Global-Scale Problems
by Bill Henderson
14 October 2004


Paul Weisz's already oft cited July04 Physics Today article Basic Choices and Constraints on Long Term Energy Supplies begins with a succinct statement of the emerging energy supply problem:

Population growth and energy demand are exhausting the world's fossil energy supplies, some on the timescale of a single human lifespan. Increasingly, sharing natural resources will require close international cooperation, peace, and security.

Dr. Weisz then proceeds in a careful inventory of possible energy sources that could replace oil
in the world's energy supply. He is particularly clear on basic constraints in the use of potential fuels and on our ability to support, in the long term, society's demands using those finite supplies.

His knowledgeable inventory is stimulating as well as informative. Dr. Weisz is clearly predicting a needed transition from an oil based economy that can not survive even our (average) lifetime. He is a reasonable technological optimist and he is providing a preliminary scoping of possible paths.

But he presupposes or at least appears to accept as a given the key second part of his paper's premise:

Increasingly, sharing natural resources will require close international cooperation, peace, and security.

Dr. Weisz and most other scientists working on possible technological solutions to today's emerging problems such as future energy supply externalize or take for granted this stable framework for scientific innovation.

But what happens if there is increased turbulence in our political and economic systems?

What happens if a major power does not want to share and undertakes a preemptive path that corrodes international cooperation, peace and security?  

Two of America's premier scientists, Edward O. Wilson and Jared Diamond, have made separate predictions of a very turbulent 21st century where Kaplanesque societal breakdown effects many regions of the globe.

In his wise little book THE FUTURE OF LIFE  E.O. Wilson postulates the bottleneck metaphor for the 21st century: unprecedented human populations with technology aided expanding individual and cumulative ecological footprints will degrade ecosystems and create global scale problems such as global warming and species extinction reducing the biological capacity for human life on Earth.

Jared Diamond has been studying previous collapsed civilizations . Looking at the complexity of reasons for the collapse of Mayan society Diamond sees a lack of cooperation and social organization to deal with climate change. Mayan society never evolved a unifying, organizing government. Fighting warlords got in the way of migration and irrigation potentials.

If you combine Dr. Weisz's thoughtful and hopeful inventory of future sources of energy with Wilson and Diamond's prediction of turbulence - especially of conflict and warfare - in the time period in which the transition from a fossil fuel economy must be made, you can come to several differing conclusions.

Instead of only preparing militarily, one reasonable conclusion is that a much better functioning and strengthened version of the emerging global multilateral framework for cooperation - the international rule of law, a global governance capacity, open networked global science, etc. - is a precondition for innovation to solve global-scale problems such as severe resource depletion (peak oil), global warming and species extinction. 

For example, a US lead global 'New Deal' could anticipate the building Bottleneck problems and introduce a global level of agreed upon cooperation and regulation. But this is, of course, clearly not the direction that the Bush Administration (nor, to be fair, every other recent US administration) wants to go. 

There was a bundle of reasons for war in Iraq not just fear of Saddam's potential use of WMDs.
There is a substantial body of speculation that control of oil, control of the oil important Middle East, was the most important underlying reason for the war in Iraq. If in the future this becomes the dominant perception of US actions in Iraq then a very serious if not mortal blow will have been preemptively dealt to the existing, nascent, multilateral framework for cooperation.

In her prescient paper Multilateral Organizations after the U.S.-Iraq War of 2003 Harvard's Lisa Martin describes how US unilateralism and in particular the aggression against Iraq will corrode the existing multilateral framework for cooperation. The  future implications or consequences of aggression in Iraq are sadly under appreciated in America.

If  "(i)ncreasingly, sharing natural resources will require close international cooperation, peace, and security"; if a precondition for needed innovation is this emerging global framework for peace and cooperation, then, right now, we have to back up and get off of a path begun in the Bush Administration's choice of a radical unilateral foreign policy and military geo-strategic solutions to control the supply of oil.

We have to confront and make visible the implications of what must be considered a
planetary coup d’etat’ . Those who can must educate about the importance of the emerging multilateral framework and insist that the damage to this needed higher level of cooperation caused by radical unilateralism be on the menu for debate in America

In a companion article in the same issue of Physics Today, in a paper on population growth called  Thoughts on Long Term Energy Supplies: Scientists and the Silent Lie , ("In the Physics Today essay and article, population growth is given as a cause of the problems identified, but eliminating the cause is not mentioned as a solution. We are prescribing aspirin for cancer."), Dr. Albert Bartlett quotes the amazing American Mark Twain about slavery, but it is a quote which is so crucial in understanding and acting in our Bottleneck / end of oil era:

The universal conspiracy of the silent assertion lie is hard at work always and everywhere, and always in the interest of a stupidity or a sham, never in the interest of a thing fine or respectable. It is the most timid and shabby of all lies . . . the silent assertion that nothing is going on which fair and intelligent men [and women] are aware of and are engaged by their duty to try to stop.


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