Saturday, December 28, 2019

The Future is Now

It is the end of a year, the end of a decade, and truth be told, my personal book is ever closer to an epilogue than it is to the introduction.  While I have a few chapters left to write, let me pretend to be wise and discuss what I have seen over the last seven decades.

During the fifties, war with Russia was so imminent that most Americans knew that, eventually, the majority of us would die in a nuclear war.  Civil Defense was the priority of government and the basement of every public building became an impromptu bomb shelter, stocked with empty water barrels that could double as emergency toilets and piles of large tin cans of unsalted crackers that were so distantly related to food that their shelf life was measured in centuries. 

I can attest to the culinary quality of those crackers—bad—because, as a starving college student, I ate more than one can of them that I had liberated from the basement/shelter of the hotel where I worked.  While the crackers were incredibly bland, hunger and imagination are the best sauces for any meal.

Khrushchev pounded his shoe on the forum at the United Nations (figuratively, if not literally) and promised that Russia was going to bury us—and as a child, I believed him.  At school, they gave me a yellow government pamphlet instructing us how to turn our home into a bomb shelter.  When I delivered this important life-saving message to my father, he flatly refused to participate in the madness.  Whether this was because we already had a tornado shelter or because we literally lived across the lake from a strategic bomber base that was undoubtedly on the Russian top ten target list was never clear to me…

Still, it was an emergency, so the government raised taxes and passed laws that were eagerly approved by a fearful nation.

During the sixties, the world was running out of petroleum, so we were suddenly on the brink of an energy crisis of staggering proportions: within a decade the world’s supply of petroleum would be exhausted.  Even though, as Texans, we privately laughed at the idea of Yankees freezing in the dark, even oil-rich Texans began to panic.  It didn’t take long before one out of every seven vehicles on the road was a VW bug (though most of the other six remained pickups) and everyone fretted about the rising cost of gasoline.

Detroit slowly began dying, and as the government realized it was an emergency, it promptly raised taxes and passed laws that were eagerly approved by a fearful nation.  There was a national speed limit of 55 miles an hour, and there was an irrational gas-rationing system in which we all bought gas on alternate days and were limited to how much gas we could buy.  Naturally, this meant that everyone filled up the tank every other day, insuring long lines of panicky drivers.

I remember an editorial cartoon criticizing this idiotic policy, showing a frightened couple in a car were staring wide-eyed at the dash instrument panel.  “Oh, no!” the husband exclaimed.  “Only 7/8ths of a tank left and not a gas station in sight.”

During the seventies, we were all alarmed that an ice age was coming because the growing collection of greenhouse gases would block the sun.  In a miniature throwback to the fifties, this growing problem might be accelerated by a nuclear winter after the still inevitable nuclear war. 

Maybe it is because I spent a lot of the seventies on an island in the Gulf of Mexico where cold weather was not a major concern, but I can’t remember just what we were supposed to do to combat the imminent ice age, I just remember that it was going to hit within a decade, and that government passed laws and raised taxes to the relief of a frightened nation.  Whatever the solution was, it must have worked.

During the eighties, the whole world was about to starve because acid rain was going to wipe out all crops, kill lakes and rivers, and devastate forests.  The acid rain was due to the rising amounts of sulfur dioxide produced by coal-fired power plants which produced sulphuric and nitric acids when mixed with atmospheric water.

This was such an emergency that life as we know it would be devastated within ten years if drastic action wasn’t undertaken immediately.  This was dramatically underscored when Thorbjorn Bernsten, the Norwegian secretary for the environment called his British counterpart a drittsekk (“sack of shit”) for not agreeing to act on the emergency immediately.  (If a doom saying Scandihoovian with a vowel deprived name sounds eerily reminiscent of some recent events….Well, history does occasionally repeat itself.)

Naturally (and I bet you saw this coming), the government raised taxes and enacted laws—some of which actually worked.  Cars got catalytic converters and the formulation of fuels changed.  Most of the problem in the Western world, however, was eliminated by coal plants switching over to cheaper and cleaner natural gas.  To what extent acid rain actually could have threatened food production is an ongoing experiment in China, where today they burn half the world’s production of coal. 

During the nineties, the world was about to be fried by a solar death ray as the ozone layer was being rapidly depleted.  People followed the shrinking size of the ozone hole over the South pole like it was a sports team while newspapers regularly reported the phenomena of vast herds of Argentine sheep blinded by solar radiation.

While taxes were raised and new laws were passed, there were talks of limiting the altitude of commercial air flights and grounding the Space Shuttle.  Meanwhile, three scientists studying the situation discovered that most of the problem was caused by CFC’s used in hair spray and other household goods.  While the scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize, industry switched from CFC’s to HFC (which does not harm ozone).  You will be happy to learn that the ozone hole is currently the smallest it has been since we began tracking it and it is due to permanently close by 2050, (and the stories about blind sheep were all apocryphal).

Today, I don’t even have to tell you that our current menace to life on earth as we know it is global warming, so that we have only a decade to save ourselves from immanent global destruction.  Luckily, government is going to save us—once more—by raising taxes and passing new laws.  Even as I wrote that last sentence, the television announced that the city council of San Francisco is working to ban disposable coffee cups.  (How am I supposed to believe that a city that turns itself into a giant toilet really cares about the environment?)

There are several lessons to be learned about the last seventy years.  First, all of the problems were real, and all had solutions.  While “government science” is probably an oxymoron, science is real, and it provided answers to most of the problems above.  While we must listen to scientists, we need to calmly assess the messages we hear.

Global warming is real, of course, the actions of humans have an effect on the environment.  But, how much measured against natural cycles?  What are the feedback mechanisms?  We should address the problems rationally, and not simply pass new laws and throw new tax money at the problems.  If the government had taken the amount of money spent subsidizing a solar industry before the technology was ready and had used it wisely, we would be far ahead globally, today.  For the amount of taxpayer money we spent subsidizing just Tesla and Solyndra, we could have furnished free coal scrubbers for every coal-fired electrical plant in India and China. 

Enacting feel-good laws restricting disposable straws and coffee cups is not going to change the fact that the vast majority of the plastic waste floating in the Pacific Ocean comes from Asia.  Such solutions are, at best, trying to create a “no-peeing zone” in the global swimming pool.

Lastly, we should be skeptical of deadlines tossed off by politicians, who know less about science and technology than my cat does.  Depending on which politician you want to listen to, by now Miami should either be covered by an ice sheet or be completely underwater.  Instead, let us heed the words of a different politician, Calving Coolidge, who wisely said, “Of ten troubles you see a-coming, nine never arrive.” 

Note.  Actually, that was the quote I learned in a school in West Texas so small that we had several grades inside one old portable Army barracks building.  It turns out that the far more erudite Coolidge actually said, "If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.”  I think the Texas translation is better.

We need to listen, but be skeptical about dire predictions about the future.  A few decades ago, an archaeologist friend of mine said that the most frequent mistake in science fiction books and movies was the future seldom retired any traces of the past.   In essence, that any world, at any time, still contained much of the unchanged past, so that any modern city, for example, would still possess many old buildings.  Or as Alphonse Karr said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Note.  Well, since I’m trying to quote people correctly in this blog, though I don’t know why, as should probably say what the famous Frog writer actually said was, “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.”  I’m not sure if there is a Texas version of this, the only thing my father ever said about change was, “The bird that eats worms today will be eaten by them tomorrow.”  Close enough.

On the eve of a new decade, we should remember that the human race has just lived through what is arguably the best decade in human history.  People are living longer, with more prosperity than ever before.  Literacy rates are up, infant mortality is down, and medical treatments and vaccines are available for many of the diseases that have always plagued mankind.  While much remains to be done, even though I am a historian, I would far rather live in the world of tomorrow than at any time in the past.

I have a New Year’s resolution I recommend to everyone.  As we breathe in the future and exhale the past, let us resolve to not let politicians use fear and panic to get us to support their folly.

1 comment:

  1. Very wise. One of the best year-end commentaries I've read so far and reassuring since it agrees with my way of thinking, especially having recently had a conversation (nee dogfight) with a leftist union guy in which I was roundly denounced as anti-science. The trouble is I've actually been in graduate school and I've seen what a "scientist" will do to get a federal grant. I think you more nearly hit the progressive nail on it's little pointy head. Just saying...