Tuesday, July 08, 2008

More silver lining

I've been reading the book "Small is Beautiful" lately, which is best described by its sub-title: "Economics as if people mattered." The author argues about the foolishness of making consumption our only indicator of success when we live on a finite planet with finite resources. Of course (especially in current economic conditions), it's easy to argue that the only alternative to increasing consumption (i.e. economic growth) is economic recession, and everybody knows that's a bad thing. Or is it?

I'm a big fan of science and the pursuit of knowledge. I believe the advances we've made in the developed world over the last few centuries are a great thing and we should be happy to live in an age with so much knowledge about how the world works and how we can provide for ourselves materially. I'm certainly not opposed to the material gains of the last few centuries. However, attaining great knowledge is not the same as attaining great wisdom. The knowledge we've gained as a society over the last several centuries has given us enormous wealth with far greater ease than at any previous point in human history. While I'm not opposed to wealth per se, there is certainly a danger in acquiring great wealth too easily (Paris Hilton comes to mind as an example).

I've heard many stories of life during the Depression. While it certainly doesn't sound like an ideal time to be alive, those who lived through it have many stories of survival through ingenuity, of close ties to friends and family, of people learning to get by and thrive with just "enough." In other words, people learned to live more wisely with their available resources. Maybe the time has come for another large-scale depression. Maybe what we need is another long period of learning how to use the many toys we've acquired over previous decades. Maybe we could gain some wisdom about how best to use the wealth we enjoy in the modern developed world.

Adversity usually isn't fun, but it seems to be the surest path to wisdom. And while we have lots of knowledge in our modern world, we seem pretty short on wisdom.



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