In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Not Quite Alone in the Wilderness,” I examine the intergenerational infrastructure of innovation and civilization through the lens of Richard “Dick” Proenneke, whose efforts to build a cabin in the Alaskan wild, alone and by hand, are recorded in the popular documentary, often featured on PBS.
Here’s a clip that gives an extended introduction into the project:
As Proenneke says, “I was alone, just me and the animals.” In his recent book Redeeming Economics, John Mueller relates how classical economists would often use the fictional example of Robinson Crusoe, who was shipwrecked on an island and left to survive alone, to get at the anthropological knowledge necessary for a coherent political economy. In this week’s piece, I do something like this with Proenneke, whose experiment has the advantage of being something that actually happened.
I conclude that, contrary to a superficial perspective which emphasizes Proenneke’s isolation, even his extreme case illustrates the inherent sociability of human beings. In this case I highlight in particular how Proenneke’s efforts at building the cabin cannot be fully understood in a vacuum, and how it is mistaken to ignore his reliance on his own education and experience as well as the developments of those generations who came before.
President Obama made headlines with his comment to business owners, “You didn’t build that.” As extreme as much of the reaction to that statement was at the time, in some ways the president’s comment doesn’t go far enough. With respect to the technological and civilizational developments that each one of us enjoy today, there’s a real sense in which no one alive “built” them. They are the result of generations of accumulated experimentation, effort, and achievement.
We can think of this point in reference to the popular “I, Pencil” by Leonard Read. As the title character rightly proclaims, “not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.” In fact, no single generation knows how to make a pencil, to say nothing of smart phones, radial tires, airplanes, indoor plumbing, or microwaves! This is a reality that the pencil recognizes, too, imploring us, “Don’t overlook the ancestors present and distant who have a hand in transporting sixty carloads of slats across the nation.”
It’s important to recognize this civilizational inheritance and to respond appropriately, which as I argue today, is “to gratefully take what we have been given and apply it in faithful and responsible labor to the tasks at hand.”