Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Ceteris Paribus

by Alexander Bastidas Fry

"Philosophaster" was Dictionary.com's word of the day today. It means "a person who feigns a knowledge he or she does not possess." That is certainly a cool term, but it's not one I can claim for myself. No, like my brother in ignorance, Sam Cooke, you could write a pop song about all the subjects and disciplines about which I have absolutely nothing informed or interesting to say. Economics and political science, for example. I don't know diddly about them. Thus, when Arthur shares with me an essay by David Graeber in which he expounds upon the possible successor systems to neoliberal capitalism and the technological inventions they might enable, I just have to shrug and profess an inability to compliment or critique it in any meaningful way. I dunno, I guess what he says is plausible, but is it likely? How would I know? And so I suppose the socialist future will have to find a way to produce itself without my theoretical assistance.

One big-picture political issue I do spend time thinking about is the fact that, as Dipesh Chakrabarty put it, "the mansion of modern freedom stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use." I'm a comfortable and privileged Westerner. I thank the nonexistent gods for air conditioning, satellite television, online shopping, mp3s, takeout pizza, and all the other amenities of middle-classish existence, and I would dearly love to believe that they will continue to exist and even be made available to anyone else in the world who wants them. My conscience, however, forces me to consider the possibility that I may simply be lucky enough to be living somewhere in the middle of a several-hundred-year-bubble of extremely unusual prosperity brought about by billions of years' worth of Gaia's frugal savings. Like I said, I don't know enough to judge the accuracy of this glum vision, so I tend to read every article I can find that offers me even a slight chance of becoming better informed. Thus, when I visit 3QD in the morning and see this article, I am intrigued. That certainly sounds confident. Has someone discovered a decisive refutation of the doomsayers? Are the days of decadent consumption going to continue indefinitely?

I meant to click the permalink to read more, but my cursor skittered away from its target and landed on the link to the comments instead. Imagine my surprise, then, to see not only people taking the author to task for failing to acknowledge the elephant in the room, as one of them put it — the possibility of non-negotiable ecological limits to human population and resource consumption — but the author himself graciously acknowledging the point. What? You come out swinging against modern-day Malthusians only to have to admit that you completely ignored their most pressing point?

My search goes on. I may never find anything more substantial than blithe, overconfident assurances that humans will continue to invent new technologies to fix the problems caused by old technologies, and I may even live to see the beginning of a return to a pre-industrial standard of living, but if nothing else, I saw an example of someone admitting being wrong on the Internet.