So, I hear mankind is teetering on the brink of self-destruction. Not a day goes by that the alarm isn’t raised about the rapid depletion of our planet’s resources, an announcement often accompanied by an ever-diminishing figure of how long we’ve got left before relegation to an eternity of shivering in the dark. These are grim predictions and they aren’t getting any cheerier. Clearly, Earth is doomed.
Allow me to make your day by informing you that Earth is not, in fact, doomed. Even more surprisingly, the fate of the planet doesn’t rest entirely on the shoulders of the future baristas crammed into sustainability courses. The economist Herbert Stein – father of the famous Ben Stein, the one you were all overjoyed to have visit our campus in October – lent clarity to the matter with Stein’s Law. Though tautological, its relevant lesson is too frequently ignored: Unsustainable trends won’t be sustained.
Save for the most enthusiastic solipsists, we’ve all heard cries that the current level of energy use, especially as it pertains to oil, is “unsustainable.” Red-faced academics, politicians and activists insist that we simply can’t continue to burn through it at the present rate. Had they listened to the late Stein, they could sit back and take a breather; if we can’t keep doing what we’re doing, then, by definition, we won’t.
As large-scale oil consumption may be not be a concept that touches the average Gaucho’s everyday life – many of us ride bicycles which, I’m told, don’t even use the stuff – let’s draw an analogy: Though barrels of crude oil are not commonly purchased by college students, music sure is.
If you’re any kind of listener at all, you understand that there’s nothing quite like discovering a new recording artist whose sound is to your liking. Not only do you pick up a new source of aural joy, but you instantly have an entire back catalog on which to catch up – the possibilities seem endless.
Let’s say you’ve just discovered your new favorite musician, a blues singer by the name of Shoutin’ Lime Watson. After hearing a song of his at a friend’s party, you immediately realize that you must own every one of the man’s recordings. At first, they’re easy to acquire; every respectable record store stocks all of his major releases.
Soon enough, however, you find yourself in possession of every Shoutin’ Lime Watson studio album. In order to quench your thirst for his eminently soulful sound, you start searching for rarities: singles, B-sides, Japan-only live sets and that one Rolling Stone track where Bill Wyman was absolutely convinced that Shoutin’ Lime’s presence would lend a touch of authenticity. The more material you acquire, the harder and more expensive it becomes to track down whatever’s left.
Within months, you’re staring down the possibility of paying four-figure prices for grainy bootlegs on eBay. As the cost of your Shoutin’ Lime habit grows, you begin to wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to just find a new musician to collect; you’ve heard, for instance, that Eric Clapton’s albums are plentiful and cheap.
The parallels with natural resource sustainability are obvious. As Shoutin’ Lime Watson’s music becomes more rare, and thus more expensive, the relatively small effort asked by alternative forms of audio entertainment increasingly appeal. As oil – or any energy source – dwindles, other options and technologies become viable.
There were times when the world was caught in paroxysms of fear brought on by the predicted scarcity of commodities such as whale oil and copper. That humanity survived these crises is not owed to the screeching of the alarmists of old; we simply moved on to other, more attractive substitutes.
The next time you’re confronted by one of these less-than-sufferable conservation types, remember that the ghosts of Herbert Stein and Shoutin’ Lime Watson have your back. Inform them that the unsustainable trends about which they whine won’t be sustained, and yes, you’d like whipped cream on that.
Daily Nexus columnist Colin Marshall was disappointed when Stein’s Law had a hand in canceling his shot at winning Ben Stein’s money.