11 Mar 2008

Conversation with My Dad (part one)

My dad turns 75 this year, and we have long conversations on many topics. The other day, he said something like "well, life is tough." Now this is coming from a guy who was born in India and arrived to fame in Canada, married my mom (obviously a winner) and has lived in California for 40+ years. So, how tough is life?

I mentioned to him that we humans are always looking at relative prosperity ("Keeping up with the Joneses") when, after awhile, we have to consider absolute prosperity, and I gave him this example: Every morning, I get out of bed (in my own room), I turn on the light (fiat lux!), and pull on my slippers from Morocco. I can go to the bathroom -- just across the hall -- to drink water from the tap or take a hot shower. I can put on music, either streamed from the internet or from the 10,000+ tracks from my computer. Hungry? How about some fresh eggs, bread that I made in my gas oven (gas oven!) and organic coffee from somewhere in Central America. I use my italian espresso machine of course, and I put my coffee in some cups from Scotland (crappy weather but nice coffee cups). Oh, and perhaps I will read one of the best newspapers in the world (Economist), a paper that arrives to my door each week. How much do all these things cost? Putting aside rent -- gas, electricity, phone/internet, newspaper, eggs, coffee, water -- all these things are SO CHEAP, i.e., they take such a small share of my income, that I forget what a miracle they are.

Consider the situation of an Indian villager: He shares his home with a wife and several children (probably a few cousins), has intermittent electricity (at best), water is often a ten-minute walk and the "toilet" is the field. He probably has tea for breakfast but must often grow his own food or trade for it in the market. Music is live (when there is a festival), and his illiteracy makes newspapers irrelevant. Ignoring caste, there are problems with the land-owners and local politicians: The former ask high rents and offer low prices for milling rice or wheat; the latter take money intended for "village development" and buy satellite television.

Now, we might consider ourselves relatively better off than this indian chap, but he may consider himself better off because he has a radio now and had none ten years ago. But relative measures are deceptive: We get used to them, and then we want more. It's not a bad thing -- as far as evolutionary strategies go -- to want more and better all the time, but it can leave us dissatisfied with all the benefits we enjoy as the result of technological, economic and political progress.

On an absolute level, we've never had it so good. And by "we", I actually include the Indians and many others in the world who have better lives than 20, 50 or 100 years ago. India has self-rule, people in Africa have cell phones (and they are not just gadgets -- people use them to trade, communicate, and improve their lives), and so on. Citizens of OECD countries enjoy a far-higher standard of living than most of the world, and we should be thankful for that.

But.

I wonder if my dad's lifespan (roughly 1930 -- 2030) will end up being the last century where things were looking up and getting better all the time. From the depths of depression, WW2 and the cold war came rock and roll, global trade, and advances in technology that made most of our lives amazingly good. The trouble is that we have mined the planet's resources (water, oil, fish, timber) to achieve this standard of living -- in fact, to go far beyond a simple, yet comfortable, standard of living -- to the point that we fly thousands of miles for a day (I did last week), buy new cars because they have cup holders, and have even bigger flat-screen TVs.

With the onset of global warming, we are finally seeing the end of an era of relentless prosperity. Now perhaps I sound like previous generations of thirty-somethings who complained that the sky was falling, but the signs from nature seem rather different -- difficult to ignore -- and the inaction and indifference of many men seems rather naive. This time may be different.

It's sad to think that we've never had it so good but that this might be as good as we have it. A pity that we couldn't turn down the evolutionary drive for relatively more and better and enjoy our simple, absolute level of prosperity: a light switch, some tap water and cup of coffee.

I'm going to enjoy them for all their worth -- they're worth more than we think.

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