Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Future Should Belong to the Reducers, Not the Producers!

Elon Musk, no idler he, has given the world the Tesla PowerWall. Thanks to brilliant producers like him, a better world is sure to come.

Wow, isn't our technological progress amazing? The possibilities are endless… or are they? Most people wouldn't have imagined the internet 60+ years ago, but the internet we have today lies well within the limits imposed by the science we had more than 60 years ago. The technology of today and the foreseeable future is running on the fumes of early 20th century science. Yes, I’m serious. For technology to go much further, apart from sexier more powerful internet capable watches, implantable brain enhancements, etc. we need new science. It's like talking about architecture using only bricks and cement. You can make amazing structures with those materials: Medieval Cathedrals, Baroque Palaces, etc., but there are limits that you cannot exceed unless you employ steel beams and modern materials. It is that way with our current technology. We are doing impressive things with the science we have, and we will continue doing more, but the future innovations will be incremental improvements. We can't have radical new technology without new science - we need to go beyond the "bricks and mortar" of current science if we want to avoid running into a technological brick wall in the next few decades.

I think we will hit that brick wall (PowerWall?), because I doubt we will produce major new fundamental insights into the workings of the world (at least not on the scale of relativity and quantum theory) that will be amenable to practical utilization for the benefit of humankind. Meanwhile, population grows and resources become more scarce. By the way, let’s not forget the other inhabitants, plants and animals, that we share this world with. No matter how clean and efficient we become, increasing numbers of us will result in more space occupied by humans and less habitat for our fellow earthlings. Isn't that a consideration that we shouldn't lose sight of?

Growing up in the latter third of the 20th century, my outlook was formed by the zeitgeist that commanded us to innovate our way out of our problems. Our leaders, both on the right and the left, parrot the quotidian call for ever more growth. Can’t they see that growth is the problem? Unchecked growth is cancer. As much as we innovate, our problems will forever outpace our innovations if we continue to follow the clarion call for ever more growth. Study Jevons’ Paradox - it’s inescapable. These problems are driven by our growing population and its ever expanding demands on Earth’s resources. Benevolent technology, green technology if you will, is only a treatment for the disease of population overshoot, and though it may delay collapse, it in the long run, will provide a positive feedback to actually worsen the ultimate problem. The only cure is to curb our addiction to growth. Otherwise an apocalyptic global crash lies inevitably around the corner.

Our current paradigm is to produce - produce more stuff for ever more people, train more workers to produce that stuff, and produce more consumers to consume that stuff. As much as I dislike it, I find it exceedingly difficult to think outside this paradigm - I frequently catch myself wondering "can’t we make solar panels more cheaply from renewable resources, can’t there be a killer app that will curb humanity's compulsive acquisitiveness, is there anything more adorable than a new baby…?" I need to get these thoughts out of my head as surely as the protagonist of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart felt he needed to stifle the beating of the dead man’s heart to keep from going stark raving mad. Rather than produce, we need to reduce. Instead of celebrating producers, we should revere the reducers. When will we hail reducers as heroes? What kind of economy could reward a reducer more than a producer?

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