Tuesday, January 19, 2010

How Is America Going to End?

In August 2009 Slate Magazine conducted a weeklong thought experiment on the United States' demise. Josh Levin was listed as the author. The study was composed of several articles during the week, a survey of readers, and some analysis of the survey data. The survey consisted of 144 scenarios of how America could end drawn from research done by Levin. Participants were asked to read brief descriptions of the 144 scenarios and to select the five scenarios they believe will contribute to the country's dissolution, then find out instantly what kind of death scene they’ve envisioned—a bloodbath or a nonviolent end, an end wrought by man or by nature—and compare their choices with those of other Slate readers.

The articles covered the topics of:

Climate Change - We could be crushed by a climate strongman. Levin writes, “In a Weekly Standard piece on ‘The Icarus Syndrome,’ Jim Manzi notes the parallels between Britain's 1860s ‘Coal Panic’ and the modern disaster scenarios of peak oil and climate doom.” He continues, “Manzi argues that, given the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimate of a 3-degree increase in global temperature by 2100, ‘the United States is expected to experience no net material economic costs [from anthropogenic global warming] … through the end of this century.’ At the other extreme is the specter of swift weather cataclysm. Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall, who wrote a brief on ‘abrupt climate change’ for the Department of Defense, argue that climate chaos will be nonlinear—that ‘clear signs of environmental catastrophe will be evident in a few decades, not centuries’."

Preservation of Civilization - The Catholic Church helped preserve Roman civilization. Can Mormonism do the same for America? Levin comments, “When America disappears 100 or 500 or 1,000 years from now, it will be gone but not forgotten. As the world's leading military, economic, and cultural power since World War II, the United States will linger in the global gene pool and influence whatever comes next. But how exactly will Americanness get transmitted to the civilizations that replace us?

The physical structures we've built won't be our legacy. Our houses, schools, and stadiums will eventually crumble; in The World Without Us, Alan Weisman even imagines the Statue of Liberty getting knocked into the ocean by a glacier, leaving the real world in a similar state as Planet of the Apes. The ideas, art forms, and inventions that we've transmitted around the world will outlast our monuments' inevitable decay, and not just because our national backlog of McRib sandwiches may never biodegrade. While the current financial crisis has cast doubt on free-market capitalism, I'd wager that American-style economics will outlast this country's run as a political entity. The global rise of basketball, a game surpassed in worldwide popularity only by soccer, ensures that at least one artifact of American leisure will persist. America's native musical forms—jazz, rock 'n' roll, and hip-hop music—also seem like good possibilities to serve as cultural carriers.

But for America's intangible qualities to get preserved—our shared history, our ideals, our passions—someone needs to do the preserving.”

Totalitarianism - Five steps to totalitarian rule. “As Hitler and Mussolini prepared to storm Europe, fascism began to generate interest in the United States. In Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel, It Can't Happen Here, an American president uses an economic crisis as a pretense to take over the media, imprison dissenters, and build his own private army (the Minute Men) into an indomitable force,” writes Levin. He enumerates five phases to totalitarianism:

o Phase 1: Create a perpetual enemy.
o Phase 2: Be savvier than George W. Bush.
o Phase 3: Come to power as America slips in stature.
o Phase 4: Beef up the military and the secret police.

States Rights - Who’s most likely to secede? Levin comments, “In the American end times, our government will take one of two forms. One possibility is that federalism will give way to an all-powerful central government. (In yesterday's global-warming thought experiment, this was the climate strongman scenario.) The other option is decentralization—in the absence of a unifying national interest, the United States of America will fragment and be supplanted by regional governance.”

Futurists’ Views - The world’s leading futurologists have four theories. “The Global Business Network answers the same question for all its corporate and government clients: What happens next? GBN handles a lot of different whats, and even the occasional what-in-the-hell. In 2003, the group's chairman, Peter Schwartz, and his colleague Doug Randall whipped up a not-so-rosy, 22-page report on "abrupt climate change" for the Department of Defense ("The United States and Australia are likely to build defensive fortresses around their countries"). Last year, the municipality of Amsterdam asked the firm to help figure out how it might deal with immigration. GBN has also loaned out its brainpower to Hollywood, advising Minority Report director Steven Spielberg on whether Congress and the Constitution would still exist in 2054. (The answer: yes, with a few buts.),” writes Levin. Using GBN’s typical methodology, they describe four different scenarios for the end of America (quoting from the article):

o Collapse: In this scenario, the country has devolved after a series of catastrophes: unchecked climate change, a pandemic, nuclear war—the stuff that Jared Diamond books and disaster movies are made of. A catastrophe that breeds internal division, Schwartz argues, is more likely to eradicate America than any kind of external threat. A country is like a family, he theorizes. If you feel threatened from the outside, you band together—rather than tear the United States apart, 9/11 galvanized us against a common enemy. The laggard response to Hurricane Katrina, on the other hand, meant that our own government became the common enemy. A long, uninterrupted series of nationwide Katrinas—and a concomitant series of bungled federal responses—is the recipe for collapse.

o Friendly breakup: In future No. 2, the country dissolves peacefully because the overhead of running a large nation becomes unmanageable. Schwartz likens this to the breakup of the Soviet Union, a case where the cost of holding the country together proved too great and the advantages too small.

o Global governance: In our third future, the national government declines in importance relative to the world community. Barack Obama's recent brief in defense of American exceptionalism is just one indicator among many that the United States is nowhere near willing to cede its position as the greatest of the world's great powers. But Slate contributor Robert Wright argues in his book Nonzero that humankind must come together to head off the challenges of the "non-zero-sum," globalized world: climate change, biological weapons, pandemics. While Wright tells me that "you wouldn't need something so centralized" as a souped-up United Nations, he believes that if in the next 100 years "America's identity has not dissolved into some sort of larger body of global governance, then chaos will reign."

o Global conquest: The final scenario and the grimmest of all: a figure described variously as a "global Napoleon," "a much more empowered Hitler," and "a super-Mao" conquers America and the rest of the world via brute force. This idea, which Schwartz classifies as the least likely of the four, leads us to debate whether it's harder to subjugate the world than it used to be—Schwartz believes it is, as there are "more people with military competence spread across the world." That's followed by a discussion of the best method to exercise dominion over the globe. "I think the way you conquer the world these days is from space," he says. "You can put weapons up there and shut down the world."

As a study of the future the survey was flawed, but nevertheless produced some interesting results. In setting up the survey, Levin writes, “If and when America expires, we probably won't agree on the cause of death. For proof that autopsies of empires are inconclusive, consider the case of Alexander Demandt, the German historian who set out in the 1980s to collect every theory ever given for why Rome fell. The final tally: 210, including attacks by nomads on horseback, blood poisoning, decline of Nordic character, homosexuality, outflow of gold, and vaingloriousness.

In tribute to Demandt, I've gone looking for every possible reason why America could fall. I've paged through the work of scholars who have studied the characteristics of declining and failed societies. I also collected theories from futurists, doomsayers, separatists, economists, political scientists, national security experts, climatologists, geologists, astronomers, and a few miscellaneous crazy people. The result: a collection of 144 potential causes of America's future death.”

The survey itself took advantage of web site capabilities. The 144 scenarios were each assigned an icon and the icons were arranged in a dense 12 by 12 matrix. (I’m not sure why, but the popular song of the 1970s by Paul Simon popped into my head as I read these scenarios – There Are 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.)Mousing over the icon produced the name of the scenario and its brief description. When you found one of your top five, you could either drag the icon to a vote box, or click on a link to cast your vote.

Over 60,000 people participated, many from outside the US. Even though this is a large number of people, the results may not be statistically significant. The problem with an opt in survey of this type is that is is difficult to know whether the respondents are representative or not. It certainly isn’t representative of the US as over 15% of the responses came from Russia alone among other countries. And, we don’t know if this type of survey attracts people who are interested in apocalyptic scenarios. Moreover, it certainly eliminates people who would never take surveys over the Internet and those incapable of comprehending 144 different scenarios and comparing and contrasting them in their minds. I don’t remember reading anywhere that the order of the icons in the matrix were randomly scrambled for each participant to reduce any bias due to order. Also, the scenarios were not distinctly different. There were many overlaps, and sometimes the description of the scenario could bias the response.

The real puzzle for me was trying to interpret the results. On its face, it can’t be interpreted as a futures study. The question presupposed an apocalyptic end. (It’s like the proverbial “When did you stop beating your wife?”) My key to understanding the results was the realization that what the survey elicited was a reflection of the respondents fears, if the respondent was American, and perhaps hopes if an enemy of America.

In attempting to understand potential futures of a system, there are at least four questions that must be answered:

1. What are the present strengths and weaknesses of the system’s capabilities?
2. What are the opportunities and threats faced by the system over the time frame?
3. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the system’s capacity to change over the time frame?
4. What are the hopes and fears of stakeholders of the system?

This survey addressed partially half of the fourth question. However, if we assume that the results of the survey are not biased too badly by respondents who are stakeholders but outside of the US, that we can interpret the results as a mirror of our fears.

The top five scenarios were:

1. Loose Nukes: Taliban fighters wrest nuclear weapons from a destabilized Pakistan. Or al-Qaida acquires a small arsenal of nukes from a disintegrating Russia. The nonstate actors launch against the United States in an attack exponentially worse than 9/11.

2. Peak Oil: Petroleum production reaches terminal decline. Oil becomes too expensive to extract, and alternative energies can't maintain our fossil-fuel-dependent lifestyle. The developed world goes kaput, with gas-happy America leading the way to the gutter.

3. Antibiotic Resistance: As a result of factory farming and spiking sales of antibacterial hand soap, superstrains of bacteria develop that are resistant to medicine. Public health officials can do nothing but throw up their hands.

4. China Unloads U.S. Treasurys: Unwilling to finance any more of America's debt, China dumps its investment in American Treasury securities and buys up gold. With America a lousy investment, there aren't any other buyers out there. The country goes bankrupt.

5. Israel-Arab War: All-out mayhem in the Middle East as Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and more go to war. The United States moves to protect Israel and gets sucked into a generation-long conflict that saps the national will and treasury.

The most interesting analysis the author did was to create a network map of the 82 scenarios that were chosen together with at least one other scenario. The network map is shown below:

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