THE STORY SO FAR…
I’ve decided to play around with format a bit this week. Headings are a little more prominent to sign-post sections folks may find interesting, and I’ve dropped the Current Projects section since it’s not… Very interesting. It was a fun idea, but frankly I think that Warren Ellis is the only bloke who can actually pull it off.
You are reading Warren’s newsletter, right?
You’ll notice that I’m not using this leading section to house random thoughts, like I promised last week. That’s because I’ve decided to break that off as its own section, Some Observations, which you’ll find immediately below. If you’re just interested in the normal link dump, check out Elsewhen.
Have thoughts about something I’ve written? Run into an interesting website that deserves to be an Outro? Just want to say hello? Drop me a line!
I want to kick off Some Observations by using it to (slowly) write down a constellation of ideas I’ve been circling around for the last couple of years. I currently have notes dividing my thoughts into five loosely-connected essays that build towards what (I think) may be a new way of conceptualizing politics and our ethical obligations within society. I say “may” here because my own thinking has certainly been influenced by a variety of sources, and I suspect that it’s entirely possible that what I have is less “new” than a re-packaging of something that already exists.
In which case I hope someone clues me in, because I’d definitely be interested in finding antecedents.
I want to start off this journey by talking about the concept of economic “growth”, why neither the traditional notion of unbounded growth nor the increasingly popular notion of a “zero” growth society are likely to improve (or even sustain) human welfare and happiness, how we might be able to resolve this dilemma, and finally what challenges present themselves to realizing this resolution.
I think I can do this in 3 - 4 shorter parts. After I complete this sequence, I’ll compile and re-edit what I’ve written, incorporate any feedback I’ve received, and post a finished version on the Delphi Foresight Strategy homepage.
The Radical Futures of Growth, Part 1
The concept of “growth” – the business of sustained material improvement in the human condition, primarily via the production of new physical things and services, and the provision of these things and services to ever greater portions of the population – is something that modern societies are positively obsessed with. Technocratic politics is obsessed with measuring growth, typically in the form of GDP. Our personal lives are driven by the desire to reliably secure our access to ever increasing quantities and complexities of these goods and services (a desire rooted in simple survival for the poorest among us, and base status signaling for the more well-to-do).
There’s good reason for this obsession. Most of human history is characterized by only slowly changing economic systems that provided only a precarious existence for most of humanity. New technology made our lives better by allowing us to more effectively apply our energy and skills, which in turn helped us to more easily secure food and shelter for ourselves and our communities. The explosion of productivity in the 18th and 19th Centuries provided so much abundance that those at the top of the social hierarchy were unable to absorb the gains; for the first time in human history, pursuits of pleasure and the mind became something that you didn’t have to be insanely rich to indulge in.
Growth is what enables us to have time to read. Growth provided the space that allowed people to consider both their own condition and that of their compatriots, leading to an increasing pace of social change (the abolition of slavery, the success of women’s rights, the ongoing fight for sexual freedom, etc.) in the late 19th and 20th Centuries. Growth, accelerating around the world, began to deliver a markedly better, more secure life to us all.
It’s hard to argue with that.
The Trouble With Growth
Reality has a way of ruining the best parties.
The material stuff that powers rising global prosperity doesn’t just appear. It must be grown, mined, refined, combined, transported, sold. Many of these steps involve extracting energy and raw materials out of the Earth in the form of metals, minerals, rock, and fossil fuels. Some of these resources – fossil fuels – are permanently destroyed. Metal and rock could in theory be recycled, but are often incorporated into their final goods in a way that makes this difficult. Even those things that should regenerate themselves – wood, food, and other biologic materials – are harvested in quantities and manners that gradually destroy their ability to regenerate.
Worse yet, the waste products generated as we convert these raw materials into finished goods and transport them around the globe are serving to gradually alter and erode the broader natural systems of the Earth. The climate is changing, becoming less hospitable to human civilization. Pollution and intensive farming is gradually destroying the land that feeds us. As more of the Earth is altered by human activity, our fellow cohabitants suffer and die with consequences we are just beginning to grasp.
Even if materials were incorporated into goods in a way that allowed them to be extracted and recycled later, even if all of our energy production came from renewable sources, even if farming and aquaculture was practiced sustainably, even if we reversed the environmental degradation our past growth has wrought… Even then, we would still not be able to sustain growth indefinitely. There is only so much accessible metal, only so much land, only so much available energy on this world.
The argument that growth can be continued indefinitely, that there are no material and energetic limits, typically fall into two categories.
The first of these is that human ingenuity will overcome any limits. Frequently the Green Revolution is cited as an example of this, as advances in agricultural technology allowed us to escape what was widely believed to be an inevitable Malthusian trap. However, even the Green Revolution’s most ardent proponents did not subscribe to this view, instead seeing the advances of the early 20th Century as only a temporary reprieve, and the fertilizers and pest control championed during that time have since proven to be a potent source of environmental degradation. Human ingenuity is indeed a powerful resource, but those who are counting on it are confusing probability with destiny.
The second argument that indefinite growth can be sustained is to deny that resource limitations exist at all. When pushed, proponents of this view almost invariably fall back to the proposition that the colonization and exploitation of outer space is humanity’s “ace in the hole”. The first counter-argument to this assertion is that space travel still presents significant technological challenges, while the looming threats of environmental degredation and resource depletion are all but imminent. To attempt to outrun these threats using given the space technology we now have is, to be generous, a civilizational hail mary. More fundamentally however, colonizing the Solar System only substitutes one limit (the resources available on Earth) for another (the resources available in the Solar System). While the latter is a much higher limit, it is again not infinite. Barring the unlikely discovery of low-energy faster-than-light travel, growth must still ultimately be bounded.
The most generous possible future is one in which blind luck allows us to outrun planetary limits and colonize the Solar System. This scenario pushes out the limits of growth substantially, but does not remove them. It is also, given our current technology, an extremely improbable outcome. The smart money is that we will confront the physical limits of Earth far before large-scale space colonization become feasible. If we are to colonize the Solar System, we will do so after learning how to construct a zero-growth civilization… Or not at all.
The Zero Growth Dystopia
The alternative to a would of unbounded growth is typically conceptualized of as a world of “zero” (net) growth. Resource flows will become closed-loop, either directly by way of recycling or indirectly by designing goods that are easily broken down and reincorporated into the Earth’s biosphere once they are discarded. Global population growth would need to cease in order to maintain a basic standard of living.
Given the state of the world right now, that may sound like a pretty big lift. It’s even bigger when you consider how the unequal distribution of global wealth. A world of zero growth will either be one of large, permanent global inequality, or one in which the global rich see their wealth and income percipitously fall.
But let’s say that we can overcome these issues. If we do, we’ll still be confronted with two deeper challenges,either one of which is sufficient to transform a zero growth future into a bleak, dystopian world.
The first challenge is that a zero growth world is rigid. Unless reproduction is strictly policed, fluctuations in population will cause corresponding fluctuations in living standards. Obviously, a growing population in a zero (economic) growth world will lead to declining standards of living, and depending on how close such a world is to carrying capacity may cause permanent damage to the Earth’s biosphere (thus reducing the overall human carrying capacity). Unless automation completely replaces human labor, a falling population can also lead to declining living standards as fewer and fewer adults now must maintain the same level of goods and services as before.
More worryingly, there is no capacity in a zero growth world to quickly ramp up production should the need arise. Such a society would be unable to deal with global emergencies such as a pandemic or imminent asteroid impact. While it’s tempting to say that “extra capacity” just needs to be available in these circumstances, how then do we prevent the individuals in such a society from using that extra capacity to “better” their lives? To build in such extra capacity requires a level of centralized social control that makes the reproductive regulation just discussed seem positively permissive in comparison.
A second troubling aspect of a zero growth world is it’s “anti-leveling” tendency. In post-Neolithic Revolution societies, those higher up in the social hierarchies have universally used their power to hoard available resources. Historically, the powerful have been able to monopolize wealth as fast or faster than low-growth societies were able to produce it, further reinforcing social stratification. The growth boom of the last two hundred-ish years temporarily reversed this situation, and has arguably been the primary factor allowing for the emergence of modern, relatively egalitarian societies. Ending growth means that the powerful will once again be able to monopolize wealth and resources. Taken to its logical conclusion, at best such a world is less a great and glorious tomorrow and more a return to the bad old days. A zero growth future with a high degree of automation allows for even darker possibilities: If labor is unnecessary, then what is to stop the powerful from completely monopolizing global resources, vastly improving their own standards of living at the expense of the very lives of everyone else?
Next week I’ll outline an alternative to a “zero growth” world that, I think, largely mitigates the (first) challenge of system rigidity. That should be a lot shorter than what I just wrote, and will set us up for a discussion of how we might deal with the anti-leveling tendencies that have been up until now masked by growth.
- Nothing this week.
Evidence that agriculture emerged 30,000 years earlier than we’ve previously believed, and in equatorial regions to boot. The implications are that the societies that founded agriculture were organized very differently – and had a very different conception of agriculture – than the societies in the Middle East and Central and South America that we typically think of as the drivers of the Neolithic Revolution. This is interesting to read alongside the articles from last week detailing the long-term cultivation of the Amazon and the rather disasterous consequences of agriculture in more “traditional” authoritarian societies (which is actually a link I forgot to include last week, so just read that now).
The surprising consequences of attempting to reconstruct the acoustics of Byzantine churches.
Apparently I have the hottest of hot takes. Here’s the New York Times offering up essentially the same analysis of last weekend’s shutdown of the US federal government as I did the day before. Also, did I call how long that would last or what?
Twitter recently sent out emails to people who followed, liked, or retweeted potential Russian troll accounts. I’ll admit to having gotten one of these emails myself, and found it… Less than useful. The email doesn’t inform you whether you were actually following a problematic account, retweeted propaganda to your followers, or simply liked such a tweet. There’s no way to know how you were fooled, which makes it very hard to know how to alter your behavior to not be fooled again. Defense One has a good overview of this and the many other problems with how Twitter is responding to its use as a vehicle for propaganda and disruption during the 2016 US presidential election.
Rolling Stone has a good overview of gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement, which serves to highlight why the current “Democratic wave” may find itself significantly attenuated in the 2018 mid-terms.
Over at Vox, David Roberts criticizes environmentalists for not putting decarbonization above all else, ultimately concluding that “[s]ome people, landscapes, and legitimately worthwhile priorities [will need to] suffer…” What I find interesting about Roberts’ argument is that it never considers that the trade-offs he sees as necessary would not be necessary with proper planning. Of course, proper planning is just what we haven’t been doing, so this critique is less about Roberts being wrong, and more about his lack of political imagination. That said, as environmental stressors grow, expect a lot more environmentalists to start migrating towards Roberts’ position… Or something even more extreme.
A short history of the role of futurism in the US government. Which is short because the federal government deliberately hobbled its foresight abilities over twenty years ago.
A short survey of the literature regarding the economic effects of shrinking populations. The evidence is more mixed than you’d think: For example, despite Japan’s macro-economic problems, it’s people have actually become relatively richer as its population has shrunk.
This editorial in The Guardian raises a good set of questions about how we might find meaning in a world without work… And then proceeds to answer them in what might be the darkest possible way.