A Direction in the Chaos

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Whether called “free market,” globalization,” neo-liberalism, or something else, the West’s prevailing business and economic system is sputtering. A totally new social contract will have to displace it because the present system appears incapable of meeting our needs in the 21st century.

The old system featured conflict between labor and capital. In the 20th century we fought wars over the capitalist-communist divide. Capital limited expansion of industry, so ROI and growth guided that expansion. But if expansion is limited, that whole pattern of thought has to go the way of communism. We need a system that recognizes that we are now limited by the capacity of nature and by the energy that we can obtain. The guidance system for this is based on the objective of a new social contract:

Preserve essential life, as a system.”

Decoding this phrase, it means to become dedicated to living within the bounds of earth; what it can provide, and what it can absorb. To make progress toward that as a goal, financial numbers and ROIs are not good guides. We have to think more systemically, balancing multiple goals – welfare of all stakeholders, and long-term viability of life, just to start a list. Which means that we have to become much better learners than in the past if we must be constantly adapting.

But what are some indicators that neoliberalism Is faltering? Governments’ world-wide competing to attract technology and business investment is one. Through economic development programs, nations, states, and cities compete against each other to attract jobs, preferably higher paying technical ones, but if not, any jobs. These are bidding contests to attract external capital that hopefully will increase money flow coming from elsewhere – the great global rush. Companies play the bidders against each other. But, all over the world, from Kolkata to Kansas, this rush bypasses billions of people.

An example of the global rush is Thailand 4.0, a Thai government initiative beckoning high-tech foreign companies to invest in Thailand. Past strategy elevated many Thais to middle class, but they want “knowledge work” to escape the “middle income trap,” dependence on blue collar work. Thailand is investing $8.5 billion or more in research institutes, higher education, and infrastructure, following a path well-worn by Singapore, South Korea and others. Western tech companies are eying this bait.

Voters in advanced countries now howl about job loss. Many yearn for a version of the past: abundant blue-collar, middle class jobs that technology and lean operations are making obsolete. Advanced manufacturers today seek, not millions of blue-collar workers, but fewer highly qualified people – that they can’t find. All players in this game want to boost technology-fueled economic growth. But suppose technology growth is a mirage and economic growth is no longer a magic elixir.

Over the past 35 years millions of blue collar jobs have been wiped out in all developed economies. Even deeper loses are projected. For example, an Oxford study projects that robots and artificial intelligence will eliminate 47% of all current jobs in the next 25 years, and the gurus can’t imagine what would replace them. (The study is from Cambridge, but most quotes are from Wharton.)

Predicting that jobs would sink into a black hole is not new. In the 1920s Keynes foresaw such deep job losses from mechanization that he proposed cutting the work week by half. It didn’t happen, so what did? The hole was filled by demand for stuff that hadn’t been invented yet. Marketers stepped into this breech, saturating us with buy messages. They induced so much demand for “stuff” that household debt ballooned, while from an environmental view, the marketers set us up for oblivion.

Economists contemplating this new robotic job void propose giving everyone a guaranteed income, a system that could be used to ration consumption as well as boost it. In a flash of cultural insight, the Wharton team also observed that the unemployed need a new purpose in life. That’s Huge – before factoring in environmental limits.

However, orthodox economists hold that recovery from the 2008 implosion has kicked in; expansion as usual is continuing. Their economic models extrapolate from the past, ignoring evidence from outside the models that the system is sinking in its own success. And their fundamental assumptions seem more and more dubious:

  1. Economic expansion is both necessary and unlimited.
  2. Technical advance = productivity improvement = economic expansion.
  3. Minimizing crucial dependencies by comparing everything by dollars. (A dollar’s worth of potato chips = a dollar’s worth of IC chips = a dollar’s worth of water – but all life and much else utterly depend on water.)
  4. Money (capital) is the lifeblood of the system. (Ergo, measure and control the money and you control the system – but what does the system really control.)

Squelching these assumptions leads to a new world. It’s comprehensible only through a new mindset and new visions, even if these are only outlines in the fog. These visions may learn from laissez faire capitalism, state socialism, communism, and tribal communitarianism – but we can’t go back to any of them. We are entering uncharted territory. We have to learn fast and we have to learn vigorously.

Futuristic visions? There’s no shortage of all kinds, each influenced by the futurist’s background and beliefs. Most project adoption of a technology; any environmental snags are easily overcome. None can factor in “everything.” Only the environmentally alarmed deeply explore resource shortages and environmental degradation. These scenarios span a gloomy range. Will barbaric remnants of humanity barely survive the ruins of the 21st century? Will humans be subjugated by a robotic internet of things, by an intelligence far beyond human understanding? And if we serve no purpose except being resource pigs, might this great digital brain exterminate us all?

People ignore doomsday predictions with no escape hatch. For example, although now retracted, James Lovelock once predicted that global human population had to decrease from 7-8 billion down to 1 billion during the 21st century. He left us to imagine how – natural disasters, famines, wars, genocides, draconian birth control. E.O. Wilson’s proposal isn’t doomsday: return half of earth to nature, but does not propose how to change human systems and thinking to do it. Well-integrated combinations of ideas from many perspectives are hard to pull together, and after doing all that work, even the best would be only one possibility in a vast sea of unknowns yet to unfold.

Rosy projections “sell” the best, rosy because they presume that technology will save us with little need for economic change. Scenarios projecting big social changes promote de-globalization and decentralization, frugal use and re-use of resources, nature regenerating itself, and most important, social justice and equality. Some spark the changes at the field level, bottom up; others lobby for top down regulation.

One of the more detailed rosy projections is Postcapitalism, by Paul Mason. He sees the current chaos as culminating in an environmentally secure world with human activity largely executed by collaborative, networked organizations.

People accept grim projections if they are part of the action and beneficiaries of it; everybody in the same boat; nobody thrown overboard.

That is, we crave a reason for existing, a reason beyond material consumption, a reason for tending our personal heath and bodily functions: serve other humans, serve nature, learn something not already known, do something not previously done. Make progress – but promoting life rather than poisoning it. Here’s Compression’s proposed guidance:

Preserve essential life, as a system.”

That is, the purpose of life is more life, the perpetuating instinct of every form or life. Nothing is more basic than that. But humans have now acquired such dominance that we have to perpetuate all essential life, not just preserve our own. The paradoxical contradiction is that this is in our own self-interest.

An economic framework supporting this objective, and with parallels to Compression, is by Carl Leitz who regularly posts on Quora. He proposes “Valuenomics,” which is: Value = Nature = Life. He posits a non-profit society that regards nature as the sole source of all life. Raise and balance standards of life for all organisms. Let science and technology aid a global transformation, not inhibit it. Leitz hazards no guesstimate of population reduction, but sees that deep human transformation is urgent. This is Way Bigger than Huge. But being abstract, Carl’s posts attract few up votes.

Human transformation based on preserving all life goes by different names. Deep Ecology is one. Empathy for others is another. (Empathy Deficit Disorder was briefly a political buzz phrase that stirred debate on what it meant. Can one can have too much empathy? The debate flirted with evolving a serious new human belief system: complex, not totally consistent, and reinforced by customs.)

How do we alter old beliefs to evolve a new system? Learn to function by new rules – do things differently. In time we learn to believe and behave differently.

For example, can we learn to apply more strictly the Precautionary Principle, putting the proof of doing no harm on the party taking an action before they take it? Start simple. Don’t use any pesticide without examining what all it will harm.

At a bigger scale this rapidly becomes messy. The bias of American law and beliefs burdens those harmed to prove harm – after it happens. Flipping this belief system obligates us to become much better learners. Toxins and endocrine disruptors are a good example.

Toxicity is complex; causality is hard to establish. Harm may not be recognized while it is slowly accumulating, so denial is easy. For example, proof that toxins decrease male sperm counts relies on studies that are difficult to control (no kidding!). Decreases over time in some geographic areas are unmistakable, but not in others. A global trend is not evident; however, plenty of evidence ties low sperm counts to low-level exposure to a number of chemicals. A sobering thought is that we could stop overpopulating by unintentionally sterilizing humans, animals, and maybe even plants!

So how do we apply the Precautionary Principle? Researchers standing by it are adamant that we should not release into the environment any chemical that shrivels testes or develops cancers in test mice. Neither profits nor jobs are worth that risk.

Big, drastic changes await us. To navigate them, besides a new guiding star, we need to widely develop a culture of learning. We need to develop Vigorous Learning Organizations. That’s only one partial vision, but we know how to head in that direction.

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