How would uncontrolled growth affect society?

In the previous blog, I mentioned Paul Ehrlich’s dystopian view of the future, based on the argument, which is indisputably true, that you cannot have exponential growth on a fixed area. That is straightforward mathematics, and there is no way around it. Once upon a time, apparent limits were dealt with by emigration, thus many from Europe that could not make out went to America, but that was only available because we could expand the area. There is, of course, the rest of the Universe, essentially an unlimited volume, but there are problems, the most obvious one of which is that we have no way of getting there right now.

So, what do we do? Many will argue that we can put off the decisions. Thus the resource shortage is not imminent. Oil is obviously going to run out eventually, but eventually should be a long way away. We can make out and deal with that when it turns up, right? In my view, wrong. As illustrated in the futuristic ebook novels that I am writing to illustrate my argument, I think there is a worse problem: economics. What has happened is that governments have tended to leverage themselves. The idea is simple enough: if you borrow now, then grow nicely, it is far easier to pay back in the future. Much of the infrastructure built in the early twentieth century was constructed this way. That is fine while the economy is growing, but less so when it begins to contract. Think of owning a home. As your salary increases, mortgage repayments are progressively easier, but if your salary decreases or ends, or if interest rates rise, an overcommitted home-owner faces insolvency. And with fixed resources, certain types of growth go on indefinitely. We cannot know when opportunities will cease to arise, but we know they will.

In my ebook Puppeteer, I suggested a future where the cost of filling a car, admittedly with a big tank, cost $1,000. Because of the cost of oil, only too many people could not get to work so employment dropped, tax takes dropped, consumption dropped dramatically hence businesses collapsed and governments became insolvent. The problem then is, everybody still has to live, they have to eat, they have to keep out of the rain. At first, people try to get by and the wealthier ones succeed, but what happens to those who cannot? How many of those who are not wealthy but who are in a position of power or authority will not try to use that position for personal benefit? My guess was that lawlessness and corruption would obviously increase. Not everybody will become lawless, but enough will to make a country ungovernable at which point society starts to fall to pieces. If the choice is between robbery and starving, what would you do? Of course this will not happen overnight, and Puppeteer is set as the decay is commencing, and the plot involves one person’s scheme to avoid collapse by organizing the greatest piece of terrorism with the goal of bringing everyone to their senses.

Why write such a novel? Apart from the fact it gave an environment to write a thriller, I am hoping that some of the thoughts expressed might make people think. If we go back to Ehrlich’s equation, the outcome is not inevitable. There is no reason why we cannot use our brains and work out a way to avoid these desperate outcomes. But if we are going to do that, there is no time better to start than now. And that will start with working out what we have to do and how we are going to pay for it. Of course you would not approve of the terror methodology in Puppeteer (and neither do I), but what do you think could bring governments to act for the long-term benefit of society?

A dystopian future?

In my previous blog, I mentioned that predicting the future is not sensible; the future generally refuses to behave exactly as you think it should. That, however, does not mean that general trends are not real, even if they are not immediately followed. One example comes from the American biologist Paul Ehrlich, who in 1968 wrote The Population Bomb. His argument was that with finite planetary area, there cannot be continual growth because sooner or alter all the available resources, such as area for farming, get used up. Worse, if the growth is unconstrained, it follows the exponential form, i.e. the rate of growth is proportional to the size, and like compound interest, as it approaches a constraint, the last part of the growth is far more significant and far more difficult to reverse than the early parts.

In accord with the difficulties of predicting the future, Ehrlich’s predictions have been shown to be wrong in that the food supply per unit area has increased greatly and we have far more food available than he predicted. However, Ehrlich appears to be unrepentant, and in my opinion, rightly so. Everything has not happened as he predicted, but the basic argument is correct: the size of the planet has not increased, and the amount of resources has not increased. We may have found more than he expected, but that does not alter the fact that they are limited. From the mathematical point of view, Ehrlich’s original equation was missing some terms, but there is no evidence the missing terms would alter the overall consequence.

There are three types of effects that will greatly affect our future. The first is population. Quite simply, the more people, the less use they can each make of the finite resources. The second is the second order effects of the population. For example, I was a teenager in a farming area. Thanks to irrigation, the area is now far more productive, and is an example of where Ehrlich’s predictions failed. Food production is the product of area and productivity, and while area is constant, productivity has increased. However, it cannot increase indefinitely, and so far it has done so at the price of a poorer river quality and excessive nitrates in the aquifers. Similarly, the 9 Gt of carbon being burnt each year is almost certainly going to lead to very significant sea-level rises, which will wipe out vast amounts of prime agricultural land, while the increased acidity in the oceans will most likely lead to the extinction of marine animals such as shellfish that require the deposition of aragonite to form their shells. The third is that we are chewing through the fossil resources. Oil is the obvious one, but when I hear enthusiasts point out that wind power will solve the energy shortage, most of those enthusiasts have never considered the problem of supplying the neodymium for the magnets. Many solar cells also use elements that are difficult to obtain, however it is also possible to make solar cells based solely on silicon, so if we have sufficient energy to make them, silicon is effectively unlimited. Nevertheless, solar energy has inevitable problems, one of which is power density. I have seen one proposal to power the UK though solar energy in the Sahara. The required area is very large but it is available, although there may be competition for the area. But then the problem comes, what happens in a sand storm? A brown-out until the cells are cleaned/replaced?

As I said in the previous blog, the future refuses to cooperate. There are things we can do to avoid the very bad outcomes, but to do so we have to start now. We have to decide what might work, then we have to make it work. Will we? In my futuristic ebooks, I suggest that we do not. Now, of course it is desirable to have struggling situations in fiction, but I still think this will happen. Of course, equally in the fiction I can propose answers to the then current problems. Those answers work much better in advance!