Gregg Easterbrook

The good and bad of 2011

December 15, 2010

With 2011 around the corner, what big developments might be expected in the coming year? Here are a few possibilities, bad and good:

Bad: Freshwater shortages. China is depleting its aquifers at an alarming rate in order to grow rice, the most water-intensive cereal. Freshwater supplies are approaching critical in much of the Middle East.

Discussion of climate change has focused on rising temperatures, which in and of themselves aren’t a threat and have some positives (such as lowering winter heat demand). As UCLA geographer Laurence Smith shows in his important new book The World in 2050, nearly all our globe’s surface freshwater is in glaciers and snowpack. Warming is causing “more of the world’s water to leave the mountains to run to the sea,” warns Smith, and “no amount of engineering” can reverse this loss in the short term.

Good: The boom resumes. Call me zany, call me wacky — the conditions are in place for a resumption of significant global economic growth. The world economy was hit with a broadside and shook but didn’t sink. This shows the fundamentals are sound. An up cycle is due.

Bad: Air strikes against Iran’s nuclear installation. Israel, lacking long-range force projection, could mount only a token strike that would destabilize the region but accomplish little. The United States has the means to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities from the air, but would kill many civilians in the process — as well as kill Russians, potentially restarting the Cold War. In 10 years, everything would be rebuilt anyway.

Encouraging Iran’s internal democracy movement is a lot more promising than military force. Remember, internal democracy movements are what worked against the old Soviet Union. Plus a United States attack that kills innocent Iranians would be a great way to discredit the country’s internal democracy movement.

Good: Barack Obama matures into a centrist, Bill-Clinton-style president. Clinton’s first two years were rocky as he focused on appeasing the party’s left wing. After he began to govern from the center, things improved for everyone, including for the left. Obama might undergo the same transition.

Bad: China or India go haywire. Both have done better than expected, economically and sociologically, for two decades. Both have gigantic populations and internal stresses that could spiral out of control all too easily. It’s especially amusing when you read in the Western press about China as some unstoppable super-efficient colossus. Within China, things are so crazed the attitude is: Will we make it through tomorrow?

Good: The death of Fidel Castro leads to the opening of Cuba. It’s ridiculous that the United States and Cuba are quasi-enemies, while the U.S. embargo against Cuba has accomplished nothing except causing average Cubans to suffer. If Castro’s dictatorship crumbles, Cuba should be a natural democracy. Offer Havana a Major League Baseball expansion franchise to seal the deal.

Bad: On the deficit — tomorrow comes. Politicians of both parties, at the federal and state levels, have spent the last five years borrowing recklessly in order to fill goody bags to hand out to interest groups. Those to blame cynically assume the debt won’t cause a monetary emergency, or a return to inflation, until after they have left office. Money manager David Einhorn, who saw the failure of Lehman Brothers coming long before others, warns that problems caused by the national debt will hit sooner than we think.

Right now Congress thinks a bright sunny day is a crisis: a lot of Capital Hill blather boils down to, “We must have a special giveaway because of the [insert word chosen at random] crisis.” Imagine if a true governing crisis began — such as foreign investors and sovereign wealth funds refusing to lend the United States any more money. Is there in Washington a single politician of either party with the intestinal fortitude to face a true crisis, as opposed to presiding over reckless giveaways?

Good: There will be a breakthrough in cost-effective small-scale, on-site electricity generation that allows offices, schools and even homes to begin detaching from the power grid, reducing the fossil fuel waste that is caused by transmission losses and cutting greenhouse gas emissions without any sacrifice in lifestyles. Sorry to sound a bit wonkish, but it feels to me like this is the next breakthrough coming.

Bad: A crop failure. The reason predicted Malthusian calamities have not occurred in the developing world is that in all years save one since the war, global food production has increased ahead of population growth. But the agricultural system is perilously poised – some factor such as rainfall patterns disrupted by climate change could stop always-increasing farm yield. The phrase “crop failure” hasn’t been used in international politics since 1979. If there were a food shortage, it would rapidly swamp all other international issues combined.

Good: Another Earthlike world will be found. Twenty years ago, no planet outside the solar system had been detected. Improved astronomy has led to the discovery of about 500 “exosolar” planets, all unlike Earth — much colder, much hotter, much larger (extreme gravity) or gaseous. But it’s only a matter of time until another world similar to ours — with the conditions for the one form of life we know  possible — is discovered, perhaps even “nearby” in galactic terms.

The finding of another planet similar to Earth would be thrilling and unsettling both at once.  Even from galactic distance, it may be possible to determine if an Earthlike world has an oxygen-rich blue sky (meaning plants and marine organisms, since oxygen would rapidly deplete from the atmosphere without life) and artificial lights on the planet’s side that is in darkness (meaning cities).

The sci-fi aspects of the discovery of a distant world are improbable under known physics — at the fastest speed a spacecraft has achieved, the closet star system to our sun is 40,000 years away.

But if another world similar to Earth is discovered, this would renew our sense of hope and wonder — and that could be a good feeling for 2011.

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