Degrowth, Innovation and ‘Big Stuff’

There have been a range of responses to Dr Samuel Alexander’s recent article on The Conversation: “Life in a ‘degrowth’ economy, and why you might actually enjoy it”. This post started off as my comment, but it got a little longer than anticipated. I think that I can appreciate why some people are worried about the concept of ‘degrowth’ – it’s not necessarily for frivolous reasons. Here are my doubts, and my assessments of them.

Without really thinking about it, I almost instantly nurtured a concern that a degrowth or steady-state economy might curtail the likelihood of societies reaching, or even aiming for, certain future technological or intellectual achievements. Perhaps the world might never have truly global high-speed broadband. Fusion power stations? Unlikely. Forget about the space elevator, moving to Mars or holidays on the moon. In fact, forget about space pretty much altogether. There will be no quantum home-computing, miraculous nano-tech, radical life-extension, mind-uploading, strong AI, cyborgs, vat-grown replacement organs, gene-tailoring, or full-sensory VR/sim-stim.

Intellectual and scientific achievements, or more precisely, the people and institutions who enable them, would seem to require certain amount of resources. Having people study full-time for eight to ten years and then spend the rest of their working lives thinking, researching, doing experiments with specialised equipment and/or really hard sums etc. must cost quite a lot, both in terms of money and energy. In a situation of scarce resources, academia might not look like a good investment to everyone. And if we do exist, are we going to have to make do without whiteboard markers? How am I to run a lecture if I can’t do a PowerPoint presentation (and then post it online so that students don’t have to attend anyway)?

The more I thought about this though, the more I began to suspect that my fears are at least slightly misguided or without the ethical weight that I had subconsciously attached to them. My responses to these worries fall roughly into 3 categories.

1. We are not really working towards these technological achievements in a meaningful or effective way in a ‘growth’ economy. So it’s possible that degrowth would not be the relevant causal factor that would stop them from happening.

2. We might still do these things still anyway and could if we really wanted to.

3. There might be some things that, for various reasons, we shouldn’t do, so not doing them would be a good thing anyway.

Response #1 stems from the concern raised by Neal Stephenson in his 2011 article, Innovation Starvation (and that Project Hieroglyph seeks to address). “Where’s my donut-shaped space station? Where’s my ticket to Mars?” asks Stephenson (2011). Likewise he (correctly in my opinion) points out the stagnation and vacillation that has limited progress in moving the U.S. to non-oil energy sources. (The same observation could quite plausibly be argued with coal in Australia.) The point here is that many of these innovations are not even on the drawing board and if they are, they are subject to the fickle nature of short-term commercial considerations. If we accept that economies that are both wealthy and growing do not necessarily “execute on the big stuff” (Stephenson, 2011), then we have less reason to think that less materially ostentatious steady-state societies will fail to deliver. The idea that we can only send rockets to the moon if the economy is both growing and strong does not necessarily stack up.

A similar thesis regarding academia might be defended as well. This is a bit less well developed and does not apply everywhere, but it is basically that having a wealthy, growing economy does not translate into more resources for higher education and research. In fact, depending on the government of the day, it can sometimes produce a reduction in spending on these areas.

If growth isn’t helping, then degrowth might not be such a problem.
Response #2 follows from this. An economy with less resources is not an economy with no resources. We just might have to be selective about what we try to do. It might also be that there has to be a change in how the economics of certain grand projects are construed. If we cannot borrow against the future and wait for our debt to be inflated away, then a different approach will probably be needed. There is a limit – obviously. But we would still have a lot of people, knowledge and a planet full of resources, and that has to count for something.

Similarly, academia and research need not be curtailed. We can probably still find the money if we really want to. And who knows, if there are no more PowerPoint presentations, perhaps our lecture halls will be packed with students once more. It should also be noted (if I wasn’t making it obvious enough already), that intellectual achievement and material wealth are not necessarily linked. True, that’s easy for a philosopher to say – I just need something to keep the weather and wildlife away from me and to be fed at regular intervals. But the same is likely to be true for at least some other academic disciplines. Activities that are more resource intensive (regardless of their nature) are going to require a correspondingly high level of political/societal consensus. This will mean convincing people that we need to channel a large chunk of their real resources (directly or not) into these projects. People will need to appreciate why this is important. So, somewhat radically, we might have to have a population that is better educated than it is now in order to convince them to support the building of a supercollider or space-station. Importantly, people will need to be able to see the potential benefits and accept the potential risks. If you cannot convince a society to support your project, you can always fall back on the observation of ‘givens’ as Stephenson’s ‘avout’ do in Anathem.

Response #3 is a bit more complicated and does not apply to academia so much. What I’ve put here is just a sketch and does not address the full nuance of such an idea. What I am not doing is passing judgment on space exploration or any of the other potential future technologies that I mentioned earlier.

In one sense, to say that there are some things we shouldn’t do is a bit of an over-simplification. Rather, I would say that there are some things that we really should think very carefully about before we commit to doing them. Now, if we were in a steady-state economy, we could not avoid this as easily as we do now. I think that one of the results of present-day economics and politics is the ability, both individually and collectively, to not think about what we are doing, why we are doing it and where these decisions might take us in the future. So we still might have fantastically advanced but dangerous nano-tech. But only if enough people so convinced of the risk/benefit balance that they will materially support it.

There is another stronger and broader sense in which #3 can be construed though. It is that the appeal of some of these technologies are symptoms of our individual and collective inability to deal with the fact that we are short-lived, unfulfilled, irrational, passionate and sometimes unpleasant animals, living on one isolated planet (that we seem intent on ruining) in an uncaring and absurd universe. My worry is that space exploration, for example, might be appealing because it allows us to avoid thinking too hard about difficult subjects like the economy that mysteriously grows forever, or what sort of environment we are leaving for future generations. It isn’t totally implausible that sufficiently advanced space travel and habitation technology could allow (some) people to avoid the reality of these problems, carrying our maladaptive ideologies and economics along with us as we go. This is a concern of some space-exploration detractors – we might simply end up making a mess of other places. So maybe this is a case where we just need to develop a better attitude to how we relate to the universe. Dan Simmons’ Ousters perhaps? I would argue that we could do worse than Peter F Hamilton’s Edenists as well.

Please note that I cannot rule out that some technologies or achievements are ethically or morally problematic in a way that is independent of their ability to allow us to avoid dealing with (or thinking about dealing with) certain problems. Thus, it is possible that they might turn out to be no great loss, because they were a bad idea in the first place. The arguments for other technologies and projects are probably going to be different for each. For example, radical life-extension has different ethical complications to immersive VR or colonising space. What these things do have in common is that they are worth thinking about and involve choosing certain values.

Response #3 is the one that has the least amount of potential easy answers. It’s necessary to consider whether or not we should do something rather than simply asking whether or not we can do it. The answers are rarely a straight yes or no affair. Many things fall into the category of ‘Yes, if certain conditions are met’. For example, we might be that we could ethically colonise space if we preserve and integrate into the environments we find there, rather than exploit and degrade them as we have done on Earth. It would be OK to build a space elevator, if certain environmental, social and economic conditions are met. Some things might seem too dangerous or otherwise just too unethical to pursue. But I am willing to speculate that there would be a lot of ‘big stuff’ that we could do with a clear conscience if we put some serious thought into it.

Would a de-growing or steady-state economy stop us from expanding our knowledge, stifle innovation and education and stop society from ever creating and completing the kind of grand projects that Neal Stephenson has in mind? Not necessarily at least. Would our approach to these things have to be different? Definitely, but as Stephenson (2011) and I have observed, our current economy isn’t really enabling these projects anyway. Our approach might have to be much more inclusive at a political and economic level. Because of this, we might have to think really hard, at a collective level, about what it is that we really want to achieve. There might be some projects and technologies that we ought to avoid. But if we have to carefully consider our options, we might be able negotiate a path that is environmentally/economically sustainable, reasonably ethical, and still have room for the great innovations and ventures that Stephenson would like to see.

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