Saturday, April 14, 2007

Sachs as intellectual poverty

Leave it to Daniel Ben-Ami to expose the intellectual poverty in Jeffrey Sachs perspective on world problems. Sachs encapsulates the dominant paradigm and its basic precepts well, and is one of the leading intellectual figures espousing its central constructs. Ben-Ami questions the ideology inherent to this perspective, positing opposing and equally valid constructs that lead to a dramatically different set of priorities, expectations and policies.

Often, problems are described (framed) in a manner that makes the preferred solution to their resolution appear elementary and obvious. Such is the perspective Sachs characterizes. By defining problems as stemming from over-population and global disparities, Sachs is merely updating the Malthusian limits to growth arguments of such writers as Paul Erhlich and Lester Brown. Malthus was proven wrong by technological progress and the empirical data. Erhlich was proven wrong by Julian Simon, technological progress and the empirical data. Lester Brown was proven wrong by Bjorn Lomborg, technological progress...and the empirical data.

There is a pattern here. Every generation has its mainstream pessimist whose popularity stems from a willingness of governing authorities to legitimise their claims because:
  • they invoke fear, which in turn justifies
  • more governance and regulation, which does not have to achieve anything because
  • the central framing is to define the problem in pessimistic language with low levels of expectation.
And, in every circumstance the cornucopian optimism of such analysts as Simon and Lomborg, has been proven correct by time, the empirical data and by continued technological advancement.

Now this really frustrates those with an opposing ideological perspective, so much so that they usually seek to dismiss dynamist perspectives with the use of invective (e.g. use of the term cornucopian) and the use of authority (e.g. one of my students was recently told to put away his copy of Lomborg lest it give a false impression at a recruitment event).

How do you define over-population? Is it too many people or too great a density? Or too many for the resource base? Is Hong Kong over-populated? Or Singapore? Or is over-population not really about the population level nor its density but the wealth of the society and its ability to sustain that level of population?

I live in Canada, one of the world's wealthiest nations. Last time I looked, 95% of Canadians lived within 100 kms of the border with the US, meaning roughly 90% of the country is effectively empty -- well not empty, but certainly able to accommodate a much bigger population than at present.

The problems of the world are not due to over-population, nor over-consumption (the other common green canard). Rather they stem from a failure to develop sufficient social will to enable different cultures and societies to live sustainably. Buying into Sachs prescription for stasis does nothing to focus our attention on real issues.