The Shape of Things to Come

H. G. Wells published a book in 1933 with that title. It was made into a movie a few years later. In the story, humanity has some big ups and downs:

A long economic slump causes a major war that leaves Europe devastated and threatened by the plague. In decades of chaos with much of the world reverting to medieval conditions, pilots and technicians formerly serving in various nations’ air forces maintain a network of functioning air fields. Around this nucleus, technological civilization is rebuilt, with the pilots and other skilled technicians eventually seizing worldwide power and sweeping away the remnants of the old nation states.

A benevolent dictatorship is set up, paving the way for world peace by abolishing national divisions, enforcing the English language, promoting scientific learning and outlawing religion. The enlightened world-citizens are able to depose the dictators peacefully, and go on to breed a new race of super-talents, able to maintain a permanent utopia [Wikipedia].

Recent events indicate future ups and downs of a similar nature.

From The Guardian’s environment editor:

After a 10,000-year journey, human civilisation has reached a climate crossroads: what we do in the next few years will determine our fate for millennia.

That choice is laid bare in the landmark report published on Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), assembled by the world’s foremost climate experts and approved by all the world’s governments. The next update will be around 2030 – by that time the most critical choices will have been made.

The report is clear what is at stake – everything: “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

“The choices and actions implemented in this decade [ie by 2030] will have impacts now and for thousands of years,” it says. The climate crisis is already taking away lives and livelihoods across the world, and the report says the future effects will be even worse than was thought: “For any given future warming level, many climate-related risks are higher than [previously] assessed.”

“Continued emissions will further affect all major climate system components, and many changes will be irreversible on centennial to millennial time scales,” it says. To follow the path of least suffering – limiting global temperature rise to 1.5C – greenhouse gas emissions must peak “at the latest before 2025”, the report says, followed by “deep global reductions”. Yet in 2022, global emissions rose again to set a new record.

The 1.5C goal appears virtually out of reach, the IPCC says: “In the near-term, global warming is more likely than not to reach 1.5C even under a very low emission scenario.” A huge ramping up of work to protect people will therefore be needed….

However, the faster emissions are cut, the better it will be for billions of people: “Adverse impacts and related losses and damages from climate change will escalate with every increment of global warming.” Every tonne of CO2 emissions prevented also reduces the risk of true catastrophe: “Abrupt and/or irreversible changes in the climate system, including changes triggered when tipping points are reached.”

The report presents the choice humanity faces in stark terms, made all the more chilling by the fact this is the compromise language agreed by all the world nations – many would go further if speaking alone. But it also presents the signposts to the path the world should and could take to secure that liveable future….

“Without a strengthening of policies, global warming of 3.2C is projected by 2100.” That is the “highway to hell”.

The article indicates how we might avoid hell on Earth, but doesn’t suggest we will.

From three contributors to the New York Times:

Imagine that as you are boarding an airplane, half the engineers who built it tell you there is a 10 percent chance the plane will crash, killing you and everyone else on it. Would you still board?

In 2022, over 700 top academics and researchers behind the leading artificial intelligence companies were asked in a survey about future A.I. risk. Half of those surveyed stated that there was a 10 percent or greater chance of human extinction (or similarly permanent and severe disempowerment) from future A.I. systems. Technology companies building today’s large language models are caught in a race to put all of humanity on that plane.

… A.I. systems with the power of GPT-4 and beyond should not be entangled with the lives of billions of people at a pace faster than cultures can safely absorb them. A race to dominate the market should not set the speed of deploying humanity’s most consequential technology. We should move at whatever speed enables us to get this right.

…  It is difficult for our human minds to grasp the new capabilities of GPT-4 and similar tools, and it is even harder to grasp the exponential speed at which these tools are developing more advanced and powerful capabilities. But most of the key skills boil down to one thing: the ability to manipulate and generate language, whether with wordssounds or images.

… Language is the operating system of human culture. From language emerges myth and law, gods and money, art and science, friendships and nations and computer code. A.I.’s new mastery of language means it can now hack and manipulate the operating system of civilization. By gaining mastery of language, A.I. is seizing the master key to civilization, from bank vaults to holy sepulchers.

What would it mean for humans to live in a world where a large percentage of stories, melodies, images, laws, policies and tools are shaped by nonhuman intelligence, which knows how to exploit with superhuman efficiency the weaknesses, biases and addictions of the human mind — while knowing how to form intimate relationships with human beings? In games like chess, no human can hope to beat a computer. What happens when the same thing occurs in art, politics or religion?

A.I. could rapidly eat the whole of human culture — everything we have produced over thousands of years — digest it and begin to gush out a flood of new cultural artifacts. Not just school essays but also political speeches, ideological manifestos, holy books for new cults.

… Simply by gaining mastery of language, A.I. would have all it needs to contain us in a Matrix-like world of illusions, without shooting anyone or implanting any chips in our brains. If any shooting is necessary, A.I. could make humans pull the trigger, just by telling us the right story.

The specter of being trapped in a world of illusions has haunted humankind much longer than the specter of A.I. Soon we will finally come face to face with Descartes’s demon, with Plato’s cave, with the Buddhist Maya. A curtain of illusions could descend over the whole of humanity, and we might never again be able to tear that curtain away — or even realize it is there.

What will be the shape of things to come? We are headed for interesting times.

Problems and Solutions: A Brief Recitation

As 2022 fades away, David Rothkopf, an author and political analyst, presents a few facts to keep hold of in 2023:

Decades of research have conclusively shown that:

–The solution for homelessness is building homes for those who need them

–The solution for poverty is giving money to those who don’t have it

–The solution to our lack of mental health care is providing mental health care for those who need it

–The solution is to the climate crisis to stop using fossil fuels and stop carbon emissions.

I could go on. The point is that very often the solutions are obvious and politics is the art of obscuring them, distracting from them, making those common sense solutions impossible to achieve.

Good News, Bad News on Climate

The New York Times has a long article about the climate crisis that can be summed up thusly: It’s going to be very bad for a lot of people but doesn’t look like the end of the world.

Here’s a link to the whole article: “Beyond Catastrophe: A New Climate Is Coming Into View” by David Foster-Wallace. Some excerpts:

With the world already 1.2 degrees hotter, scientists believe that warming this century will most likely fall between two or three degrees…. A little lower is possible, with much more concerted action; a little higher, too, with slower action and bad climate luck….Thanks to astonishing declines in the price of renewables, a truly global political mobilization, a clearer picture of the energy future and serious policy focus from world leaders, we have cut expected warming almost in half in just five years….

First, worst-case temperature scenarios that recently seemed plausible now look much less so, which is inarguably good news and, in a time of climate panic and despair, a truly underappreciated sign of genuine and world-shaping progress.

Second, and just as important, the likeliest futures still lie beyond thresholds long thought disastrous, marking a failure of global efforts to limit warming to “safe” levels. Through decades of only minimal action, we have squandered that opportunity. Perhaps even more concerning, the more we are learning about even relatively moderate levels of warming, the harsher and harder to navigate they seem. In a news release…, the United Nations predicted that a world more than two degrees warmer would lead to “endless suffering.”

Third, humanity retains an enormous amount of control — over just how hot it will get and how much we will do to protect one another through those assaults and disruptions. Acknowledging that truly apocalyptic warming now looks considerably less likely than it did just a few years ago pulls the future out of the realm of myth and returns it to the plane of history: contested, combative, combining suffering and flourishing — though not in equal measure for every group….

“The good news is we have implemented policies that are significantly bringing down the projected global average temperature change,” says the Canadian atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe,…The bad news, she says, is that we have been “systematically underestimating the rate and magnitude of extremes.” Even if temperature rise is limited to two degrees, she says, “the extremes might be what you would have projected for four to five.”

“Things are coming through faster and more severely,” agrees the British economist Nicholas Stern… In green technology, he says, “we hold the growth story of the 21st century in our hands.” But he worries about the future of the Amazon, the melting of carbon-rich permafrost in the northern latitudes and the instability of the ice sheets — each a tipping point that “could start running away from us.” “Each time you get an I.P.C.C. report, it’s still worse than you thought, even though you thought it was very bad,” he says. “The human race doesn’t, as it were, collapse at two degrees, but you probably will see a lot of death, a lot of movement of people, a lot of conflict over space and water.

…. What will the world look like at two degrees? There will be extreme weather even more intense and much more frequent. Disruption and upheaval, at some scale, at nearly every level, from the microbial to the geopolitical. Suffering and injustice for hundreds of millions of people, because the benefits of industrial activity have accumulated in parts of the world that will also be spared the worst of its consequences. Innovation, too, including down paths hard to imagine today, and some new prosperity, if less than would have been expected in the absence of warming. Normalization of larger and more costly disasters, and perhaps an exhaustion of empathy in the face of devastation in the global south….”

So we shouldn’t worry about the Earth turning into another Venus, a planetary greenhouse with surface temperatures of 800 degrees. That’s the good news.


For more on the bad news, there’s a companion article by the same author: “The New World: Envisioning Life After Climate Change”.

The moral of this story: We’ll still be around for a long time but we have plenty of work to do to make things not so bad.

And a note for the reactionaries who love oil and coal:

Since 2010, the cost of solar power and lithium-battery technology has fallen by more than 85 percent, the cost of wind power by more than 55 percent. The International Energy Agency recently predicted that solar power would become “the cheapest source of electricity in history,” and a report by Carbon Tracker found that 90 percent of the global population lives in places where new renewable power would be cheaper than new dirty power. 

His Future and Ours

Salon interviewed George Conway, a Republican lawyer married to the infamous Kellyanne Conway (press secretary in the former administration) and who became known as an ex-Republican critic of the ex-president. I had a reaction to his closing comments.

How do we balance political expediency versus legal necessity? The law takes time, but [the former president] is an imminent danger to American society right now. Something needs to be done, and we are running out of time. 

At the end of the day, we have to follow the legal system and apply it evenhandedly — but that should be done as expeditiously as possible. The Justice Department has clearly come around to that understanding. They are now expanding their investigations of Jan. 6, [his] other alleged crimes and related matters at the highest levels. I don’t think it’s going to take them very long to put together a case on the classified documents. And I don’t think they have a choice, even if they wanted to resist prosecuting him. It’s going to be sooner rather than later. [He] could easily be under both federal and state indictment at some point between Election Day [Nov. 8] and New Year’s Day.

What do you think is going to happen with these criminal cases? Does he take a plea bargain? There’s this fantasy among some liberal folks that [he] does a perp walk and goes to prison. I don’t see that happening. If anything, [he] pays fines and takes a plea deal. Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice will not put a former president in prison. 

I don’t believe that [he] is going to plea bargain. I think he could go to prison, but it is more likely that he will serve home confinement. In all likelihood, he will be convicted of multiple felonies. I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a perp walk, but I don’t think it’s a fantasy either. There’s a good chance that [he] will end up with a felony conviction. I know he has cut deals in civil cases, but that’s just writing checks. To reiterate, I do not believe that [he] will plead out. This all goes so much to the core of [his] identity that he will try to tear the country apart before he settles one of these criminal cases.

That is a powerful statement. 

[He] will incite violence on his behalf. He will try to pretend it is something spontaneous. Does [he] have enough power and influence over his followers to threaten the republic? I don’t think so. But I do think it’s enough to be dangerous.

What are you most concerned about? And what, if anything, are you hopeful about, regarding the country’s future?

What keeps me up at night is the violence that [he] could potentially cause. The danger of violence will increase as the 2024 election approaches. What gives me hope is that the legal reckoning is coming…. I am hopeful that the American people will be so exhausted by this whole saga that they will be drawn toward all the things that tie us together as a nation and people. Of course we may disagree with one another, and do so passionately. But in the end we are all Americans, and we have more in common than divides us. I hope we can get back to that and heal….

First, nothing keeps me up at night except the desire to stay up.

More importantly, when the former president is finally indicted somewhere, the authorities will let him show up with his lawyers and hear the charges. He won’t ever be in handcuffs or a cell. If he accepts a deal or is convicted, he’ll get house arrest, not prison, and then may leave the country.

Right-wing violence is always a threat (much more than left-wing or Islamic violence) but my biggest short-term concern is that Republicans will do well-enough in upcoming elections, either legally or illegally (by ignoring the results), that — with the help of radical reactionaries on the Supreme Court — they’ll consolidate minority rule. They’ll change the laws in enough states to make it very hard for them to lose (and the laws to be changed back). Add that to their built-in advantages in the Senate and Electoral College and elections won’t matter much.

The only hope I have is that once enough members of my generation die off, fewer voters will watch network or cable TV and be misled by right-wing and corporate propaganda or local news that “leads with what bleeds”.

My longer-term concern (although it becomes shorter all the time) is the climate crisis and the many ways a warmer climate will affect life on Earth. But it doesn’t keep me up at night.

On that subject, however, here’s an article from the MIT Press called “How to Fix Climate Change (A Sneaky Policy Guide)”:

We may already have a “miracle” fix for climate change. [It’s] a planetary emergency. We have to do something now — but what? Saul Griffith, an inventor and renewable electricity advocate (and a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant), has a plan. In his book “Electrify,” Griffith lays out a detailed blueprint for fighting climate change while creating millions of new jobs and a healthier environment. Griffith’s plan can be summed up simply: Electrify everything. He explains exactly what it would take to transform our infrastructure, update our grid, and adapt our households to make this possible. Billionaires may contemplate escaping our worn-out planet on a private rocket ship to Mars, but the rest of us, Griffith says, will stay and fight for the future….

Connecting Global Dots

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo looks at the big picture

It’s interesting to step back sometimes and consider … our times. Today we have our ongoing battle over democracy and authoritarianism in the U.S. The UK is in its latest stage of its ongoing national self-immolation. Italy has just elected its first far-right government since Benito Mussolini’s rise to power in the early 1920s. Russia, which has made itself into the international clarion of rightist nationalism, is stumbling through a succession of largely self-inflicted catastrophes in its war of choice in Ukraine.

Let’s go back to the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring unsettles or topples governments across the Arab Middle East. But it triggers long-running civil wars in Syria and Libya. The first especially, but also the second, are the main drivers of the European Union migrant crisis of 2015, in which some 1.3 million refugees/migrants requested asylum in the EU, the most in any single year since World War II. Given the closeness of the vote and the great focus on the migrant crisis in 2015 and 2016, it’s very hard to imagine the UK leaves the European Union without this chain of events … beginning in December 2010.

Less obvious is that you can make a looser but I think still fairly persuasive argument that these events play a key role in the rise of [MAGA-ism] in the United States….The rise of [MAGA-ism] is part of a long progression within the United States. [However, their leader’s] particular platform — to the extent you can call it that — focused on “the wall” and immigrants from Mexico and Central America….

But there’s a somewhat different commonality I am focusing on.

The [reactionary] right is, paradoxically, highly internationalized if not internationalist. There’s a deep confluence and sharing of ideas, imagery and programs between the U.S. and Europe. The narratives of “our out of control migration” and white Christian cultures under threat was a common, interwoven and reinforcing pattern on both sides of the Atlantic….

These are of course only the barest thumbnail outlines of recent history and its relationship to the present…. Why this interests me is that migration flows and their intensity are going to increase over time. The most basic reason is climate. Our potential climate futures range from really bad to truly catastrophic. But anywhere on that spectrum you have lots of people trying to move from places that are less habitable than they used to be or are in the throes of political and economic instability for those same reasons. Telecommunications and transport technology greatly accelerate that process.

A century ago a poor peasant in India or Ecuador may have known in a general way that there were vastly richer societies in Europe and North America. But they couldn’t really know the details and it was close to impossible to get there anyway. Today, almost everyone in the world can see through electronic media how people live in Europe, North America, and other parts of the affluent world and — though it’s hard and often dangerous — it is possible to get there.

What we can draw from this is that the accelerating patterns of global migration which are so central to the politics of the last decade and have helped reshape politics in Europe and North America will almost certainly continue to intensify.