January 09, 2023

Paying for climate disaster or for nuclear weapons?

After the American Century

One of the sore points in the UN climate negotiations is the question of who should pay for floods and other disasters that are intensified or even caused by global warming. Pakistan has been especially insistent that it needs international aid to rebuild after intense flooding. I am not against this idea in the abstract, but note the following points.

(1) A nation is responsible for preparing for disasters. It ought to keep sea walls and dikes in good repair, for example. It should also restrict building on a flood plain which will almost certainly be inundated in the foreseeable future.  This point also applies to provinces or states within nations. When Florida allows extensive building close to the sea, while at the same time removing large mangrove trees which are an effective defence against storm surges, it should not be able, when disaster strikes, to ask for billions in aid. Regions and a nations have a duty to protect their citizens, and this means they should prepare for possible disasters. I cannot say whether Pakistan fulfilled its duty to be prepared, but it is fair to ask the question and investigate before handing over billions of dollars.

(2) In 2019 the nations with nuclear weapons spent about $73 billion on their arsenals. Some nations that are asking for free disaster aid are also nuclear powers, notably Pakistan. Should it continue to make large investments in atomic bombs rather than make that money available as disaster aid? Would not loans to such a nation be, in effect, assistance to their nuclear programs?  Supposedly, such weapons are for national defence, but in practice the bombs are in storage, available just in case. The estimated annual cost of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program is $1 billion. It also was costly to develop the weapons in the first place, and took almost twenty years before the first bomb was tested successfully in 1998. The total expense of Pakistan's nuclear program is therefore at least $30 billion. Had they used that money to prepare for flood disasters, it would be roughly twice the $15 billion they now are requesting in free disaster aid.  India has spent more than twice that sum on nuclear weapons  in the last quarter century, so it might have had more than $60 billion for environmental projects and disaster aid.

On the whole, if all the money now spent on nuclear weapons could be reallocated to curbing global warming, by 2035 it would amount to $1 trillion.

I am amazed that any nuclear state has the nerve to ask for free aid to protect its people from environmental disasters. If they have billions for weapons of mass destruction, then they do not need charity when disaster strikes. Rather. they need to rethink their priorities.

On this basis, I suggest that the following nations should not be eligible for free disaster assistance:

    The United States
    North Korea

One might want to add more nations to this list, depending on their annual budget for conventional ams.

December 21, 2022

Downsizing Knowledge: The Danish government's plan to shorten humanities education

After the American Century

The OECD statistics on spending for higher education reveal considerable differences between the Scandinavian countries. Norway spends more than $22,000 per student each year; Sweden about $25,000; and Denmark, about $19,000. Some fields cost a lot more than others, notably medicine and science need expensive equipment and laboratories, whose price presumably is much the same regardless of country. The least funding goes to the humanities, which usually have larger classes and need little equipment and no laboratories. Bluntly, Denmark spends less per student for university education than Sweden and Norway, and the Danish students in humanities receive the least support of any students in Scandinavia.  It is also worth noting that the annual expenditure per university student in the US is about $32,000 and in the UK about $28,000. Denmark has fallen behind, and things are about to get worse.

The number of university students in all fields has been falling in Denmark since 2014, with about 13,500 fewer in 2021. The Danish government has saved quite a lot of money by educating fewer people, perhaps as much as $250 million each year. Being behind Sweden and Norway and having fewer students as well, one might think that it was time for Denmark to invest more in education. 


But the new Danish government does not see it that way. They have been aggressively cutting the size of the student body. In 2021, the socialist government told the universities to cut enrolments. Copenhagen University announced it would downsize by 1,590 student places by 2030, and 40% of these would be in the humanities. The next three largest universities made similar announcements. The government was downsizing on higher education, and they were just getting started.

During the run-up to the election in November, 2022, the Socialists announced that they would like to remodel university education, especially for the humanities, by eliminating an entire year. At present, students who want a BA and an MA follow a five year curriculum, with the first three years for the BA and the MA as a two-year degree.  The proposal was not laid out in detail, but it appears that this cutback would primarily affect the MA. In other words, there will be less specialization, with an entire year removed from MA studies.  Few have ever been given the opportunity to do a Ph.D. in Denmark, and for those who do get the chance, there are no regular classes or seminars at that level. 

Note that this "reform" was proposed for all of the humanities, perhaps for some of the social sciences, but not for science, medicine, and engineering, which would still have a longer curriculum. If carried through, the inequality between humanities and rest of the university would make Denmark unusual internationally. Norway, Sweden, the US and Britain do not offer a cut-rate degree in foreign languages, history, art. theology, and other humanistic subjects. 
If carried through, this will be the second time university education has been shortened. Until 1993, universities offered a six-year education, which combined 4 years of specialization in one subject and 2 years in a second field. The graduates were then qualified to teach two subjects in the gymnasium. If someone was not interested in becoming a teacher, they could stop after four years in one field and receive a degree called a cand. phil. 

The Coming Danish Brain Drain
It seems obvious that when cutting an education from five to four years it is impossible maintain the same level of expertise, nor will Danish universities be as attractive to students. Furthermore, if there are 20% fewer hours in the classroom for students, then about one in five teachers will not be needed. An entire generation either will not be trained at all or will get an advanced degree and find that there are no jobs. Looking ten years ahead, faculties will consist of people between 40 and 65, with almost no young scholars and no Ph.D. students.  Some of the most promising people will go abroad, perhaps to Sweden, Norway, the US, or Britain. They will not return because there will only an impoverished second-rate university sector to come back to. If the government carries through its plan, then a Danish brain drain seems inevitable. Moreover, the government has forced universities to eliminate several thousand places for international students.

The combined effect of the various cutbacks have devastated some departments. At the University of Copenhagen alone, 344 teaching positions disappeared between 2015 and 2017, or about 6.5% of the faculty. More positions have since disappeared at all the universities. The University of Southern Denmark used to offer degrees in Spanish, French, Russian, and Chinese, but all of these have gradually disappeared. Many faculty are deeply distressed, not least because it seems there is no Danish political party that thinks they are worth defending in an election campaign. And when students ask about doing a PhD, the only honest answer one can give them is that he or she should go abroad or forget about it.

Final note on expenditures per student. Harvard University has an endowment of more than $40 billion, and it supplements what students pay in tuition. The total cost to educate one Harvard undergraduate per year is more than $200 thousand per year, more than Denmark spends to educate ten students.  

December 20, 2022

The big picture on Energy in 2023

After the American Century

Newspaper stories about energy tend to focus on particular countries, new technologies, or one energy sector at a time.  But what is the big picture?  Here are a few facts of the matter.

Is coal being phased out, since it is the very polluting compared to most other energy sources? In the world as a whole, coal consumption continued to rise until c. 2010. Since then it has been leveling off, but it has begun to rise again after the worst of the pandemic was over. Some countries are moving away from coal, notably the United States, but others are increasing their reliance on it, notably China. A bit more than half of all coal consumption takes place in China. For another generation, coal will still be a dominant fuel.

Is world energy use rising along with the increase in population?
These changes in coal use are not related to population growth in any simple way. US population is growing, but coal use there is not. In China, the population is not growing, due to the long enforced "one child per family" policy. But coal use is rising in China, at least in the short term. In other words, every country has a somewhat different resource base and situation. In general, as the standard of living increases, so does energy consumption. However, the most advanced forms of housing and transport break that rising curve. Well insulated buildings with solar panels make many new buildings self-sufficient.

Is the problem of energy one of supply? or perhaps the technologies we need are not yet commercially developed?
The biggest problem used to be that the technologies of extremely efficient energy production and use were too expensive. But in the last decade that has changed, and the biggest problem is the failure of politicians (and therefore of voters) to adopt the changes that are now possible. More than half of all the new cars sold in Norway are now electric vehicles. In contrast, equally rich and more densely populated Denmark is far behind Norway. If Denmark were an automobile producing nation, this might possibly make some sense, but it has no automobile factories at all. Unhappily, it is ill-informed and second-rate politicians who are holding Denmark back on this matter. One can see the same thing in the United States. where some states, notably California and Massachusetts, have energy policies that are excellent, while other states, notably those in the Old South, have terrible records on making the energy transition. I cannot say this strongly enough: today the problem is more social and political than it is technological. Don't believe it? Then consider that Costa Rica gets more than 95% of its electricity from solar, wind, hydo, and geothermal, while few of the other small central American countries come close to that statistic. 

How much energy is generated by wind power?
In 2021, for the first time solar and wind power supplied more than 10% of the world's power. But this general figure hides large disparities. The 10% figure is accurate for Japan or Argentina, but a few countries are far ahead of that level. Scotland generates more than 90% of its electricity from wind. Denmark also is a leader in windmill technologies, and it routinely supplies more than half its electrical needs using wind. On some windy days, windmills supply all of its electricity. Other emerging leaders in wind power include Portugal and Chile. China, the US, and Germany are investing heavily in this area, and they are the three nations with the biggest production, although these nations are still working to free themselves from fossil fuels.

Where is solar power being used the most?
The largest capacity in solar power can be found in China, whose capacity in 2019 was roughly that of the US, Germany, and Japan, combined.   The cost of solar has now fallen below the cost of burning coal, so it is only a failure of leadership and investment that keeps desert nations from cashing in on this opportunity. But consider that Saudi Arabia and other oil producing countries subsidize gasoline prices, making it cheaper to burn petroleum than to invest in solar power. Again, this is, at root, a political problem, not a technological one.

And what about oil?
In 2021 the US consumed more oil than any other country, about 20% of world demand. China was next with roughy 16%, India about 5%. Since the combined population of China and India is well over 2 billion, or roughly six times the population of the US, two things are obvious. One, the US must radically reduce its oil consumption if it is going to help stave off more global warming. Two, even assuming it does this, the enormous populations of China, India, and other Asian nations are going to keep demanding oil. It seems unlikely that the global consumption will fall very much, if at all, in the next ten years. Therefore, improvements in all the other energy sectors are going to be crucial to reducing pollution and cutting back on CO2 from other sources. 

The outlook is rather grim. Oil and coal are almost certain to remain the dominant sources of energy for the next decade. We have the technologies and the knowledge to replace them, but we have not yet shown enough political will to make the change. 

November 11, 2022

What happens after the 2022 Midterms?

After the American Century

The 2022 midtern elections are over, and it appears that Donald Trump is losing his hold on the Republican Party, which might help the nation move away from nasty politics, denialism, and polarization. However, both houses of Congress will be rather evenly split.  Many fear that the next two years will be a time of gridlock in Washington, with little legislation getting through. If the Republicans choose this path, however, I do not think it will lead to victory, for the following six reasons.

Why two years of gridlock is unlikely
1. The climate crisis is worsening, and the years when Republicans could stonewall attempts to deal with it are over. They will lose credibility if they keep on obstructing.
2. New candidates to replace Trump are going to need some achievements to make them credible. Possibly there are no wanna-be candidates in the Congress, but if so, this would be the first time. 
3. People doubted that Biden could get much legislation through in his first two years, but in fact he did rather well. There are a few (admittedly very few) moderate Republicans who will vote with the Democrats on particular issues.
4. Bi-partisan support for Ukraine is likely to continue, especially after the events of the last week, when Russia was forced to withdraw from Kherson. If Republicans do not continue their support, then they will be helping Putin, who is surely one of the least popular foreign leaders among Americans. Who cannot be inspired by the Ukrainian determination and grit? 
5. There is always pork barrel legislation (highways, bridges, airports, etc.), which every legislator wants, in order to please the constituents. 
6. Disasters will always strike, whether tornados, hurricanes, or floods. The President has the power to declare a national disaster, which unleashes federal resources and funding. If the Republicans try to play hardball, Biden can refuse to declare a disaster, which would be especially likely if there are any games being played with passing the budget or raising the ceiling on the national debt. 

I am not predicting peace and harmony, of course. But for all of these reasons, gridlock is not the most likely outcome. In fact, Washington is quite used to functioning with a White House that does not control both houses of Congress. 

The next election
With the midterms over, the 2024 presidential election comes into sharp focus. It is early days, but it seems likely the Republicans will not simply fall in line behind Donald Trump. He has a LOT of baggage, most obviously in the form of on-going lawsuits. One reads reports already that leaders want to see a fresh, younger face.

Democrats are worried that Biden is a safe pair of hands but lacks charisma. His age has become an issue for some, too. If he chooses to run, however, it may be hard to run in the primaries against him. Should he decide not to run, presumably in about a year from now, then a vigorous contest would follow.

In short, it might turn out that in 2024 both parties will have new candidates, almost certainly younger candidates than Trump and Biden.  If so, it will be an extremely interesting election.

April 24, 2022

Seven Sublimes

After the American Century

Seven Sublimes – The The MIT Press, 2022 

        Discount for readers who order before Jan 31, 2023Enter code MITPHoliday22 at checkout on PenguinRandomHouse.com for 20% off ALL titles published by the MIT Press (including Seven Sublimes!), with free shipping until January 31, 2023. Terms and conditions apply.  This offer is only good for readers living in the USl

  • “With brilliant clarity, Nye delineates the nuances of the sublime, from the natural to the technological, from the infinite to the infinitesimal. Building on Kant and Burke, this book is a revelation of how we see and experience the world.”

    Miles Orvell, 

    Temple University, author of Empire of Ruins: American Culture, Photography, and the Spectacle of Destruction. Oxford University Press, 2021

The sublime is a widely shared emotion that all human beings, regardless of their race, gender, or nationality, are capable of experiencing, for we all are endowed with the same bodily senses. When W. E. B. Du Bois visited the Grand Canyon, the railroads forced him to travel in a segregated railway car because he was Black, but this did not prevent him from appreciating its grandeur. Du Bois declared unequivocally, “I believe that all men, black and brown and white, are brothers, varying through time and opportunity, in form and gift and feature, but differing in no essential particular, and alike in soul and the possibility of infinite development.” His meditation on the enormous chasm concluded with these words: “It is not—it cannot be a mere, inert, unfeeling, brute fact—its grandeur is too serene—its beauty too divine! It is not red, and blue, and green, but, ah! the shadows and the shades of all the world, glad colorings touched with a hesitant spiritual delicacy.” Du Bois understood that the capacity to experience the sublime is universal.

This book focuses less on formal philosophy than on personal experiences, such as visiting a national park, skyscraper, disaster site, battleground, or virtual reality. To experience the sublime, it is not necessary to travel to famous locations. During travel restrictions due to the pandemic in 2020–2021, many people discovered solace and inspiration in local microadventures. They camped in nearby parks; they climbed trees; they disrupted routines; they stared at the night sky; they took walks in unfamiliar places. Recent studies confirm what philosophers have long said: confronted with the sublime, people commonly feel a sense of humility. These experiences of awe reduce self-interest and increase social cohesion. 

The sublime is a powerful individual moment, but it also has cultural effects, helping to hold groups together. This is a useful starting point for an historical assessment of the sublime, considered not as a static category but as an evolving realm of experiences with at least seven distinct forms. Sublime phenomena may be experienced either directly through the senses or indirectly through instruments, such as telescopes, microscopes, sensors, and computers. By focusing on this distinction, I found that there appear to be four forms of the tangible sublime (natural, technological, disastrous, and martial) and three forms of the intangible sublime (scientific, digital, and environmental). This book devotes a chapter to each of these. 

While developing these chapters, I realized that the different sublimes did not merely focus on different classes of objects. Each implies a distinct perception of space and time, and therefore they can be on odds with one another. A waterfall or canyon exemplifies the natural sublime to some, and yet other people value more highly a large hydroelectric dam that obliterates these landscapes and exemplifies the technological sublime. Likewise, virtual reality makes possible new perceptions but engages only a few of the senses, in contrast to the all-encompassing sensory engagement with a local ecology that is the hallmark of the environmental sublime. The martial sublime and the technological sublime are based on the mastery of many of the same technologies, but they work toward quite different ends and express incompatible values. In short, the seven sublimes share certain characteristics, but they are not a coherent system. They are related but not congruent.

Gazing from the top of a mountain at a vista is not the same thing as looking at a metropolis from the observation deck of a skyscraper. Watching a military bombardment is not like visiting Niagara Falls. Looking at images constructed from Hubble Space Telescope data is not the same as experiencing a powerful earthquake or visiting a battlefield. In different ways, each of these experiences may be sublime, but the expanded terminology developed in Seven Sublimes is needed to distinguish between them.   This work is  framed by philosophy but focused on historical examples.

Hardcover  $35.00     ISBN: 9780262046923

232 pp.  19 figures   May 2022

March 01, 2022

Ukraine has been invaded and the Republicans fail to unite in biggest crisis since 1962

After the American Century

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the greatest foreign confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It is not time for domestic squabbles. There are Ukrainians dying every day. There are missiles being launched into residential areas of their cities. The Russians are using cluster bombs. And the Republicans? They are trying to ignore the crisis or blame it on President Biden. The Republicans have lost the thread. They seem only interested in petty complaints. The Russians are threatening to use nuclear weapons, and the Republicans make the US weaker, divided, and less able to act decisively in a crisis. History will judge them harshly.

One of the oddest things about the Trump presidency was his bromance with Putin.  This cartoon playfully reminds us that Reagan had a quite different view of Russia. He famously called ithe Soviet Union "the evil empire."  Trump is now trying to walk back his remarks about Putin that he made literally as Russian troops were massed at the border.  He declared to supporters at a rally, " I mean, he's taken over a country for $2 worth of sanctions. I'd say that's pretty smart." He added,"He's taking over a country, really a vast, vast location, a great piece of land with a lot of people and just walking right in." (verification of remarks, as reported in Newsweek). 

I believe in freedom of speech, and Trump can say whatever he likes. In fact, the more he talks, the more he contradicts himself and reveals the disorderly contents of his mind.  Sadly, however, Trump is not alone in his ignorance of history and his self-serving confusion. There is a Putin-friendly wing of the Republican Party that has refused to condemn the invasion of Ukraine and prefers to talk about divisive domestic issues. 

The problem for Republicans is that most Americans understand that during a world crisis, politicians must take a clear stand. Republicans are not clear. They want to deny the vote to millions of Americans but then turn around and demand democracy for Ukraine. They want to block Biden at every turn and then call him weak. They want to enable white supremacy groups to get their votes, and then look the other way when those groups openly support Putin against Ukraine. 

Not all Republicans have failed in this crisis. To his credit, Mitt Romney strongly condemned Putin's war, and it seems that some Republicans are starting to agree with him. Those who can remember Reagan might be recovering their sanity. Might be. 

In the meantime, Europe is showing the necessary resolve, and Biden is doing the best he can while saddled with a bickering, confused, ignorant, and deeply unpatriotic Republican opposition.

January 06, 2022

American Democracy could fail by 2025

After the American Century

The year 2026 will be the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution. Will the United States celebrate that event as a democracy? Many fear that it will not, notably writers in the Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Economist. A century ago, during World War I, democracy also was under threat, and Joseph Pennell produced the image below, showing an air attack on New York, where the Statue of Liberty's torch has been destroyed. The dangers in 2022 come not from an external enemy, however, but from within.

Joseph Pennell, courtesy of Library of Congress

One year ago, today, a mob attacked the Congress of the United States. They mistakenly believed that the American elections had been rigged against Donald Trump. In fact, he had lost both the popular vote and the Electoral College vote. But Trump encouraged his supporters to attack the legislative branch of government, seeking to seize through violence what had had lost at the polls. Calling themselves patriots, his rabble proved themselves traitors to democracy.

One year later, more than 50 million Republicans still believe the Big Lie that the election was stolen, and many of them think the attack on Congress was justified. The government of the United States is in danger of being transformed into a sham democracy, dominated by a militant minority.

The next three years will be the most difficult test of the US system of government since the Civil War. It is possible that demagogues, led by Donald Trump, will succeed in their quest to dominate all three branches of government. The elections in November, 2022 will be the first test of strength between the two sides. The 2024 presidential election may be a fateful contest that decides whether democracy will survive in America.

During human history, democracy has not been dominant, but rather has emerged and disappeared many times. The democracies of ancient Athens and Rome each lasted a few hundred years. Some Italian city states during the Renaissance had elements of democracy, as did parts of Switzerland. The British government evolved slowly toward democracy, but even today it retains the House of Lords, which is not democratically elected. The French Revolution created a democracy for about ten years before it was taken over by Napoleon. Many northern European nations developed into constitutional monarchies that became more democratic over time. But the democratic system has not been universal, even in Europe, where it only became the dominant form of government after World War I.

During the last century, maintaining the appearance of democracy has become the international norm. Elections are mostly honest in the EU, but elsewhere dictators hold elections to legitimize their rule. China has sham elections, but it is a one party state. Democracy existed on paper in Russia for a few years in the 1990s but is a sham again, and Hungary is close to losing all but the semblance of democracy as well. Poland is moving in the same direction, as it undermines the independence of its judiciary, concentrating power in the executive.  The United States is in danger of becoming another sham democracy.

Since the American Revolution, the United States has seen itself as the bastion of democracy, and while it has struggled to realize the ideals enshrined in its Declaration of Independence, on the whole it has moved toward equality and full citizenship rights for all. But since 2016, the Republican Party has moved aggressively to curtail the voting rights of many citizens, and it has often claimed that any election lost was rigged against it. (Investigations have found, however, no election fraud.) Voter suppression may not be sufficient, as the Democrats are a larger party, But by redrawing district lines, Republicans seek to ensure they can win a majority of seats in each state legislature, despite having a minority of the voters. 

Through these and many other actions, the Republicans undermine public confidence that democracy is real in the United States, seeking to persuade its voters that they can turn to violence to take back control of the nation. All manner of absurd conspiracy theories have been promoted to convince the public that a left-wing conspiracy now controls the United States and must be opposed by any means necessary, including voter suppressive, intimidation, fake news, personal attacks, and slander. And if all these measures fail, then violence is presented as the "legitimate right" of the supposedly victimized Republicans. Indeed, one poll found that 40% of all Republicans thought violence against their fellow Americans could be justified.

The year 2026 will be the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution. Will the United States celebrate that event as a democracy?