Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cornucopians and their magical thinking

We are all subject to bouts of magical thinking. The classic and most widespread form of this is to confuse correlation with causation. One can see it in daily life: Objects such as rabbits' feet, special stones, and certain "lucky" pieces of clothing are presumed to be the cause of whatever good fortune comes to the holder or wearer. One can see it in commentary on financial markets: Presidential election years in the United States are bullish for the stock market as if for some arcane and indecipherable reason, presidential elections cause the stock market to go up. Another form is the belief that the mind can affect the physical world. If we wish for something hard enough (as opposed to taking concrete steps to achieve it), it will happen.

And, so it is with the cornucopian thinker. He (or she) explains that most accepted measures of human well-being have been rising since 1800. But so has population. Ergo, population increases simply cannot result in human misery in the future. The correlation--a rise in living standards while population increased--means that rising populations cause beneficial things to happen to most human beings. (Never mind that fossil fuel usage was increasing exponentially during most of this period. And, never mind that the cornucopian only considers human well-being, especially the ability of humans to extract their needs from nature in the short run. Never is the long-term health of the ecosphere on which all humans depend seriously considered.)

Another bedrock of cornucopian magical thinking is that substitutes will always be available for any resource that becomes scarce. As you will see below, our ability to think is supposed to allow us always to find substitutes. A favorite example is the use of fiber optic cable in place of copper as copper ores have declined in quality. Even now the high price of oil is creating increased demand for coal and renewal energy sources. Substitution has and does occur, but it is hard to see what substitutes there might be for potable water or a climate suitable for human habitation. Perhaps we will desalinate the oceans and geoengineer the climate. But, that would take huge amounts of energy and, when it comes to climate, we would need a precise knowledge about the climate effects of any proposed geoengineering fix so as not to create the wrong kind of climate.

As for energy, even the world's foremost cornucopian thinker, Julian Simon, admitted that energy is the "master resource" upon which the extraction and refining of all other resources depend. For Simon it is the sum total of all the efforts of an increasing population which will bring us solutions to any energy shortages. "Resources come out of people's minds more than out of the ground or air," Simon said in a now-famous Wired magazine interview. He went on to say that "[m]inds matter economically as much as or more than hands or mouths. Human beings create more than they use, on average. It had to be so, or we would be an extinct species."

Now this is not exactly the belief that if you think about something it will happen, but it comes awfully close. It is the passivity that such ideas engender that move this kind of thinking over the line into magical thinking. We are led to believe that all of our environmental and resource problems can be left to technical experts who will surely solve them without much disruption to our lives. What Simon is implying is that if we think hard enough, human ingenuity will always find a way to overcome supposed limits on the human species. (Notice also that he says above that people "create" rather than extract resources which one should put down to just plain confusion about how the natural world works.) And, just so people would get his point, he stated the following in another article:

We have in our hands now--actually, in our libraries--the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years. Most amazing is that most of this specific body of knowledge was developed within just the past two centuries or so, though it rests, of course, on basic knowledge that had accumulated for millennia.

Not only are people capable of great ingenuity when faced with great challenges, but they have already imagined and written down all the solutions to all the challenges to basic survival that we will face as a species for the next 7 billion years. Now, that might be properly classed as wishful thinking, perhaps the greatest piece of wishful thinking of all time. (Again one wonders about the oversight that in the past two centuries fossil fuel consumption has had a lot to do with giving people the time and power to discover and elaborate the basic knowledge to which Simon alludes--even if it now appears that that knowledge will not solve all of our future problems.)

Perhaps just as important as being able to spot cornucopian magical thinking is understanding the motive behind it. Simon elucidated his agenda and that of many other cornucopians in the following sentences from the article just cited above:

The extent to which the political-social-economic system provides personal freedom from government coercion is a crucial element in the economics of resources and population. Skilled persons require an appropriate social and economic framework that provides incentives for working hard and taking risks, enabling their talents to flower and come to fruition. The key elements of such a framework are economic liberty, respect for property, and fair and sensible rules of the market that are enforced equally for all.

What Simon--who was a professor of business administration, not a scientist--most feared was that concerns about the environment and about human population growth would lead to government intervention in the economy and society. That would undermine the free-market capitalism which he so stridently believed is the best form of social organization. (It is no accident that the piece quoted above was written for the free-market, libertarian-minded Cato Institute.)

But perhaps even more basic than this is Simon's admission in the preface to his book, The Ultimate Resource, that he once believed that population and resource problems were worrisome and urgent. His research into the matter, however, reversed his views. And, this research had an important side effect. It helped to lift him out of long depression (which he claims had nothing to do with his previous views on population and resources), a depression that never again returned. He wrote:

And I believe that if others fully recognize the extraordinarily positive trends that have continued until now, and that can reasonably be expected to continue into the future, it may brighten their outlooks, too.

That is the one thing about which Julian Simon is dead on. Magical thinking like his can often lift our spirits and make us think anything is possible, that is, until reality intrudes and leads to painful and sometimes catastrophic results.


Anonymous said...

If you could or would forgive me, I agree with Simon. The process of the imaginative-through to reality works. It can be done on an individual level or small groups or even widespread as in societies.

Unfortunately, the reality is that each of us is unique and stands alone. Almost all of us operate on the basis of fear. Which of course creates an environment of anger, hostility, jealousy and greed. (It has been said the greed gland is the largest human organ.)

Does your treatment of magical thinking change anything? No. Your treatment of it is part and parcel of the very same thing. We must all somehow become aware of the possibilities. Evangelistas have it down to a freaking science. I have watched poor traveling men of God transmogrify into private jet owning, university building, cattle raising, amusement park riding hustlers, pimps and con artists. I have watched Reagan, Kennedy, Obama et al capture the imaginitive possibilities of a disparate audience. I have seen teachers and business people and common everyday folk put this truth into the heads of associates, students and children countless times.

Come on over to the dark side. your arguments are well reasoned and salted with balance. I agree with you. Allow yourself to agree with me and perhaps, just maybe, the possibilities will evolve before your very eyes.

Anonymous said...

IMO a basic disconnect between economists and environmentalists is what each group means by "growth". Economists mean that what is produced is worth more. For example, if due to knowledge and experience my services are more highly valued, that is growth. Environmentalists mean more resources are consumed; land, energy, minerals and so on. Often the two are strongly correlated but they don't have to be, which I think in part underlies where Simon started building his "house of cards".