Thursday, June 26, 2008

Man's Limitless Need for Wealth

This is my friend Roger Slothower.

Roger, one of the most full-of-life people I know, died very unexpectedly of a heart attack on May 19, 2008. For me, Roger’s sudden death makes it all the more real and personal why we can never have enough wealth.

Current “cultural wisdom” contains an outcry for cutting back: less production, less consumption, less wealth. We repeatedly hear how our standard of living is destroying the earth and the future. Our wealth is the evidence used to convict us of the crime of wasting precious, scarce resources, of polluting the atmosphere with climate-changing CO2, of causing the poverty present in rest of the world. We are too greedy! We have more than we need!

By what standard?

The above conclusions are all based on the assumption that the earth and its resources are the limiting factor, that the greatest scarcity we face is the finiteness of pristine natural resources present on our Spaceship Earth. And thus, the cry to conserve resources and ration our use of energy. Recycle, Reuse, Refuse and Reduce.

Yet, the shortages we face in usable natural resources are minimal when measured against the scarcest resource of all: human life. With the exception of the miniscule amount of matter changed into energy in a nuclear explosion, we never use up anything! We only change how it is arranged, its present form and function. Trees are turned into houses and paper. Sand is turned into fiber optics and computer chips. Water and soil are turned into food. And so forth. The matter changes form, but none of it disappears. What disappears is people.

People are the truly finite resource. We are what come and go on this earth. Each of us has a very limited time here, and when it is over, it is over. Forever. By the standard of human life, we do not have enough wealth, enough material goods used in service of our lives. We do not produce or consume enough. When human life is seen as the highest value, the need to conserve physical matter pales by comparison.

Is it possible to have too much of one’s life? Too much health? Too much well-being? In order to continue expanding our human potential, improving the quality of our lives, we must exploit the material resources on earth. We must take the nature-given and alter it to better serve our lives. Even the preservation of wilderness is a value stemming from the beauty and respite it offers us in lives that flourish because of the prior exsistence of wealth beyond the requirements of mere survival.

By the standard of human life, it is human time, human labor that must be conserved. The way this is achieved is to increase the productivity of labor. That means increasing our investment in capital goods: the machines, the tools, the knowledge and technology, the systems of organization which allow us to accomplish more in less time. That means preserving and expanding human freedom so as to unleash the creative potential needed to solve the problems of producing ever more wealth.

When my grandparents were children, people died and were crippled for lack of antibiotics. In my mother and father’s time, children lost their parents from the lack of open-heart surgery and cardiac catheritization. In my time, we lost Roger from the lack of an economical way to diagnose unsuspected vulnerability to heart attacks, and my brother-in-law Glenn from the lack of effective treatment for cancer. My mother to Parkinson's. My friend to depression. So many others....

The solution is more wealth. Wealth applied to the advancement of human life.

For some people, that means increased access to clean water, adequate nutrition and shelter. For others, it means pushing the envelope of medical technology and a million other things we could dream up. All of this requires human labor, ingenuity, creativity. We have all the resources in the world. What we need is more time.

Roger may not have agreed with this perspective. In fact, chances are, he wouldn’t have, though I don’t think he’d mind this tribute. I just wish I could talk with him and find out.



HaynesBE said...

I met Roger at Earlham College 1973. We shared housing for over three years: 3 months in a three-sided cabin in Vermont, a year on the third floor at "Furnas Mountain" and another two years in a place we called the Armadillo Palace. We shared a lot of loves: wilderness, volleyball, friends, birds. He laughed from his belly and his heart all at the same time. When he smiled, his eye-corners crinkled and smiled too. I have a great picture of him climbing down the walls of Bruha Canyon in Big Bend, buck naked.

Roger came all the way from Alaska to my wedding, so Jon and I invited him to come on our "honeymoon”! (A weekend hiking around the Georgian Bay in Canada) I didn't go on Roger’s honeymoon, but I watched him marry Cyndi, then spent a great weekend with his family (old and new) in a beach house in California. So many more memories.

The last time I saw Roger, he brought Cyndi and their 3 kids to visit my family in California. We spent the day in San Francisco at Pier 39 and Ghirardelli Square. Lots of ice cream, laughing, talking, sharing. Enjoying the important people in each other's lives. Even though it had been over fifteen years since I'd seen him, it felt like 15 days. There are just some people who are so a part of us, they never seem to be far away. Even when they die. And yet, the world is less without him. There is an empty place inside me that used to hold him in my future. Life is just too short for all the loving to be done.

Ed said...

From the way you write, I can tell that you are an educated and intelligent person, which is why I find your ridiculous inability to acknowledge the impact of limitless human want on a limited planet so astounding.

Have you not considered that by turning trees into houses and water and soil into food may have a negative effect on our standard living in the long run? Or that human life may disappear completely if we continue to live with the single goal of producing and consuming as much as possible?

I understand this post may have come from a place of grief, but I can see from your other articles that you truly believe in this nonsense. Shame on you.