Trump will reign over dust and desolation…
On 1 September 1859, telegraph operators across Europe and North America watched in horror as their equipment began to spark and behave erratically. Some disconnected their equipment from their power supplies and discovered they could still transmit.
Cables arced. Sparks flew. Operators fled as their offices caught fire.
What became known as the Carrington Event was the result of a solar eruption as a magnetic field containing a plasma mass equivalent to Mount Everest was flung out from the sun towards Earth.
It just so happened that seventeen hours earlier, Richard Carrington – a British astronomical researcher – happened to be observing the sun and noticed a bright flare that erupted from between a pair of sunspots.
We now have a passable understanding of what happened, but we do not know how often such events occur, or have sufficient advance warning to be able to respond.
For – if such an event were to happen today – it is estimated that, in the US alone, it would cause up to $2.6 trillion of damage and could shut down the electrical grid for a year.
What is needed are a set of astronomical observatories – satellites – that permanently monitor the sun and which send that telemetry back to researchers on the ground.
In August of 2018 NASA intends to launch Solar Probe Plus from Earth to take up a position 6 million kilometres from the sun and there conduct a series of observations. It is to determine the structure and dynamics of magnetic fields and solar winds; trace coronal energy flows; determine how energetic particles are transported and accelerated; and study the plasma near the sun and its influence.
It is a complex piece of technology informed by a century of study by scientists across the planet, many of whom won Nobel Prizes for their efforts. Some of it is the same research and technology used to model climate change.
Somewhere in the next few months, the leader of that team will be in a meeting with president-elect Donald Trump to discuss the continuing financial support for this project.
That person will have decades of experience and be renowned within the industry. That person may be a woman, she may not be white, and she may not meet the standards of female pulchritude expected by the new US president.
Donald will be angry because she will be smarter than him and better informed. Donald will feel embarrassed and insecure. Donald will struggle to pay attention to the terminology and the complexity. Donald will be bored. Donald will be disinterested.
Eventually, Donald will turn to one of his associates – white men like Mike Pence or Stephen Bannon – and ask what they recommend.
They, similarly, are both ignorant and relaxed about their ignorance. They will weigh up the requirements in terms of their agenda. Does it help in their continuing fight against ‘white genocide’? Will it make them money? Does it help white America and hurt all others? Are any foreigners involved? Are they brown-skinned or Muslim? Does it have anything to do with climate change?
They will decide it is unimportant.
There is no Zero-Sum world
Donald believes in a zero-sum world: the idea that, if you are making a profit, I must be making a loss. That is the law of the casino.
Even business, the world which Donald thinks he has mastered, does not work that way. Ideally, each party to a commercial transaction benefits from that transaction. Otherwise it is rightly regarded as being fraudulent or biased in some way.
Government interactions must be positive sum because otherwise, automatically, they will be negative. Either we all win, or we all lose.
You may think that providing benefits to the poor, or healthcare to the ill, only benefits that person. It does not.
People who are denied all legal opportunities to better themselves and live a meaningful life often have no choice but to turn to crime if they are to survive. People do not voluntarily die for no reason. A society that punishes poverty is actively promoting crime.
Similarly, illness can spread to others, and illness causes income loss and worsening poverty.
Fixing other people’s problems helps you as well.
And it isn’t only about preventing widespread harm. Educating disadvantaged children, or absorbing refugees from conflict zones, improves your economy in unexpected ways. Some of America’s biggest and most successful companies have been started by people who came from disadvantaged backgrounds, whether from poor communities or as refugees.
Donald wants to cancel global trade agreements, not because he disputes some clauses which may result in adverse results (what economists call ‘moral hazard,’ and are a genuinely valid concern) but because he is certain that when other countries gain then – even if he cannot see it – it must mean the US is being ripped off.
Donald similarly wishes to cancel the Paris climate change agreements because he is certain that other countries’ support means they must be getting something from the US without giving anything in return.
Donald thinks ‘experts’ are out-of-touch elites.
Donald thinks this makes him smart.
The complexity of science requires skills Donald lacks
After ducking the threat of Coronal Mass Ejections, Donald and his advisors will look to the rest of their agenda.
Waiting outside that meeting room will be thousands of other industry experts leading teams of global importance. They will be there to present projects on dealing with parasitic infections threatening to break out of the tropics and head north into the US; with the preparations for flooding and drought as a result of climate change; with the complexities of improving education opportunities for the poor; with the weakening efficacy of fungicides used to ward off crop blight; of the potential for genocide in a conflict in central Africa; of the risk from acid from decommissioned mines draining into the water table …
None of these things will advance the Donald and Republican agenda of white supremacy and white American advantage.
Too many would appear to benefit others who are not American, or white. Too many require international collaboration. Far too many are run by immigrants and foreigners. And they are promoted by intellectual elites.
Donald will reject them all.
This is the post-truth world and experts are derided as elitists out of touch with the true desires of the common white man.
Donald and his white cronies are wrong.
The body of knowledge required to understand our place in the universe, and the myriad threats to our existence, have been built up over thousands of years by researchers from every country and culture. We are long past the ability for any one person to have domain expertise over more than a tiny part of what we know, or to have the capacity to absorb and learn all that we are still attempting to understand.
Surveying the Earth and our solar system has revealed something chilling: we are permanently at risk.
Our very existence is miraculous and subject to the random whim of a capricious universe that has an indomitable ability to destroy us. Whether it be space debris, solar eruptions, catastrophic weather events, shattering earthquakes, or sweeping pandemics, our ability to survive depends on our mutual cooperation, communication and transparency.
Instead, a vast proportion of humanity – from every country in the world – is intent on subjecting other people to torture and abuse simply because they speak a different language or wear different clothes. As if, at the end of a football match, the losing side is ritually tortured and executed by the winners.
And Donald now represents and leads that distaste for knowledge and contempt for those different from himself.
The issues Donald will duck
There are three things that most concern me which can only be solved through global cooperation and public transparency.
The first is climate change.
We are at a critical period. Over the next decade, the impact of rising temperature will begin to cause long-term damage. The first experience will be more extreme weather. From drought to hurricanes and floods, the weather impact will cause trillions of dollars in damage, kill thousands, and destroy the livelihoods of millions. Then will come rising sea levels, the loss of low-lying land to flooding, and mass migration as people flee the loss of their homes.
The second is public health.
Climate change is increasing the probability that diseases that have been historically limited in their geographic range will reach further. Other diseases threaten to cross the species barrier, such as bird flu, and all diseases refuse to respect borders, or walls. And disease threatens not only people, but also our food source in both animals and plants.
For each of these threats, scientists have a vast body of knowledge about how these things interact, and how we should respond.
Gaining mastery of that domain knowledge take years and collaboration between people of different specialisations. Anti-microbial resistance requires experts in probability, biochemistry, statistics, genetics and sociology. Groups attempting to combat it include universities, civil society organisations, charities and multilateral organisations.
Sadly, these two issues unite both left- and right-wing fanatics in their disbelief. Right-wingers (like Donald and the Republicans) refuse to accept climate science. Left-wingers (like Bernie Sanders and the Democrats) refuse to accept genetic engineering.
Without trusting the experts in each of these fields, we cannot hope to combat these challenges. And, at this time, no group has a universal trust of experts.
The third issue is one of poverty, and while poverty is not a consequence of the first two, the ability for those already struggling with survival is rendered infinitely worse by climate change and disease.
Already land is being despoiled by drought and salination. Critical food crops, like cassava, are at risk to fungal diseases that threaten entire regions. The poor need options, and they need global support.
As their lives are threatened, they will take flight, seeking survival elsewhere.
And, to modernise Bastiat, if jobs will not cross borders, then workers will.
If Donald and his cronies refuse to permit companies to invest in countries of which they don’t approve, then the workers in those countries will attempt to go to where the jobs are. Wall or no wall.
All of this will lead to decreasing safety and stability around the world and an ever-declining standard of living for everyone.
Squandered talent, wasted time
The sadness of all this bigotry and pettiness – whether it be British Brexit, US white nationalism, or France’s Le Pen Nazism – is that we have never, in all human history, been more capable of understanding these major issues and dealing with them.
When the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 killed an estimated 20 to 40 million people, there were no global institutions to monitor it, let alone respond and counter it. When Ebola broke out in West Africa in 2013, an astonishing array of organisations worked together – albeit with difficulty – to respond, halt and reverse the disease.
We can do better.
These are the challenges we must respond to if we are to survive as a species. Choosing to fight over which side of an imaginary line in the dirt people are supposed to stand on is both wasteful and pointless.
We have achieved – as a species – a level of knowledge and expertise never before realised by our ancestors. And we have similarly achieved a level of superstition and contempt for that knowledge that threatens us in a way our ancestors could never have managed.
We are wasting centuries of painstakingly applied talent and throwing away not just the time in that investment, but also the future of all the people who will suffer unnecessarily.
Umberto Eco, in his seminal essay ‘Ur-Fascism’ (of which I have written before), declares that ‘Fascist regimes are doomed to lose their wars, because they are constitutionally incapable of making an objective assessment of the enemy’s strength.’
Donald and the alt-right are only interested in knowledge as so far as it reinforces and reflects their own ideologies based on white oppression and contempt for the other.
Unfortunately, the ‘enemy’ here is not other people – whoever is a minority in any fascist regime will have nowhere to go in this world, and we will die – their ‘real’ enemy is the planet and the solar system.
And the universe does not care about Donald, his fears, his obsessions, his narcissism, or his tyranny. It does not even notice.
Donald will reign, but he will reign over dust and the desolation of our squandered talent and our wasted time.