Monday, November 23, 2009

Ancient Thought, Safe Thought

Ancient physicians had a lock on healing with a comprehensive theory that explained everything. The body was made up of four humors: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood. The four humors matched the four seasons and the four elements that made up life—earth, air, fire and water.

When the humors were in balance, a person was healthy; when they were out of balance, a person was sick. There were four types of illness, each caused by a different humor. Illnesses caused by a surplus of black bile were cold and dry; illnesses of the blood were hot and moist; phlegm, cold and moist and yellow bile hot and dry.

It was a theory as elegant as it was comprehensive, until the physical scientists started messing with things. When these scientists first pointed out that germs might be the carrier of diseases, the physicians scoffed and refused to buy into this crackpot theory.

We have a similar situation today. Instead of ancient physicians, we have economists secure in their theories that explain everything, especially the theory that infinite growth is possible.

Once again, it is the physical scientists who are trying to upset their applecart. These Jeremiahs are suggesting that resource depletion will, at some point, make further economic growth impossible since the growth of the last two centuries has been propelled by an abundance of cheap oil. And as we drain more and more oil out of the earth, its extraction will become increasingly difficult and expensive.

Our economists scoff. The market will solve the problem, they argue. As oil becomes scarce net technologies will emerge to take its place. The scientists counter by pointing out that there is no technology that comes close to the energy efficiency of fossil fuels.

Besides, everyone knows that physical scientists are too hung up in the concrete and the real, both of which are difficult to manage. We are better off in the heady world of arcane theory, which is easily manipulated by spinning out a new set of mathematical formulae.

Corporate economies run on dreams, not reality. Just as the physicians of old, our economists are quite comfortable with their theories, thank you very much. Scientists should know better than to introduce the reality into the economists’ comfortable world.

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