The Media Has A Probability Problem
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 music of the Ancient Greeks.
Rediscovering Ancient Greek Music (2017) (YouTube)
The surprising consequences of attempting to reconstruct the acoustics of Byzantine churches.
The physical maps of the Inuit.
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.
The Chinese birthrate is declining.
A short survey of the literature regarding the economic effects of shrinking populations 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.
A natural experiment of the effects of universal basic income has been happening in Appalachia for the last twenty years.
Reparations for African Americans in the US leads to counter-productive outcomes unless paired with significant, large-scale income redistribution.
What we get wrong about the 1972 book, “The Limits of Growth”.
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