Defeating Reality with Rhetoric

Posted: May 23, 2010 in Culture, Debate, Economics, Environment, History, Industrial Collapse, Science

There is a line from J.M. Barrie’s novel Peter Pan, “Oh, the cleverness of me,” that expresses Peter’s immature arrogance and inability to handle emotions, which in turn is expressed metaphorically by Peter’s refusal to accept the complexities inherent to growing up. Humanity is not dissimilar.

This came to mind in response to an article in the New York Times by John Tierney called “Doomsayers Beware, a Bright Future Beckons,” which is ostensibly a book review but in truth is scarcely concealed worship and praise of the market god (more generally recognized as market fundamentalism). The book being pumped is The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley. Ridley is grouped with other optimist writers, Julian Simon (The State of Humanity), Indur Goklany (The Improving State of the World), and Gregg Easterbrook (Sonic Boom), but not before being contrasted with unnamed pessimist strawmen dismissed at the outset by citing Arthur Herman and his book, The Idea of Decline in Western History. I haven’t read any of these books so can’t opine knowledgeably on them, but I will point to at least one other book, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, which received a pretty thorough review here. My opinion is that forced optimism and irrational optimism represent fundamental disconnects from reality.

Back to Tierney’s review/prayer:

What made Homo sapiens so special? Dr. Ridley argues that it wasn’t our big brain, because Neanderthals had a big brain, too. Nor was it our willingness to help one another, because apes and other social animals also had an instinct for reciprocity.

“At some point,” Dr. Ridley writes, “after millions of years of indulging in reciprocal back-scratching of gradually increasing intensity, one species, and one alone, stumbled upon an entirely different trick. Adam gave Oz an object in exchange for a different object.”

Ridley and Tierney are together saying that humans alone among the animals created economics and accordingly harnessed an immense power that enabled us to better compete for survival and dominance. Oh, the cleverness of us. Problem is, we were a bit too clever, which became our tragic flaw when coupled with our own refusal to grow up. See, economics as currently constituted is based on perpetual growth of a number of inputs, the principal ones being population, energy, and efficiency. For most of human history, those inputs were held in check, but in the 19th and 20th centuries, they took off and catalyzed each other. The trend lines all went nearly vertical for a while, but unless one foolishly believes resources (especially energy and habitat) are boundless, there are obvious, hard limits to growth. This relates to the population bottleneck.

Evidence continues to mount that we are incurring an ecological deficit not unlike our preposterous budget deficit. The inevitable defaults will leave us both fiscally and ecologically poor, with no way to function inside a fiat money system or an ecologically ruined world. Yes, the planet will recover over evolutionary time, but we live in a human timescale, and we’re going to have a huge die off and functional collapse of human institutions because we will have consumed in roughly two centuries the bulk of the resource on which our ballooned population, globalized economy, and entire civilization run: fossil fuels. Other civilizations have committed the same fundamental error, namely, consuming and ruining their own ecosystems. This will be the first time the civilizational collapse will be planetary.

I’m pleased to observe that a good portion of the comments on Tierney’s review say that the Tierney/Ridley thesis is risible on its face. But still, why do so many rely on economic analyses of geophysical processes? Economists can’t even be relied upon to figure out economics. Of course, if it were possible to defeat reality with the rhetoric of economics, we might indeed have a rosy future, but economics isn’t working so well for us at present, is it?

  1. Nice post, Brutus.

    I read John Tierney’s ridiculous article when it first appeared. I’d like to dismiss it, but I think too few people are willing to join me.

    I can scarcely believe people who otherwise seem quite rational keep kneeling at the altar of economic growth. Are they intent upon destroying the entire living planet, hence habitat for Homo sapiens within a single generation? Is that the goal? It would seem so.

  2. Jennie says:

    But it will all be okay! (sarcasm)

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