One of the most powerful rhetorical devices is to cherry pick your criteria to get the result you want. We see a classic example of it in “The Scarcity Fallacy,” the lead essay in the Wall Street Journal’s “Review” section this week. Author Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, says that “ecologists worry that the world’s resources come in fixed amounts that will run out, but we have broken through such limits again and again.”
Lord Ridley’s logical fallacy, which animates his rhetorical trickery, is that he refers only to the human race over the past 10,000 some odd years of recorded history. If he looked either closer or longer term, he might not conclude that we have always overcome resource shortages so we will in the future.
The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset once said that the best point of view from which to look at history is where you can just make out the warts on Cleopatra’s nose. Detail, but not so close that all you see is detail. Ortega believed this theoretical sweet spot reveals overarching truths.
Here’s an extreme example of the impact of measurement parameters on conclusions: In evaluating the greatest center fielders of all time, baseball numbers guru Bill James noted that he usually used the best five years of a career as a major criterion and by this measurement Mickey Mantle beat Ty Cobb, but if he had measured the best 4, 6, 7 or 8 years, Cobb would win.
In Ridley’s case, he’s measuring all of humanity over 10,000 years.
But what if he looked more closely? He would find that a number of human societies and cultures have disappeared because of resource depletion: the American Indians at Cahokia, the Pacific Islanders on Rapa Nui, the ancient Minoans on Crete, the citizens of Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley, to name a few.
Ridley could have also taken a wide lens and looked at the 3.6 billion year history of life on earth, or even the 200 million years since mammals first emerged. In both these cases, one of the big lessons of history is that the overwhelming majority of species will eventually become extinct, as they fail to adapt to the ever-transforming environment on Earth.
The danger in Ridley’s conclusion that we’ll figure it out because we have always figured it out in the past is that everyone who says it, including Ridley, uses it to justify a laissez faire approach that lets the marketplace determine how we meet the resource depletion challenges that we face. In fact, if we are to survive as a species, we need to look at things in a new way and organize societies in new ways. Many are working to save human beings from extinction, for example the scientists researching planets that have living conditions similar to Earth’s. These scientists know that our sun’s ever-intensifying heat will evaporate all the water on the earth in about a billion years, so we have to find another place to live before then. The work of these scientists requires public support and public support requires higher taxes, something that lassiez-fairenistas never like. Note, too, that Ridley applauds fracking as an example of human ingenuity that shows we’ll overcome every resource shortage. Well, maybe not the shortage of clean air and water that fracking causes.
Ridley also thinks that large parts of the world haven’t yet been introduced to fertilizer and other advanced agricultural techniques, which seems to be a meager proof that we won’t run out of food. Not only that, he lauds the positive influence on the environment that humans have because birds and other animals often carry fertilizer used on crops to the forests. The article presents the world as seen through the rose-colored glasses of a true believer in technology controlled by private interests.
Ridley is so busy shoveling fertilizer about fertilizer that he ignores the real degradations we are inflicting on our planet and the real threat of resource depletion to our future well-being. His complacent and smug self-satisfaction with the human race will no doubt make many breathe a sigh of relief and go about their business using resources profligately. After all, we’ve always muddled through before.
And so did the stegosaurus, until it didn’t.