“Politicians, like generals, have a tendency to fight the last war.”
Bolton took liberties with the original quote (which pointed out that generals tend not to see a change in military technology coming until it runs them over) but history shows Bolton’s liberties could have gone much further.
We (almost all) tend to draw straight lines from the past to the future, assuming things will continue much as they have been or continue changing much as they are.
And history shows, we (almost all) are (almost always) wrong.
We can’t help it. It’s in our nature. Our neurotic homo sapiens’ consciousness abhor uncertainty even more than nature abhors a straight line, and so rather than giving up and admitting we don’t know what the future holds, we draw straight line projections, and miss, because—
— the future is seldom, if ever, what or where we think it will be.
The impulse is a faulty survival mechanism, in spite of which we survive. It works for an hour or a day, a month or a year, but try looking too far ahead and it fails miserably, embarrassingly.
Our knowledge of the present constrains our vision of the future.
Fortunately, the future ignores our lack of vision and goes about its business, denying us the disasters we expect, giving us completely unexpected ones instead, and we respond by dealing with those surprises.
We don’t survive because we can predict. We survive because we can adapt.
Take overpopulation; Politicians, philosophers and prophets since Plato (including Plato) have agonized over population growth, and predicted an eventual overpopulated doom. In Plato’s day the entire world’s population was under 200 million.
It took us over 2000 years to get to a billion. Draw that straight line and we’d still be looking for our second billion.
Instead we’re at seven billion, almost all of that growth coming in the last 100 years. Draw that straight line and by the end of this century we’ll be at, gulp, thirteen…billion!
Scary, isn’t it? We’ll live on grubs, or starve, crammed like sardines (or Matt Damons), shoulder to shoulder in tiny container villages.
Unless…remember that thing about nature and straight lines?
Not only is it unlikely our population will double again, but since it’s already showing signs of fizzling it seems more likely the population bomb will be a dud, and by 2118 the world’s population may be less than it is now.
The developed world’s birth rate is already below replacement value. Its population would be in decline were it not for immigrants from the less developed world.
And, since the pace of development is increasing exponentially, and ever more people are becoming ever more prosperous ever faster, the entire world’s birth rate will fall, until we reach a point at which the worldwide birth rate will be below replacement value —
— at which time, politicians, philosophers and prophets will, no doubt, issue revised proclamations of doom, drawing their new straight lines, predicting with absolute certainty the doomsday economic and social catastrophes of falling populations, smaller tax rolls, empty theme parks, lower rents and Japanese style deflation — all the way to population zero — extinction.
Twenty-four-hundred years of fear of one thing down the drain, only to be replaced by the fear of the opposite.
We’re nothing if not creative neurotics, and population change isn’t our only neurosis. We have plenty of other specious fears to drive our hysteria.
Consider two of the prophets’ most recent catastrophic predictions:
In the late sixties and seventies, after technology allowed scientists finally to collect and analyze tens of thousands of feet, and millions of years of core samples from Greenland’s ice cap and millions of years of core samples from the world’s sedimentary basins, they verified the predictions made by Scots climate scientist James Croll and rigorized by Serbian mathematician Milutin Milankovitch, whereupon the doomsday crowd warned us about a terrifying and unavoidable impending catastrophe—
— global cooling.
Croll and Milankovitch theorized changes in the total amount of sunlight the earth received and where it’s received, caused by our eccentric orbit, precession, and changing tilt, would cause cyclical changes in the earth’s regional and global climates. Their ideas were rejected out of hand by the theoretical scientists, until the millions of years of incontrovertible physical evidence were in —
— our climate changes dramatically and cyclically, depending on where we are on earth and where we are in Milankovitch’s cycles; and on average, we’re cooler now than we were 5 million years ago — long before we humans took our first steps or started our first fires, and —
— unless we figure out a way to alter the earth’s orbit and precession and tilt, in the future we’re going to be both warmer, and cooler, than we are now.
So why the early seventies’ maniacal worry about global cooling, followed by the nineties’ maniacal worry about global warming? Because the fifties and sixties and early seventies were cooling, and we drew that straight line —
— and the late seventies and eighties and nineties were warming, and we drew that straight line; because the prophets of doom ignored the fact that Croll and Milankovitch said the cooling would take thousands of years, in the short term we were warming, so they must be wrong…it must be something else…CO2, yeah, it had to be CO2…refusing to accept other, more obvious and more correlative factors in climate besides Croll and Milankovitch —
— like the sun.
The sun has its own activity cycles, variations in the number and magnitude of sunspots which, when taken over the last thousand or so years for which we have good data, and added to Milankovitch’s numbers, form a good statistical fit to historical changes in the earth’s surface temperatures, including the Maunder Minimum — the Little Ice Age, and the Medieval Warm Period.
It appears our elliptical orbit around the sun, precession and tilt, and observable cyclical variations in the sun’s activity explain the changes in our climate to a reasonably fine degree, and predict more of the same —
— for thousands of years.
Maybe someone should have explained that to Time.
While we don’t know exactly by which mechanisms the solar activity cycles cause our climate cycles, it seems likely they do, because they coincide almost perfectly, and it seems unlikely our cycles are causing the sun’s. (Or causing Mars’ similar temperature cycles either…just throwing that out there…)
And it seems unlikely, though they coincide, increases in CO2 are causing increases in temperatures, because millions of years of core samples show the increases in temperature don’t follow the increases in CO2; it’s the other way around, the increases in CO2 always follow the increases in temperature. (And scientists agree — causality and time work in one direction, and one direction only — action can cause reaction, but reaction can’t be the cause of the action; i.e: that which comes second can’t cause that which came first.)
Almost 300 years ago William Henry discovered his Law, the one that says warming water releases gases, including CO2. The core samples confirm it, on a global scale, over millions of years.
Is it possible Henry’s Law holds, even when we ignore it? Is it possible we have mistaken cause and effect, and allowed our irrational survival mechanism to make fools of us all?
Is it possible we’re — universal laughingstocks?
In the end, it doesn’t really matter, because we’re doomed to be ourselves.
Whether we’re warming or cooling, or populating or depopulating, or Xing or Ying, because we are ruled by fear, and if the last thing we experienced was an “x”, we’ll next forecast an “X”, if the last thing we experienced was a “y”, we’ll next forecast a “Y”, because those will be the things that last frightened us, and will preoccupy that small part of our minds that think’s it’s helping us survive by trying to predict the future.
We are ever so much like sheep, or blinkered loons. But, it’s not our faults. Millenniums of evolution have doomed us to be what we are, and no matter how hard we try to avoid it, we can’t — avoid being human.
As a species, we seem forever doomed to draw that straight line…and fight the last war.