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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Progress Traps

I just arrived in Saudi Arabia after 17 hours of flights from the U.S.  My wife and I attended our son's beautiful wedding in Sonoma, California, bonded with our children, students and many friends, and I attended the largest Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) conference in Houston, where I realized that I knew most people over fifty.  Kind of scary, but what can one expect after being an SPE member for 33 years?

The Patzek family in Sonoma, California, just before the latest enlargement.
You may ask what are my impressions from America after a nine-month absence?  There are many positive impressions and some are mixed.  First, we miss America. I loved the lush green trees in Texas, and the beautiful live oaks everywhere I looked in my Austin neighborhood.  I loved being with my children, friends and neighbors.  I did not like the rampant inflation of the cost of food and most living necessities.  This inflation has been at least 10% per year in most metropolitan areas, and is not captured by the highly misleading consumer price index (CPI), which registered only 0.4% over the same time period.  I did not like the ever-smaller and more expensive meals often prepared from shoddy food stocks.  The prices of good food in the U.S. are now on par with Europe; not long ago they were one half.  The over-the-counter medications in the U.S. are 2 - 3 times more expensive than in Europe.  I did not like paying $475 for a single night in a rather low standard hotel in San Francisco.  It was "market pricing" for that particular night, I was told, and the next rooms up were $600 - $1100 per night. That's absolutely crazy!

The high inflation in almost everything one needs to live as a civilized human being is coupled with the very noticeable impoverishment of the American society, and that's really bad news.  Why is it happening?  Perhaps now I should mention progress and progress traps.

The idea of progress is at most three hundred years old.  For more details, please read the exquisite short book by Ronald Wright, "A Short History of Progress." Progress is defined as an irreversible chain of events that with time make our lives continuously better.  These events have been mostly linked to the ever-improving technology and social systems that make us live longer, smell better, be happier, and expect more from the future.  The latter expectation has been especially strong over the last 20-50 years, depending on where you live. The myth of progress is strongest in the U.S., where technology has delivered more than in other places.

According to Wright: "Myth is an arrangement of the past, whether real or imagined, in patterns that reinforce a culture's deepest values and aspirations... Myths are so fraught with meaning that we live and die by them.  They are the maps by which cultures navigate through time."  Thus, it is almost impossible to debunk a partially true myth, but let me poke a few holes.

The social myth of progress is curiously at odds with the thermodynamic direction of time that coincides with increase of entropy.  In other words, as time progresses the overall mess must increase too.  In fairness, most of our mess is exported by the Earth as heat into the cold universe, but all chemical waste stays here, continues to react, and demolishes all living systems on the planet.  This deterioration is now very visible wherever I go, including my neighborhood in Austin, where the last 500 acres of pristine land are being stripped of wild oaks and paved with concrete for streets and house slabs.  So let's talk about progress traps.
The last two square kilometers of the mostly untouched land are being demolished in my neighborhood in Austin.  The wild animals will be chased out, the groundwater level lowered, the water wells all around will dry up earlier, and there will more flash flooding in addition to traffic congestion, but otherwise progress will triumph. Such progress is defined by the Hays county officials, whose minds never left the nineteenth century and myth of the wild conquest of endless new territory.  This is exactly how quality of life for all diminishes because a few convert the local environmental services into dollars and run.
The seductive promise of technological progress leads into progress traps.  Let me begin with Austin, Texas.  In 1983, it was a wonderful place with roughly 350,000 people, so livable that it became the most desirable city in the U.S.  By 2015, Austin had 900,000 people, and the great Austin area 1.5 million and counting.  Austin is congested beyond belief, very expensive to live, running out of water, and the people who work there are the fifth most unhappy bunch among workers in all American cities.   Austin fell into a progress trap by not noticing that if 1x is beautiful, 5x usually is a disaster.

Perhaps the most classical progress trap is weapons.  Spears were better than clubs, arrows better than spears, guns than arrows, and bombs than guns.  Nuclear warheads are better than all other weapons, and they can extinguish humanity and most life on the Earth.  Technological progress has lead to a deadly and irreversible progress trap.  Humans have become smart enough to terminate themselves in a few hours.

On a retail scale, fire arms killed 406,396 Americans between September 11, 2001 and December 31, 2013, when the national gun-death statistic stops.  Only 3,380 Americans were killed by terrorists, including 2,990 in New York, Washington, D.C., and in Pennsylvania. The technological and social progress traps - the myth of unbounded personal freedom won with arms and the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution purchased by the gun lobby - have led to a 120 times higher likelihood that an American dies from a fellow citizen's fire, including himself, rather than from a terrorist's hand.  The factor of 100 separates speeds of running and flying a jet (6 vs. 600 miles per hour).

If you live in Chicago, you are 20 times more likely to die from a bullet than a civilian in the last Afghan war that also started in 2001.  When you live in Washington, D.C., this ratio is six!  Just the massacres in the Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary School, and the Umpqua Community College killed 85 people.  Now, that's progress!

The second technological progress mega trap is agriculture.  Much of agriculture started across the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East about 5000 years ago, but there are glimpses of plant domestication going back perhaps another 5000 years. Regardless of what enthusiasts of the "Green Revolution" and GMOs claim, no new major plant species has been introduced for massive cultivation relative to those cultivated 5000 years ago.  Five or six top cultivar crops that colonized humans just as much we colonized them represent most of agriculture on the planet, with an area equal to that of the Indian subcontinent. And those cultivars that were improved, got better through the painfully slow plant breeding, not through instantaneous genetic manipulations.

Today, much of the Fertile Crescent is a parched desert, most of the fertile soil went to the sea, and salt built everywhere because of irrigation.  Half of all soil in Iraq is dead because of salination. In Egypt this fraction is one-third.  The Central Valley in California is well under way into oblivion, while ground water there is being robbed everywhere and sea water is encroaching on the aquifers along the coast.  Have we learned anything from the Middle East history's wrecks?

One can ask why did agriculture explode around the world just 5000 thousand years ago?  The most plausible answer is that climate on the Earth calmed down sufficiently to allow this to happen.  Earlier climate was too unstable, switching between warm, dry, and ice on a geological dime.  Today the seven billion people on the Earth totally depend on industrial agriculture for their survival.  More than 1/2 of humans today owe their lives to chemistry as nitrogen fertilizer and field chemicals.

The agriculture progress trap is as final for humanity as the nuclear weapons are.  We have become narrowly specialized in obtaining and moving food supplies around the world to keep us alive.  All cities of the world must import vast quantities of food from equally vast areas elsewhere.  We are as finely tuned to the current calm climate as the mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers were to their climate before they went extinct.  Now what if our climate becomes unstable again, and agriculture starts failing at the same time in too many places around the world?  Here I must remind you about chemical entropy generated by us as time progresses.  Regardless of all other causes of climate change, the gigantic volumes of greenhouse gases generated by humans can not be helping in climate stabilization. 

This brings me back to the high rate of hidden inflation, and the increasing poverty and social instability everywhere.  As humans are exploding in numbers thanks to their agriculture and life-saving technologies, the entropy bill for all of this progress also explodes.  This bill appears as depletion of clean air, drinkable water, fertile soil, rich mineral resources, and all other environmental services that keep us alive.  For a while, we have been pretending that finance can replace the physical earth.  Well, it cannot and this impossibility translates itself into the degradation of living conditions everywhere, including the insular America.  We have had an excellent ride and will continue for a while, but in the end time and entropy will win over anything else.

So how many more years do we have without a major war to control the dwindling environmental resources or lebensraum defined by a last century classic? Notice that if this war is for water and food, it cannot be nuclear.  Talk about progress traps.

P.S. Technological complexity is yet another important progress trap described in our book.  BP could not properly handle the complex drilling process for the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, and the resulting environmental disaster cost it 62 billion dollars and counting.  Volkswagen armed its diesel engine cars with millions of lines of computer code to make them more efficient.  But the new engines did not deliver and Volkswagen decided to cheat on emission tests by hiding the much higher GHG gas emissions than those falsified from the sensor readings.  This technological and environmental fiasco might cost Volkswagen 87 billion dollars.  Both companies will emerge broken from their self-inflicted disasters rooted in system complexity and inability of humans to grasp this complexity.

By the way, how is your closest friend, Smart Phone, doing?  It must feel good to caress him/her/it tenderly in your loving hand, doesn't it?

P.S. 01/28/2016.  I just came back from Austin, where driving got so much more miserable that I am glad I don't live there now.  Austin is booming, real estate prices are at an all-time high, and as with exponential growth anywhere no one has any idea how rude the awakening will be because of the obviously prohibitive cost of such growth.  It seems to me that the county and municipal governments there are ideal for the late 19th century settlements, but miserably unimaginative and dumb for a 2-million people strong metropolis century and a half later.