Navigating between the best of all possible worlds

Maybe his time as editor of Skeptic magazine has taught Michael Shermer how to spin a yarn of complete and utter nonsense. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for the Panglossian drivel he published in the Los Angeles Times last weekend.

If you walk into a Yanomamö village in Brazil today — a good analogue for how our ancestors lived — and count up the stone tools, baskets, arrow points, arrow shafts, bows, hammocks, clay pots, assorted other tools, various medicinal remedies, pets, food products, articles of clothing and the like, you would end up with a figure of about 300. Before 10,000 years ago, this was the approximate material wealth of each village on the planet.

By contrast, if you walk into the Manhattan village today and count up all the different products available at retail stores and restaurants, factory outlets and superstores, you would end up with an estimated figure of about 10 billion (based on the UPC bar code system count). Economic anthropologists estimate the average annual income of hunter-gatherers to have been about $100 per person and the average annual income of big-city dwellers to be about $40,000 per person.

If ever there was a great leap forward, this is evidence of it.

You’d think that a self-proclaimed skeptic might stop to question the misguided belief that the amount of stuff you own determines your level of happiness and wellbeing. Apparently not. Never mind that studies have shown that—once people pass a certain level of per capita GDP—their levels of happiness cease to rise. A great (not to be mistaken with “enjoyable”) exploration of this is The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain since 1950 by Avner Offer, Professor of Economic History at Oxford University.

Admittedly, “happiness economics” is a controversial topic. First, it’s difficult to quantify happiness. Second, questioning the prevailing dogma of economic growth these days is a bit like saying that Tiger Woods is your role model of a family man. People will look at you funny.

And Shermer makes some valid points. Overall quality of life globally has improved: we’ve eradicated horrific diseases like small pox; we’ve greatly extended life spans in much of the world; for many of us, we have more free time and, well, freedom, than our ancestors. The list goes on.

But these benefits haven’t extended equally to all of the world’s 6.8 billion people. In fact, no matter how Shermer tries to cherry pick economic statistics, the truth is that far too many people live in abject poverty. There is a stark and growing gap between the world’s rich and poor, exemplified in the fact that over one billion people worldwide are under-nourished while another billion are overweight.

Which brings me to another blindingly obvious hole in Shermer’s thinking…

Sure, the future looks gloomy if you focus on environmental problems or world hunger, but in many ways, things have never been better for us.

Last I checked, we live on a finite planet with finite resources. No matter how dogmatically economists and politicians try to convince us that we can keep growing our economies in perpetuity, exponential growth in human population, resource consumption, and economic activity is going to hit against some real, physical limits. In fact, it already has. Sorry to tell you this Michael, but mother nature has a way of getting our attention, whether we want to focus on her or not.

All that said, I’m equally wary of those who tend to vilify or cheer on the collapse of industrial society. There is a tendency in some circles to perpetuate the polar opposite of Shermer’s “best of all possible worlds,” an equally Panglossian adoration of indigenous cultures. While it’s true that there is a great deal we can and should learn from more agrarian societies, I find it worrisome whenever people idealize past eras or contemporary indigenous groups like the Yanomamö Shermer referenced above. I think it’s important to make a distinction between wanting to preserve indigenous cultures, who face unrelenting pressure to assimilate into modern society, and wanting to be like them.

The truth is that the “best of all possible worlds” is a messy, conflicted, inconsistent, and, frankly, confusing place to live—a place between and outside of the simplistic views of Shermer and countless others. This world is called planet Earth (or maybe I should say planet Eaarth) and it’s the only one we’ve got, so we might as well live on it.

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