… is from page 486 of George Will’s excellent 2019 book, The Conservative Sensibility:
It is astonishing that we do not live in a state of perpetual astonishment.
DBx: If you’re reading these words, why are you not in a perpetual state of astonishment – or, at least, in such a state frequently? You are gazing at the screen of a computer, powered by electricity generated at a place that you likely do not know by machines built with technological knowledge about which you almost certainly haven’t a clue. (If you’re currently using battery power, your astonishment should be even greater given that you’re now tapping into electricity stored-up.)
I from my home in northern Virginia am communicating with you wherever you are. You are, perhaps, literally on the other side of the globe, and you’re certainly not within earshot of me. And if you wish you can read my pedestrian prose not on a computer but on a small hand-held device – a device that, when you tire of reading what I write, you can send an instant message to your daughter, your father, your boss, to the dentist’s office to confirm your upcoming appointment, to a countless number of people. (You can even, with only a small number of simple movements of your fingers and in a matter of seconds, share my pedestrian prose with those people – including, if you imagine that he’ll like it, your dentist.)
You woke up in a warm bed covered with clean sheets – sheets that, if you believe them to be insufficiently clean, you can put into machines, ones also powered by electricity, press a few buttons, and in a couple of hours have clean sheets.
While waiting for your sheets to wash and dry … but why wait? Jump into that large machine that now sits a few short steps from your door. Power it up and drive it – safely, and at speeds that no human being until about 200 years ago ever experienced – to your favorite bagel store (you have a favorite among the many merchants who sell bagels from which you can choose), stroll in and buy your favorite variety of bagel (you have a favorite among the many varieties of bagels from which you can choose).
Who prepared the dough and boiled it to make that fresh bagel available to you? Someone did – actually, many someones. They woke up, while you still slumbered comfortably in your warm bed, to create hundreds of bagels, simply in the hope – not the demand, the hope – that you might spend an infinitesimal fraction of your income on one or a few of their offerings.
Driving home, tummy satisfied now that it’s filled with a bagel and your favorite flavor of cream cheese (and, perhaps, also with some salmon caught by .. who? where? how? Wow!!), you notice that your car is low on fuel. You pull into a gasoline station, whip out a piece of plastic, insert that piece of plastic into another machine, and within seconds commence to pumping gasoline into your vehicle.
Do you ever pause to ponder where this miraculous fuel comes from? I mean, really comes from? “Crude oil” is a crude and inadequate answer. If you were standing atop what you know to be an immense deposit of crude oil, the petroleum beneath your feet would be useless to you. It would not be fuel. It would not be even a “natural resource.” It would be nothing to you.
What must you do to convert the stuff beneath the ground on which you stand into a few gallons of gasoline for your automobile? You first need a powerful drilling machine fitted with a mighty drill bit. You couldn’t make that machine by yourself, even with the help of your family and friends, if you were given a thousand years to do so.
But let’s pretend that, by some miracle, you gain access to the oil in the ground. Have you any idea how to refine it into gasoline? Do you know anyone who you might call or text in order to get this knowledge? Of course not.
Pumping the oil from the ground, refining it into gasoline, and enabling it to be pumped safely into your car requires the knowledge and efforts of literally millions – more likely, hundreds of millions – of people. And yet you, filling your tank at a cost of no more than an ordinary American worker earns in a mere 90 minutes on the job, acquire enough fuel to enable you to drive for another 300 miles.
Knowing nothing whatsoever about petroleum engineering or the principles upon which internal-combustion engines operate, you have regular, ready, and affordable access to gasoline and automobiles – access made possible by the knowledge and effort of multitudes of strangers. Why are you not astonished?
And why are you not astonished also by the clothes you’re wearing? By the coffee you’re sipping? By the vaccine that saves you and your loved ones from the fear of contracting polio? By the heating unit in your home that saves you and your loved ones from the fear of being uncomfortable when Jack Frost is nipping about outdoors? By the existence of Amazon.com and FedEx that allows you to do your Christmas shopping while sitting in that surprisingly comfortable chair that you bought earlier this year at Ikea for $199 – a chair that, despite its seeming simplicity, is like the gasoline that you just pumped into your car: you yourself could not make it if given several lifetimes.
“Capitalism doesn’t work!” “Capitalism is a threat to human existence!” – or so we hear increasingly from individuals, many earnest and some venal, and all spewing utter ignorance. Such people fly around the world on jetliners, eat avocado toast and drink grapefruit juice in December in Oslo and Boston and Ottawa, stream music from pocket-sized devices, enjoy sex with whatever consenting adults they wish while, if they also wish, using inexpensive yet highly effective condoms and birth-control pills or devices, and never, ever – not once – worrying about starving to death.
Rather than complain about the unavoidable fact that earth is not, and cannot be made to be, paradise, all of us should spend more time being astonished at our great and unprecedented good fortune.