several more. You also clearly remember that this is followed by participation in a global war, but you cannot recall just when it starts or who it’s with. A few days of newspapers and radio broadcasts, however, apprise you of obvious precursors to that conflict and various candidates for both allies and enemies.
As mentioned several times in this forum, I adhere to a historical model, consisting either of a four-part cycle of generational temperaments (Strauss and Howe), or a related but simpler system dynamic/generational flow (Xenakis). That model posits the above scenario as a description of our current situation and a prediction of its near future: a tremendous national trial, currently consisting mostly of failing domestic institutions, is underway. It will somehow transform into a geopolitical military phase and reach a crescendo early in the next decade. It cannot be avoided, only confronted.
Nor will it be a low-intensity conflict like the so-called “wars” of recent decades, which have had US casualty counts comparable to those of ordinary garrison duty a generation ago. Xenakis has coined the descriptive, and thoroughly alarming, term genocidal crisis war for these events. Some earlier instances in American history have killed >1% of the entire population and much larger portions of easily identifiable subsets of it. Any early-21st-century event of this type is overwhelmingly likely to kill millions of people in this country, many if not most of them noncombatants. And besides its stupendous quantitative aspect, the psychological effect will be such that the survivors (including young children) remain dedicated, for the rest of their lives, to preventing such a thing from ever happening again.
I will nonetheless argue that no matter how firmly convinced we may be that an utterly desperate struggle, with plenty of attendant disasters, is inevitable and imminent, we must avoid both individual panic and collective overreaction.
To borrow something from Thucydides, how do I speak in the manner that this situation requires? Instead of merely enumerating a dreadful list of historical analogs (National Recovery Administration = Obamacare, Abyssinia Crisis = Syria, and on and on), is there a way to capture the spirit of the age, and mitigate it?
I nominate a single concept: the fear of contagion.
It isn’t perfect; what Strauss and Howe call a “secular crisis,” by its very nature, includes inadequately anticipated and spectacularly poorly managed components which make it appear collectively insoluble until its final few years. As noted above, my estimation is that we are currently recapitulating, approximately, 1935. Decisive resolution of what Strauss and Howe call the Crisis of 2020 is unlikely to be achieved in under a decade. No one, myself certainly included, knows what the mid-2020s will really look like, much less all the contingencies that will arise along the way. My list of contagions is necessarily incomplete.
One bit of ironic good news is that anybody can play. This analysis is orthogonal to conventional, and even not-so-conventional, politics, thereby meeting one of my favorite criteria, the provision of something to offend everyone. The not-so-good news is that nearly anyone is susceptible to hosting and propagating the kind of memes I will be arguing against. By way of demonstrating self-awareness, I will call out the threats I personally find most alarming. Your mileage will vary.
The phenomena/challenges listed below do exist, if only in the minds of tens of millions of fearful people, though most of them are material enough; my critique is about our response, and the kind of responses we are encouraging.
- agricultural: “GMOs”
- biomedical: vaccines; fluoridation; admission of/travel by Ebola patients to US; novel viral pandemics
- climatological: extreme weather events; ecosystem disruption; agricultural disruption; coastal flooding
- cultural (internal): blue-to-red-state migration/voting; sexual demographics*
- cultural (external): Muslim infiltration/demographics; immigrants as disease vectors
- economic: immigrants as labor competition; offshoring/outsourcing; cheap imports; “globalization”
- military: WMD proliferation; sabotage; invasion
*my attempt at a two-word encapsulation of the American public’s 15x overestimate of the prevalence of homosexuality
Key developments and attitudes driving the above fears include:
Technological advances in communications. The difference between the Bell 101 modem, commercialized in the year of my birth, and Google Fiber, which I got this March, is incidentally a seven-order-of-magnitude increase in the data rate, but far more importantly, the difference between a handful of wire-service teleprinters at radio and TV stations in each major city and a personal computer in nearly every residence with access to thousands of news sources of greatly varying quality. I note that signal speed itself is unchanged, as is the ability of a given individual to read and comprehend text; in theory a 300-baud land-line modem connection could supply written material as fast as most people could absorb it. What is new is the many-to-many communication paradigm in combination with preexisting effectively instantaneous transmission and, of course, the ubiquity of full-motion, high-resolution video imagery. So now we can pull a tablet out of a briefcase and watch a humanitarian aid worker getting his head sawed off. And then compose and upload a lunatic blogpost claiming that ISIS is a creation of the CIA, Mossad, or both. Utopia it ain’t.
Technological advances in transport. Gregory Clark calculated, for his book A Farewell to Alms, that the marginal cost of shipping one pair of blue jeans to the American market from anywhere in the world (including sub-Saharan Africa) is 9 cents. For a good overview of the hardware that makes such a thing possible, see Vaclav Smil’s Prime Movers of Globalization. Again using the late 1950s as a baseline, oceanic shipping capacity via container ship has increased by two orders of magnitude. Like telecommunications, speed itself has not increased, but cost has plummeted and the variety of readily available goods has exploded. Turning to the other major subject of Smil’s book, air travel, thanks in part to phenomenally efficient and safe turbojets, has grown such that at any given moment during regular business hours, half a million people are airborne in the US alone. One billion people cross an international boundary every year. Notoriously, no two major cities on Earth are more than 24 hours’ travel time apart.
There were of course political factors in these developments, including court battles over containerization and partial deregulation of both telecommunications and airlines in the US. But the engineering advances may have made the regulatory liberalization irresistible.
Under-appreciation of effectiveness of Western institutions. This is blatant among anti-vaxxers, who position themselves in the slipstream behind generations of overwhelmingly successful vaccination campaigns. But there are many other less obvious examples. In the (unlikely) event of an Ebola outbreak in the US, I would not be at all surprised to see its mortality rate drop to 10%, due to factors including, but almost certainly not limited to: far better medical care; far lower urban population density; effectively universal availability of electric power, potable water, and motorized transport on paved roads; effectively zero rates of helminth infections; and far lower rates of (among other things) anemia, hypertension, malnutrition, or vector-borne diseases. Fish don’t notice the water they’re swimming in – particularly if it’s being cleansed by some unobtrusive mechanism.
There are of course negative versions of this phenomenon; the first two examples that come to mind are ignorance of the role of American prisons and homeless shelters in the rise of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis, and the lethal potential (including in biological attacks) of remotely-controlled “toy” drones.
Journalistic innumeracy. Related to, and greatly magnifying, the above. See also narrative bias; and as a forgettable blogger once wrote: “Science, in particular, is a far less intuitive pursuit than the narrative art (or we’d have developed it tens of thousands of years ago). The NYTimes’ editorial writers may be somewhat less qualified to write about science than, say, I am; but they sure can write.” We may safely assume that most of the media people tasked with communicating the significance of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa are stupefied by such concepts as basic vs effective reproductive numbers, to say nothing of the differential equations used to model infectious disease transmission.
Scientific ignorance. This is how the wider American public, technophilic as it is when it comes to personal applications, gets to approach the level of foolishness demonstrated in journalistic innumeracy. We want the latest phone and a car loaded with options, but if an electric utility is building a nuclear power plant, or an agribusiness is promoting seed with genes inserted, or a pharmaceutical company has developed a new vaccine, or the city water works is starting to add fluoride, or the Feds want to explore asteroids, look out, because it has to be dangerous or just wrong somehow. To be sure, the vast majority of such Know-Nothingism comes from the left, but as time goes by it’s getting harder and harder to tell someone’s politics by a single science-related issue they panic over.
Hypodermic needle model of influence. See Everett Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations. A popular belief is that mere exposure or proximity to a source of contagion, which may be memetic (advertising, propaganda) as well as physical (viruses, “radiation”), immediately transforms people into helpless victims with no control over the outcome, as though they had been injected with a huge dose of poison. Certain of the New Atheists seem to have a touching meta-faith of sorts in the unfailingly destructive influence of religion. In extreme instances, like fear of climatological disaster, proximity can come to mean “CO2 emissions anywhere on Earth”; and in any case, general awareness of the ease of communication and transport can easily heighten a fear of computer viruses, or nuclear warheads in shipping containers. Topical examples in 2014 tend to involve the Mexican border, ostensibly a conduit for everything from tubercular Guatemalan children to ISIS operatives, again with emphasis on the utter prostration of the American populace.
Scarcity mentality. This is a Stephen Covey term, widely propagated in large American corporations through training on the 7 Habits, and contrasted with “abundance mentality.” It is his rather more intuitive phrasing of the difference between zero-sum and positive-sum games. A scarcity mentality can be greatly exacerbated by an economic downturn, and I need hardly persuade this audience that we have been in one for at least six years and that there is no end in sight. For typical historical consequences, see the S.S. St. Louis. I am informed that at least one opinion poll already shows majority support among Americans over age 65 for zero immigration. This in a country of over three million square miles and, well-publicized difficulties notwithstanding, a $17 trillion GDP.
My turn. What scares me, and why?
Confining myself to the first three things that come to mind …
- The growing likelihood of a WMD attack on the US.
- Fifth-column activity in the US during, or as the opening act of, a major war, possibly in association with #1.
- A novel viral pandemic (not Ebola).
Now, the more important part of the “why” is what it reveals about my own susceptibilities, not the supposedly objective real-world conditions that make the above items probable. But I should discuss those conditions before nattering on about my own personality.
WMD attack: product of
- pre-existing intent by – probably – Wahhabis or a permutation thereof to do as much damage to the West as possible
- increasing capability afforded by ever-cheaper dual-use technologies making ever-more-dangerous weapons accessible to ever-smaller organizations; state sponsorship not required
- vanishing crisis-management ability among political leadership as the last generation with any memory of global war departs from the scene
Note that the WMD in question may not necessarily be nuclear. A (deeply problematic) shift toward lower time preference among the bad guys would presumably manifest itself in a biological rather than chemical or nuclear attack. And there is absolutely no need to develop something from scratch, or even modify any existing biological agent; Variola major will do just fine as is.
Fifth-column activity: product of
- internal allies of the bad guys in the WMD scenario; probably 2nd-generation, native-born Americans, not recent immigrants, and in Northern rather than Southern states
- or possibly part of a purely internal conflict between domestic factions, led by rival segments of the baby boomers
- or a hybrid in which foreign and 2nd-generation domestic elements are joined by a pre-existing political faction in the US
Will the cold Civil War the boomers have been fighting for the past few decades ever turn hot? I don’t know, but we’re going to find out.
Novel viral pandemic: product of
- zoonotic virus, livestock host, mutating to become human-transmissible
- worst-case combination would be a long period of subclinical infection overlapping with communicability, plus high mortality in clinical infection phase
- site of origin either a large, high-population-density city with high-capacity travel links or a remote, poorly monitored area (eg Haskell County, Kansas, January 1918)
About the best I can say for the pandemic scenario is that, unlike the others, I don’t think its likelihood gets much worse in the next few years.
So what makes me susceptible to all these dark imaginings?
- Being male, I have a heightened sensitivity to the threat of exogenous violence.
- Being scientifically/technologically aware, and believing in continued exponential increases in capability, I expect many things, both good and bad, to become cheap/ubiquitous in coming years.
- Being a baby boomer myself, I perceive a significant intra-generational conflict.
- Being an amateur astronomer, my specific interest in the impact risks of near-Earth objects has led to a fascination with the likelihood of “black swan” events.
Your homework assignment is to perform a similar exercise: list what types of contagions scare you, and why, both in the sense of what might lead to their occurrence and why such things have your attention. I particularly encourage these types of responses in comments … and, frankly, discourage any other type of response. The hour approaches, and mental preparation, including mental hygiene, is the first step toward meeting it.
That homework assignment is the first step in adapting your own response to the challenges of our time. Other guidelines:
Be mathematically informed, in the sense of quantitative risk analysis. High-probability, high-impact events are worth worrying about. Other combinations of probability and impact, not so much; at the very least, nuance is required. And even if the numbers still look scary, recall Adam Smith: “Be assured, my young friend, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.”
Be willing to depart from an ideology if circumstances, especially a more mathematically-driven worldview, require it. This may cause you frustration with your former (or perhaps newly quasi-) compatriots.
Be aware of the distinction between necessary and sufficient conditions. If everything that were supposed to produce or enable terrorist activity in the US – like the existence of aggressive passages in the Quran – was truly a sufficient condition, we’d have long since been stepping over bodies in the streets every morning.
Be aware of what Taleb calls complex payoffs, in which the magnitude of the effect of an event can cover a wide range. This is what I was getting at in the “Heterogeneity” section of How To Think About Catastrophe.
Do not be fearful; be constructively apprehensive. And encourage this attitude in others.