Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Inevitable Osmosis

(First, many thanks to commenters.  I apologize for being slow in posting comments.  I had a gnarly homework assignment to finish, on top of working nearly full time.  Sleep will taste really good tonight...)

Let me start this post with a slightly loopy analogy.  And as we begin, we must define two terms.  Osmosis (as defined by Wikipedia and others is "the spontaneous net movement of solvent molecules through a semi-permeable membrane into a region of higher solute concentration, in the direction that tends to equalize the solute concentrations of the two sides...Osmotic pressure is defined as the external pressure required to be applied so that there is no net movement of solvent across the membrane."  Let's unpack that definition a little.  Take a glass jar, and divide it into two halves by inserting a watertight semi-permeable membrane down the middle.  Fill one half of the jar with pure water, and the other half with salty water, and wait a while.  What you will eventually see is that the liquid level in the pure half of the jar has gone down and the liquid level in the salty half of the jar has gone up.

Osmosis illustration courtesy of OpenStax College, Anatomy and Physiology.
What you've just witnessed is osmosis.  You started with two liquids, one a pure solvent (water in this case), and one comprised of that same solvent in which a high concentration of impurities was dissolved.  The molecules of the solvent were small enough to flow through the molecular "holes" in the semi-permeable membrane, and they did so, diluting the concentrated salt solution as they flowed into it.  The process continued until the mass of diluted solution grew to an extent that it was able to exert a force on the membrane equal to the osmotic pressure, at which point the flow of water from the pure to the salty side of the jar stopped.  Note that the salt ions could not flow from the salty side to the pure side of the membrane, because they could not fit through the molecular "holes" in the membrane.  Osmosis happens spontaneously whenever there is a pure solvent separated by a semi-permeable membrane from some of that same solvent in which impurities have been dissolved.  When the net concentration of impurities in a solution is equal on either side of a semi-permeable barrier, there is no net natural tendency for osmosis to take place.  Lastly, it takes the input of energy (usually applied through a pump) to use reverse osmosis to extract a pure solvent from a solution in which impurities have been dissolved or suspended.

So it is with nations.  In a world in which everyone had equal access to natural resources and everyone enjoyed the same standard of material wealth, there would be no large-scale tendency for people to emigrate.  After all, if you had everything you needed right where you were, what would be the point of moving?  But alas, that's not the world in which we live.  Quite apart from the situations of wealth or scarcity caused by the vagaries of nature (drought, famine caused by crop failure, bumper crops caused by very good weather, etc.), there is the little matter of our fallen human tendency to rob each other.  Some people are better and more ambitious robbers than others, and some of these people become heads of nations which become really good at robbing other nations.  Thus we see the ever-increasing concentration of wealth in these robber nations and the ever-increasing impoverishment of those nations which are their victims.

This leads to a situation not unlike that which exists in our osmosis jar: a huge concentration of solute on one side of a semi-permeable membrane and a large body of pure solvent on the other side.  Except that in this case, we have a huge concentration of wealth on one side of a national border and a huge mass of people who have been "purified" of their possessions on the other side.  In this respect, the robber nations serve as "reverse osmosis" devices whose components consist of armies to rob other nations with, and border guards and fences and walls to keep those whom they have robbed on the outside.  Of course, all this machinery requires energy and other inputs, because the natural tendency is for good old-fashioned osmosis to occur: if you concentrate all the world's best precious things in the hands of a few nations and leave the rest of the world to either starve or try to find a few crumbs by emigrating to the "favored" nations, you can't grumble if a few of the rest of the world's citizens show up at your doorstep.

The picture of osmosis has thus helped me to see the rise of far-right ultra-nationalist movements in the United States and Europe from a different perspective.  And that can be helpful, just as looking at another planet through lenses designed to filter or transmit certain frequencies of light can help us to see things we might have missed if we had viewed the planet through visible light only.  I've been looking at the behavior of nations through the lens of narcissism lately.  Let's try out a different lens tonight.

So we have a bunch of ultra-nationalists and proto-fascists who have become rather well-known lately.  In Europe, there is the Golden Dawn party of Greece, there is UKIP in Britain, and there is the National Front in France, not to mention the Ukraine or the many Eastern European countries which have taken a hard right ultra-nationalist turn recently.  And then there's the Republican Party in the United States, and its Presidential frontrunner Donald Trump.  And I'm wondering how it is that those who might in any way have been called "left" or "left-leaning" in any of these nations have been totally eviscerated so that the only "alternative" we have to what some call "the extreme center" is a bunch of people who want to insist that they and their nations are All That And A Bag Of Chips, and that the rest of the world can go to blazes.  And all this bluster and bravado is being built on a history and tradition of having made a home stuffed full of precious things at the expense of the rest of the world. 

Note: Some of these people try to base their nationalism on their interpretation of Christianity.  But the Good Book states clearly in both the Old and New Testaments that the Lord's chosen people are to be hospitable to strangers, and are forbidden from oppressing the stranger, the orphan or the widow.  Now I know that there's not really any such thing as a "Christian nation" in the world, and that expecting nations to model this kind of hospitality is sort of like trying to teach pigs to fly - it wastes your time and annoys the pigs.  But at the least, the nations who consider themselves "special" and "precious" could leave off robbing other nations, don't you think?

And the robbery is what enabled these special nations to make their nations a home of all precious things.  But now, on the far side of Hubbert's peak, not only with regard to shortages of easily extracted oil, but with regard to a host of other natural resources, those precious things are being threatened.  And the machinery of reverse osmosis (or, robbery) is being strained to breaking.  The rise of fascist ultra-nationalism may well be the fearful response on the part of some very wealthy people and their mouthpieces in politics and the media to that breaking, and to the increasing likelihood that they will be forced to share their stash of precious things with the people from whom those things were forcibly taken.

One last thing.  There has been a lot of demonization of the Syrian refugees and others who are fleeing from the destruction of their countries which was engineered by the U.S. and its allies.

Drowned refugee child on a beach in Libya.  Image courtesy of U.S. Uncut.

One of the latest accusations against these refugees is that they organized a mass rape of "pure," "innocent" European women in the city of Cologne on New Year's Eve.  At first, I was inclined to believe the accusations, but now that it has been reported how systematically the attacks were planned and executed (for instance, the attackers supposedly coordinated their attacks by means of social media like Facebook and Twitter), the story is starting to stink - and I'm not the only one who notices the smell.  Why use attacks like this to seek to demonize and implicate refugees and aliens?  I think the answer is not just narcissism (although it is certainly that), but that there is a much more practical reason.  If you build your nation by robbing other nations, and the people of the nations you robbed emigrate to your nation and become citizens, they may have strong objections to you embarking on future robbery sprees.  Racist uber-nationalism is the perfect ideology for a nation that wants to exalt itself by conquering and plundering other peoples.  (That, by the way, explains a lot of European history and culture.)  Pulling such shenanigans is a lot harder to do when you are the head of a multicultural nation.  Also, excluding others from your stash of loot leaves more of that loot for you to enjoy.

The eventual end of robber empires is that they themselves get robbed, or their machinery of reverse osmosis breaks.  For instance, the reverse osmosis pump consisting of armies to rob other nations starts to cost more than it takes in, and the semi-permeable membrane consisting of border guards, walls, and barbed-wire fences becomes too expensive to maintain on a large scale.  Then everyone gets poor more or less equally, including the citizens of the formerly "special", "precious" robber empire.  Once that happens, there's no further point in fascist ultra-nationalism, is there?

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