Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Is modern civilized living an unsustainable historical anomaly? "It won't be so bad, or will it?"

Can modern western civilization as we know it be sustained indefinitely?  When I watch a National Geographic “Doomsday Preppers” episode, I’m struck by the level of knowledge of potential threats these people do have.
I think that the biggest threats are probably natural.  The single biggest danger is probably a huge solar storm, with coronal mass ejections, which could take out the power grid in major sections of the world, more likely at latitudes closer to the poles.  Northern Europe and Russia may be at more risk than the United States.  It’s worthy of note that solar storms have nothing to do with global warming, so the right wing is “right” about that.  There may be a lot that the power industry, concerned about share prices, should do to reduce the threat;  European utilities may be ahead of us on this.
Other major risks could be really huge earthquakes, perhaps a supervolcano, or perhaps a mega-tsunami, which is possible in the Atlantic (maybe hitting parts of the US East Coast with a wall of water 300 feet high) because of instability in the Cumbre Vieja volcano off the African Coast, capable of creating huge underwater landslides.  The possibility of an asteroid or comet strike is significant, but there’s a lot that technology can do to ward off such threats.

Climate change provides threats that are much longer in time frame, which is why the present a different kind of moral problem.  People living today need to be concerned about generations that will follow them.  People in wealthier countries have fewer children.  You get where this can go.   In the nearer term, climate change may mean more extreme storms, especially in coastal areas, and more long tracking supersized tornados, possibly in areas not accustomed to them, as well as more derechos (which are more common in regions with wide differences between seasons). Areas not used to extreme thunderstorms and hurricanes, like northern Europe, may see more extreme cold core, Sandy-like “superstorms”, as went across England last week.

On top of this, there is, of course, the terror threat, which seems to be increasing overseas and seems to be largely low-tech and “personalized”.  Although public sensibilities (and my own) are grossly offended by targeting individuals in crowds (as in Boston, and then Kenya), the biggest economic risks would still come from true WMD’s, with the biggest single threat probably being radioactive dispersion.   It’s appropriate to keep nuclear weapons out of rogue states completely, as the possibility of a lob-strike from North Korea or Iran in the future cannot be completely foreclosed.  The right wing makes a lot of the idea of an EMP strike from a high altitude blast, but that would require a terrorist group to launch a missile with a nuclear warhead from offshore (like a commercial ship) and get past NORAD (as in the book “One Second After”).  The possibility that rogue groups could do considerable local damage with conventional flux weapons (which US and NATO militaries use in deployment) sounds more likely to me (it’s been mentioned in the Washington Times and is discussed in Michael Maloof’s book “A Nation Forsaken”).  The idea that a cyberattack could take down the entire power grid (as in the book “Gridlock” or the NatGeo film “American Blackout” or a similar show two years ago on CNN) sounds less likely and ought to be easily preventable with proper security.

Don't forget pandemics.  The biggest threats are probably natural.  Why aren't we more aggressive in making vaccines for avian influenza and SARS-like infections?

As for the NSA spying scandal, I see both sides.  The problem is, we can’t afford to miss one real threat.

The possibility of extreme disruption of my own life from an angry or indignant or burdened outside world has always been in my mind.  The need to be prepared for it has a big effect on our moral perspective about interpersonal and familial relations.  Should capacity to take in others (in a "radical hospitality" mode) be expected of everyone?
As for "The Purification": It won't be so bad -- or will it?   

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