September 22, 2018

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Graphic Nonfiction: Maria Stoian on a Bad Bet, Ecology, and Economics

It's time for another edition of Graphic Nonfiction, where we look at a comic created to discuss a real-life issue. More and more often, the medium of comics is being used to explore hard truths without fictional context. Here's an example:

A long time ago, as a college freshman, I read a book by Julian Simon, talking about how scarcity would never be an issue, because when the costs grew higher humans would just find a better way to do things. Whether or not you agree with that hypothesis, Simon's views have been extremely influential. In today's graphic nonfiction, Maria Stoian describes a bet between Simon and Paul Ehrlich, then moves on to riff on why the bet was flawed, what the true risks of our current path are, and what happens if we side with Simon and the bet is--in the long run--wrong?

Stoian's point is not dissimilar to Pascal's Wager: If we make the planet better, what do we lose? And if Simon is wrong, how can we possibly recover?

It's funny to see Professor Simon in a life raft pondering his poor decisions, but the point is striking. That's what I really liked about Stoian's work in this comic from The Nib: She's able to keep the tone light with her visuals, but the reality is deadly serious. Here's another example of this:

Sure it's funny to see the (familiar but not quite) figures on the left act like children, but there's an underlying truth here too--these people are blocking the ability to address ecological issues and the consequences are deadly, as shown here:


I never stop feeling angry about that statistic, no matter how many times I look at it. And Stoian's decision to color three quarters of a turtle outline to slam the point home really echoes with me.

The bet itself was dumb--what would good cost in 20 years? As Stoin points out:


Though Simon was "right" in that a different commodity was substituted, the cost of that substitution haunts us, as the visual with the turtle above (and this one, with a plastic-stuffed bird), shows.

In the end, Stoin's comment here is probably true, and it haunts me:

We can't innovate our way out of everything. That's the whole point of the legend of the Tower of Babel--when man tries to put itself in the place of supremacy, we get smacked in the face. That's a warning Stoian brings to us all to think about.