It was a critical moment. The instructor swirled the molasses solution that had been inoculated with yeast several days before and asked, “Are human beings like yeast?” The yeast cells it seemed, loved feasting in their media. It was a veritable Garden of Eden, but they couldn’t stop reproducing and poisoning their habitat with alcohol. This image occupied my mind as a high school student during the 60’s. I wished the deceased yeast could have enjoyed themselves a bit less and saved some sugar for later.
The year before, my biology teacher started on a diet. She was a jolly and happy person albeit somewhat overweight. OK—a lot overweight. What returned after that summer was a surprise. It was as if Dr. Jekyll had transformed into Mr. Hyde—aka the evil skinny monster. How could the mere loss of 150 pounds transform a kind and gentle human being into an unholy terror who would scream at the slightest irritation. Her loud and penetrating voice was powerful enough to have cracked every pane of glass within range. I knew that she liked me, and I had a great deal of respect for her as well. She was very thorough. I was genuinely sorry that she yelled at the class so much. Why couldn’t she have stopped her diet after losing 75 pounds?
Within a year or two, Dr. Paul Ehrlich published his book, “The Population Bomb”, and it fit nicely into the pessimistic set of beliefs that I had latched onto. Surely, human beings would destroy each other in some Malthusian scenario. That hasn’t happened, fortunately, but as I think back on the past half century, I realize that the yeast and teacher are talking to me now. Fast growth sure makes for one rapidly expanding economy with lots of champagne bubbles. Yet if spending stops and everyone is scared, the economy as we knew it collapses. Sure, the yeast over did it, but what could be wrong with being a little overweight, and why must everything be pushed to the extreme?
What I believe is that we are not like yeast. We can think ahead decades and centuries and plan for that future. It would be very pleasant if things could change gradually. We don’t have to consume to the extent that there are massive kill offs, but we don’t have to give up everything this afternoon and kill the economy.
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