The Facts Didn’t Matter

One of the biggest questions in studying modern (post 1600) global history is why it was Europe and not China or India that became the dominant world power. From a purely statistical standpoint, the best money was on China up until even as late as 1800; it simply had greater per capita income and a higher standard of living. Of course, by 1800 Europe, led by Britain, had begun its Industrial Revolution and the rest is, well, history.

The reasons for China’s failure to have an industrial revolution stem back to government decisions in the 16th century, but that’s too involved a topic for right now; it’s enough to know that historians understand this very well. It is interesting to think about what historians two hundred years from now will write about when it comes to the green energy revolution, the industrial revolution that is beginning in our time. History often appears to be cyclical; one region falls into decline while a previously declining region begins its ascent. The difference between decline and vitality has all too often been based on the vibrancy of a nation’s economy. The sinews of war and global influence have always been money.

That there will be a green energy revolution is a foregone conclusion; we’re simply running out of oil. Right now, projections indicate that the globe will run out of oil by mid century, perhaps by 2040. And as the developing world continues to improve its standards of living, the global demand for oil will only increase. This will be a great short-term windfall for the oil-producing states; Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, Russia – all countries that have the United States’ best interests at heart, right?

But what happens when the oil runs out? Well, there could be global wars over dwindling supplies; I don’t think anyone would be surprised by that. But even then, at some point, there will be no more oil. It comes from decaying organisms that lived millions of years ago; the Earth simply can’t produce enough to meet our demands by the end of the century.

The answer, of course, is the aptly named “alternative energy sources.” Solar, wind, geothermal, biofuels, nuclear. These are all technologies that are in their infancy; even nuclear power has a very long way to go. These are the technologies that will define the future of humanity. It would seem that the country that most vigorously pursues these technologies will become the dominant power in the world for the next few centuries, the next cycle of history. Those that don’t will be like China in the age of European imperialism: impotent and weak in the face of European military technologies and economic power.

So why did the Industrial Revolution begin in Britain? The simple answer is the Calico Acts. These were passed by Parliament in the early 18th century to protect the British wool industry; they were effectively a ban on cheap textile imports from India. In other words, the British government “put a price” on textiles. This had the unintended benefit of protecting the fledgling cotton textile industry in Britain, which is the relevant point.

History is clear about how you have an industrial revolution: government protection early on so that the new industry can gain the strength to compete with established technologies. This is exactly what China is doing today with green energy. In fact, the Chinese government is pouring money into alternative energy sources; they’ve studied their history and they can read the oil production projections.

Today, the United States Senate gave up on trying to pass a bill that would have implemented a cap and trade system, putting a price on carbon. It didn’t matter that cap and trade worked to reduce acid rain when it was invented by Republicans and implemented by the first President Bush. It didn’t matter that China, a country that will have a greater GDP that the United States by 2027, is investing heavily in green energy. It didn’t matter that a green energy policy would have led to a massive private-sector driven stimulus of our economy. It didn’t matter what the historical precedent is for those who fall behind during a period of industrial revolution. And it mattered least of all that tens of thousands of scientists from thousands of universities as well as the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world after 50 years of rigorous peer-reviewed research have proven beyond all reasonable doubt that climate change is being primarily driven by human activity.

The Senate only had a majority of 53 votes; not enough to pass a bill that the special interests oppose. And come November, the number of Democrats in the Senate will only decrease. In other words, we won’t be seeing a cap and trade bill for quite some time.

I wonder what those historians 200 years from now will write about us.

7 Responses to The Facts Didn’t Matter

  1. Andy says:

    No one can argue with anything you have written, only with what you have not written. Namely that this whole green energy revolution thing is only a smart part of the economic future portrait that policy makers and interested citizens should be considering. The most significant historical trend is the ideas revolution, and since the time of Galileo, the permanent and always changing mantel piece of the ideas revolution is science. The application of science and the blue skies pursuit of the unsure, unknown, and unfathomable.

    You mention the Middle Kingdom and these United States. Such appropriate nations to contemplate. A tale of two nations–one over concerned with sex, celebrity, status, and entertainment (some damn good entertainment, mind you), ruled by sectional interests and bound by a constitution however eloquent and majestic too encumbered by its faulty design to be considered remotely optimal. The other, a still impoverished nation whose principal entertainment outside of indigenous movies is … starcraft, a youth that does not, indeed, cannot know porn, a parental mindset that embraces material success above all and rightly sees education–particularly in the hard sciences–as crucial to that twisted standard of victory, a people ruled by secretive, nontransparent technocrat engineers from Tsinghua University, enamored of science and enthralled by its central position in the course of history.

    Sure, America will always be home to a majority of the world’s top 10 research universities–but what about the top 100? China has clocked up an astonishing, although inconsistent, 10-30 percent increase in R&D spending every year for the last 15 years. I do not know what the figure is for America, but I doubt private R&D spending grows that quickly, and I do know that public R&D spending saw some cuts from 00-08. Sure American tycoons have donated much more generously to charities and universities, but their Chinese counterparts are picking up on this with pace and vision.

    But enough of these dispiriting statistics–they do not tell the full story–and it is a depressing one. The only two questions are 1) do enough Americans have the will to change our cultural and political treatment of science education and research, and does this subgroup have the power to effect their will, 2) ditto for China. This is where the tale becomes depressing.

    It is so hard to decelerate–never mind halt or turn around–the influence of ‘dumb is good, smart is bad’ or ‘I just want my Bobby to go to baseball camp this summer’ or ‘let’s give him a trophy for showing up’ in America. But it is easier than you might think to relax the strings of state control, giving internet access to currently blocked categories while firewalling others, becoming ever more transparent, even throwing the cherished bone of free speech and press eventually (do not deceive yourself in believing these moves will overthrow in the Communist Party–they believe a government’s legitimacy derives from its effectiveness and competence, not in rule by the consent of the governed, they do not understand why they as a people should be entrusted with the selection of the government, after all, are they the best judge of excellence?)

    The nail in America’s coffin is that parents believe they know best for their kid’s education: American parents want a huge say in the curriculum, and every feckless democratically elected school board across every county in every state will crumble to this pressure. You want to inject 5 gallons of scientific rigor into the curriculum? You will have to do county by county, state by state, inch by inch. Although, don’t worry, there isn’t even the desire to give this much needed boost into America’s curriculum, nor the financial backers for such a battle. You wish to change the curriculum in China? Convince the chairman and he, and it will always be a he, can do anything anywhere at anytime for any reason. Do not deceive yourself into thinking their system is vulnerable to the whims of a mad man. The best candidate never wins, but the worst are slaughtered instantly. The dictator that emerges is always the compromise tyrant: determined, competent, highly intelligent, and ruthless.

    In other words, many of the root weaknesses that will ever gnaw away at America’s competitive strength are difficult to fix while those that besot China are more easily addressed. Many of the root weaknesses that will ever gnaw away at America’s competitive strengths are smothered in public and private discourse while those that besot China are more readily and willingly acknowledged by politburo apparatchiks and commoners alike. The truly alarming thing is that you can replace ‘America/American’ with ‘India/Indian’, so long as certain timeframes are shifted and of course, excuse the universities from a like-for-like substitution, and this rambling dissertation holds true. We cannot seriously think that the Hindu thatched barn realm can hold more people than the People’s Republic in the long term: the current demographic trends that suggest such a course are just that–current. Let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that the Indians will continue to have families of 8 when they have the wealth of the Chinese. Nor let us forget that India is 1/3 the size of the continental US. One could go one about India’s blown-out-of-proportion “potential” in the popular American press. No, Andrew. We cannot stop China from having an economy 3 times the size of ours by the end of this century. Nor can India really challenge China. We rely on two things: that this world will somehow gang up on China or China will betray its own promise. The latter is unlikely–their system, however deceivingly unstable and stifling at first glance, is more stable and effective to propel their nation headlong, full speed, spit frothing at their horses’ mouth that we give them credit for. The former is our only real hope. Though China’s no-strings-attached willingness to trade and nation-build in Africa stands in sharp contrast to our often Christian missions or thrust-down-your-throat-we-have-to-approve-of-you policies. China’s historically and currently calculatedly careful approach with Islam stands in good stead to our shameful approach. China’s superior relations with a (as of December 2009) demographically recovering Russia is also a concern. Finally, China’s “pearl of strings” strategy to harmoniously rise in its backyard southeast Asia–a stretch of 500 million people–is enough to give any sane American shivers, especially since America has neglected this region (if not invaded it) entirely. We are fools to look to that dwindling and static island of the rising sun to “counterbalance” that mighty rising nation of dragons. Do we continue to suck Israel’s **** while Brazil begins to feel the confidence to pursue its own interests, independent to that of America’s? How will we deal with a country with excellent relations with the rest of Latin America when this country begins to do the unthinkable: begin to challenge us for supremacy in our hemisphere? Will we counter them by continuing to shit on Hispanic immigrants? No, Andrew. We stand with India and Europe only. China will have superior relations with the rest of the world. And when they cleverly introduce the sweets of democracy–those cherished civil liberties–while retaining their absolutist government, Europe will sweeten to their tune. It is too much for us to hope that an iron fence will develop around China, stifling it of proportional influence to its inevitable pole-top position.

    Where does this leave America at the turn of the 22nd century? In a firm second place–at best. We should try and fight this–but do not trust to hope. It has forsaken these United States. Just ask Obama.

  2. C R Krieger says:

    At the end I was not sure where Andy was going.  Hints but maybe not commitment.

    As for Andrew’s post, I quibble with the last point.  “The Senate only had a majority of 53 votes; not enough to pass a bill that the special interests oppose.”  In my mind they are ALL special interests.  That is the way the system works.  I am a member of a couple of special interest groups and so is Andrew.  Being the “good guys” doesn’t mean not being part of a special interest, especially when those voting often don’t know what they are voting for (and often the bill is still in flux as it is going over to the White House).  It is a sausage factory.

    And, I wonder what Andy would propose to replace our current system, “…bound by a constitution however eloquent and majestic too encumbered by its faulty design to be considered remotely optimal.”

    Regards  —  Cliff

  3. Andrew says:

    Cliff, I’ll grant you that most of the legislative process is a charade (just look at the behavior of the two senators from Colorado on the recent bill proposed by Senator Sanders to cap credit card interest rates at 15%). And, yes, we’re all in interest groups. I phrased that poorly. I should have written “The Senate only had a majority of 53 votes; not enough to overcome the campaign donations of the oil and coal industries that intentionally fund poor scientific research in an attempt to cover up what their products are doing to the environment.” I shouldn’t have used “special interests” because, quite frankly, you’re exactly right. My problem, when it comes to the legislative process, isn’t even what oil and coal companies do by burning their fuels. My problem is the atrociously bad science they fund to intentionally confuse the public. As a student of evolutionary biology, I have a very short temper for this type of thing; we’ve been dealing with it for 150 years.

    Andy, that’s quite a comment.

    Is American ascendancy over? Well, it’s too early to tell. China having more economic weight is inevitable; it’s a simply matter of demographics. The question, I think, comes down to technology and global influence, both of which involve who has the best ideas, as you noted.

    I study biology, but I began with history, so I find the history of science and ideas to be particularly interesting. The “golden ages” of history were all driven by free inquiry and broad societal support for science: Ionia, Alexandria, the United Provinces of the Netherlands. If the United States can remain rediscover its former commitment to science (which was sparked by Soviet achievements in space, specifically Sputnik) we’ll be able to compete with China.

    The general public does seem to be less interested in science. I don’t know whether that’s a function of our culture or a lack of enough Carl Sagans. I hope its the latter.

    A few notes on China. From speaking with my Chinese friends, the thing I found most surprising about their system was not that it works, but that the majority of Chinese people are happy with it. In the United States we are indoctrinated to believe that democracy is the only form of government that people are happy under, but one only has to look at the polling data from Afghanistan to see the fallacy in that statement. It would be very wrong to assume that China will go the way of the Soviet Union; they seem to have found the perfect approach to a planned economy with just enough capitalism to promote constant growth and innovation. Whether it lasts or not, they’ll still make a massive leap forward. It would also be wrong to assume they will eventually become a western-style democracy; the public simply doesn’t want it.

    You’re right in saying that education is a major problem. In most of the country, we leave curriculum decisions up to local school boards who all too often think they know more about a particular subject than the college professors and other PhDs that are usually asked to contribute to curriculum standards. Though, this can be a problem on the state level as well; look at Texas. But I don’t think federalizing curriculum standards, as the Obama administration is nudging states to do with Race to the Top, is the solution. Society has to value a real liberal arts education that prepares students for a world in which the major problems and innovations will come from science and equips students with the critical thinking skills needed to participate effectively in a republic.

    And Andy, I would remind you of how that movie ends. As you noted, we have the resources we need (our universities); we just need the will.

    And maybe Blizzard will have done such a good job with Starcraft II that China will be distracted enough for us to get back on track. We’ll find out Tuesday.

  4. C R Krieger says:

    Education is more than Science.  Science has been known to go off the rails.  We look back and laugh, but it wasn’t funny at the time.  The Humanities need to help us to understand where we are going.

    And, China is a funny place.  There are more Christians than Communists.  In the mean time they have a fascist sort of Government.  A very interesting place, and they hold a lot of our debt.

    Regards  —  Cliff

  5. Andrew says:

    Don’t get me wrong; I go to a liberal arts college within a research university. I understand the value of the humanities, or at least history. They even teach us the history of science in our science classes; I think everyone acknowledges the importance of history. (Though I, and our history department, tend to think of history as closer to a social science than a humanity…it is based on evidence, unlike literature or philosophy).

    And yes, the debt is a big problem. Which is why I was arguing that we don’t want to be reliant on China for our energy technology.

  6. Andy says:

    I guess this is a little late of a reply.

    1) I have no idea what I’m talking about, so I cannot pretend to offer “commitments”–only hints from me.

    2) I am not suggesting America can replace its current system. Indeed I think we cannot. I think our system is a weakness and have said as much. I have no idea what to replace it with–since ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ certainly wouldn’t work here.

    3) “Education is more than Science. Science has been known to go off the rails.” Well science is the most important part of education if we assume (which we shouldn’t!) that civility and tolerance have already been taught. Also, science is frequently wrong and frequently all manner of things bad, but I think the “off the rails” part you mention is mostly pre-Galilean and thus is not really ‘science.’ And of course, no one would deny we need the humanities to attempt to tell us where we’re going–attempt being the key word. (No pretensions that the humanities can actually tell us where we’re going.)

    4) “There are more Christians than Communists.” Well there are 72 million members of the Communist Party of China and the overwhelming majority of the country is sympathetic to its rule. See Andrew’s post on how satisfied–even happy–the Chinese people are with their Politburo management. I do not believe there are 72 million church-going dues-paying christians in China, although the number of cafeteria christians may exceed that number (although I still doubt it).

    5) “They have a fascist sort of government.” No they don’t. They have a capitalist authoritarian government that is considerably more left-learning than the Democratic party–except on civil liberties. I don’t think you actually think the Communists of China are fascists, so let’s not use that stock phrase blindly.


    1) My only real objection is the sly implication that their economic growth is driven entirely by demographics. I think a lot of us over here get complacent in the thought that only we can innovate and capitalize on opportunities. We throw around names like Apple, Google, Goldman Sachs, etc. and close the case. We shouldn’t. No country on earth has a pincer lock on excellence. We should shake in our boots that our public education sucks and is hard to improve. A quick glance at China’s growth over the last decade reveals policies and realities that are hard to ignore: an increasingly innovative economy which is being fueled ever more by financial and intellectual capital alike.

    2) Yeah it’s too early to say that our ascendancy is over–but I’d bet the whole house on it. We just don’t have the same evidence-driven policies, fanatic commitment to improvement, and hunger for regaining their lost “primacy” that the Chinese do. Indeed we have the money and the universities, but I doubt we have the will. Who knows how the movie will end? Probably not well.

  7. Andrew says:

    I certainly didn’t mean that Chinese economic growth was driven by demographics; I must have phrased something poorly. The Chinese innovators are excelling; it’s much more about ideas than demographics. Look at what the Dutch did to the English in the 17th century.

    I can’t help but feel we could reverse a lot of our problems if our country discovered a new commitment to education. Not just more spending, as President Obama has done, but a commitment from society as a whole to the value of education.

    As a more general comment, it is common to hear that we need the humanities to guide us. But to guide us…where exactly? I’ve already discussed history; it’s more social science than humanity. And I think it is generally accepted that any “theory of history” isn’t going to work; we learn from looking at examples, much as in biology. Our existentialist theories of philosophy all break down when they encounter either human nature or real-world problems. And while I’ll admit that literature allows us to examine the human condition, are we really looking to authors of fiction for guidance?

    I’m not sure I have much faith in the social sciences either. History, yes. Behavioral economics, yes. Classical economics, no.

    Science is not always right. I forget who said it, but there is a rather famous saying: if you’re not wrong 50% of the time you’re not doing science. The value isn’t so much in learning the material, though that is relevant to solving most of the problems we’re facing, it’s the mindset…the idea that answers to problems should be found based on evidence and that the best solution should be free of any preconceived ideology.

    I guess my larger point is that I don’t see why there is so much faith in the humanities. I think someone with a broad education who can draw on the strengths of the three domains of academia is in the best position to guide us forward.