Experts, with wrinkled brows, warn about the future

Summary: Experts often see the future with alarm, seeing the dangers but not benefits. That gets attention, from both the media and an increasinly fearful public. Both sides feed this process. It need not be so, as most trends contain the seeds of good and bad futures. This post considers two examples.

Over several decades I have politely listened to countless lectures — by professors, generals, directors of this and that — with the same message: the world changes, which might bring bad things. Thousands of words then follow. Why do we listen to such things without throwing fruit?

Planning for worst-case scenarios is just good sense. Speculative exercises, such as War Plan Red — war with the United Kingdom, including invading Canada (see here for more) — are useful on many levels. But preparing for worst-case scenarios can easily be taken to extreme. Focusing on worst-case scenarios, to the exclusion of more likely outcomes, is madness.

Except in geopolitics, where it is often standard operating procedure (more or less, depending on the person involved). Examine studies of any broad geopolitical issue, and you will many that describe change as inherently dangerous.

  1. the Iraq war — withdrawing might produce catastrophic civil war, even genocide.
  2. population growth — inherently destabilizing
  3. population decline — inherently destabilizing
  4. global cooling (a 1970’s favorite) — inherently destabilizing, all effects are bad
  5. global warming (today’s favorite) — inherently destabilizing, all effects are bad
  6. nations growing richer — potentially destabilizing, wrecks havoc on a country’s economy and politics, unequal distribution of gains aggravates internal conflicts.
  7. nations growing poorer — potentially destabilizing

It is not that these concerns are “wrong” or “invalid”. Rather they are too often expressed in an unbalanced fashion, without considering that these things also bring benefits — and might lead to better conditions, depending on what we do. Here are two specimens of this genre. The first shows a too-typically fearful look at the future.  The author of the second sees both sides of the coin.

Blood Barrels — Why Oil Wealth Fuels Conflict“, Michael L. Ross, Foreign Affairs (May/June 2008) — Excerpt:

The world has grown much more peaceful over the past 15 years — except for oil-rich countries. Oil wealth often wreaks havoc on a country’s economy and politics, helps fund insurgents, and aggravates ethnic grievances. And with oil ever more in demand, the problems it spawns are likely to spread further.

Would these nations be better off without oil, or with falling oil prices? Probably the article would then discuss how the problems spawned by falling oil income are likely to spread further. The second example gives a balanced look at the future, seeing both good and bad aspects to major trends — offering both opportunities and dangers. It is worth reading in full.

Remarks by General Michael V. Hayden, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the Landon Lecture Series, Kansas State University (30 April 2008) — Excerpt (bold emphasis added)

Today, I want to focus on three global trends that point to a 21st century that will be quite different from the one just ended.

let me turn to trend number one. In thinking about the future, one of the most important things to pay attention to is world demographics. … There are many poor, fragile states where governance is actually difficult today, where populations will grow rapidly: Afghanistan, Liberia, Niger, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That group – the population is expected to triple by mid-century. The number of people in Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Yemen is likely to more than double. Furthermore – just beyond the raw numbers – all those countries will therefore have, as a result of this, a large concentration of young people. If their basic freedoms and basic needs – food, housing, education, employment – are not met, they could be easily attracted to violence, civil unrest, and extremism.

And through the fact of global migration, this impact of rapid population growth in Africa or Southeast Asia and elsewhere is not going to be confined to those places. It will be felt in the developed world as well. Millions of young people from fast-growing, poorly developed countries will emigrate – legally and illegally – in search of economic opportunity, security, or political freedom.

Now, receiving countries – and America has a wondrous record in this regard – receiving countries, of course, will have much to gain from an influx of young workers, particularly because, in most developed states, populations are aging rapidly. This social integration of immigrants will pose a significant challenge to many host nations-again, that boosts the potential for unrest and extremism.

… The second 21st century trend I want to address is the rise of Asia. There was a recent op-ed. Henry Kissinger called this – and I’m quoting the Secretary now – “a shift in the center of gravity of international affairs from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.” … we identify the rise of China and India and the emergence of new economic centers as transformative forces on the geopolitical landscape that we as an agency have to accommodate in our strategic planning.

Over the next decades, continued economic growth, trade, and investment will bring the countries of Asia together and give them more confidence in international affairs. Competition for influence will characterize the relations between China, India, Japan, and other emerging powers. But China, a communist-led, nuclear state that aspires to and will likely achieve great power status during this century, will be the focus of American attention in that region of the world. And as such, China deserves a few words of special mention today.

Now, as is often the case when you’re talking about something important, an issue that has real consequence for national security, there are differing views about where China is headed and what its motivations are. So let me give you Mike Hayden’s views. China is a competitor, certainly in the economic realm and increasingly on the geopolitical stage. But China is not an inevitable enemy of the United States of America. There are policy choices available – good policy choices available to both Washington and Beijing that can keep us on the largely peaceful, constructive path that we’ve both been on now for about 40 years.

Let me turn for number three to another strategic relationship, and that’s the one between Europe and the United States. Changes in that relationship I think define a third key trend that is going to shape international relations in the 21st century. Robert Kagan and others refer to-and I’m quoting them now-“a divergence of interests.” They even use the phrase “transatlantic divide.” And disagreements over the war in Iraq and the global fight against terrorism have raised questions in recent years about the nature and the future of this US-European Alliance.

Those disagreements that we’ve seen played out fairly publicly in the past six or seven years are only symptoms, I think, of an underlying shift-now bear with me for just a paragraph or two of history-an underlying shift brought about by the end of the Cold War. Nick Burns, a good friend and Undersecretary of State I think was out here. Nick has talked about this as well. It comes down to this: The U.S.-Europe relationship no longer needs to focus primarily on Europe.

Today, the continent is nearly – and these were our objectives throughout the whole of the Cold War – the continent is nearly whole, free, and at peace. As a result, our collective attention can shift elsewhere. We can, for the first time, devote most of our energy to meeting not localized European threats, but global threats that affect us all.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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5 thoughts on “Experts, with wrinkled brows, warn about the future”

  1. “Why do we listen to such things without throwing fruit?”

    We listen, because the experts inevitably speak in well-maintained auditoriums, which would not be economically feasible without the quiet support of the plutocrats. Those who do throw fruit get noticed and either shunned or co-opted by the plutocrats, their old-boy network, and their establishment.
    Fabius Maximus replies: In university halls, large funded by donations from plutocrats, I heard much leftist doctrine preached — even communism was fashionable back then. That is not to say that you are wrong, as over time the dynamics you describe work quietly and powerfully.

  2. I recall an essay in the Atlantic Monthly a few years ago talking about Global Warming’s big winners — namely, Russia, Scandanavia, and Canada. It was fairly interesting, though I lament being unable to find it at the moment.
    Fabius Maximus replies: You may have a long time to find it, before you need it: “Global warming may ‘stop’, scientists predict“, The Telegraph (30 April 2008) — Excerpt:

    “Researchers studying long-term changes in sea temperatures said they now expect a “lull” for up to a decade while natural variations in climate cancel out the increases caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions.”

  3. Anonymous Chris

    I’d quibble with one minor small in your article, namely your mention of global cooling as “a 1970’s favorite.” This is something of a myth. A small number of papers speculating about global cooling got a lot of press attention in the ’70s, but even back then more researchers predicted global warming. A literature survey demonstrating this is summarized here: “What 1970’s science said about global cooling
    Fabius Maximus replies: Not much to this article, except for the reference to “THE MYTH OF THE 1970S GLOBAL COOLING SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS“, Thomas C. Peterson, William M. Connolley, John Fleck, accepted for publication in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. Literature searches of 30 – 40 year papers are difficult, esp. on such highly politicized subjects. Non-consensus papers so easily go down the memory hole, and evaluating them is a subjective process.
    I provide additional information on this in a later comment.

  4. ‘funded by donations from plutocrats, I heard much leftist doctrine preached’

    Of course. Armand Hammer, Jacob Schiff,Paul Warburg — there are plenty of plu
    tocrats who promoted Communism, especially in other folks’ countries.
    Fabius Maximus replies: that is a very cynical — and very insightful — comment!

  5. Articles indicating that global cooling was a concern in the 1970’s (a period without a consensus on the cooling/warming dynamics and forecasts). The major media articles reflect concerns of major scientists in the debate.

    Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide and Aerosols: Effects of Large Increases on Global Climate”, Ichtiaque Rasool and Stephen H. Schneider, Science (July 1971) – Rasool’s work ignited the concerns about global cooling.

    Quaternary research (vol 2, #3, 1972) was focused on “The end of the present interglacial.” From the conference summary:

    “Global cooling and related rapid changes of environment, substantially exceeding the fluctuations experienced by man in historical times, can be expected within the next few millenia; perhaps even centuries.”

    In it was “The end of the present interglacial”, G.J. Kukla, R.K. Matthews & J.M. Mitchell. Here is what appears to be a fair summary imo, although by a strong supporter of AGW,

    “When comparing the present with previous interglacials, several investigators showed that the present interglacial is in the final phase … and that if nature were allowed to run its course unaltered by man, events similar to those which ended the last interglacial should be expected soon, possibly within the few next centuries.

    “…the basic conclusion to be drawn from the discussions in this section is that the knowledge necessary for understanding the mechanism of climate change is still lamentably inadequate”.

    Brace Yourself for Another Ice Age”, Science Digest (February 1973) – Excerpt:

    “Baffin Island, located in the Canadian Arctic, now is covered with snowbanks all year after having been snow free for 30 or 40 years prior to the temperature drop. Pack ice around Iceland has now become a serious hindrance to navigation. Warmth loving animals once found in abundance in the northern part of the American Midwest in the early 1900s are settling further south.”

    Another Ice Age”, Time (24 June 1974)

    The cooling world”, Newsweek (28 April 1975)

    Scientists Ask Why World Climate is Changing; Major Cooling May Be Ahead”, The New York Times (21 May 1975) – Excerpt:

    “Sooner or later a major cooling of the climate is widely considered inevitable…The drop in mean temperatures since 1950 in the Northern Hemisphere has been sufficient, for example, to shorten Britain’s growing season for crops by two weeks.”

    What’s Happening to Our Climate?”, National Geographic Magazine (November 1976)

    “Understanding Climate Change: A program for action”, National Academy of Sciences (1975) — This is perhaps the most important item, but I cannot find an online version. Does anybody have one? There were also associated Congressional hearings, I recall, which resulting in significant funding incrreases for climate science.

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