The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label cornucopians. Show all posts
Showing posts with label cornucopians. Show all posts

Monday, November 15, 2021

Limitarians and Cornucopians: what Surprises from Technological Progress?


Resource depletion, ecosystem disruption, population growth, and technological change are interacting with each other in a tsunami of changes that always take us by surprise. The surprises that technological progress may be bringing are among the most unpredictable drivers of change. Yet, it is not impossible to reason about how our society could be transformed by some disruptive technological innovations. Here, Luca Pardi discusses the most recent report by "RethinkX," a group of remarkably sharp and creative people. They are hard to define as "pessimists" or "optimists," but they surely understand that change is unavoidable. 

by Luca Pardi

The debate among limitarians (Robeyns, 2017) and cornucopians is periodically morphing into that among doomsters and optimist-utopians. The limitarians have a generally gloomy view about the future availability of resources while the cornucopians tend to believe that shortages, always possible for many reasons in the short run, were proved not to be a problem in the past, so will not be in the future, at least in the long run. Doomsters-limitarians are also pessimistic about the environmental crisis and its paradigmatic representation: the climate change predicament. Optimists retort that the problem is amplified by anti-capitalistic ideological views and that a combination of technology and local and global policies will draw us, as has always been the case in history, out of dire straits. And the debate goes on forever!

There is a Think Tank named RethinkX that tries to be above or, better, ahead of this ideological deadlock. They are both: doomsters and optimists with a strong slant toward technological disruptive innovations. In a crescendo of techno-optimistic hypes they reach a climax in their last document Rethinking Humanity where they envisage that:

The prevailing production system will shift away from a model of centralized extraction and the breakdown of scarce resources that requires vast physical scale and reach, to a model of localized creation from limitless, ubiquitous building blocks – a world built not on coal, oil, steel, livestock, and concrete but on photons, electrons, DNA, molecules and (q)bits. [page 5]

This amazing statement summarizes and amplifies the outcomes of their previous documents about food, energy, and mobility. According to RethinkX each of the main five producing sectors of our global civilization: food and energy production, materials extraction, mobility, and communication/information, will witness a jump of at least one order of magnitude in efficiency, thanks to a combination of Schumpeterian (disruptive) innovation and cultural change within local communities. All of this in the span of time between now and 2035. Pretty good!

And here it comes the doomsters side.

The intervening decade will be turbulent, destabilized both by technology disruptions that upend the foundations of the global economy and by system shocks from pandemics, geopolitical conflict, natural disasters, financial crises, and social unrest that could lead to dramatic tipping points for humanity including mass migrations and even war. In the face of each new crisis we will be tempted to look backward rather than forward, to mistake ideology and dogma for reason and wisdom, to turn on each other instead of trusting one another. If we hold strong, we can emerge together to create the wealthiest, healthiest, most extraordinary civilization in history. If we do not, we will join the ranks of every other failed civilization for future historians to puzzle over. Our children will either thank us for bringing them an Age of Freedom, or curse us for condemning them to another dark age. The choice is ours. [page 6]

A new dark age is not ruled out, the apparently tragic outcome of an unrealized transition, should press us to act now. And “us” is not a general “us” it is exactly us, you that are reading this post as well as me writing it and those who generally in the last few decades showed to be concerned about the destiny of humanity and civilization. Incumbent leading classes are not included in the “us” they are simply unable to help much:

Dark ages do not occur for lack of sunshine, but for lack of leadership. The established centers of power, the U.S., Europe, or China, handicapped by incumbent mindsets, beliefs, interests, and institutions, are unlikely to lead. In a globally competitive world, smaller, hungrier, more adaptable communities, cities, or states such as Israel, Mumbai, Dubai, Singapore, Lagos, Shanghai, California, or Seattle are more likely to develop a winning Organizing System.[page 6]

They do not say that there will be salvation, but that we have the technical means and the human resources, to get there. It is a question of finding the social and political means.

The fact that technology is always a source of new problems is a useless truth and useless is to complain about it. Taking technology away from humans would be like removing fangs from lions or stings from wasps. We have been like this since before we were Homo sapiens. Five million years ago Homo habilis was already doing things our chimpanzee cousins ​​can't. Humans must follow their path to the end because it is theirs. Fortunately, the path is not unique and our intelligence must apply to understand which paths appear to be less traumatic. The bad news is that nobody will come to save us from outside leading the cavalry, we are alone.

Is this actually bad news?


Robeyns, I., 2017. Wellbeing, freedom and social justice: the capability approach re-examined. OpenBook Publishers, Cambridge, UK.


Luca Pardi is a senior researcher in chemistry at the Italian Research Council (CNR), former president of the Italian section of the association for the study of peak oil (ASPO). He is the author of the recent book "Picco per Capre" dedicated to peak oil