Hormegeddon (Bill Bonner)

Having missed this book when it came out, I read it six years after publication. No harm done, except that some of the references were a bit dated, e.g., the price of a first class stamp is now 55¢ vs. 42¢ and the national debt is a few trillion dollars higher.

“Hormesis” describes the principle that some things that are known to be harmful in large doses, e.g., nuclear radiation, may counterintuitively be harmless or even beneficial in smaller doses. Bonner has coined a term to make the opposite point, namely things that are generally considered helpful may lead to disaster (aka “hormegeddon”) if carried too far

For example: Easy money policies to stimulate the economy may lead to hyperinflation – military preparedness to secure the nation may promote endless wars – excessive preoccupation with health risks may justify unnecessary (and costly) medical tests and procedures – government regulations to promote the general welfare may primarily benefit special interests (including government bureaucrats running the programs ) – debt taken on to finance current consumption (or entitlement programs) may prove impossible to repay and trigger disruptive debt defaults.

As Mr. Bonner sees it, governments can’t be trusted to run things competently, which suggests that the overarching source of hormegeddon is too much government. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just do without governments and settle our differences through compromise and negotiation? Ah, but there’s a problem here, in that some people will – unless restrained – find it convenient to take what they want by deception or force. This leads to Bonner’s take on human existence as a competition between the civilizing makers and the disruptive takers, for which theory he cites plenty of evidence from the historical record.

The operative cause of hormegeddon is declining returns from the ill-considered expansion of initially successful undertakings, which is particularly problematic if the payoffs from a given activity are based on perceived “quality” (a matter of opinion) versus measurable “quantity.” Readers may get the idea that Bonner is preparing to blame global warming on unnecessary burning of fossil fuels to produce more and more energy to support a rising standard of living, but his chapter on “too much energy” ultimately takes a different path:

Whether global warming will cause a disaster or not, I can’t say. But I can make a bet with fair odds: if a sweeping, centrally planned program is put in place to prevent global warming, it will almost certainly lead to a disaster of its own.

Slavery keeps coming up. According to Bonner, this practice has been commonplace throughout human history and has only been rejected by the more advanced countries of the world because it wasn’t paying off economically. It’s also implied that the US Civil War should not have been fought, i.e., the slave-holding states should simply have been allowed to secede from the union.

The book consists of a series of loosely connected essays, with very few (10) footnotes and no index. The content is entertaining, provocative, and in some cases persuasive – but fails to offer any guidance for those of us who would like to find a happy medium between anarchy and oligarchy – a laissez-faire economy and rigid central planning – avoidance of doctors and constant medical treatment – etc.

In sum, Hormegeddon is an enjoyable read, particularly for those with a skeptical bent, but consider other sources of information as well.

Amazon review (“Skeptics of the world unite”) posted

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