A recent comment to one of my postings raised the issue of environmental realism. What is realistic for us to expect that developed and developing countries will do to ensure our collective civilization is sustainable?
It made me think of the phase transition that happens when water heats up from ice to liquid to steam. In human history we have been through similar phase transitions from primate bands to hunter-gatherers using tools, to settled agriculture, to urban settlement, to industrial society and now some form of post-industrial society. At each stage it would have been a mistake to think the future is more of the same when we were on the cusp of something fundamentally different. To worry about all that manure when we were horse drawn for example.
In Getting to Peace, Bill Ury speculates that hunter gatherers had few needs and so limited conflict. As we settled down into agriculture partly because of scarcity induced by population pressure, conflict increased. And agricultural surplus supported the creation of military forces and a state hierarchy. Something rather different now confronts us with the information economy, because information is one of those things that when I give it away, I do not lose it. Indeed the internet is riddled with examples where giving away information actually increases what I have. The economists technical term is non-rival goods: I can have my cake, eat it and give it away.
I am not so sure that the next half century before population likely stabilizes at 9 billion and then starts to decline, will be quite so benign. But I think we should start thinking rather differently. Do we really think that 9 billion people can live with SUVs, 7000 square foot McMansions, and no thought for their effect on the planet? But at the same time, do we want 1 billion people to continue to live on less than a dollar a day and go hungry in times of famine?
It’s a tough question and one I don’t have the answer to. But I do know with our scientific advances, with our global connectivity, with our increasing computing power, and with our very large current level of resources, the only reason we won’t solve this dilemma is because of mindset, politics and zero-sum thinking. We need to figure out what the next phase transition is: the transformation to what? A more distributed, information rich, connected, educated, but less resource hungry society? I am not here to try to construct it; merely suggest we open our collective minds to imagining it and experimenting with making it real. And I tend to think that like agriculture, once we have working examples and they are attractive, it will spread. We are the most creative of species; why would we not apply this creativity to our future and as Monty Python might say: ‘Now for something completely different!’
Or of course, we can wait for some form of collapse to force it on us in conditions of war and lots of young men and women dying unnecessarily. My conservative forebears would be in no doubt which option they would prefer: the creative phase transition approach. What do you think?
Footnote: On the whole I prefer moving over the earth’s surface in a kayak or by cycle for short distances; or train for longer journeys, given the choice and it’s not mid-winter. Kayaking is one of the fastest growing activities world wide because it is so damn good. Lunch time today: a break from the office and saving the world: