Thursday, January 6, 2011

Prophets of Doom??

Well, knowing one of the participants, and having bought lunch for and accepted drinks from another, I watched “Prophets of Doom”, on the History Channel on Wednesday night. The publicity for the show described it thus:
Today's world has troubles unique to its time in history, from the global financial crisis to technological meltdowns to full scale, computerized global war. Observing the convergence of such events, contemporary prophets have begun to emerge from obscurity to suggest that these conditions might be signs of the demise of the modern world.
Given the critical problems that are facing the world over the next decades I must confess to considerable disappointment with the resulting program. There were a number of interesting gimmicks, each prophet (there were six) discussed his topic on a different method of transport, including a taxi, a ferry, an airplane and a subway car. But sadly, apart from an allocation of a graph of two per participant the very real issues that some of us are concerned about (in my case population, water and fuel) got relatively little detailed explanation. And one of the likely answers, the development of appropriate and more advanced technologies was, instead turned into one of the threats.

The first half of the two-hour show dealt with such problems as over-population, the instability of the current financial system, and the shortage of water. It went on to the shortage of oil, (which was covered by James Howard Kunstler who did not care for the change in title from the original “The Futurists.” That was followed by the risk from robots becoming more intelligent than mankind, to the point that they treat mankind as a pest (where is Asimov when we need him?) and exterminate him/her. And finally it covered the risk from terrorists getting hold of nuclear devices.

Once the basic premise for the different ways we can follow the Roman Empire into extinction had been outlined, and foregoing that, at least according to Gibbons, that took a considerable number of decades, whereas we are now looking at the future over the next four at best, the prophets sat in a circle in an apparently abandoned warehouse to discuss their different viewpoints. (This was one of a number of formatting ideas that didn’t really work very well).

First they appeared to superficially debate which was the most pressing problem and how to deal with it. (And having been both before and behind a camera at different points in my career, to the point that I have spent several hours of shooting to produce about a minute of video, I fully recognize that this apparent superficiality is not the fault of the participants, but likely of the editor) Their conclusion was that the first severe problem that will face the United States (since it is the collapse of the American Empire/Life Style that they were addressing) was water shortage and contamination – for which it was felt that there was no practical solution, because of the local nature of the problem. But there was a minority rebuttal which held that it would be more likely that it would be the collapse of the financial system that is the most imminent.

However, Michael Ruppert, who had led off the program and seemed to have some sort of role as a discussion leader, suggested that the economic collapse is likely to be exacerbated by the coming shortages of water and fuel. He then led the group toward an apparent consensus that we must move toward local food production and a distributed society, rather than the highly integrated network that sustains us today. (Which is, interestingly the diametrically opposed view to the book “Power Hungry” by Robert Bryce that I happened to be reading during the commercials. He points out that the network is too large and well established to be changed significantly in a short amount of real time).

And so the question came as to what the prophets felt that can we do to change the situation? Suggestions ranged from getting some law and regulation into the financial community, to the need to rebuild local economies, to rebuilding the national railroad system. People must accept that they will have to do increasingly with less every year, instead of more, and the country must learn to “Buy American.” We should look into disjointing society to the point that we create local currencies as society moves toward collapse, for we have very little time remaining.

And then they turned to the final question, which was to decide if anyone would listen to them, or were they Cassandras likely to be ignored? The answers were really more like sound bites – “the problems are there and the time to address them is short” – “We need a time out from technology” – “we are going to have to live the way that we should have been living until now” – “If we could learn to work together, but as long as it is thus against them . . . .” - “we are the one species in the planet that would run into a fire to rescue a stranger” - "We will end up taking care of each other". (One thinks of what actually happened during the Depression as a rebuttal to some of these).

And they closed with the conclusion that water shortage and pollution and financial collapse are the greatest threat to the country in the short term. (And, for the record, I don't agree with that either).

I have bought a fair number of DVDs of shows that appeared on the History Channel, and have a number of other DVDs dealing with various potential futures and the problems that we are facing. I don’t think that I will be getting a DVD of this show to put among them, and actually, I think the change in title was justified.

Oh, and as a post script Eyafyjallajokull is a little more active today - Katla erupting is potentially a much greater threat within the next couple of years than any of the topics above, yet notice how little attention or care it is getting in the media anywhere.

1 comment:

  1. Matt Ridley's interesting book "The Rational Optimist" carries a quotation from British historian & politician Thomas Macaulay:
    "On what principle is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioriation before us?"

    And that was in 1830! Seems like the Purveyors of Doomer Porn have been around for a long time.

    Very few serious people disagree that fossil fuels are finite, that humans already use a very high share of the planet's total photosynthetic production, that governments cannot keep over-spending indefinitely.

    What is disappointing is that so many of those Westerners who consider themselves to be in the forefront simply want to lie down in the road & cry -- where they are likely to get run over by technological advances stemming from the bottomless well of human creativity.