Friday, January 4, 2019

Revisiting a Heated Debate

Concept of a solar reflector in high orbit.

Once upon a time, the debate over global warming and climatic change was mildly amusing to me. I could point out the false assumptions, the inadequate science, the contrarian historical evidence, and the typical human arrogance wrapped up in the matter, but I’ve grown very tired of it all now. As I noted several years ago, the obvious and most practical “solution” is already at hand, and I will revisit that in part today.

First, though, I put solution in quotes above because the most important potentially false assumption is that global warming is a problem at all. It may well be, but the facts are not yet in evidence for such a conclusion. Our models are inadequate and have failed to accurately predict outcomes thus far. Alarmism simply isn’t warranted.

Nevertheless, as I’ve previously stipulated, climatic change is something we should be concerned about. There is ample historical evidence for this, and in the longest term, we will have to actively manage the climatic conditions of our habitats, wherever or whatever they may be, if we would have human life and civilization continue indefinitely into the future. The short-term risks, though, are minimal and probably self-correcting.

The real problem, in my opinion, is that legitimate scientific inquiry and concern have been co-opted by political factions that are anti-capitalist and to some degree anti-human. They would slow, halt, or even reverse economic development for a variety of reasons, ranging from misguided environmentalism to outright misanthropy. These factions have spread the dubious alarm and fanned the flames of fear to engender public support for their political goals—and if their most radical proposals are enacted, billions of people will have to die. We will have replaced a remotely possible climatic catastrophe with a very certain political catastrophe.

For the most part, the way to mitigate potential climatic disasters is to keep doing what we have been doing throughout much of the modern era: lifting more and more people out of poverty through global economic development, reducing environmental pollution through improvements in energy technologies, and adapting to ecological changes when necessary. While our times are historically exceptional, these processes aren’t anywhere close to their theoretical limits. Taking the optimistic view, human civilization is only at the end of its beginning.

No! We’re at the beginning of the end! If we don’t do something right now, global warming will lead to mass extinctions and render the planet uninhabitable! Or so the alarmists would have us think. This doomsaying would be laughable … if it weren’t becoming the mainstream narrative believed by so many otherwise reasonable people.

That brings me back to the most obvious and practical solution to the technical problem of climatic management. The primary driver of climatic effects and cycles is solar radiation, sunlight. If we want to control or at least manage the terrestrial climate, the simplest and most direct way would be to control insolation, the amount of sunlight that reaches Earth’s surface.

There are several so-called geoengineering proposals that could achieve this, but the safest and most straightforward would be a series of orbital reflectors or shades. A constellation of such satellites could regulate global temperatures in a dynamic and very controllable manner, decreasing or increasing insolation as required. It’s a solution that would be both elegant and permanent.

The cost of such a program would not be insubstantial, but it wouldn’t be outrageous either. The technological concepts are decades old and would require no scientific breakthroughs to implement. I expect that initial development and deployment of the system would require less than $100 billion. Ongoing maintenance should be considerably less expensive, and follow-on benefits could likely repay the investments.

Solar-power satellite (explainingthefuture.com).

An array of solar reflectors would work well in conjunction with another proposed space-technology asset, the solar-power satellite. A fleet of these spacecraft could collect solar energy in space and beam it as microwaves to receiving stations, where it would be converted to clean electrical energy. While certainly not the only way to improve solar-power generation on Earth, space-based collection and re-transmission would overcome the reliability/availability problem that local ground-based collectors will always face.

Solar power holds a lot of promise even without on-orbit generation, but it probably can’t supplant hydrocarbon fuels in all applications. The real breakthrough in energy technology will be controlled nuclear fusion. Effective long-term implementation of that technology will also almost certainly require the exploitation of extraterrestrial resources, but the implications of essentially unlimited energy are staggering.

The availability of energy is at the root of all economic systems. The modern economic revolution is due in large part to the high energy density and relatively easy accessibility of our hydrocarbon fuels. Again, despite the doomsaying, petroleum is not going to be exhausted anytime soon. In fact, given unlimited energy, non-terrestrial resources and high-energy conversion methods can deliver virtually endless supplies. That’s when pollution and climatic effects should become our primary concerns.

A fusion-powered infrastructure would open a range of possibilities. Indoor, climate-controlled farming would become viable almost anywhere on the planet … and beyond. High-intensity water-purification and desalination processes would become affordable. Pollution reduction and capture technologies would become similarly inexpensive. And, of course, as basic survival needs became vastly easier to meet, societies would have more wealth to direct toward solving secondary and tertiary social problems.

In fact, the chief dilemma human civilization will face in the future may be surviving its own prosperity.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

American Political Dénouement


Since the unexpected election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States, I have been struggling to frame my thoughts on the matter. Plenty of others have already described the electoral strategies and polling errors that explain why the political prognosticators got their predictions so wrong, so there’s little for me to add there … though I was equally wrong. Instead, I keep returning to the concept of an historical inflection point—a point at which things begin to change more rapidly than usual, whether for better or for worse. Recognizing the beginning of this inflection point drove one of the most dramatic decisions of my life, so the remarks that follow will be both personal and historical.

While many commentators have explained the electoral results accurately enough, only a few have touched directly on some of the deeper social and cultural issues. These are historically and politically interesting, so I will add my comments to the record here before indulging in more personal and philosophical commentary. However, my interpretation is no doubt incomplete … and keep in mind that where I impute political motive, I do not imply malevolence. Political organisms are fundamentally amoral, but I assume that individual political actors are pursuing good intentions—even if their would-be leaders are in fact sociopaths.

First, the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee orchestrated the most impressive propaganda assault in American history, if not in all of human history. As frightening as it was, I do have to confess my awe. In collusion with the predominantly “liberal” mainstream news media, the Democrats engineered Hillary Rodham Clinton’s nomination over the more populist Bernie Sanders and positioned the obviously unelectable Trump as her opponent from the Republican Party.

Once he had secured the Republican nomination, the media launched an all-out attack upon Trump’s character. Donald Trump is boorish and impolitic, but that doesn’t make him a racist or a sexist. The allegations and “news” stories that I examined collapsed under minimal scrutiny, though I remain ready to be convinced by solid evidence. Again, very little malevolence is implied … at least below management levels. Would-be journalists pursued salacious stories until their political biases were confirmed and no further. In short, their work was lazy and incompetent, but I have no doubt that they thought they were serving the common good.

Of course, that is the historical irony. The mainstream media exercised their greatest moment of influence just when they lost control of the public narrative. Even though they couldn’t sway the overall architecture of the electoral cycle, alternative media sources on both the political right and the political left could and did point out mainstream propaganda on countless occasions. Though this honesty didn’t change my own curmudgeonly vote, I’m quite sure it did influence many, many others.

Here, I must also note that no grand conspiracy was required. Both parties were simply acting in their own interests. The Clinton campaign worked hard to make sure that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t be displaced by another upstart, and the left-leaning media wanted to actualize its vision for the arc of history. As the WikiLeaks releases showed, there was direct collusion to some extent, but general goals were shared regardless.

Second, political kinisthesis had its effect, if barely. Voters have been sorting themselves throughout the United States. “Liberals” have been migrating to the coastal and urban bastions of restrictive regulatory schemes, high tax burdens, and generous public welfare benefits. “Conservatives” have remained in or moved to the rural reaches of “flyover” country, where governments are a little less intrusive. These latter voters tipped enough of the right states in Trump’s favor to win him the Electoral College, even though Hillary won the more populous states.

I retreated from California partially in acknowledgement of this effect just over three years ago. While my adopted state of Washington also went to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party has been losing ground in this arena, dropping 3.4 percentage points since AD2008. Other electoral results suggest political change, as well. For example, my county commission tipped from Democratic officers to “independents” this time around. Contrast this trend with California, where an even more dominant Democratic Party held onto its position or made moderate gains … and where the Republican Party lost 5.5 percentage points since the AD2012 Presidential contest.

This process is ongoing and may in fact accelerate in the coming years, as “conservative” cohorts of the baby-boom generation retire and migrate out of expensive “liberal” states. (I may have been ahead of the curve on this particular social surge.) The importation of left-leaning future voters has been exposed as the Democratic Party’s main countermeasure to this trend, but it will probably be stalled for at least the next four years. Even then, efforts to normalize illegal immigration have mostly affected states that the Democrats already control—but I will return to demographic transitions a little bit later.

My study of history has broadly focused on identifying causal relationships or their agents and their long-term social effects. This holistic examination of historical causation has given me the faintest glimmer of understanding for the historical forces and possibilities that act upon human civilizations. As usual, these are easier to recognize in hindsight, and no one has advanced a satisfactory theory of historical prediction to my knowledge, so what I attempt might best be described as metahistorical analysis.

At least, it is a means to understand why your initial prediction was wrong. What you thought would happen—or wanted to happen—just wasn’t historically possible. That’s where I was at the end of AD2013, when I made the decision to leave California. The historical model I was working to actualize collapsed. California was not going to become the state I needed it to be within my lifetime … or more importantly within my daughter’s lifetime.

The arc of American history had entered an inflection point. Therein, the possible outcomes became especially murky. Dramatic change comes out of inflection points. They can be times of glorious revolution or of horrific social disaster. We’re seeing the beginning of that now—and human civilization may lie in the balance.

Global historical trends may be better served in some future post, but as we emerge from the inflection point, they will all become relevant. The United States has merely been on the leading edge of Western history by some combination of luck and genius, becoming the bellwether of Enlightenment culture. If we Americans fail, the odds of Western civilization surviving the 21st century drop considerably, I suspect.

What did the election mean in this respect? Will President Trump and a Republican Congress tip us up the positive curve? Would a President Hillary Clinton have sent us down the negative curve? I don’t know. I expected terrible developments under a Clinton administration, but these also might have stoked the political will to make real positive change—or they might have literally destroyed the republic. The Trump years will avert any immediate disaster, I’m quite sure. We have at least a second chance to shore up the institutional safeguards that protect constitutional governance and individual opportunities and freedoms. However, if that fails to occur, I doubt the political will can ever again be rallied to fight for those values.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be—and there has been no shortage of jokes wondering about what’s happening on the “real” timeline. Impressive as it was, the collusion to put Hillary Clinton into the White House backfired. An honest election would have seen Bernie Sanders, championing progressive socialism for the nation, facing off against someone like Rand Paul, advocating for individual freedom and opportunity. Important issues would have been discussed … and the future of civilization would have been decided in an informed manner.

Instead … we called each other deplorable names.

What is historically possible? We’ve accomplished many great things in the 300 some years since the Enlightenment, and we’ve made some terrible mistakes. Some of these mistakes are obvious in retrospect (unnecessary wars, ethnic pogroms, and other episodes of unjustified violence). Others were more subtle, and some were metahistorical in nature, beyond the scope of individual or corporate actors to manage. For example, the direct political empowerment of women occurred almost as soon as it was historically possible, but the institutions of democratic governance built up by men over the last few thousand years were not designed for women’s different decision-making priorities and processes. Without adequate safeguards, a certain amount of social damage has resulted from this political transformation, affecting crime patterns, family cohesion, and perhaps even cultural survival. Again, little or no ill intent was involved. The sociological basis for human male and female behavioral differences had not been studied at the time of the universal suffrage movements, and the ongoing and almost religious refusal in some quarters to acknowledge that these differences even exist remains a significant part of the problem.

No one expected D. J. Trump to be elected, but his election moved us out of the inflection point—as would have Hillary Clinton’s. I was wrong. The political prognosticators were wrong. We all forgot the underrepresented demographic in American electoral politics. Right or wrong, we’ll be living with the consequences for at least several years to come. The question that remains is whether American political factions can still settle their differences peacefully in the long run.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Metafictional Musings

I wrote my first incomplete story on a manual typewriter when I was seven or eight years old.

Around the same time Loyal Sedition officially launched, I began a new fiction project that I intended to publish episodically at my static website. I imagined that I would occasionally post my thoughts about the writing process on this blog, both for my own edification and for the possible amusement of any readers. Instead, Loyal Sedition has focused mainly on politics and philosophy, touching on entertainment but rarely. It became almost my only personal writing outlet.

Meanwhile my fiction project languished … for all the usual reasons and more. The science-fictional concept behind it was beyond my ability to execute, which I quickly realized as I started to write the first couple chapters. Though I wrote the leads for several chapters, I let myself be stifled by the need for a more traditional narrative structure. The dynamic, engaging opening that I had imagined—one that would be simultaneously intensely intimate and spectacularly grand in scale—turned into disconnected scenes bracketing the characters sitting around a table talking about orbital mechanics and international treaties.

Beyond that, all I have are excuses. I don’t have enough time between working full time, establishing a part-time business, failing to maintain a satisfactory household, and all that. In truth, I lack the discipline to pursue my writing amid these and other distractions. Maybe that would remain true even if I had the wide latitude I presume to need.

Nevertheless, I’ve tried to break the impasse again and again over the years … but mostly I’ve just tinkered when the mood struck. I’ll write a sentence or a paragraph here … a page or two there. (I wrote pages and pages for my shelved Third Millennium opus.) I’ll dabble in science fiction, magical fantasy, or alternative reality. (I wrote the heartbreaking background for a bloody-handed anti-heroine from a place called Hearth.) I’ll write notes or treatments for various story ideas. (I wrote dozens of now lost pages summarizing an SF story that I eventually decided was too derivative to pursue.) In other words, I’ve toyed with many projects … but still haven’t produced any significant results.

This year, I was inspired to take a different tack. I started to write a screenplay adapted from one of my favorite novels. Building on another author’s work has freed me from the usual doubts that restrain me and lead me to surrender to other distractions. Intellectually, I know that I have to start by placing the plot elements into the story, even if I later have to rearrange, polish, or even remove some of them. Emotionally, though, I too often fail to lay that first course of storytelling bricks … and instead succumb to frustration.

In this case, the building blocks have already been placed. Working within the constraints of a different narrative medium, I can rearrange, rebuild, or even replace the plot pieces that don’t properly fit. Otherwise, the job is akin to editing a completed manuscript. I still need to provide a good measure of creativity due to the aforementioned narrative limitations, but the adaptation process will get me over that first emotional hurdle.

Already, I have made much more progress than usual, drafting about 200 pages of a probable 600-page project. I’m now confident that I can carry the exercise through to completion. Being an adaptation of other copyrighted work, this project is very unlikely to see publication. As much as I would love to see it produced as perhaps a 12-episode television series, I’m hoping that the exercise itself will prove valuable to both my desire and ability to write … even if the work must remain out of general view by design.

This post may not rise to my usual “high” standard of entertaining or thought-provoking fare, but it seemed a worthwhile milestone to place for future reference. Will it mark a meaningful change to my unrequited aspirations as a writer? Or will it mark yet another dead end in that pursuit? We shall see.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Terror and Tragedy


I had planned to report on the Ninth Circuit’s en banc decision in Peruta v. San Diego … but then came the horrific events in Orlando. The appellate court denied the right of law-abiding citizens to bear arms in public … while a Muslim terrorist simply ignored such prohibitions in order to murder dozens of people whose homosexuality offended his religion. If you don’t understand why both of these things were constitutionally and morally wrong, then you are a self-deluding fool … or an Islamic terrorist.

Even in shall-issue Florida, the killing still took place in a gun-free zone. Firearms are prohibited in bars and other drinking establishments. Now, given the clientele involved, the victims in this incident were reasonably unlikely to be armed even if weapons weren’t prohibited, but the prohibition certainly did nothing to stop the murderer. Moreover, as he was apparently a licensed security guard, the killer knew full well that his intended victims would be “legally” disarmed.

The outcome might have been different … but probably not.

This isn’t about tactics, political or otherwise. It’s about fundamental principles and natural rights. What we saw both in California and Florida were violations of principles and attempts to suppress rights. Both events should be seen as abhorrent to their own degrees in what was supposed to be an enlightened, egalitarian culture—but I know they won’t.

The American experience came so close to that egalitarian dream, but now that light will fade. Our divisions will widen, our misguided envy and misplaced jealousy will fester, and we will slowly but surely tear ourselves apart. The only real question at this point is the magnitude of our fall.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Deepness in the Sky

A Deepness in the Sky (Vernor Vinge, 1999)

While not exactly a new work, A Deepness in the Sky remains one of the most important novels I have read. Even after 15 years or so, it has continued to influence my thinking on the human condition and the historical processes that constrain it. Rereading the book this year, a review seemed apropos.

Written by Vernor Vinge, the novel is science fiction, set many thousands of years in the future, when human civilizations have spread into interstellar space. It serves as something of a prequel to his earlier work, A Fire Upon the Deep, making it for the most part both less operatic and more realistic. People still face the physical and temporal limits of slower-than-light travel—and their historical consequences. The economic expense of interstellar flight is even more staggering. The details of interstellar trade aren’t explicated quite so well, but I will return to that problem in my criticisms.

The plot itself is a swashbuckling tale of conflict between different human factions set amid first contact with an alien species inhabiting an anomalous star system. Vinge splits the narratives between the humans and the aliens. He anthropomorphizes the aliens through a clever storytelling device that allows the reader to identify with them while still recognizing their unusual biology and culture.

The characters form an ensemble cast. However, the almost mythical figure of Pham Nuwen towers above the rest. A man from humble beginnings who sought to unify human civilizations and to prevent their inevitable cycles of collapse, he finds himself tempted with a second chance to achieve this goal. His internal battle represents the novel’s primary moral conflict, the struggle between the desire for libertarian individualism and the impulse toward a totalitarian pursuit of the common good.

Perhaps the novel simply came along at the right time in the evolution of my own political philosophy, but it was this moral dilemma that I found so affecting. Pham Nuwen’s personal evolution is not dissimilar to my own, though his tragedy is played out on interstellar scales. To accept and embrace freedom is to also accept the consequences that may come along with it. The alternative, however good the intentions may be, is to reject fundamental morality and to control others through violence and coercion—to provide for the common good by somehow abusing power more justly, as I have lately taken to describing the conundrum. Civilizations may fall, but history has already proved that force cannot long maintain them.

As much as I love this novel and would recommend it to the canon of philosophically meaningful fiction, it isn’t without flaw. First, there is the unambiguous nature of the characters. As I described earlier, the story’s moral conflict is personified by Pham Nuwen. Almost everyone else of importance is clearly good or evil. It isn’t enough that the villainous human faction is composed of treacherous would-be conquerors. Its leaders have to indulge in torture and rape as well.

Next, though Vinge goes to great lengths to describe the interstellar trading culture, he ultimately fails to explain how it would actually be profitable. With most of the sum knowledge of human experience and technology being freely broadcast throughout inhabited space, the marginal value of the additional technical information carried aboard a starship would be negated by the enormous expense of interstellar travel itself. That said, I think he is still closer to the mark than most. Thus far, we’ve seen only the first inklings of economic or political theory being applied to explain why our galaxy isn’t already teeming with interstellar civilizations, so the paucity of fictional representations is understandable.

The final problem is a plot hole that follows from the preceding fault. After the human factions nearly destroy each other in battle, they choose to lurk, conceal their presence, and wait for the alien civilization to mature. This would seem like a prudent, non-destabilizing strategy. However, why can’t the aliens already detect the ongoing broadcasts from human space designed to promote common language, culture, and technology?

The lessons of A Deepness in the Sky seem more relevant to me than ever. I still can’t say whether our civilization is at the beginning of its end or the end of its beginning, but it has become increasingly clear that some great transformation is imminent. Vernor Vinge himself would probably argue for the advent of a technological singularity, though this novel was written to describe human fate in a world where such has expressly not occurred. While I think the concept of the singularity is useful when examining changing historical paradigms, I also think that Vinge and the likes of Ray Kurzweil are wrong. Humans and our technologies may be capable of amazing things … but nothing that fantastic. If we make it that far in the present historical epoch, we may try, but we will fail. However, in the current moral paradigm, human civilization itself will fail. No hero can prevent it. No government can prevent it. Indeed, they will be its authors.

So … do read this novel … while you still have the luxury to do so.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Question of Migration and Assimilation

The sacred Kaaba in Mecca.

Americans, Europeans, and anyone else who values egalitarian multiculturalism, I would like to pose a question. If you found yourself as an immigrant, how quickly and how thoroughly would you adopt the cultural values and practices of your new country? Would you assimilate easily?
 
Let’s say, for example, that circumstances compelled you to emigrate to Saudi Arabia in pursuit of a better life for you and your family. Would you try to learn Arabic? Would you embrace Saudi cultural values? Would you encourage your sons to adopt Islam so that they might become successful in Saudi society? Would you be happy that your granddaughters would have to wear the hijab and lose the legal rights and privileges they would have enjoyed as women in the West?

Now, let’s also imaging that the Saudi kingdom were as generous to you and other immigrants as European and American governments are to their immigrants. The kingdom would pay to meet your basic needs at least modestly and would cater to the educational needs of your children. In fact, you and tens of thousands of other immigrants could subsist without ever integrating with your host nation. How eager would you be to assimilate into this alien, sometimes antithetical culture without any real economic pressure to do so?

I submit that you probably would not assimilate and neither would you try. On the contrary, you and the other immigrants would leverage whatever political power your numbers gave you to change Saudi culture to more closely match your values and practices. That’s what large groups of related people (tribes and nations) do.

Mass migration is conquest by other means, and history records such events as invasions, even when actual warfare is infrequent. Just ask the Celts or the Khoisan or the Ainu or the Australian aborigines or the Dravidians or the Maori or the first nations of the Americas. It is a political and cultural truth that none of us can escape.

As a libertarian humanist, I would celebrate the free movement of people and ideas … but as a historical realist, I also have to recognize, however grudgingly, that a borderless world is a last-order freedom. Only when other liberties and responsibilities are firmly in place or adequately protected by institutional safeguards can we safely open our borders to welcome anyone who would come. To do so now—with our massive, irresponsible welfare states—is to finance the diminution or destruction of our own egalitarian cultures.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Toward the Voluntary Society: An Introduction

The flag of anarcho-capitalism doesn't have to be the only standard in a voluntary society, but it would certainly be one.

All too often, political philosophy is an exercise in utopianism, the construction of imaginary, idealized societies. On their face, these visions are impossible to realize given disparate human motivations, actions, and desires. The processes proposed are also frequently illogical, invoking non sequitur after non sequitur in their explication.

Marxism is perhaps the most famous example. On his projected path to a stateless, classless communist society, Karl Marx predicted that, despite their own rising standards of living, the working classes in prosperous capitalist economies would revolt against the owning and ruling classes. Thereafter, socialist dictatorships would be established to control every aspect of cultural and economic development in order to eventually eliminate all human inequality. Then, somehow, this totalitarian state would simply surrender all of its power, giving way to a completely free society, where each individual person would produce according to his ability and consume according to his need. Though all attempts at its practical application have failed at every step, Marxist ideology is still immensely popular for obvious reasons.

The reasons why Marxism would never work should be equally obvious, but I’m not writing today to critique Marx. Rather, I want to introduce another political philosophy and explicate it without magical thinking or utopian idealism. The voluntary society I will describe may be no more achievable than Marx’s communist paradise, but I think it can be approached much more closely through the application of ideologically consistent libertarian philosophies and realistic political processes.

All of this presupposes that human freedom is a desirable outcome. I can understand and accept that not everyone shares this goal. Indeed, slave states have flourished throughout human history and have created widely revered cultural landmarks. For those who see such states as the superior way to live, nothing that I can say or do will ever change their minds. Instead, I want to chart a possible course for those who do value human freedom but struggle to understand why the current paradigm also appears to be failing to deliver it.

I will follow with a series of essays discussing various aspects of the voluntary society and how they might realistically be achieved. None of these will demand the adoption of any one model of social or economic organization. In fact, I will argue that all organizational models are permissible within a voluntary society so long as they adhere to just two fundamental moral principles.

On that moral foundation, we can move toward the voluntary society in a logical fashion. This will also account and allow for human differences that other political philosophies have simply and improbably hoped to erase. The choices demanded won’t be easy by any means, and some of the ancillary outcomes that will be implied may be disconcerting where they can’t be mitigated, but this is the only path toward lasting freedom—one that won’t vanish in the mirage of utopian fantasy.