Wednesday, November 09, 2005

In defense of pessimism

Varifrank has an excellent piece referring to all the doom and gloom predictions that have been made pretty much since Thomas Malthus, two hundred years ago. He doesn't explicitly reference Malthus, but I think the blame for much of the apocalyptic we're-going-to-run-out-of-X-resource nonsense can be dated to him.

Varifrank refers to Hal Lindsey as the "king of silly predictions". I've never heard of him, but I do remember Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute. I participated in high school debate, and ten years ago the topic was U.S. foreign policy towards China. I'm not going to assume familiarity with high school debate rules; basically there were two teams of two who would face off in each round. One team would present some sort of plan addressing the topic for that year, including whatever evidence they could muster, and the other would try to poke holes in their case.

My partner and I that year built a case that we needed to take land from the Conservation Reserve Program (basically, a program that pays farmers NOT to farm a portion of their land) to grow food for the Chinese. Why would the Chinese need this food? Because they waz gonna starve! At least, that's what Lester "the Molester" Brown said (Note: not his actual nickname, just an unfunny play on his name). In retrospect, the idea is laughable. The Chinese economy had posted double digit growth rates since the late '70s, and they were going to starve? Even at the time I didn't really believe it, but high school debate is about winning, not the truth.

Obviously Mr. Brown was incorrect. But a quick Google search reveals that he is still making paranoid prognostications. He now works for the Earth Policy Institute (biography here), where he continues to fear-monger regarding world population and resources. The lack (rather than the surplus) of the former is fast becoming a problem (at least for the developed world), and the latter is, after decades of predictions to the contrary, more plentiful than ever.

After a comparison of our lives today and those a hundred years ago, Varifrank has this to say:

"We are all the descendants of those who came before us, who in each of their lives saw and experienced things daily that would make each of us wet our pants in fear. We face none of those horrible things in our lives today, yet we are more in fear of life itself than any of those people were in theirs while they faced very real threats and not the imagined ones of that we face in ours."

My response is that humans have a deep-seated need to fear. And furthermore, this isn't a bad thing. Fear is a powerful motivator, as Machiavelli realized when he famously argued it was better for a ruler to be feared than loved.

None of the apocalyptic predictions regarding the future have come true, and I believe it is at least in part because the predictions were made. Instead of self-fulfilling prophecies they became self-defeating prophecies. By loudly proclaiming that the sky is falling, these oft-foolish predictions are taken seriously by a few who perhaps help put policies in place to pre-empt their impacts.

Do I have any real evidence for this? Nope. I'll just point to the fact the world hasn't ended as evidence that apocalyptic predictions (no matter how ridiculous) are no threat.

They are also extremely fun to ridicule.

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