A Puritanical Musing

I have a hypothesis about the economic roots of cultural behavior. I cannot think of a society whose basic conventions and value system were formed or greatly altered in a context of extractive industry that wasn’t seriously damaged by it, and in an enduring way. By extractive industry, I mean mining and cattle farming on virgin land, but not farming. If the society arranged to have slaves or a near equivalent do the actual digging, so much the worse.

I might include the agriculture of the antebellum US south, which was carried out by planting the three most nitrogen-hungry crops (tobacco, maize, and cotton) and moving west when the soil was ruined; especially considering the slave labor involved, this is rather like nitrogen mining with slaves, similiar to the Spanish gold extraction of its colonial period.

The result of this apparent good fortune seems to be that the dominant level of social aspiration is to consume without creating value: the highest social status will be occupied by rentier proprietors, and young people come to believe that the object of their dreams is to not work. My view of the Expulsion has always been that enabling (and obliging) humanity to create value was God’s greatest gift to us, and that Eden was a destructive and addictive drug.

Does anyone know any counterexamples, either way? Norwegian and British North Sea oil would seem to be, but note that these windfalls occurred long after their national characters were formed by trying to make a living in pretty stingy, cold, environments where if you didn’t get a real crop in in year t, you didn’t see year t +1.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.