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Updated Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 09:20 AM

In a world of challenges, it's time to look at possibilities | Jon Talton

By Jon Talton
Seattle Times economics columnist

I WAS BORN for apocalypse.

A child of the Cold War, I ducked and covered, watched a grim President Kennedy on television during the Cuban Missile Crisis — when the world came very close to thermonuclear destruction — and always felt an icy stab in my middle when the air-raid sirens were tested every Saturday at noon.

And in my hometown, which didn't get tornadoes or tsunamis, those sirens existed for one reason: To warn of fiery holocaust in 30 minutes or less.

Some precocious children of my generation built primitive computers. I learned everything I could about intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers, fallout, blast waves and the difference between counterforce and counter-value targeting. I could read a Geiger counter at age 7. None of it abated my terror.

This experience helped make me a natural-born worrier. Because things turned out well, it also instilled a certain worry skepticism. After all, if we avoided a very real threat of annihilation by hydrogen bombs, it was difficult to get my pulse up over Y2K or the Mayan calendar.

I have a high bar for doomsday.

These have been difficult years for most Americans: Not just the worst recession since the Great Depression, but evidence that the American promise itself is at risk. We've come through a bitter presidential campaign that illuminated how polarized we have become.

Even so, we didn't suffer a second Great Depression. The economy is healing slowly and actually doing better than Europe and Japan. America remains prosperous and powerful. We are living through the longest period of peace between major nations in centuries. Seattle is booming again and continuing to attract some of the most talented and innovative people in the world.

Yet every minute of every day, if one knows where to look, a fire hose of alarming predictions and information bombards us.

The social critic James Howard Kunstler and Soviet émigré Dmitry Orlov warn that we're headed for societal collapse. "Collapse" was the title of Jared Diamond's cautionary best-seller. A few years ago, Cullen Murphy wrote the book, "Are We Rome?" The "we" being the United States.

A few scary notches down, Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon published a widely discussed paper last year warning that the United States could face prolonged slow growth: We're out of the revolutions that create so many new industries and jobs and face severe "headwinds" in righting ourselves.

And these are serious thinkers, not reality TV's doomsday preppers.

What, us worry?

Take a deep breath:

Debt. Deforestation. Environmental degradation. Financial-market meltdowns. Freak weather events. Food shortages. Geopolitical destabilization. Global unemployment. Governing paralysis. Inequality. Mass migrations. Mideast conflict. Middle-class decline.

Hang with me:

Melting Arctic icecap and glaciers. Nuclear terrorism. Ocean acidification. Overpopulation. Pakistan instability. Peak oil. Permafrost melting. Political extremism. Resource scarcity. Rising temperatures. Sea-level rise. Species extinction. Tropical diseases moving north. Tribalism. War with China.

It almost makes you pine (almost) for the seeming simplicity of two superpowers facing off with thousands of nukes.

Unfortunately, every one of the challenges listed above is real. Some will be the hinge upon which the history of the 21st century turns.

LITTLE OF this was discussed in the presidential debates. Outside of doomsday porn, such as potential asteroid strikes, "bad news" about the real risks facing us is unpopular.

In general, we're a nation with two emotional speeds: Irrational optimism and incapacitating depression. Majorities in much of Red State America are highly mistrustful of science, especially the driver of many of these dangers: Climate change. And they believe an unfettered market will fix the rest.

All around is a condition of crisis fatigue. How far we have come from the optimism of the 1980s and 1990s. How often have I heard people say, "I just can't bear to read the newspaper. It's too depressing."

In little more than a decade, we've been through 9/11, two recessions, two wars, middle-class free-fall and the routine of boarding an airplane turned into an experience similar to being booked into jail.

Better to sublimate our anxieties in the telling zombie craze or ever-present irony.

Nobody knows the future. History does provide a toolbox, of sorts, for understanding the path ahead. It can give plenty of ammunition to skeptics — and cause for hope.

For example, 40 years ago the Club of Rome, an influential think tank, released a report warning that the decline of oil reserves and other resources would severely limit growth. It didn't happen. Nearly two centuries before, the gloomy Rev. Thomas Malthus predicted that overpopulation would make progress impossible. At the time Malthus was writing, the world had one-seventh the number of humans it holds today.

Technology can change the arc of the future. American cities enjoy much cleaner air and water than they did just a few decades ago, thanks to innovations and regulation. The so-called Green Revolution resulted in dramatic increases in food production worldwide, although not without unintended environmental consequences.

Sometimes we muddle through. The United States was able to postpone the Civil War, albeit at a horrendous human cost to those enslaved, for some 30 years after it became clear that the house, to use Lincoln's metaphor, was divided against itself.

We muddled through the Cold War. As with all successful muddling involving big stakes, this also required leadership, wisdom, compromise and luck.

But today's challenges shouldn't be lightly dismissed. Many are backed by much more robust science than that used by the Club of Rome. Americans should be wary of a childlike faith in technology-as-savior.

We should be wary of muddling. We were muddling when the 2001 presidential daily brief stated, "bin-Laden determined to strike in U.S."

It's enough to make a skeptical worrier worry. The 21st century is a different game.

When I gave a speech last November to the Ballard Rotary Club, the very emblem of Main Street respectability, one of the members asked, "When do you think the food riots will begin?" He was not joking.

THE ISSUES and challenges we face are hugely complex. Some of their details are open to debate, and their effects are being felt only slowly in most places. They do not comprise a single doomsday.

But at the core are three things we must address if we want for our grandchildren the better future that our grandparents handed on to us.

First is climate change, the greatest challenge to face humanity. It's real. It's human-caused. It's happening at a faster rate than scientists feared, and will bring astronomical economic and human costs. This is our reality that cares not a whit whether oil-company propaganda or denial dead-enders believe it or not.

Hurricane Sandy, with its unprecedented storm surge into lower Manhattan, was a reminder that climate change will not just affect poor people in the Third World. If we do nothing, if we continue to drill, baby, drill, and dump evermore greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, future generations will attempt to inhabit a planet out of a science-fiction nightmare by the end of the century.

Second is regaining effective self-government in the United States. This challenge goes beyond a partisan divide that is the worst since the eve of the Civil War.

To put it in a non-Seattle-nice way, an oligarchy has taken over our government. The "financial services industry." The Military-Industrial Complex. Big Oil and King Coal. Highly consolidated industries that have created proto-monopolies and cartels.

While it's comforting to see that their hundreds of millions of dollars failed to unseat President Obama, they firmly control Congress and most state legislatures. They heavily influence regulation and the courts, gaming the system for their benefit and calling it "the free market."

Third, we must get the world economy growing again. Prosperous nations tend not to go to war with each other (a big exception happened nearly a century ago) or see civil unrest. This, along with unseating the oligarchs, is important to rebuilding the American middle class and closing historic income inequality.

But it is also critical for developing nations. Look at any image of global conflict on the television and you're likely to see a mob of hopeless, unemployed young men. Last year, the United Nations estimated that 202 million people worldwide were unemployed. In addition, rising prosperity usually empowers women. Better-off nations have lower birthrates.

THIS IS the point in a magazine article where the writer is expected to lay out solutions. I'm not sure that's realistic.

Not that we lack for sound policy suggestions. On climate change, for example, we could institute a carbon tax, rebuild our passenger rail system, begin a "Manhattan Project" on clean energy and expand transit where demand is high or promising.

Intelligent responses, if not "solutions," exist for every challenge we face.

But the status quo is strong. Its supporters aren't confined to a moneyed elite. The average American isn't yet willing to contemplate how to make different living arrangements for a truly sustainable future. The very word "sustainability" has been hijacked to mean spending big sums to preserve the unsustainable.

Meanwhile, President Obama, contrary to the caricature of the right, is a cautious, small-c conservative, unlikely to lead bold change. Thus far, he hasn't even had a serious conversation with the American people about necessary transitions that might require lead times of 15 years or more. One of our fundamental problems: Our leaders won't tell us the truth.

Excuses are legion: China won't reduce its greenhouse gases, so why should we, especially in a hurting economy? I would argue that if America truly is exceptional, this is the moment to show it. We emit huge amounts of carbon on our own, and leaping ahead on clean tech and conservation would be a beacon to the world.

On the most basic level, social customs change slowly. A reset of this magnitude could take a generation or more. And indeed, college-educated young people are flocking to quality city cores and shunning automobiles — a sea change, perhaps, but only a start.

Unfortunately, we don't have that time on climate change. Some climate scientists say our window to head off the worst consequences is five years. Yet most of what we hear or read is about extracting and burning more fossil fuels, which in fact are only safe for the climate if left in the ground.

So I'm worrying again, and not the immature panic of a duck-and-cover child.

"WE NEED TO be the change we wish to see in the world." Gandhi probably didn't actually say that, but it's a good sentiment. Even when circumstances seem overwhelming, individuals can vote, become involved, learn and talk to their neighbor. Plant a tree.

Seeing what I call the Great Disruption coming, I chose Seattle five years ago as a safer harbor than most in America. Among other things, it offered a literate population, environmental ethic, culture, transportation choices, civic stewards and a vibrant downtown and city neighborhoods. It is a "we society."

I live in Belltown and don't need a car. My Walk Score is 97, and my Transit Score is 100. I can take trains to Portland, San Francisco, Vancouver or Chicago. The downtown retail district and Pike Place Market are close by. I shop with local companies and buy the produce of Washington farmers. I write about the uncomfortable reality confronting us.

This is not moral greatness, and I don't claim all the answers. It is one person's attempt to do something for a better future.

Others may see their true north elsewhere. Across the country, people are working and living in ways to address the storms ahead.

My younger worrier roots remind me of the power of individuals.

In 1983, during one of the tensest moments of the Cold War, a Soviet early warning center detected an incoming American missile. This might well have caused the Soviet Union to launch its own missiles against the United States before they could be destroyed in their silos.

At no small professional risk, the duty officer at the command center, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, decided it must be a false alarm and didn't sound a general alert.

We're here today because of Petrov's good judgment.

Let's hope people alive in the decades ahead might say the same about us.

Jon Talton is the economics columnist of The Seattle Times. His next novel, "The Night Detectives," is due in May. Tom Reese is a Seattle freelance photographer.

Focus on the Future

In the coming months, look for stories that examine where we go from here as a region and a nation.


PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY TOM REESE




PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY TOM REESE




PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY TOM REESE




PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY TOM REESE




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