The Meaning of Life in Five Words

It is easy to get people’s attention with the word crisis. The “energy crisis” has been one that has been kicking around for about 40 years. Strangely it never actually comes to fruition. We might ask why.

The energy crisis seems to begin with The Club of Rome’s treatise “Limits to Growth” in 1970 which was derived from Malthus’ insights in the 19th century. These and more are based upon the premise that if we continue to do what we are doing and the population grows then we will run out of things that matter. Oil is a common choice, although Malthus was more concerned with food.

Recently the scheme has become “Peak.” Peak Oil is a good example.

These approaches tend to be wrong because they are over-simplified. It is certainly possible, theoretically, to run out of resources, but analysis must take into account more variables than the linear connection of demand and apparent supply. As I have mentioned before, regression analysis only works inside the known data. You cannot use the trend line to predict the future.

Why not? Because people discontinue doing things that stop working. They change their consumption habits or they find ways that use fewer resources to do the same thing or they substitute another way entirely.

Many of these changes, derived from a crisis, brought advantage to the way people lived and behaved.

For example, the London energy crisis of 1554.

By then, all of the trees suitable for fuel that lay within a days round trip of the city had been taken. What to do? No fuel for cooking or heating. A two-day journey had risks but became the norm for a while.

The answer was in finding a substitute – coal.

Using it required some insight and effort. Coal needed new devices to burn it safely. Coal works poorly in a fireplace, so stoves arose. Later on the Londoners had developed knowledge and skill in the making of high temperature vessels. This served them well as the industrial revolution came to fruition 150 years later.

Coal is capable of running a factory but wood is not. If you use wood, the energy density per pound of fuel is too low. If you don’t know how to build furnaces, you will lag.

We make a mistake when we assume that all crises end badly.

They do not and perhaps it is possible to say that no crisis ends badly.  (Even a real one as opposed to some political or journalistic concoction.) You could look it up.  Certainly, the London energy crisis of 1554 was a principle factor in England becoming the manufacturing capital of the world. I suppose some would see that as a bad outcome but it certainly added considerable wealth with which to do other useful and good things.

In Chinese “wei ji” approximately means crisis. There is no exact English equivalent. Chinese is much more subtle than English; more like a metaphor than simple words. It is a little like Star Trek – Next Generation episode 102. Who can forget, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”?

Over the years, non-native Chinese speakers have created a meaning that reinforces the western idea of the inscrutable Chinese philosopher.

“Wei” taken by itself means dangerous or precarious, and “ji” by itself, means chance or opportunity.

Crisis then is a combination of danger and opportunity. Even though a true Chinese speaker would not support the idea, I like it too much to ignore. As Howard Hughes is reputed to have said, “Never let an inconvenient fact get in the way of an otherwise interesting story.”

So crisis is paradoxical. It represents the condition of risk of loss and also represents the idea of potential gain. What you see is probably a reflection of who you are. An opportunity with obstacles, or risk of loss with little hope.

I like this idea for crisis,  “Opportunity riding a dangerous wind.”

Isn’t that life in five words?

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.

Follow on Twitter @DonShaughnessy

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