Saturday, 18 October 2008

Love of wisdom

It's rare to hear two quite different lectures in the same day, each so full of wise words, and so well delivered. I would have been glad to read either "The Choice of Hercules" by A.C. Grayling, or "Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet" by Jeffrey Sachs, but knew realisticaly that it was unlikely. The appearance of their authors - both renowned speakers - therefore made them easy choices out of the 26 events on offer at our Literature Festival yesterday.

The philosopher Grayling had virtually a full house at 10 a.m. in the Everyman Theatre. Though he spoke from the lectern on stage, such is his fluency that it represented no sort of barrier. The success of a lecture can often be judged by the quality of questions posed to the lecturer at the end: all were good, and Grayling answered with skill and humour. But he was flummoxed when asked, "Were you assuming we had come along as a duty or for pleasure?"

Hercules chose duty above pleasure, but, Grayling asks, where is the conflict between them today? What do we think about reading novels in the morning? Conventionally, the answer is "guilty", but insofar as they are an excellent way of our learning much-needed toleration - allowing other people to do things you don't like - maybe we should look upon a couple of hours with our novel as our morning duty.

From Jeffrey Sachs' viewpoint as a development economist, working for the Earth Institute, our car is careering towards the cliff edge. Even if the road turns out to bend a little away from the precipice, our alarm increases when we realises that Dick Cheney is at the wheel. (A McCain victory next month is too grim for Sachs to begin to contemplate.)

The three horsemen of Jeffrey Sachs' apocalypse are environment, poverty and population. Each can be reined in, but not by a self-regulating market. Global, co-operative, science-based mechanisms are needed. They don't at present exist, but they could be established - at a cost of about three per cent of world income. Trillions have been made available to save the banks, so in principle the money is there. Can we sit back and allow the aggregate of a year's Wall Street Christmas bonuses to continue to exceed the entire world's annual aid to Africa? "I'm a PhD beggar," proclaims Jeffrey Sachs.

Sachs spoke for 50 minutes without any notes from the Town Hall stage, an astonishing tour de force.

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