Archive for January, 2008

Another Look at the Worth of Lives

As some of my readers know, I spent time working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency all too many years ago, and later as a consultant dealing with environmental regulations, among other matters. One of the most contentious matters then, and still, was the issue of what a human life was worth. If an environmental regulation costs industry [and consumers, because the end user eventually always pays the cost] ten billion dollars, but saves a thousand lives… is it worth it? What if it only saves ten lives?

This issue, whether we like to think about it, is everywhere. Why do we buy life insurance? That’s a form of valuing life. Why do we spend precious hours in exercise and physical fitness? It’s another way of valuing life by attempting to prolong it in better health.

But there’s one area where our laws and our attitudes are far, far behind — and that’s in the area of financial fraud and embezzlement. Just last week, the second largest bank in France announced that a rogue trader employed there had effectively lost over $7 billion by diverting over $50 billion in bank funds to personal speculative trades. This is the largest loss ever created by a single individual, but it’s not anything new. The fraud at WorldCom, Global Crossings, and Enron resulted in billions and billions of dollars of losses. The amount of mortgage fraud arising from the latest real estate bubble has yet to be tallied.

And what does this all have to do with the value of lives?

It’s simple, actually. Most people work. They invest their lives in working and in trying to save or buy a house or stay at a company long enough for their pension to vest or put aside money for an IRA. When embezzlement and fraud cause them to lose all or part of those investments, in effect, part of their life has been taken. The same thing happens when someone is scammed or phished out of funds on the internet.

In the federal regulatory system, although no one wants to talk about it openly, essentially regulations have established a range of values for human life. Depending on the situation and other factors, at one time that range was effectively from one to twenty million dollars. Doubtless, it’s higher now.

Take the current French situation — seven billion dollars. Seven billion dollars taken from people, admittedly in smaller bits than a whole life, but… if a life is worth twenty million dollars, then the embezzler or fraud artist has committed the equivalent of 350 murders.

Far-fetched, you say? Think about Enron. How many lives were shortened because of health insurance lost? Or because employees lost their retirement? How many investors lost income, either directly or through other pension funds, and what did that do to their lives? How many families’ lives were disrupted?

We’ve tended to treat this kind of white-collar crime as if it were almost victimless, but it’s not. It’s just that the embezzler and fraud artist take a little bit of life from thousands or millions of people, and we seem to think that it’s somehow not nearly so bad as single heinous murder. Yet, I’d be willing to bet that every major fraud/embezzlement case results in actual deaths or at least early deaths among the victims. Most major embezzlers and fraud artists lose what assets they have and serve a few years in jail — maybe ten at most. Some, like the head of Global Crossings, actually get to keep their ill-gotten gains and serve no time at all.

Maybe, just maybe, if the damages incurred by the victims of embezzlement and fraud were converted into the equivalent of murders… then we might have a bit more deterrence, and possibly certainly more justice.

I don’t see this happening… but it should be considered, if not adopted.

Is the "Fairness Gene" At Fault?

Recent sociological studies and experiments strongly suggest that human beings, indeed most if not all primates, have a genetically based “sense of fairness.” One experiment, for example, sets up a situation where one individual is given something of value, which either directly by its nature, or indirectly through trade or money, can be split. That individual then proposes sharing the item with a second. The first individual gets to propose the terms of division, and, if the second agrees, each gets to keep his or her share.

So… I’m given a hundred dollars. I can offer you anything from $1 to $99 [zero or a hundred wouldn’t allow a split]. If I offer you even $10, we’re both better off than before. But… neither people nor primates think or feel that way. In experiment after experiment, for the most part, people rejected anything less than a 30%-70% split — even though that meant neither got anything. The results, using food and other items, were similar among the primates studied.

So what are the implications of this finding?

One conclusion is that “justice” in human societies is not just a social, governmental, or even a practical requirement, but a fundamental physio-genetic one. If this were the only implication, matters wouldn’t look too bad for the future. After all, even in a totally secular society, it would appear that most people would still have a sense of fairness and justice.

A second and more worrying conclusion is that this feeling is not “rational,” not in the sense of being thought out. A “rational” individual would take any split, because in rational terms, he or she would still end up better off. And that implies that humans have great difficulty in being rational, no matter what we think.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that there’s yet another and far more disturbing possibility. First, of course, one must consider one of the basic conditions of the experiment, and that condition was that the recipient knew that neither party would get anything if “unacceptable” terms were offered and rejected.

Now… consider the world political situation today, with what appears to be an ever-growing divergence between the developed and the undeveloped world, as well as an increasing discrepancy between the wealthy and non-wealthy in the developed world. Throughout history, there have always been the haves and the have-nots, but until the age of modern and near-instant communications, those who were poor, whether the urban poor in the ghettos of developed countries or the masses of the poor in less developed lands, really had limited means of knowing how those who were so much better off lived. In a sense, they didn’t know how the resources were split, and how little they received. Now they do.

Could it just be that some, if not a large portion, of the current global unrest might just be the result of our species’ genetic need for “fairness,” a need that has not been historically as much of a factor because before modern communications the “terms” were not widely known? Interestingly enough, from what I can determine, prior to the eighteenth century and the beginning of “modern” communications, there were very few revolutions fomented by the middle class and supported by those below. Even the American Revolution was essentially an upper-class led uprising. “Popular” revolutions seem to be a comparatively recent development.

Equally important, rational and logical explanations of why these resource divisions are the way they are, such as capital investment, cost of innovation, payback for taking risk, the cost of advanced education, will not change most people’s opinions, because their response is in fact genetically programmed and results in an immediate and ongoing emotional reaction.

So… for all the rationality behind the increasing separation of the meritocratic elite and the working classes, or the distinction between the developed and developing world… with the “fairness gene,” how wide can that separation become and how long can it last?

Real-World, Real-Time SF?

When retail sales levels for the United States were recently announced, stock prices in the USA immediately dropped, and a number of large retailers immediately announced plans to close down “unprofitable” outlets. My initial reaction was to think that, well, if sales were down, that would be understandable. Except sales weren’t down. They were up three percent. They only increased three percent over the sales levels of the previous year, as opposed to the four percent sales increase registered in 2006. Today, the market plunged again…even after the Federal Reserve announced an interest cut of three quarters of a percent, a rather large one time cut, and the largest in more than 16 years. The market recovered somewhat but remains down at the time I write this.

Three percent is an increase. It’s an increase greater than the rate of U.S. population growth. And yet the economists, the stock market, the retailers, and the commentators are all saying that we might be entering a recession… unless government gives them the means to borrow money more cheaply and provides more “stimulus.” They may well be right.

What exactly does this say about the United States and modern economies in general? That we can’t maintain close to full employment and prosperity without an ever-increasing amount of consumption and production in a world that looks to have finite resources? That steady and sustained growth isn’t enough, that for us to be happy and prosperous, we need incredibly high growth rates that are unsustainable without government deficits and subsidies…and loans at artificially cheap rates?

This obsession with more permeates everything. In the past generation, the size of the average house has nearly doubled, and Americans in general have more cars, more televisions, more “stuff” than ever before. I’m not against improvements or new devices that make life better, but I don’t need a new computer every year or every other year, or even every third year. Nor do I need a new vehicle anywhere close to that often. Frankly, while there are those who do need frequent replacements and updates because of their occupations, most of us don’t, and many of those who do only need those replacements because the computer and other industries employ a combination of “improvements” and planned obsolescence that makes older but still functional equipment incompatible with the “new” models and software.

Yet this obsession with “more” is highly selective. We reward hedge fund managers with annual earnings in the millions and hundreds of millions of dollars, and their only contribution to society is success in high level and legal gambling, all of the rhetoric about the need for arbitrage notwithstanding. We reward high profile CEOs, and yet recent studies have shown that, in general, the lower profile and lower-paid CEOs do a better job. We pay a comparative handful of entertainers and athletes incredible amounts, but every time the economy slows a trace, all across the country, the salaries of teachers are frozen, and the increases given to those at the bottom in government and industry are minimal or non-existent.

Not only that, but market response and public reaction appear nonsensical. Oil prices are above $90 a barrel, and yet the stock prices of oil companies that made great profits when the prices were “only” $70 a barrel are down, and neither their production nor their reserves have changed significantly. Food prices are increasing, and the government subsidizes ethanol made from corn, which further boosts the cost of corn without making any significant difference in the amount of imported oil or in air pollution.

We spend billions on “measuring” various kinds of progress, from retail sales and output of goods and services to educational testing… as if the measurements were reality, and as if the resulting numbers automatically equate to immediate and significant changes in the economy, or the educational system. But, once we have the numbers… what happens?

Most of the time, there’s a demand for “better” numbers and measurements… or the results are ignored. Or… as in the current case, there’s universal dissatisfaction with a federal commitment over more than $145 billion. Of course, that’s somewhat less than the $150-200 billion U.S. companies spend annually on radio and television ads, in hopes of increasing sales and profitability, because, after all, sales were only up three percent, but what can one expect from government?

Now, if I or any other SF writer created a future world that portrayed such idiocy in this kind of graphic detail, such a novel would either be regarded as far-out satire or patently impossible.

F&SF Fiction as an "Arthouse" Relic?

Last week, I was talking to an editor, and he made the observation that, overall, paperback book sales of bestselling authors have been declining steadily but inexorably over the years… and the situation is even worse for other authors. Now… if this were a trend where those paperback sales were being replaced by e-books or the like, I’d chalk it up to changing technology. But it’s not. As I understand it, in science fiction and fantasy, it wasn’t uncommon to have first paperback printings of 50,000- 100,000 books for a publisher’s top writers [excluding, of course, the very small handful of runaway best sellers like J.K. Rowling and Robert Jordan]. Today, it’s more like 30,000 – 50,000.

One immediate response is along the lines of, “What do you expect when new paperbacks are eight dollars?” But I’m talking about what’s happened in the last few years… AFTER paperbacks had reached the $6-8 range. Besides, the real costs of other items have increased in the same way as those of books.

At the time when an Ace double was 35 cents, I could get a hamburger, fries, and a Coke from MacDonald’s for the same amount. Now the average paperback F&SF book is three times as long as that Ace double and costs $7.99. People are buying full meals from MacDonald’s for about the same amount, but the difference is that the market for fast food has exploded, and the market for books has not.

Certainly, one factor is the “profit motive.” All of the large F&SF publishers have been gobbled up by one of the media conglomerates, and conglomerates want to make money first, and publishing books is only a means by which this is possible. The same is also true of the booksellers. The results are anything but good for the fiction market.

No matter how many or how few books are printed and shipped, some are always returned. For example, one of the more popular best-selling F&SF authors has a “sell-through” of 70-80%. That is extremely high. The “normal” range for successful authors is more like 50-60%. One critically acclaimed author once actually achieved a dismal sell-through of 4%, i.e., 96% of the books printed and shipped were returned unsold. Now… enter the accountants of the bookstore chains. They look at the sales of even a best-selling author and note that they didn’t sell all of the books of that author’s last book… and they order fewer copies of the next book. Even if the sell-through ratio goes up considerably, say ten percent, and that is a considerable increase, the total number of books ordered and sold goes down… And for the author’s next book, the chain’s initial order will again decrease… and so on.

Then add to that the fact that reading among Americans under the age of thirty has dropped precipitously, for a number of factors, including the internet, computers, and media-created attention-deficit-disorder which makes reading boring, because it requires sustained concentration and thought. And all the technology and convenient e-book readers won’t help with those who can’t concentrate in the first place.

What does this mean for publishing?

I’d say that a certain trend is already emerging. The larger publishers are cutting loose more and more authors who were once “mid-list” because their sales numbers are falling and because the break-even point for larger publishers is a higher number of copies than in the past. Authors who have a small but loyal following are turning to the smaller presses, who are now providing higher quality products, and who can produce fewer copies “economically.” Add to that print on demand.

But… the basic problem is that the number of outlets for books is continuing to diminish, and except in the mega-stores or the minimal numbers of F&SF specialty stores, the range of choice is almost non-existent. While the mall bookstores are being replaced in some places by anchor chain bookstores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, thousands of malls have no book outlets at all. While every Wal-Mart has a book department, it’s a rare Wal-Mart that stocks more than 20 F&SF titles — and that’s one percent of the number of F&SF titles published in a year, and those 20 don’t include anything from the small presses.

So the small press editions are mostly relegated to online sales, local sales, specialty F&SF stores [of which there are only a few handfuls left], and convention sales. These outlets aren’t enough to expose new readers to the true range of speculative fiction, and without such exposure, the number of new readers will remain low, and, unless matters change, as the older readers die off, the reading base will diminish.

Does this mean that in another generation, the only devoted F&SF readers will be gray-haired and restricted to a few specialty stores and one carrel in the chains?

I hope not… but it’s not looking all that promising [unless you all go out and buy more paperbacks!].

Evidence Blindness, Science, Politics, and the Free Market/Business Model

The other day in a science publication I came across a wonderful term — evidence blindness. Evidence blindness occurs when someone turns a blind eye to evidence contrary to his or her personal convictions, dismissing such evidence on whatever grounds possible, sometimes logical, sometimes anything but logical.

The writer, whose name I can’t recall at the moment, made the observation that science works despite the evidence blindness of scientists themselves because theories, discoveries, and claims are subjected to scrutiny by a large and wide body of scientists. While this is a messy process that doesn’t always work as well as it might, in general it does weed out bad science over time, and progress does occur. But that progress only occurs because of two factors: (1) the claims have to be able to be empirically tested and (2) nothing is allowed to remain “sacred” once disproven.

Today, as I’ve intimated in earlier blogs, although I didn’t use the term “evidence blindness,” our society is setting itself up for collapse because our institutions are actually moving away from the logic of the science model and are fostering a growing epidemic of evidence blindness.

We have politicians who claim that we can pay for all the social programs for the elderly and the uninsured and the impoverished children just by slightly raising taxes on the wealthy. Whether or not this is ethically or politically wise is one question, but no one is pointing out that that, practically speaking, it’s impossible. The top ten percent of the taxpayers in income terms already pay close to 70% of all federal income taxes. Even if one could confiscate all the wealth of all the U.S. billionaires, the combined total wouldn’t run the government for even a year. Add in all the millionaires, and there might be funds for another year… and we’d be a socialist nation, with not much incentive to strive. This isn’t, as they say, rocket science. The numbers are out there. But the numbers aren’t there for those who wish to believe otherwise. They’re evidence blind.

On the other side, the free market/business model types are forever extolling the virtues of so-called free competition and business practices, and trying to extend them everywhere. We deregulated the telephone industry [and I will note for the record, in the interests of full disclosure, that years ago I was part of a team that looked into and published a study on the likely impact of long-distance deregulation]. Deregulation effectively created two main outcomes: long-distance costs went down, and every other telecommunications cost went up. Ma Bell got broken apart, and now AT&T has been taken over by one of the regional Baby Bells, and we have regional monopolies in land lines, as opposed to a national monopoly, and an oligopoly in cell phone service, not to mention an associated dotcom bubble that burst, with an incredible amount of fraud, loss of jobs, and dislocation. Our free-market in healthcare results in some of the most advanced medical techniques and drugs — and the highest rate of medically uninsured citizens of any major industrialized nation. Such”free-market” gyrations do indeed result in a “more efficient” allocation of resources, the economists assure us, but they also produce human and economic costs that are anything but insignificant, and yet the champions of the “free market” appear evidence blind to such costs.

Transportation is yet another intriguing area. The United States built a nation that initially was tied together with canals, followed in turn by the railroads, then with the interstate highway system, and then with the airplane. Yet all of these transportation systems that support our “free market” were subsidized heavily by government. George Will, the commentator, who actually once was a transportation analyst for a U.S. Senate committee, observed that without state, local, and federal subsidies no airline company ever in the United States would ever have made a profit. The federal government operates and maintains the air traffic control system and the federal safely regulatory structures. Local governments build and operate the airports, and the landing fees paid by aircraft come nowhere near paying for those services. Railroads were once heavily subsidized, but now that there are only minimal passenger service subsidies, in all but a few areas and routes, passenger trains are vanishing. What we subsidize most heavily is the automobile, and that creates excessive demand that overwhelms what we’re willing to pay in taxes for highways and roads. But do most people see that? No… they’re evidence blind. They may talk about it, but they buy larger vehicles and oppose higher taxes.

We do provide a vast array of government subsidies and services to businesses of all types and classes, and yet the cry from the business community is always to “get government off our backs.” They’re evidence blind to the benefits they receive, and all most of them see is the taxes they must pay.

They also talk about the need for a business model in government and education. Everything needs to be priced in terms of what it brings in. If music education or physics classes cost too much, increase tuition or fees or cut the programs. If fares don’t cover the costs of mass transportation, don’t increase subsidies, but raise the fares or cut services. Yet when politicians point out that business needs to pay for the pollution or environmental degradation that it creates, that’s imposing unnecessary costs on business.

We all receive services from governments, but so often the services that don’t provide tangible cash returns are the ones that we slight — particularly law enforcement and teachers. More and more often I see business leaders complaining that the schools don’t provide the training that they need in workers… but the vast majority of these same “leaders” aren’t out there championing the need for more resources for better education. Oh… they want efficiency, and that translates into spending less. Yet study after study has shown that three factors are paramount in successful education: smaller class size, teacher subject matter expertise, and classroom discipline. For various reasons, almost everyone seems evidence blind to these key factors. They just focus on efficiency and management, yet the size and cost of school administration, and the number and amount of tests required have ballooned out of control. Teacher education programs focus more and more on techniques of teaching and less and less on subject matter expertise. And heaven forbid that anyone suggest that any student isn’t wonderful or that there are rules and requirements and expectations awaiting him or her out in society.

Why has all this occurred? One significant reason is because honest debate has vanished. If you don’t like what someone says, you don’t have to confront it or examine it. Just flee to whichever and whatever specialized media niche or religious belief structure that comforts and reassures you. Avoid paying attention to all the unpleasant truths and concentrate on those few that are important to you.

After all, you’re free to believe what you want… unlike those poor scientists, who actually have to test and prove their beliefs.

Character-Driven or Plot-Driven?

Right now, from what I can tell, there seems to be a bit of an emphasis by some who think themselves experts on F&SF on the need for more “character-driven” fiction. Then, perhaps this has always been true. Whether or not it’s a resurgent emphasis or a long-standing one is irrelevant. It’s wrong. Dead wrong.

Now, before you scream for my head, I’d also like to say that dominance or emphasis on plot-driven or device-driven or any other form of “driven” is also wrong. The best fiction should always be an intertwined blend of character, plot, setting, and style.

If all a serious/experienced reader notices is one of those elements, whether it’s the characters, the plot, the setting, or the style, the work is not all it could or should be. I use the term “serious/experienced reader,” however, most advisedly, because we all have preferences, and we praise those books most highly that reflect our likes. Some readers want most of all to know the characters better and see what they will do when faced with both adversity and success. Others are most intrigued with the plot and how matters will work out. Others concentrate on the world-building or the setting, and for others the way in which the words are used is of paramount importance.

I’ve seen this one-aspect-focus with respect to my own work, where one reader will praise a book for its style, while another will denigrate the style, where another will praise the characterization, and another will declare the characters cardboard cutouts. Part of this results, of course, from each individual’s background, because words and phrases which are evocative and filled with both connotations and implications for one reader may convey nothing to a reader with a dissimilar background or tastes. Generally speaking, but not always, or exclusively, readers with wide-ranging tastes and experience pick up a wider range of what an author may convey… or they may understand all too well that the author’s presentation is merely slick superficiality.

“Character” doesn’t exist in a void, independent of the setting or the action, and both impact how character is revealed. In one novel I wrote years ago, there is a scene where a character has learned that a woman he loved has died in combat. He does not moan or say a word to anyone. He takes a throwing knife and keeps flinging it at a target until the target is mostly splintered wood and his hands are bloody. Yet some felt that this character was cardboard because he said nothing. Characters reveal who they are in various ways, but always more by their actions than their words. In another book of mine, the main character lies early in the book. He does not reveal that he lies, even to himself at the time. The words he utters are far less important than the fact that he has spoken them. He says nothing about it, nor does he reflect on those words. Other than that, he is most honorable in his actions, yet that lie reveals more about what he feels than any other single act in the book… and almost no readers have caught it, even though the lie is totally in character and vital to the conclusion.

And, just for the record, in my view, the only way in which the choice of words in a novel truly reflects the various characters is by the dialogue, those words spoken by each person. All the rest of those beautiful — or not so beautiful — words reflect on the setting.

Does this mean I’m against beautiful words — or lovely flowing sentences? No. It means I’m against sentences that are “beautiful” for the sake of being beautiful, just as I’m against flamboyant characters for the sake of having flamboyant characters or against miraculously crafted settings for the sake of the settings. In short, I’m in favor of what works best for the story at hand, not for what might be termed literary special effects.

Hack Work?

The other day I came across a blog that questioned how a number of well-known F&SF writers could physically produce the amount of work that they do. The blogger’s obvious and pat answer was that they could because “they’re hacks, and their readers have minimal expectations.” He then went on to mention some well-known mainstream authors who are prolific… but stated that these mainstream authors were quality writers. The blog had a clear implication that genre authors who write quickly must be hacks, unlike prolific mainstream authors.

As H.L. Mencken was reputed to have said, and as I recall, “For every difficult and involved question, there is an answer that is clear, simple… and wrong.”

Not only was the blog’s conclusion an insult to the genre writers, but it was also an insult to their readers.

The writers in question [who will remain nameless, because this is not exactly about them, but about preconceptions] have won more than forty “literary” awards, including the Hugo. Between them, so far as I was able to determine, their books have received more than 30 starred reviews from “mainstream literary” sources such as Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus. Several of their works have been named as “books of the year” by Kirkus and Booklist. Some have even won awards from Romantic Times.

Yet this blogger [it would be an insult to professionals to term him a writer] could only term these successful genre authors as “hacks” because of the number of books they wrote in the speculative genre. I’d call them professionals, who have worked long and hard at their craft and who have been able to please both fans and literary critics. Pleasing both is far from easy.

Yet there remains a preconception that any writer who is prolific must be a hack, because good writing must be agony and take forever. I’m sorry. It doesn’t work that way. I’ve seen terrible novels that took the writer ten years or more to produce and good novels that a talented writer produced in less than a year. A good novel is a good novel, regardless of how long it took to write it, and the same is true of a bad novel.

As for time… think about it this way. There are 52 weeks in the year. Assume a writer only works five days a week like many people [this isn’t true, but assume it is], and that he or she sits before the computer or pad of paper or old-fashioned typewriter seven hours a day [an hour off for lunch and other sundries]. If that author writes one hundred words a hour, or 1.7 words a minute, at the end of a year, he or she will have written something like 175,000 words. This is not exactly breakneck speed. It’s also why I don’t have much patience with so-called professional authors who complain that they can’t produce a book more than every other year.

Now, obviously, that’s just for purposes of illustration, because there’s a need for such matters as research, editing, and lots of rewriting. Still… if that writer speeds up to three words a minute, that leaves a full five months of the year for rewriting, research, and “inspiration.”

On the other side of the “numbers mean hacks” issue are the readers. Yes, there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of readers who are only looking for a story that will pull them in, and there are plenty of authors who can do that. But there are also thousands and thousands of readers who are looking for more than just a “quick read.” This latter group of readers can be quite critical, as I well know, and they don’t continue to support authors who don’t meet their expectations. Those expectations are not based on how many books an author publishes, but how well he or she writes what is published.

And, as I will repeat, quality is often independent of quantity, especially in our field, something that the blogger I’ve referenced didn’t seem to understand. Judge the books, not their numbers, nor the field in which they’ve been published.

Procrastination, Stupidity, or Species Suicide?

An asteroid appears likely to hit the planet Mars. Several years ago, a large comet impacted Jupiter, and its fragments created disturbances in the Jovian atmosphere that could have encompassed much of earth. Geologists have discovered the remnants of massive craters on earth itself, most of which totally restructured the environment and the atmosphere, not to mention life itself.

Another impact such as these could well threaten, if not destroy, life as we know it on earth. Does anyone care? Really care?

In 1968, the movie 2001:A Space Odyssey came out, and in it, Kubrick postulated space stations with tourists and space travel within the inner solar system, and an expedition to Jupiter. That was almost forty years ago, and despite all our advances in technology and computers, we haven’t even been back to the moon since 1972 — 35 years ago.

We have the basic technology to ensure the future of our species, and, with relatively minor improvements, to remove the threat to our planet from such asteroid or cometary impacts. And… what have we done? We’ve cut back on NASA and space research. And frankly, a number of the scientists haven’t helped much when they point out that unmanned missions are more cost-effective for gathering data. They doubtless are, but data isn’t likely to help us much if we need a large and powerful space drive to move an asteroid or plant a colony somewhere other than on an earth about to be devastated by some cosmic catastrophe.

That catastrophe will occur. The only question is when. The problem is that we’re a short-term culture facing an inevitable long-term problem, and our outlook is becoming more and more short-term year by year.

Look at the reaction to global climate change… or even to how many Americans continue to smoke, or drive while impaired, whether by cellphones or intoxicants. At the same time, we’ve glamorized making money and short-term fleeting fame to the point where fewer and fewer American students pursue advanced scientific studies and careers, and then we limit the access to foreign students who would do so, and who have consistently done so to our own benefit in the past.

As a society as a whole, the United States has become less and less interested in anything long-term, anything truly ethical [and I’m not talking about religion, which, unfortunately, ranges from a few deep and ethical believers to a mass of seekers of quick salvation], and far more interested in the quick acquisition of assets and things, the proliferation of entertainment options, interactive video or internet games, or who controls Iraq and Iran, or which theology should be dominant in what culture and society.

Long-term issues, like global catastrophe and environmental degradation, just don’t have much appeal. Admittedly, such issues have never appealed to most people, trying to survive day-to-day, but there were, from time to time, elites and educated individuals who did care. Where are they now, and what is the public reaction to them?

That reaction, it seems to me, is mostly along the lines of: I don’t believe you, and, besides, even if something does happen, it won’t be in my lifetime, and that means it’s not my problem.

And we’re supposed to be a sapient species?