Gloom reigns supreme. Any thought of progress is scoffed at. According to the received wisdom, the earth’s “carrying capacity” will not permit global prosperity and “human nature” guarantees that any attempt to advance beyond capitalism will end in tears. Challenging these grim prognoses requires a “technofix” approach, and that is what the reader will find in the following pages.
The planet’s capacity to comfortably accommodate us is limited only by the application of human ingenuity, something we are never going to run out of. Food production can be increased by making better use of land and water resources, modernizing backward agriculture, and developing higher yielding and more resilient varieties of crops and livestock. Our increasing energy needs can be met from an array of old and new resources. The fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – on which we presently rely so very heavily, are ample enough, with the application of better methods of extraction and processing, to continue playing a major role for quite some time, and they can do so while keeping CO2 emissions within reasonable limits. In the longer run other energy resources will take on a greater importance, as their technologies develop and their costs decline. The options in view include sun, wind and wave, as well as uranium and thorium for nuclear power, and the geothermal energy beneath our feet. Then there are others we can only dimly foresee, if at all. At the same time, we will find all the raw materials we need to produce ever increasing quantities of goods and services. Most of these materials are in great abundance and are bound to become cheaper with new methods and new opportunities to substitute less costly for more costly ones.
We can get what we want without threatening the biosphere’s “life support systems”. While our impact on the natural environment is extensive, it is nothing compared with the battering that the earth withstands on a regular basis from super volcanoes, meteors and ice ages. Furthermore, progress leads to cleaner technologies and better knowledge of how to conserve and manage ecosystems.
We will definitely be making increasing use of our large and expanding carrying capacity as the economies of developing countries continue to grow, albeit patchily. By mid century the number of countries and proportion of the world’s population in the affluent category will have increased significantly. Others will follow later in the century with some stragglers such as Sub-Saharan Africa taking until early in the 22nd century.
As the world’s population increases from its present 6.5 billion to 9 or 10 billion in the second half the century (at which point it is expected to plateau, at least temporarily), a 2.5 to 3 fold increase in grain production will provide everyone with all the food they need, including produce from grain fed livestock. This can be achieved mid century with an average annual production growth rate of 2 per cent. A slower rate would only mean a delay by several decades.
As the century progresses an increasing proportion of the developing world will reach the per capita energy consumption levels presently achieved in the rich countries. Total per capita energy production for a world with 9 billion people requires a 4.5 fold increase to reach the current rich country average. For a world with 10 billion, a 5 fold increase is required. These increases could easily be achieved this century if we maintain the growth rates seen in recent times and those expected in the next few decades. We can expect raw material needs to grow at a similar pace given they are used to build the industries, infrastructure, motor vehicles and homes that use the energy.
We can expect to see the demand on resources by the countries that are already rich to decline in importance. Their food consumption will stabilize given that their population is not expected to grow much beyond its current level of around one billion and satiation levels have been generally achieved. Being at the technology frontier their economies will grow more slowly than those of catch-up countries. Also their stage of development and static population means less expansion of energy intensive production such as heating, cooling, transport and infrastructure.
Being permanently stuck with capitalism is certainly a gloomy thought. Affluence on average conceals gross inequality, and whatever affluence is achieved is for most people accompanied by alienating employment and limited personal development. If human nature has made capitalism necessary, it was because we needed profit seeking capitalists to make us work. However, in the developed economies this is becoming less and less the case as technological progress transforms work generally into something which we want to do primarily for its own sake. On average it is becoming more interesting, complex and challenging as evidenced by the fact that over half the present workforce requires post-secondary training. Most of the really dreadful, dangerous and exhausting jobs have already disappeared and with increasing automation most of the dreary and menial ones will decline over the course of coming decades. Furthermore, under these new conditions, collective ownership by willing producers provides a more efficient economic motive force than ownership by a master class. It can more effectively tap into the creative powers of the vast majority and is not hidebound by sectional interest.
Any case for collective ownership, of course, has to pay heed to the prevailing view that the economically inefficient police states in the “communist” countries have shown that socialism is inherently flawed. As argued in the final chapter, socialism’s lack of success in those countries was mainly due to the fact that they were only beginning to emerge from feudalism. Just getting capitalism to develop in such backward conditions is a mighty achievement, let alone socialism. A socialist revolution in North America or western Europe, while having its own challenges, would be on far firmer ground. In particular, there is the transformation of work just referred to plus the fact that it is carried out by a working class that is in the majority, is educated, is worldly wise, understands what the revolution is about and is not easily browbeaten.
A somewhat more obscure argument against socialism which economists raise is also addressed. They argue that we cannot do without capitalism because we require markets for intermediate goods. These are the inputs that firms obtain from other firms for use in the production processes, and include raw materials, components, factory buildings and machinery. According to this view, if you do not have market relations you are stuck with top-down direction of what is produced and by whom, and this is a method which becomes increasingly ineffective as the economy becomes more complex. As argued in the final chapter, they are right about identifying markets for intermediate goods with capitalism but mistaken in their belief that decentralized price setting and resource allocation requires a market exchange.
Of course, radical change does not occur just because conditions for it are favorable. We have to understand what has happened and then act. With anything new and daunting, it takes a while to catch on and then leap into the unknown. And when we finally make a move we are bound to confront a steep learning curve and considerable resistance from remaining supporters of the existing order. So while the future is a bright one, the road ahead may still be long and bumpy.