The McNamara Fallacy:
The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes.
The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.
Last week, in his last foreign public address, President Obama, speaking in Athens, the birthplace of modern democracy, stated that the current path of globalisation demands a ‘course correction’. This course correction was not just a comment on the US presidential election but was viewed from the perspective of the planetary level. Because information can now be shared globally, workers are now more aware than ever that global elites and wealthy corporations, further enriched by the flight of capital to countries with the lowest wages and which do not uphold labour and environment standards, are a source of inequity. The fact that many on the US Left did not vote or switched from Bernie Sanders to Trump underlines a primary contributory factor to the Trump win in key swing states was by getting out the white male vote. One way this was achieved was by Trump’s championing the cause of blue collar worker rights – a rejection of the neo-liberalism inspired ‘race to the bottom’ behind the flight of capital.
The Trump presidency will matter to all of us. Since the internet age, we have all truly been living in the ‘Global Village’. However, a more accurate representation of our quandary is that we are living in the ‘planetary civilization stage’ of the Earth, an extension of systems theory promoted by the Global Scenario Group. The dominant species of this planet, homo sapiens sapiens, exists in a state of interdependent existence in a post-modern milieu in which the dominance of individual nation states, with their empires and neo-empires, must be seen as secondary to the interests of our species.
Our Planetary Phase started in principle with the foundation of the United Nations after the Second World War. However, it was the Montreal Protocol, effective 26 August 1989, that was the first united, global effort to control the planet’s biosphere by reducing the size of the ozone holes over the Arctic and Antarctic. We made the decision to reverse a man-made disaster by completely re-engineering the atmosphere and therefore the basic engineering of many of our household products. From the year the scientific discovery was made of the ozone holes (1973) until the enforcement of the Protocol in 1989, less than one quarter of a human life-span elapsed. The holes are now expected to fully close between 2050 and 2070. And we did it without the global economy collapsing, by researching and employing alternatives and by subsidising the poorest economies to make the transition. This is what we can do, as a species, with a full awareness of our living in the Planetary Phase.
Essentially, there has to be a greater recognition that our biosphere has ‘planetary boundaries’ – a “safe operating space for humanity”. The concept of planetary boundaries, also relates to systems theory, specifies boundaries beyond which irreversible and abrupt environmental change occurs.
The Nine Main Planetary Boundaries (Source: Wikipedia)
As can be seen, the safe boundaries of biochemical flows of phosphorus and nitrogen, as well as biological diversity and climate change, have been breached. Nitrogen and phosphorus, used to fuel plant growth, are routinely washed into lake and sea systems, causing hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico and affecting its shrimp fisheries. The current extinction rate is over 100 extinctions per million species, which is 1,000 times higher than background rates. For climate change, the boundary was breached in 1988, when parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide rose above 350, reaching 400ppm this year. The concept of planetary boundaries is now so compelling that it permeates UN and European Union thinking.
Donald Trump most likely does not care about planetary boundaries. He has stated that he does not ‘believe’ in climate change. Neither, at least publicly, does most of the leadership of US Republican party, even as they sit through national security briefings on the adverse effects of global warming to US national security. Biospheric destabilization through increasingly severe adverse weather conditions, including the hottest past five years on record; migrations of 244 million people, a scale never before witnessed due to wars over control of such basic resources as water and energy worsened by income inequality; one billion people going to sleep hungry every night, with a billion also illiterate, while one billion are suffering from obesity – these are the fallout from our Planetary Phase. Our world exceeded its carrying capacity – the ability to nurture our species – when the population was around 5 billion people; it now stands at over 7 billion. As a species, we cannot even control our own population growth, the shortest route to which is education for girls.
Unfortunately for Donald Trump, almost all US scientists follow the scientific approach to climate change, which for them is a fact. And even US oil companies such as ExxonMobil, which recently released a statement in support of the scientific reality of global warming and of the Paris Agreement, cannot avoid the basic position that they are in the market for a product which is millions of years old, from a period when the Earth’s climate was not as it is today. The situation in the US has become one of societal cognitive dissonance, for ExxonMobil is at the same time suing the New York attorney general for investigating whether ExxonMobil’s previous statements to investors regarding climate change, for the many years when ExxonMobil effectively denied climate change, were accurate, i.e., what ExxonMobil knew and when. Yet, scientific fact is heavily politicised. One of ExxonMobil’s defences is that promoting accurate information about global climate change is a Democrat agenda, therefore that the NY AG’s office is politically inspired.
However, ExxonMobil cannot ignore the fact that legal truth interrelates with scientific fact. This is well understood in the rest of the world, and Dutch citizens in 2015 successfully sued their government for not doing enough to counter national greenhouse gas emissions. In the US, a group of American children called Our Children’s Trust, is similarly suing the federal government for not protecting their future from global climate change. The lawsuit, just approved for trial by a federal judge, may in the end cause a decision to be ruled that proves Donald Trump’s position to be untenable. The alternative – that in the face of data showing we are experiencing the hottest five years ever, senior Republicans reject reality while oil companies in the US make statements to US citizens downplaying global climate change at the same time as making statements to foreign governments and the UN that they support the Paris Agreement – is not tenable during Earth’s Planetary Phase.
Unfortunately, Trump’s appeal to US blue collar workers has been mixed with a right-wing authoritarian agenda which at one stage appeared to endorse some form of recording of Muslims in the United States, a constitutionally indefensible situation indistinguishable from the registry of Jews in Nazi Germany. Roused by Trump’s championing of an agenda targeting the internal and external ‘Other’, throughout the US, the number of ultra-nationalists committing incidents of hate-based race crimes has soared since the election. Though Trump now denies any intent to register Muslims, many of his followers still want the registration process to go ahead.
Trump has also committed to repatriating 11 million illegal immigrants, at a cost of approximately 114 billion USD, with three million to be targeted for removal in the first few months of his presidency. He also promised his followers that he would build a wall between the US and Mexico that could cost up to 13 billion USD. The money required to repatriate illegal immigrants could be used to legalise and integrate these same immigrants, or even help stabilise the economies of the countries of origin of these immigrants. Trump panders to the politics of resentment, a politics of hate or the ‘New Racism’, presently being mainstreamed internationally, as the UN Human Rights Commissioner recently warned.
In this, the Anthropocene era, a new era in which our decisions as a species affect the viability of the planet’s biosphere to nurture human civilization, our children's future is in question. According to planetary civilization theory, the future of humanity’s global civilization remains shrouded in uncertainty, in a quantum state of possibilities that will nevertheless collapse into a definite pattern within this century. There exist three broad scenarios: Conventional Worlds, Barbarization, and Great Transitions. The first scenario, Conventional Worlds, envisages the persistence of dominant institutions and cultural values, with the world adapting through reactive market adaptations or incremental governmental policy changes. However, this form of adaptive ‘business as usual’ is a high risk path, one that in many cases leads to the atomization of democracy, which becomes ghettoized as society collapses into various unstable forms: Barbarization.
Thus, the optimal scenario would be a Great Transition that develops innovative institutions to promote environmental sustainability, social justice, and meaningful lifestyles, especially a humanity that has attained a base level of material prosperity. Instead of unchecked consumerism, qualitative fulfilment rather than quantitative consumption must be our new philosophy. Such a transformation requires a new foundational set of human values, namely solidarity, environmentalism, and well-being. Instead of adverts promoting consumerism, the domination of nature, and individualism, we need to be exposed to a popular philosophy of sufficiency.
Right now, our world is controlled by shadowy forces we do not truly understand, the fear of which the Trump campaign exploited. The Davos super-rich pursue trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, which rely on a failed ‘trickle down’ model of wealth that has made funnelled wealth to the 0.1%. Trump has already stated that the US will walk away from the TPP in favour of bilateralism, even as big business puts in place an alternative – Chinese-dominated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The US election was a rejection of this rising wealth inequality and of the continuation of the globalization of trade in a Conventional World scenario. Trump’s genius was to recognise the distrust the common man has for business as usual and to distance himself from it.
This does not mean Trump is the kind of leader the world needs. No leading newspaper in the US could bring itself to endorse his authoritarianism, misogyny, and chauvinism. The most shocking election result since 1948, turnout was only 54%, meaning over 90 million eligible voters did not vote in one of the most important elections in contemporary history. Further, Trump both derided and praised the Electoral College system in the same week, once it became clear he would win. In the end, Clinton won the popular vote by over 2 million, suggesting a need to reform the US voting system, which elsewhere would be seen as heavily gerrymandered. Ultimately, both Trump and Clinton were rejected by their own voters – 54% of Democrat voters rated Clinton unfavourably, with nearly 59% of Republicans rating Trump unfavourably. We now live in a world where the US President-elect has gold-plated rooms in his houses.
Science fiction, a mirror of reality since even before Frankenstein, is presently reflecting back to us, in concentrated form, our fears. Zombie series, long seen as indicative of fear of the internal ‘Other’, get high ratings. Our realisation that we may be looking at dystopian futures pitting the masses against an elite super-rich – Barbarization scenarios – can be seen in the popularity of The Hunger Games and Maze Runner series. However, there are a few movies that show us the way to avoid these futures. Three blockbusters from the last two years that suggest ways forward are Interstellar, The Martian, and Tomorrowland.
The first two point out that we must leave Earth and begin making new homes in space. This will drive technological development and provide us with a unique perspective – the ability to look back at Earth, and thereby to judge our custodianship of it. It is the recognition that our future requires cultural and political shifts capable of creating a new vision of our reality that our survival demands that drives our best thinkers and inventors like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. They have made the point that we have, at most, another 1,000 years of civilisation under the Conventional Worlds paradigm, and that we must begin terraforming and colonising other planets – principally, Mars.
Tomorrowland points out we must re-capture the spirit of the 1950s and 1960s, when science promised a future without famine, with clean energy, with our scientists and inventors occupying key roles in our society, leading developments which united humanity. Recreating that spirit requires global support. There is no need for the Chinese to have a separate space station. If the West trusts China at present enough to share with it fusion technology, as we do on the French-based ITER, then the West must trust China enough to go to the stars as partners.
It will not be possible for Trump and the Republican Party to deny the effects of global warming forever. Lake Cachuma, a massive reservoir supplying Santa Barbara County’s drinking water, is at 10% capacity due to California’s historic drought. In Southwest Idaho, scientists are considering bacteriological warfare to combat a century-long pest – non-native cheatgrass – which steals other plants’ water in the spring and dries out in summer, creating ideal conditions for wildfires in the Great Basin area of California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah. At present, the North Pole is 36 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual. The Pentagon’s “Climate Adaptation Roadmap”, published in 2014, accepts climate change as a fact and has already documented its effects on US military bases. Having a Commander-in-Chief who refuses the scientific reality of the military situation epitomises the Vietnam War-era McNamara Fallacy.
Whether Trump gets a second term, whether the Democrats seize the Senate in two years’ time, as well as whether the Republican Party can bite the bullet and accept scientific fact, all depend on the emergence of a national citizens' movement with a coherent strategy and on the revitalization of the US Left. The 2016 US presidential election saw unprecedented numbers voting for third party candidates – the Libertarian Party won over three percent of the vote, with the Green Party winning over one percent. In a two-party democracy, nearly five percent of voters are now unrepresented nationally – an unprecedented protest vote. Given that a self-proclaimed socialist was able to compete with the Establishment-backed Clinton, in one future scenario for a Great Transition, a self-proclaimed social democrat could win the Democratic primaries. Globally, more people must vote and organise to counter the power of transnational corporations which redistribute wealth inequitably, increasingly authoritarian-state governments and mainstream values which do not promote the custodianship of our only planet.
We need to remember that we are social animals, at base not selfish but filled with love at the sight of children, and therefore capable of love and compassion for ‘Others’. We need to remember our history lesson from the imperial and fascist periods and recall why racism is illegal. We need to restore Earth’s planetary boundaries and restore safe operating procedures. To counter the New Racism, we need a New Politics of international solidarity, one which will not ignore global warming but provide adaptation funding to Africa, even if only to prevent massive waves of migration due to water wars and crop failures. To paraphrase the astronaut Mark Watney in The Martian, in the face of overwhelming odds, we are left with only one option: we’re gonna have to science the heck out of this planet. That is why we need to keep looking to the stars. And that is why we need to look back as a single, race, united in diversity, at the Earth - and judge ourselves.
Genesis 18:25 - Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?
The Blue Marble (December 7, 1972, taken by the crew of Apollo 17)
Occasionally, people wonder whether Special Circumstances is related to Iain M. Banks’ Culture Series’ Special Circumstances. ‘Special Circumstances’ happens to be a reasonably good translation of one phrase the Thai military has for the ex lex situation Thailand is presently facing. However, readers are reminded that Special Circumstances is presently championing one specific type of fusion, the polywell reactor, and they are directed to the semantic ambiguity in the title of this column.