Creative Destruction

February 5, 2007

Steamrollers

Filed under: History,International Politics,Navel Gazing,Philosophy — Brutus @ 7:53 pm

I remember watching the street in front of my boyhood home being repaved. The bulk and power of the construction equipment made a lasting impression on me, as bulldozers, cranes, steam (or hydraulic) shovels, pavers, and dump trucks are pretty imposing pieces of machinery. But the one that really fascinated me was the steamroller. What the steamroller lacks in majesty, compared to the glacier anyway (a natural process, I note), it makes up for in fanciful temporal reconceptualization. Watching the steamroller work requires one to think in terms of slow process. It’s also a well-worn cliche in cartoons that villains and heroes alike are frequently flattened by steamrollers only to reappear in the next scene no worse for wear. Roadrunner, Tom and Jerry, The Naked Gun, A Fish Called Wanda, Austin Powers, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? all have steamroller bits in them, always slapstick in tone.

The implied threat of the steamroller, which is different from other heavy equipment, is not merely the specter of death but a slow, agonizing, bone-by-crunching-bone crushing accomplished not by stealth, strategy, or speed but by slow, steady, obvious, undeterred, mindless force. I don’t know of any sort of irrational fear that stems from steamrollers, though, unlike the silent scream or catatonia some experience faced with other looming threats. Because the steamroller works in slo-mo, one feels safe knowing that it’s possible to play in the streets and alight out of harm’s way at the last moment. So being caught under a steamroller represents either a grave miscalculation or the mark of rather extreme stupidity.

So what steamrollers are figuratively bearing down on us at the dawn of this new millennium? I can think of a few.

China (and India)

Even though China’s birthrate for 2006 was 13.25 per 1,000 population, slightly lower than the U.S. birthrate (14.14) but higher than that of the European Union (10.0), its population of 1.3 billion guarantees that the world will be swarming (even moreso than now) with Chinamen by midcentury. (Data courtesy of The World Factbook.) India’s numbers are more striking: 22.01 birthrate and population of nearly 1.1 billion. Now that both China and India have adopted Western-style capitalism, it’s fully foreseeable that they will be clamoring for their share of resources and using their market force to obtain it. Will Western ideologies (especially democracy and Christianity) similarly be overwhelmed by their Asian counterparts (Communism and Buddhism)? Maybe we’ll just get a lot more Indian and Chinese cuisine.

The Rise of Islam

For similar reasons having to do with sheer demographics (birthrate and immigration), Muslims are poised to become the dominant minority in most of Europe by 2025, and following that, the dominant political power across the globe. Mark Steyn believes this will create a veritable ideological siege, with America as the sole remaining representative of Western values. His book is America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It. According to Steyn, Islam is also characterized by a fundamentalist will to power, which is undercut in America by the politically correct fetish for multiculturalism. I’m not sure how to rate Steyn’s characterization (he spouts some pretty absurd stuff in this interview), but his prognosis nonetheless looks inevitable.

Economic Collapse

This is the one I understand least well. But the arguments usually go that the U.S. dollar is living on borrowed time, being propped up by foreign investments that stand to lose if a collapse occurs. Further, the Chinese currently have their currency tied to the dollar, and oil is traded in dollars. If (or when?) the euro replaces the dollar as the benchmark currency, it’s warned that the house of cards will fall.

Global Mindshift

This one is the least clear. The gist of it is that our old identities formed of race, religion, culture, and nationality are no longer sufficient to handle the perils of global conflict and transformation, that we need a new form of global identity. This website has quite a bit of info. I find this a rather rosy, optimistic view. The future I think more likely to occur is closer to the one depicted in the recent movie Idiocracy. It will be profane, ignorant, cruel, and utterly irredeemable, assuming we survive. We will revert to our animal nature, though we will still have use of considerable technology. I don’t contemplate this much, as it’s too disturbing.

Global Warming

This issue has been prophesied for years already, but it’s now reached the public consciousness despite being largely ignored in the mainstream media. The timeline for this transformation is more protracted, but it’s the trump card, as it will eventually trigger, following on the heels of the current wave of mass extinctions (see this and this), a rapid human depopulation and a fairly radical reorganization of civilization — again, assuming we survive.

What these all have in common is their slow-moving inevitability, like the steamroller. We can probably see them coming, which is how I can blog about them, but we’re hopeless to combat them except in the adaptive sense. John Gray put it in Straw Dogs better than I can:

The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth — and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction .… Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs — even if the result is ruin. When times are desperate they act to protect their offspring, to revenge themselves on enemies, or simply to give vent to their feelings. These are not flaws that can be remedied. Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mold. The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational.

11 Comments »

  1. “Will Western ideologies (especially democracy and Christianity) similarly be overwhelmed by their Asian counterparts (Communism and Buddhism)?”

    Huh? Since when is Communism an Asian ideology? Are the pictures I’ve seen of Marx and Engles inaccurate? Does Castro know this? It was a Western ideology the last time I knew. And, what makes you think that it is inherently inconsistent with Democracy? It is really another form of the same thing and professes great concern about the concerns and material needs of the common man, at least as much so as Western democratic systems do.

    And who exactly is Buddhist? Buddhism is hardly thriving in either China or India.

    The philosophy of Confucious has far more profoundly influenced East Asia. Hinduism and Islam are the dominant religious influences in India.

    Christianity, FWIW, is likely to be more influential in Africa than in the West in the coming centuries.

    Comment by ohwilleke — February 6, 2007 @ 2:08 am | Reply

  2. Despite its embrace of capitalism, China is a communist country. So is Russia. Both are located in Asia. So whether communism is Asian or Western at root, its influence is likely to be felt again in the West. The discrepancy between Buddhism and Confucianism is undoubtedly a mistake on my part, but no matter. The larger point still stands: we’re likely to be overtaken by demographics alone.

    Comment by Brutus — February 6, 2007 @ 2:57 am | Reply

  3. China and India are going to be interesting to watch, I’ll give you that. China’s communism is not heartfelt. They take easily to the collectivism, but there’s a naturally acquisitive, cheery capitalist strain in the Asian soul. Maybe it’s because they don’t grow up with all the Christian hoo-ha about the evils of money.

    But the other stuff? I don’t know. In my experience, no tragedy we brace for ever happens. Or, to extend your analogy, you never get run over by the steamroller you see coming. How could you? It’s big and slow and loud. It’s the one lumbering up behind that gets you.

    I was in High School when the Coming Ice Age was the climatologists’ wet dream. Then there’s the second flu pandemic, the mad cow scare, the Y2K disaster that wasn’t. You could write a book on all the bad stuff that was going to happen by that convenient date “the year 2000.”

    It’s not that tragedy doesn’t happen. It’s just always some weird-ass thing you weren’t expecting.

    Comment by S. Weasel — February 6, 2007 @ 8:54 am | Reply

  4. Christianity was founded in the Middle East. Communism, at least the modern form, was more or less started by a German working in Britain. So how is Christianity a western doctrine and Communism an Asian one? For that matter, isn’t the origin of democracy (in the west, anyway), usually considered to be ancient Athens, which is only marginally European itself.

    Climate change appears to be real, but, on the cheerful side, the particulate matter put into the air by cars will probably kill us all with heart disease before the climate change gets too bad.

    Comment by Dianne — February 6, 2007 @ 11:27 am | Reply

  5. Climate change appears to be real – Dianne

    That climate change is real hasn’t been debated for twenty years. The only issue was whether or not the change was the result of human activity. That in itself wasn’t much of a debate really, but now at least we’re sure. We’re also sure that it isn’t reversible unless you consider thousands of years of carbon life-form corpses a feasible method of reversibility, or unless someone knows of another way to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere that they’re keeping a secret.

    In the years to come, large populations will become more and more of a detriment to themselves. Populations do not equate to growing markets. A market grows as its capacity to consume power grows. As our ability to produce energy diminishes and arable land becomes less reliable, markets can only shrink. Increasing populations combined with shrinking markets equals starvation. Those who will survive will be those whose populations are small enough to feed and power, but are large enough, and technologically advanced enough to suppress relatively impoverished masses.

    So, in essence, cultures will not bread other cultures out of existence, but rather will bread themselves out existence.

    The U.S. Specifically

    The U.S. economy will collapse as petro-dollars become less relevant and as we pass peek oil. But it wont really matter. A new economy will emerge out of global mass starvation, disease, and natural disaster. Noone will be able to collect on American dept, and it will basically be forgiven as other economies struggle. Suburbs will turn into ghost towns, the former U.S. middle class will be shunted into ghettos and starved. Power grids will be cordoned off via class lines. Personal freedoms will diminish significantly. Religiosity will continue its ascendancy. New Orleans-like incidents will become common-place. Fun fun for the whole family.

    But hey, that’s just my guess.

    Comment by James — February 6, 2007 @ 12:50 pm | Reply

  6. unless someone knows of another way to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere

    More plants, fewer cars. (Although I understand that there is some question about how good of carbon sinks plants really are…) And deal with the fact that the change is happening.

    Comment by Dianne — February 6, 2007 @ 1:18 pm | Reply

  7. unless you consider thousands of years of carbon life-form corpses a feasible method – me

    Plants are what I meant by “carbon life-form corpses”. Consider that plants (and other carbon based life-forms) can put carbon dioxide back into the ground at about the same rate they have in the past, and then consider that we’ve released thousands of years of carbon into the atmosphere. It stands to reason that it will take about as long to reverse the process. That is, if we stopped ALL burning of coal and oil. Of course, we wont, so the process will take much longer, if it will happen at all. Assuming of course that we’re even around to burn fossils or not burn fossils. Regardless, noone alive on earth today will see this process reversed, and most likely noone will see it even begin reversing.

    The problem now is that we’re going to need a lot of energy to actually deal with the change (whatever it will be). Currently, this will require the burning of even more fossil fuels. The trick is to generate enough energy to deal with the coming crises, while not actually exasperating the problem.

    In all likelihood this will take the form of energy consumption optimizations, alternative energy sources, decreased fossil consumption, and lots and lots of nuclear power plants… and some luck.

    Comment by Jams — February 6, 2007 @ 1:37 pm | Reply

  8. You can add civil restructuring to that list.

    Comment by Jams — February 6, 2007 @ 1:38 pm | Reply

  9. That is, if we stopped ALL burning of coal and oil. Of course, we wont

    Suppose we did. What would happen? The earth can only support about 100,000 humans in the absence of technology (ie as hunter-gatherers) and we have to have energy to run the technology. Currently we don’t have good alternatives to carbon fuels–at least not for many applications. So if we stopped burning coal and oil, we’d have a massive famine and kill off over 99.9% of the earth’s human population…which would then rot, releasing a massive amount of carbon into the air. No win that way.

    There are things we could do to slow the process. Stop using huge, energy inefficient vehicles. Eat less meat (cows, at least, are major methane producers and methane is a worse greenhouse gas than CO2). Develop fuel sources that don’t depend on burning carbon. And so on. It won’t stop the climate change, but it may slow things a bit. The CFC ban actually did reduce the hole in the ozone, so human actions can reverse some of the damage caused by earlier human actions. If we’re willing to do it. The US is, IIRC, second only to Dubai in terms of per capita greenhouse gas production. This could be changed if anyone had the political will to do it.

    Comment by Dianne — February 6, 2007 @ 2:00 pm | Reply

  10. Well, yes and no.

    We can’t reverse what’s happened. This isn’t like the ozone. The carbon dioxide in the atmosphere isn’t going to jump into the ground because we stop adding to it. Well, it will, but over thousands and thousands of years. And as you’ve pointed out, without power we can’t support the existing population. Adjust our capacity down because of crumbling infrastructure (the weather is going to get very very weird), and our needs up because of diminishing arable land (reliably arable is the keyword here), and we start to get an idea of how difficult the task ahead of us is.

    All the things you mentioned for reducing Carbon Dioxide should be done, but that isn’t going to effect the change that’s coming at all. It’s just going to stop it from getting worse than it will get. Remember, the effects of the carbon released over the last hundred years are unfolding as we speak, and will continue to do so for many more decades, possibly not stabilizing for hundreds of years to come, if ever. The only thing we can do is prepare to react and survive.

    This is why nuclear is a good alternative to carbon fuels. In fact, it’s the only alternative. It does have that one little problem though: it can also be used as a weapon.

    Then again, maybe it’ll just get real hot, and our weather system will quickly adjust to a new norm with a moderate amount of fuss. Not likely though.

    So, let’s see, political will. Oh yeah, the political will to stop further damage by current big polluters would be nice, as would convincing growing polluters like China to stop. However, everyone knows they are stunted without nuclear to fall back on, which means, this will not happen internationally without nuclear proliferation unless the nuclear powers decide only they get power and essentially whip out anyone else who complains because they don’t like starving.

    Of course, minimizing the amount of power each person consumes can only help.

    Comment by Jams — February 6, 2007 @ 6:25 pm | Reply

  11. Seems if we want to stop Global warming, our best bet would be to find the dimmer switch on the sun. Of course, there’s also the question of what’s the alternative? Global cooling tends to lead to ice ages and wiping out of whole civilizations as well (see: greenland). If we’re damned if the world warms, and damned if it cools, I say we ride out the time we have left as comfortable as we can rather than stretch an extra century or two out of our species that’s completely miserable. Of course, mass extinctions are nothing new on this planet and there will probably be new species to arise after we’re all gone, etc etc until the sun reaches its red giant stage and shows us what “global warming” really means.

    Comment by Challenger Grim — February 12, 2007 @ 12:14 pm | Reply


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