At no point in history does any body of authorities declare that an era has begun, and then the era suddenly begins. Nor does any body of authority declare an end to an era, after which said era dutifully halts. Instead, people look about and around to discover if things are pretty much the same as they used to be or if things are becoming pretty much changed from what they used to be. If things are the same, whatever era one happens to be in is continuing. If things are not the same, then that era is drawing to a close and a new one is beginning. It’s a long process, the change of an era, but it is a noticeable thing, even when one is in the middle of it.
The decline of Rome was absolutely noticeable. Authors of the day recorded how things were changing and how the world of Rome was giving way to something other than the world of Rome: they did not know what to expect. The Aztecs certainly noticed the end of their kingdom and the imposition of Spanish rule as their language and religion were suppressed over time in favor of their conquerors’ ways. The advent of industrialism became noticeable as the cities swelled in size, the factories choked up the air, and people actually began to have aspirations that their own lives would be better in some way than the lives of their parents and that their own children would have material improvements in their lives to make them better than their own.
But now we notice that such things are no longer the case. World population growth is leveling off, and predicted to go into decline before long. No diseases or famines will claim those lives: we’ve simply gotten to where we have access to enough calories per day to support the population we have. Any more is excess. Yes, this does mean that life 300 years ago was a wretched affair as far as access to proper food went, and, yes, it does mean that we can’t really improve upon what we have available today as far as food productivity. There’s still dire hunger in the world, but once addressed, providing food security to the entire world will not be boosting the population any more.
That alone is a massive change from what things used to be like. Global population stability means that global economic growth will also level off. Industrialization and computerization have brought massive increases in productivity per worker, but they have also peaked. A set number of workers times a set level of productivity means a set level of production. No change means no growth, simple as that. Should we experience another boost in productivity, it will be because of robotics providing us with the equivalent of a slave class to do work for us all. Humans themselves are not going to be making much more stuff than they already make.
As for the robotics business, I don’t see that as a panacea for growth because of the decline in availability of cheap fuels and metals. There’s a finite amount of these resources in the world, and we’ve about run out of the easily extractable stuff. I remember the pit in my stomach the first time I saw $3 per gallon gas in 2005. Now, it’s pretty much expected – low, really, when I think about it. Fossil fuels and metals are not renewable, so what we’ve used isn’t coming back. Replacement fuels are on the horizon, but replacement metals depend upon us finding a way to devour the asteroid belt with the question if such an effort will produce enough to justify the cost that went into such an effort.
But no matter if the problems of energy and metal are solved or not, couple them with the maxing-out of human population and productivity and one has a world that is not like the world of the past 250 years, that saw steadily increasing human populations and productivities coupled with access to cheap fuels and metals. There were some horribly exploitative work arrangements for the slaves and near-slaves of the world during that time, but the world built on their muscle, bone, and blood did result in what we have today. The massive jump in birthrates gave us a huge supply of cheap labor that could be exploited, come to think of it.
And where the labor could not be exploited, the jobs for that labor vanished. I remember when all the jobs were getting shipped over to China. Now China is desperately choking to death on its own lack of regulation. It’s starting to starve, as well, which means those factories simply have to stop polluting – which means they will have to go elsewhere that does not yet have laws against poisoning the air, land, and water. Once those areas are exhausted, the world will then be empty of places where labor can be exploited as cheaply as it currently is in China. That then means overall higher prices for things. And if fuel and metal also rise in cost, those finished goods will be higher still in their prices.
Which brings me to the standard of living. It’s not just recently on the decline, it’s been on the decline after a period of leveling-off. For all the innovation we have in electronic goods, we still haven’t found a way to make homes truly more affordable. For all the access to college we now provide, we still haven’t found a way to properly employ people in their chosen fields. For all of the social progress we’ve made, we still haven’t found out how to end wealth disparity and the problems that creates in a society. The standard of living for all but the very rich is in decline – globally – and this is something very different from the last 250 years.
Now, the decline itself will not proceed relentlessly. It comes to an end, and we have a new stability in that area. Should we have access to more cheap metals and fuels, then we face a relatively comfortable future, but a static one. Entertainments will dazzle us forevermore, I’m sure. Life spans could increase greatly, with great strides in health so that we enjoy those days greatly, but neither entertainment nor long, healthy life will provide a fundamental change in the way things are to bring us back to days of ever-increasing population and productivity. It’s just a different sort of stability from what existed prior to industrialization.
And what of the future in which we do not have cheap metals or fuels? What if the advances in longevity and health are for the very rich and the poor are left with what they currently have, as far as days on the earth go? Then we will see a stability, but it will be quite a bit more brutish than anyone really cares to imagine. But it’s the alternative if we do not find a way to address the issues of fuel, metal, and wealth disparity. There’s a very good chance we can master the first two tasks and fail in the third, since that always seems to be a failure of humanity.
Even when humans rise up to smash the rich and distribute their goods to one and all, a new class of rich emerges from that supposed utopia and the reality of wealth disparity returns. Barring some massive event that wipes out every evil-minded person, we are stuck with economic apex predators – sociopaths that gladly create exploitative arrangements in order to enrich themselves. Murder to get gain, if you want the blunter version.
A static population with a set level of productivity and a ruling elite that maintains a style of living far greater than the mass of human peasantry seems to me like the next era of humanity, possibly with or without cheap fuels and metals. Such an era has been gradually arriving, and may be fully invested by the middle of this century, certainly by this century’s end.
And should we manage to find a cure for evil, then we’re still faced with the stable population with a stable level of productivity. We may be more equal in what we have, but we will have what we have, and that will be that. No more growth, really, with or without the fat-cat bankers. So what, then?
We’re heading for an era where we no longer consider material growth to be a good thing, or even a thing. The materialism of this age will give way. Generational expectations of something better cannot exist when generations repeat the experiences of previous generations. With materialism no longer offering itself as an answer for what ails a person, spiritualism and traditions will have more meaning in peoples’ lives.
I say that China may be the future of the world, but I don’t mean it the way stock traders or manufacturers mean it. I mean it in a historical sense, with an imperial dynasty served by technocrats, watching over a large, stable population that pretty much does what it’s always done, year in, year out. I don’t mean that the ruling class will be made up of Chinese people. I mean that whatever rulers we have will have more in common with the mandarins than they will with the top men of the West during the past 250 years.
The goodness or badness of such a system will depend largely upon the people running it. It would likely be mostly bad, given the track record of extremely wealthy rulers. But, such is our coming lot. Freedom to choose one’s course in life is vanishing for anyone not in the very wealthiest of families. The replacement is a fork in the road: either choose to do something that the wealthy find to be of value, in order to enjoy some of the benefits of the lives of the wealthy, or be part of an urban mob that toils away at supporting itself after paying out, one way or another, to support the parasites at the top.
That last part I see as being already firmly in place. This has enormous implications for one and all. The world of the past 250 years may not yet be entirely gone, but it’s fading fast. Kids can still grow up to do whatever they want to do, but there’s no guarantee they can make a living at it anymore. Better to realize that they need a valuable skill to be a valued person so that they can enjoy a life that affords them the free time they’d like to have in order to pursue a dream. Those valuable skills are not attained easily, so those that want to do the hard work will enjoy a measure of reward. Those that shy away from the difficult things – math, memorization, languages, science – will later on envy the lives of those that embrace them. As Vaclav Havel said, “We must be tough in the interest of a good thing.”