• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Rambling 'round and about the Hub of the Universe

Thinking about Boston and history....

April 25, 2013

When I first started to write this post, the title was to include the word "figuratively", since physically wandering around the Hub of the Universe (that's Boston, for those of you who didn't grow up in the Bay State) was disallowed.  But my thoughts didn't want to come together -- I'm not sure they've come together even yet, but it's time for them to come out and for me to move on.  So, what follows is somewhat disjointed Such is life.

I want to preface what I'm going to say by noting that I don't fault any law enforcement authorities for what they did leading up to the death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the arrest of his brother Dzhokhar.  Given the impact of the bombing on the city of Boston and US society, the stress and the pressure to resolve the situation were both, understandably, immense.  However, now that the immediate threat seems to be under control, it's not too soon to start looking at the bigger picture.  And the bigger picture isn't limited to the Boston metropolitan area.

Some loosely connected points:

  • It should be abundantly clear that, perhaps unlike the first half of the 20th century, it's no longer true that the only significant geo-political actors are nation-states. Corporations, self-defining religious communities, groups with a shared cultural/ethnic identity, lobbies, astro-turf assemblages, movements built around a shared experience or a shared world-view, even highly motivated individuals can all take actions which influence the course of history.  
  • Part of the logic that makes non-state actors potentially significant is the impotence of state actors to deal with them by traditional projection of power.  Conventional military might has a mixed record (at best) when it comes to suppressing popular movements on their own turf.  It has an even worse record at preventing motivated actors from creating havoc on turf that they perceive as belonging to their oppressors.  
  • History may be written by the victors, but only to the extent that victory is somehow complete and profound.  While the struggle goes on, even during periods of latency, each side writes and tells its own history.  A "highly developed" society might tell itself that its actions beyond its borders are entirely in the interests of global economic efficiency and largely beneficial to all populations concerned.  A "less developed" (read, less militarily advantaged) resource-cursed populace might see things differently.  As a result, if elements of the "less developed" society visit asymmetrical warfare on pieces of its "more developed" interlocutor, each society will explain what happened in terms of its own version of history.  It's likely that the story told by the "less developed" nation will start at an earlier point in time.
  • The 20th century slogan that "if you've got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow" has proven profoundly untrue.  Regardless of its origin (I've heard it attributed to Douglas MacArthur, John Wayne, Chuck Colson and Mendel Rivers), it vehemently denies what's become known as "the law of unintended consequences" which, when we're talking about people, is best understood as the natural tendency to push back, to hit back, to shoot back whenever the opportunity arises.
  • No combination of military, economic, and geopolitical power can render any nation sustainably supreme, much less invulnerable.  Acting otherwise is arrogant and will lead only to grief.

Some observations about costs of cure:

  • The 9/11 attacks killed some 3,000 innocents, and visited untolled damage to the American economy on a project budget of maybe a half-million dollars.  But the US response to those attacks killed far more people, cost something on the order of $5 trillion directly, will predictably cost some further amount indirectly, and didn't really resolve anything.  (Note the concern expressed by law-enforcement officials that the Tsarnaev brothers may have received some tutelage or assistance or motivation from al-Quaeda-linked organizations overseas.)
  • The incidents in Boston killed 4 innocents, maimed orders of magnitude more, are estimated to have damaged Boston's economy to the tune of $330 million, and triggered the deployment of thousands of law enforcement officers.  Overall costs might rise to $400 million or more, in response to the efforts of two modestly educated misfits with a budget probably well under $10,000.
  • Neo-conservative mythology (remember, each side writes its own history) has it that Ronald Reagan triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union by forcing them into an arms race that they couldn't afford to maintain.  But even if that were true, the monetary disadvantage at which the Soviets were operating in comparison to the USA is nowhere near the monetary disadvantage at which the USA operates in comparison to non-state antagonists.

To anyone willing to ask the question, it must be obvious that our nation's policy of projecting power into all corners of the world (mostly to guarantee access to resources for corporations which are ostensibly, but not obviously operationally, American . . . but that's another topic) and thinking we can use the same technologies to guarantee our own physical safety is socio-economically unsustainable.  (It's ecologically unsustainable as well, but that's another 'nother topic.)  Any time one side feels the need to spend 50,000 - 10,000,000 times as much responding to an insult as that insult originally cost to mount, the long-term outcome is already determined.  And it doesn't look good for the big spender.

Going back to that "hub of the universe" characterization (all right, the original reference was to the Massachusetts State House as the hub of the solar system -- not that Oliver Wendell Holmes was ever much of an astronomer), I'm reminded of the medieval machinations that were exercised in attempts to reconcile Ptolemaic astronomy with an increasing number and accuracy of empirical observations.  It's marvelous the ingenuity that we humans can exert in order to maintain convenient delusions.  But the myths and delusions which arguably (at least in the minds of their "less developed" participants) set the stage for the events of 9/11/2001 and 4/15/2013 are closely related to the myths and delusions underlying the vast majority of our current sustainability challenges.  It's time for a Copernican moment.

With apologies to Neil deGrasse Tyson, the important thing about even social science is that it's true whether or not you believe (or pay attention) to it.  Same with sustainability science.


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