Once every couple of years I contact a prominent opinion leader whose views are very different from my own, and attempt to engage them in dialogue with a view to either changing their opinion, or allowing them to change mine. I’m talking about government ministers, church leaders, university professors, those sorts of people: the modern day High Priests of our society, who set the standards for what people are supposed to think, and the boundaries of acceptable discourse. I have had a success rate of zero so far, because nobody’s opinion has ever moved an inch, but I do it out of a sense of moral obligation, probably for the same reason that people glue themselves to buildings in defence of the environment, or volunteer in soup kitchens, or help to clear landmines; it just seems like the right thing to do. You could call it “outreach” or maybe “missionary work”.
I’m not one of those cranks who constantly churns out letters, by the way: I find the process quite disheartening, so one letter every couple of years is enough for me. However, I think it’s good for me, because in order to find out what these people’s views are, I have to read their material which I don’t necessarily agree with. I also think it’s good for them, because I suspect that most of the time they live in an echo chamber in which the only opinions they hear are their own and those of people who agree with them, and it’s good for them to know that there are alternative points of view.
The first time I can remember doing this was when I was about seventeen and I wrote to our local Catholic bishop suggesting that the Catholic church should encourage contraception, because the human population can’t continue expanding forever, and we therefore need some humane way of keeping our numbers in check other than the traditional methods of war, disease and famine. His reply was along the lines of “God said ‘Be fruitful and multiply’, we don’t know how many people the Earth can hold, therefore we should keep increasing our numbers until we hit that limit”.
40 years later, there are so many red warning lights blinking on the dashboard that I think the bishop’s limit has been reached: look at, for example, loss of habitat, loss of biodiversity, species extinction, resource depletion, air and water pollution and climate change. If God could speak to us today, He would probably say something like “Guys, I know I said ‘Be fruitful and multiply’, but I didn’t mean for you to take it literally and wallpaper the planet with people; you can stop now.” Unfortunately, we will never know what the good bishop thinks about it now or whether he has changed his mind, because he has long since met his God and hopefully had that conversation directly with Him.
I have written to a British Roads Minister asking whether he accepts the (widely accepted) view that building more roads will never solve traffic congestion because it just encourages more people to drive more cars more often – a phenomenon known as Jevons’ Paradox. (Result: three evasive replies without actually answering the question).
I have written to the Bank of Canada suggesting that their forecasts of a perpetually growing economy can’t possibly be correct, because over time the economy would grow so large that it would need to consume infinite resources. (Result: three evasive answers culminating in a statement that their economic forecasts only look two years ahead, so what happens after two years is unknowable and/or irrelevant).
I have written to the Professor of Inclusion and Diversity at a prominent North American university, informing him that I had done a Google search for “insane university political correctness”, congratulating him on the fact that his name and department had come top of the search list, and asking him to clarify some of the more, let’s say, unusual news reports in which he and his department had recently featured. (Result: no reply).
My latest attempt in this vein was a letter to Philip Aldrick, the Economics Editor of the London Times, asking for clarification of an opinion piece he wrote recently. Mr Aldrick is a prominent financial journalist who has won many awards including Business and Finance Journalist of the Year, and who is in demand as an after dinner speaker for corporate events. You can read part of Mr Aldrick’s article here (the rest is behind a paywall):
and here is the text of my letter to him:
“Dear Mr Aldrick
I was interested to read your recent Times article “IMF cuts global growth forecast to joint lowest since crisis” (10 April). There is just one thing puzzling me though. The original forecast (before downgrading) was for 3.5% global growth. If this was continued over an average human lifetime (80 years), the global economy would have to grow by a factor of 15, and if it was continued over two lifetimes (160 years) it would have to grow by a factor of 245. I can’t imagine the world producing and consuming 245 times, or even 15 times, the energy and materials it currently consumes, so surely this 3.5% forecast was destined to stop at some point anyway?
This is a very simple calculation – just a compound interest calculation really – and yet whenever economists talk about growth, this logical long term implication is never mentioned. Can you tell me why this is?”
Result: no reply. Mr Aldrick is probably a busy man with his after dinner speeches and opinion pieces and the like, and probably doesn’t have time to engage in correspondence. It would be like expecting a reply from the Pope, or the Buddha, or the Inca Sun God. So, continuing in the religious vein in which I started, I’d like to round off this blog post with a parable, defined in the dictionary as “a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson”. All persons in this parable are fictitious, with any resemblance to any real persons, living, dead or not quite dead, being purely coincidental.
This is the story of Mr Right-Thinker and Miss Wrong-Thinker. They both graduated in the same year with a first class degree in Media Studies from a prestigious university. Both were keen to pursue a career in financial journalism and went to work for the same national newspaper. There was, however, one important difference between them. Mr Right-Thinker believed that business people and economists should always aim for economic growth, and that this growth could continue forever because market forces and business entrepreneurship would always overcome resource scarcity. Miss Wrong-Thinker, on the other hand, believed that infinite economic growth on a finite planet was impossible, and that business people and economists should aim for a steady state economy which neither grew nor contracted, and make products which lasted a long time so people didn’t have to keep buying new ones.
The editor of the newspaper was always pleased with Mr Right-Thinker’s work, because the two men always seemed to think along the same lines. Miss Wrong-Thinker’s work, however, was frequently returned to her for multiple corrections, or not published at all.
Slowly but surely, their careers diverged. Mr Right-Thinker was sent to cover important international conferences on the economy. Miss Wrong-Thinker could not be trusted with such important assignments, so she was sent to cover local council finance committee meetings.
On the international conference circuit, Mr Right-Thinker met many important people such as wealthy investors and businesspeople, top rank politicians, celebrities and newspaper proprietors, who were impressed by this rising young journalist’s financial astuteness. He had a knack of telling them exactly what they wanted to hear. They started to invite him to their private dinner parties, where he met even more important people.
Miss Wrong-Thinker sometimes went for lunch at local restaurants with the local councillors.
One of Mr Right-Thinker’s new contacts put his name forward to be a guest speaker at an international financial conference. His speech was a great success, following which he found himself in demand as a public speaker. Politically astute, he was careful always to please his audience by telling them that they were doing exactly the right thing, and consequently he was always invited back to give more speeches.
Miss Wrong-Thinker was invited to give a speech to the school leavers from her former high school about “How To Become A Journalist”.
Mr Right-Thinker’s career continued to progress by leaps and bounds. His ambition is to become editor of his newspaper when the current editor retires. He continues to earn £5,000 for each speech he gives.
Miss Wrong-Thinker gave up full time journalism, telling herself that she was never much good at it anyway. However, she keeps her hand in by writing a weekly “Wildlife Watch” column for the local paper, for which she gets paid £50 each time. She got married and had two children, and her ambition (rarely achieved) is to get all the laundry and housework done by the time the children come home from school.
You may think that Mr Right-Thinker’s career has been much more successful than Miss Wrong-Thinker’s, and you may be right. However, there is one small dark cloud on the horizon of Mr Right-Thinker’s shining ocean of success. He can never, ever, change his mind. If he admitted publicly to any doubts about the wisdom or practicality of perpetual economic growth, his friends, contacts, dinner party and conference invitations, reputation and income would melt away like snow in the spring, and he would be replaced by someone more “on message”.
Here ends today’s parable. May your God go with you.
Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin