The Corner

High Nonsense

From a (Europe-based) reader in response to my column today:

The point you miss entirely is that matter is finite. You can’t just go and make some more if you start to run out. Every atom that is part of a human body is an atom cannot be part of something that humans eat, drink, or use for clothing, shelter or warmth. Or, indeed, be used to make poison gas! Saying there’s plenty of land left is thus not the point. If all that land were occupied by Man, Man would no longer be there to occupy it! That’s also why the question of per capita consumption is important. The more atoms that are used to sustain one human life, the less human lives the planet can sustain. To put it in religious terms, if God put us on this planet, it was because He intended us to live here, and not somewhere else in the universe (where He may well have put some other form of creation!). If therefore we render this planet unfit for human habitation, we will be flying in the face of God.

There needs to be a debate as to what balance should be struck between the various parts of that equation, but balance there must be. Sniggering at “sustainable” development is just plain silly, therefore, since, just on the ordinary meaning of words, “unsustainable” development means that you die of starvation!

Me: Uh…okey dokey.

Update: I’ve been doing this long enough that I now have a uncanny ability to predict the course of my day. Some reader will complain that I was too dismissive of the above reader’s point. “Uh…okey dokey isn’t a real response!” he will complain. He will then restate this balderdash in more intelligent and reasonable terms. I will then say, “While the original reader was annoying, this new reader makes an interesting point. Blah blah blah.” So just in order to anticipate that, let me explain a bit more.

First, the hegemonic monopolizing of atoms by human flesh is a very, very, very, very small and stupid concern. Insect and fungal atoms will outnumber human atoms until this planet is consumed by the sun.

Second, the reader misses the point about productivity entirely. Matter is malleable. Commodities can be replaced. As Julian Simon predicted/wagered the costs of “indispensable” materials tends to go down — i.e. they become less scarce — as human expertise and productivity goes up.

Third, he also misses the point about land. How is the ability to put the entire population of the planet in the state of Texas with the population density that of Paris confirmation of this zen koan “If all that land were occupied by Man, Man would no longer be there to occupy it!”?

Fourth, “unsustainable” development doesn’t mean that “you die of starvation.” This is absurd. In wealthy countries we define unsustainability as anything which pollutes the water too much, makes the air smell funny, or endangers some bug or fish nobody ever heard of. This is what happens in rich countries: the definition of “sustainable” gets defined ever upward.

I hope this satisfied those who thought “uh…okey dokey” was too dismissive.

Update II: A reader says I’m a bully:

Sir,   When my niece was four she enjoyed annoying adults by following every answer to a question with “Why?”  It would lead to long strings of answers followed by another “why” until the adult grew tired and gave in with a wearied “because” or “I don’t know” and walked away.  In order to circumvent this I once answered a question of hers and then ran through a list of answers to possible questions before she could say “why.”  I thought I was quite smart at having avoided all of those “whys.”  My niece walked away with a crestfallen look on her face.  My sister, her mother, said in a manner that only an older sibling can, “Congratulations, you just outsmarted a four-year old.”   By providing an update to “okey dokey” you have done much the same.  Let the pseudo-intellectuals have their fun!  It keeps them from poking pennies into electrical outlets and marbles up their noses. 


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