The Current State of the World

  • Two items about the current state of the world: the economy is good; climate change is getting worse, and how conservatives won’t believe either;
  • How Big Oil is more concerned with profits than with long-term consequences;
  • How the Mission: Impossible series, especially the TV series of the 1960s, promoted the plausibility of deep state conspiracies.

Two items in today’s paper about the state of the world.

The economy is good.

Paul Krugman, NY Times, 13 Jul 2023: Everything’s Coming Up Soft Landing

The latest numbers on consumer prices arrived on Wednesday, and they were better than even optimists had expected. Even media reports, as far I can tell, generally omitted the “but concerns remain” qualifiers that have seemed mandatory when covering good news about the Biden economy.

Which is not to say that everyone was happy. Republicans are more or less in denial, no doubt worried that they may be losing pretty much their only substantive campaign issue — leaving them with nothing to run on besides wokeness and Hunter Biden. And there have been some fairly peevish reactions from economists who had committed themselves to the grim view that we would face a nasty “sacrifice ratio” — that controlling inflation would require years of high unemployment.

For this report was anything but grim. It strongly suggested that we may be heading for a soft landing — a return to acceptable inflation without a large rise in unemployment. We’re not there yet, and I’ll talk shortly about what may still go wrong. But a happy outcome that not long ago seemed like wishful thinking now looks more likely than not.


Climate change is getting worse.

David Wallace-Wells, NY Times, 12 Jul 2023: Floods, Heat, Smoke: The Weather Will Never Be Normal Again (Print title: “Yes, Global Warming Is Accelerating”)

Global warming is accelerating, with temperatures not just rising but rising faster than ever. Every day, it seems, we get better at normalizing extreme weather. But it is simultaneously proving harder to compartmentalize — even in places such as New York City that once looked, to residents, like concrete fortresses against nature.

Comparing the orange skies over New York with the similar skies over San Francisco three years ago, both due to wildfires far away. And the rains in Vermont and the Hudson Valley this past week. The hot ocean waters off Florida. And elsewhere around the world.

His theme is how quickly all these events are becoming “normalized,” accepted with barely a qualm, just as the million deaths in the US caused by Covid haven’t shaken many except immediate family members.

A new analysis of last summer in Europe suggested that heat was responsible for more than 61,000 deaths — an eye-popping figure all the more remarkable for approaching the 70,000 dead in the 2003 European heat wave, long described as a worst-case benchmark. In the aftermath, it was often said that those heat deaths had changed Europe, which would never again be quite so blindsided by extreme temperatures. But the 61,000 deaths last year passed with barely a murmur. This summer is only halfway over, and Europe has been setting new temperature records almost by the week. Presumably we won’t even know the mortality impacts for some time, at which point even the extremes of this summer will have passed into the rearview mirror, where they’ll look like some form of familiar, too.

“But the 61,000 deaths last year passed with barely a murmur.”

In fact, what has been perhaps most striking to me this summer is how often global warming has caused what appears to be an unthinkable extreme — and then is contextualized, by careful climate scientists, as merely normal and predicted. Normally extreme, that is, and predictably scary.

Last month, when mind-bending charts of anomalous ocean temperatures were feverishly circulated on social media, it produced a sort of “calm down” response from some of the world’s most esteemed and careful climate scientists.

This probably wasn’t a step change, they said, or a tipping point, or what is often called by those most gripped by apocalyptic climate panic a “termination shock.” The record-setting ocean temperatures didn’t need to be explained as a sudden impact of a 2020 ban on sulfur pollution, which has a locally concentrated cooling effect when emitted by cargo ships; or by a slowdown of the ocean’s temperature-regulating system; or by some other unexpected and therefore alarming turn in the path of the climate system as it marched farther outside the range of temperatures that have enclosed all of human history. It may have had something to do with the amount of Saharan dust circulating across the ocean. But in the main, they said, it was just climate change.

The scientists bend over backward to soften the message, lest they be attacked by right-wing disbelievers. (See the last item in this post.)

Wallace-Wells concludes,

In the end, the message isn’t all that reassuring. The experience of the near future will mean quite regular encounters with seemingly unprecedented events, often quite precisely predicted, but which so few wanted to believe could ever become real. Fewer still want to believe they might strike so close to home.


Also noticed this afternoon:

The Guardian, Sun 16 Jul 2023: Big oil quietly walks back on climate pledges as global heat records tumble, subtitled “Energy firms have made record profits by increasing production of oil and gas, far from their promises of rolling back emissions”

It was probably the Earth’s hottest week in history earlier this month, following the warmest June on record, and top scientists agree that the planet will get even hotter unless we phase out fossil fuels.

Yet leading energy companies are intent on pushing the world in the opposite direction, expanding fossil fuel production and insisting that there is no alternative. It is evidence that they are motivated not by record warming, but by record profits, experts say.

“The fossil fuel industry has massively profited from selling a dangerous product and now innocent people and governments across the globe are paying the price for their recklessness,” Naomi Oreskes, a history of science professor at Harvard University who studies the oil industry, said.

(We know Naomi Oreskes.)

Here again is an indictment of capitalism, which prioritizes the very near-term (the daily stock market) and dismisses long-term consequences. That the daily news reporting on the stock market as if it was a barometer of the health of the nation is misleading; it’s a barometer on the health of the wealthy who own stocks. Not a barometer on the overall well-being of entire nations, or the world, as various writers have discussed. (Bergman, Rosling.)

How to get past this, to solve long-term problems, was a subject of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2022 novel The Ministry of the Future, which I alluded to in this post, but have never gotten around to summarizing here on the blog. (It’s a long book!) I should try to get back to it.


A pop culture topic to end today, but on a recurring theme of this blog.

Vox, Alissa Wilkinson, 14 Jul 2023: The scary question at the heart of the Mission: Impossible movies, subtitled “In Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, Tom Cruise once again leads a franchise that’s all about trickery, subterfuge, and the nature of reality itself.”

I’m curious what the author thinks about the nature of reality itself.

Obviously it’s partly about how the M:Imp team disguises themselves to impersonate and trick the bad guys.

The omnipresent unmaskings, of which there have been at least 15 or 20 by now, are still a mainstay of the films. What’s so great about those reveals, in particular, is that you’re rarely actually expecting them. Dead Reckoning Part One plays with this a little, but for the most part, through all the films, any guy at any time could rip his face off and you’d still be like, “Wow, I did not see that coming.”

The new version is like its predecessors, employing a trope borrowed from the TV show that spawned the film: trickery around every corner, a sense that you can’t quite believe what you see. Dead people turn out to be not-dead people. Walls of rooms keep falling apart to reveal they’re constructed in some warehouse somewhere. Everyone could be a rogue agent or maybe not, and the movie sure isn’t going to wink at you about it till it’s good and ready.


In a highly mediated world, where we encounter everything and everyone through screens, the way reality is represented to us suddenly becomes, effectively, reality. If a story or a myth is floated around the internet and people come to believe it, does it even really matter, in a practical matter, if it’s true? If, as in the 1964 film Fail Safe, a country’s government thinks it’s under attack and launches a missile back at the supposed aggressor who then counterattacks, how much does it matter to the civilians on the ground that there was never an attack in the first place?

We happened to see the end of the the 1983 film WarGames (I didn’t realize it’s stylized with no space between the two words, until I looked it up just now), last night on cable. And the theme of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is similar, to the extent it’s about the confusion of reality and simulations.


I have my own take about Mission: Impossible, but it’s about the 1966 TV series, which was co-terminus with TOS Star Trek, both filmed on Desilu/Paramount lot.

The original M:I was much less about physical stunts than about elaborate ploys to trick bad guys, usually in fictionally-named Eastern European nations, to undermine their own regimes, usually by tricking one bad guy to kill the main bad guy, without the Americans committing any *overt* violence. The mid-1960s was still very much the heart of the Cold War in the late 1960s; by the end of its 7-year run, the series switched focus to internal US dangers, like drug smugglers.

I have a DVD set of M:I episodes, and as we’ve watched them intermittently over the past couple years, I’ve had this striking revelation.

The M:I stories are all about setting up elaborate hoaxes to trick the bad guys into defeating themselves. That is, conspiracy theories. Is it possible this TV show in the 1960s promoted Americans’ acceptance of such elaborate hoaxes? That such conspiracy theories were plausible? And thus the acceptance of the idea of “deep state” conspiracy theories to manipulate the world?

A couple moments thought will reveal, of course, that virtually all of those M:I stories were clever but completely implausible. If only for the key gimmick: one or more of the M:I team would wear masks to impersonate people in the foreign government. This would require perfect masks, perfect matches in height and weight, perfect ability to speak the native language, perfect understanding the political/social relationships between the person being impersonated and all his (were there ever any hers?) compatriots. If a bad guy put on a mask to impersonate someone in your family or workplace, don’t you think you’d notice right away? In M:I, the bad guys never noticed.

Still, if it worked on TV, if it works in the movies, I suspect this has lent plausible to any number of conspiracy theories over the years. (Currently, for example: it’s not Joe Biden in the white house, it’s a “clone.” Or: Donald Trump is really still president and running things. And some people who claim the latter still blame Biden for high gas prices, high inflation, or whatever else they think is going wrong with America.)

This entry was posted in Economics, Politics, Science, TV Sci Fi. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.