Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Two World Views

To follow up on my previous post about Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's essay in the Sydney Morning Herald, I think it's necessary to tease out the differences in the two World Views which he and I represent. Kevin Rudd sees the economy clearly enough, and has the advantage of the best advice and information available when he comes to form his views. But his views are also formed by his life experience, and the last fifty years have been one of unprecedented and almost non-stop expansion of every human activity.

It is only human to assume that the conditions one has always lived in will continue on into the future without revolutionary change. Even more so, if your life experience has been one of being enmeshed in a system with a clear hierarchy which you have climbed your way through for many years and the gradations of which you take very seriously. I mean otherwise you'd hardly take your job seriously would you? Such is the case of someone like KR, who has never as far as I can tell had any sort of experience which might make him question the legitimacy of the ladder he has climbed. He also suffers from the burden of success, which tends to make one aware of the sunk costs of getting where you are and all you would lose should your attention waver.

I am a much less focused, much more muddly sort of person than the Prime Minister, which is part of the reason I am completely insignificant in the the great hierarchy of power (I also don't get my jollies bossing people around). One benefit of being a muddler is however that you allow yourself the leisure to entertain doubts. This may weaken your focus on the goals which others might exhort you to achieve, but has the advantage of letting you test (to the extent which you are able!) whether these goals are valid or not. My diffuse attention has also wandered into areas which never seemed to promise any direct career or financial benefit to me — I loved history, psychology, art, music and religious philosophy. Couple all this with a necessity for me to justify my contrariness to myself as honestly as I could even if I couldn't to those who were distressed by my lack of worldly success, and you end up having a fairly clear eyed view of most human activities and foibles including your own.

Let's put aside our personal capabilities — I'm sure that Kevin Rudd is my superior in many ways — and look at how we see the World. I'm aware that KR is religious and that may well give him a different way to regard the World, in opposition sometimes to the very materialist slant which has been the dominant social vision of our modern industrial world, but I haven't seen any evidence of it modifying his economic views. He seems as hell-bent on infinite expansion as any blind cornucopian blow-hard. I see however we have reached the end of the race and are hitting hard physical limits at many different levels, and I can also see how that would be a very difficult fact for someone in his position to acknowledge. It will undermine fundamental assumptions underlying much of what he does at a personal and political level.

Of course he is aware of environmental issues, the population pressures and the other multitude of real threats to Business As Usual, but he does not connect these problems directly to the underlying causes of them. He still thinks God or science will pull a rabbit or a series of rabbits out of the cosmic hat and save us all from the collapse we're heading for in this mad race to produce and consume More.

This is why we have people in his position talking about nonsensical matters such as "sustainable growth". This is a cover, a poor intellectual bandaid over the cornucopian fantasy that growth can go on forever. People who talk this kind of talk really do think that at some level the Earth is infinitely large and nothing will ever run out. We'll colonise space, fusion power will produce electricity too cheap to meter and we'll grow all our food in little vats watched by brilliant, all-knowing white-coated technicians! None of this is based on real knowledge, but on the kind of superficial gossip and fantasy which we've become very good at blinding ourselves with in this era of CGI films and computer games. But the people on the job, the real engineers, geologists, agriculturalists and climate scientists know it aint so.

It takes a certain strength of character to step away from what you're doing and see it clearly for what it is. If you can bring up children with that kind of fundamental honesty you have done a very good job. Unfortunately mass education, especially at the higher levels, tends to create narrow intellectual strengths at the expense of moral weakness, so don't rely on that for moral guidance.

Perhaps the best one can say is that great desire for success in the World, unchecked by doubt, can lead to great weaknesses, even in the very clever. Moderation in all things is a more useful course!

1 comment:

M. Simon said...

Well fusion power in the very near term may not be a fantasy at all.

The Americans are on it.

We Will Know In Two Years

The devices (if they work) are small enough to be used for rocketry. i.e. mining the asteroid belt is feasible.

And if you are truly concerned about overpopulation the way to deal with it is to raise incomes. A relatively high income population does not reproduce. Just look at European demographics. No one knows the reason (many theories) but it works in the vast majority of places.

But you are right about sustainability. When our sun goes if we are not some where else human life will be unsustainable.