Thursday, October 02, 2014

Setting Our Sights Lower

First, read this so you understand the context of my next rant. Go ahead, I'll wait...

Okay, so you had your own reaction to what you read: you shook your head in dismay, nodded in agreement, or shrugged and wondered, "So what?"

For those of you who didn't take the time to read the linked article, here's the author's general thesis:

Earth is getting too overpopulated, we're running out of resources, life is going to become a lot harder, and the concept of economic growth is outdated, unhelpful, and unlikely to continue. As a result, we might as well get used to it, make a virtue of necessity, and learn to live within our means because the future is not going to get any better. We need to share the wealth so that non-Western nations receive an equitable share of the world's wealth. Instead, we should establish a world that involves more local economies and that is less dependent upon international travel. We shouldn't focus so much on new technologies to save us and should learn to "do without" certain luxuries or technologies.

Did anyone just have a flashback to the 1970s? Are we in yet another era of doom and gloom and limited vision?

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
--Franklin Delano Roosevelt

"I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."
--John F. Kennedy

"There's nothing wrong with America that can't be fixed by what's right with America."
--William J. B. Clinton

...and I haven't even quoted the Republicans yet.

The point is, America is a nation founded on a fundamental optimism that says if you give people freedom and a fighting chance, they'll find solutions to their own problems, with or despite the government's intervention. However, the author appears to have already pronounced sentence on the future: we're doomed, we'll never make it, the people are too stupid to solve their own problems, they can only be ruled for their own good and protection, based on a vision shared by the enlightened.

The problem is that "degrowth" is antithetical to the American experiment because of the implications of the author's ideas:
  • Who decides what's equitable? Not the people, obviously.
  • Who decides what we can "do without?" The diversity of our economy and technologies ensures that nearly anything and everything can be given a fighting chance to succeed, given enough hard work by the inventor. Who's to say what we can or should do without? And who is this author to say that we should dream smaller?
  • How would they enforce this "de-growth?" It brings up an interesting notion: do governments worldwide become enforcers of de-modernization of the world? Would they send in armed troops with magnets to destroy unwanted knowledge and explosives to destroy unneeded inventions like cyclotrons, nuclear reactors, CAT scans, or rocket ships?
  • Will Those Who Decide still have access to luxuries and world travel? Here's a hint: yes. I recall talking with Les Johnson about the anti-technology forces in our civilization. "They want to send us back to the caves," he said. I don't think so. They want to send us back to the manors and serfdom, where the majority remain ignorant and ruled while the wealthy elite continues to enjoy a high standard of living. The problem is, it won't happen that way; not by a long shot. Read on.
  • What happens if individuals or nations opt to stay pro-growth? We're seeing a variation of this with the Kyoto Protocol, which is supposed to curb greenhouse gases. America has the technology to become high-tech without petroleum eventually, I suppose, but China and India are not there yet and are unlikely to comply with Kyoto anyway. So say they stick with the large nation-state approaches to technology and economics. What happens to the hundreds of thousands of small nation-states elsewhere in the world? If human history is any guide, they will either reunite into coalitions and nations as well or get swallowed up one by one.
Decentralization and descoping of the world economy only works if everyone does it. Odds are, everyone won't, unless some external force requires all of them to act simultaneously.

More to the point, as a space and technology advocate I want to live in a future of abundance. I believe we can access the energy and materials of space, combined with nanotechnology and other clean high technology here on Earth to ensure a future where everyone has access to the goods of civilization. Degrowth is not the way to do it. Degrowth assumes a zero-sum game, where we'll never find additional resources, and therefore the only way to have any choices is to be one of those who decides how the pie is divided. That is a recipe for world conflict on a scale we haven't seen in 70 years, and it would include a lot more nuclear weapons.

No matter how politely or benignly worded, a philosophy of low expectations implies a political order where those expectations would be enforced, lest someone question the underlying assumptions. I'm more in line with entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who want humanity to expand the scope of technology of civilization. Regardless of past errors or current problems, we certainly have enough pride and ambition to believe a better future is possible, don't we?

Jeez, I hope so.

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