August 15, 2002

LEFTY SURVIVALISM? Rebecca Blood links to an article predicting the end of global civilization in 2030. The article looks rather crackpottish to me (and its invocation of Joseph Tainter is so out of context as to be deceptive), but I’ll leave its merits to others. It’s Rebecca’s comments about sustainability that interest me. Yes, an “agrarian” society is “sustainable.” But for the world to shift to a non-industrial mode, several billion people would have to die off.

The resulting mass of traumatized survivors, perhaps a billion or two people, would then, after this unparalleled catastrophe, be “sustainable” in the sense that human society was “sustainable” at the time of the Pharaohs, with most people living hand-to-mouth existences with most of their time spent at backbreaking drudgery. Another word for this kind of sustainability is “stagnation,” and the biggest risk of such an event would be that we would return to the metastable state that marked most of settled human history: barbarous despotisms run by a thin layer of exploitive priests, soldiers, etc., above a huge mass of near-starving peasantry and slaves.

I prefer the “sustainability” of the high-technology path, in which nanotechnology, biotechnology, and space resources permit an environmentally friendly life that doesn’t involve reducing humanity to the kind of misery that prevailed in preindustrial society. People find the idea of self-reliance in a post-apocalyptic world romantic (and if I find myself in a post-apocalyptic world, I’ll certainly do my best to be self-reliant) but the truth is, it would suck. Big time.

While the “Olduvai Theory” that Rebecca links to seems dubious, it’s certainly true that our current global economy is unsustainable. Like being halfway up a ladder, it makes sense only as a step toward something else. And “lifestyle management” approaches like traveling less, or using less electricity at home, won’t make any real difference beyond stretching things out a bit. Human society is probably “sustainable” only in a very low-tech mode, or a very high-tech mode. Anything in between is necessarily transitional, in one direction or the other. We must either move forward, or die in large numbers, and face miserable stagnation afterward. Personally, I’m against the latter.

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