Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Hot Air, and other Prognostications

In recent reading I have felt, at times, overwhelmed by a sense of "gloom and doom". Richard Heinberg and Matt Simmons both warn of the impending perils of peak oil flows and how it has the potential to catastrophically change civilization. Thomas Homer Dixon speaks darkly about the current economic crisis in his most recent interview with Peter Mansbridge. Jeffrey Kopstein, interviewed by Steve Paikin on The Agenda draws eerie parallels between the current eastern European banking crisis and the collapse of the Austrian banking system in 1931 that was a precursor to Nazism.

And then, just this morning I read Jeffrey Simpson's latest book "Hot Air" where he quotes Nobel Prize winner Wassily Leontief. In 1981 he commented on his own forecast of population and energy consumption for the United Nations. "Regarding the projections, the only thing I am certain about is that they are wrong."

Simpson then refers to an oft used remark from perhaps any economics professor to his or her students: "When making forecasts, give a number or a date, but never both."

To say that prediction of future events, even with availability of vast amounts of data and computing power, is an "inexact" science is, without doubt, an understatement. Just ask Jim Cramer. (Better yet, watch Jon Stewart ask him.)

Does this mean, though, that we must stop listening to prognosticators? Should we just throw up our hands in despair and leave ourselves to whatever may happen?

Obviously, no. We need some means to prepare ourselves. We need to seek some kind of understanding of what is happening around us. How did it start? Where are we going? We all, to one degree or another, grapple with these questions. None of us, though, have the BIG picture. Some of us may, in hindsight, have a better grasp on what is going on than others, but, ultimately, the best we can do, to paraphrase Nobel prizewinner Wassily Leontief, is make an educated guess. We attempt to gain a sense of that BIG picture by sucking whatever information we can from a variety of sources, to make sense of it all.

On top of all that, we must attempt to maintain perspective; that is, recognize our biases and own them. Do our best to keep an open mind.

Pretty tall order, for anyone.

Especially when, personally, my bias is that we are going to hell in a handbasket.

As I have oft stated on this blog, in one way or another, there are way too many of us on this planet consuming way too much way too quickly to sustain the kind of activity I witness on a daily basis. The only question in my mind is when is the whole sh*t house going to come crashing down on us.

Yes, I admit that I seek out those who reinforce this bias. This is why I subscribe to Richard Heinberg's museletter and Jan Lundberg's column at Culture Change. Try as I might to keep an open mind to free market boosterism and climate change skeptics (among others), my eyes almost invariably roll back when I hear the predictable rant. To me, this isn't rocket science. We live on a finite planet, yet the vast majority of us lead our lives as if we can continue to expand our consumption. Everyone blithely walks around as if there will be no end to this mindless consumption. It is a tired old saying but This is NOT sustainable!" This will end. The only question is, when? In my lifetime, or after?

There, I have made my prediction, and followed that sage economist's advice: "When making forecasts, give a number or a date, but never both."

My final questions are: Why have we lost the ability to look beyond ourselves, and our immediate selfish needs, and consider seven generations? What happened to stewardship?

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