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Monday, August 27. 2012
'Apocaloptimist' is a humorous term I recently heard that best describes how I've felt about the economy these last 4 years. The concept that it's all crashing down, but not to worry because we'll all be fine, in the end. I'm not sure that it's all going to come crashing down, but we're still not out of the recession/depression and there is a long road ahead before things improve to the point where we can feel confident about the future. Regardless of where we are, a quick review of history does point to one clear fact, and this is simply that mankind has a remarkable capability to adapt, make due, and eventually engage progress of a tangible nature.
We're still progressing today, just much more slowly.
But in the depths of a recession, true pessimists step forward. These are people who cannot see anything good, and refuse to take a simple step of reviewing history and seeing that bad times never last 'forever'. Absolutes can come back to haunt you, if used improperly. "We can never..." is the kind of phrase that inspires someone, somewhere to think, "Well, maybe we can...", and then they actually go out and do whatever it is we could never do.
Most human activity leads to peaks and those peaks are usually followed by valleys. Getting into the right frame of mind is how you get out of the valley and move to the next peak. Statements such as this, however, do nothing to help:
Malthus was wrong, and 215 years later his views have still not provided any meaningful insights on how the world operates.
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Bulldog: Absolutes can come back to haunt you, if used improperly.
All evaluations depend on a time horizon. If you wait long enough, all will be better and worse.
I am an apocaloptimist. I get much grief when I publicly wish for the “apocal” part to hurry up and arrive. Malaise ain’t no fun, and I can’t pretend. I am eager for the next phase of adaptation and improvement!
Don't know about Gimpel, but there seem to a lot of people with faith in Malthus (Dang it! SOMEDAY he's gonna be right!).
He seems to be an expert in this, and it's usually true that if an expert says it can't be done...it will be done.
"No more fundamental innovations are likely to be introduced to change the structure of [today’s] society . . . ." -- That's hilarious.
Gimpel - is je quoting the Nineteenth Century Patent Office official who said it should be closed because there was nothing left to invent?
Malthus, and his reincarnations, have a glaring error in common - the [usually unstated] assumption that no changes will occur. If that were true, Malthus would probably have been correct. As would have been the wag who said even increasing the number of street-cleaners would never be enough to keep the streets of New York City from becoming four feet deep in horse excrement.
Where you stand depends on where you sit. This assumes you are living in the United States or its co-dependents. After a long lifetime of living in Russia post 1905, or Poland post-1939, or North Korea post-1948, etc, you would have in your despair concluded that mankind is forever doomed to live in thrall, with only a few bright false-spring moments before tyranny once again puts its boot back on your face.
If you are uneducated, and have no concept of history, no vision into the world as a whole, then yes it's a natural outcome.
I think North Korea is probably the most apt example of why it would be easy to fall into this mindset.
Another would be most people living during the Dark Ages, who had little education beyond subsistence farming.
I think Heinlein's "Bad Luck" saying govern's here. History is mostly slavery, tyranny, and stagnation, with brief periods of freedom and advancement. Once that period is lost, it may not come again for a long time. When Western Rome fell, it was a thousand years before the Renaissance exceeded the Roman grasp of the Arts and Sciences.
That you think the arc of progress and prosperity is inevitable is perhaps because you have lived your entire life in the Pax Americana, the astonishing 70-year run where one nation kept the peace, rebuilt and re-ordered the world after the ruin of war, accumulated untold wealth, and did it all without imperial conquest. Like the NorKos, you may not be able to conceive of it being any other way.
Bulldog: Malthus was wrong, and 215 years later his views have still not provided any meaningful insights on how the world operates.
While Malthus underestimated the ability of humans to adapt, he did provide meaningful insights that led to Darwin's Theory of Evolution.
Only in the sense that several evolutionary biologists were enthralled with the idea of food shortage playing a role in the rise and fall of various species.
So perhaps my use of the term "world" is too broad, and "human behavior" is better. Though I'd extend this to point out it wasn't an insight that led to the Theory of Evolution, just an incorrect commentary on human population which led to a thought triggering the formulation of 'survival of the fittest', which is not, in and of itself, the full theory. But it is an integral part.
Bulldog: Only in the sense that several evolutionary biologists were enthralled with the idea of food shortage playing a role in the rise and fall of various species.
"In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long- continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work".
Charles Darwin, from his autobiography. (1876)
Humans also evolved, though modern technology allows modern humans to avoid many of the resource limitations that concerned Malthus. The human population does seem to be leveling off.
Picking nits - I read the same quote.
"favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed"
Survival of the fittest - yes?
Of course humans have evolved. Did I say they hadn't? The resource limitations which concerned Malthus were geared toward humankind. Darwin's use of the concept to apply to the broader animal kingdom was a stretch, at the time, and compliments to him for taking that stretch to a distinguished end.
Any population levels off. The human population has leveled off before, possibly more than once, prior to certain technological breakthroughs. It is the capacity to adapt and innovate which allows us to overcome these limitations.
Unfortunately for them, animals other than humans are more constrained in their abilities to do so.
Bulldog: Picking nits - I read the same quote.
Not disagreeing on that point. Just making it specific in order to illustrate the influence.
(As a sidenote, Ben Franklin actually proposed the same mechanism before Malthus. "There is in short, no Bound to the prolific Nature of Plants or Animals, but what is made by their crowding and interfering with each others Means of Subsistence." — Ben Franklin, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, 1751. See http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tnas/160/ )
Bulldog: The resource limitations which concerned Malthus were geared toward humankind.
Nevertheless, it was an important insight. You can think of it as an abstract limit, given certain initial conditions; sort of like Hardy–Weinberg equilibrium in population genetics, or elliptical orbits in planetary mechanics. They don't exist in the real universe but place limits on the degenerate case.
Bulldog: Unfortunately for them, animals other than humans are more constrained in their abilities to do so.
Currently, humans are still limited by solar radiation and photosynthesis, as well as other restrictions having to do with their waste products (e.g. pollution, climate). But these can be overcome.
Most of what does happen and what will happen is beyond our control. Even those things within our control are generally not controlled due to human nature and ignorance taking a front seat. We are indeed "doomed" to whatever chance, bad decisions, and contrariness has set for our future both short term and long term. If you are really clever you rise above the turmoil and prosper for awhile or even a lifetime. But in general we all, each of us are stuck in an environment not of our making and not under our control and if fate deals you a bad hand your choices are few and none. What we humans are really good at is looking back and assigning reason and bias to events. One will say that had we been more liberal in our politics then all would have been well and everyone would have been happy and yet another will say the same about a more conservative choice. This blame/credit game is perfected by politicians who essentially are the clever ones trying to rise above the turmoil and create a situation for their personal gain. Although I have great faith in the basic kindness and charity of the American people I have no illusions that any of them, especially the politicians and bureaucrats, put my needs and my desires ahead of their own. I therefore see no other choice but to become more clever, more crafty, less trusting (of the future not necessarily my fellow man) so that I can live my life well and avoid most of the pitfalls in our paths and maybe help those I know and love. I cannot change the world or prevent the massive and often harmful cycles in human history. One confounding factor most fail to consider is human nature or more correctly the willingness and even eagerness for others to undo or countermand the prevailing wisdom or efforts of others. A kind of contrarian attitude that trips up the trusting and even educated but can be boon to the more clever and even opportunistic among us. Do not forget that in the great depression millionaires were made while at the same time billions were lost. Every change, every failure is an opportunity in disguise. Malthus was right but as the reality unfolds everyone will do their part to create an outcome contrary to malthusian theory. So instead we will get "something" not yet defined, not yet known and it will no doubt be a disaster for some, existence for most and a tremendous opportunity for the crafty.