I hate feeling at the mercy of other specialists. I am not thinking so much about my occasional visit to the doctor’s office. I am thinking particularly of the specialists who trade in information about the state of the world, the whole world that is. How does one become such a specialist? How does one negotiate the perspectives coming from the humanities, social and natural sciences as well as economics? All this to say that I have been sitting with an article from last Saturday’s Winnipeg Free Press in the back of my mind for the last couple of days. It is an op-ed piece entitled “The world is not running out of natural resources” (May 28) by Brian Lee Crowley. As the title suggests the article outlines the false notion that there is an imminent crisis in global resources. The main thesis of this position is that most accounts do not take seriously the ongoing capacity for humans to innovate and change course when necessary. This is the reason why past prophecies of collapse and destruction continue to miss their mark. This thinking reflects the first half of the article. I suspect this sort of voice is necessary to counter the type of mindless hysteria that may actually serve advertising firms more than other ‘good’ causes. But even here I really have no good idea. I trust soundbites and articles such as these. It is in the second half that my reservations begin to intensify.
The second half of the article makes a dramatic shift to the economic in stating that since 1800 global economic product has increased 50-fold and “this increase in human wealth has improved the state of humanity throughout the world.” This is of course patently false as I think it could be argued that it has not improved the state of the First Nations community in Canada (I will not try and speak beyond my borders). His point however is proved by statistics. Yes, I suppose statistical improvement is difficult to deny as it has the power to ignore the cost of the marginal who literally do not figure in. I am reminded of Kierkegaard’s thoughts on statistics near the end of Stages on Life’s Way,
With the help of statistical tables one can laugh at all of life. . . . After all, a person can shut his door on the poor, and if someone should starve to death, then he can just look at a collection of statistical tables, see how many die every year of hunger – and he is comforted.
Sorry. Off track. As Crowley begins to conclude things really come off the rails in my mind. Crowley holds wealthy nations as the beacon of what direction the world should be moving in. “The richer countries become, the cleaner their environment. So economic growth is the key factor allowing us to reduce most of the problems facing humanity. . . . [T]he right human institutions, such as private property, the rule of law, contract, incentives and human intelligence all work together reliably to solve those problems.” Is it just me or should it be hard to make such statements (at least without some gag-reflex kicking in). I have no doubt that I would be quickly silenced under the statistical ‘facts’ that Crowley would load on me if I tried to refute this thinking. And again, I have little hard evidence with which to enter this conversation. However, take the statement of correlation between wealth and environmental cleanliness. Is this not simply a matter of a nation’s ability to bring in and then off-load undesirable content and processes such as manufacturing, recycling and disposing of the junk wealthier nations desire for temporary pleasure? Can Crowley continue to say these things under the tenuous economic conditions that still (seem to) exist in the US? Is it possible to speak of an ‘improved state of humanity throughout the world’ by statistics? Seriously, I am no expert. Does it even make sense to enter this argument using the same methodology? I mean Crowley moves from the natural sciences to economics to existential well-being without any necessary transition, they are all seamless in his conception. Is this just the worst of ‘ivory tower’ thinking that does not live alongside those whose lives have gone from manageable to chaotic while some larger global trend tracks in a rising graph according to a ‘human well-being index’? Again, I don’t know. Any global everything specialists out there that can help me?