A World of Abundance or Scarcity
I'm always fascinated by the interrelationship between religious belief and socio-political views. One area in which the relationship manifests itself most clearly is with respect to issues of scarcity.
Religious believers tend to be much more confident that the world's resources will not simply run out leaving human existence unsustainable. We assume that the Hashem created the world in order for it to be inhabited by human beings. That does not entitle us to be profligate with nature's bounty – the Torah explicitly permits such waste – but human beings do not have to apologize for their existence, as many Greens seem to feel.
Thomas Malthus famously predicted that human population would increase geometrically while food supplies would do so arithmetically, eventually resulting in mass starvation. (Ironically, Malthus was a clergyman, but his enduring allure has been among secular elites.) One of his chief modern disciples Stanford professor Thomas Erlich predicted in his 1968 best-seller The Population Bomb that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in the 1970s. Nothing of the kind occurred.
About one thing Malthusians remain consistently optimistic: Despite between disproven by events in every generation since Malthus promulgated his theory in 1798, one day the theory will be confirmed and apocalyptic disaster will ensue. Doomsayers, like Erlich, never give up. Last November, he was in Israel for an academic conference to tell Israelis that overpopulation constitutes a much greater threat than the "security issues" that Israel faces. I certainly hope he is right.
Actually a dearth of people is currently a bigger threat to world stability than too many. Ninety-seven percent of the world's population lives today in countries with declining fertility. Fertility rates in much of Europe and Japan are little above half of replacement levels, which renders those countries' social welfare benefits for the elderly unsustainable in the near future, and insures an Islamic future for Europe, with all the benefits that entails. Most recent projections show world population beginning to decline well before the end of the century.
Malthus has generated one nightmare, end-of-the-world scenario after another. Early 19th century statisticians, for instance, predicted that the manure produced by London's cart horses would soon pile so deep as to render the city's streets unpassable.
The Malthusians, Walter Russell Mead notes, have usually had the best science of their time on their side. Yet their projections have never been borne out for three reasons – human beings' capability to adjust their behavior, technological advance, and the discovery of new resources. Nowhere has the impact of technological advance had a greater impact than on food production. A recent U.N. Report prepared by Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University predicts a 10% decrease in cultivated land around the globe by 2060 due to increased farmer productivity.
Genetically modified foods (GMOs) have proven a game-changer. Brazil will soon be the world's largest soybean producer due to the cultivation of a vast area once thought to be non-arable scrubland with new types of soybeans. Mark Lynas, who led the Green campaign of horrors against GMOs in the 1990s, which succeeded in having them banned in Europe and large parts of Asia, confessed at a recent Oxford Farming Conference that his anti-science stance had deprived the world of an important technological option to feed hungry people.
A young Canadian inventor has invented a commercially viable greenhouse system, in which temperature is regulated by focusing sunlight on salt water. Potable water is one of the by-products of the system.
Desalinization has dramatically changed Israel's water deficit, and will do so for other countries. Similarly, fracking and horizontal drilling have made huge new deposits of natural gas available in the United States and in many countries thought to be completely lacking in energy resources. The ability to extract oil from shale has led to a huge jump in the world's oil reserves.
Vast new oil and gas reserves are being discovered all the time off-shore. And recently geologists discovered fresh water acquifiers under Africa containing 100 times the water on the surface, which will turn deserts into fertile farmland.
All in all, score the debate: G-d – 10; Malthus – 0.
TORAH JEWS TRY NOT TO VIEW the world as a limited pie, in which every other person's slice takes away from the size of our own. For one thing, our focus is on the spiritual world, which by definition is infinite. In that world, every time another Jew elevates him or herself in any way, I too am elevated, not diminished.
Nor do we view the material world as inherently limited. Hashem recreates the world every day, and can infuse it with as much blessing as He wants.
The alternative to viewing the world as one with the potential to grow is a world in which the animating impulse is envy of those with more.
Contemporary democratic politics throughout the West often come down to two conflicting visions – a choice between growth and redistribution. President Obama's election campaign was based on a vision of a zero-sum society. His economic proposals consisted almost solely of making millionaires and billionaires pay their fare share (though the President did not expend too much philosophical energy defining what might constitute a fair share.)
In 2008, he admitted candidly that if given the choice between greater income equality and more economic growth, he prefers the former. He has no idea of the factors that foster economic growth and those that impede it, and has shown no interest in learning. Hiring more government workers is his preferred response to unemployment.
The President's campaign rhetoric appealed exclusively to envy – "You didn't build that." P.J. O'Rourke described the campaign's philosophical premise: "The people who have money are hogging it. The way for the rest of us to get money is to turn the hogs into bacon." Never mind that all the new taxes amount to about 6% of the current budget deficit.
But O'Rourke's primary complaint is against the moral ugliness of this zero-sum world view: "In a zero-sum universe there is only so much happiness. . . [But] if we wipe the smile off the faces of people with prosperous businesses . . . that will make the rest of us grin." "The evil," he writes, in explicitly moral terms, "lies in denying people the right, the means, and indeed the duty to make more things."
We create our own World-to-Come, Rabbi Dessler teaches. Those who do not attach themselves in life to the Source of Life have no World-to-Come – only emptiness. And in the same way, those who view the world in zero-sum terms, i.e., as a limited pizza pie, get exactly that -- a world of economic stagnation. Europe has already experienced decades of stagnation, as a consequence of the redistributionist impulse, and it's now come to America.
Mrs. Chana Scherman, a"h
There are people who do acts of chesed, even many acts of chesed, and there are those for whom doing kindnesses for others is so much part of who they are that it is completely natural. Mrs. Chana Scherman, a"h, was of the latter group, the ba'alei chesed.
When I first started to travel regularly to New York City from Israel in the early '90s, I usually davened in Boro Park's 16th Ave. Telshe minyan. Before davening, I had the pleasure of a brisk early morning walk with my host Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, on his way to Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz's 6:00 a.m. daf hayomi shiur. And after davening, I looked forward to an invitation from Rabbi Nosson Scherman to join his wife and him for breakfast, while Reb Nisson went off to teach at the Bais Yaakov Seminary.
Reb Nosson would enter the house announcing the arrival of a "chashuve guest from Eretz Yisrael," and Mrs. Scherman would greet me warmly, while describing the herbal teas available and the health benefits of the morning breakfast. I was not exactly a newlywed at the time, but I witnessed in the Scherman home a level of marital harmony that left me filled with anticipation of the future. The communication was almost entirely unspoken; everything was just understood, as if by telepathy.
In those days, most of my time in America was spent in the offices of ArtScroll. On the last day of one of my visits, Mrs. Scherman made a rare appearance at the office to bring a special birthday cake (I think) to Reb Nosson. When I came into his office and she heard that I was flying home in a few hours, she asked me what I was bringing home for my wife and for my children.
Apparently my answers were unsatisfactory or non-existent because she immediately offered, without a moment's calculation or hesitation, to take me to 13th Avenue for a quick round of shopping. The initiative came entirely from her.
As the grandmother of dozens, she knew exactly what present to buy that would be shaveh l'kol nefesh and keep the kids occupied for hours. So off it was to a toy store to buy Rush Hour, a game of which I had never heard, but which proved to be precisely the hit and the intellectual challenge she had promised. I should have purchased two, it turned out.
Not having grown up in Boro Park, I would never have thought of buying my wife a housecoat. I did not even know what one was. And for sure, nothing could have induced me to enter one of the ladies stores selling them. But with Mrs. Scherman at my side I had no fears. Our choice – what would I have done without her advice – was a complete success. That beloved housecoat was worn until the tailor pronounced it beyond further repair.
Mission achieved in less than 45 minutes, Mrs. Scherman whisked me back to ArtScroll, just in time for the cab to the airport.
Mrs. Scherman would have scoffed at the notion of herself as anything more than a normal wife, mother, and grandmother. Her sensitivity and goodness simply went with the territory, in her eyes.
But for all of us who were the beneficiaries of her spontaneous and unsolicited kindnesses, the world became a warmer and brighter place. And the world without her lacks a bit of its luster.