Saturday, March 12, 2016

First Principles

When the USSR folded its tent in 1991, some historians called the news "the end of history", since history's prime mover, the conflict of ideologies, had vanished with the supposed triumph of capitalism.

Historians needn't have worried. An older conflict has emerged from the shadows to take the place of the Cold War. It is a clash that has raised up and crushed empires, built civilizations and toppled them, made fortunes and beggared nations. It burns in the human soul. It's a Jimmy Durante tune that you can't get out of your head: "Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, but still had the feeling that you wanted to stay..."

For a certain Spanish admiral from Genoa, the explorer's side of this conflict was an article of faith. Thomas Jefferson built a political career on it. Karl Marx mistook it for a conflict between labor and capital. Charles Dickens saw it as a clash between want and greed. Most of us probably recognize it as a struggle between those who propose "sustainable development" because it gives them regulatory power and those who just want to be let alone.

Back in 1984, when “Spaceweek” was a thing that made people remember the Apollo flights to the moon with nostalgia, hardly anyone had heard of the "greenhouse effect". Anyone who took seriously the idea that human activity could warm the atmosphere was considered a crackpot. There was no ozone hole. But other things were going on. Toxic plumes from landfills and storage tanks contaminated ground water. Developers built houses and playgrounds over buried drums of poison that leaked to the surface. Cancer-causing asbestos fibers and flakes of polyvinylchloride floated through the air of residential communities. The operative word was "cleanup".

Viewing these developments with alarm, as well they should, environmentalists have taken up the cause of saving the Earth. They have developed a formula, which you can find in Al Gore's book Earth in the Balance, that expresses the impact of human activity in terms of the product of population and affluence. It drives Mr. Gore to the conclusion that the industrialized nations must moderate their affluence in order to boost the economies and restrain the birth rates of the developing nations.

That's a conflict. People want "stuff". They'll rape the Earth to get it. They will moderate nothing, give not an inch, even under the hammer of the law. Will the struggle produce political Armageddon, some kind of deep green terrorism? It's hard to tell. That's what gives this story suspense.

One thing is certain. It's going to get harder to make good. Why? Take a look around you. Chances are, unless you're looking up, virtually everything you see is owned. Not only do most of the things you see belong to someone else, but social roles are becoming closed as well. It used to be, and not so long ago, either, that a high school education was adequate to begin an apprenticeship in many careers. You could run for public office without owning a mint or selling your soul. The leading roles are not as solidly cast as they were in, say, the Middle Ages, but they will be. 

That's because of enclosure, a term used to describe the walling off, literally or figuratively, of a resource. English law gave the term its meaning when, in the 19th century, that country concluded its transition from agriculture based on tenant farming to the cultivation of huge consolidated holdings with hired hands. Enclosure normally results in migration away from the epicenter of want to new lands, if there are any new lands. If not, then the population itself is enclosed.

Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserly protagonist of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, was fond of the phrase "surplus population", which he used to describe his neighbors. The expression became popular in 1834, when English manufacturers proposed to the Poor Law Commissioners that they send the surplus population of the agricultural districts to the north, so that "the manufacturers would absorb and use it up." This strategy, arising from enclosure, resulted in the abuses that created communism. Karl Marx, the political economist who was communism's chief theorist, and Charles Dickens were contemporaries.

Enclosure cheapens both life and labor. Marx observed that, although the Americans had invented a stone-breaking machine for clearing boulders from agricultural land, the English did not make use of it because of the ready availability of cheap labor. "In England, " Marx wrote, "women are still occasionally used instead of horses for hauling canal boats, because the labor required to produce horses and machines is an accurately known quantity, while that required to maintain the women of the surplus population is below all calculation."

By 1863, the massive emigration of factory workers to the frontiers of America had become Britain's saving stroke of luck, at least for the workers. Some 6 million, a quarter of England's population, left those shores in a span of 25 years. Wages in the old country soared. Scrooge must have been beside himself.

On March 24, 1863, The Times of London published a letter that became known as "the manufacturer's manifesto". It argued that the emigration of labor power from England should not be encouraged and, perhaps, not allowed.

Whether to stay or to go. Whether to allow others to go. It's a conflict that rages among us and within us as we consider whether to open a new frontier in space. For human beings as a whole, there is no easy choice. The way will be difficult. Yet go we must, or find out what the history of England would have been without America. Scrooge is back. 

When I say to my friends, "Let's go", some of them would rather not. They don't want to leave their families, their homes, their comforts. Some of them don't want me to go. They're afraid. Of what, I can't say.

We can't all leave the earth. We don't all need to. The individual decision depends on a personal balance of forces, the elemental conflict: Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, but still had the feeling that you wanted to stay...

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