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What to do When the Future Might be Good or Might be Bad—But You Can’t Know Which

Visions of the Future: Mad Max, Star Trek, Big Brother or Ecotopia?

by STAN COX

Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler published a book last year entitled Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think. In it, they argue that human progress is accelerating on all fronts:

We’re poised to make greater gains in the next two decades than we have in the previous 200 years. Because of new, transformational technologies and three powerful [social] forces we will soon have the ability to meet and exceed the basic needs for every man, woman and child on the planet. Abundance for all is actually within our grasp.

My book Any Way You Slice: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing would appear to make a contrary argument. I see things this way:

Today, with the widening wealth gap, we divvy up resources all the time with no regard to fairness. Some of us are not even aware that anything’s wrong, while others see their consumption harshly limited by privation. It’s very true that fairer, explicit forms of rationing would not fit comfortably into today’s economy. But they’ll be essential if we are someday to enjoy the kind of ecologically robust society that is envisioned in Earth Day celebrations. That’s because creating such a society will mean cutting back deeply on our exploitation of fossil fuels and other resources. Otherwise, there will be an ecological cliff waiting not far ahead.

But these two visions of the future are not necessarily 100 percent contradictory. In a recent Forbes piece, Kotler observed,

Cox thinks we need to figure out how to divvy up the pie into thinner slices, our argument is that it’s time to learn how to bake more pies—but for this discussion that’s actually a little beside the point. My bigger point is that we both think the world needs big change and fast. The means are less important to me. Do I think rationing is a reasonable long-term solution? Absolutely not. Do I think rationing would be a kick ass driver for innovation? Absolutely.

He goes on, “What I really like here is how much rationing would tick people off. It would make ‘em nuts. Congressmen would lose their jobs. Politicians would get voted out of office. But it would drive innovation—which, at least to me, is the real point.”

So, coming from very different views of the future, Kotler and I both see the need for a thoroughgoing transformation of our economic system and a positive role for rationing. How is that possible?

While they stress that new technology is only one of four forces that will make the future better, Kotler’s and Diamandis’s vision would still depend on some remarkable technological advances being made. They believe that will happen; I have serious doubts that it will. But I don’t think either of us would argue that we should wait for a rising tide of innovation simply to sweep us all into utopia. We must accept only those innovations that will make it possible to live in the future with a smaller total ecological footprint—and a much fairer sharing of that footprint across the world’s population.

I believe it is entirely possible to pull our economy back within necessary ecological boundaries, fairly,  while still encouraging the kinds of innovation that would make abundance (properly defined) possible in the future.

Ecological economist Robert Costanza has put this idea in vivid terms. In 1999, Costanza wrote an essay that offered four visions of alternative futures. He argued that for civilization to endure intact through the coming century, we will be compelled to make the right choice between two divergent paths that the human economy might take. The choice of path, he wrote, was a choice between two worldviews: that of the “technological optimist” or of the “technological
1861.coverskeptic.” To optimists, competition and self-interest drive progress, and technical innovation can deal with any challenge. To skeptics, cooperation and partnership drive progress; technology must not transgress ecological boundaries; and humans must work with nature rather than trying to control it. Because the world can exist in only one state at a time, either the optimists or the skeptics, but not both, can be right in their assumptions about the real state of the world. Depending on which worldview we let guide our actions—and, crucially, on which worldview turns out be the correct one—we will see, in Costanza’s view (and using nicknames he assigned), one and only one of these four scenarios come to pass:

* A “Star Trek” future, if we act in accordance with the technological optimists’ worldview (waiting for the market and technology to lead the way and then following) and the optimists turn out to have been right.

* A “Mad Max” future, if we act in accordance with the technological optimists’ worldview and they’re wrong.

* An “Ecotopia” future, if we act in accordance with the technological skeptics’ worldview (restraining resource consumption and economic activity within strict ecological boundaries) and they turn out to have been right.

* A “Big Government” future, if we act in accordance with the technological skeptics’ worldview but it turns out that the optimists, not the skeptics, were right all along.

The names that Costanza gave to these alternative futures tell the story. In his Star Trek world, seemingly miraculous climate-neutral energy technologies emerge to make a life of space exploration and leisure possible for twenty million human beings. In a Mad Max world, by contrast, gambling on the emergence of world-saving technologies will have turned out to be a big mistake. Such progress never happens. The world is run by greedy corporations rather than governments, and the few people lucky enough to get jobs slave away for ninety to a hundred hours a week, and everyone else scrambles for food and shelter in sprawling slums. (And, as in the film, you can get yourself killed over a gallon of gas.)

If, however, we plan not to be bailed out by technology (even if we think there’s a chance we will be), we would, says Costanza, come to live in Ecotopia, named with a nod to Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel. This world would feature largely self-sufficient small villages with resources allocated on a frugal, fair-shares basis, and equitable distribution, electronic rather than physical travel, high quality of life, and 20-hour work weeks. But if we follow the techno-skeptic’s quest for Ecotopia only to find that the technological optimists were right, it will be a world of Big Government that awaits, with ample resources and marvelous technologies available but with high resource taxes and economic stagnation.

In outlining these possibilities, Costanza was leading up to an argument for how to select a course of action through worst-case analysis. He wrote, “From the perspective of game theory, this problem has a fairly definitive answer. This is a game that can be played only once, and the relative possibilities of each outcome are completely unknown. In addition, we can assume that society as a whole should be risk-averse in this situation” (my emphasis). Costanza notes that of the four scenarios, only the Mad Max world would be intolerable. Big-Government world—the other scenario that would result if we base our actions on incorrect assumptions—would not be anyone’s first choice, but it would be a cakewalk compared with Mad Max (and unlike the Mad Max world, it would not be an irreversible condition.) Therefore, he argued, if the goal is to avoid risking the “worst worst case,” a wise society will act in accord with the technological skeptic’s worldview, whatever our actual degree of technological optimism or pessimism.

The skeptical approach, Costanza went on, has the added virtue of keeping all options open. In either the Ecotopia or Big Government world, we will have retained the capacity to take advantage (carefully) of any useful new technologies that do come along. In fact, as Kotler notes, restraint in resource exploitation could stimulate discovery of useful technologies that might not arise in a more profligate society.

We must encourage efficiency, but not depend on efficiency to solve our problems. The godfather of modern ecological economics, Herman Daly, has written that a “frugality-first” policy designed to limit economies’ “throughput”—the process that begins with depletion and ends with pollution—is always to be preferred over the “efficiency-first” approach recommended by most economists. That is because, he has written, “a policy of ‘frugality first’ induces efficiency as a secondary consequence; ‘efficiency first’ does not induce frugality–it makes frugality less necessary.” Or, he perhaps should have written, “it makes frugality seem less necessary.”

When it comes to resources and technology, and with the ecological cliff lying ahead, we’ll need to have high ambitions and low expectations, and act accordingly.

Stan Cox is a senior plant breeder at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. His book Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing was published by The New Press this month. Write to him at t.sta@cox.net. And hear Cox and Kotler discuss rationing and other issues on NPR’s On Point.