Atanu Dey On India's Development

We Don’t See Rants on Fire on YouTube. Thankfully.

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Yesterday while brewing my morning cup of coffee I saw through the kitchen window a huge plume of thick black smoke rising from the neighboring housing complex. A massive fire was evidently under way. The column of smoke ominously rose into the clear blue sky and I wondered what caused it. Perhaps it started as a kitchen fire or an electrical fire, I could not tell. Within minutes a dozen fire fighting units came rushing down the street, their wailing sirens shattering the morning calm. A little while later, the black plume started getting shades of white, indicating that the water jets from the fire tenders were working to control the blaze. Within an hour, the fire was over. The episode led me to reflect on the nature of fire and the visceral human reaction to it.

Fire is one of the most awesomely destructive forces of nature that we ever encounter. An out-of-control fire can devastate an entire neighborhood or even a city in a matter of hours. Years ago I witnessed the chilling spectacle of an entire hillside on fire — the Oakland firestorm of 1991. It left 25 dead, destroyed over 3,300 houses and 400 apartments, burnt 1,500 acres, and caused an estimated $1.5 billion in damages.

Civilization has to contend with fire. Indeed, the progress of civilization is also the story of humanity’s ability to use fire as a means to beneficial ends. Merely focusing on the devastating effects of fires that have gone out of control either accidentally or through malicious intent would be silly at best. The damage accidental fires cause is huge but on balance the benefits of the use of fire for human welfare is staggeringly incalculable.

Not only have humans learned how to use fire but having seen the harm uncontrolled fire can cause, have figured out ways to limit the damage. We use fire in our dwellings but, in recognition of the harm of accidental or malicious fires, we also have fire fighting forces in the our cities. We have also figured out a way to recover from loss due to fire by spreading the financial risk by creating institutions that provide insurance.

Yesterday’s fire and the rapid response from the police and the fire brigade was an example of the occasional fire and how society has learned to live with it. We don’t ban kitchens or electrical wiring at home just because when (not if) a fire breaks out, it causes lot of damage. Instead of banning the use of fire, we deal with it. We have fire codes, we have fire insurance, and we have fire fighters and fire engines.

Anyone who goes on a rant about why fire is an unmitigated evil, and how we should ban the use of fire in any civilized society, is a nutjob who should be treated with derision and ridicule at best. If the rant is recorded and put on display on YouTube for all the world to watch and marvel at, the comments should reflect the absurdity of the claim. Should but it could as well lead to admiration from viewers who have not critically examined the rant.

You don’t usually come across rants on the use of fire but there are heaps of videos on YouTube of people ranting about the evils of “neo-liberalism,” of “neo-classical economics,” of “globalization,” and “multinational corporations,” of rising inequality, and profits. These people need to go back to school and understand that nothing in this material world of ours is without risk, that all human institution are imperfect, that the benefits could be great compared to the costs, that inequality in outcome can never be entirely eradicated without total destruction of society, that profits have social utility, that systems have to be evaluated in their entirety and not only partially, that sometimes the obviously easy remedy can be worse than the disease, that humans are generally motivated by self-interest but even then that selfish drive can be socially beneficial under easily obtainable conditions, that superficial observation is not a substitute for rigorous analytical thinking, that the distinction between prices and costs is worth noting, that corporations are an invention that has helped humanity immensely, that globalization has helped hundreds of millions of ordinary people and not just multinational corporations, . . . , and a few other things as well.

What about the P. Sainath video that I mentioned in my last post, you may ask. I was coming to that.