The End of the World as We Know It

I’ve occasionally offered some pretty depressing stuff in this space the last few months, so I thought I might as well take it to the next level. Remember that I am generally optimistic and rarely do I let things over which I have no personal control get me down. Even the possible collapse of society as we know it. I might lose my serenity if I mistakenly miss an appointment, if I gain five unwanted pounds, or if I feel I did not deal with an issue as professionally as I would prefer because I have control over those things. I can’t personally stop the forces of history (but collectively we can).

Predicting the future is an uncertain science, or art, because humans rarely behave the way we expect. Still, although the comparisons are far from perfect we do know that the Persian Empire, the Roman Empire, the British Empire and others eventually collapsed.  Can contemporary Western society escape that fate? Might there be a future without flat screen TVs, highways filled with automobiles, people living in poverty, drug abuse, environmental degradation, or all the other characteristics of society as we know it?

Several years ago political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that capitalism and contemporary democracy, the current state of affairs in Western nations,  are the “end of history”. In other words this is a good, or bad, as it gets. I disagree. For better or for worse, I don’t think our current state of affairs is humanity’s permanent future and I think concluding otherwise is pretty darned egotistical (and more than a little depressing). The future offers a number of possible scenarios leading to the end of Western society as we know it. For example, although nuclear war is unlikely it is still a possibility when nine different countries  possess 14,900 nuclear warheads. And of course there is always that potential plague of locusts. Or a giant meteor. Or huge alien ships like those in Independence Day. Other possible causes of collapse are less obvious, however.

A 2014  study funded by NASA and others addressed just this issue. The research  introduced a new mathematical model, referred to as Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY), to explain the rise and fall of past empires and predict the collapse of existing or future ones. Importantly, the model could also be used to prevent collapse if governing bodies or people address several  critical factors.  I know it sounds dry, but unlike 98% of the scholarly publications these days, this one is actually sort of interesting (if you skip all the math and focus on conclusions). The authors found that during the last 5,000 years the collapse of advanced civilizations has resulted from “the stretching of resources due to strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity, and the division of society into Elites (rich) and Commoners (poor).” So…two common factors in social collapse: 1) Environmental degradation and 2) a society increasingly divided into rich and poor.

Several weeks ago I addressed our current environmental policies. My concerns regarding environmental destruction and the impact that may have on future generations are clear: we are slowly destroying the only planetary home on which we have to live. I do not believe this will cause human extinction, but without drastic change it may cost a large number of our planetary citizens their lives. I can see no way current Western society could survive rising seas and severely depleted natural resources such as oil and coal (but I also don’t foresee a “Waterworld” future).

The second cause of historical social collapse identified by HANDY is a society divided into elites and commoners. This is honestly not a new idea. Well-known writers such as Charles Dickins, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau identified the loss of individual worth and other similar themes. Of course Karl Marx  offered the most well-developed account of the division between the classes and the consequences of that division.  Now don’t freak out; I’m not a Marxist. However, Marx’s analysis of 19th century industrial capitalism was right on target because he demonstrated how workers barely survived in factories and other workplaces while creating massive wealth for the owners (remember how Ebenezer Scrooge treated Bob Cratchit in Dickens’  “A Christmas Carol”?).

Has that changed? Many countries have improved the working conditions of laborers thanks to unionization and government regulation.  In the United States, for example, coal miners’ lives are now protected by a government agency (MSHU) and factories and other places of employment are made safer by OSHA, etc. Still, many countries don’t provide such stringent regulations and their workers sometimes die in horrific fires, children are harmed by working in what is often a dangerous environment, or employers are allowed to put their workers into otherwise poor working conditions. But the topic of this post is the possible decline of Western society and almost all the worst offenders are non-Western, so we are OK. Right? Well…

The amount of wealth on the planet has been increasing steadily in recent years. In 2014, for example, global wealth grew by 7%. The wealthiest of countries enjoy what we might refer to as western capitalism (China is the one possible exception, but it too is now very capitalistic although certainly not democratic). For perspective, in 2014 the United States possessed 41.6% of all wealth on the planet while the next nine nations combined only held about 42% of the collective wealth (and yes, that means the other 185 or so countries held only about 6% of planetary wealth). So in terms of humans living on this planet, wealth is certainly concentrated in the hands of a few countries with those of us in the USA possessing the lion’s share. This obviously means that most folks on the planet live in much poorer societies. There is, therefore, a clear line between the wealthier and poorer nations. But the story doesn’t end there.

A country’s income gap between rich and poor is calculated using the Gini coefficient (named for an Italian statistician who developed it). Very simply, the Gini coefficient is an index where a value of 0 indicates a nation has absolute equality (everyone lives the same quality of life and possess equal wealth) and 100 would be perfect inequality (one person would possess ALL the country’s wealth). Guess which country has the highest Gini score? Yep. The United States (80.56). This means that the gap between rich and poor is greatest in the country possessing the largest amount of wealth.

By now I’ve bored you to the point of tears with all the statistics. I apologize. Let me offer a quick summary. If the research resulting from the HANDY model is accurate, and it does appear to accurately explain the collapse of past empires, our current way of life may be in jeopardy.  The continued damage to our environment and the increasing gap between rich and poor do not bode well, at least according to the model. Of course only a relatively small number of our fellow Earthly inhabitants actually enjoy the lifestyle you and I enjoy, so I assume a good many of those folks would be OK with the collapse if something better for them emerged.

Are there ways to avoid this possible collapse? Of course, but the hour is late and we seem to be sitting on our hands. The environmental tipping point beyond which there may be no point of return may be near (or already reached). We probably need a massive global focus on the environment, and it needs to take place now.

What about that gap in wealth equality? That one may be even more difficult, to be honest. I don’t foresee the wealthy voluntarily sharing their wealth with those who have less (although the examples set by Bill and Melinda Gates and others are pretty cool). How can the gap otherwise be addressed? Education. Those who tend to be better off are almost universally better educated (this does not necessarily include folks who inherit their wealth), so providing quality education for everyone is at least one solution. The more controversial solution is having governments apply the Robin Hood principle by increasingly taking from the rich and giving to the poor, and this solution is also problematic for a number of reasons.

I would be interested in your ideas.








Paranoia the Destroyer


Why is it that people tend to focus on imagined or highly unlikely threats but ignore more serious dangers? Fear permeates our society, or at least a sizeable segment of it, and this fear results from a near paranoid distrust of everyone and everything. That paranoia is being manipulated by the media and those holding political power.

As I’ve said previously, much of this is a result of society’s growing anti-intellectualism and rejection of “authority”. Under this new paradigm beliefs mean more than facts, pundits and politicians are given greater credibility than scientists or experts, and much of the public is easily swayed to accept falsehood as truth.


  • A fear that we are all going to die from something. Without really giving it much thought I can recall times when people were almost in a panic over bird flu, swine flu, Ebola, Mad Cow Disease, AIDS, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and other perceived epidemics. Yes, some people do contract these diseases and yes, some people die from them, but the likelihood of that happening is statistically very small. Headlines such as  Bird Flu Could ‘Make Ebola Look Like a Picnic’ from Newsmax (an unreliable news source) really are counterproductive.
  • “They” are planning to take our guns away. Who are “they”? The Supreme Court has allowed some restrictions on gun ownership over the years, but in 2008 the Court affirmed individuals’ rights to gun ownership for lawful purposes, and that included the ownership of handguns. There are an estimated 310 million guns in the United States. How can anyone actually believe the government plans to take them away?
  • A fear of immigrants. As I’ve stated previously, immigrants do not kill Americans but we do a pretty good job of killing each other. Like it or not, credible research indicates that illegal immigrants are actually good for the American economy. In fact a very large portion of our food is produced or picked by illegal immigrants. By one estimate, for example, the cost of American milk would increase about 60% were it not for the immigrant workers. And most research indicates that the taxes immigrants pay outweighs government benefits they receive.
  • Fear of a terrorist attack. A little more than 40% of Americans say they fear a terrorist attack. Yes, in all likelihood America will eventually suffer another such attack, but the odds of dying at the hands of terrorists is 1/9.3 million. Your chances of dying in a bathtub drowning, car accident, choking on food or a dog bite are much, much higher but media’s constant reporting on terrorist activities leads us to believe otherwise. Media should be warning us about the dangers of scalding tap water because that is more likely to kill us than is a terrorist act.
  • Fear of Islam.  A couple of weeks ago the city zoning board in Bayonne, NJ rejected an application to build a mosque. The public hearing was nasty with one woman asking “How many children have died under this so-called religion?”  A whopping 47% of Americans believe Muslim values are at odds with “American values” and way of life even though 83% say they know nothing about Islam. These views are promoted by politicians such as President Trump who proposed banning Muslim entry into the U.S. and Ben Carson denigrating Islam in public statements.

There is seemingly no limit to our irrational fears and paranoia and we have become easy prey for those wanting to manipulate our opinions.  An unscientific review of stuff folks have posted or re-posted on their Facebook walls should be enough evidence that we are pretty darned uninformed, but polls validate the argument.

  • A study by University of Chicago researchers determined that 37% of Americans believe that the Food and Drug Administration suppresses “natural” cures for cancer and other diseases because of pressure from pharmaceutical companies.  Another 20% still believe children’s vaccinations can lead to autism, 12% believe the CIA deliberately infected African-Americans with HIV and another 37% had no opinion either way.
  • A 2013 poll found that 37% of Americans believed global warming was a hoax, 21% believed an alien ship crashed in Roswell, NM in 1947 and the government was covering it up, 28% believed Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks, 7% believed the moon landing was faked, and 28% thought there was a secretive global conspiracy to create a “new world order” under authoritarian rule.
  • An older poll (1999) found that 18% of Americans believed the universe revolved around the Earth. That statistic hasn’t changed much because a 2014 study found that 25% of Americans believed the Sun revolved around the Earth.
  • A 2010 study found that 1/3 of the folks living in Texas believed humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time. Another 30% wasn’t sure.
  • A 2014 Annenberg  survey found that only 35% of Americans could name one branch of government and about 65% could not name all three branches. About 21% thought that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision would be sent to Congress for consideration. similar polls have demonstrated that Americans can identify the judges on The People’s Court (a TV show) but have no idea that John Roberts is America’s Chief Justice.
  • In 2012 1/3 of Americans could not pass the citizenship test administered to naturalized Americans and 63% could not name one of their state’s senators.

As usual, I could continue with the depressing statistics, but you get the idea. If we are uninformed we are easily manipulated, and a fairly sizeable number of Americans is uninformed. So…instead of paranoia over bird flu or terrorists, Americans really should fear one thing above all others:


(Three personal notes: 1. The end of the school year is crazy busy so I’m not posting to the blog as often, and I apologize. 2. There is no way to know how many people are actually reading my posts so I never know if ANYONE actually reads it. I understand if readers don’t want to comment, but if you could otherwise let me know that you are reading it I’d really appreciate it. 3. I would also appreciate your suggestions for topics and, if you do enjoy reading the blog, I wish you would share it with others. THANK YOU!!!)


A Desensitized Society

I apologize in advance if this rambles a little. I’m struggling with my own views these days.

I had just turned 14 years old the first time I recall being exposed to raw violence in the media. It was 1968. I’m not sure where or how I saw it, but I remember it vividly.  I’ll bet most of you also remember or have seen old photographs of a South Vietnamese officer raising his sidearm and summarily executing the leader of a North Vietnamese death squad who had killed several police officers and or their family members. I’m quite a bit older now but I still consider that a pivotal point in my life. Other such pivotal points were 9/11, the numerous videos of Syrian parents trying to get their children to safety, the slaughter in Rwanda, other news videos from Vietnam, the Oklahoma City Bombing videos, stories of systematic rape as a tool of war in places like Bosnia and Congo, and countless more news stories reporting death and violence over the years. Then add in all the cowboys and Indians I saw killed in movies and on TV growing up, the number of people I watched John Wick and other movie characters kill, the number of deaths and incidents of violence I’ve witnessed in video games and books, and…you get the idea. I’ve been exposed to a great deal of violence and death, and violent deaths, during my lifetime. So have you.

I believe this desensitizes us to mass violence. There is an interesting phenomenon referred to as “mountain climber syndrome”. If one mountain climber is stranded on the wall of a rock face with a broken rope and no way to climb up or down, our news media will constantly report on the progress of rescue efforts, we will expend almost unlimited resources to rescue the climber, and we all sigh relief when the climber is rescued. On the other hand a bomb in Afghanistan can kill dozens of people, large numbers can be killed by an earthquake, or a bus crash results in death for fifty passengers, and we either ignore it or forget about it quickly.

This obviously matters because it makes ignoring mass genocide possible. In 1994 as many as 1.5 million Rwandan’s died and another two million became refuges because of a war between the Hutus and Tutsis. As many as 300,000 people have died since violence erupted in Darfur in 2003 (of course the Sudanese government’s estimate is much lower) and 2 million more displaced.  Estimates are that 6 million people have died in The Democratic Republic of the Congo since war there broke out in 1996 (possibly the most deadly conflict since WW II). And now close to 500,000 Syrians have died and another 5 million displaced since the civil war started there in 2011. Why is it that we largely ignore those statistics until we are confronted with images such as those of children suffocating from sarin gas dropped on them by their own government?  After all, only a few dozen died in this attack, a small drop in that very large Syrian death bucket.

All of this just bothers me. It makes me begin to question a lot of things about myself and my fellow citizens and it makes me wonder how we should respond. This year I’ve had the chance to teach my favorite course sequence, Classical and Contemporary Political Philosophy (with some very cool students, by the way). One of the themes we discuss is human nature because a writer’s  conclusions on that subject determine her or his structural and procedural solutions. In other words, if a writer believes people are genuinely good and can be trusted, less governmental controls are necessary. However, if a writer believes people are essentially driven by passions, are greedy, are selfish, and cannot employ reason when making decisions, government must be more controlling. Sorry…that’s a long way of explaining why I’ve been contemplating human nature a good bit lately. It also forces me to consider my own beliefs on related subjects such as our obligations to each other.

I believe people are essentially good. As I’ve said previously, I’ve never been anywhere in this country or in any other country where that was not true. However, that doesn’t help me understand how the leader of a people can easily kill a number of those people for political gain. I can’t understand how ethnic or religious differences justify murdering masses of people. It doesn’t help me understand how someone can become so angry with his political leaders that he consciously sets of a bomb outside a courthouse knowing innocents would die. It doesn’t help me understand how someone could be so filled with racist hate that he could sit in on a prayer meeting for an hour then stand up and slaughter the other congregants.

The easy conclusion is that some people are just evil by nature. Maybe. But some are probably evil because of the things to which they’ve been exposed throughout life. Either way they are, as John Locke would argue, declaring war on society. They have demonstrated an inability to play nice with the rest of the world. Unfortunately they are also the ones who receive the most media coverage so we think they are the majority. They are not!

How do we respond to these people? If they are irrational should we try to deal with them rationally? If I happen upon a scene where an adult is attacking someone who cannot defend him or herself, am I to walk up to the attacker and try to reason with him? Years ago I read a story about a man attacking a child in a park while people walked by and ignored it. Nope! Wrong response! I’m not a big guy and I’m 63 years old, but I’m pretty confident I would try to rescue a defenseless child, woman, or man if necessary.

The above analogy isn’t perfect, obviously, but how should we respond to international bullies who are raping, killing, and torturing defenseless and innocent people?

  • Should we ignore the abuse and say it isn’t our problem? This works for the random racist (such as the lady who kicked two of my friend’s workers off her property this morning because they don’t speak English) or sexist (guys bragging about their sexual exploits) as long as they are not directly hurting others. It doesn’t work for tyrants on a larger scale.
  • Should we try reasoning with them? Is it possible to reason with Kim Jung-eun? With Bashar Al-Assad? With the likes of Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin? With Pol Pot?
  • Should we intervene?

I’m a pacifist by nature. When I was a kid I got whipped a few times because I didn’t like to fight. I haven’t really changed much as an adult but I do question whether we as a society should sit by and watch bullies harm the innocent just for their own political gain. I’m hoping some of you will help me find clarity on this issue.



Freedom of Religion

One of my areas of academic interest is Constitutional law. Yes, I know half of you just fell asleep and the other half turned on the TV. Sorry, but this is exciting stuff! Constitutional law includes the actual wording in the Constitution and how that wording has been interpreted since 1789, but mostly how the Supreme Court has interpreted it since 1801 when John Marshall became Chief Justice. I admit openly and without shame that I chose this topic because I’m sort of busy these days and I needed something that did not require much effort, but it is still a topic worth exploring.

Almost every passage in the Constitution is open to interpretation, and many passages have been interpreted numerous time.  The first passage of the First Amendment is no exception: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”. There are two distinct passages addressing “freedom of religion”, the first saying Congress cannot make laws respecting the “establishment” of religion and the second saying Congress may not interfere with the “free exercise” of religion. Both are open to interpretation.

  • The Establishment Clause:  Most Americans believe the Constitution specifically creates “separation of church and state”, but it does not. One of our most important Constitutional principles…is not in the Constitution. Weird, huh? The phrase “separation of church and state” actually came from an 1802 letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to The Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut in which he stated that the Establishment Clause “…builds a wall of separation between church and state…”.

So what does separation of church and state mean? It obviously means that Congress cannot prohibit the establishment of a religion, and it also means Congress cannot create a national religion (though, interestingly, states were not prohibited from doing so). Does it also mean that government may have absolutely no interaction with religion and vice versa? Does it mean that government may provide benefits to religious groups so long as it doesn’t favor one over the other? Does it mean that religious groups should have no influence over government?As with most Constitutional issues, this one has been decided by the Supreme Court.

The phrase was ignored for decades, but in 1878 the Court stated that Jefferson’s interpretation “may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment “. In other words, Jefferson’s interpretation was the one the Court would use thereafter. In 1947 Justice Hugo Black stated that  “The First Amendment has erected ‘a wall of separation between church and state.’ . . . that wall must be kept high and impregnable.” A long line of case law using this interpretation followed, but since the Court is almost always divided the decisions have led to an inconsistent result. The Court has used this interpretation to declare a broad range of governmental activity unconstitutional including mandatory school prayer, teaching religious principles in school, having nativity scenes on government property, a state’s decision to deny unemployment benefits to a Seventh Day Adventist worker who lost her job for refusing to work on her Sabbath, hanging the Ten Commandments in public buildings, and much more. Many or most of these decisions were made by a divided Court, so there is no unanimous acceptance or interpretation of Jefferson’s “wall”.

  • The “Free Exercise” Clause: This clause obviously means that Congress cannot prohibit citizens from exercising their religious beliefs, but does that mean that a Satanist should be able to perform human sacrifice or a fringe Mormon minister should be able to marry a twelve year-old girl? Again, this clause eventually required interpretation.

In 1879 the Court ruled that free exercise meant that we can believe what we choose, but the government may regulate our religious actions. This case dealt with a Mormon wanting multiple wives in violation of federal law restricting marriage to one wife/one husband; the Court said he could believe in multiple wives but could only marry one. The Court has used this interpretation to require Christian Scientist parents to immunize their children, to keep Native Americans from using peyote in their religious ceremonies (even though some had been doing so long before we took their land), to allow Jehovah’s Witness children to opt out of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance,  invalidated state laws banning schools from teaching about evolution, and more.  (I can provide citations for all these cases, but I’m just being lazy. Ask and I’ll provide them)

Where does this leave us in regard to freedom of religion? As I’ve said previously, we must follow the Constitution as our guiding document, but it was written in 1787 for a much different society.  By now it should be clear that the Supreme Court ultimately decides how to interpret the two passages related to freedom of religion, so going forward the composition of that Court will be significant for interpreting this and numerous other passages as well. A changed Court could permit the government to break down some of those barriers now erected between church and state. Here are a few scenarios I find disconcerting:

  • The Court again allows organized prayer in school. As I stated earlier, the Court has never ruled prayer in school unconstitutional; the appropriate adage is that as long as there are exams there will be prayer in school! Organized prayer is different, however. When I was a kid our principal required us to recite The Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of the class day (this was before the Court ruled that practice unconstitutional). America is a diverse nation which includes people of all faiths, and if administrators or other governmental officials are permitted to select a prayer they will certainly choose one based on their personal faiths. This excludes children from other faith communities.
  • If the Court reversed decisions regarding the teaching of evolution our children could finish public (government-funded)  schools without being exposed to scientific research accepted by 98% of scientists  affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I personally want children exposed to scientific evidence whether or not that evidence supports my personal beliefs.
  • During WW II The Court permitted the relocating of American citizens of Japanese heritage to camps because of their perceived threat. This decision has been largely discredited as racist and xenophobic. What if future leaders decided to do the same with, for example, Muslim groups strictly because of their religious convictions (this is, at least seemingly, an unlikely scenario but so was interring Americans of Japanese descent)? The Court must be able to stand up to such actions and protect the rights of those in the minority. Doing so is, by the way, a primary role of the Court.
  • What if a religious or political group that opposed all reproductive rights (birth control and abortion) based on their religious beliefs gained the majority in Congress and the White House and tried to impose restrictions? I’ll not argue abortion in this blog (too sensitive with no way to compromise), but I’ll bet most Americans are not aware that until 1965 some states did prohibit the sale of birth control devices. In that year the Court struck down as unconstitutional  a Connecticut law prohibiting people from using “any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception”.
  • Marriage equality. I know some disagree with me on this, and I understand that, but in my mind government should not be imposing restrictions on adults making life choices with other adults if those choices do not harm others.  In a 2015 decision the Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote declared marriage a fundamental right that extends to same-sex couples. It is pretty clear in my mind that most of the objections to this decision were based on religious principles, and those principles should not be the basis of public policy decisions.

I could continue, but I’m losing the attention of the one person still reading. Here are points to consider:

  • The Constitution never uses the word “God”, instead giving authority to the people.
  • Some folks often claim that the Founding Fathers were all Christians and, consequently, that America was founded as a Christian nation. Yes, most (but not all) of the Founders did claim some type of Christianity as their personal faith, but that doesn’t really tell us a lot about their personal faith because, like today, some were much more devout than others, and many opposed large, organized religion. They saw faith as more personal than public. It is also worth noting that about half of the Constitution’s signers owned slaves or promoted the slave trade, so their beliefs of more than 200 years ago may lack contemporary guidance. America was not founded as a “Christian nation”. Remember that many of those who came to America during colonization did so to escape religious persecution in their own countries.
  • Many of our Founders argued for religious tolerance. Thomas Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee forcefully argued for accepting Muslims, Jews, pagans, and people of other religions. George Washington stated that he would gladly welcome Muslims to Mt. Vernon if they were good workers!
  • Article VI of The Constitution states that “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” (again, this only applied the federal officials, not those on the state or local level). The Founding Fathers were very careful to remove religion as a qualification for holding office.

Believing in freedom of religion is not being anti-religion. Far from it. I am not anti-religion at all, I just think my personal spiritual beliefs should not control others’ rights. Supporting separation of church and state simply favors an idea that began developing among Christian writers in the 12th century and wound its way through much philosophical literature during the last 800 years. If you want to read an early American writer supporting separation of church and state and religious tolerance, I suggest reading this piece written by Roger Williams, a 17th century theologian and founder of The First Baptist Church in America.  For other arguments regarding religious tolerance you might want to read about Anne Hutchison  and others.