Friday, January 11, 2019

"The World Is Quietly Getting Better"? The Facts & Evidence Don't Support That Meme

Conflicts over roughly the last 65 years and the casualties estimate for each. World quietly getting "better"? Judge for yourself!

Once more we behold the meme of humanity "getting better", this time trotted out by Greg Ip, e.g.

Of course this is codswallop, but ironically - if facts are only in the background and dire events kept "quietly" on the backburner - or on page 23 - then yes,  it is possible to accept it.  But any study of events over the past century or so belies the claim and the incipient basis for this fantasy.    As Exhibit A readers are directed to the graphic above showing just the conflicts that have gone on for the past fifty years or so- and the numbers of dead  estimated for each.  And this doesn't even take into account the ongoing Syrian Civil war, the numbers of dead there (est. over 1 million) and the vast number of fleeing refugees.

Ip is correct that "for most of recorded history humanity lived on the brink of starvation"  and "as recently as 1980 half of the world lived in extreme poverty", i.e. consuming less than the basic necessities - valued at $1.90 a day.  Meaning that since then the lot of global humanity has improved. No argument there, but at what cost as Neoliberalism has dominated global economics?    Well, the answer appeared in the Market Outlook section of the same day's WSJ  (p. R1) exploring 'The World's Growing Debt".  That debt, as the article notes, now stands at "$250 TRILLION" - and as the author puts it, "the world has never had so much debt".  But "growing debt goes hand in hand with growing economies" . Why? Because in the Neoliberal model growth is predicated on expectation of return in the future and leverage. Hence, Neoliberal investors are prepared to use leverage to buy stocks in companies just as companies are prepared to use leverage, i.e. go into debt, to expand. 

Why is this a negative? Because growing debt cannot be sustained. It portends a depression of extreme proportions and a return to the unthinkable poverty Ip claims is a thing of the past. Think of twenty years in a Great Depression,  few or no jobs, no capital  (far less credit) to form businesses or income for citizens. Think, in other words, of the current government shutdown and no pay, zilch, but for everyone! Well, everyone except the ├╝ber wealthy like Jeff Bezos',  worth $130 b.

The fact is that even now - before a calamitous trigger brings the "house" down, Neoliberal economics has been shown to be a failure. As reported in The Denver Post last Sunday ('High Number Of Americans Getting Absolutely No Raises', p. 5K):

"Nine years into what is currently the second longest recovery in U.S. history  an unusually large number of workers is still stuck with frozen paychecks."

And corroborating this, in an article in The Washington Post today about how displaced federal workers are having to sell precious belongings to make ends meet in this Trump shutdown, we read:

"In the United States, living paycheck to paycheck is disturbingly common, regardless of profession or location. A recent report from the Federal Reserve revealed how little cushion most Americans have in their budgets: Four in 10 adults say they couldn’t produce $400 in an emergency without sliding into debt or selling something, according to the figures that surveyed households in 2017, a relatively prosperous year for the American economy."

A "relatively prosperous year" but for whom?  Not for millions of middle or working class stiffs, or the federal employees caught in this shutdown atrocity spawned by the Right's blowhards - and Dotard Donnie acting as their slave.  This is all despite the fact that the GOP and Trump promised workers better wages with the massive tax cut passed in 2017.  Now, however, we see there are no real wage gains - plus we are saddled with an addition of $1.5 trillion to the national debt, now expected to top $22.5 trillion this year.  And to add insult to injury, the demented Trump vermin now talk of raiding the disaster relief funds (for Puerto Rico, Texas, California etc.) to pay for Trump's  - or rather Limbaugh's and Ann Coulter's ...Wall.

How long can the party go on? That is the question of the moment. The answer is that the payment will come due when the first major crisis erupts and the system finds itself unable to continue without the essential resources to sustain the population.  What might that be? An immediate trigger would be a devastating nuclear war  in which nearly all of ten thousand megaton warheads currently  in nuclear powers' arsenals are detonated within a day or less.  Then civilization as we know it ends, especially with nuclear winter. 

Or, it could be a global event that cripples economies across the planet such as a pandemic of Avian Flu or even a re-assorted H1N1 virus - the same which spawned the 1918 pandemic that killed 100 million. (I will have a post about this pandemic next week).  Less  likely would be a monster solar  flare hurling a super stream of charged particles in a coronal mass ejection (CME)  with the potential to knock out all our power grids and GPS satellites . Bear in mind that GPS, besides providing directions for road users, allows synchronized cell phone conversations, as well as orchestrates air traffic not to mention 'date stamping' on most financial transactions and guiding the dynamic positioning of the majority of deep sea oil drilling and gas operations. 

Don't believe the power grid is that vulnerable? Then you're living in fantasy land. The map below shows the extent of Russian hacking efforts into the power grids of at least 24 states (cf. WSJ today, 'Russia Hacked U.S. Grid', p. A9):

Map showing at least 24 states where Russian hacked into the power grid. (From WSJ, p. A9)

Then how successful were they? According to a cyber security chief (Jonathan Homer) cited in the article,  referring to a utility company briefing paper : "The Russians had penetrated the control system area of utilities through poorly protected jump boxes".  The latter are really computers that enable technicians to move between two systems: the internet and critical control networks (walled off from the web for security purposes.) 

But consider this: if the Russians could so easily create havoc - admittedly with the help of malicious or spoofed emails- imagine what a well-placed CME could do. Many experts agree a simple solution would be to install large enough resistor -capacitor systems at critical locations (e.g. near power plants or major cities)  in order to sever any CME-driven upward field aligned current connection to the grid. The problem? Major U.S. power companies don't want to assume the cost for any voluntary installations, which could run $100,000 per transformer. Hence, the grid remains unprotected against the rare - but potentially calamitous - Carrington event CME.


My point? The Neoliberal capitalist system, built as it is on fossil fuel consumption and competitive individualism, would not be resilient enough to survive such an event. Further, the debt amassed already would ensure returning to our present civilization unlikely if not impossible.  Hence, a dystopic future awaits  humanity  (maybe a rung or so above Dark Ages' level) though the Neoliberals can't seem to see it.

 Ip brags that "as of September half the world - 3,8 billion people - are middle class or rich" - but that is not a permanent attribute or constant. Those numbers can be wiped out in an instant by one catastrophic event - OR by an encroaching cataclysm such as extreme climate change, i.e. the onset of the runaway greenhouse.

And what of climate change? Is it even on Ip's radar? Well yes to the extent he writes:

"The warming climate is a consequence of all those new middle class entrants burning fossil fuels. Yet obsessing over such perils is how we'll likely solve them. Take global warming: Public concern over climate change is rising in the wake of wildfires and floods."

Well, if that was really true how account for the fact carbon emissions actually rose 3.4 percent the past year, e.g.

It appears to me the public is not as invested in controlling climate change as he claims, which in the first instance would mean accepting a significant fuel tax. But look how that worked out in Macron's France with all the Yellow vest riots.

This  Neoliberal blind spot, which also entails forecasting outrageously high economic growth  despite the ravages of climate change (Ip predicts GDP 400 % bigger by 2100) is more or less the same idiocy adopted by WSJ resident denier Holman Jenkins   Jenkins,  recall, insisted ('Climate Change Is Affordable', p. A15, Nov. 28) that the latest IPCC climate assessment allows us to "arrive at a manageable $510 billion in estimated climate-related costs by 2090"

 But as I noted in my post of October 10th, after the original IPCC report came out:

"The cost of doing nothing until 2040 and allowing the now forecast 4C rise (more likely 6C) by 2100 will be well over $100 trillion in worldwide costs - from the mega-disasters including massive flooding, fires, to loss of jobs, homes, infrastructure - including power stations."

And let's note that one of Jenkins' standard ploys is to whine constantly about  "doom mongers", i.e. those of us seeking to control fossil fuel consumption.  But look,  if people were rational beings, as opposed to pawns and zombies manipulated by the media pundits and BS'ers like Jenkins and his WSJ op-ed cohort, fear would not be necessary . Able -minded citizens could examine the climate news and data dispassionately e.g.   Climate report understates threat

And arrive at the same conclusion as climate scientists like Myles Allen.  Prof. Allen,  an Oxford University climate scientist and an author of the IPCC report. was quoted in one NY  Times piece after the release of the UN report:

"It’s telling us we need to reverse emissions trends and turn the world economy on a dime,”

This is, of course, why in my first post this year I predicted climate change would become unstoppable, e.g.

2019 Forecasts: Climate Change Becomes Unstoppable...

The very fact we in the U.S.  were unable to limit our carbon emissions -  even as coal plants closed - -  supports this. Totally.  I hate to puncture Greg  Ip's little pink balloon of false hope, but there it is. Sometimes you have to put on your 'big boy' pants and face cold, hard facts.

The latest news that the oceans are now 40 percent warmer ought to also strike  fear (or at least a dose of reality)  into the hearts of those like Jenkins, as well as puncture the presumptuous optimism of those like Greg Ip (and Steven Pinker).  See e.g.

Ocean heat is climbing 40% faster than thought - Axios

Hitherto, let us note, the world's oceans have provided a buffer to moderate the warming by absorbing excess CO2 in the atmosphere.  But when the seas absorb CO2 from the atmosphere carbonic acid is formed - and the oceans become acidic. The particular chemical reaction is:

H2O + CO2 -> H2 CO3

The lower the pH level in the seas ('7' is neutral pH), the more acidic they are. This is also worrisome because mass extinctions of marine creatures in the past have been linked to instances of ocean acidification.  But now with oceans much warmer it is clear we are approaching another tipping point where the limits of  the oceans' CO2 absorption may have been reached and now we may well be in for the worst.  

 Indeed, since the Industrial Revolution the acidity of the oceans has jumped 25 % from a pH of 8.2 to 8,.1 according to the U.S.  Global Change Research Program;s 2014 National Climate Change assessment. If current trends continue unchecked the acidity would increase 100-150 percent above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, according to Carol Turley of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the UK. 

 But it seems now that with the oceans much warmer the carbonic acid concentrations may have peaked but the outgassing of CO2 may be not far away. If so, we may have passed the point of no return. In an article appearing  in Eos Transactions of the AGU (Vol. 83, No. 34), from August 20, 2002, ‘Progress Made in Study of Ocean’s Calcium Carbonate Budget’, we are alerted that sedimentary carbonates represent the largest reservoir of carbon on Earth. The author also notes that “a third of the anthropogenic CO2 that has been added to the atmosphere since the middle of the 18th century has been absorbed by the oceans”. This means that the oceans, acting as CO2 reservoirs, have actually masked the worst effects of global warming and that when their saturation point is reached, the spillover effect will be rapid and calamitous indeed.

The oceans now being 40 percent warmer means that saturation point is quite near. If so, the tipping point that sends our civilization crashing is also not far away, all Greg Ip's assurances notwithstanding. 

World getting quietly, relentlessly better?  Sure, from the perspective of an ostrich

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