Michael KreponThe Age of Extremes

Over the eons, Planet Earth has been profoundly marked by violent collisions, including perhaps five that prompted great extinctions. The playground now known as the Chesapeake Bay was created thirty-five million years ago by an asteroid three to five kilometers in diameter. The Himalayas, about an hour away from sea level, as the crow flies, attest to the crushing force of tectonic plates. But these are ancient, extreme geologic events, recounted to us by planetary scientists. We are reminded of them by the tragedy that has befallen Japan. Living along the Ring of Fire can be hell. Earthquakes and tsunamis periodically remind us that the force of nature is indifferent to human constructions. Sympathy is an utterly insufficient response to Japan’s agony. (My preferred charity is Doctors Without Borders, but there are many to chose from.)

We live in the moment, as well as in geologic time. The appalling video from Japan suggest to me that we are living in the Age of Extremes. If not extreme in geologic terms, certainly in terms of man-made excess. Extreme weather. Extreme denial. The hijacking of humanist religions by extremists who kill indiscriminately. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Extreme misuses of power. Extreme paradoxes.

The Age of Extremes has made inroads into democratic societies. Pendulum swings have become the norm. President Barack Obama succeeds George W. Bush. Our Age of Extremes is characterized by great ambitions, monumental hubris and severe unintended consequences. Security measures that make us less secure. Reforms that compound problems. Opinion masquerades as folk wisdom. Greed amidst extraordinary acts of kindness. Twisted political constructs.

The Age of Extremes is about division, not cohesion. Adversaries provide strange comfort as well as concern. Truths are deeply felt and are not subject to proofs. We enjoy unparalleled access to knowledge and are surrounded by misinformation. Accessibility and distances grow apace, concurrently.

So far, the dangers associated with nuclear weapons have been progressively reduced during this Age of Extremes. Weapon stockpiles are far lower, nuclear testing is now rare and confined to outliers, and the utility of the world’s most destructive weapons has never been lower for the globe’s most powerful states. Amazingly, in an Age of Extremes, these significant gains have been secured incrementally. But pendulum swings are the new norm. Paradox rules. While some nuclear dangers are progressively reduced, others grow. New states seek the capabilities to make nuclear weapons. Fissile material remains poorly secured. And nuclear power plants have been built near fault lines, most obviously in Japan, but also in Iran and elsewhere.


  1. 3.1415 (History)

    Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your perspective, evolution selects against pessimism. We procreate despite all the disasters, or in response to the disasters. There are 6.9 billion of us on this ship. Would Uncle Sam rent his buddies a geologically stable piece of land? Not a chance. People living on fault lines are well adapted to the small increase in the probability of death, out of necessity or by choice. Until we have a world government that put land on a stock exchange, there will always be lots of people living in more dangerous places.

    • Anon (History)

      Funny though, that while humans cannot move around the ship, money and capital can.

      [MK: pls check your mail — I had an earlier post that is MIA…]

  2. J House (History)

    You failed to mention extreme national debt, extreme national deficits and extreme measures by the Fed to print money and buy treasuries in a failing effort to ‘save’ the U.S. economy from collapse

    • sdemetri (History)

      Debt as a ratio of GDP after WWII was at 125%. We are nowhere near that level today, so, no, we do not face extreme debt or deficits. Big, but not extreme. And like during WWII, we are not living in normal times with a normal economy. Extreme hubris and avarice, perhaps, but efforts to normalize the economy are warranted and welcome.

  3. Scott Monje (History)

    It is a time of extremes. But then again, in the 1860s some people defined their very freedom in terms of the right to own others as slaves, and Americans were striving to resolve their differences by killing each other off in the hundreds of thousands.

  4. Mike (History)

    “President Barack Obama succeeds George W. Bush.”

    Minor quibble. While this is obviously a considerable change, I would hardly call this an extreme. Obama has continued many Bush-era policies used to prosecute the war on terror. In many other respects Obama is probably best described as a centrist. (My understanding of the supposedly ultra-liberal health plan, for example, is that it is similar to the Republican’s 1994 counterproposal.)

    IMO, an extreme change in the political landscape would be something like George W. Bush’s succession by someone like, say, Dennis Kucinich.

  5. krepon (History)

    I would add extreme sacrifice and selfishness to the list.

  6. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Given the extreme cost that Japan is now going to spend cleaning this up, shutting down their current systems and I assume building new coal plants and then importing the coal I ask this as an open ended question. Given the true cost that Japan is about to spend in the coming decade for its electrical power can the extreme alternatives now become considered? Will we see Japan enter into a mad (extreme) rush for fusion, or even something as radical as space based solar? Japan is in a corner, what will be their extreme solution to being there?

    • FSB (History)


      Price energy accurately. It will take care of itself.

      e.g. add the cost of the nuclear clean up to future electricity bills.

      e.g. 2: add the cost of our mideast wars to gas price.