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This is my first follow-up post to The Belief Matrix, in which I attempted to advance a universal model for civilizational responses to subsistence crises (The Malthusian Loop) and the Western challenge (The Sisyphean Loop). The first country I’ll apply this too is the US, because doing so will allow me to make several important points about the nature of the belief matrix – namely, that even nominally “Western nations” like the US – that archetype of the West – is imprisoned within the Sisyphean loop.

This is because the Idea of the West, as previously defined, is a rationalist absolute, whereas all other human societies are not. Hence the US can never attain full union with it, but only try to. Instead, decade by decade and century by century, it redefines liberty. This is a mostly consensual social activity that rarely veers into large-scale violence, the Civil War being the most vivid exception (though even it was an extraordinarily civilized affair by the standards of the time). This process is so internalized that Americans, along with the British or the French, think of themselves, and define themselves, as “Westerners” with no apparent conflict between it and their national identities. To the contrary, they are complementary.

Through the accumulated circular momentum of liberal tradition, the structure of its political system which moderates sharp swings towards extremism in the population and of the media which muffles extremist voices, and most importantly its reconciliation of liberalism with popular democracy, America’s “liberty loops” manage to remain anchored firmly within the bottom-right quadrant, well away from the instability brought on by the disillusionment / rejection of tradition of the left, and the totalitarianism of the top. But what makes the US a spiritually much more satisfied nation is that the very organic nature of the integration of its sobornost and Westernism makes Americans unaware that they live in the Belief Matrix, just like everyone else.

Below is the belief matrix for the US during the past century.

At the beginning of the century, America was an open, self-confident, emerging Great Power, with a rapidly growing economy and population. Though after the end of the First World War there was widespread concern over Bolshevism, European entanglements, and immigration, this did not significantly lower its belief in itself.

This changed substantially in the 1920′s, which saw a significant retreat from tradition: a) female suffrage from 1920, b) the first great consumer revolution, including mass automobile production and chain stores, c) the rise of crime and homicide rates, linked in part to Prohibition. The US started drifting left.

This drift accelerated during the early 1930′s in the time of the Great Depression, when a) economic output collapsed by around 25%, causing mass unemployment, b) homicide rates peaked at over 9.0 / 100,000 during 1931-34, c) the American fertility rate fell to a nadir close to the replacement-level rate of 2.1 children per woman during the 1930′s, d) numerous incidents of labor unrest, and e) the federal government came to face significant challenges from the right and the left (e.g. Huey Long with his “Every Man a King” socialism) – though at no time was it really threatened, which testifies to the stability and dynamic inertia of its liberal democratic tradition.

From the late 1930′s, the economy began to recover and criminality declined. The US began to recover faith in itself and its mission after the uncertainties about the future of liberalism and capitalism prevalent in the 1930′s. This was reinforced by victory in World War Two and the massive economic, political and spiritual boost it imparted to the US, which emerged as a global hegemon, far stronger than the USSR.

Despite the McCarthy witch-hunts and the launching of the military-industrial complex as a permanent feature of American society, the 1950′s and 1960′s retain a reputation of being a Golden Age of US history. Morale was high due to visible US superiority – despite occasional shocks such as the Soviet testing of a nuclear bomb in 1949, the (false) fears of a “missile gap” in the mid-1950′s and the Sputnik shock of 1957. The period saw an unprecedentedly low level of income inequality and the massive economic growth that caused the post-war to 1973 period to become known as the “miracle years”.

Homicide rates remained at around 5.0 / 100,000 (a relative low by US historical standards) until the late 1960′s and a spirit of confident, middle-class domesticity contributed to a baby boom that resulted in US fertility rates lasting through to the early 1970′s, by which time it had begun to drop precipitously, along with the rest of the industrialized world.

Meanwhile, belief in the validity of the Idea of the West remained extremely firm – so firm, in fact, that anti-Communist feelings manifested themselves into overt persecution in contravention of the Idea of the West (with its emphasis on rule of law). This is the Law of Circularity in action (from the Belief Matrix) – at its extremes, ideologies converge (or flip); even as the Red Scare zealots shouted about the Communist threat to US liberties, their own actions forsook their principles – to the overwhelming approval of the American population, at least until they stumbled over into the realm of the absurd (i.e. the McCarthur-Army hearings).

Though the US moon landings of 1969 seemed to mark the apogee of the American Golden Age, in reality the country was already in fast moral decline. The oil crisis. Anti-war movements. Watergate. Vietnam. Hippies. Roe vs. Wade. Culture war. Drugs. Oil crises. Limits to growth. The waxing Soviet menace (they achieved nuclear parity and conventional superiority in Europe by the mid-1970′s). Rapid fertility decline. The rising economic challenge from Japan and Germany, and the beginning of deindustrialization in the Mid-West. During this period the country moved sharply left, away from tradition and belief in itself; yet as always, the socio-cultural liberalization of the 1970′s was the author of its own demise, spelled out in this case by the Reagan reaction – a peculiar mix of economic deregulation, hard-line foreign policy and social conservatism.

By the early 1990′s, there appeared an ostensible new dawn in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fukuyama began proselytizing his End of History thesis, proclaiming Western liberal democracy to be the final stage of history, following a long tradition stemming from Manichaeism through Marx. This became somewhat of a pillar of Western thought. China and Russia, the two erstwhile socialist giants, were beginning to acquire new dependencies with the West. The Asian model of development seemed increasingly discredited with the collapse of Japanese growth rates in the early 1990′s, and later “confirmed” by the East Asian financial crisis of 1997. Europe was increasingly anemic and mired in social problems stemming from its aging populations and welfare states.

Meanwhile, the US flourished. Its economic growth rate remained relatively healthy at 3.1% in the 1990′s, virtually unchanged from the 1970′s or 1980′s. Fertility rates continued to climb upwards ever so slightly from their late-1970′s to mid-1980′s nadir (though much of the growth can probably be attributed to increasing numbers of younger Hispanic immigrants and the (non-repeatable) increasing age of mothers at average childbirth). Finally, homicide rates fell to lows unseen since the 1945-1973 “Golden Age”…

Yet much of this progress was illusory, and it began to unravel during the Bush years. Income inequality rose to levels unseen since the Great Depression. Though crime remained at a relatively low level of around 5.0-6.0 / 100,000, this was only accomplished by imprisoning an ever greater portion of the American population. Even as car production fell from 13.0mn units in 1999 to 8.7mn units in 2008, the financial industry metastasized. The 2000′s saw a “jobless recovery” from the .com bust while median incomes stagnated (or outright declined, if the people at ShadowStats have a point). The US is coming to resemble the late USSR across a disturbingly wide spectrum of social, economic, military and cultural indicators. It has been moving away from the state of sobornost, “a deep sense of spiritual harmony amongst classes, regions, races and sexes”, since the 1970′s, i.e. towards the left on the Belief Matrix.

9/11. Iraq. Extraordinary renditions. Guantanamo. The Katrina debacle. Housing bubble. Regulatory capture. Credit collapse. The fall of the investment banks. The rise of the “Rest” (led by China and Russia), who are hardly best friends with the “West”. The Great Recession. Deficits, debt, decline. As a result, the American population is now rapidly moving away from the firm belief in the West that characterized the 1990′s, and even further away sobornost. The election of Obama, perhaps the most liberal and outsiderish President in history, is just a reflection of these deeper trends. At an unconscious level Americans realize they have deep problems requiring radical solutions.

A detailed discussion of the waning superpower’s future prospects I leave for another post – suffice to say that whereas in the next decade its power will likely decline precipitously relative to China’s, its inherent geographic, economic and institutional strengths will allow it to remain a key pole of the emerging new world order, and we are likely to see a certain resurgence by the late 2010′s or early 2020′s, as soon as its current imbalances and contradictions are resolved or at least contained.

Based on the dynamics of the Belief Matrix, it is likely that the US will repeat the dynamics of the Great Depression not only in economic, but in social terms. Namely, there will be a partial collapse of legitimacy in the government; the feds will face challenges from the far-left (new Huey Long’s, anarchism, etc) and the far-right (demands for more state rights, anti-tax movements, “American reactionary patriots”, etc); fertility will collapse from the current replacement-level rates, as welfare shrinks and the utility of having children for the very poor, currently the most fecund social group, drops; crime will increase, etc. Yet within a decade a new social order will gradually emerge, probably fiscally and socially conservative and more authoritarian than the current one, and with it a new equilibrium will slowly, painfully come into being.

However, due to the sheer circular momentum of America’s liberty cycles, and the sheer power of the historical force behind, the country is likely to remain, at least in most respects, a liberal democracy. The same cannot be said of Russia, Turkey, or even countries like Germany or Japan.

PS. A reply to Alex Knight’s comment on the original Belief Matrix post:

but let us never forget that US capitalism developed precisely by committing genocide against the millions of native people who inhabited this “abundant high-quality land”.

likewise in terms of labor, we can never erase the painful history of enslavement of millions of Africans, whose unpaid labor created much of these “surpluses.”

True… but the West is just that… rule of law, sanctity of contract, etc. Not humanism or kindness. Some 72,000 “vagrants” (mostly peasants driven off the land by new, dispossessing elites – and this is a massive number given that the size of the English population was only around 4mn then) were hanged in Henry VIII’s England… so can we really say that “barbarous Muscovy” under “Ivan the Terrible” was that much more “tyrannous” than his English contemporary?

The native peoples of North America practiced a form of primitive communism where land was held in common and the concept of private property did not exist. This was in direct contravention to Western civilization, and as such a heresy worthy only of extirpation. Similarly, at the time it made a great deal of rational, economic / capitalist sense to use Negro slaves imported from Africa to grow sugarcane and cotton in the West Indies and the American South…

But by its own standards, however, the US has always succeeded at maintaining a symbiotic relationship between its “folkish” elements and the Idea of the West… that is, amongst the people who matter. This might be – well, is – hypocrisy, but as the commentator Kolya pointed out, “Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue”. [Did some quick Googling, this quote originally comes from someone called La Rochefoucauld - "Hypocrisie est un hommage que la vice rend à la vertu"]. I suppose it is valid to argue that hypocrisy is better than being simple full of vice with no respect for virtue… at least hypocrisy offers the chance of a way out, or light at the end of a dark tunnel. Others would say instead that hypocrisy is the truest matrix, the most perfect totalitarianism…

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Not only is global warming a real and present threat that may yet in conjunction with impending energy shortages doom industrial civilization, it may have even been dangerously underestimated. “What have you been smoking!?,” you might say to me. Get off the doom train and enjoy the Sun. Unfortunately, we might not have much of it during the next decades – at least metaphorically speaking. To see why, I recommend you watch this video on global dimming or read its transcript.

So here’s the plot-line. After 9/11, the US air fleet was grounded for three days in the name of national security. Though presumably a major inconvenience for travelers, it was a boon for climatologist David Travis who was studying the effects of contrails, or vapor trails, left behind by high-flying aircraft on the world’s climate.

He predicted that removing contrails would have a significant impact on global temperatures, but was shocked to discover that the daily temperature range – the difference between the hottest and coldest temperature measures in a day – shifted up by an unprecedented 1.1C during those three days!

The Beginning

This story begins with Gerald Stanhill, who was tasked to measuring solar radiation over Israel as part of its plans to develop an irrigation system in the 1950′s. Repeating these experiments in the 1980′s, he found that there had been a whopping 22% drop in solar radiation over Israel!

The results were dismissed by mainstream researchers, who could not believe that the Earth’s atmosphere was darkening because there had begun a clear warming trend from the 1970′s. But then Beate Liepert combed through meteorological records in Germany and discovered the same thing. Working independently, Stanhill and Liepert discovered that from the 1950′s to the early 1990′s, the level of solar energy reaching the Earth’s surface had dropped 9% in Antarctica, 10% in the USA, 16% in parts of the British Isles and almost 30% in Russia. They christened the phenomenon global dimming.

Global Dimming

Scientists still ignored these results, since they could not square global dimming with global warming.

In Australia, two researchers, Michael Roderick and Graham Farquhar, were investigating the factors influencing the so-called “pan evaporation rate”. Basically this is a really boring set of repeated experiments in which you fill up a pan of water, leave it out in the Sun for constant intervals of time and plot a time series of how much water vanishes during those periods. Really sad. But very useful in agricultural science.

Their research indicated that the key things determining evaporation rates are wind levels, humidity and the brightness of sunlight, with the latter dominant (the photons kick the water molecules out of the pan into the atmosphere). Temperatures actually play only a relatively minor role. So they reasoned that the number of photons hitting the Earth’s surface was going down…but why?

Mike Roderick happened across a paper called “Evaporation Losing Its Strength” in the magazine Nature, which reported a global decline in pan evaporation rates across the US, Europe and Russia. Putting two and two together, they compared it with the decline in observed sunlight from Stanhill’s and Liepert’s work. The trends towards decline matched perfectly.

The global dimming theory now had a bright future.

Reflecting Away the Asian Monsoon?

During the mid-1990′s climate scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan noticed a decline in sunlight over large parts of the Indian Ocean. He reasoned this was due to atmospheric pollution. Industrial civilization emits soot and sulfate particulates into the atmosphere, creating the hazes which shroud its major cities.

This effect is especially pronounced over the plains of northern India, where the fires from hundreds of millions of primitive peasant cook-stoves and the exhaust from the millions of rickshaws that ply its gridlocked cities play a major part in forming the “Asian Brown Cloud”, the dusky haze that envelops much of South Asia.

A multinational experiment was conducted to study this in more detail in the Maldives. In the north, air is polluted by aerosols from the Indian subcontinent; in the southernmost islands, it is cleared away by clean Antarctic winds. This fortunate conjunction lent itself well to comparative study.

When water vapor attaches itself onto naturally occurring particles, they eventually become too heavy to remain airborne and fall to the ground as rain. There are far more particles suspended in polluted air – ash, soot, sulfur dioxide, etc – than in normal air. By a factor of 10, to be precise. Thus the man-made particles provide ten times as many sites for water droplets to attach themselves to. Therefore, polluted clouds contain many more water droplets than naturally occurring clouds – each one far smaller than it would be naturally.

Many small water droplets reflect more sunlight than a few larger ones, so polluted clouds reflect far more light back into space, preventing the Sun’s heat from getting through. This is the mechanism by which global dimming works – not only are the particles themselves reflecting more sunlight, but most importantly they form brighter clouds over polluted areas.

(I think this is also a feedback mechanism. During Ice Ages, you have a lot of dust-laden winds which would reflect back sunlight, dim the Earth and reduce evaporation rates, which in turn would lead to dessication and more dust. When the Earth warms, more vegetation appears and deserts eventually contract once the system reaches an equilibrium, so more sunlight reaches through, increasing the power of the Earth’s hydrological engine.)

Satellite images revealed this global dimming effect was not just limited to India, but also encompassed China extending to the Pacific, Western Europe extending into Africa, the British Isles, etc.

These clouds could alter the world’s rainfall patterns. This may have already led to the first global dimming Holocaust.

There was a major famine in 1984 in Ethiopia, partly caused by a decades-long drought across the Sahel. The area is crucially reliant on a short wet season created by the summer monsoon.

This monsoon depends on the Sun heating the Atlantic north of the Equator, drawing the tropical rain belt northward and bringing rain to the Sahel. This mechanism failed frequently during the 1970′s and 1980′s.

Leon Rotstayn was puzzled by this phenomenon because his climate models indicated that pollution blowing in from Europe and the US over the Atlantic should have little effect on the Sahel’s rainfall patterns. But taking the new Maldives findings into account, he found that the resultant brighter clouds would reflect more sunlight in space, cooling the Atlantic Ocean. Consequently the equatorial rain bands would fail to move as far north, spelling doom for the benighted denizens of the Sahel.

From the 1990′s, there were serious moves towards regulating aerosol emissions in Europe and the US. Scrubbers were installed on factory chimneys, fuel was cleansed of sulfur and cars acquired catalytic converters. The rains returned to the Sahel and the droughts have receded in recent years.

However, the “Asian Brown Cloud” is still growing and as noted earlier the Asian monsoons that sustain 3bn people are crucially dependent on the temperature gradient between land and oceans. These gradients will diminish in the presence of major dimming. Furthermore, could it be that the reason El Nino has increased in recent years (in contrast to the historical record, in which it usually flares up only when the world is colder, i.e. when less sunlight reached the Earth) is due to diminished solar intensity over the west Pacific “fire-stove” off the Indonesian coast that drives this cycle?

From the Frying Pan into the Fire – Accelerated Global Warming

So the world decides to clean up its act. Quite literally. Global dimming eases, the monsoons return to stability and everything will be nice and dandy, right?

Unfortunately not. For global dimming has been masking us from an even greater threat – very fast global warming.

As shown in this satellite photo of the Western US, though contrails are individually small when there are many of them they can blanket the whole sky. Now if according to Travis’ calculations just a three day interruption in air travel can raise the daily temperature range by more than 1.1C – a unprecedentedly sharp jump, then what would happen to global temperatures if all industrial activity were to collapse tomorrow?

The slight global cooling from the 1950′s to the 1970′s may have been due to rapidly rising pollution whose immediate cooling effects overwhelmed the as yet modest effects of global warming (whose impact is not immediate, but stretched over decades with a “half-life” – when the climate system moves half the way to its new equilibrium – of around 30 years). However, since then pollution control in the industrialized world coupled with the end of exponential growth in world hydrocarbons extraction allowed the warming trend to regain the initiative.

The effects are already observable in Europe. During the 1980′s, east-central Europe was an environmental hellhole of hanging smogs, acid rain and wilted forests. The central focus was at the so-called “Black Triangle”, on the borders of Poland, Germany and Czechoslovakia.

The collapse of Communism cleaned away the blight, but nature doesn’t provide free lunches. Europe cutting its pollution may have saved millions of Sahelians and added a few years to the life expectancy of the denizens of Dresden, but temperatures too started rising rapidly – culminating in the ferocious summer heatwave of 2003, which produced 35,000 excess deaths. Within a few decades, this will be the norm; within a few decades more, much of the Mediterranean may become desert.

If global dimming has such a big and immediate impact on temperatures, then this means that global warming is in fact a far stronger beast than previously thought. Furthermore, most aerosol pollutants are washed out of the atmosphere or broken down by hydroxyl within days; CO2 accumulates and stays up there for centuries. In the long run, and absent conscious human intervention, CO2 and global warming will win out.

The Dilemmas of Global Dimming

Once clean air regulations and/or depleting hydrocarbon stocks force a stop to or reversal of “dirty” pollution, which produces a cooling effect, then warming will hit the Earth with full force – by then no doubt accelerated by positive feedbacks like the decreasing ice-albedo effect, ocean acidification, vegetation dieoff and Siberian methane releases.

Global warming will follow the upper end of the IPCC’s projections (6.4C rise by 2100), or even exceed them altogether. We may hit 2C as soon as 2030, initiating the melting of the polar icecaps and dooming the world’s coastal cities. A rise of 4C, perhaps as soon as 2040, will spell the death of the Amazon. The fin de siècle climate may be as much as 10C hotter than today, which implies certain doom for industrial civilization as the (electronic-cyber) map collapses from the assault of the desert of the real.

No wonder then that stratospheric sulfur particulate emissions are one of the leading contenders for geo-engineering plans to “correct” the world’s climate should global warming veer out of control, this idea being proposed by Mikhail Budyko as early as 1974. Or we could try to initiate a hydroxyl collapse so that pollution no longer gets cleansed out and accumulates like CO2, shielding us from the Sun’s wrath.

Of course, both paths – global warming or global dimming – will have catastrophic impacts on world food production. Increasing the global aerosol cover on such a large scale is a huge undertaking in political and social costs. One way to do it is to increase coal burning and to remove the scrubbers from factory chimneys and other such amenities of today’s life. In the future, clean air may become a luxury.

Doing this will be quite cheap – coal is still plentiful, even if the mined ores are constantly declining in energy density, and removing pollution controls will significantly increase its EROEI (energy return on energy invested), which will give a boost to an industrial civilization by now on the verge of collapse. However, embarking on this project will be difficult to explain to citizens already tired of the dead hand of government in their lives, for by now net returns to complexity will be decidedly negative (Tainter). Furthermore, not all nations will benefit or agree to this project, though they will no doubt be bullied into line should the Great Powers reach a common agreement.

However, quite apart from further postponing the inevitable day of reckoning and increasing its magnitude when comes, darkening the world could shut down the Asian monsoon and drastically change the world’s weather patterns.

If global warming is to go unchallenged by global dimming, however, it will be all the faster and more catastrophic. Beyond a 3C rise, the heat will wreck the world’s mid-latitudinal breadbaskets and cause staple crop yields in overpopulated nations like China and India to plummet.

Fire or darkness? That is one hell of a predicament.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.