Friday, May 27, 2011

What Do All These Extreme Phenomena Mean?

Even if you have lived for a number of decades (as I have), it cannot be avoided that, in the past year or so, a remarkable number of extreme phenomena, political, economic, geological and meteorological, have been quite visible. Experts in these fields rightly point out that the unusual and extreme are always occurring. Extreme events often easily provoke alarm, and sometimes even hysteria. The “end of the world” prophets seem always with us. (The current wave of these doomsday predictions included a photo I saw from a London crowd in which signs stated the world was imminently going to end. I remember going to a London flea market more than 40 years ago when almost identical signs proclaiming “The End Is Near!” were plentiful in the crowd.)

Yet we ARE surrounded this year, and in recent days, with extraordinary weather and geological events that seem to defy normal statistics of frequency and degree. I cite the Mississippi River Valley floods which will either match or exceed the historic flooding of the same area in 1927. Most Americans do not remember or are not aware how much those floods drastically changed American history. (They changed the balance of power between the federal government and the states when conservative President Calvin Coolidge, his flood crisis czar Herbert Hoover, and the U.S. Congress ordered and enabled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take over the region, and when these floods also provoked millions of black Americans, many of them former slaves, to leave the area and emigrate to the industrial cities of the North where, over time, they dramatically altered U.S. politics and demographics.)

Today’s floods in the Mississippi River Valley are already as serious, and potentially as damaging as those of 1927, but the story almost seems like quiet background noise (except to those enduring them) to other events, including an unprecedented wave of huge tornado clusters, the third of which is still taking place, across mid-America. Yes, there are the usual number of local earthquakes, Atlantic hurricanes, Pacific typhoons, volcanoes and other natural phenomena, but we have also just finished a winter of unusual bitterness in temperature and snowfall. Throughout the Pacific Rim region a seemingly unusual number of earthquakes, underwater volcanic eruptions and consequent tsunamis have taken place, including the horrific conflation of an earthquake, tsunami and man-made nuclear reactor disaster in Japan which has profoundly altered the economy and society of one of the world’s major industrial nations. An earlier Pacific Rim earthquake had similar serious consequences in Chile. A second giant volcanic eruption in a short time has just occurred in Iceland with major physical impact on the skies over Europe (and potentially on climate over the northern hemisphere.)

In the humanity-oriented category we are witnessing an historic and unprecedented political revolution throughout the Arab nations in the Middle East, events that were not predicted. In Asia, the vastly-populated states of India and China are finally beginning to assert their immense economic power in world trade, as is the South American giant nation of Brazil. Epidemics and droughts continue to massively waste away middle and southern Africa (although these phenomena have been present for some time).

Some have suggested that so-called “global warming” is behind some of the meteorological phenomena, but this is transparently a superficial and self-serving political explanation. Others have turned to more mystical explanations, including astrology, numerology and biblical prophecy, but these usually seem to most persons as parochial and limited explanations.

There may be, in fact, no final “explanation” for these phenomena seemingly occurring all at once, other than they are some kind of signals that the earth and mankind are passing through a period of extraordinary transformation and change. The earth has existed for a few billion years, life for several million years, and “modern” civilization for about 10,000 years. The universe is much “older” than that.

My reading of history is that human change accumulates over time, breaking out and becoming visible when certain thresholds are reached. Most of human history is made of the former, but there are many precedents of the latter. The phenomenon of “nations” first appeared about 3500 years ago, most modern religions merged about 1500-2000 years ago, the industrial revolution happened about 350 years ago, and the digital revolution began only about 50 years ago. Each of them not only witnessed their specific consequent phenomena, but were also accompanied, in most cases, by conflations of natural phenomena (e.g. the flood of Noah, Vesuvius, the Black Plague, Krakatoa, the meteor in Siberia, etc.) as if the natural world were somehow bestowing an implacable and mysterious testimony to what we mere humans had wrought.

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