The following is edited from part of an exchange with several folks anguishing over environmental degradation and economic equity on an on-line forum in 2002
THE POVERTY OF KINGS AND OUR AMAZING PROSPERITY – 2002
It seems that the most important thing many guilt ridden environmentalists seem to leave out of the equation is the potential for technology and human ingenuity to improve lives without negative impact on the environment. In fact, because history is a long story of increased progress and efficiency, the “fair share” that has been alluded to here has been an ever increasing size share, of an ever increasing size pie, for an ever increasing number of people, throughout history. Thankfully, at least so far, our intelligence has helped us avoid all the catastrophic limits predicted by Malthus and his heirs.
Energy is the fundamental driver of human prosperity. If you look at the progress in the utilization of energy over the past millennium of so, one notes that as we’ve moved from wood, to coal, to oil, to natural gas as primary energy sources, several major changes have happened at each step.
1) More useful energy was taken from each unit of fuel (greater efficiency)
2) The carbon byproducts and other nastiness associated with utilization has dramatically decreased.
3) Peoples lifestyles and comfort have dramatically improved.
In fact, the history of energy technology is the history of increasing efficiency, increasing de-carbonization and increasing living standards for greater numbers of people. And that progress will continue as we move to an electricity and hydrogen based economy based on renewable energy generation.
We need to embrace and work hard toward solutions rather than anguishing under a restrained vision of what is possible. And we should quit guilt tripping ourselves and everyone else. We’ve been blessed with opportunities nobody else in history has ever had. We should endeavor to share those opportunities rather than renounce them. Enjoy your computers and the other gifts that are the benefit of a free and prosperous society and in your work try to help create a world where everyone else can enjoy these gifts too.
Think about how much wealthier a typical poor family in America is today compared to the richest kings of the middle ages: indoor plumbing, hot running water, rapid accessible year round transportation, incredible education opportunities, modern health care, modern communication, a vast array of entertainment on demand, fresh fruits and vegetables from around the world year round, modern sanitation and clean water……….. the list goes on.
Really there are only a few ways that a poor person in America today is lacking compared to the kings of old. First is a lack of self esteem and dignity derived from comparison to the greater wealth, comfort and respect enjoyed by most others in our society. And there are obvious social differences compared to the unfounded deference and other perks of power that kings enjoyed from those considered subservient to them. And there is clearly a different level of freedom from worry about day to day matters relative to their contemporaries.
But measured in actual comfort, life span, health, and other meaningful measures of prosperity, America’s poor today are almost all actually far wealthier than the wealthiest people alive just a century ago.
Hopefully we can figure out what really matters in our own lives, and help create the conditions so that all of us can live the comfortable, meaningful and dignified lives that free modern societies are increasingly able to provide for everyone.
Cheerfully waiting for the onslaught,