A Parable

Inspired by my recent visit to Crete, here is a story about how the Minoans responded to a water crisis 3700 years ago:

After years of relative prosperity, food was becoming short over the last few years as a result of a water shortage. Many workers were unemployed because the rice fields needed less and less labor. People followed the lead of the water priests in praying for rain, but this seemed unavailing.

Two years before, the situation had become so dire that the High Priest had released some water from the sacred pond, allowing some increased rice production but only enough to keep things from getting worse. And even this was controversial.

There were two schools of thought among the priesthood. One group wanted agricultural stimulus to grow more rice, and wasn’t too worried about depleting the sacred pond: surely with more rice being grown, the rains would come back and the pond would be replenished. The other faction believed in austerity: preserving the life-giving fullness of the sacred pond was more important than growing more rice in the short term. This faction was confident that austerity would work; and also believed that public confidence in the priestly authority would enhance the benefits of austerity and lead to the best outcome.

The new High Priest who had ordered the water release had recently come to power, and the release was his first major action. But this upset the others, not only because of their more conservative approach to the pond, but also because they worried about the Minoans becoming too much like the collectivist Egyptians across the sea, who relied on strong government controls to regulate water supply to their farms.

The two factions had argued each other to a standstill, when the King heard of a trader who had traveled to faraway lands and had found a new strain of rice that required only a fourth as much water to grow. He claimed that the new rice could be cultivated exactly the same as the old rice, and tasted just as good (or, some even claimed, better) and could transcend the priestly debates and solve the tribe’s problems. Better still, the new rice would help protect the domain’s environment and encourage more trade. The King went to the priests and suggested the trader’s solution.

The response was unenthusiastic.  “But, your Highness, the proponent of planting this new strain of rice isn’t even a priest. How can he presume to intervene in sacred matters? Traders can’t possibly understand the complexity of the water cycle. And besides, the trader undoubtedly has his own agenda to use the benefits of this new rice to increase his business. Paying attention to this type of ‘solution’ will divert energy from our efforts to improve confidence and faith in the water god. It would be a distraction even to investigate his claims. This man should be ignored.”

So the trader’s discovery wasn’t even considered in the priests’ discussions of water and agricultural recovery policy for the next year (and counting).

 And the priests continued their stalemated debate over whether to release more water to stimulate rice production or whether to rely on austerity to protect the pond, while the hopes for an agricultural recovery became dimmer and dimmer.



On a serious note, my trip to Crete made it clear that long-term continuation of economic power is not something that has happened very much in human history. Nations that are unable to confront and solve their problems fade into insignificance compared to others that are better adapted.

To make the point of the parable more evident, please read the following articles about our current “water shortage”, the Great Recession.


Related Links:

Robert Samuelson, The Washington Post, 6/28/10

Paul Krugman, The New York Times, 8/1/10

David Brooks, The New York Times, 7/29/10

Steven Pearlstein, The Washington Post, 6/11/10

Bob Herbert, The New York Times, 7/30/10

Robert J. Samuelson, The Washington Post, 7/12/10

David B. Goldstein, Ph.D., Invisible Energy, BayTree Publishing