I don’t normally bother commenting on the writings of columnists like David Brooks, but today I can’t help myself.
Brooks earlier this week wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times elaborating on a blog on the site Marginal Revolution, in which that site’s two economists speculated on what would happen if a solar event instantly sterilized everyone, male and female, on the side of the earth that was facing the sun at that moment, and if that side happened to include both the US and Europe.
Brooks fretted that if the people of these regions (and of course South America and Africa, which are on the same half of the globe, but which Brooks conveniently ignores) were suddenly to realize they would have no descendants, it would be the end of all “grand designs.” There would, he said, be no more justice, no sacrificing for the future, no more building of great buildings.
Brooks and the authors of this nightmare fantasy took the view that if the citizens of what Brooks perceives as “Western Civilization” were to have no hope of offspring, there would within weeks be an end to all striving.
After I finished laughing, I started to think seriously about the idea.
Do scientists and artists do their work with their particular genetic offspring in mind as they labor away at their desks, computer terminals, laboratories and easels?
I sincerely doubt it. The creative impulse is a purely internal drive. In fact, many of the greatest creations of humankind have been the work of young people who may not even as yet have been married or contemplating a family.
Furthermore, the inventor of something like the polio vaccine, or of micro filter straws for cleaning water were both thinking of people around the globe, not of their great grandchildren, or even their children.
Nor are most creators thinking about getting rich as they create. While it may stun people like Brooks, who imagine everything man does to be market driven, true artists and scientists, in my experience, don’t really expect financial rewards from their work. Sure, nobody or almost nobody, is upset when something they do results in a big cash payoff, but that is not why painters paint or why astronomers peer into the blackness of space, or why a harpsichordist puzzles over a score trying to decode the true intentions of J.S. Bach.
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I might add, as the parent of a son adopted in China, that there is for me, and for any adoptive parent, absolutely no difference in terms of thoughts of my own posterity, between my hopes and fears and dreams for my biological daughter and my adoptive son. In fact, if for some reason the entire population of North America and Europe were to suddenly be rendered sterile, the single most predictable result would be a huge surge in adoptions from other regions of the globe that had been sheltered from the solar flare. (And despite what the “birthers” are implying, those adoptive children would be every bit as “western” when they grew up as biological offspring would have been.)
But let’s take things further. Suppose for a moment that Brooks’ absurd premise was correct, and that deprived of genetically connected offspring, the people of America and Europe did cease to create, to build and to plan for the future. How could that be the “end of striving?” Great literature, great architecture, great music, great scientific work would continue to be done in Russia, in Asia, in Australia, and in other parts of the world. A loss of enthusiasm for the future in America and Europe might even be a boon for mankind, if one considers the incredible damage that has been inflicted on mankind and on the earth itself by what Brooks adoringly calls Western Civilization. It is after all the West that developed that mad philosophy of perpetual growth as a basic and unquestioned good and as a driving force for progress. Other civilizations like those of China and India may have adopted that philosophy of late, but perhaps left to their own devices and no longer forced to compete with the West, they might see a revitalization of earlier indigenous philosophies—Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism, for instance--that focused more on balance and harmony with nature. It is after all Brooks’ celebrated Western Civilization that has brought us the nuclear bomb, chemical weapons, germ warfare, the automobile, consumerism and reality TV. If it were true that a Great Sterilization could put an end to such madness, it would be a good thing.
Unfortunately, though, I’m afraid that Brooks’ fears are empty. Men and women will always strive to create both for good and for evil, whether or not they personally, or as a society, will have children to benefit from their efforts.
The sad truth is that people really give very little thought to posterity in their daily lives and actions. If they did, we would not have corporate executives today working assiduously to make short-term profits at the future expense of not only the entire living earth, but of their own grandchildren. We would not have voters and politicians cutting resources for inner city schools. We would not have scientists working on ways to make new weapons of mass destruction.
Brooks can rest easy, even if the rest of us cannot: Western Civilization, for better or worse, will go on, even it its collective gonads are as sterile as the culture it has produced.
(Disclaimer: No thought about my progeny or future descendants entered into the creation of this column.)
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