The Waning of the Golden Age


1. The Raw and the Cooked
2. The Half-Baked and the Full Monty
3. The Long and the Short

1. The Raw and the Cooked

The Radix's 2009 annual general meeting was held on Old Year's Night at a sushi bar in a world class city in the north. As I watched Gamma (over) indulging in sake, the sushi master delivered a series of small masterpieces. Tuna. Eel. Butterfish. Salmon. Cut briskly and with purpose and hospitality. And as Gamma lapsed into a light stupor, mumbling to himself about past wrongs and slights and days of minor glory long faded, I was washed over with the unmistakable feeling that I was living at the end of an age of opulence and diversity. I might as well have been sitting in Rome as the barbarians were gathering outside the gates.
In less than a generation most wild fish will be a delicacy. We have plumbed the depths of the oceans and have pushed most staple stocks to the very brink. While its a minor tragedy that I will struggle to find a restaurant that will serve me wild Salmon let alone a tasty Chilean Sea Bass, a far greater effect is being felt by the communities across the world that have, for generations, rested their economic and social orders on fishing.

But it is not about the fish.

The erosion of opulence and diversity is seen across Planet Earth. We have, it must be acknowledged, exceeded the carrying capacity of our planet. Climate change and its associated ills are not the problem but symptoms of there simply being way too many of us. And as we spill out of our teeming cities and claw the last of the oil out of the poisoned ground, we should acknowledge that the good times are over.

We will survive for a long time. We are are a tough and pernicious species. But it will be a havishamian existence. Fear and loathing in the ruins of our past as the wedding cake crumbles on the table. We can see elements of this future in our current collapse. The loss of cultures and languages across the planet. The destruction of natural spaces. The growth of wealth concentrated in the hands of so few. The abandonment of institutions and concepts that have long provided bulwarks for the rule of law. The weakening of democratic and rights-protecting structures and instruments. The disconnection between public policy and science. The growth of of super-crime that recognizes no boundaries or jurisdictions. The spidery paranoia that comes with the inability to combat low-tech terrorism.

Is it too late? How much effort should be put into fighting the symptoms of a problem so great and seemingly insoluble? Should we gird our loins for the fight ahead? Or, should we, as Warren Zevon sang, sit in our colonial homes drinking bitters while the empire falls.

Or maybe just one more sake before the lightly smoked o-toro comes. - Beta

2. The Half-Baked and the Full Monty

Confusing a sake-induced euphoria for some kind of Satoric insight, Beta has once again managed to tangle a number of disparate issues into a half-baked argument. "How much effort should be put into fighting the symptoms of a problem so great and seemingly insoluble?" he asks. But what is the problem of which he speaks? Overpopulation? So it seems. All of the ills of the world, from global warming, through the unequal distribution of wealth, loss of cultural diversity, to institutional breakdown, are reduced to symptoms of overpopulation, which Beta pronounces insoluble.

I will confess to feeling a certain angst at the range and depth of the problems we face as we enter the second decade of the first century of this millennia. There is some justification in feeling besieged, whether you are in Washington DC, Tehran, or Tokyo. But there is little to be gained in throwing up our arms in despair and blaming it all on over-population. Yes, we are continuing to grow, and will only reach an initial population peak in about 2050, after which we may continue to expand. But the overpopulation card has been over-played before - or have we forgotten Malthus? His theories, published at the end of the 18th century predicted the breakdown of civilization due to the world's inability to sustain the projected population growth. Except that the assumptions that his theory rested on were falsified by subsequent technological, economic, and sociological developments.

But more importantly, reducing the myriad problems we face to mere symptoms of overpopulation is not only fallacious, if accepted it would obscure the causes of the real problems, and distract from the hard analysis that is required to solve each of them. Some are inter-related, several or not, but they each require our concentrated and focused attention. Global warming may in some very general way be attributable to the growth of human population and human consumption, but that hardly gets us anywhere in terms of addressing the problem. The technology and the economic resources exist to reduce the threat, but as a political problem it is huge - and it needs to be addressed as such.

And what of the breakdown of global institutions and the rule of law? I don't see much of a connection between those problems and overpopulation, or even over-consumption. The conflict between Al-Qaeda and the West is not over scarce resources. But make no mistake, the threat to the fabric of the international system, and the institutional structures that we have come to take for granted, is dire. Not because terrorist activity can directly put the system and institutions at risk, but because our reaction to the threat could indeed be fatal, like a person's immune system destroying the body in response to a non-life threatening infection.

So Beta is right to raise some of these problems as being deserving of our attention (though others, like loss of cultural diversity, I would put down to the liquor). And once we have got the maguro and sake out of our own systems, we will debate these and similar problems here at The Radix over the next few months.

Of course, in Beta's defense, there is a phenomenon observed in biology that might be depressingly relevant. In the growth of bacterial cultures, populations will expand to a critical point, at which they either break out of the confines of their "petri dish", and go on to flourish in ever expanding directions, or they fail to break out and collapse inwards and perish in short order. It is apparently something of a general principle. So the naked truth may be that we are reaching our critical break-out point, when we either expand beyond the petri dish confines of our planet, or we expire. Rather puts NASA's work in a new light, doesn't it? - Gamma

3. The Long and the Short

When the butterfly flaps its wings, a lot can happen downwind. Connecting events back to the cause requires a little creative contemplation. Sometimes, I confess, the sake helps.

In any ecosystem, complexity is fragile. It is a luxury that comes with excess. When stress is placed on an environment, it is the elaborate, inefficient organisms that begin to fail only to be marveled at in globules of amber a few epochs later. The destruction of cultural diversity on Planet Earth since the industrial revolution is truly staggering. More importantly it is a symptom of the environmental stress that comes with overpopulation. Diversity is inefficient. Monoculture is simpler and hardier.

So too with the collapse of social institutions and the rule of law. Rights and procedure and due process are inefficient. As the going gets tough, as democratic governance becomes too unwieldy, as more and more pressure is brought to bear, the rule of law begins to erode. We see the flourishing of fascist states and military governments, we see the growth of violent dissent, and we see the rise of criminal syndicates working outside any semblance of order. Does any of this sound familiar?

One last point, dear simple linear Gamma. Did you really write that the conflict between the United States and Al-Qaeda is not over scarce resources? Do you really think it is simply a clash of ideology? Two opposing world views that just can't reconcile themselves to one another? Maybe even good versus evil?

Or, more realistically, maybe it has something to do with a certain black, oily substance that once bubbled freely and plentifully from the ground. It's the crude, dude. Oil, that is. Texas Tea. Milkshakes. - Beta



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