Recently I have been devoting a lot of thought to what life in the rest of the twenty-first century might be like. No doubt that is because, like so many old folks, I find myself playing with vague ideas about vague topics. Or perhaps it is the ideas that, floating in the air, are playing games with me? Anyhow. Some authors, looking forward to global peace, the suppression of poverty, advancing medical science, moral progress (yes, there are people who believe it is actually taking place) and similar goodies believe that the future will be heaven. When I was much, much younger, writing an essay about the “ideal” future and my hope of living to see it come about, I myself took this view. Others, perhaps more numerous, keep warning us that it will be hell. As, for example, when we run out of resources, or when growing economic inequality leads to violent disturbances culminating, perhaps, in war.
So here are some thoughts on the matter. spread over this week and the two following ones. They are framed in terms of tentative answers to ten critical questions, arbitrarily selected and here presented in no particular order like fruit in a salad. Enjoy the feast!
1. Will war be abolished? Whether war is due to the fragmented nature of human society, which never in the whole of history has been subject to a single government, or to the fact that resources are always limited and competition for them intense, or to tensions within the various war-waging polities, or the aggression and will to power that are part of our nature, I shall not presume to judge. Probably all these factors are involved; as indeed they have been ever since the first band of nomadic hunter-gatherers, wielding clubs and stones, set out to fight its neighbor over such things as access to water, or quarry, or berries, or women, as well as things vaguely known as honor, prestige, deterrence, etc.
One and all, these factors are as active, and as urgent, today as they have always been. That is why all previous hopes and efforts to put an end to armed conflict have come to naught. In the words of the seventeenth-century English statesman and jurist, Francis Bacon: There will never be a shortage of “seditions and troubles;” some of which will surely lead to politically-motivated, socially-approved, organized violence, AKA war.
2. Will we run out of resources? The fear that the point is arriving, if it has not done so already, where we humans exhaust the earth’s resources has been with us at least since the Christian writer Tertullian in the second half of the second century CE. And not without reason, as it seemed. At this time about one quarter of the population of the Roman Empire died of plague, perhaps reducing the total number from 80 to about 60 million.
Bad as it was, the crisis did not last. Over the two millennia since then the number of people living on this earth has increased about thirtyfold. No other plague, no war however destructive, has succeeded in permanently halting growth. During the same period the amount of resources extracted and/or consumed each year has grown by a factor of a thousand or more. Tet thanks to techniques such as saving, substitution, recycling and, above all, broadly-based technological progress, world-wide more people can afford to buy and consume a greater variety of resources than ever in the past. Recently the growing use of fracking for extracting shale oil has brought about a situation where even energy, which for over four decades has bedeviled the world by its ups and downs, has become available at a reasonable price and looks as if it will continue to do so; instead of peak oil, it seems that prices have peaked.
In brief: Tertullian, Malthus and their countless fellow prophets of economic doom, major and minor, are wrong. Local and temporary bottlenecks have always existed. One need only think of the shortage of wood and charcoal that led to their being replaced by coal, helping usher in the industrial Revolution in England. They will, no doubt, continue to do so in the future too. Pace Al Gore and his fellow “environs,” though, shortages so serious as to disrupt global economic life for any length of time are not in the cards. One could even argue that, given the background of continuing economic recession, many raw materials are underpriced; just look at what happened to the shares of Anglo-American from 2008 on.
3. Will poverty disappear? Some people think so. Pointing to the fact that, over the last two centuries or so, the standard of living in the most advanced countries has increased about thirty-fold, they expect prosperity to spread like ripples in a pool. It is indeed true that, except when it is deliberately manufactured as part of war, famine, famine of the kind that used to be common even in Europe before 1700 or so, has largely become a thing of the past.
That more present-day people can afford more and/or better food, hygienic facilities, clothing, warmth, housing, transportation, communication, entertainment, and many other things than ever before is obvious. No ancient treasure trove, no Ali Baba cave, could offer anything like the wares on display in any large department store. Even the Sun King himself did not enjoy many of the amenities which are now standard in any but the poorest French households.
There are, however, three problems. The first is that poverty is psychological as well as material. Of the two kinds, the former is much harder to eradicate than the latter. This is brought out by the fact that, even in Denmark which has the lowest poverty rate of any OECD country, just over five percent of the population say that they cannot afford food.
Second, poverty and its opposite, wealth, are not absolute but relative. People do not look just at what they themselves own, earn, consume and enjoy. They are at least as interested in the same factors as they affect their neighbors, role models, and enemies.
Third, the scale along which poverty operates is not fixed but sliding. When new products appear they are almost always luxuries, at any rate in the sense that, before they did so, no one felt any need for them. As time passes, though, luxuries have a strong tendency to turn into necessities. The histories of automobiles, personal computers, and mobile telephones all illustrate this very well. Each one caused life to re-structure itself until it became absolutely indispensable. Once this happened anyone who could not afford the product in question would define himself, and be defined by others, as poor; even if his economic situation was satisfactory in other respects.
Quite some economists go further still. They claim that inequality is growing. Also that, unless some pretty drastic measures, such as a 100 percent inheritance tax, are implemented, serious upheavals are going to upset even the richest and most advanced societies. But such a tax itself is likely to cause quite as many upheavals as it was designed to prevent. In brief: wealthy as future societies may become, there is no reason to believe that poverty will be abolished.
How is that for a starter? See you next week.