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How Close to Catastrophe?

In response to:

How Close to Catastrophe? from the November 16, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

I’ve read few passages in your pages that are as mistaken as Bill McKibben’s assertion that “the technology we need most badly is the technology of community—the knowledge about how to cooperate to get things done…. We Americans haven’t needed our neighbors for anything important…” [“How Close to Catastrophe?,” NYR, November 16].

Each of us cooperates daily with countless others—neighbors, fellow citizens, foreigners—to ensure not only our prosperity but our very existence. My mind boggles at the number of people who cooperated to make available to me, for example, the shirt on my back. Cotton growers in Egypt; fashion designers in Italy; textile workers in Malaysia; merchant marines from around the globe; investment bankers in Manhattan; insurers in Hartford; truck drivers along the East Coast; department store executives in Seattle; security guards and retail clerks in Virginia—these people and millions of others cooperated so that I might wear an ordinary shirt. Ditto for my house, my food, my subscription to The New York Review of Books.

For McKibben to say that “cheap fossil fuel has allowed us all to become extremely individualized, even hyperindividualized” is to be blind to the amazing and vast system of cooperation that today spans the globe. Clearly, we have, in spades, “knowledge about how to cooperate to get things done.”

Donald J. Boudreaux

Chairman, Department of Economics

George Mason University

Fairfax, Virginia

Bill McKibben replies:

Donald J. Boudreaux’s response proves precisely the point I was trying to make—and it says something about the blinders that too many economists have strapped on. We do cooperate, unconsciously, to promote our individual self-interest; Chairman Boudreaux’s slightly less elegant restatement of Adam Smith’s remarks about the butcher and the baker are, as far as I can tell, not in serious dispute. What is in dispute is whether this cooperation carries over into more crucial matters—like keeping the planet from overheating in the next decade. Since my article came out, the British government has released a report estimating that the economic cost of global warming will exceed the combined impact of both world wars and the Great Depression of the 1930s. So far, there is precious little sign of our communities coming together to meet this challenge—politically, economically, culturally. Which doesn’t prove Smith—or even Boudreaux—wrong. Just incomplete.

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