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Essay: The Value of Words

"Peoples' natural abilities are their rightful possessions, and even gods are powerless to change this. Therefore, I feel neither surprise nor sadness at the abilities of others. Because what we have cannot become another's." The story of a man who exchanged all that he owned for a book containing just this one short passage appears in the Panchatantra, an ancient Indian collection of fables. The story relates that although the man was nicknamed "Rightful Possessions" for his habit of repeating the passage no matter whom he met or what he was asked, in the end he succeeded in winning the hand of a princess named Chandravati: "as beautiful as the moon."

In English, there are words such as "priceless" and "invaluable," but to say that something does not have a price means that it is so precious that it cannot be bought with any amount of money. The man "Rightful Possessions" saw in the book that contained these words a value which money could not buy. It then occurs to one that it is easier to read a book (no matter how lengthy) when one reads while seeking the key phrase which that book is seeking to express. It is also apparent that in order to succinctly grasp a person (regardless of their field) it is expedient to learn their "expression." The expression of Chen Sheng, whose overthrow of the Qin Dynasty was what may be considered history's first revolution, was "the swallow knows not the will of the swan," meaning that greatness cannot be understood by the insignificant. Socrates propagated the expression "know thyself," and was not Adam Smith's expression "the invisible hand" and Kant's "the Copernican Revolution"?

These are the patterns of peoples' thoughts and thus metaphysical, but in the physical realm, if we take for example historical figures of natural science, is there not Clausius' "entropy," Kelvin's "0K," Newton's "apple" or "law of universal gravitation," and Einstein's "E=mC2"? Each of these is "invaluable," a "priceless" achievement concisely expressed.

The French economist J. B. Say (1767-1832) was apparently criticized by Marx as a "vulgar economist," but Say's law is contained in his expression "production creates markets for goods," or "supply creates its own demand." If you look in an economics book, this expression is critiqued on such narrow grounds as being unable to explain the occurrence of oversupply, yet it seems to be a maxim that nicely express in economic terms the human psychology (or nature) to "use what is there."

Let's think about Say's principle concerning energy and the environment. The fundamental cause of environmental problems is, unarguably, the massive consumption of energy; it should also be clear that this consumption is for the purpose of living lives of excessive luxury. However, if energy is cheaply and abundantly supplied, we are unable to avoid using it just as freely and casually. So while the newspapers and television hail Kobe City's Luminarie and the nocturnal illumination of Kyoto's temples as beautiful and enjoyable, isn't concentrating upon ways to waste precious energy a fine example of how humans respond to supply by thinking up new needs? At any rate, nobody is looking at the lights on the temples and thinking of how the electricity was created in some nuclear reactor or thermal power station.

Excessive energy consumption's progressive destruction of the environment is clearly spelled out in the U.N.-commissioned third IPPC report concerning climate change that was prepared this year. There is even talk of the possibility that Russia will (for a sum) provide space for the disposal and storage of radioactive waste from nuclear reactors. If we take these circumstances seriously, we ought to begin limiting the supply of energy now, right away. Instead, ways are being examined to supply the energy to meet a projected demand that is seen as rising until 2030 or 2050.

Why, in spite of the fact that carbon dioxide and radioactive waste are judged poisonous to humans, do we drive around casually belching gas from our cars and enjoying the lit up temples? Everyone condemns unbelievable outrages like putting arsenic in curry or releasing sarin gas in a subway. But when we drive our cars and watch the lit up temples we are spreading far greater amounts of poison. You could say that what we are doing differs not at all from the words of the Chinese philosopher Mozi: "saying a little black is black, a lot of black is white." In other words, a person sees a little black and calls it black, but seeing a lot of black calls it white.

When we invert Say's phrase we get the law that "if supply is not reduced, demand will not decrease." How, then, will supply decrease? At this juncture the words of the Confucian scholar Sunzi offer us a hint: "People are born with a desire for profit, and they follow it." The reason why at present supply is increasingly refined and expanded in the anticipation of demand is because the economic structure works to reward more supply with greater profits. Unless they can concoct a way to profit in times of limited supply, it is the nature of profit seeking people to think of new means of supply, even under the rationale of being more friendly to the environment.

Raising the price of energy by imposing an environmental tax may be just this sort of mechanism, but it is impossible to imagine how notions of advancing environmental measures with the revenue from a tiny percentage tax can meet the crisis of pressing environmental change one sees in the IPCC report. If the price of energy were to increase threefold or fivefold, we would all compete to conserve energy without being told to do so. Immediately following the war's end and during the high growth period, the prices of gas and electricity were in real terms more than ten times higher than they are today. We need to prepare ourselves to attempt drastic measures.

It is precisely when we strive to live using energy sparingly that we ought to feel happy. With this in mind, we must escape the cursed paralysis of repetition, the vicious circle of energy waste wherein supply drives demand and demand is given as the reason for enhanced supply. Specifically, without the Buddhist expression "emancipation," there will probably be no descendants to read this word a thousand years from now. In that case, perhaps we would be happier if we died right now, saying that "we have seen the things we were meant to see."

Quiz: Whose words are those of the final expression?

Quiz answer: Contained in the Japanese classic The Tale of the Heike. Spoken by the commander-in chief of Heike army Taira-no Tomomori (son of Taira-no Kiyomori) who, having watched the Heike go down in defeat at the decisive battle of Dan-no-ura, jumped armor-clad into the ocean."

Written by Shingu : February 15, 2004 01:08 AM

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