⭕ Issue 4: risk society

Green investments, ekranoplan pictures, an AI triad, COVID-19 vaccines and conflict on the steppe.

Dear readers,

Welcome to this week’s issue of the Anti-Apocalyptus newsletter. Each week I send you five links about some of the most important challenges of our time: climate change, weapons of mass destruction, emerging technologies, mass causes of death and great power wars. If you haven’t done so yet, free to subscribe at the button below or share this email with anyone who would be interested.

Recently I read an essay by Adam Tooze about Ulrich Beck in Foreign Policy.

Beck was a German sociologist who in the 1980ies wrote Risk Society, an interesting book, that I’m reading now, that details some of the contradictions of modernity. Where industrial modernity used science, technology and reason to move past feudal agrarianism and its associated superstition and backwardness, today we have entered a reflexive modernity where those certainties of industrial modernity are in turn questioned.

Essentially industrial society has opened us up to large-scale, often invisible risks, that are hard to understand for average citizens, and are sometimes worsened by top-down, elitist approaches from scientific establishments. These risks can be the nuclear fallout from a Chernobyl-like accident, negative health effects from pesticides (long ignored by scientists), or even the unexpected spread of an unseen pandemic. This in turn causes criticism of and loss of faith in science and scientists.

Or as Tooze puts it:

“The West’s first wave of modernization had been carried forward by an enthusiastic overcoming of tradition and a confident subordination of nature by science and technology. The disorienting realization of the late 20th century was that those very same energies, those same tools were now the source not only of our emancipation but also of our self-endangerment. To retreat would be to put the gains of modernization at risk. We could not deny the benefits of modern medicine. But nor could we deny its risks and side effects, intended and unintended. What was required was, for want of a better description, a “scientific approach to science.” In this age, which Beck dubbed second or reflexive modernity, the challenge was to find ways to employ the tools of modernity—of science, technology and democratic debate—without succumbing to the ever-present temptations of glancing backward to a more familiar age or engaging in denial.”

Two responses have arisen to this contradiction. First there is post-modernism, that simply doubts scientific knowledge and regards it as relative. Then there are the hardcore modernists, who just double down on traditional top-down scientific and technological plans.

Beck proposes a third way: reflexive modernity. Where we maintain scientific knowledge, but link it up with bottom-up energy from social movements. Modernity without the elitist technocracy.

Beck’s insight is interesting for our time, yet it also carries some uncomfortable elements. It’s clearly a product of its time, where the green party was on the rise and movements that questioned scientific dogma were relatively harmless. Today, however, we’re seeing bottom-up, quite harmful, attacks against everything from vaccines and masks to 5G. The social movementism present in Beck’s work, might have been slightly misguided.

Nevertheless his work carries some profound messages for us today.

1. Climate change

New Republic - A Novel Way to Fund a Green Economy

An article about a memo from Data for Progress that proposes a US National Investment Authority. This government authority could invest in green projects and businesses, and in the process mobilise private capital and side-step private equity firms like Blackrock (who currently dominate the US economy, and slow down a green transition). An interesting proposal, that mirrors some actions being taken in Europe and the UK for green investment banks.

2. Weapons of mass destruction

RFE - Belly Of The Beast: Illicit Photos From Inside The Soviet Ekranoplan

After last week’s special on Hiroshima and nuclear war, this week’s WMD link is somewhat lighter. It’s about a scuttled USSR-era hovercraft-like ground-effect vehicle called the Lun-class ekranoplan. The boat would fly over the water at speeds of up to 550 kilometres per hour, and had six missile launchers on top of its hull (from which it could even launch nuclear warheads). Only one was made, which is now being transported to a theme park. Some photographers, however, snuck into the huge craft and managed to grab some pictures.

3. Emerging technologies

CSET - The AI Triad and What It Means for National Security Strategy

Good paper that explains how AI systems work, and how policy-makers routinely misunderstand them. Three components shape AI: data, algorithms and computing power (essentially chips). Most attention of US policymakers goes to data, and in lesser measure to algorithms. Which leads to tropes like how China supposedly leads in AI because they have lots of data. Yet essential elements of AI systems, like powerful chips, are routinely ignored in this way of thinking.

4. Mass causes of death

MIT Technology Review - Every country wants a covid-19 vaccine. Who will get it first?

Nationalism is taking over the rush to produce a COVID-19 vaccine. Several countries like the US, China and Russia compete in trying to secure access to a potential vaccine and the associated production facilities. This article has some juicy details on that, and came out right before Russia announced its own vaccine, which it dubbed the Sputnik V (in reference to the USSR’s first satellite, which was a major Cold War propaganda coup at the time). Russia will now start using it on vulnerable groups, which many scientists call pre-mature and dangerous.

5. Great power war

Palladium Magazine - Why China Will Decide the Future of the Steppe

Great essay about the fate of the Eurasian steppe during the 20th and 21st centuries. It particularly deals with how the steppe is torn between different superpowers, like the USSR, China and Russia. But also how a new elan of “Eurasianism” is rising up, in the wake of initiatives like China’s Belt and Road. This line of thinking argues that the centre of gravity of international politics is moving to the middle of the Eurasian landmass, and thus the steppe.

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