Watching the Train Wreck in Slow Motion

I recently watched Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth" and it reminded me of other times in history when people sounded the alarm and weren't heeded. Sometimes the way to capture the mood of an era is done best by novelists. I'm going to mention two.

Both wrote of events in the first quarter of the 20th Century. They are Erich Maria Remarque and Ford Madox Ford. They have a lesson for us today.

The first author is Erich Maria Remarque. He is most famous for his war-themed novel "All Quiet On The Western Front", but the one I'm interested in is his lesser known "The Black Obelisk". This book takes place during the runaway German inflation of 1923. The protagonist works as a salesman for a firm that makes grave stones and coping with the inflation while trying to run a business is the frame.

What is interesting is reading about the effect on the population. For example, WWI wounded veterans had a pension, but with inflation, a month's income could be spent in one day. There were protests and suicides by veterans as a result. Another attitude that was portrayed was the loss of all ambition. Any attempt to use money as a medium of interchange was hopeless. The author gets by for a while with meal coupons that he had purchased from a local restaurant. Since they were not money they retained their utility. The loss of stability left the way open for the radicalism which followed with the rise of Hitler.

The second author is Ford Madox Ford. His series of novels "Parade's End" covers the period from just before WWI to slightly after. The relevant theme is that in the run up to the war people knew what was coming, but there was just nothing they could to change the course of events. During the war the inevitability of going off to fight, and, most likely die or be injured, also led to hopelessness. Finally, after the war, when the author returns unscathed he finds those who stayed behind have already moved on and he has lost the comfortable career track and life goals that he had expected earlier. He drops out and ceases to have any faith in society.

The common theme in these works (and many others) is that the impending disaster is coming and there is nothing to be done. Al Gore is aware of this trap of despair and goes to great lengths to emphasize that we can fix things if we just use the tools that we already have at hand. This is an entirely proper role for a politician to take. He is trying to affect national policy.

But how realistic is this? Here are some of the issues we face:

  1. Income inequality (national and international)
  2. Resource depletion (national and international)
  3. Overpopulation (and paradoxically an aging population)
  4. Unsustainable consumerism (and exploding poverty)
  5. Climate change

We see the train approaching, but what are we doing to prevent the wreck?

1. Inequality is still rising while the number of winners is also growing. There are no current steps being undertaking to correct this in any meaningful way. Even in the US simple steps like fixing the estate tax and the marginal tax rate for the super wealthy has little popular support. In places like China the wealth inequality has led to peasant revolts and an impoverishment of the rural population. State supplied services like health and education have been "privatized".

2. It is now possible for a politician to mention "peak oil", but few do. What about peak water and peak arable land? How about peak Tantalum or peak Helium? Many resources are becoming scarce and the economist's solution of substitution is not possible.

3. Gore talks promisingly about the rate of population growth declining, but this is misleading. The number of people being added to the world is still going up at an unprecedented rate. Moving from six to nine billion by mid century cannot be painless. Just to put things into perspective AIDs now infects 40 million people worldwide with deaths of about four million. This is considered an international pandemic. However the world population is growing at a rate of about 75 million per year. This means if all those currently with AIDs died tomorrow their numbers would be made up in six months.

4. In industrialized countries the population is aging and this is causing a strain on the consumerist model which requires a continually increasing workforce to support growth. Continual growth in a finite world is a physical impossibility, but we don't have any economic models to deal with the looming changes. At the same time the rising standard of living of the poorest of the poor will require large increases in resources. The UN goal to eliminate poverty would boost those living on less than a dollar a day to two dollars. Even this modest goal will require increased spending of about $1.5 billion per day. There is no mechanism in place to achieve this.

5. Ultimately climate change is a symptom. It is a symptom of overpopulation and over consumption. Since it is the consumption that increases energy use and it is energy use that causes the increase in atmospheric pollution. A recent GAO report (PDF) highlights the fact that there are currently no viable technologies to supply the needs of just the transportation sector. Oil is running out, coal and biomass to liquid fuel are problematical and electric vehicles don't exist. Gore can be optimistic, but the solutions are not at hand.

We need to learn how to do with less. We need to redefine the "meaning of life" so that it isn't based upon wealth but on happiness. The alternative is declining wealth and declining happiness. This is the message of the novels I've mentioned. People can't live in contentment when their society is on the verge of catastrophe.

Right now the US (and indirectly the rest of the industrialized world) is using militarism to maintain the unequal consumption of non-renewable resources. We are already seeing the consequences. First, the US is weakening its competitive position by neglecting infrastructure development, both physical plant as well as human capital provided by education, human services and R&D. Second, militarism is leading to the rise of a global misuse of scarce resources which are devoted to the death industries. The enterprise which consumes the most fuel on the planet is the US military. Third, militarism is proving increasingly ineffective in achieving our resource objectives. We can blow societies up, but we can't make them do what we wish. This is as true in the Middle East as it is in Latin America. Gunboat diplomacy is no longer a viable foreign policy. Finally, resource shortages are leading to permanent conflict in stressed areas. From Somalia, to Sudan, to Congo conflicts persist for decades. We have even invented a new term for this, "failed states". We can expect to see more of these in the future. People who have nothing and have no hope spread their instability elsewhere. Regional conflicts are increasingly spilling over into neighboring states. Even Europe is now feeling the strain as Africans try to sneak in to the EU.

The conservative internationalists have it right. If we don't stop them there they will come here. What they don't understand is that militarism isn't the way to stop poverty migration, sane development and population policies are.

We need to admit that we have a problem and we need to admit that it can't be fixed by business as usual or by painless tweaks. If we don't do this, change will happen anyway, we will just be unprepared.

Moral: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of misery.


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Copyright © 2007 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.