Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years, has held true since it was first postulated in 1965. There are few axioms that more convincingly describe the astonishing speed and escalation of technological change over the last half-century. Processing speed has grown at an exponential rate, and with it has the breadth and consequence of the Information Age—Moore’s Law has found expression in cell phones, ballistic missiles, pacemakers and television sets. It has, in large part, dictated the pace of change of the modern world.
Naturally, some segments of our civilization lag this progress, or refuse to change at all. Some shrink from a future they find so mysterious as to be sinister, and seek refuge in superstition and self-illusion. Others stagnate in the ruins of structures inherently resistant to change. These groups, and others no less worthy of excoriation, are to be found in quantity in Congress.
In a report released this week, former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern and two co-authors derided the world’s progress in combating climate change as “recklessly slow” and pointed the finger at rich countries for failing to evolve with the circumstances. Unlikely to spur the U.S.’s retarded development in this respect is the selection of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) as Chairman of the House Science Committee.
Rep. Smith is notable as an earnest devotee of conspiracist thinking when it comes to global warming, once telling an audience that “We now know that prominent scientists were so determined to advance the idea of human-made global warming that they worked together to hide contradictory temperature data”. We know no such thing. Smith, like other supposed skeptics caught up in the overblown conservative glee surrounding 2009’s “Climategate”, was obfuscating the truth to a degree well within the spectrum usually known as lying.
As Chairman, Smith replaces Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), a climate change skeptic of rather little sophistication who once told a reporter that “I’m really more fearful of freezing. And I don’t have any science to prove that.”
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform this week featured a factless fulmination by Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) on the (entirely imagined) relationship between vaccines and autism. During his bizarre tirade, which lasted over an hour, Burton gave voice to some of the most pernicious myths about vaccination to be found in the most acrid depths of the Internet, let alone on the House floor.
On the floor of the Senate, a bloc of conservative Republicans obstructed—that is to say, killed—U.S. ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). While the content of the treaty is largely based on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), conservative opposition centered upon paranoid fantasies about U.N. domination and theocratic moralizing regarding aspects of the treaty guaranteeing reproductive rights to the disabled.
Common to many of these execrable disruptions of civilization’s advance is their fundamentally obstructionist character: opposition to vaccination, to humanitarian multilateralism or to the established science of climate change comes at the cost of embracing a crippling fear of the future. These objections are Luddite in spirit if not in name.
This is not to say that humanity is being held back solely by the retrograde fascinations of the willfully uneducated. Progress in addressing climate change has been agonizingly slow in coming. Each year for the past fifteen years, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have met to discuss ways of impeding and mitigating anthropogenic climate change. This year, in Doha, Qatar, advancement has been functionally nonexistent.
Failure to address climate change on a multilateral basis has been largely due to the refusal of the U.S., the world’s second-largest carbon producer, to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the binding 1997 treaty that obligates industrialized nations to reduce carbon emissions. The American demurral is not unjustifiable; the Protocol is binding only for so-called “Annex I” countries and so excludes China, an “Annex II” developing nation and the world’s largest carbon producer. Since reducing carbon emissions entails considerable economic costs, the Senate’s reluctance to ratify the Kyoto Protocol—while China, the U.S.’s chief economic rival, remains unbound—is somewhat understandable.
This is an essentially structural issue. An approach to a global issue must be multilateral, and multilateralism is fraught with sticky hindrances: consensus is required, but treaties can be blocked at the international level, at the head-of-state level, at the legislative level or even by public discontent. Intergovernmental ructions are not uncommon at such affairs, but the process would be inestimably easier were the world’s most powerful nation to shoulder some share of the necessary magnanimity.
There is, on the other hand, no excuse for the antiscientific nonsense being unselfconsciously peddled by House Republicans, nor for the overwrought paranoia of senators bewilderingly terrified of a United Nations that they constantly deride as ineffectual.
Study after study after study has found no link between vaccines and autism, so one can only expect that Rep. Burton’s appeal to an anecdote from his own life—a personal research study with a sample size of one—will fail to convince those who haven’t already made up their minds. Of course, vaccine hysteria is a neat bit of rhetorical misdirection: even if vaccines did demonstrably cause autism at a significant rate, they would still be worth it. Smallpox, which was definitively eradicated in 1977, caused between 300 and 500 million deaths in the twentieth century alone. Even if the hysteria were based in fact—which it most certainly is not—the eradication of a disease that spreads quickly and kills en masse would be worth even a high incidence of autism.
Then there’s the odd issue of U.N. paranoia. The CRPD—negotiated by President Bush in 2006—seeks to make the ADA the basis for global obligations toward the disabled. Broadly, the ADA prohibits discrimination against disabled people. The CRPD internationalizes the ADA’s principles and forms a Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Objections to ratification of the CRPD are nonsensical. Most of these fantasies—the U.S. would have to pay for abortions; home-schooling would be prohibited; disabled children would be euthanized—are so far removed from any implication the text of the treaty could possible have that one is forced to wonder whether Republican lawmakers have, in fact, read the CRPD at all. To top it off, most of the CRPD’s provisions are already law in the U.S., under the ADA.
Underlying these most nonsensical protestations is one big one: the GOP believes that the CRPD impinges on America’s sovereignty. In fact, it quite clearly does not. U.N. treaties threaten national sovereignty in the same way that domestic laws threaten free will. They attempt to produce greater freedom in aggregate by limiting injustice. In any event, what precise threat to American sovereignty do Republican expostulators imagine the CRPD presents? If it must be keenly parsed or squeezed interpretively from the text, then it is hardly tangible enough to be dangerous.
There is no analogue to Moore’s Law that might pertain to civilization as a whole. Progress does not compound. Human rights do not multiply at logarithmic frequency. Peace dividends pay no interest and good health is not contagious. It takes a massive effort of will to implement structures that will preserve liberty and protect welfare, and to ordain the proliferation of these virtues worldwide.
The fact is that this will seems woefully absent from amongst some of the only people in a position to exert it. Instead, willful ignorance reigns; the enthusiastic propagation of unfounded fear seems to be a primary value. It is imperative that this regressive ethos not be treated as simply another political view, nor as a tolerable variance of personal opinion. This is a perspective premised firstly on an uncompromising resistance to change and a rejection of all that challenges even the least justifiable intuitions. It is among the most dangerous credos promulgated today, and it must be combatted by the intolerance it so richly deserves.