Saturday, August 25, 2007

Nuclear Holocaust was Better Than Global Warming

Let's put on our Speedos and chat for a moment about global warming, shall we?

Call it what you will--global warming, climate change, the big melt, death by infinitesimal asphyxiation--it sounds bad, and in fact now holds the world's record for scariest thing that anyone can think of that isn't obviously bullshit. On which grounds--forgive me evangelicals--we must disqualify the uncomfortable burning sensation that might accompany fulfilled apocalyptic biblical prophesy.

The previous record holder was global nuclear war and its inevitable follow-up, the Mad Max scenario: a world without personal hygiene. That was some scary stuff too, and millions of school children were instructed to practice cowering and shitting themselves under their desks, ignorant of the fact that the unabridged emergency manual recommended school desks be hermetically sealed spaces of at least 500 square feet, have lead and concrete lined walls, water and air purification systems, and a tremendous supply of canned vegetables.

Atomic catastrophe may have been an Ultimate Horror, but it was easy to wrap your arms around. Its likely perpetrators were a small handful of megalomaniacs, wheelchair-bound mad scientists with prosthetic arms, and Texans. It was not entirely unrealistic to think that if they ever reached for the button, the rest of us could rush them, wrestle them to the ground, and knee them repeatedly in the groin. Secondly, we knew the threat was genuine. It was manifest in the cool lathed cylinders that slumbered in burrows bespeckling the forsaken wastelands of Siberia and Nevada. You could have touched their points and said "Ouch!" You could have seen them on top secret satellite photos, right there. (And--unfortunately--also there, and there, and there, and there...) You could even have rapped on their unreverberant shells with your knuckles, in response to which the missile would impishly whisper: "ker-BOOOOOOOOOOM!"

Missiles love the look on our faces when they do this.

The undeniability of the threat was a good thing. It clarified the mind. It let us know that we could cower and soil ourselves unashamedly. And we could take steps to forestall impending disaster, like holding bake sales and building fallout shelters out of plywood.

With what wistful affection we now recall those innocent days, the fecund vines of our imaginings laden with visions of melting flesh and burgeoning tumors.

Our new boogie man is a poor substitute for the old. No longer are we permitted the comforting illusion that when push comes to shove we can simply round up a posse and put things to right. The source of the climate change problem is 100 gazillion asians and indonesians who have gotten the absurd notion into their heads that they have just as much right to air conditioning and SUVs as white people. We cannot wrestle them to ground, for they are oriental, and thus all know karate.

Another point in nuclear holocaust's favor: it was an invitation to party. Even the biggest loser can get laid when the world's about to end. Global warming, in contrast, is a total buzz kill. It wants to take away the keys to our convertible. It wants us to shiver in winter and sweat in summer. It wants us to live like sardines in cramped apartments. To sum up, it does not want us to have any fun.

Damn you, global warming!

As a vehicle of impending doom, global warming offers little into which we can sink our incisors. We like threats that are obvious, acute, and preferably Newtonian. All we know of self-preservation we gleaned from Roadrunner cartoons, and so can recognize and avoid falling anvils. But our national love affair with complexity and nuance notwithstanding (I see in the news where the members of Elks Lodge post 219 in Murfreesboro, TN confirmed that thorny Poincaré conjecture last week--that's a relief!), climate change is too abstract for our taste. In fact, it is so mind-blowingly complicated that you could fit all the people that truly understand it into a phone booth. The rest of us may profess an opinion and wear glasses that make us look smart, but really we're just trying to align ourselves with whichever side we think is more likely to keep us alive. Hopefully, we'll be permitted to keep our snowmobile.

And we are haunted by uncertainty. Do we need to sell the beach house or not? Either we're about to die--in which case I'm sure we'd all make a special entry in our daily minders: "Rebalance composition of earth's atmosphere (IMPORTANT!)"--or we're not about to die, so can we please return our undivided attention to America's Next Top Model? But the doubt--the doubt is the fuel of nightmares, and our mommy can tell us that there is no such thing as magic chickens that want to remove our eyeballs and hardboil them, but we know mommy is naive or in league with the chickens and the only rational course of action is to stare unblinking at the latticed shadows of the venetian blinds for the next seven hours until we swoon unconscious into the clammy folds of our own sweatsoaked pajamas at first light of the morning.

Friends, I cannot offer you a quick fix for climate change, nor will I dress it in a clown suit and say it is not a downer. But I can offer a thought or two to cut through the noise of the debate.

First, how is it that the overwhelming majority of scientists have come to believe that man made global warming is a reality?

Let us dismiss the obvious: it is not because of the weather. Let it snow in July or broil in December, we can never reliably attribute any individual weather event to global warming. Even an anomalous season, or ten such seasons in a row is of dubious import. This is perhaps the only thing that climate change skeptics and believers agree upon. If the public does not display the same sangfroid towards hurricanes in June, the experts must bear some blame. They pay lip service to the statistical insignificance of singular examples. But like recovering alcoholics on a booze cruise, they cannot resist the opportunity when nature sends the drink tray around again, delivering the warmth, the cool, the rain, whatever supports their cause. Their hands shake and beads of sweat bud upon their brows. Maddened, they pounce, appearing on CNN to score their points with the public. How they loathe themselves in the morning.

The fact is we really don't understand the weather, and even less the cycles within cycles within cycles, oceanographic, geologic, and atmospheric over centuries and eons, that impact the weather. Weather is hopelessly complicated and infinitely sensitive, the penultimate poster child of nonlinearity. It may be that every weather phenomenon we're experiencing, however odd, is just the product of natural cycles that haven't been recognized. Even if we are barreling towards a climate catastrophe, it may have nothing to do with car exhaust or ovine flatulence. It may be that god is sick of us and has decided to call it a day.

Who could blame him?

And yet the scientists are as sure as sure can be that the climate is changing and people are a major cause. I don't know why they won't explain how they know, but I will spill the beans for them. The secret is statistics. Scientists all over the world are conducting studies, building computer climate models, sampling the atmosphere, examining ice cores from the polar caps and and analyzing the past and present state of our environment in countless ingenious ways. And while there is a significant chance that the conclusions of any one study or approach are flawed or misleading, scientists have learned how to estimate the likelihood and degree of inaccuracy in individual experiments. They can then throw all the conclusions of those studies into a bowl, weight each for the likelihood of accuracy, shake well, dip the whole thing in a tangy statistical sauce, and voila, you can suddenly draw some very reliable conclusions.

Do you remember sitting is statistics class, watching the hands of the clock proceed at the same bright clip with which rocks grow older and praying that merciful death would find you and end your pain? Well, the scientists were there too, and they were paying attention. And that is why they can tell you that the chance we're not frying the planet is essentially zero.

Here's another perspective that may drive home the urgency of climate change. We tend to think of our world as an enormous expanse of emptiness that has been growing fuller with life and its pungent byproducts over the eons. So we ask: Are we full yet? Is there still more space to put the carbon dioxide from this breath I am breathing now? How about this one? It is a model that envisions not just landfills as a place to hide our candy wrappers for eternity, but waterfills and airfills as well.

But this model is wrong. For in fact, the world is full already, and has been full since microbes first conquered the planet in its infancy. You may remember from your high school biology classes that there are microorganisms that are anaerobic--that don't use oxygen. These types of organisms ruled the world early in the planet's history, because the atmosphere was dominated by compounds like methane, while free oxygen was in short supply. It was a great time to be anaerobic. Geriatric anaerobic microorganisms still sit on their front porches in their rockers reminiscing about how those days kicked ass and now everything's gone to hell.

So where did all the oxygen come from? From the anaerobic organisms. It was their waste product. They "breathed" in compounds we would consider poisonous, and breathed out oxygen (which I must tell you, actually is poisonous. It is the chlamydia-ridden nymphomaniac of the periodic table, reacting with with every thing it meets and destroying it). Pretty soon the world was filled with oxygen and the anaerobic organisms asphyxiated in their own halitosis. But then, along came a new generation of microbes that could actually breath this poisonous, corrosive oxygen and emit carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, plants that use the carbon dioxide and emit oxygen proliferated. And thus was established the balance that supports us in such fine style today.

There is a miraculous and aesthetically pleasing symmetry to the relationship between the oxygen breathers and the carbon dioxide breathers. They share common microbial ancestors, and are more alike than different. They share the same cell structure, they need water to survive, and they evolve at a similar pace, minimizing the likelihood that one type of organism will suddenly start behaving in a way that destabilizes the system as a whole. This is nature's elegant economy, purring along in homeostatic bliss. Secure, because all currencies are of a quantity and quality of her own design.

Or so it was until the first self-conscious thought blossomed in the mind of an ancient hominid, and all of creation whispered "Uh-oh." For what we justly celebrate as an independence day will prove nature's Waterloo. Our cognitive facility, the font of industry and mechanization, of refining and synthesizing, strikes a note not found in nature's scale. When a new kind of plant evolves, there is every reason to believe that it will not disrupt our climatic balance. But have you ever sat in your car in rush hour gridlock with the air-conditioning roaring, an ocean of running automobiles stretching out to the horizon in all directions, the heat waves and fumes radiating upwards into the haze, and felt a thrill of panic? Well, you should have, because there is absolutely no reason to believe that nature can absorb that punishment, and every reason to believe she can't.

And so the question to ask is not whether the undeniable change we are inflicting on the environment is having a particular effect, but rather, why would we mess with it at all, hitting the hornet's nest with a stick as it were?

If you want to know how it will end, ask an anaerobic organism. If you can find one.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A Pleasant Post in Which I Betray My Nation

What do we know of the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program?

Though it is much in the news of late, what we read and hear generates much noise, but sheds little light. We glean that it is so secret and vital to our minute-to-minute survival that everyone with knowledge of its details has already been killed. We know it gives Dick Cheney a woody. (Can that be good?) We know that it is favored by the clear-eyed and crew cut patriots at Denny's restaurants across the country, for unlike those effete eastern homosexuals and dope smokers, they have nothing to hide. And we know that the democrats, in a display of the infinite cowardice for which they are justly renowned, have just pumped it full of amphetamines, soaked it in gasoline, and given it the keys to the hummer, much liked a stunned football player staggering triumphantly towards his own end zone, elated by the roar of the crowd, unable to hear the words they scream:

"You're running the wrong way!"

We know these things, but none of them is one of the two things that are the only two things you need to know about this program.

In a moment, I will reveal these two things to you. But first, I am going to tell you exactly what this top secret program does. The personal consequences of this treasonous disclosure will be dire. In the aftermath, I will be granted the highest level of security clearance so that I may then be ceremoniously stripped of it. I will be extraordinarily rendered; I have already charged my iPod and packed my comfy neck pillow for the flight. And I will be tortured: I will have to watch Karl Rove dance, to read the complete works of Bill Kristol, to follow the briar-choked, corpse-strewn track of Tony Snow's logic.

National security, you best put on something sheer and lacy, 'cause you're about to get compromised.

The surveillance program in question involves intercepting and recording telephone conversations, and likely email as well. Supposedly, only communications in which one participant is outside the United States will be targeted. But the physical telecommunications infrastructure doesn't always support such a surgical partitioning of the internal and the external, so it would be naive to think that no purely domestic communications will get swept up in the mix. The collected information will then be subjected to analysis by an array of automated processes that will look for suspicious key words and patterns, in hopes that a few potential needles can be extracted from this astronomically big haystack and brought to the attention of the finest analytical tool at our nation's disposal.

Which is a guy named Alan who drinks 17 cups of coffee a day, has an enlarged prostate gland, and has been sitting at the same desk in Langley, VA for the last 20 years.

Alan will then decide whether the potential suspects identified by the system warrant further investigation.

If this sounds a little bit backwards to you--to first record phone calls and then decide whether the people on the phone deserve to be targeted--you're right. And thus all the whining from those fixated on quaint notions like "liberty" and "the law."

Historically, agents of law enforcement have to first establish that there is reason to suspect that person X is a criminal, and then they can get a warrant to spy. Whether the changes to technology and to the security threats we face over the last few decades justify this new approach is a legitimate subject for debate. But there can be no doubt that it is a sea change.

Shall we now examine the issues manifest in our technological advances? Shall we take measure of our altered security outlook and probe the myriad scenarios of dirty bombs and poisoned water supplies? Let's not. For that would be dull for you, dear reader. Far worse, it would be taxing for me, and that is something to be avoided at all costs.

Thankfully, such exertions are unnecessary. For as I said earlier, there are only two things you need to know about our new, steroid-enhanced government surveillance program.

First, when you balance the effectiveness of the program against the costs both monetary and inherent in the erosion of our privacy, it turns out that it isn't very effective. Most experts concede, and past experience has shown, that if we took the bazillions of dollars that are spent to collect and analyze all this data and spent it instead on agents like Alan so they can infiltrate extremist networks, establish informants, and do the kind of targeted, legal (warrants and everything!) surveillance that has borne so much fruit in the past, we'd catch far more bad guys.

Alan would probably appreciate the opportunity to get out of the office. Certainly, he could use the exercise.

In other words, this isn't a choice between security and privacy, it's a plan to make sure we get neither. File it under "S" for "Sucky Plans We Shouldn't Do."

On to the second thing you must know about the surveillance program: it is overseen by the people in charge of executing it. Will the ability to invade our privacy therefore be abused for political ends?

Oh, that the lord would send me an all-powerful font face of fire in which to type these words...

Yes. It will.

It is the most mortal of locks.

Tell me, what is the central foundation of our system of government? No, not life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. No, not the right to get filthy rich and then consider yourself better than everyone else. (But good answer. Half credit awarded.) No, the central truth which has made this nation successful is this: People are awful, and you should never, ever, ever trust them. Tyranny follows unchecked power as surely as the drain clogs when you give yourself a haircut over the sink.

I heard an analyst argue that this program does not represent a threat, because the decent, dedicated career civil servants at our intelligence agencies would never use it in an untoward manner.

Please. No argument could be better contrived to make the founding fathers howl with laughter.

I'm not saying that the power now granted will be used to determine what toppings Barack Obama likes on his pizza or to capture and later capitalize upon the involuntary exclamations of Hillary Clinton in the throes of passion--though, given our present administration's dubious track record, you could perhaps be forgiven for acknowledging that possibility. I'm not even suggesting that an all-hands conference call between Osama Bin Laden and the heads of his international network might be overlooked because the last bits of computer disc space were filled with an account of the late night goings-on at the U. of Iowa girls' dorm. But will the government claim successes that can never be confirmed as a basis for further expanding this program and others like it, until all of your daily communications and utterances become tools to be used on a whim by the public servants-cum-gangsters in the white house, and by the public servants that will follow but become gangsters themselves via the influence of that same corrupting power? A temptation even more compelling than cookies?

I say again, in a mighty font: You betcha.

So do not be confused, dear friends. Do not let debaters on all sides of this issue cloud your thinking by dragging you down into the details of implementation, or with scholarly disquisitions on the niceties of interpreted law regarding privacy rights. Even the most familiar objects of daily life are unrecognizable when examined under a microscope, and once manipulated into debating the fine points of a topic we'll wake to find that we implicitly conceded the proposition as a whole.

Ask yourself, should you be heeding those distant but urgent alarm bells ringing faintly in your head?


I'm only saying.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Why the Iraq Fiasco is a Big Relief

I have been reading The Prince of the Marshes, Rory Stewart's incisive and revealing memoir of his year in Iraq as a provincial governor under the auspices of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

It is a masterpiece of storytelling. Each chapter is only a couple of pages long, a literary technique that mirrors the infinitely fragmented nature of reality in Iraq, and the surprises and reversals come not only at chapter's end, but within each paragraph and sentence. Forget the longed-for, comprehensible dichotomy of Sunni and Shiite; Mr. Stewart tells of grappling with an unending array of tribal allegiances, religious divisions within divisions, degrees of affiliation with Iran, modernists vs. traditionalists, the educated vs. the illiterate, and militias run by black marketeers vs. mobs of unemployed youths. Amidst these conflicting agendas, the local actors lie, posture, make and break alliances, and assassinate each other, while the eminently capable and well-intentioned Mr. Stewart and his fellows retile the roof of the local schoolhouse and hope that no one blows it up.

It is the mother of all messes.

And my reaction? Page by page, I find myself breathing a sigh of relief.

Why relief? Certainly not because there can be any satisfaction derived from America's calamitous, drunken misstep into this quagmire. The suffering and death we have brought upon innocent Iraqis--the aged, the children, the families--utterly outweighs whatever price we have paid in lives and treasure. This invasion without provocation or purpose amounts to little more than an arrogant patriotic display, a parade atop the livelihoods and persons of the populace, an independence day celebration in which the fireworks are packed with shrapnel and aimed at civilians, while mainstreet America gawks up at the pretty lights with Oohs! and Ahs!

If we were to look down at the damage we've caused, we'd have no choice but to acknowledge that we have acted monstrously. So we're careful not to look.

No, the relief I feel comes from a different place. It is the relief that comes when our most basic intuitions, assailed by those we are reared to respect, are nonetheless confirmed. Up is not down. Black is not white. And you cannot go to a country in one of the most volatile regions of the world, the justly proud home of the planet's most ancient civilization; a country that has never had a political or ethnic basis for cohesion, and whose modern borders were instead blithely marked by far-off powers as an afterthought of a World War in which Iraqis played no role; a country that has never been stable except under the iron weight of dictatorship... You cannot go into this country, vaporize their physical infrastructure in 15 years of sanctions and war, dismantle every element of the civil administration and security forces, and then send in a handful of soldiers and project managers and fix it in a few years time.

It. Can't. Be. Done.

Did you have a similar thought back in 2003, when this started? Guess what? YOU WERE RIGHT!

As I am so fond of noting in these pages, frequently, we learn more by consulting our own common sense then by listening to the noise around us. Up is not down.

And if this occurred to me, certainly such doubts might have cast a fleeting shadow in the uncluttered minds of luminaries like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, et al.? After all, they're getting the big bucks to be on top of this. And yet, as recently as August 2, 2007, we hear Defense Secretary Robert Gates spew this disingenuous bullshit:

I think the developments on the political side are somewhat discouraging at the
national level.

I believe Secretary Gates is an intelligent man. Probably even brilliant in his way. So he should know that the word "discouraging" implies that a rational person might have expected a different result. It is inconceivable to me that he doesn't know better.

If there is any shred of solace in this--and a shred is a small thing--it is that America's failure to comprehend and control Iraq's thundering cataract of newly-unleashed human ambition is not in itself the result of a lapse of planning or a lack of expertise. The chaos cannot be mastered because it cannot be understood; not by the world's most experienced diplomats, not even by the Iraqis themselves. It doesn't stand still long enough to be measured or categorized. It is a Chernobyl, and it will have to come to whatever stasis lies ahead in its own time. And if you think the meltdown analogy extreme, consider: the Russians mitigated that disaster by dumping oceans of sand and concrete on the reactor. Isn't that pretty much what Saddam did to keep his people in check? Are we prepared to use the same method?

So what reasonable assumptions can we make regarding the social and political disposition of Iraq? I think we can be sure that what we are witnessing is a great jockeying for position. America's shot clanged off the basket's rim, and every individual or group with pretensions to power is boxing out underneath the backboard and waiting for the rebound. The only factions that have an interest in quick political reconciliation are those that have no power. So in political terms, it doesn't matter what they want anyway. Meanwhile, the other players are in it to win. They have no choice. Every ounce of authority in the country is or will soon be up for grabs.

There are constant, academic-sounding references in the media to the idea of security as the basis for political progress. As if a democratic Iraq will magically blossom if the shooting stops. But willfully or not, the MSM is failing to convey the essence of the matter. The reason we're not seeing political progress right now is not because of the level of violence, and it is not because the elected officials are finding the challenges too great.

The reason there can be no significant political progress in Iraq right now is because America is there, and none of the real powers in Iraq will accept the kind of government the U.S. demands. They are not just being contrary. Rather, they find the idea that Iraq could be effectively ruled by a non-authoritarian government to be absurd. And they are right. Even those elements that might believe that democracy is a noble goal aren't stupid enough to think it will work in Iraq anytime soon.

There are several examples in The Prince of the Marshes where the CPA appoints provincial counsels that represent all the relevant interest groups. The counsel then elects a governor. Inevitably, the governor's first decision is to purge his opponents from the counsel and create a secret police force loyal to his faction alone. The CPA, predictably, vetoes the idea. What is striking and instructive about these episodes, is how confused and stunned the Iraqis are by the CPA's stance. How are they supposed to deliver security with so many constraints upon their power? Even those factions on the losing side don't understand it.

The only reason that the real political powers in Iraq are participating--halfheartedly--in the current charade of national government, is that they thought that if they pantomimed forward political motion, the U.S. might leave. Wouldn't we want to avail ourselves of that welcome political cover? But we're still there, and the national unity government isn't even making an effort to pretend anymore.

So the U.S. has the tiger by the tail, and we don't know how to walk away. Because as politically attractive as troop withdrawal is, we have critical national interests in the political, military and economic stability of the region. The best we can realistically hope for now is to preserve the status quo ante, where Iraq exists as a political entity with it's borders unchanged, serving as a balance and bulwark against the conflicting aims of it's neighbors, and playing its role in the world's fragile oil market. If we stay, we cannot force the outcome we desire. If we leave, who knows what the outcome will be?

And in the meantime it isn't possible to chart a course to reconciliation, because there's no town by that name on the map.