This is not doom-and-gloom for society–it is only doom-and-gloom for the current unsustainable arrangement (Plan A).
The Grand Narrative of the past few centuries goes something like this: from religious authority to secular authority, from agriculture to industrial, from rural to urban, from local to global, from periphery to center, from decentralized to centralized, from low-density energy to high-density energy (from wood to coal to oil/natural gas), from industrial to communication technology, from gold to fiat currencies, from linear to non-linear (complex/fractal), from local scarcity and high cost to global abundance, from islands of prosperity to continents of prosperity, from cash to credit, from collateral to leverage,from productive to consumerist and from sustainable to unsustainable.
Many of these linear trends are running out of oxygen or reversing. Rigid hierarchies are being disrupted by self-organizing systems, centralization is being disrupted by decentralization, lower density alternative energy is distributed rather than concentrated, commodity costs are rising globally due to demand outstripping supply and leveraged credit is destabilizing financial systems across the globe.
In the past few decades, the growth narrative has depended on “the Next Big Thing” –the new disruptive technology that drives wealth and job creation.
In the early 20th century, the next big things were plentiful, and they clustered around transport and communication: autos, highways, aircraft, radio, telephony and most recently the Internet.
The progress of technologies tends to track an S-Curve, with a slow gestation (experimentation that drives rapid evolution of innovations), a period of widespread adoption and technological leaps, and then a maturation phase in which advancements are refinements rather than leaps.
Air travel is a good example: the leap from open-cockpit aircraft of the 1910s to the long-distance comfort of the DC-3 in the 1930s was enormous, as was the leap from the prop-driven DC-3 to the greater capacity and speed of the 707 jet airliner.
But since the advent of the Boeing 727 in 1964 and the jumbo-jet 747 in 1969, very little about the passenger experience of flight has changed (or has changed for the worse): the envelope of speed is little changed, and efficiency has improved, but these are mostly invisible to the passengers.
My 1977 Honda Accord was extremely safe, reliable, powerful, efficient, comfortable, etc. Improvements in the past 37 years since have been modest in these fundamental technologies. (I actually prefer the smaller, older, less luxurious Accords.)
Once computers reached the Mac OS X/Windows XP level, improvements have been of marginal utility. The lack of blockbuster medications–and the skepticism regarding the efficacy and cost of existing blockbuster meds–raise the same question: maybe the low-hanging fruit of present technologies have all been picked.
What Happens After the Low-Hanging Fruit Has Been Picked? (April 2, 2014)
No More Industrial Revolutions, No More Growth? (December 27, 2012)
The costs of our lifestyle continue to rise, due to financialization, cartel/fiefdom skimming, higher energy costs, bureaucratic bloat and related systemic causes. At the same time, more of our collective consumption is being funded with debt, which is another way of saying that present consumption is being paid for with future income.
For the past two centuries, each Next Big Thing magically created more wealth and more jobs. The progression has been straightforward: production moves to lower-labor cost areas or is automated/mechanized, and labor moves to providing higher-value services.
What if we’ve run out of Next Big Things that generate more jobs? What if the next big thing is Degrowth, i.e. consuming less and doing more with less? This is a problem, as the Status Quo has optimized only one pathway: higher consumption, costs and debt.Any reduction in any of these three collapses the system.
TEDx Tokyo: The “De” Generation (8 minutes) (de-ownership, de-materialism, de-corporatism)
Degrowth, Anti-Consumerism and Peak Consumption (May 9, 2013)
The American Model of “Growth”: Overbuilding and Poaching November 19, 2013
Labor-saving software/communication technology has chewed through much of production and is now feeding ravenously on the service sector. As costs inexorably rise, enterprise has only one real way to reduce costs: reduce labor. As a result, the current Big Thing–the world-wide web–is the first technology that is not creating more jobs than it eliminates.
Many smart people retain the faith that technology always creates more jobs than it destroys, but if we look at our daily lives, I see little evidence to support this faith. Thanks to technology, sole proprietors in information/design businesses can create the same output that took multiple people just 20 years ago.
Russ in Redding: The Human Face of The End of Work (September 2, 2011)
America’s Social Recession: Five Years and Counting (August 28, 2013)
The Ten Best Employers To Work For (Peak Employment) (March 28, 2013)
The Python That Ate Your Job (December 11, 2013)
In my view, the Status Quo has no Plan B, not just from habit and the desire of those in power to retain power; we collectively have a failure of imagination. We cannot imagine a world that consumes less, generates fewer conventional jobs and reduces debt rather than creates more debt. The only strategy left in a systemic failure of imagination is to do more of what has failed spectacularly.
Why the Status Quo Is Doomed (June 27, 2013)
A Degrowth economy is not only entirely feasible in my view, it is the only way forward. The low-hanging fruit of Next Big Things have been picked, and wearable computing (Google glasses, etc.) is simply not a global growth engine. Robotic vehicles will eradicate millions of jobs without creating any more jobs at all; manufacturing self-driving cars will add very little labor to the manufacturing process.
Wages are no longer an adequate means of distributing the surplus of an economy. But this is not doom-and-gloom for society–it is only doom-and-gloom for the current unsustainable arrangement (Plan A). Plan B is actually a better plan, though few are able to see that yet.