Are most people natural worriers? Or are they just worried because all the worriers around them tell them to be?
Boy, there are a lot of worried people out there nowadays. Almost everything you could worry about, people have exaggerated it to the stature of Godzilla, poised to bring down civilisation as we know it. Popular books and newspaper articles warn of the end of everything we hold dear.
Fortunately, there are some skeptical optimists out there to shed a little perspective on things, put a stop to all the irresponsible fearmongering and help you get back to living your life. I should note that I do not read just to maintain my optimism, I read to maintain a balanced viewpoint on things. When everyone seems to think something is bad, there is always someone else to tell you the good side of things. This post will give you the pessimists’ side of things, followed by a contrarian’s. Both are worth listening to before you decide to worry. (Please follow the links I provide to get my full side of each story.)
Pessimist: Climate change is the biggest threat to our civilisation and the biggest challenge to our generation. It threatens to destroy everything we hold dear.
Contrarian: That is unlikely. To be clear, I am not denying climate change, nor that it could be harmful. What I am not convinced about is that everything is going to blow up in our faces and our grandchildren will be left with nothing. Climate change is one of those issues on which we have too much certainty, too much worrying that the end is near, and not enough debate about the facts.
Furthermore, every generation worries about environmental collapse. When I was young, it was the ozone layer. Thirty years ago, it was global cooling. And so on for the past hundred years. None of these problems has destroyed us yet. I guess we are just more resilient than the doomsayers realised.
Pessimist: We are running out of natural resources. Oil has peaked, wood is disappearing, and wars are brewing over water. We are in big trouble.
Contrarian: The first problem with these arguments is that they are trying to predict the future without firm grounding in the present. Sure, those things could be true, but we are always finding ourselves wrong about them. We thought gold, silver, copper, iron and so on would all run out completely twenty or thirty years ago, and they have not. Oil might have peaked but we do not know. Existence of debate about something (like peak oil) does not mean it has been proven. And water supplies are getting thinner in some places, where there is indeed water war, and greater in other places, as global warming frees up water supplies embedded in glaciers. Besides, how could we run out of water? It could become harder to find for some people, and harder to clean and desalinate, but surely we are not going to run out.
The second problem is that the future changes every day. Predictions by the wisest experts are notoriously unreliable, partly because every time there is a new, disrupting technology, everything changes. For instance, a big environmental problem at the end of the 19th century was horses. Everyone was getting around in horses, but horses were leaving messes all over the streets. Flies were being born in great numbers and spreading disease. What was to be done? Then, the automobile came along and saved the day. The point is, we do not know what new technology is coming or when. Every time a new technology comes along, yes, of course, it causes new problems, but it also solves old ones. The better technology gets, the better our understanding of science is, the more likely we can find our way out of the mess. I admit we could be in trouble, but people talk as if, if we turn on another light or start up another car, society will collapse. We are stronger than that.
Thirdly, I am not worried about the depletion of any of these things. Humankind has proven itself highly adaptive to change, and the depletion of one or another natural resource will be shaken off so we can go destroy something else.
Pessimist: China’s rise is a military and economic threat to everyone else, especially us westerners.
Contrarian: We are really scared of China, aren’t we? But why? First, China is not as “rising” as some might have you believe. As I wrote earlier, China is not about to overtake the United States in anything except instability of its environment.
Second, the rise of China is, for the most part, a good thing. It means a big new market for companies from the rest of the world, and new businesses, ideas, products and so on for the world outside China. The China of Mao’s era or before would not be helping to stop piracy in the Arabian Sea, or terrorism on its Central Asian borders. It means more wealth and, in my opinion, more security, not less.
Third, the rise of this or that country is always feared, and always has been. When Japan was ascendant in the 1980s, the bookstores were full of books saying how powerful it would become and take over the world. How many books do you see about that now? What are you afraid of? That China will take over the world? That Chinese business will be more competitive than your country’s? The only problem I see is that Chinese consumers and businesses will use more and more natural resources and create more and more pollution. But it would be hypocritical of me to tell them to stop trying to achieve a better life.
BUT, say the pessimists (and I was one of them a couple of years ago), China could be the source of the next world war. No doubt, China’s Taiwan policy could mean a war between China and Taiwan that the United States might step into. But what is the likelihood of that?
Contrarian: First, a war between China and the United States would be immensely costly. The Chinese government and some of its people would be behind a war to regain Taiwan, but they are not so arrogant as to think they could simply defeat the United States in a year or two. Americans, on the other side, are unlikely to want to engage one of the most powerful militaries in the world simply for the sake of Taiwan’s independence.
Second, there are many people from China in the United States and many from the United States in China. These are people who will do anything to avoid war between the two countries. That means thousands of people saying, “if you want them, you’ve got to go through me.”
What are some other looming wars you may be building a bomb shelter for?
Pessimists: Iran is building a bomb and war is inevitable.
Contrarian: War with Iran is highly unlikely. Aside from a few opportunists, nobody wants it. Iran is not attacking anyone and Barack is not attacking them.
Pessimists: North Korea is shooting rockets and threatening everyone. Won’t they go to war too?
Contrarian: They cannot. Nuclear weapons are so powerful that no one can ever use them. North Korea is a complicated matter but nuclear weapons are among the least of our worries.
Besides, who would want to fight a war when this economic crisis will bring the world to its knees alone? The pessimists, including one of my favourite historians, Niall Ferguson, say that it could lead to depression and war, like the 1929 crash did. (To be fair, Ferguson said “there will be blood”, not “there will be world war”.) I, contrarian, think things are fundamentally different and are not as bad as in the 1930s.
We have lower trade barriers and fewer suffocating regulations than in the days of the Depression. The stock market crash in 1929 was inevitable: stock markets sometimes go up and down slowly, but when they reach such dizzying heights as in 1929, they crash painfully. The crash was pretty big in 1987, too, but then things recovered. The Great Depression was brought on, however, by excessive protectionism and regulation that I do not think we will resort to. Though today there is, of course, a risk of war, none of the major powers are about to become socialist, fascist or communist, and none of them have tariffs even approaching those of the 1930s. You might lose your job, but this economic crisis will not mean the end of the world.
The reason we are told to worry about all these things is that people want to draw attention to their cause, and they know that it is not enough to say “the climate is getting slightly warmer” or “there is a remote possibility of war”. Instead, one person exaggerates, then the next person doubles it, and so on around the circle until everyone is screaming and throwing their hands in the air.
To answer my original question, my guess is that worriers on one end tell everyone else to worry, so they do. Please do not let yourself get caught up in the hysteria.