Brad DeLong spares me the effort of completing a half-written post about how badly Gregg Easterbrook= misses the point of Jared Diamond’s wonderful Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond isn’t arguing that material circumstances trump human inventiveness but that they structure it. Still, there’s another aspect to Easterbrook’s review of Diamond’s new book which is worth discussing. In Easterbrook’s closing paragraph, he says:
Diamond fears our fate was set in motion in antiquity—we’re living off the soil and petroleum bequeathed by the far past, and unless there are profound changes in behavior, all may crash when legacy commodities run out. Oddly, for someone with a background in evolutionary theory, he seems not to consider society’s evolutionary arc. He thinks backward 13,000 years, forward only a decade or two. What might human society be like 13,000 years from now? Above us in the Milky Way are essentially infinite resources and living space. If the phase of fossil-driven technology leads to discoveries that allow Homo sapiens to move into the galaxy, then resources, population pressure and other issues that worry Diamond will be forgotten. Most of the earth may even be returned to primordial stillness, and the whole thing would have happened in the blink of an eye by nature’s standards.
This crystallizes something that I’ve been struggling to articulate for a while. It seems to me that there’s a shared attitude towards science among various right-leaning technophiles (Glenn Reynolds being a paradigmatic example). Roughly speaking, they tend to agree with science when it suggest new possibilities for human beings (the Singularity! nanotechnology! conquering the universe via spaceflight! longer lifespans!) and to strongly disagree with scientific results or prognoses that suggest fundamental limits to human beings’ can-do ability to prevail over their circumstances (global warming, ecological collapse). This comes out very clearly over the course of Easterbrook’s review, where it becomes clear that Easterbrook’s objection isn’t to the specifics of Diamond’s arguments – it’s to the very notion that material limits might determine our collective fate, a contention which Easterbrook bizarrely describes as ‘postmodern’. This faith in boundless possibilities is at best a-scientific, and at worst pseudo-religious feel-good claptrap along the lines of Easterbrook’s previous muddled attempts to reconcile cosmology and religious belief. Of course, it may be true that future discoveries will enable us to leave the Earth, conquer the galaxy, exploit the “infinite resources” of the universe etc. But half-assed appeals to the limitless opportunities of the future aren’t an argument; they’re a statement of faith. It’s a wonder that Easterbrook should have been asked by the NYT to review a serious book; it certainly shouldn’t happen again.
Update: A commenter over at Brad’s points out that Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth’s wicked corporate satire, The Space Merchants, anticipated Easterbrook’s basic argument over fifty years ago.
The Conservationists were fair game, those wild-eyed zealots who pretended modern civilization was in some way ‘plundering’ our planet. Preposterous stuff. Science is always a step ahead of the failure of natural resources. After all, when real meat got scarce we had soyaburgers ready. When oil ran low, technology developed the pedicab.
fn1. While Easterbrook isn’t a global warming skeptic as such, he is skeptical about many of its adverse consequences.