Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

21 October 2020

Tipping Points


For brief descriptions of and links to recent posts, click here. For an inverse-chronological list with links to all posts after January 23, 2017, click here. For a subject-matter index to posts before that date, click here.

    “At cusp, choice is. With choice, spirit grows.”—Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).
Global warming
Mass extinction
The pandemic
Gender awakening
Nondiscrimination
Conclusion

Human life has many tipping points. All in unison, they are rising to meet us now—a phalanx of phantoms challenging us to tip in the right direction before it’s too late.

There’s a tipping point in global warming, past which our planet’s climate may become unrecognizable and partly uninhabitable. There’s a tipping point in global biology. Past it, our current “Holocene” geological period could slide into a mass extinction caused not by a big meteor, but by our own species’ acts. There’s a tipping point in fighting the pandemic, past which it can rage unchecked, at least until the next tipping point. As I write this, the United States is entering the third such tipping point.

There’s a tipping point in gender relations. Tip one way, and our “weaker” sex goads us to get more cooperative and civilized. Tip the other, and we slide down toward the sort of macho male tyranny that has dumped every human civilization, so far, into history’s dustbin. In the nuclear age, that slide could end in self-extinction, as almost happened once already, in 1962.

There’s a tipping point in humanity. Tip one way, and our nation’s “prime directive” of nondiscrimination gets more real. Tip the other, and we Americans slide further down our present slippery slope toward split-up or national self-destruction.

With differing time scales, all these tipping points are at issue in our presidential election. The choice, if not the actual direction to tip, is just two weeks away. Let’s analyze.

Global warming. The tipping point here is real and ominous. We just don’t know precisely when it will come.

The cause is a phenomenon well-known to scientists and engineers: positive feedback. Melting ice removes a big heat sink: it takes eighty times the energy to melt ice as to raise the resulting water’s temperature a single degree Centigrade. Once the melting has happened, the heating accelerates. Melting ice also reduces our planet’s reflectivity (albedo), causing solar radiation to heat us more quickly. Melting permafrost releases methane from ancient decayed forests into our atmosphere, with a greenhouse effect over twenty times that of carbon dioxide. Warming oceans cause deep-sea methane hydrates to dissociate, also releasing methane.

All these phenomena are real and happening. We just don’t know exactly how fast. Positive feedback is nonlinear, like the “amplifier screech” that comes too fast even to cover your ears.

We can measure melting ice with satellite photos. But the rest we can only guess at. Our planet is a huge, complex place. Nearly all the permafrost is in sparsely populated areas that are hard to reach and even harder to work in. And the deep-sea methane hydrates are in the least accessible and least-studied places on our planet—the deep oceans. We may be able to reach every part of the Earth’s surface, but there are still many important parts we just don’t know.

Our scientists are ever cautious, ever humble. They don’t speak unless and until they have good measurements. But measurements of the effects of feedback—global average temperatures rising—all show an exponential rise. And recent experience confirms it.

The unknown is not the exponential rise, but the exponent. Analogies are scary. A similar vicious cycle of carbon-dioxide and methane release—this one triggered by nature, not human causes—may have ended the last ice age with a 30 degree Fahrenheit rise in global average temperature, in mere decades.

We don’t yet know when, whether and precisely how that might happen to us. But it’s entirely possible. Yet this time it’s not volcanoes and other geological forces that are the trigger: it’s stuff under our collective control. This time we have time, but not much, to choose which way to tip.

Mass extinction. You can learn all about the coming mass extinction in a recent Netflix film by David Attenborough, the British explorer, naturalist and public intellectual. He’s 93 years old, and he published the film as his life’s “witness statement.” It documents the coming mass extinction of species that our own species is starting to cause even now.

The mass extinction is deeply intertwined with global warming as cause and effect. But our profligate burning of fossil fuels is only one of many causes. There are also the destruction of habitat, the razing of forests, the draining of wetlands, the exhaustion of surface water, poisoning by pesticide and herbicide, and the positive feedback of these and other phenomena on global warming.

Then there are subtler adverse effects. One is replacing the glorious diversity of nature with the monocultures of plants and animals that we grow to eat. Here the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-nineteenth century is instructive: a monoculture of potatoes for food decimated Ireland, causing a famine and a mass exodus, after a lowly potato-killing fungus struck.

As the Irish Potato Famine shows, the coming human-caused mass extinction could affect us. Some—even many—of us might survive. But our biosphere would be irreplaceably less diverse, nutritious, resilient to shocks of climate and disease, and glorious.

A world with nothing but us, wheat, rice, beans, cattle, chickens, pigs and edible fish would be a sordid and dreary planet. But that’s precisely where we’re headed if we don’t turn back soon.

The pandemic. By now, the trend is crystal clear. The most disciplined cultures are beating the disease: China, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea—even tiny New Zealand. The “freer” cultures are lagging, even Britain, France and Spain. The most macho cultures—Brazil, the US, and Mexico—are doing the worst of all.

The reasons are also clear. We have no cure. We have no vaccine. Some drugs help keep sick people from dying or shorten their hospital stays and delay their deaths. That’s all.

So the only way we can fight the pandemic now is with common-sense practical measures. They include Tom Frieden’s “three Ws”: wear a mask, watch your distance from others, and wash your hands. Each step requires discipline. Yet discipline is in short supply in cultures where “freedom” approaches license and often devolves into anarchy.

What about coordination and cooperation?

Once, as a seismologist, I had to remove salamanders from a cave containing a delicate instrument. My technician and I had only a bucket at hand. So we loaded the salamanders into the bucket and carried them outside, bucket by bucket, trying not to hurt them in the process.

Whether through temperature or temperament, the salamanders stayed passive during this process. They didn’t run. They just crawled slowly over each other, trying to rise to the top of the bucket and out. Occasionally, when hurt, one cried out.

While watching our nation respond to the pandemic, I thought of those salamanders. I thought of them as our fifty states crawled over each other to procure PPE, test kits and ventilators. I thought of them again as private companies crawled over each other to hawk their research projects and their incipient drugs—not just to fight a deadly disease in concert and save their neighbors, but for profit. Sometimes I also recalled that marvelous chorus from Handel’s “Messiah,” the one whose text is “We, like sheep, have gone astray -ay -ay, every one to his own way.”

None of what we need right now is rocket science. It’s not even advanced medicine or biology. While we wait for advanced science to take the time to do things right, what we need is simple discipline to follow through with practical measures. We need leadership, and we need people willing to follow a good leader.

Of all the tipping points in this essay, this is by far the easiest one to tip right. But it will take more than just electing Joe Biden. It’ll take a national epiphany.

We don’t need premature “herd immunity,” which the experts tell us will take half a million deaths to achieve. We just need to understand that this is not a political game, and that we are all in it together. It really is that simple: are we a nation, or are we salamanders in a bucket?

Gender awakening. Not all tipping points threaten catastrophe. Some promise progress or enlightenment. Our gender awakening is one of those.

Last Sunday the New York Times devoted its entire Sunday Review to the case against Donald Trump. Under the heading of “End Our National Crisis,” the Times’ Editorial Board catalogued Trump’s feats of corruption, lawbreaking, norm-breaking, incompetence, malfeasance, obstruction, treason, vengeance and retaliation. Although at much greater length, the enumeration resembled the “whereases” in our Declaration of Independence, which recited the sins of King George III against American colonists. It was the first time that the venerable “gray lady” of journalism had published anything of the like about a sitting president.

Funny thing about that. If it weren’t for women—if it weren’t for our huge and growing “gender gap”—Trump would most likely win again. He might go right on doing what he’s been doing, with even less discipline and greater abandon. After almost precisely a century, women’s suffrage may be our best or only bulwark against tyranny and losing our Republic.

Why now? Why not sooner? Why did it take a-near collapse of decency, competence and democracy, plus 215,000 unnecessary deaths (and counting), with much more of the same on offer, to bring our women into their own politically? Why does Angela Merkel’s Germany just now lead the world in national contrition for past atrocities and practical solutions to global warming (with Germany’s globe-leading “Energiewende”)? Did it take the horrors of history’s most terrible aggression and most devastating loss, plus the Holocaust, for Germany to recognize the virtues of our “weaker sex”?

Today testosterone, not enriched uranium, is the most dangerous substance in the Universe. It promotes aggression and risk taking. On the African savannah of our species’ birthplace, those were important attributes. They let the strongest male and the strongest tribe survive to pass on their genes. They led, ultimately, to our species’ domination of our small planet.

But what now? We humans have outrun our biological evolution. The things that most threaten us are not things that aggression and risk-taking can solve. To face global warming, mass extinction, nuclear proliferation, and the worst (so far) in a chain of modern pandemics, we need cooperation, empathy, solidarity, and good planning.

Although not exclusively, those are largely female traits. So the rise of female leaders is no longer just a matter of equality and equal treatment: it’s a subconscious recognition among our entire species that female attributes have survival value, now more than ever before.

Our much faster social evolution must adopt those values at warp speed if we are to survive and preserve the biosphere in which we evolved biologically. More to the point, the immediate survival of American democracy, and perhaps of democracy globally, depends on female leadership and female awakening. It depends on women awakening to their power and their duty to their species and on men awakening to their value as leaders.

That awakening may become a tipping point in the dismal story of incessant human conflict and resulting misery. It can’t happen fast enough.

Nondiscrimination. Another tipping point with positive effect involves our national credo. That’s the simple notion that we should treat all our species equally.

This notion is truly revolutionary. It directly contravenes our biological evolution, which involved small tribes and clans fighting on the African savannah. With few important exceptions—our Civil War, for one—every war in human history has been a tribal conflict. Every genocide or attempted genocide, including the Holocaust and the genocides in Armenia and Rwanda, has been a tribal atrocity.

As our weapons and technology reach toward self-extinction, the part of our biological evolution in which clans fought each other for territory, food and females to procreate has outlived its usefulness. It threatens to destroy us now.

Why is the United States the “shining city on the hill” and a super-magnet for immigrants? Sure, it’s big, relatively new and powerful. But why aren’t global migrants now flocking to China, which is bigger, nearly as powerful and rising more rapidly? Maybe it’s because the Chinese, like the fictional Borg, don’t respect minorities but try to “assimilate” them by force and cultural domination.

The US’ secret of success is different and very, very simple. We’re the first nation to make forsaking tribalism a national policy and to put it in writing.

Our Civil War was practically unique in human history. It was a major war within a tribe, of mostly Anglo-Saxon whites, to recognize another tribe, that of Black slaves, as equal human beings. It was a war to end tribalism in the form of extreme racism.

Along with our War of Independence, which was also an intra-tribal war, our Civil War was fought almost entirely on our own territory. Even today, with World War II and Vietnam fading in our rear-view mirror, combat deaths in our Civil War are comparable in number to those of all our other wars put together. We Americans have literally bled for equality.

But that’s not all. Following our American penchant for putting things in writing, we did so with our rejection of tribalism after our Civil War. We adopted our Fourteenth Amendment in 1866, shortly after the Civil War, and ratified it in 1868. Its Section 1 reads in part as follows: “No state shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The phrase “any person” is very broad. It contrasts with a more limited reference to “citizens” in preceding clauses. It’s broad enough to exclude every limitation by tribe. (Note that our Senate’s official summary is simply wrong on this point. Whether this is an honest mistake or Republican propaganda I leave to the reader to decide.)

So our Fourteenth Amendment—enacted as a result of our most horrific war—is a commandment not to discriminate. Full stop. Its text is broad enough to abjure discrimination not only on the basis of race, but also on the basis of gender, national origin, religion, and sexual preference or identity. It is our national credo. Its promise and its mere partial realization are what keeps migrants coming to us, despite all the horrors and lawlessness that Trump can throw at them.

Unfortunately, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Even the letter of our supreme law doesn’t always make it into practice. One Founder wrote that “all men are created equal” but owned slaves. Apparently he didn’t see females as worthy of equal treatment.

So we have spent the last century and a half drifting and backsliding. Except for Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights laws and the election President Obama, we have let the Old South’s “lost cause” myth beguile us. We still have an east coast highway named after Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s traitorous president. We still have monuments to traitors who fought to break up the Union so they could keep slaves. And we still have police who treat—and even kill—Black citizens as if they were slaves.

Does Germany have avenues labeled “Adolf Hitler Strasse”? It did, but as far as I can tell from a quick Google search, they all have new names. Their signs are museum pieces and memorabilia. So modern Germany seems to have done, in less than eighty years, what we Americans have failed to complete in over 150—throw out the symbols of tribalism and expunge the vestiges of discrimination.

Yet our own awakening has begun. It started with the Women’s March in 2017, reportedly one of the biggest mass demonstrations in US history (and also third biggest in global history). It exploded after the murder of George Floyd, following a dozen earlier unjustified killings. The resulting demonstrations, which included millions of outraged white people, show a universal urge to make our national credo real. Truly, it is time.

Conclusion. Body surfers know about timing. You stand or float in the water, facing offshore, watching and waiting. If you’re too late to swim furiously, the wave will pass you by. If you catch it badly, a roller may flip you over, pummel you, and hold you down on the sea bottom until the force of its crashing subsides. But if you catch it just right—even a roller—you can enjoy the drop down just ahead of its might. Then you can ride the “soup” all the way to shore. Timing is everything.

Our tipping points all have different time scales, wildly different causes, and different menaces and/or opportunities. But they all have one thing in common: they all come to a head in the narcissism, obstinacy, ignorance, incompetence, hate and lunacy of one man: Donald Trump. Defeating him decisively will not stop the tipping. But it’s the right time to catch the wave of revulsion against him so we can all do what’s right.

Republicans are clever. Just like Donald Trump, they’re out for themselves. But they’ll tell you—with an oh-so-serious face—that cutting their taxes will get you jobs. They’ll say that cutting the rules that make your workplace, food and drugs safe and your air, water, and soil clean will make everybody better off. They’ll tell you that throwing Obamacare away will be good for you, and that they’ll insure your pre-existing conditions some time, some way, in the great by-and-by.

They’ll tell you, just like Trump, that they’ll make America great again and bring your old jobs back. But they haven’t and they won’t. They waved the flag and blandished promises of infrastructure building, which can’t be done in China or Mexico and could bring good jobs back home. But then they spent the infrastructure money on tax breaks for themselves and stock buybacks for their corporations, throwing a few pre-gnawed bones to working families as “proof” of their sincerity. Their promise of infrastructure building remains unfulfilled and even unplanned.

They even built private media empires to propagandize workers. They made workers pay to be propagandized, through advertising that increases the prices of what workers buy. They put on blowhards like Rush and Tucker to entertain workers while brainwashing them. And they’ll shake workers down for every penny in their pockets, their kids’ pockets, and their grandkids’ pockets.

They’ve done this for forty years, making greed a national value. And they’re much better at being greedy and sneaky than the average worker.

But this time they overreached. This time, they put up and stood behind the crookedest, greediest, most corrupt, meanest, craziest, most bigoted and dumbest national capo in our entire history.

While trying to boost “his” stock market, he downplayed the pandemic. In the process, he helped kill 215,000 of us and counting. He has yet to show us any way out but letting the disease rip. Yet when he got the plague himself, he took a cocktail of experimental cures that only he could get. Meanwhile, he has cursed, insulted and belittled almost everyone who isn’t a white, male Christian from Norway, or who hasn’t swallowed his excrement whole.

The resulting wave of revulsion, disgust and outrage can take them all down.

We don’t want to miss that wave. We don’t want to stand in the receding, polluted water, waiting and hoping for another wave to take us home. We want to ride this wave all the way to shore, where we can face our physical challenges, invest in our women’s wisdom, fairness and sense of decency, and make our national credo real at last. The only way to do that is for everyone who can to vote for Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and every Democrat as if life, livelihood, liberty, equality, and our species’ future depended on it. They do.

Endnote: the Breadth of American Equality. There has been some controversy. about our Fourteenth Amendment, but its language is crystal clear. Here is the entire text of its key Section 1:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
The last clause, prohibiting discrimination by any state, applies to “any person within its jurisdiction.” Its coverage is self-evidently broader than “citizens” as defined in the first clause and protected in the second. There is no hint at any limitation, other than being human and within a state’s legal power.

This is where “textualists” ought to diverge from “originalists.” A strict textualist ought to be conscious of the drafters’ care with language. Since the phrase “any person” contains no hint of limitation by race, gender, national origin, religion or sexual preference or identity, a strict textualist ought to conclude that the Fourteenth Amendment protects everyone from discrimination under state law.

An “originalist” like the late Justice Scalia and Judge Barrett might say that’s not what the Fourteenth Amendment’s drafters “intended.” Their target, like that of the Civil War, was race alone. But that’s not what they wrote, and that’s not what Congress passed and three-fourths of the States ratified. As the rest of Section 1 suggests, the drafters were perfectly capable of writing “a person of any race” instead of “any person within its jurisdiction.” But they didn’t. (Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment, an apparently toothless attempt to reduce representation by the proportion of freed male slaves deprived of their franchises, did, by implication, limit voting rights to males, as was customary at that time, long before women’s suffrage.)

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