The Earth as goose

January 14, 1998|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

EVERY trade has its tools, and my favorite among the tools of my trade is the metaphor. Nothing beats a well-crafted metaphor for persuading the mind into seeing things its way. Whole stretches of the landscape of our lives, it seems, can be indelibly mapped by an apt metaphor. Which makes metaphorical stories the most powerful devices of humankind's moral teachers, and which brings me to Aesop, the fabulous fabulist of ancient Greece.

Has anyone been more adept at imposing the template of his metaphors on our vision of our world than that storytelling slave? Whenever we see someone taking for granted the fulfillment of his plans, we're likely to think, "Don't count your chickens before they're hatched." And the folly of raising false alarms, and thus eroding one's credibility for when one really needs to be believed, brings to the minds of millions the image of "the boy who cried wolf."

The world's golden egg

It's another of Aesop's great metaphorical stories that I'm thinking of -- the man who killed the goose who laid the golden eggs -- and in particular its capacity to illuminate some of our fundamental options.

You probably know the story. A goose belonging to a poor man begins laying eggs made of gold, thus making her owner rich. Before long, however, the man loses patience with the goose's steady rate of producing such wondrous eggs at one each day. In his greed, the man decides to kill the goose and cut her open, believing that he can thus possess all the treasure at once. The story ends with his bitter discovery that -- except for perhaps finding tomorrow's single egg -- all he has achieved is the destruction of the living source from which his wealth came.

Economic conservatives have long found this story useful. It proves, they have argued, the folly of the redistributive policies of the welfare state. If you tax the rich to help the poor, you'll discourage the rich from undertaking the activities that produce the very wealth you want to spread around. Instead of raising the material level of the poor, the argument-by-metaphor goes, you'll just impoverish the society as a whole. Better to keep your hands off and let the productive processes of the market unfold naturally, enriching the whole system, than to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

I don't intend to quarrel with that use of Aesop's metaphor but rather to propose another way that story can be used -- with at least as much justice -- to show a vital side of reality that the lovers of the market tend to ignore.

To them, the market is the goose and the meddlesome government is the foolish man. But in a larger context, it is the economic system and its human agents who play the part of the greedy man who foolishly overreaches in his unrestrained lust for riches, and the goose, in this case, is the living system of the

earth.

Like the man in the fable, we who enjoy the affluence of modern industrial economies are blessed to have access to a living system that brings forth riches. The Earth has bequeathed to us rich soils that yield nourishing grains, seas teeming with fish, an atmosphere that cycles the gases we need for our moment-to-moment existence. Properly cared for, and unforced, the Earth's living biosphere could lay us such golden eggs virtually in perpetuity.

Greedy ways

But, again like the fable's greedy fool, we are not content with the level of wealth that is sustainable. So, to seize more, we spill the blood of our planetary goose. We grow our daily bread in ways that lose as many bushels of topsoil as they grow bushels of grain; we overfish until the nets come up empty; and with what we spew into the atmosphere, we poison the air all must breathe and destabilize the planet's climate.

And in all of this, the system our economic conservatives portray as the goose we must keep our hands off of encourages and directs our folly. The market economy drives competitors to a level of "efficiency" that is computed without regard to costs like those of soils lost. Thus, the farmer who reveres his soil will lose out to -- or be compelled to emulate -- the farmer who squanders his. The market tells us that the "commons" of the open sea is a free good whose bounty need not be stewarded, and that the atmosphere can rationally be used as a collective dump.

To our industrial economy, that treasure of mind-boggling diversity of living forms -- the tropical forests -- is just a wasted opportunity unless it is harvested of its timber or grazed for a few years of hamburgers and then left as wasteland.

Of course, the fable of slaying the goose with the golden eggs is not the only metaphor that illuminates our economic system. Adam Smith's benign "invisible hand," for example -- with its reassurance that we need not worry about the unbridled pursuit of gain, because the larger economic system directs our greed inexorably toward the greater good -- also holds an indisputable piece of the truth.

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