What a real breakthrough might look like

It’s possible that a techno fix will stave off global limits indefinitely, in a Star Trek future scenario. I think it’s a bad idea to rely on it, because there’s no backup plan.

But it’s equally naive to think that we can return to some kind of low-tech golden age. There are too many people to feed and house, and those bygone eras look pretty ugly when you peer under the mask.

But this is a false dichotomy.

Some techno/growth enthusiasts talk about sustainability as if it consisted entirely of atavistic agrarian aspirations. But what a lot of sustainability advocates are after, myself included, is a high-tech future that operates within certain material limits (planetary boundaries, if you will) before those limits enforce themselves in nastier ways. That’s not really too hard to imagine; we already have a high tech economy that operates within limits like the laws of motion and gravity. Gravity takes care of itself, because it’s instantaneous. Stock pollutants and resources don’t, because consequences are remote in time and space from actions; hence the need for coordination.

A lot of opponents of seem to equate observing these limits with shutting down the economy. But that’s a bit inconsistent. How can markets and technology be robust to all natural limits, yet so fragile that they fold at the first sign of policy limits? If the singularity is going to come, it’s going to come with or without a carbon tax.

So, if a good life within material limits is possible, why is it so hard? I think the real problem is not technical. It’s social:

  1. People won’t believe what isn’t convenient when they can’t experience it.
  2. People tend to free ride on one another; evolution probably even favors it in individuals while disfavoring it for societies. Historically it might even have been a good deal, because coordination to avoid free riding costs, and the rising tide of growth lifted all boats.
  3. Vested interests benefiting from #2 send confusing signals to exploit #1.
  4. No one likes change, for perfectly good reasons (e.g., it’s hard to redesign a system that evolved).
  5. All else equal, more is better (as long as you manage your stuff).
  6. The rich get richer.
  7. People want to belong in their tribe.
  8. Decision making under uncertainty is hard.

These are the underlying reasons for the difficulty of environmental policy. Hard technology – green cars, cheap solar cells, or whatever – could provide needed slack time for working through this list. But there’s a good chance that it’ll be too little, or too late, or consumed by insatiable exponential growth.

What we really need, in addition to material technology, is social technology that addresses #1-#8. Educate people better by simulating reality in credible ways (#1), avoiding capture by #3. Create markets and institutions to manage things that go unmanaged, without big transaction costs (#2). Promote digital democracy (#6). Help people to cooperate and define their tribes broadly (#7). Facilitate the testing of technical and social visions at low cost. A lot of these things look like the social web augmented with more reliable models.

Without progress on these social and cognitive fronts, I doubt that we’ll do very well in a brave new world of geoengineering.

2 thoughts on “What a real breakthrough might look like”

  1. Yes! Excellent follow-up to your previous post. I think this is the big elephant in the room. Many folks take for granted that technology is changing society, but it still isn’t guaranteed to create all the changes that are needed. This is similar to the belief that markets can magically fix everything even though they are constantly evolving from both deliberate and natural processes.

    There will need to be something on par with the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries except collapsed into a decade or less. No small order but I do think social technology can help to bring this about. Incredibly optimistic, but I do see the potential and opportunity.

  2. The irony in all this is that the biggest beneficiaries of past breakthroughs are often the most resistant to the idea of future ones, like complete markets (internalizing environmental externalities).

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