Surprise Must Hide in Secret Worlds

The Story So Far

So much for getting one of these out every week. I blame the day job and an unexpected bought of no-it’s-not-actually-Spring-yet cleaning. Despite this, and despite having a shorter Some Observations planned and fewer items in the queue for Elsewhen, this edition has somehow ended up at about the same length as the last one.

At least I have my brevity. (Ha!)

Some Observations

Last time I talked about why growth as we know it must one day end and why that day is probably sooner than we would like to think. I also explored some of the reasons why the sort of static zero growth world often championed within the environmental movement is likely to be at best unpleasant, and at worst so rigid as to be unable to cope with even foreseeable catastrophe.

But what is the alternative?

The Radical Futures of Growth, Part 2

Before we discuss how to get out of this bind, it’s useful to understand why we’re here in the first place. While the failure modes of a world of unlimited growth may seem very different from one of zero growth, I contend that advocates of both futures are making the same fundamental mistake: They believe that a meaningful separation exists between the human and non-human worlds. In doing so, they reduce the non-human world to a passive backdrop for history rather than understanding it as an active participant whose fate is tightly coupled to our own.

To be Both in and of the World

The tendency of modern, technologically dominant societies to function as if humanity was somehow apart from nature is, to the best of my knowledge, essentially universal. In the Abrahamic traditions this conceit is reinforced by the Biblical creation narrative, which explicitly places humanity in a superior station to other life. But even in cultures that lack such strong anthropocentric creation narratives, the spread of Western science and technology has brought with it a dualistic distinction between observer and observed, actor and acted upon, that functionally leads to much the same place. Humans alone are considered to have agency, and thus be worthy of ethical consideration and capable of playing an active role in history.

Ethically separating the human from the non-human makes it easy to ignore the needs of the non-human. If humans consume so many resources as to drive other communities to extinction, this is regrettable only in so far as it impacts the ecosystem services we enjoy or the beauty we experience. In a sense, all modern human societies are libertarian, with a right to “swing their ecological fist” so long as it does not harm another (human).

The most technologically optimistic imagine a world in which even ecosystem services can be supplemented or replaced with human ingenuity, and perhaps even (immediate) resource limitations can be overcome (by mining asteroids, colonizing other planets, and so on and so forth). In doing so, such optimists reduce the ethical weight of the non-human world to the purely aesthetic. If you could even marginally improve the lives of many people by burning the Mona Lisa, would there not be a strong argument for destroying the painting despite its aesthetic and historic significance? And compared to the Mona Lisa, what value is a mountain, or even an entire mountain range?

To believe in unlimited growth is thus to believe that the non-human no ethical weight in and of itself.

“Mainstream” advocates of zero growth can be thought of as technological pessimists rather than optimists: Ecosystem services cannot be meaningfully supplemented or replaced, in their view, and unsustainable resource extraction ultimately reduces human well-being. We must therefore leave enough “space” for the non-human world in order to avoid human suffering.

The more “radical” zero growth arguments I am aware of do assert that the non-human world has an ethical weight of its own. In this view, even if unlimited growth were possible it would be undesirable because eventually the negative impact of that growth on the non-human world would exceed the positive effects of that growth on the human world. There is thus an ethical duty to preserve room for the non-human world beyond what is required simply to avoid human suffering. Often this preservation of space is linked to a preservation of “wilderness” that has somehow remained “untouched” by the human world, or can otherwise be returned to a “natural” state “free” of human influences.

The problem with all of these arguments is that you can’t actually separate the human from the non-human world.

When we think of “the environment”, we think of oceans or mountains or forests or plains… The world “beyond” our cities and towns. And yet these same cities and towns are an environment as well, as much as a termite mound or bee hive. Termite mounds help sustain the modern African savanna, and while human cities have existed for a much shorter time other animals have already begun to find a home in this new habitat. Perhaps you’re inclined to dismiss coyotes and rats as “opportunistic pests”… But can you say the same about native bees that have learned how to use our plastic waste to reinforce their nests - and help their offspring better survive?

Moreover, humans have been having an effect on their environments for far longer than modern cities have existed. The current composition of the Amazon rain forest may be directly attributable to human intervention. Humans and birds work together to find honey in Africa, and in Brazil human fishermen and wild dolphins cooperatively fish. In the US, the Cherokee peoples changed the distribution of trees in ways that have persisted for hundreds of years. To dismiss these as just examples of “non-Western cultures also exploiting their environment” is facile. Mutualism is widespread in nature, and to believe that human relationships are only intentional and exploitative is to give too little credit both to our non-human mutualists and to the human societies that have formed these relationships.

What is the difference between the relationships forged between other plants and animals and their environment, and those forged between humanity and our environment? If you believe that there is a firm dualism between the human and non-human worlds, where do you draw that line? And if there is no such line, then how can we possibly assert ethical primacy to either the (arbitrarily divided) human and non-human worlds?

To believe that the human world can grow without bound is to deny that humanity is embedded in the world as surely as any other animal. But to believe that humanity can somehow withdraw from the world in a zero growth bubble is to make the same mistake. And in a universe full of existential planetary dangers, from asteroids to gamma-ray bursts to the eventual destruction of our world by the Sun itself, there is no future for life without a technological civilization (eventually capable of interstellar travel).

Moreover, if we are part of our ecology, if we are an ecology, then to believe that growth is impossible is to deny the dynamism and evolutionary potential all around us.

The only question is one of time.

Beyond the End of History

We can now see the outlines of an alternative to both the modern conception of unlimited growth and of the zero growth reaction: It would be a human world that embraced the dynamism and evolutionary potential of the ecologies it was part of. It would be a world of some limits, yes, but not because those limits were necessary for human survival, or even because they were required of us to meet our ethical obligations to our fellows, but because such limits would preserve the potential for the system as a whole to grow. It would be a world that grew and changed along and within its ecological context, in which human foresight and technological ingenuity was put towards the betterment of entire ecologies, and not just a single species within that ecology. Most importantly, it is a world that preserves its capacity to grow and build when such growth and building is needed… And to step back to rest and heal when rest and healing is needed.

I call this alternative “long growth”, because it requires thinking about growth not in business cycles, or even human lives, but in ecological and evolutionary time. Calling it “long growth” is also a deliberate riff on The Long Now Foundation, which is dedicated towards expanding the scope of human thinking into the next 10,000 years… Which seems a good start to me.

Long growth is not the same as centrally managed growth; limits should not in general be “hard” (you can only use so much), but rather attempt to account for the impact of our choices, both positive and negative, on the ecologies we’re part of. Economists talk of “internalizing the externalities”, and if there is one central thesis of the idea of long growth, it’s that it is critical that we do so for all members of the ecologies we inhabit, not just for humans.

To say that this is a massive undertaking, a journey that we are at but the start of, would be an understatement. But it is not an inconceivable journey, and in fact we have already taken the first steps along this path. Over time, we will understand the consequences of our actions better, though for now it seems wisest to build in generous margins for error to account for our current limited understanding.

A “long growth future” is obviously beneficial when compared to current conceptions of unlimited growth, and in fact is not opposed to the idea of “unlimited growth” in the abstract. Instead, long growth decenters both humanity and the present moment, demanding that growth occur in a way that is a net benefit to all of us, human and non-human, present and future. Growth must occur on time scales and in ways that are sustainable; because such growth must ultimately come from the reconfiguration of entire ecosystems, it must invariable occur on ecological and evolutionary, rather than human, timescales.

By allowing for growth, we allow for sustainable changes in consumption that are driven by changes in technology, society, and population. By pricing in both human and non-human externalities, we eliminate the rigidity of current conceptions of zero growth by allowing for economic and social reconfiguration while still maintaining appropriate buffers to human resource utilization to ensure that our broader ecologies remain healthy.

Most importantly, long growth leaves open the possibility that we can temporarily exceed the current “limits” should the need arise. In the event of a significant regional or global disaster, a long growth world could make the choice to over-utilize resources in order to meet the challenge (in fact, properly pricing in the externalities of inaction would demand it). After the crisis had past, it might enter an extended period of quiescence as it worked to heal the broader ecology. Such a period need not be “contractionary” from an economic point of view - the difference between a “time of healing” and “business as usual” is more about changing the focus of human ingenuity rather than reducing resource consumption significantly “below normal” (though, depending upon the nature of the disaster and extent of the response, some reduction may be necessary).

Long growth is thus the situation of human foresight and technology as part of, rather than apart from, the ecological and evolutionary process.

There are some significant challenges here, not the least of which is that a long growth future requires human institutions capable of operating at timescales beyond anything we have historic context for. Without historical antecedents, it’s essentially impossible to map out what these institutions might look like and what the necessary cultural antecedents might be. Despite this, I think it is possible to outline a general “direction” in which such institutions are more likely to be found. This is a task for a later series, however, as there is much groundwork that needs to be laid first.

A more immediate issue with a (somewhat) more concrete set of solutions is the question of anti-leveling - the same dystopian concern that bedevils zero growth futures. Because while a long growth world can grow, it will generally not do so on human timescales. Thus, the question of how we can prevent resource concentration and the capture of political institutions by unaccountable elites remains pressing.

Next Week

Next week we’ll finish out this first series by discussing how we might counter the dystopic tendencies of both zero growth and long growth futures, how the idea of long growth makes (some of) these problems more tractable, and why it makes sense to advocate for policies addressing these concerns even if you believe that the limits of growth will never be reached.


Deep Pasts

Octopus eyes are a well-known example of convergent evolution. But have you considered the origins of octopus brains?

Near Pasts

Nothing this edition.


The US continues to edge closer to war with North Korea.

The last few weeks have seen an increasing number of authoritarian moves by the GOP and the Trump Administration, any one of which would seem like a small thing in isolation, but together feel like an acceleration: Trump calls lack of applause during his recent State of the Union speech “treasonous”. Devin Nunes is planning to build an actual, physical wall to isolate Democrats in the House Intelligence Committee. The Trump Administration is planning to penalize legal immigrants if their US citizen children use benefits to which they are entitled. (Take a moment to parse the consequence of that relative to the US citizen child.)

Corey Robin wonders what it means to have a constitutional crisis divorced from a broader social crisis. Robin’s arguments are interesting, but I think he’s wrong here. There is a larger social question animating the growing (potential) constitutional crisis: To whom is the bureaucracy of the Executive Branch ultimately accountable? Is it the President, as advocates of the theory of the unitary executive maintain? Or is it to the people of the United States (via the Constitution and the laws of Congress? Put another way, does the President command or coordinate the Executive’s functions? Before you answer this, keep in mind that while the Trump Administration has brought this issue to a head, many of the accomplishments of the later years of the Obama Administration are built on this same theory. I’m not sure that there’s a self-consistent legal theory that lets Obama use the EPA to draft the Clean Power Plan while at the same time forbidding Trump from closing down FBI investigations he doesn’t like (or vice versa).

Near Futures

It seems that police in California have been working with neo-Nazis to pursue anti-fascist and anti-racist activists. There’s been a real concern about white supremacists infiltrating law enforcement for over a decade now. I suspect that this is a long-term strategy that is going to increasingly start paying off.

Teen mental health has precipitously deteriorated over the last decade here in the US, and the researchers studying it think that smartphones are the reason. Though it’s worth asking whether smart phones and social media are really the proximate cause of this, or if they simply exacerbate existing problems. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve more-or-less lifted this item from Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View newsletter, which you should probably also be reading if you like Five Futures.)

Cape Town is basically out of water due to a toxic combination of environmental change and local politics. Expect to see more stories like this over the coming decades.

Does the impossibility of realizing an ideal world sometimes mean that we should adopt more radical political positions than we otherwise would?

Deep Futures

Mutant crayfish capable of asexual reproduction are invading ecosystems across the planet.

A rumination on psychohistory, memetic entities, Dark Ages, and travel writing.


Cutting a bagel into two linked halves.