Monday, October 1, 2012
Why I've Turned Chartreuse, Part III: Gloom and Doom Are Unsustainable
“I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage,” said John Stuart Mill [1828 speech on Perfectibility]. Pessimists continue to get credence, despite their track record.
The Times of London predicted in 1894 that every street in London would be piled nine feet high with horse manure in fifty years. And they would have, had things gone on as they were. However, things don’t go on as they always have. Just like we can’t forecast the weather more than about ten days out, we can’t predict human ingenuity. The automobile, although not invented for that purpose, kept manure off the streets.
Eminent historian Arnold Toynbee in 1950 predicted the imminent onset of World War III, but obscure meteorologist Lewis Fry Richardson did the math and said, “A long future may perhaps be coming without a third world war in it.” [Steven Pinker The Better Angels of Our Nature pp 189-190]. Toynbee didn’t account for the fall of nationalism, the revulsion toward war, and a world increasingly interconnected by communication and trade.
Ken Olson the founder of the Digital Equipment Corporation said in 1977, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Who would when they weighed a ton, took up a whole room in the house, and cost a fortune? Olson didn’t account for the human ingenuity that shrank computers and their cost.
The Greens are really good at pessimism. Here’s one example from the Club of Rome from the rear cover of their massive bestseller Limits to Growth in 1972: “Will this be the world that your grandchildren will thank you for? A world where industrial production has sunk to zero. Where population has suffered a catastrophic decline. Where the air, sea and land are polluted beyond redemption. Where civilization is a distant memory. This is the world that the computer forecasts.” [Quoted by Matt Ridley at Angus Millar lecture 10/31/11 Edinburgh] To stave off the predicted disaster, the Club of Rome recommended strict controls on population and no more economic expansion.
Forty years later, grandchildren have been born to those who were young adults in 1972. World population has doubled to seven billion, who still breathe the air and drink the water. With World Gross Domestic Product almost twenty times the 1972 figure, industrial production and civilization have continued. Poverty and war are on the decline. Women’s lot is improving. [Christian Science Monitor 12/26/11]. The world didn’t follow the Club of Rome’s advice, yet their dire predictions turned out dead wrong. I guess the computer made a mistake.
The only pessimistic prediction I’ll believe is this one: Imagine Thor, a hoary Viking, saying in 1000 CE, “Yo, Greenlanders, listen up. This warm weather pattern won’t last, eventually supply ships from Norway won’t be able to get through the North Atlantic ice and the Greenland colony will collapse.” Thor would have been right. The Greenland colony did collapse – not because humans couldn’t survive in Greenland but because the Greenlanders spurned the ingenuity of the native Inuit who knew how to cope in the Arctic. [ Jared Diamond Collapse]
The reason dire predictions don’t come true is because things don’t go on as they always have. Something unforeseen happens. New ideas crop up as human beings exchange ideas in the process of specialization and trade. These cross-fertilizing ideas form a collective brain. That collective brain has kept our species flourishing for thousands of years. [Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist] May it continue to do so.