Monthly Archives: September 2014

The (Final) Age of the American Experiment

The original “American Experiment” (so-named by Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist (1787) was the creation of a political and economic system that balanced personal liberty with democratic rule. It was consciously meant to serve Americans, but also as a model for the rest of the world to follow. Liberty and democracy are not always in accord (see the September 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs for essays by Francis Fukuyama and others), but the original experiment continues.

Today, concurrently, a different set of experiments underway in the U.S. are also a model for the world.* I will explore through these essays a couple of over-arching themes: 1) Actions have consequences. 2) Input of energy into a system (physical, biological, social) will destabilize and push that system to a new state. Here are three examples.

In the physical system, we are running an extraordinary experiment by adding to a perfectly good and useful atmosphere a staggering amount of carbon, methane and unknown number of other chemical substances. What will be the result? My background in political science and history doesn’t make me qualified to predict. My extensive studies in systems philosophy, however, suggests that massively altering the chemical composition of the air (adding energy to the existing system) will alter the manifestations of that system such as climate and luminosity. Given that the atmosphere/climate system has on the whole been favorable to our interests over the past 5000 years, will the changes produced be to our advantage? A small change in snow and rainfall distribution will force the climate into a new state. More often than not, changes in physical systems are not beneficial.

The second experiment is in shifting biomass, the total amount of living materials. There is, based on the meta-biological carrying capacity of the biosphere, a set amount of possible biomass. This is parceled out in the five life kingdoms: Monera & Protista (both single-celled organisms), Fungi, Plantae, and Animalia. At least for higher animal forms, when the biomass of one group increases, there may be a corresponding decrease in another. (Worse: overall carrying capacity seems to be in decline–ocean dead zones, terrestrial desertification.) Here is the experiment: an expansion of human biomass (from millions to billions of individuals) using a greater percentage of finite resources means that some other life forms will diminish. So, more of us, fewer elephants, caribou, song birds, fish, etc. What will be the result of this experiment?

As my final example, the great social experiment of our time is the concentration of wealth into ever fewer hands. The French economist Thomas Piketty has shown that the top ten percent of the U.S. population owns or controls 75% of the national wealth. (European countries show similar trends.) The American middle class (persons neither impoverished nor able to quit their day jobs) appears to be smaller as a percentage of the population than in the pre-Reagan era. This transfer of economic energy from one part of the system to another will have consequences. As fewer and fewer people have a stake in our current political/economic system, what will result?

Dangerous experiments, all.

*These contemporary experiments provided the genesis of The Prairie Suite. The novel is set approximately two millennia in the future in the post- American Experiment era.

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