Saturday, June 30, 2007

Technology, Pro or Con? Final Round of Debate

Keywords: technology; optimism; soil erosion; disease; inequality; poverty; progress

Phyllis wrote: I haven't been part of your blog discussion, nor do I have time for ongoing participation.

Metta replies: I can’t continue the conversation either. I’m leaving for Pugwash, Nova Scotia for a couple of weeks, so this will be the last of the dialogue from me.

Phyllis wrote: But I want to say that, intuitively, I don't buy your . I am reminded of Voltaire's Dr Pangloss by your discussion! So I want to pose some objections.

Metta replies: Okay, but I am not optimistic about everything. Nuclear weapons or climate change may indeed wipe us out, to mention only two grave dangers. I just don’t think that depletion of resources or food will do so. And my main point is simply that we need technological savvy and economic development in order to solve the problems facing us. I started off criticizing the “ecological footprint” and “” notions, which led to the debate about Malthus, technology, and . To keep the conversation coherent, those are the only aspects of the discussion that I want to address. In particular, this is not a debate about whether to be optimistic or pessimistic. It’s about how to handle the problems that we do have – especially whether technological innovations stimulated by price signals (the market) are often essential, which I believe to be the case. (I’m not suggesting, of course, that no political regulations are required.)

Three books have changed my thinking about these matters lately, and I recommend them highly: , The Improving State of the World; , , and , Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use; and Alvin and Heidi Toffler, Revolutionary Wealth.

Phyllis wrote: How does your theory fit with David Montgomery's contentions in Dirt: the erosion of civilizations? Soil degradation and accelerated erosion are realities: one per cent of arable land is being lost every year.

Metta replies: I don’t know that particular book, but certainly soil erosion is a problem. We need to adopt better farming technologies. The innovation that agronomists are promoting most nowadays to prevent is “no-till” farming, which does not remove the vegetation covering the soil. However, there’s a far more dramatic technology that I’m betting on – one that’s thousands of years old. The farmers in the Amazon discovered how to create rich, black loam () in large quantities by burying charcoal. This also greatly increases the capacity of the soil. For more on this, see plus this: and a blog entry I wrote at

Phyllis wrote: How does it fit with 's cautions in The fourth horseman? There are warnings about pandemics. And maybe US biowarfare research will reintroduce the horror that the Japanese pioneered.

Metta replies: I had never heard of Nikiforuk so I looked his book up on I don’t see why you’re citing this as an argument against my position, since I hope you don’t think that I am foolish enough to endorse everything that is technologically sophisticated, including germ warfare! The whole point is to be wise in creating and using technology. However, the reviewer on Amazon portrays Nikiforuk as opposing everything that is technologically sophisticated, which is even more foolish. Here is what the reviewer (one Severin Olson) wrote — and of course I don’t know whether or not he depicts the book accurately:

“...there are many books out on epidemic disease... [T]his one covers: Aids, influenza, leprosy, malaria, plague, smallpox, sphyillis, tuberculosis and the Irish potato fungus.
“Nikiforuk's book is both informative and funny. It is short and easy to read in a sitting...
“I took issue with his thesis, however, that disease is mainly an environmental problem, created by changes in human population and living habits. The argument is fine to a point, but Nikiforuk goes too far when he attacks the germ theory. For epidemic diseases are caused by germs! We advance humanity every time we conquer one of these micro organisms. Changes in lifestyle and hygiene can only take us so far. In fact, population is rising largely because we have defeated disease. He seems to yearn for an earlier age when epidemics kept civilization in its place. At one point he even blames the million killed in the Sri Lankan civil war on the eradication of malaria! Population pressure apparently. He says we should live with germs but one must wonder just how much smallpox and aids we wish to live with. As I see it, mankind must continue to fight these 'germs' in every way possible.”

Phyllis wrote: The gap between rich and poor has been growing, despite democracy. Hence social and economic inequities abound.

Metta replies: I agree. On the other hand, it can be misleading to take as the ultimate goal. What really matters is to overcome poverty. I believe in raising the “floor” under the lowest classes. If they are faring well, I don’t care how rich other people may be. And oddly, even though the rich-poor gap is widening in economic terms (measured by dollars of income, etc) the lot of the world’s poor is generally improving. The UN recommends using the (HDI) rather than income levels to appraise the well-being of the poor. And the UN Development Report 2004 shows that all but three of the 102 countries for which data are available showed improvement in HDI. Those three were in Sub-Sahara Africa.

Phyllis wrote: As military technology advances the bombers' dream (see Barry Steven's brilliant film of that title), more and more lethal hardware consumes resources and contaminates air, land and water.

Metta replies: Sorry, but I don’t understand why you’d expect me to disagree with these statements.

Phyllis wrote: How does your theory accommodate the relentless consumption of the oceans' bounty and the devastation of first the cod, and decimation of much of the rest of ocean life?

Metta replies: Probably the same way you would interpret these things: There need to be political regulations of the common. That includes international treaties and, within territorial waters, protection of fisheries. Unfortunately, as I understand it, many countries are actually subsidizing the trawlers and other fishing fleets that are doing the worst damage.

Phyllis wrote: does not seem the boon you make it out to be. It produced the nuclear weapon, with its omnicidal and ecocidal dark promise, the sword of Damocles hanging over all of us. Earth is still one finite limited system. So physical resources cannot be unlimited and must be exhaustible. The web of life manifestly is not thriving, with unprecedented species loss.

Metta replies: Technology is intrinsically neither a boon nor a disaster. It’s a question of what technological inventions we adopt. I just don’t understand the sweeping opposition to technology, as if it were some kind of alien force that determines what we do. When I knit a sweater, I’m using technology. If a machine knits the sweater, that’s just a more efficient kind of technology. The countries that industrialized first did encounter many deleterious effects to human health and longevity, but those challenges prompted them to create further technological inventions and solve the problems. This goes on today, too. Technological changes solve problems and create new problems, which further technological innovations again solve, and so on infinitum. That’s the way progress works. Yes, we confront problems that may be devastating to the earth’s ecosystems, landscapes, and biological diversity. But, as Goklany writes,

“Without technological change and economic growth, it would have been impossible to sustain the world’s current population at the rudimentary levels of 200 years ago, let alone advance human well-being to its current level...
“And had technological change been halted in 1900, U.S. emissions from carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion and industrial sources would have been three times today’s level. US. emissions of sulfur dioxide and volatile organic compounds would have been 15-20 times higher, and more than half a million more deaths would have occurred annually in the United States alone because of various water-related diseases.
“In fact, the air and water quality in the United States and the world’s rich nations are better today than they have been in decades. The increase in their agricultural productivity has allowed them to reestablish forests and set habitat aside for biodiversity preservation. All this in a period when unprecedented population growth accompanied unmatched economic growth and technological change!”

Yesterday I learned about a new system that multiplies the sun’s rays by a factor of four. The new rooftop panels will product four times as much electricity. Is that a bad thing, Phyllis? After all, it’s technology! Let’s use our intelligence to produce the things we need, not try to turn back to a preindustrial age for the sake of protecting nature. Chosen wisely, technology can give us a cleaner, more productive world than exists now.

Phyllis wrote: The world's granaries are much closer to empty than in recent decades, aren't they?

Metta replies: I think I answered that before by quoting (see photo), whose understanding of development is always illuminating. Almost all populations are consuming more food and are healthier and living longer. Moreover, it is entirely possible to produce indefinitely more food. Yet of course there are millions of hungry people who need more food. The explanation is not the population growth is outrunning the production of food , but that there are problems of economic development – jobs, especially. All shortfalls of food today result from a lack of “” — i.e. lack of money in the pockets of the poor. That’s why innovations such as the Grameen Bank have done so much to alleviate hunger by creating purchasing power.

Thanks for your comments. This could go on indefinitely, but now I must move on to other pressing matters.


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Malthus Rules!

Keywords: global footprint; Malthus; knowledge economy; population growth; technology; technical fix; climate change; Amartya Sen; Paul Ehrlich; Julian Simon

Thanks to everyone responding to my critique of the “” theory. I’ve had several positive comments, plus five that are mostly negative and require replies. I will paste in the full text of these negative comments on the comment section of the earlier blog on "What's Your Global Footprint?" but will address the most salient aspects here before reviewing Malthusian predictions, past and present.

Helmut Burkhardt: “... A bad article... based on technical fixes. ... The technical solutions of today become the problem of tomorrow...”

Metta: Yes, that’s the way life is. I wash my dishes knowing that they will have to be washed again after the next meal, but that’s no argument against doing it. A new wonder drug comes out and five years later some side effects show up, but that’s no argument for stopping medical . Science keeps extending our life expectancy, despite also causing the ‘problems of tomorrow.’ I’m entirely in favor of technical fixes; they are the only kind of fixes that can save us.

Adrian Kuzminski: “...Knowledge may well be intangible, but the payment received for knowledge work is spent on material things.”

Metta: Less and less true. We spend more and more money and time on things we can’t carry home: Shakespeare in the Park or psychotherapy or shiatsu massages or new software or downloaded MP3 songs or advice from investment brokers and lawyers. Both our income and our expenditures increasingly involve the production and exchange of intangible arrangements of concepts. That is why the economy can continue growing without using up the planet’s natural resources. The new sources of wealth are inexhaustible; they are not material things but ideas, which are not finite, not scarce, not subject to the laws of conservation.

The arguments proposing a are terribly misguided; if economic growth stops, so will economic development around the world. Yet such arguments arise from the belief, derived from , that our economy is constrained by the earth’s “carrying capacity” and that we are exceeding our finite “global footprint.” Wealth generated by trafficking in ideas cannot have such deleterious effects.

Adrian: “Population is seldem emphasized these days by ecologists as perhaps the underlying factor pushing growth...”

Metta: There are good reasons why not. I’ll come back to the population issue below, for we all need to re-think the Malthusian debate – time after time. As we’ll see, most demographers and economists treat population size the dependent, not the independent, variable — the effect of economic changes, not the cause.

Sam Lanfranco: “...Water, waste and food are core properties to a sustainable system. Each is under threat from the dual factors of and life style. Technological advances have pushed famine back as a threat but that same technology has eaten away at the sustainability of life so there are fast approaching limits on how we innovate...”

Metta: Despite your anxiety about the “fast approaching limits on how we innovate,” our knowledge-based society is actually producing technological solutions at an increasing rate, and continuing to improve human health and longevity. You worry about water, waste, and food, but these are scarce or abundant only in relation to the prevailing technological conditions. For example, two-thirds of the planet is covered by water, which will no longer be scarce when we can desalinate and pump it in quantity. Today we’re learning to drip water sparingly from a hose onto each thirsty plant, and to recycle or compost waste or use it to produce renewable energy. As for food, I interviewed M.S. Swaminathan last month, and he assured me that production will keep pace with population. He’s already transferring mangrove genes into crops so they will thrive in salty soil when the rising sea levels flood India.

Derek Paul: “...the new technology you want to have enter the scene to solve problems needs to go through an acceptability panel before it is introduced.”

Metta: Come on, you’re a scientist, Derek! Technology is solving new problems everywhere – e.g. when you download a new computer program or buy a water-conserving toilet. Or when Swaminathan gives seedling fruit trees to poor people and teaches their wives how to pickle the mangoes. Or when he installs a TV in each village, broadcasting daily weather forecasts about when it is safe to go fishing on the ocean. Or when a surgeon learns a new laparoscopy technique that enables patients to go home straight from the operating room. Who wants more “panels” slowing down the diffusion of technology? I am producing Peace Magazine today with a tiny fraction of the effort and energy expenditure that was required 20 years ago. Don’t borrow problems from the future; the real ones will show up soon enough by themselves and then we’ll have fun solving them.

Derek: “As for climate change, I think I could show that it is ultimately proportional to population. That would make it Malthusian, if I have understood your attribution of meaning to ‘Malthusian.’”

Metta: Yes, that’s true, but it’s a spurious correlation. is inherently proportional to the use of fossil fuels, but not inherently proportional to population size. If industry had been based on renewable energy sources from the start, we wouldn’t be having climate problems today, no matter how large the human population had become. But given our present technology, it is true that population size affects the total greenhouse gas emissions.

When I said that climate change is not a Malthusian problem, I meant that it is not a matter of resource depletion. Malthus argued that human population growth will inevitably continue until the available food is consumed, and then there will be a catastrophic rise in death rates, which will bring the population back into sustainable relationship with agricultural limitations.

To be sure, there is no guarantee that humankind won’t kill ourselves off with nuclear weapons or climate change, or something else – but it won’t be from lack of food or natural resources. As and have shown, when do occur, it is not because of a shortage of food, but rather because there a lack of “effective demand” — the hungry people have no money to buy food. Democratic governments easily solve that and most countries are becoming democratic.

Other people have expanded Malthus’s theory by predicting that human population growth will exhaust not only the supply of food but also all kinds of other finite resources: e.g. minerals, forests, and now especially petroleum. Thus the theorists are modern Malthusians who worry that civilization will collapse shortly because of oil depletion, causing the death of billions of people. From their point of view, the energy crisis is indeed a Malthusian predicament.

But I argue that it is not. The world need not run out of energy. In fact, our problem arises from “gorging on oil” and emitting its greenhouse gases. Such emissions are a real problem, in contrast to most of the Malthusian prophecies, which are not well founded. Instead of dying young, humankind is everywhere (except in Africa and a few conflict zones) enjoying ever-longer, healthier lives, with greater comfort, convenience and well-being. We can keep producing enough food, energy, and water to go around by creating increasingly efficient and non-polluting technological improvements.

Louis Lefeber: “... Metta writes, “We can increase efficiency.” Whose efficiency? And what is the meaning of efficiency? Productivity of labor or capital? Or profitability? Government agencies?...”

Metta: Thanks for sending me your interesting paper on “social efficiency.” It introduces distinctions that are sometimes useful, sometimes not. In this paper I refer primarily to — the innovative production of a given quantity of goods or services with decreasing inputs of human labor, energy, and raw materials. This is raising the standard of living wherever it occurs, while reducing “ecological footprints,” to use this problematic metaphor. Indeed, it’s the only factor that can do both.


Thomas Malthus is still misguiding public policy-makers, 210 years after publishing his “Essay on the Principle of Population.” His mistaken theory sounds intuitively plausible, so people keep believing it, no matter how often it has been disproved. Millions of people have paid a terrible price because policy-makers have not seen the flaws in it. Let me run through his basic argument here.

Malthus’s basic prediction was that population would ultimately outrun food supply. He claimed that human nature impels people to reproduce as much as possible, until the supply of food becomes inadequate and checks population growth. He maintained that population, if unchecked, increases at a geometric rate (2,4,8, 16, etc.) whereas food can at best grow at an arithmetic rate (i.e. 1,2,3,4,5, etc.).

He promoted “moral restraint”(late marriage and sexual abstinence) for the working class and the poor (but not the well-to-do) as the only proper way to restrict population growth. Moral restraint and “vice” (including homosexuality, infanticide, and contraception) were the “preventive checks” against population growth.

Malthus did not believe that preventive checks could suffice. Instead, he believed that the only factor significantly checking excess population growth was death (i.e. accidents, misery, war, epidemics, and especially famine).

Indeed, he predicted that by the middle of the 19th century, there would be famine or some other catastrophic increase in the death rate, and he did not propose to prevent that. On the contrary, he was influential in weakening the Poor Law, a system of social security that had provided for England’s paupers. Moreover, as a professor at the British East India Company’s training college, Malthus influenced the colonial administration of India in ways that continued even after the company was dissolved in 1858. Because of him, the famines that occurred in India were not relieved. In fact, sometimes it was actually forbidden for food to be sent into famine areas by private relief efforts.

It was also because of Malthus’s theories that food was not provided in Ireland during the Potato Famine of 1845-49. Ireland was supposedly suffering from “over-population,” so the famine was a “necessary corrective.”

I first encountered Malthusian theory in my high school social studies class when a student was collecting money to aid famine victims somewhere overseas. A girl named Mary Jo actually argued against this charity. “If we send money to them this time,“ she explained coolly, “they will live long enough to have more babies, so there will be even more of them to feed the next time the crops fail. It is more humane just to let them starve now.” Though I was aghast, I could think of no way to refute her argument, which seemed water-tight. (Decades later I read an apt comment by Friedrich , calling Malthus’s theory “the crudest, most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair which struck down all those beautiful phrases about love thy neighbour and world citizenship.” and Engels loathed Malthus and produced a complicated alternative theory of population involving a “reserve army of labor,” which I need not discuss here, thank goodness.)

But the beauty of Malthus’s theory is that it is falsifiable. And it has been falsified. He argued that so long as people have food, they will keep reproducing. Thus the way to restrain excessive population growth is to keep people poor.

But just the opposite is true: In every country, birthrates decline when economic development occurs and food production keeps growing faster than the population. In fact, population size is more an effect than a cause — a “dependent variable” instead of an “independent variable,” in the terminology of social science.

Let me try to clear up the confusion that Malthus sowed in the world.

Let’s imagine a society without in- or out-migration. Over time, the size of its population will be determined by three variables: birth rates, death rates, and the sufficiency of the means of subsistence (say, food). If our imaginary society is a traditional, pre-industrial one, birth and death rates will be high and approximately equal, while the food supply will be limited. Consequently, the human population will remain small and fairly steady — as homo sapiens actually did for two million years.

However, since there exists a kind of necessary equilibrium among these three variables, a change in one of them will cause changes in the other two. Much depends on what happens first, as I’ll show with the following two scenarios:

Scenario One: Here the increase while the and food supply remain almost steady. This is the scenario that Malthus considered normal and, as he predicted, the population size will increase — but it can do so only within the limits set by the food supply. When the growing population exhausts the food supply, then either (a) there must be a marked increase in food or (b) the death rates must rise (from hunger, disease, or violence). Since Malthus did not suppose that the food could increase much, he predicted that it would be higher death rates that would stop the population growth. (He was wrong.)

Scenario Two: Now suppose instead that in our imaginary society the birth rates and food supply are steady at the outset but the death rates begin dropping. Again, the population will grow, though eventually the equilibrium must be restored through one or more of the next phases: either (a) the death rates rise again, reducing the population to the size that can be sustained, or (b) the food supply keeps increasing and/or (c) the birth rates decline, stabilizing the population at its new, larger size.

I can report with joy that this second scenario is what actually happens as countries undergo . The process begins with declining death rates — often the effect of innovations in public health and infrastructure (as indeed was the case in Malthus’s England during the industrial revolution). Then, after a certain lag, the birth rates begin to drop. The sharper the death rate decline and the longer the lag before the birthrates also drop, the greater will be the population growth. But notice that declining birthrates do not begin the sequence; they come at the end, as the result rather than as the initiating cause of the changes. Political leaders (e.g. in China) have occasionally coerced families to reduce their family size earlier in the developmental sequence, but there are significant disadvantages to that.

Defying Malthus’s assertion that “human nature” will keep reproductive levels high, no matter what, the world’s population’s has voluntarily declined from 2.2 percent per year in the 1960s to 1.17 and falling today. Why? Here’s an explanation from the World Bank:

“Parents tend to have larger families when they fear that many of their babies may die, when they need laborers to work on the family farm or business, when they want to ensure that they themselves will be cared for in their old age, and when they lack access to education and to family planning if they want it.

“Experience shows that three of the most successful strategies to reduce fertility rates are to ensure that people 1) have greater access to primary health care and family planning services, 2) receive a basic education, especially girls and women, and 3) have government services that help protect them when they are sick, old, or unemployed.”
Here is the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s explanation in a 2000 interview:
“I do not think that Malthus will be proved any more right in the future than he has been in the past. Already in 1798, Malthus thought that the world was overpopulated and any further increase would lead to food shortage and higher death rates all around. Since then the world population has grown more than six times with enormous increases in living standards, nutrition levels and life expectancy. These increases continue even today, and there is every indication that the fall of fertility rate that is occurring across the world will not allow the population to grow faster than food production, given the technological possibilities that are also present in raising food production. In fact, if we look over the last three or four decades, food prices have fallen dramatically for all the major staple food crops (sometimes have been halved or fallen even further), indicating that what is restraining a faster expansion of food production is demand rather than difficulties in expanding food production or escalating costs of food production.

“Of course, there still is a need for much more food to be produced because there are hungry people across the world. They are not hungry because there are too many of them, but because they are poor and do not have the means of buying food. So what is needed is economic expansion and the enhancement of the economic entitlements of the deprived population in the world. Food production can respond appropriately to more demand on the basis of available technology and further technical advances that are occurring at this time. Malthus did not appreciate the role and magnitude of technical progress in food production.

“Nor was Malthus right in thinking that fertility rates will not fall in the absence of economic compulsion and penury. On the contrary, fertility rates have come sharply down with the process of development, influenced particularly by women's empowerment...”
Having reviewed Malthus, I want to turn to today’s Neo-Malthusians, who do not limit their doomsday scenarios to food shortages but predict that within a few years the expanding population will soon exhaust the earth’s supply of minerals, water, petroleum, or other natural resources, thereby bringing calamity to our species. Several scholars during the 1970s made such predictions, including in The Population Bomb and Donella Meadows for the .

But not everyone accepted these ominous projections. The economist , (see photo) for example, claimed that natural resources were infinite. Indeed, Simon challenged Ehrlich to a bet about the market price of metals. Ehrlich would pick a combination of any five metals that were worth $1,000 in 1980. If, ten years later, the metals were worth more than $1,000 after adjusting for inflation, Ehrlich would win. If they were worth less than $1,000, Simon would win. The loser would mail the winner a cheque for the change in price.

Ehrlich replied that he accepted “Simon’s astonishing offer before other greedy people jump in.” He picked copper, chrome, nickel, tin, and tungsten.

He lost. In 1990 he sent Simon a cheque for $576.07. The price of all these metals had dropped so much that Simon would have won the bet even if the prices had not been adjusted for inflation.

How was it possible for metals or any other natural resource to become less scarce in the 1980s? John Tierney explained in The New York Times Magazine:

“Prices fell for the same Cornucopian reasons they had fallen in previous decades — entrepreneurship and continuing technological improvements. Prospectors found new lodes such as the nickel mines around the world that ended a Canadian company's near monopoly of the market. Thanks to computers, new machines and new chemical processes, there were more efficient ways to extract and refine the ores for chrome and the other metals. For many uses, the metals were replaced by cheaper materials, notably plastics, which became less expensive ˇ Telephone calls went through satellites and fiber-optic lines instead of copper wires. Ceramics replaced tungsten in cutting tools. Cans were made of aluminum instead of tinˇ”

In a word, the market stimulated technological innovations that made for efficiencies in the use of natural resources.

Ehrlich lost the bet, but nevertheless, Malthus still rules. There is a widespread suspicion of both the market and technological change, which are expected to ruin the planet rather than increase its bounty. The assumption is commonplace, even among environmentalists, that food and natural resources can expand no further, so that when one person eats, someone elsewhere must inevitably go hungry. I even know prosperous professionals in the knowledge economy who, convinced of Malthusian theory, are abandoning urban civilization and taking up subsistence farming, trying to reduce their “global footprint” and hoping to survive the imminent catastrophe when oil runs out and billions of human beings die.

Social theories have real implications for how we live our lives, both personally and collectively. Social theories influence policy-makers, even when they are assimilated unthinkingly. We don’t always know what theories we do believe or who invented them.

It’s important to find out.


Monday, June 25, 2007

What’s Your Market Value?

Keywords: market; self; commercialization; Adam Smith; Viktor Frankl; moral philosophy; mudita; sociology; comparisons; David Riesman

Today’s blog entry is my letter to a dear friend, a well-known woman sociologist who writes about the of personal relationships. We used to talk on the phone about once a week about our research. Yesterday she sent me a new article and the outline for the book she’s working on now. I won’t divulge her name here – at least not until the book is finished. Here goes:

I was glad to have a chance to read the article you sent because it gives me a different insight on your work. Maybe it’s only my construction, but it makes more sense than my previous understanding of what you are up to, so I’ll throw it out there and see if it “sticks.”

Clearly, the notion of commercialization and the sticks in your craw. It has been the big issue for you for many years. We’ve talked about it a lot because it doesn’t bother me at all, so I probably missed what it was in capitalism that I too should be concerned about.

In the past, I thought that what bothered you was the notion of money: that people buy and sell certain activities that ought to be done only out of spontaneous and authentic affection or other types of human affinity. So to you, buying a birthday cake was somehow a threat to familial solidarity, etc. and one should not pay people to care for children and elders, etc. because that would undermine real relationships. I never saw that as a danger, as you will recall from our past conversations, so I never worried about commercialization or the exchange of money for services.

But this last paper (and maybe your book as you are casting it now) seem to be pointing to a different kind of problem – one that I can actually take seriously. I may be wrong, though, because I did not completely follow the initial theoretical half of the paper. It came alive for me when you started giving examples of what bothers you.

I think you’re really dealing with a problem in , but you’re trying to address it as a sociological problem. Or maybe, to put it even more provocatively, you’re dealing with a conundrum but trying to solve it as an . Either way, you haven’t provided a solution in this particular paper. I cannot imagine what solution you may offer in the book itself.

The underlying problematic that I see in your work today is this: the market is dangerous because people can unwisely internalize its criteria as the basis for appraising the value of human activities and even of the self. It is no longer that is the root of evil, but something more abstract: the market, whether or not what is being assigned a value is given a dollar value or some other. Your only implied solution is to somehow abolish the market economy, but of course you don’t actually say that because that would be impossible, or you’d have to propose an alternative type of economy, whereas nothing promising is available, since socialism has been discredited. So you don’t offer any solution at all, at least in the paper. It seems to me that you need to propose something. Here’s what I would propose — though you probably won’t like it because it is a moral or even a spiritual approach rather than one involving social structural reforms.

Thank God for the market! As a system for allocating scarce commodities and eliciting the innovation and production of new ones that meet human needs (or at least the effective demand of buyers) the market system is absolutely unmatched. It is a self-regulating system that relies on price signals to tell producers what to manufacture and how much of it to make so as to best satisfy the desires of buyers. No planned economy has ever been able to do such a thing. It is because of the market system that productivity and efficiency have improved, human life expectancy has tripled, and hunger and pain have diminished on this planet. I would fight hard to oppose any curbing of the workings of the market.

Of course, as you rightly point out, there are some things (e.g. human organs) that we say should not be bought and sold. But as for the things that are appropriately exchanged through the market, the system works brilliantly except when other factors distort the market itself (e.g. monopolies, cartels, insider trading, and other corrupt practices, plus inappropriate government influences, including the price distortions of government purchasing power). Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” was a wonderful metaphor to depict how an economic system can function optimally while all the participants actually pursue their own interests instead of behaving with altruism.

So don’t knock the market.

Both the best thing and the worst thing about the market is that it depends entirely on relative . Suppose you’re selling your house. When you put it “on the market,” you submit it for the appraisal of a whole bunch of people who are looking at other houses. The market value is a dollar figure that objectively assigns a ranking to your house among the other houses that are up for sale. It is derived from the buyers’ collective subjective opinions, but it is itself “objective”; it would be pointless to argue against it, as you might argue with an individual who comes to look your house over.

Now this business of having an “objective” status that the market produces is a morally problematic, spiritually unhealthy experience — especially when it is you, yourself, who is on the market, being appraised by others. And we sometimes are. When we look for a job, we are appraised by comparing us to the other applicants. When we are looking for a lover or spouse, we evaluate our various dates and they evaluate us, as if we were a commodity on the market. When we get old, we notice (at least I do) that fewer people are competing to get our attention socially, say, or to nominate us to chair a civic organization. Our “market value” has objectively declined. This can be depressing if we think that this market value actually reflects our own true value in the greater scheme of things. Nevertheless, the market in human interactions is here to stay. You cannot make it stop. You have to handle it , not by changing the social structure.

In fact, the other aspect of the human market is also harmful to the soul, if you’ll permit me to use that term. When our market value is high, that’s a danger too. We can believe that it is a true measure of our worth, and that conclusion is just as dangerous as believing in our market value when it is sinking fast. But the question is: what other criterion can we use to determine how well we are doing in life? This is the deepest moral — or actually religious — question. I do care about answering it, but I don’t go about it by a futile effort to stop the rating game. I just say that one must not take the market very seriously. It is an excellent means of assigning relative values to scarce commodities, but human beings are far more than their relative rankings.

The secret of happiness is to stop making comparisons. Examples:

• Why do people commit suicide on Christmas? Because they are alone and comparing themselves to others who are supposedly holidaying joyfully among friends and family. By that standard, they are failures.

• Movie stars who have been nominated for an Oscar but who did not win it have five years less than Oscar-winners. Five years! This is a true fact. It’s certainly evidence that comparing oneself to others in a system of relative rankings can be devastating. Apparently the winners get such an inflated sense of their importance that their life expectancy increases, as compared to the “losers.” Both winners and losers are caught up in a foolish system of evaluation. Well, not “foolish,” exactly, but one that they are applying inappropriately to appraise worth of the self.

• Your market value and Ann’s, as sociologists, are higher than mine. I can either envy you for that or I can take vicarious pleasure in your success. (“,” in the language of Buddhism, is the opposite of ; it means rejoicing about the well-being of others). However, I neither envy nor “mudita” you, since I know that your high ranks and my low-rank are based on comparisons, whereas I try not to compare. (Sometimes I slip up and have to correct myself.) Instead, I generally think in terms of whether we three are all pursuing our own distinct, valuable projects, and whether we are all making progress toward those goals. My own projects are not particularly sociological, but I think they are of value to humankind and I think I am progressing pretty well, so I am satisfied most of the time. Our market value rankings are still there, but I don’t judge us in terms of them.

Where do I get my goals and how do I know whether they are the right ones? Certainly not by asking other people. In that respect, I am definitely not a sociologist, and I don’t think anyone can make valid moral appraisals on the basis of others’ opinions, whereas that is the basic axiom of . Remember ’s experiment where people were asked to judge the length of two very unequal lines, and most people wouldn’t say which was longer when the other people in the group didn’t do so? Now if people can’t even tell which line is longer by using their own eyes, how are they going to discover the right goals to aim toward in life by asking the opinions of others?

The trouble is, sociologists have no alternative method to offer. was right in saying that we’ve become “” instead of “inner-directed,” but as I recall he didn’t say where the people get their values. If we’re not going to take our “” score to heart, what can we use to ask how we’re doing? I think you need to answer that if you’re going to advise against commercialism as a self-defining process. But I don’t think your answers are the same as mine.

Probably most inner-directed people (which I try to be but not always successfully) believe that there are values that do not come from relative comparisons. In the past, they were probably religious people who believed that the church or some religious authorities defined the goals that they should adopt and internalize. That’s a dangerous approach, as we all can see today; it is conductive to fanaticism and intolerance.

Yet I think one has to find purpose in some other way, and be just as faithful to it as the religious virtuosos of whom Weber wrote. I think the “calling” one receives must be similar to theirs in some sense. You as an atheist won’t appreciate this, but I think I receive assignments that are similar to the old-fashioned vocations. Like , I don’t mind saying that "Life is giving me this responsibility to carry out” but inwardly I think that “God” is assigning it to me. It doesn’t matter much, I guess, how one describes it. What matters is that we get some sense of what to do without depending on an index derived from the collective appraisals of others. They can go on making market judgments, and when it comes to buying a used car I will refer to the “blue book” without hesitation. I just won’t pay much attention to my own value — or yours — on the human market.

There remains the question: How can I tell whether I am doing well in terms of my “God-given assignments”? Suppose I think, for example, that I had a duty to write Two Aspirins and a Comedy. But it isn’t a huge popular seller. Therefore, must I conclude that I did a bad job? Or that I was mistaken in believing that it was my assignment? Not necessarily. I certainly do wish it had been a big success, but I can’t know what will come from it. Maybe in 50 years, someone will discover a copy in the city dump and read it and get something from it that will enable him to contribute to humankind. All I know is that I should do what seems right and then trust that the universe is all working out as it should.

Finally, even in terms material commodities, it seems to me that there is such a thing as “enough.” What was it that said? That a person can live comfortably in a small house until someone builds a big house next door. Then the owner thinks his little house is a tiny shack. Your answer to the marketized self has to be this: “Stop comparing yourself to others. Ask yourself only what your own real needs are and whether you have enough. And if you do, enjoy!”

I’ll speak to you tomorrow.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Your Global Footprint?

Keywords: carrying capacity; ecological footprint; climate change; technology; population; Malthus; Ester Boserup; agriculture; Alvin Toffler; Heidi Toffler

In my circle of friends, there is much concern about living sustainably. Several assumptions about this matter tend to go together: (a) that the planet offers only a fixed capacity to support the population, so that we in the affluent countries are morally obligated to “reduce our ”; (b) that is harmful to nature, and indeed the higher the technology, the more it depletes the earth’s resources and robs the poor of their fair share; and (c) that we should all share access to the earth’s resources in a cooperative way, by restraining commercial competitiveness and materialism. I have been uncomfortable with this overall philosophy for a long time and now I want to point out why.

The concept of the “global footprint” is more misleading than helpful. It is claimed that we have to start conserving because we are using up more than our share of the world’s resources. Indeed, if everyone in the world consumed as much of the earth’s resources – food, wood, minerals, energy, etc. — then three planets the size of ours would be required. To prevent such inequities, and the looming starvation and economic collapse, we must voluntarily reduce our own standard of living, our own “ecological footprint.”

To calculate ecological footprints, a number of factors are combined to give an overall score for an individual or for a nation. The main factor in that equation is the quantity of produced. If GHGs were removed from the equation, the rich countries actually would not be significantly out of line with the less developed countries. Now, I will agree that we need to reduce our GHG emissions; that part of the ecological footprint theory seems perfectly true. However it is our emissions that have to be reduced, not our consumption of resources per se. That is, we would have to stop using fossil fuels even if they even existed in infinite supply, because doing so is necessary to prevent global warming.

Why is this distinction important? Because is not a Malthusian problem, whereas the over-consumption of resources is precisely Malthusian. It was Thomas who predicted that in time humankind will run out of food because our population will grow faster than the food supply. Only famine, disease, and war can provide positive checks against this imbalance.

Malthus was proved wrong long ago. However, there is still a Malthusian “folk theory” that dominates everywhere: the notion of the “carrying capacity” of land. Every plot of land supposedly can sustain only a finite number of human beings, so we must live within that reality by curbing consumption — or, better yet, by limiting human reproduction. The new concept of the ecological or global “footprint” is basically a new version of this older theory of “carrying capacity,” though with one additional factor -- the aforementioned greenhouse gas emissions, which is the only factor that actually worries me. I am trying to reduce my emissions, and I hope you do so too. But it is high time we re-examine the concept of “carrying capacity” or “global footprint,” for it is leading us to make harmful decisions.

“Carrying capacity” has been defined as the “maximum number of people that a given land area will maintain in perpetuity under a given system of usage without land degradation setting in.” The truth is, the “carrying capacity” of a piece of land is not fixed, but varies with the technology that people use is producing goods from it – i.e. with the “system of usage.” The more advanced the prevailing technology, the higher will ordinarily be the earth's carrying capacity. Yes, technology depends on exploiting some of the earth's resources, but it can also make the earth more productive — increase its carrying capacity.

Take agriculture, for instance. (see photo) was a Danish scholar who worked at the United Nations on agricultural issues. Her book, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure (1965) made a huge impact in the social sciences when it was published, for it demonstrated in a new way that Malthus had misunderstood the causal relationship between population growth and . She argued that the evolution of agriculture was a process that normally had to be pushed by the increasing density of human population.

Her review of economic history extends back into pre-historic times and forward to the mid-20th century. As anthropologists have come to recognize, hunters and gatherers did not readily take up farming. They only did so, and reluctantly at best, when they could not feed themselves in any other way. And the same goes for the adoption of increasingly advanced methods of food production. Even primitive societies today that grow food without plows or draft animals often resist superior technology when their government offers it to them. Why? Because it requires more work. Yes, more advanced tools can obtain more food from a given amount of land, but only with an increasing amount of labor. . Only necessity will drive farmers to increase the carrying capacity of their fields by adopting more intensive types of .

Previously, scientists had considered land as either cultivated or uncultivated, but Boserup developed five stages of increasingly intense forms of cultivation, according to the length of fallow between periods of cultivation. The lowest level is “slash-and-burn” farming, which burns a plot of forest land, cultivates it briefly, then leaves it fallow 15-20 years before starting over. The highest level is multi-cropping, with no fallow. The move from one level of intensity to the next is caused by population growth. Each such "advance" entails more labor per plot of land, and thus the intensification increases the productivity of land and reduces that of labor.

This pattern, which is found all around the world, shows that population growth causes agricultural growth. And empirically it holds up. Malthusians have it backward. Population growth does not exhaust the soil, but increases its “carrying capacity” by forcing technological advances.

In a later book, Population and Technological Change: A Study of Long-term Trends (1981), Boserup extended her insight from agriculture to the rest of economic production. She showed that many technologies can be developed only if the population is dense enough to yield “economies of scale.“ Still, she applied her economic model only to the level of industrial production, not the kind of “knowledge” economy in which you and I earn our living today. To understand the new system we turn to a new book by Alvin and Heidi , Revolutionary Wealth, which reveals the inadequacy of all three of the assumptions mentioned above.

In Canada and the other affluent societies, very little wealth comes from farming or manufacturing, but from jobs that involve intangible products. When we write songs, design software, advise investors, conduct therapy sessions, or direct plays we are trafficking in knowledge, not physical materials. Today almost all good jobs are in the “knowledge” sector. Only four percent of Canadians are farmers, and we are exporting unskilled industrial jobs overseas. Indeed, that is how the less developed countries will escape from poverty — through the adoption of our technology. Moreover, knowledge (unlike material things) is intangible -- neither scarce nor even finite. It is not conserved by any law of thermodynamics. If I give you my money or my property, you will own it but I no longer will. If I give you my knowledge, we both will have it. Economics has been the study of scarce goods and commodities, but when it comes to the economics of knowledge, we have to start thinking differently.

The Tofflers explain how Asia happened to make its great breakthrough to modernity and prosperity. In 1965 the Japanese auto manufacturers imported digital technology from the United States, where it was not being widely adopted, and began to assemble cars with robots. The precision and quality of their cars became far superior to those of other countries. They used the most advanced technology as well to produce cameras, television sets, VCRs, and so on, exporting so many products that the US finally slapped trade limits on their semi-conductors.

Next these newly rich Japanese firms began offloading their low-tech factory jobs to Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. As the workforce in those countries shifted from agriculture to industry, they began acquiring new hand-me-down knowledge about finance, about markets and marketing, about import-export rules and business in general. These recipient countries experienced lengthening life expectancy, reduced rates of population growth, and a a 400 percent increase in average real incomes.

How is poverty reduced? Not by aid (though that can be helpful too) but primarily by external inputs of capital, plus relevant that allows the poor to become entrepreneurs and manufacturers. Curtailing the spread of high technology would condemn the whole Third World to perpetual poverty. Yet that is what many of my friends would like to do: stop technological change. In the name of equity and justice toward the downtrodden of the earth, they want to stop economic growth and persuade everyone to consume fewer material goods.

This is misplaced kindness. Wealth nowadays comes from knowledge, science, and technology. Moreover, jobs in the “knowledge economy“ involve work with intangibles and, accordingly, require the extraction of less and less material resources from the earth. I am not justifying extravagance, waste, and materialistic greed; far from it. But I am pointing out that real progress for humankind will not come from reducing our standards of living, but rather from increasing the carrying capacity of our planet through the creation and diffusion of knowledge and technology. Spend your energy lavishly, acquiring and spreading useful knowledge; that's how you can make a difference in the world.

We can increase efficiency. When that happens, wealth can grow. We can all even reduce our ecological footprints while increasing our consumption.

Finally, I want to mention how that happens. Technology is wonderfully responsive to the . When we begin to deplete a resource, its price will increase in a capitalist economy. Prices are an extraordinarily effective signal that an opportunity exists to serve others by producing a product from a different material, or by using the scarce material more efficiently. That is technological innovation. Economists know this better than anyone, and economists worry less about their global footprint than anyone else.

Now you can stop worrying about yours. But do reduce your CO2 emissions; that's an entirely different matter — one that we definitely should worry about.


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Wanted: a New Synonym for Religion

Keywords: Stephen Prothero; religious literacy; Christianity; pluralism; spirituality; Dalai Lama; Buddhism; Jesus Christ; Huston Smith; Karen Armstrong

Stephen Prothero’s (see photo) new book is getting good reviews, even in The New York Times, but it leaves me cold. I shouldn’t say so without having read it — which I won't do. I did use Amazon’s “surprise me” feature, which shows pages chosen randomly, out of order. I had already decided I disagreed with Prothero and the “surprise” pages only confirmed that.

The book is called Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't. What Prothero thinks we (and surely he would include Canadians here) need to know is the details about a number of religious traditions — especially one’s own. He would certainly want Christians to know a lot about the , but he’d also want them to know the difference between the teachings of specific or theological strands of Christianity: how Calvinists differ from free-will , for example. And he’d want us all to be moderately well informed about the distinctive doctrines of , Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and so on, rather than lumping them all together as a generic stew called .” To him, each tradition must be respected for its own uniqueness. On page 121 he objects to the notion that

“all religions were different paths up the same mountain, and that view persists in popular books by Huston Smith and Karen Armstrong, among others. But this trend has been reversed, at least in higher education, where even introductory religious studies courses typically recognize the fact that the world’s religions, which address very different problems through different techniques and to different ends, aren’t even climbing the same mountain. Moreover, we may be at a tipping point where we are realizing that you cannot really respect a religion that you do not understand and that understanding a foreign religious tradition means wrestling with ways in which that religion is fundamentally different from your own.”

Mostly, I disagree with him, though I do have a mild anthropological interest in the varieties of religion and their histories. (For example, I watch ’s weekly TV series “” with great enjoyment, though he is not exactly a name-brand scholar, but rather a first-rate showbiz entrepreneur. I was enthralled by – and mostly even believed – his recent discovery of the .)

Whereas my pop antiquarian instincts are aroused by this kind of investigation, I nevertheless resist calling distinctive traditions “religions.” In this resistance, I must be wrong-headed, since that is what the term normally means to the general public and even to academic specialists.

The trouble is, it leaves me without a category to call myself. I think I am probably more than the average person (at least I spend a lot of time thinking about ultimate reality and about ethics) but I would be perfectly content to remain “illiterate” about religion, in Prothero’s terminology. He would require me to be able to name the books of the Bible, for example, and recite the ten commandments, and explain the doctrine of transubstantiation. Such concepts have no bearing whatever on my search for God. These distinct traditions may not, as he said, even be climbing the same mountain but, even if they were, they wouldn’t get us very far. I could comfortably participate in at least half of the world’s worship services, but only because I take their liturgies and even their theological teachings as mere metaphors for a certain undefined striving that I share with most other participants. The other (approximately) half of the world’s worship services would turn me off, primarily because they are so particularistic and invidious toward other approaches.

In fact, I think that “religions” in Prothero’s terminology are at best irrelevant to one’s religious development, and sometimes are even antithetical to it.

If I am not religious by his definition, then what should I call myself? I checked the thesaurus. “Spiritual” is the only likely synonym. does not necessarily entail any doctrinal commitments and could even be inclusive enough to allow for the pluralism that Prothero dislikes (but which I somewhat prefer). The recommends the use of the term “spirituality” instead of “religion” in liberal discourse. Although I admire His Holiness (an honorific title that does not put me off whatever) I do not like the word “spiritual” much. It’s actually too vague and inclusive. It can refer to everything from seances to New Age witchcraft to Catholic confessions. Not everyone who is spiritual is religious, though presumably every devout religious person is spiritual.

What I want is a term referring to the disciplined search for meaning in a universe that is recognized as intelligent but not particularistic. When I was in High School sixty years ago, I decided that God could not play favorites. He could not “save” some people but “condemn” others. If he were, he would not be good, and whoever God is, he/she/it must at least be good. So whatever access we have to insights about must, in principle, be open to everyone, though human cultures do vary and therefore some teachings and some individuals are more advanced in their understanding than others.

That was when I first became attracted to , which (at least in its original form) did not claim that God played favorites, exclusively offering salvation to some peoples but not others. Buddhism offers techniques showing how to progress in apprehending the nature of reality. I don’t practice it particularly, but I’m not offended by it as a discipline and I even believe it probably works for some individuals.

I think must have been offering some similar kind of insights to his audiences, who took what they could comprehend from his messages. Obviously, there remained a vast gap between his enlightenment and that of his apostles, for after he was gone, the followers seem to have remained baffled and unable to agree on any central teaching. Well, that’s okay. He pointed in a certain direction that still seems promising to me. It was only later, when Christians codified it all, that anything emerged that Prothero might want to call a “religion.”

I would have to say that my own search for God resembles my search for an understanding of leading-edge . I can never understand it (even physicists themselves do not) but it’s important. As science develops, it is showing us how the universe actually works. The same with religion (i.e. my own version of religion). I cannot believe that there are two separate domains – science and religion – for whenever we do figure them out, they will inevitably be complementary versions of the same story.


Friday, June 08, 2007

Unpopular Optimism about Ecology

Keywords: Mike Nickerson; Amory Lovins; environment; supply-side; demand-side; efficiency; population growth; economics

Yesterday I organized a dinner in a Chinese restaurant for some of my friends to talk about the with , who has a new book on the subject. He asked us to go around the table saying what our general orientation is. I was last. As usual lately, I found myself on a different wave length from my friends, for reasons that I attribute simplistically to my and their pessimism. Most environmentalists nowadays have a bleak, Malthusian vision of upcoming hardship, whereas I think that our lives can actually be more agreeable than at present. Well, maybe not our own lives because we're old now. But the solutions to the world's problems should not be intrinsically difficult. People can live well in the future too.

Admittedly, there must be some short-term cutbacks, as we "reduce our ," to use a term that I don't entirely like. We must curtail some activities that we are used to. So it's important to priorize, cutting back where it makes a difference, and allowing ourselves pleasures that are truly important. I'm not sure we've thought through our priorities yet.

For example, I think that in the summer, air conditioning is sometimes essential to make life bearable, so I will cut back elsewhere before I do that. And . Yes, I will keep buying certain imported foods, especially coffee and citrus fruit. But I'm more. It is hard to justify foreign travel for pleasure, and I think it's hard to justify keeping a house in town plus one in the country. (Not that I've ever owned two houses myself.)

I don't even think are particularly beneficial to society. When I go to a conference it is to meet people and keep up or initiate interesting, stimulating relationships. We need to find better ways of getting acquainted personally, perhaps . I think maybe it would be more enjoyable to post about what interests us than to go to a conference to get acquainted. Maybe even on-line discussions of a new book or film, with four or five participants, will allow new ideas to emerge in conversations and hence new relationships. Such can make life more pleasant instead of less so.

But one way to make sure we allocate our resources toward pleasures that have high priority is to let prices guide us. are wonderful things. But my friends don't think so; they are mostly opposed to materialism and to capitalism, even though they live as affluently as any millionaire. I think markets don't always work perfectly, but price signals could help encourage or discourage the that make our "footprints" so large today. Let's quadruple the tax on gasoline, for example, while reducing income taxes; the results will be revenue neutral but can correct our misplaced priorities. Lots of our troubles result from actually subsidizing economic behavior that is harmful. Fisheries, for example. I read recently that the reason we're depleting fish stocks in the ocean is that countries actually offer tax breaks to subsidize the huge trawlers that are doing the worst damage.

Mostly, the thing that makes me deviant in every dinner party lately is that I do believe there are "technological fixes" to our problems — in the form of greater and efficiency. I don't think that the main solution will come from the decision of individuals to reduce their consumption or their standard of living. Instead, technological innovations in design can allow us to reduce our "footprints" collectively, so long as we exercise the slightest self-restraint in our lifestyle choices.

For one thing, the economy is "dematerializing." Already our jobs less often require us to manipulate physical products, as factory work or farming did, but more often to provide services that are based on knowledge or artistry. This trend can grow. Yes, people can offset that benign trend if they insist on flying around the world as or or keep demanding imported luxuries, but changes here should not be very painful, for no one will suffer much from spending more time at home.

Moreover, I believe that if a person invests intelligently in producing the kind of new solutions the world needs, we'll all benefit and she in particular can get rich selling her innovation. That is not a popular notion among my friends, who consider themselves socialists and therefore hate money-making schemes -- especially “globalized” ones: the kind that involve foreign trade. Maybe I have been reading too much . (See photo). In fact, I've been reading his wonderfully stimulating, optimistic book, Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use, by Ernst von Weizsacker, Amory B. Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins — and I'm loving it. Here on page 252 they acknowledge having changed sides on an important issue. Whereas they had previously criticized high-tech solutions to ecological problems, today they characterize themselves as “”:

“We felt that the fabulous new technologies, though no doubt very powerful, also had costs and side effects. For this irreverence, the cornucopians dubbed us 'technological pessimists.'

“Twenty-odd years later, some of the ‘technological fixes” have proven more powerful than anyone had expected. However, the winners were not fast breeder reactors and solar power satellites, but rather microelectronics, miniaturization and labor-saving production technologies ....

“Gigantic water projects lost out to drip irrigation and efficient household appliances. Oil shale lost to mineral wool, heat exchangers and hypercars. In short, supply-side wizardry proved, in general, uncompetitive against resource-efficiency technologies. ...

“It is the former ‘technological pessimists’ like us who are now the ‘neo-cornucopians’!

“It may not be possible to buy full sets of demand and supply-side solutions. because they all compete for resources and some actually preclude others. ... Successful purchase of both increased supply and increased efficiency yields the worst of both worlds — the costs of the increased supplies without the revenues to pay for them.”

Lovins and his upbeat, un-Malthusian co-authors anticipate around the world, while efficiency will gain by 2-4 percent annually during this century. If the efficiency gain is two percent, the outcome will be pretty good, and

“a truly attractive scenario emerges from the 4 per cent gains assumption. The 21st century need not be depressing at all. If our ‘neo-cornucopian’ visions come true, even the gravest worldwide distribution problems can be solved without any part of the world's having to accept significant sacrifices in well-being.”

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Monday, June 04, 2007

It’s Berman and Hirsi Ali Versus Ramadan, Buruma, and Ash

Keywords: Paul Berman; Tariq Ramadan; Muslim Brotherhood; Ian Buruma; Timothy Garton Ash; Ayaan Hirsi Ali; atheism; Islam

What a fight is going on in my living room! This is an old-fashioned war of religion, being waged in books and magazines by top-flight intellectuals — all of whom I admire. But they clearly do not admire each other, and I’m still trying to figure out what my own position is in this brawl.

It began today when I downloaded a long article from The New Republic by , “The Islamist, The Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism: Who’s Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?” Though he starts off writing with balance and delicacy, as he works his way through the evidence, Berman turns ferocious. He is out to get (see photo) whom he describes as “a charismatic and energetic Islamic philosopher in Europe who has become popular and influential among various circles of European Muslims...”

Ramadan was educated in Switzerland and has been teaching at Oxford, gaining fame as the kind of person who may be able to envisage a moderate that will be acceptable as a middle-ground for the millions of European Muslims who, frankly, need some alternative to the radical, fundamentalist variety.

Sounds good to me. But during this 80-page article, Berman makes us wonder whether Ramadan is quite the guy we’re looking for. It seems that his grandfather was the founder of the . Well, no one should be blamed for his grandparents’ mistakes — so what does Ramadan believe himself? As Berman probes deeper and deeper into his writings and public statements, he finds it increasingly difficult to be sure what the man stands for.

But next it is not only Ramadan who is being investigated, but , who has written a flattering profile of him. Berman thinks this image is not based on sound, accurate scholarship. Buruma is a Dutchman who investigated not only Ramadan but also the murder of Theo van Gogh by a Muslim fanatic in Amsterdam. According to Berman, he elided some details about Ramadan that would have seemed off-putting to most readers. Most of Berman’s long article consists of allusions to the way Buruma took it too easy on Ramadan in his profile. These Muslim Brotherhood blokes were, in a word, fascists, and Ramadan is apparently still hasn’t taken an explicit stand about that.

I’ve never seen Ramadan or Buruma, even on TV, so I wasn’t emotionally aroused by this fight. However, I did get engaged with the brawl as we moved toward the end of the article, when Berman brought in some new tag-team fighters: and . I’ve been a long-time admirer of Ash, mostly because he was totally committed to the dissidents in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Communist regimes. And I’ve seen Ms. Ali on television recently and was impressed with her courage in breaking, flat-out, from Islam. Her new book is titled “Infidel,” referring to herself. She was making the film with for which he was murdered, and in Europe her own life is in danger. So I really like both Ash and HirsiAli, but they apparently don’t like each other much. As it happened, before I finished reading the article I turned on the TV and saw Ash give a stimulating lecture here in Toronto. He’s great – so why doesn’t he like Hirsi Ali?

It seems that these teams have definite compositions now. Buruma likes Ramadan and so does Ash, who presumably knows him because they both teach at Oxford. Ash is bending over backward to be liberal-minded in his attitude toward Muslims. (In a Q and A session on the TV, he said, “If Muslims don’t feel at home in Europe, we’ll be in deep trouble.”) I guess Ash likes Ramadan because he’s trying to help Muslims feel at home in Europe.

But Ayaan Hirsi Ali doesn’t feel at home in Islam – for damn good reasons. She had to flee for her life, after her genitals were mutilated by her grandmother. A radical Islamist killed her co-worker and would have killed her as well, if he’d been so lucky. So she became an atheist and declared herself as such.

(look, I’m not an atheist, but faith in the divinity of the universe doesn’t entail obedience to brutal and stupid traditions of any type whatever. I’d call myself an too if I thought God had anything to do with these crazy, perverse human customs.)

But Ash and I find ourselves on opposite sides, oddly. He is an atheist, but he doesn’t like for her to be one, or to break from Islam. This is bizarre. He’s the guy who used to stand up for the Charter 77 . What’s he doing now making excuses for persecuting women?

The issue of women comes into the debate because Ramadan and Ash alike oppose the French initiative to ban headscarves in high school. They say they are acting for the sake of liberty: Women should have the right to choose hijab if they want. But I’m on the side of Berman, who claims that the real issue here is whether girls and women in France have the right not to wear . The reason they wear it is because they are pressured to do so. I trust Hirsi Ali’s experience more than Ramadan’s or Ash’s theories. They could put scarves on as soon as they leave school, but inside those walls should be a hijab-free-zone.

I tracked down some of Ash’s recent writings, including one Guardian article, “We Are Making a Fatal Mistake By Ignoring the Dissidents Within Islam.” Here he gave Berman the perfect occasion to KO him. Ouch! Here, once again criticizing Hirsi Ali, he mentions having gone to visit an Islamic scholar, whom he admiringly considers a “dissident within Islam.” This is Gamal al-Banna, Ramadan’s great uncle, who displays serenity and tolerance in his conversation with Ash, repeatedly insisting that the Koran never said (as Hirsi Ali claimed) that there should be any penalty for withdrawing from Islam. Ash ask his readers rhetorically,

“Which do you think reveals a deeper historical knowledge of Islam? Which is more likely to encourage thoughtful Muslims in the view that they can be both good Muslims and good citizens of free societies?”

Berman must have been chortling when he wrote the following riposte:

“On the very day that Garton Ash’s favorable comparison of Gamal al-Banna with Ayaan Hirsi Ali ran in the Guardian, the Middle East Media Research Institute known as MEMRI, issued its own report on Gamal al-Banna, and the MEMRI report put Sheik al-Banna in a rather less flattering light. This was chiefly because of Sheik al-Banna’s praise – it is terrible to have to report these things – for the September 11 attackers and, in al-Banna’s words, their “extremely courageous” action, which was “dreadful and splendid,” in opposition to the “barbaric capitalism” of the United States. Nor was this the whole of it. Sheik al-Banna expressed a few thoughts in support of suicide terror among the Palestinians, too. ”

Poor Garton Ash! He walked right into that.

And even if he had not made this embarrassing comparison, I’d vote for Hirsi Ali’s view. She says that Europeans need to decide what aspects of Islam are compatible with their own culture and tell the Muslims. What is not acceptable should be spelled out. This does sound a bit draconian, but if you’ve had your genitals mutilated, your co-worker murdered for criticizing Islam, and have had relatives try to force you to marry someone you don’t like, you also might want to have some clear rules spelled out to protect yourself from a religion you abhor. So would I.

In fact, I don’t think it’s a bad idea anywhere else either – including Canada. A few months ago a small town in welcomed Muslims to come and live among them, so long as their basic standards were observed – including no beating of women, for example. This was publicized as an insulting position for a town to take, but I think it might make matters go more easily.

I have reason to think so, as a host who once took in a family for five years. We got along fine. However, over time the father of the family became a leader in his ethnic group in Canada, which was still engaged in the civil war from which his family had fled. He is now the spokesperson for his warring community, which collects (sometimes extorts) money in Canada from other refugees and sends it back to pay for the weapons that his group is using in battle. I think the government of Canada should make it clear when people enter that they are welcome, but they must leave their wars behind them instead of pursuing them while here. Spelling out the rules would solve a lot of problems and save a lot of lives.

Having said that, I still respect Garton Ash. I just think that he’s changed sides. Instead of protecting victims, he’s trying to make sure that their oppressors feel at home in Europe. I think he’s mistaken, but I like him.