Parenting in Paris
Socialist Inflation

The World’s End

Jonathan B. Wight

Whether you agree with him or not, Bishop Jack Spong is one of the most enlivening and original characters around. I've blogged about him previously here and here. One of his recent Q&A sessions provoked this query from a distraught young man named "Trevor":

I am hoping you can answer my question.  The thing is, I have been very worried for some time and even more so now.  I've heard and read some parts (from various websites) of Revelations.  I'm a 27-year old man, nearly 28, and I'm scared!  I'm scared that the world will end! I hope that I don't sound silly, but then again I hope I'm worrying about nothing.  With 2012 being repeatedly said to be the end constantly, I guess it grinds you down eventually and I see many natural disasters, wars, economic failures and nuclear weapons, divisions between countries.  I want to live free of these constant worries, but the way of the world is really getting me down.  I'm half full of optimism and the rest is filled with fear and despair.  I do hope you can get back to me

To read Spong's reply, go here. My answer to Trevor's terror goes something like this:

First, the Mayan calendar does not end in 2012it starts over. The calendar periodically recycles and 2012 is one of those times. Anyone scaremongering with the "Mayan end of the world" story is conning you.

Second, let's take a "big picture" view. How are things really going on planet earth? While many people are in deep anguish and distress, the world as a whole has gotten much healthier and better educated. To get the data on this, see any of Hans Rosling's Ted Talks.

In addition to the substantive measures of health and well-being, more and more countries are democratic, and more people have a voice in the creation of their futures. If there are future droughts, Amartya Sen's work suggests that famines will not occur in these democracies.

I don't mean to be quixotic—we certainly have huge problems like climate change that will be highly disruptive. We have a growing problem of excessive inequality and the social ills that provokes. And there are nuclear bomb fears. But every generation has faced terrible problems and no generation has lived in Eden. It has always been toil and trouble and conflicts, both foreseen and unforeseen. Most generations have faced more staggering challenges than ours—consider the decimation of European populations by WWI and the great influenza; the Great Plague; the decimation of indigenous peoples from the Americas; Hitler's atrocities and WWII. The list goes on from every continent and country. Previous generations lived under slavery and women had no vote or property rights. What time period would you prefer to live in than the present?

I don't mean to dismiss Trevor's fears. When I was in college I read with soul-numbing intensity that Malthusian epic—now considered a provocative farce—The Limits to Growth (published in 1972). In simulation after simulation it showed the world going rapidly ruin as the earth ran out of finite natural resources. Graph after graph showed one collapsing system after another. There would be (in my imagined projection) mayhem in the streets, hand-to-hand combat for the last crumbs of food. I was so shocked by this horrific scenario that for a few moments I fell into the dreaded contemplation of suicide: why would I want to live to see all this happen? I am thus attentive to the young man's angst and fears.

But today I believe the book was wrong—at least, wrong enough to throw out most of its conclusions.* One good thing about markets is that as precious commodity prices rise, people adapt! Consumers buy alternatives or make do with less; and producers find ways of finding or making more. The price mechanism is a pretty neat system that should not be discounted, even though it doesn't work perfectly. Resources are not finite, at least not in an economic sense. As the price goes up, we find more, and more that are found become economically viable. [Update: James Fallows reports on a driver who recently averaged 133 mpg in his Chevy Volt! We can do it!] The price system doesn't solve all our problems, and indeed it cannot solve the problem of global warming without collective action (e.g., a carbon tax). It is not the invisible hand of God that torments us in our public policies it is our own political intransigence.

The bottom line is that reports about the death of the human race are "greatly exaggerated," to paraphrase Mark Twain. Of course, I could be wrong. Right now telescopes are straining to detect that devastating incoming meteorite for which we will have no defense. In which case, kick back with a Monster "Hopzilla" Double IPA and enjoy your evening in uninformed bliss.

* Others don't agree. The authors released a 30-year update that defends their findings.

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