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Tue Apr 21, 2015 at 01:14 PM PDT

A Highway System Too Far

by Bob Thurman

In commenting on my last diary, John in Cleveland opines that we have reached the limit in tax receipts and we simply cannot afford all the governmental programs now in existence. Giving the Interstate Highway System (IHS) as an example, he notes that "Stuff just costs exponentially more to do now than it used to." The question of limits invites further exploration, but for this piece, I will stick to John's example.

And with the exponentially increasing costs comment I agree. I would even argue that President Eisenhower (a Republican, BTW) made a huge mistake in initiating and promoting the construction of the system. At the time, we had a comprehensive and efficient rail system which served us well in moving men and materiel throughout the country during WWII. The IHS has all but destroyed that rail system and has had other deleterious effects as well, such as enabling urban sprawl.

But we're now stuck with it.

So much of our commerce moves over it, that a major disruption would threaten economic catastrophe, particularly since so many of our manufacturing and and distribution activities depend on "just in time" delivery of raw materials, parts, and finished products. Walmart, for example, would wither and die without prompt delivery of its inventory (OK, maybe not such a bad thing, but that's another story).

But a major disruption is what is looming if we fail to maintain the IHS. The existing rail system would be an inadequate substitute. So we face a Hobson's choice: pay what we must, no matter how exorbitant, to maintain the system, or face an eventual economic collapse.

Is there no third option? Well, theoretically there is. We could start beefing up the rail system and gradually abandon the IHS as we encourage more and more rail usage. But it isn't going to happen.

Debate of issues such as this is simply not part of our political discourse. Instead, the media mull over trivialities ad nauseum. Sex scandals, endless dissection of campaign tactics, gaffes in speeches--such is what passes for political news and comment.

And meanwhile the potholes enlarge and the bridges weaken. Entropy just don't get no respect.  

Discuss

Sat Apr 18, 2015 at 01:54 PM PDT

On Taxes and Related

by Bob Thurman

After a middling struggle, I got my tax returns filed a day early this week. For me, that's almost an epic accomplishment. I'm even anticipating a refund this year, thanks to a large credit for installing a solar water heating system. Yes, I'm feebly trying to go green. That's not easy, since nearly everything I do or use involves the use of fossil fuel energy, directly or indirectly.

But I digress.

One of the points of this screed is that, pain in the ass though it may be, I'm with the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: "I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization." Unfortunately, that simple point seems to elude the vast majority of Republicans, particularly those of the Tea Party persuasion. As illustration, I will offer the recent funding cuts imposed on the Federal Internal Revenue Service (IRS). This is ostensibly to help curb the Federal budget deficit, which has come to terrorize the Republican imagination ever since President Obama's ascension to the Presidency, although for some strange reason not before.

The reality, of course, is different. The cuts are to punish the IRS for allegedly unfairly scrutinizing the bona fides of "conservative" (read "reactionary"), ostensibly charitable, groups seeking tax-deductibility for their donors' contributions. Given the GOP's sorry track record of playing fast-and-loose with such trifling hindrances as campaign limitation and disclosure laws, it does not seem unreasonable to give applications from such groups a thorough vetting. Personally, I think kudos should go to the employees having the gumption to do so.

But with consistent hypocrisy, the GOP poobahs are in high dudgeon over IRS "abuses," although they have found no evidence of any conspiracy, or even knowledge by high agency executives, of the alleged bounds-overstepping by low-level functionaries.

Nevertheless, said poobahs have determined to punish the entire agency for the sins of its employees by cutting agency funding. It does not seem to have occurred to them that this is akin to excising one's nose to spite one's face. By cutting funding, one renders the agency less able to perform its function of collecting taxes owed, and thus it contributes to what? Oh, the deficit! Well--who'd a thunk that!

But beyond the IRS debacle, the GOP antipathy to taxes is increasingly leaving the nation in peril. To take another example, the increasingly woeful state of the national infrastructure--specifically roads and bridges, is threatening an inevitable breakdown of the national economy. Such a large part of goods and services depend on movement over these structures that a serious outage would bring down the entire system. Yet, year after year, virtually nothing is done, and the GOP doggedly resists any real program to remedy the situation.

Now to my second point. Any half-way objective observer can see the reality of the current state of affairs, and it's far from pretty. So the Latin phrase comes to mind--cui bono? Who are the beneficiaries of this mess? It sure as hell isn't the average wage/salary earner whose compensation has remained flat for close to a decade.

The obvious answer is the already obscenely rich, whose share of the national income and wealth has been increasing over the same period. And the GOP House of Representatives just attempted to give them an added boost by repealing an already pittance of an estate tax. It's quite obvious these people are mere lackeys of the super-rich, the Koch brothers being the prime example of their masters.

The surprising thing is that too many of the poor schmucks have been aiding and abetting the top leaches by voting for their lackeys. One wonders how long it will take before they realize how they've been conned and swindled. As Mark Twain said, history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. And one of those rhymes is that when wealth inequality becomes too wide and obvious, the plebs will rise and kick over the existing order. What succeeds may be better or worse, but one thing is pretty certain: the old top dogs are going to suffer.

There's a recent video from the web site "Addicting Info" that should give the leaches and their lackeys a case of the fantods. An erstwhile Tea Party adherent is coming to the realization he's been voting against his own interests. He (at long last) recognizes the GOP has been doing nothing for him, and the Democrats have. Watching him grappling with the cognitive dissonance is almost painful.

He is only one man, but if he can recognize how he's been duped, the odds are others will follow. How long the process may take can't be predicted. But I think it will happen, and when it reaches a tipping point, the Koch's and their ilk had better watch out.

Of course, other forces could crash the entire system before an uprising. But that's another story.

Further affiant saith not.

Discuss

Fri Apr 03, 2015 at 10:44 AM PDT

Papering Over a Chasm

by Bob Thurman

The "Today" show of April 2, 2015, ran a segment supposedly probing the question "does religion unite or divide" people. Their first example was a mother-daughter pair--the mother a devout Christian, the daughter a long-time convert to Islam. Digression: I have a great deal of trouble getting my head around the notion that a western-raised woman can willingly convert to a misogynistic ideology like Islam--it's a damn strange world we live in. End of digression.

Anyway, the daughter's conversion had apparently strained the relationship for a number of years until they finally discussed the matter. They claim the relationship is now better, but Mom only accepts daughter's right to make the choice--not the validity of the choice itself. Sounds to me as if there is still a rift there. The talk may have plastered it over, but it still exists.

The second part of the segment involved a very short discussion of the question between a Catholic prelate (Cardinal Dolan) and a New York female Rabbi, whose name I didn't catch. The specific topic was the relationship between Easter and Passover. They both allowed as how both holidays represent a striving for reconciliation and universal peace--or something like that. After that kumbaya moment the segment was over.

Well, as an in-depth analysis of the question whether religion unites or divides, I found the segment incredibly shallow. I can say from my own experience it divides. I was raised in a dogmatic cult (OK Mormon, if you must know) which I left in my 20's. Although my parents did not end our relationship, my "apostasy" remained a sore point with them the rest of their lives, Our relationship remained superficial, and we never mentioned the elephant in the room. Apparently I was, nevertheless, lucky. I have heard many horror stories of shunning.

But my family's division is benign in comparison with the historic and current divisions caused by religion, particularly the Abrahamic ones. If the guests on "Today" had been, say, Franklin Graham and a Chabad Rabbi, I doubt there would have been the kumbaya moment. Add a Wahhabi Imam to the mix, and I suspect the fur would have really flown.

In fact, religion has been the excuse, if not always the root cause, of wars since the Dark Ages. Just for example, witness the Arab/Islamic eruptions of the Sixth Century; Charlemagne's forced conversion of the Saxons; the Crusades (both against Muslims and against Christian heretics); and all the Catholic vs. Protestant conflicts from the 16th Century right down to the latest "troubles" in Ireland. And, of course, I have mentioned only a small sample.

It's time we stopped kidding ourselves that religion is always a benign force in human affairs. It's true religious institutions and movements have at times provided material help for the poor and marginalized persons in society; and it's also true that probably most individuals have derived emotional comfort and support from their religious beliefs. But balanced against that we have the bigotry and hate engendered and supported by those same religious beliefs--bigotry and hatred which have fueled and sustained cruel and bloody atrocities.

I have no illusions that somehow religious delusions can be dissolved; or that all human conflicts would be resolved by doing so. But it seems to me it's a useless, and perhaps dangerous, exercise to deny the existence of sharp differences in religious belief. I submit it's better to recognize them and simply for all parties to agree and resolve that the differences shall not be allowed to excuse violence or other anti-social behavior. That would be far from a perfect solution, but it would be a workable one.

Unfortunately, I very much fear even that is too much to hope for. I dislike to end on a pessimistic note, but human antipathy toward "the other" appears to be too deeply ingrained ever to eradicate. But we can't even ameliorate it unless we forthrightly recognize it.

 

Discuss

In a previous life, I once was an assistant professor in the business college of a western University. I taught primarily commercial law to undergraduates and to MBA candidates, but I was also tasked with teaching an MBA course in “Corporate Social Responsibility.” I know – it sounds like an oxymoron, and it did to me too – even back then.

However, it was the era of youthful idealism and activism – the heyday of the anti-war movement and protests against racism and the excesses of capitalism – the counterculture as it was called.

Okay, to come clean, when I started teaching, it was 1970.

The decade of the 1960's had produced a number of scholarly works advocating the notion that business executives should base their decisions not merely on the perceived near-term advantage to the firm, but also on what might be considered its long-term advantage afforded by a healthy society, viable and stable suppliers, and even a stable and contented work force. The concept might be cast as enlightened, long-term self interest, even at the expense of some immediate maximized return.

There was plenty of push-back against the “social responsibility” movement – if it could be called that. His eminence Milton Friedman opined that the corporation's only responsibility was to maximize the return to shareholders while acting within the law. One of the most infamous rebuttals was delivered by one Albert Z. Carr, who analogized the business world to a poker table – an activity in which bluffing, i.e., lying, is permissible and expected.

Not to beat the weathered bones of a long deceased equine, but the analogy is simply grotesque. For openers, one can refuse to play poker, one can walk away at any time, and the operators of a rigged game are subject to civil and criminal penalties. None of that applies to the current business scene. But I digress.

There weren't any textbooks available for my course, so I made do with various articles and essays from a number of sources. We had some lively class discussions, but I let my students know they could pretty well forget the class once they were out in the business world.

Then, of course, came the first OPEC oil shock and the ensuing recession. Soon the hippie wannabes were trading in their bell bottoms and teeshirts for suits and ties, and Ayn Rand's philosophy of “hooray for me and fuck you” became pretty much the order of the day. Gordon Gekko's brand of ethics became the prevailing business ethical paradigm.

After four years, I left academia – OK, I was invited to leave having failed to publish – and found a home in a state utility regulatory agency.

Later on, the electorate having bought into the Great Prevaricator's assertion that Government was the problem, we went through a paroxysm of deregulation, one of the first casualties being the Savings and Loan industry, the greed of who's executives and owners effectively imploded it. That was followed by the Enron scandal and a number of others with the crescendo in 2007 of the investment banks' CDO debacle threatening to blow up the whole system.

Concurrently, the working middle class was effectively eliminated through exporting jobs, breaking unions, and holding wages steady while purchasing power shrank. A 2011 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study found that between 1979 and 2007, income of households in the top 1 percent of earners grew by 275%; earnings grew 65% for the next 19 percent; just under 40% for the next 60 percent; and 18% for the bottom twenty percent of households. Yet most of that top 1% seem to see themselves as heroic “job creators.”

Throughout the whole period of wretched excess and destruction of the middle class, I was unable to detect an echo of the concern with social responsibility with which the '70's had begun. So it was with some pleasant surprise that recently, checking out the current course catalog of my former employer, I found the business college was still offering an MBA course in business ethics and social responsibility. My happy wonderment dimmed considerably when further investigation revealed it was only a two-credit elective offered once a year at a relatively isolated satellite campus. It appears to me that the course is a useless curiosity, like the human appendix.

The demise of the social responsibility concept is indeed a pity. If ever there was a time for a kinder, gentler capitalism, it certainly is now. But I see little sign that the captains of industry recognize the peril they, and we, are facing.

The oil barons and their sycophants in the media continue to trumpet the fairy tale that we're on the cusp of a new oil boom while ignoring the fact that production has remained essentially flat for a decade and prices continue to hover around $100 per barrel. This should signal that we've reached a limit, and it's time to wean ourselves off of the stuff. But that would look bad on the next quarterly report, so just kick the can on down the road.

The evidence continues to mount that global warming is real, and it's going to cause literal hell if we don't do something to put on the brakes on the amount of CO2 we're pumping into the atmosphere. But the CO2 producers fight new regulations tooth and nail and continue to sow uncertainty and doubt in order to paralyze any attempt to take meaningful action. In the meantime the oceans continue to rise and acidify, weather events become more and more extreme, and a catastrophic tipping point looms nearer.

So if there ever was a time when the “job creators” (and their pet apologists, i.e., neo-liberal economists) needed to take a fresh look at the world they control, it is now. Their financial virtual world is only sustained by a real world subject to natural physical laws which they ignore just as much at their own peril, as at the peril of the rest of us.

It's time the present brand of capitalism was recognized for what it is – a world-devouring system which is stifling everything in its shit. How it could be reformed, or replaced, is the crucial question we face. I have no answer, and perhaps there is none. But I do know the only persons with the resources and power to seek and implement change are those same “job creators.” So it's high time the notion of social responsibility was revived. It really would be in the long-term interest of the one-percenters. If they continue to fail to recognize that long-term interest, their failure will doom them – and the rest of us.

Discuss

Sat Dec 21, 2013 at 01:52 PM PST

God Bless Us, Every One

by Bob Thurman

Okay, confession time. I'm quite introverted, and while I don't consider myself a misanthrope, I'm not overly impressed by what I observe as general human nature. Fortunately, there are some shining exceptions. The late Nelson Mandela is a recent example. The propensity of people to aid one another at times of disaster is another.

Further, I have fierce affection for my family and a few friends. Likewise, most people with whom I come in casual contact seem nice enough. But I'm seriously irritated by the apparently overwhelming distribution of bigotry, willful ignorance, dishonesty, self-absorption, violence and greed portrayed in the daily news. Not to mention all the violence, oppression, and general horror with which the historical record is replete.

I lay considerable store by rationality and objective truth. Obviously, I'm as subject to confirmation bias, intellectual laziness, and prejudice as other humans, but I do attempt to identify and compensate for these failings. I don't claim complete success, and doubtless some would claim I fail miserably. I do the best I can.

I have a wide range of interests, one of which is religion and Christian history in particular. My studies have led me to the conclusion that all the religions involving some sort of deity are man-made, and however emotionally satisfying they may be, their truth value is suspect to say the least. Which leads to the point of this essay after this windy introduction.

It follows that I tend to be annoyed, rather than moved, by all the hoopla surrounding Christmas. I cannot get excited over the celebration of the purported birth of the mythical god-man propounded by Paul and his successors. Short digression: it's irrelevant whether or not there was an historical mendicant preacher named Yeshua bin Yusef. That person, if he existed, was a believing, observant Jew, and he would have been appalled by the baroque myth the Church Fathers built in his name. Probably especially their co-opting the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia for the celebration of his birth.

And yet – and yet – there's one relatively recent Christmas tradition which can move me. “A Christmas Carol,” (Dickens' novella, not the music – “Carol of the Bells” and “The Little Drummer Boy” can get on my last nerve), no matter how many times I have read it and seen it performed as a play or film, can have me on the verge of tears.

Why should this resonate with me so powerfully? Well, I suppose you could say I was fixated on the work by playing Bob Cratchit as a 5th grader in an elementary school production. But I think it goes deeper than that.

I think the theme of redemption – of a sea change for the better – appeals to me viscerally. I want to believe such change is possible, and not only for the individual. I want to believe our better angels can prevail and that we can make this into a more just and gentle society, however overwhelming the evidence to the contrary. I want to believe humans world-wide can come to their senses, recognize the suicidal course we are on, and work cooperatively to avoid the worst consequences of our past actions.

My intellect, of course, says “fat chance.” But even a fat chance is a chance. Occasionally long-shots do come home. So it's Christmas time. I saw the TV production with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge last night. Scrooge changed, and Tiny Tim lived. And I get emotional at the memory.

So, against my better judgment, I'll echo Tiny Tim. God bless us, every one.    

Discuss

Thu Dec 19, 2013 at 10:07 AM PST

WHY E.T. STAYS HOME

by Bob Thurman

One of the relatively minor annoyances of the 21st Century is the devolution of the Discovery group of cable channels into a horror show of pseudo-science and assorted other disinformation. Prominent among these offerings are “documentaries” of visits, ancient or contemporary, to the Earth by “aliens,” short-hand for super-intelligent extra-terrestrial creatures. Sorry, but to put it delicately, I must call bovine manure.

Not that I don't, now and then, enjoy a good fantasy as much as the next guy, but these lamentable productions distort what real science is, and worse, distract from real challenges facing us, such as climate change, resource depletion, and overpopulation.

However, I suppose that believers in the alien fantasies, and their enablers, may have gathered comfort from recent news stories to the effect that astronomers have calculated that there are hundreds of billions of Earth-like, and hence life-hospitable, planets in our galaxy alone. While this may well bolster the case for extra-terrestrial life, it doesn't do much for the notion of alien visits.

There are a number of reasons for my skepticism, but one of the major ones is Einstein's theory of relativity. According to the theory, the speed of light limits the velocity with which we can travel. This may or may not apply at the quantum (unimaginably tiny) level, but in the context of our own activities, it appears to be well-proven. This means that even if we could drive a space vehicle at the speed of light, it could consume lifetimes to reach the nearest habitable planet. (Yes, it might not appear so to the travelers, but that effect isn't relevant to the discussion.) For those mounting (and financing) such an inter-stellar expedition, there would be no discernible return, not even a report of success or failure, in their lifetimes – if ever. I'd love to see NASA try to get funding for such a project. I can't see even Richard Branson touching it.

Another important aspect of the theory of relativity is the not-so-small matter of the amount of energy needed to propel such a vehicle close to the speed of light. The higher the velocity, the more energy needed to kick it along. And, of course, it would take an equal amount of energy for the deceleration at destination. At a time when our energy resources are becoming increasingly costly and difficult to find, it would be absolute folly to commit any significant proportion to so dubious an enterprise as an inter-stellar expedition.

But that's us. Isn't it possible some stupifyingly advanced civilization could overcome these difficulties? After all, there's been some serious speculation that with ion (or anti-matter – Thor save us) drives, the use of so-called worm holes in the universe, or the use of curvature in space, inter-stellar travel might be possible. Our sun is a comparative late-comer to the universe's party, so there's been time for such a civilization to emerge.

Possibly reasonable points (OK, I'm being generous), but in assessing the likelihood of visits from representatives of such a civilization, there are several aspects to consider.

A major consideration is how much of a fluke humankind is. For hundreds of millions of years, life on Earth flourished nicely, thank you very much, without some creature with a hypertrophied brain to screw with every part of the biosphere. For most creatures, a brain is a necessary evil – an energy-consuming organ which should be as large and complicated as consistent with survival but no larger.

So how did ours get so freakishly big?

There are a large number of probably unprovable hypotheses floating around, but the more plausible ones posit that it has something to do with walking on two legs and fluctuating climate change, which in turn has something to do with the current configuration of the continents. So an improbably lucky concatenation of circumstances enabled our ancestors, and latterly us, to become major players in the evolutionary drama.

Well, how likely is it that a similar concatenation could lead to similarly sentient beings on other planets? On the face of it, it would seem to be an unlikely event. But given the apparently huge number of life-hospitable planets available throughout our own galaxy, and the bazillion galaxies extant in the universe, what is unlikely becomes pretty much a dead certainty – perhaps many times over. Our own existence is proof it can happen.

So it seems quite possible, maybe even probable, that E.T. Is out there somewhere. But how likely is it he has come, or is now, calling on us? To answer that question, we would need to have some notion as to E.T.'s nature. But how could we possibly inform ourselves of that?

Well, given the lack of any reliable direct evidence, any assertion about E.T., even the most tentative, would be speculation. But perhaps we could indulge in somewhat informed speculation. After all, we do have an example of an intelligent life form with which we are well acquainted – ourselves. Now it may seem questionable, not to mention arrogant, to attempt to generalize from that one example. Nevertheless, there do appear to be certain imperatives to the operations of life which can point to E.T.'s probable nature.

The first is the defining characteristic of life – a self-replicating complex molecule with enough wiggle room in the replication to enable viable variation. The second is the necessity for raw materials to provide the wherewithal for the replication and energy to enable the replication. Given those conditions, life is off to the races.

And a race it is. Unfortunately, the finish line is death. Put a strain of yeast into a vat of grape juice, at a reasonable temperature, and the little buggers will replicate (reproduce) like mad, right up to the point where the alcohol they excrete as waste kills them all.

So it turns out no organism we know of can keep its numbers down to a sustainable   level without outside “help.” Which brings us to a third defining characteristic of life – life lives at the expense of life. In a finite world, there is never enough material and energy to enable unlimited reproduction. So the various life forms compete for these necessities, and one form the competition takes is the predation of some forms on others.

Actually, we could say the entire animal kingdom preys, directly or indirectly, on the plant kingdom, since only the latter, by virtue of photosynthesis, holds the key to storing solar energy directly as usable, energy-yielding, chemicals. Not that plants don't compete, they do – for space and access to light and nutrients – and the competition is just as vicious and lethal as any in the animal kingdom, even if plant competition occurs in silence and slow motion. But I digress.

The animal kingdom raises predation to a fine art. Big 'uns eat little 'uns all the way up the food chain, although, as far as land animals are concerned, there are large, in fact very large, herbivores. And, to keep their numbers in check, there are also large carnivores to prey on them.

Now it doesn't seem to take much brain power to be an herbivore – since you've got to spend most of your time grazing (your food yields low amounts of energy, so you've got to eat lots of it), you just need enough smarts to stay with your herd (if you don't have a herd, you're toast), join in defense when threatened, and mate if you can. Not much potential there for developing a super-brained, technologically-sophisticated, star-hopping species.

Of course, it doesn't necessarily take a lot of brain power to be a successful predator either. Alligators and Crocodiles aren't noted for their smarts, and they've been around since the dinosaurs' heyday. But, if you're going to get into the predation game in a major way as a latecomer and as a relatively puny and poorly-armed player, enhanced brain power may be your only option. You can't outfight 'em, but you can outwit 'em.

It would be a good idea to develop weapons to compensate for your lack of innate armament. A rather nasty, aggressive, grasping, and paranoid nature wouldn't hurt either, as long as its tempered by some benevolence for your in-group. And your prowess can be enhanced further if you can master the use of some external energy source. Like fire, for instance. It can make your food more digestible, allowing you to operate with a smaller, more energy-efficient gut. It can frighten off bigger, better-armed predators. It can warm you, allowing you to spread into more cold, hostile areas.

In fact, once you've reached that plateau, pretty much ain't no other species, herbivore or carnivore, gonna mess with you. Well, maybe sporadically in self-defense or desperation, but by and large, you've got it made. The only things keeping your numbers in check are disease and your propensity to let out your aggression by murdering your out-group fellows.

But in our case, that wasn't enough – we became too numerous for hunting and gathering to support all of us. So we had to figure out a more efficient way to get our food – agriculture and animal husbandry. Only trouble is, over the long haul they're not sustainable. Soil depletion, salinization, deforestation, desertification – they all take their toll. So it didn't take all that long until once again we were bumping up against the limits on the capacity of the Earth to sustain us.

Until we discovered a cache of external energy that surpassed anything we'd known before – coal, oil, and gas – you could say our real holy trinity. And that's the final improbable stroke of luck enabling our civilization. For hundreds of millions of years, various life forms lived, died, and laid down their carcasses to be worked on by heat and pressure to yield burnable and otherwise useful organic compounds. Without fossil fuels our technology couldn't have advanced beyond that of the 17th Century. Harnessing the power in these fossil fuels has enabled us to breed way, way past the natural carrying capacity of the entire planet. At least in the developed countries, every mouthful of food is eaten courtesy of a prodigious expenditure of fossil fuel – chiefly oil. And even in the underdeveloped world, fossil fuels play a major role by way of fertilizers and cooking fuel.

So, enabled by the cheap and abundant energy provided by fossil fuels, we have achieved a civilization so technologically-sophisticated that we can start thinking about inter-stellar travel, even though we haven't figured out a feasible method of accomplishing it.

And, of course, we never will.

Whoa, big fella – isn't that a pretty bold statement? Are you really putting a limit on human ingenuity?

Not exactly. I'm putting a limit on the time and resources requisite to effectively exercise that ingenuity. (For the grammar purists, yeah, I split the infinitive. Tough.) The unfortunate fact is that fossil fuels are a finite resource, and there is no viable substitute. All the cheap, easy sources are gone or are in decline, and we are figuratively close to scraping the bottom of the barrel – if we are not already there. The same may be said of most of the materials, metals, minerals, soil – even water, crucial to maintaining the industrial way of life.

So in all likelihood, industrial civilization is going to collapse, and humanity is going to go through a monumentally catastrophic die-off, which will put paid to any notion of a junket to the stars. Stone age technology, which is what we will be left with, just won't cut it.

Well, what does that have to do with E.T.?

Let's review the bidding. Unless super-intelligent E.T. Sprang into existence full-blown, like Athena from Zeus' headache, an extremely improbable event to understate things, E.T. Would have had to emerge from a long process of evolution similar to that which produced us. Which means he would be far more likely to be bellicose than benevolent, and short-sighted rather than a long-view thinker.

Why the latter you may ask? Well, evolution proceeds by baby steps. There is no over-all goal, and any slight genetic survival advantage accruing to an individual will be passed on to his/her/its offspring. Until changed circumstances render it no longer useful.

In other words, evolutionarily speaking, Yogi Berra's adage applies: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” And, by and large, clever as we may be, we don't operate much differently. We use what works and advantages us now, and let the future look out for itself. Long-range wisdom is not in our nature. Just consider how, in the period of a couple of centuries, we have burned through our endowment of fossil fuels, one built up over an unimaginably long period. Not to mention all the waste we have created in the process. But that's another story (hint: think of yeast, alcohol, and a vat of grape juice).

Is there any reason to suppose a clever alien species, enjoying our extremely improbable advantages (including a huge cache of fossil fuels), would be any wiser? Well, given the evolutionary imperatives we've outlined, as the Brits would say – Not bloody likely.

Enrico Fermi once asked, apropos of alien visitors, “Where is everybody?” I submit the answer is they're stay-at-homes because: 1. They never advanced beyond the stone age because they never possessed an abundant and cheap source of energy, or 2. they did, but they burned through it quickly and stifled themselves on their own waste and are now extinct, or 3. they managed to avoid extinction but never figured out a way around the limits set by the theory of Relativity, or 4. they did figure out a way, but they couldn't figure out a way to make it pay, or 5. they could make it pay on some pristine planets, but a plundered, depleted, and polluted planet like Earth simply isn't worth the effort.

As an addendum, Stephen Hawking is probably right – if E.T. did show up, the results would likely be as unpleasant for us as it was for the natives of Hispaniola when they encountered Columbus. Good thing we'll likely be gone if it ever happens.

Discuss
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