Worries About the Future
by Tibor R. Machan
For a moment, let's forget that the environmentalists' precautionary principle is a devastating threat to the idea of due process of law -- it is, but there are other problems with it. Why is it? Because when one anticipates that bad things might happen even though no one has been found guilty of violating anyone's rights, people begin to be treated badly. Their rights begin to be violated right and left. The mere possibility of something untoward happening leads to public policies that run roughshod over our liberties and rights. A very clear case
in point is the Endangered Species Act, which authorizes government to violate property rights merely because use of one's property might possibly hurt some critters. By this principle anyone who might commit a crime could be locked up ... whether they actually do so or not!
But there is something else at issue, something economics professor George Reisman once called my attention to in one of his fine essays critical of various aspects of environmentalism
(http://www.mises.org/story/661). This came to mind for me as I was considering my upcoming schedule of activities -- talks, conferences, seminars, and so forth.
Sometimes when a good many of these activities are planned, I get
nervous and start preparing way before necessary so that I will be
ready to cope with them all. What seems to happen is that the future, with all these planned activities in it, appears to my mind to unfold independently of the periods of time in between the events that are coming up. I see the future, as it were, on one flat canvas and it looks utterly unmanageable.
Environmentalists seem to be looking at the unfolding of the future of humanity along similar lines. They see a problem here, another there, an unanswered question concerning this, and another about something else, and these seem to appear to them all bunched up, as one huger -- possibly catastrophic -- event. Al Gore's movie is a good case in point -- thousands of years of a possible and scary future are crammed into a little over an hour and when so considered, what unfolds does come off as hopeless, unmanageable and, thus, cause for panic. And people often act irrationally when they are panicked. That is why talk of threatening our rights seems beyond the pale for both environmentalists and those worried about terrorism. The
prospects are frightening, so who cares about niceties like
respecting individual rights?
What Professor Reisman pointed out in his essay is that such an
approach to dealing with the future of humanity is completely
misguided because it omits from consideration the primary facts of
human innovation, creativity, initiative. It treats us as if we were all mere bystanders, unable to do anything about those possible dangers, whereas in fact if one considers human history, people have been quite successful in dealing with all kinds of hazardous contingencies by applying themselves. Exactly how they will do so is never easy to spell out, so those who in their panic ask, "But how will it all work out?" or "What precisely must we do to cope with this and that awful scenario?" cannot be given simple answers. (The same applies in the field of emergency ethics, those famous desert island or lifeboat cases, which are so extraordinary that one has to remember that people often come up with ingenious solutions to extraordinary problems and challenges.)
My own anxiety over my upcoming full schedules abated when I realized that I kept forgetting about the fact that there are several days, sometimes a week, in between the various events and that I will be able to prepare with little trouble for the next one after one has passed by. Time was what I forgot about, as well as my ability to make the most of this time as I came to cope with my various upcoming challenges.
Sure, there will be changes in the climate, there will be more or
less water or ice or what have you. But all of this will not happen in one fell swoop but over years, decades, even centuries, and if history is any clue, most of it will be dealt with quite competently, thank you, by those who will have to cope with it all. Nor need our basic principles of human association -- the rights we have to our lives, liberties and property -- be sacrificed for that to happen.