Monday, December 01, 2008

Circling the Drain?

What if a billion people were suddenly removed from our Planet? I had a conversation recently at a family gathering in which it was suggested that this was our only hope if we were to avoid an upcoming environmental and economic collapse.

I'm not going to even consider the residual environmental effects of what would be a massively unbalancing event. Let's assume that one billion people in Asia (only because that's where it's most densely populated) were removed in a magical way without any radiation, toxicity, or similar side-effect. Because our global economy is so interconnected I would contend that such an occurrence would probably wipe out at least another billion people and probably more in other parts of the world. Think of how many industries rely on products, parts or services made in China, Japan and India. Most global industries would grind to a halt. Food production would be affected, trade routes would be disrupted and the resulting starvation and geopolitical chaos would likely sink the world into another dark age. It would probably take at least a generation to recover from such a radical depopulating of the Earth.

I've heard some others say that things are probably not as bad as it seems. Citing historical situations in which it seemed hopeless until things changed in ways that were not anticipated. They seem to have immense faith in our capacity for technological innovation and count on these kinds of developments to save us.

I believe that the solution to the upcoming environmental and economic crisis does not require us to radically and rapidly depopulate the Earth. Nor must it rely on future technological innovations to save us. It requires another kind of innovation to help us to make necessary decisions in a way that overcomes our paralysis. I feel strongly that we already have all of the technological tools necessary to avert the collapse and that we are already aware of what needs to be done. The problem is that we are stuck in a kind of Prisoner's Dilemma.

1. If we all fail to do the right thing then we all suffer economic and environmental collapse in the future.
2. If you do the right thing but others don't then you end up suffering the collapse in the future anyway, but worse, you have the added indignity of losing out economically to your competitors and being poor until the collapse arrives.
3. If we all act to do the right thing then the worst of the collapse could be avoided.

But nobody is inclined to be the first to voluntarily take the appropriate steps to avoid collapse because they can't rely on the others to do the same. This applies inter-personally as well as internationally. Why should I sacrifice or why should Canada sacrifice when others with whom we are competing won't do the same? This is why it becomes much like what's called a Mexican Stand-Off in gangster films. Imagine a scene in which several people have guns pointed at someone else in the room. If any one of them shoots their gun then it will likely trigger a cascade of bullets and all of them will probably die. If one of them does the right thing and lowers his gun then he risks being killed by the person pointing at him who may not act as honourably. So they're all frozen in indecision until someone takes the initiative to fire or somehow convince everyone to lower their guns simultaneously.

The social innovation required is to find a way in which we can all lower the gun at the same time. The Prisoner's Dilemma is only a dilemma because each prisoner is not allowed to consult the other and to act in concert. If they were allowed to collaborate and cooperate they would arrive at the best result for both of them. We can perhaps subvert the prisoner's dilemma by communicating to each other that we will simultaneously do the right thing in order to arrive at the best possible result for everyone. The innovation which is required is social innovation and effective cooperation. Perhaps our ever-expanding access to ubiquitous media could help us to achieve this.


Anonymous said...

I disagree that the issue is social innovation. I think we have all the right social formations in the same way you suggest we have the right technology. The issue is political structure that fosters co-operation rather than combat. The problem with social innovators is that they tend to ignore politics. Certainly that's my beef with the CSI and the local scene.

sparky23 said...

I don't think that kind of population loss would be as catastrophic as it seems. Well, all at once, perhaps, but the fact remains there are too many people on this planet. Technological innovation would occur as long as the loss wasn't too socially destabilizing. But there is also a lot of bounce back potential there. When 50-60% of the European population died of plague in the mid-14th century, it was a boon to technological innovation, putting a new premium on human labor and ushering in the breakdown of the feudal system. Similar changes could be assumed in our age.

The point, perhaps, is that we just don't know. You can't assume any particular response to any particular change when talking about human society. That's what quantitatively and rationally inspired social scientists don't get. There's no formula to understand the human race...

JakeJakob said...

@Anon Despite having some friends who hang out at CSI I don't really know too much about them. I use "social" in the broadest sense to also include "politics". Social innovators can be useful for circumventing the political process which is often too slow because it is run by people suffering the same dilemma. Taking Canada as an example, look what happens to politicians who try to tell the people what needs to be done: they're either left out in the margins like the Green Party or like Stephane Dion they lose a substantial number of votes to a competing candidate who lulls the populace into complacency.

@sparky23 It's a little dangerous when we start to talk about such things because there will always be some nutcase who will decide that they have found a quick-fix "solution" and may sway people into enacting them. The resulting moral decay is never worth it.

I agree that there are many misguided social engineers who claim that they know what needs to be done but they would invariably be overrun by the unintended consequences of any drastic measure. I'm not saying I have any of the answers. All I'm hoping to encourage is a platform for communication so that we can all work on it together.

kerrjac said...

Yeah, the loss of a billion people tickles the imagination. On the positive side, my hunch is that we’d have the resources to bounce back (particularly if we don’t loss too many bright and wealthy folks). The world’s wealth is unevenly scattered, and if we assume that wealth is static, then there are lot of infinitesimally negligible countries in the world.

But wealth - & moreso progress - isn’t static, that’s the thing. Wealth & progress increase exponentially. As more people attain & rise above bare sustenance, that’s more people to contribute labor, wealth, ideas – you name it. How many potential Bill Gates, Mozarts, Einsteins, etc. have been buried under the rubble of say India’s poverty? But even aside from extreme outliers, people are the world’s best assets. USA’s current economy couldn’t have existed 200 years ago – even under the same rule – b/c there weren’t enough people. & it’s all exponential, often in bursts. It didn’t take a lot of money to discover penicillin, it took the right conditions – just one genius mind, in the right environment, not starving, able to jump on & apply a scientific discovery. I’d be foolish to predict the sorts of breakthrough’s we’ll see in the future. But I’d bet my $ that they’ll be astonishing, & that the more people in the world who are living well-off, the more there’ll be.

Losing so many people would be like any bad economic policy. Feasibly it'd be beneficial in the short-run - less people to share the wealth over - but it would lead to a drought in the long run, when you consider how growth - which is wealth's great grandmother - is built on people in the first place.

kerrjac said...

I think global warming science is flawed (check out the sun-spot theory), but I’ll meet you halfway that, say it is a problem, what next? Just as with the effect of losing a billion people, answer has to do with growth & wealth. Right now we’re the one’s pointing the guns, b/c we’re wealthiest, & we can afford to worry about global warming. Much of the current pollution comes from developing nations who are undergoing their own mini-industrial revolutions. Richer countries pollute less b/c they can afford to want to clean their cities. Theory is that after reaching an economic peak, those countries will pollute less as well. Us stopping them from doing so is hypocritical in that we were able to pollute & benefit but stopping others. & all for what's really just a theory.

Global warming is often considered a liberal cause, but the consequences of an effective international treaty reek of a big-business conservative conspiracy of preventing overseas job-loss. Again something that may even help for a few years, but at the expensive of true long-term prosperity.

People criticize evolution as being "just a theory", you also have the theory of relativity - those are gross misrepresentations, as evolution & relativity are pretty much facts of nature, proven beyond doubt. Global warming, tho not widely called out for it, is a theory, & it's still in its infancy. Even if it's true, we need more convincing science that global warming is caused by man, & that there's something we realistically do about it. Like in medicine, you weigh the pros & cons, benefits & side-effects. A drug that cures HIV is worthless if it kills you. & even if that drug's your only hope, well, you need to be damn sure that the drug is guaranteed to work. Likewise in global warming we're looking at an intervention with a very high side-effect - namely the squandering of economic progress, most likely to hit hardest the world's poorest the most. Even if time is of essence, we need to heed caution, weigh the pros & cons.

JakeJakob said...

@kerrjac In a post-disaster scenario bright people will be useful but most wealth may become mostly spectral; unless their wealth is in horded fuel and hazelnuts.

Wealthy countries are perhaps more efficient but they still cause more pollution because of the staggering amounts of consumption per individual. Even the pollution from developing countries to a large extent are being created in order to produce consumer products for developed nations.

This is the hard truth that few politicians are willing to sell; that we have to recalibrate our priorities and maybe be happy with less consumption and not just for the health of the Earth (this could lead us into psychological discussions about how people fill voids in their lives with products rather than addressing their problems).

I see your point that wealth is built on people and to a large extent is determined by growth rates but this may be what leads to our downfall. Very efficient and rapid growth left unchecked soon becomes a cancer. I believe in the power of the marketplace to solve problems especially the power of the marketplace of ideas but we need checks and balances that are informed by higher notions than the desire to win at all costs. The notion of balance does not seem to be respected and consequently leads us into pendulum swings of feast and famine.

Even if we're wrong about Global Warming the changes suggested wouldn't squander economic progress it would force industry to be more efficient.

kerrjac said...

re: "Even the pollution from developing countries to a large extent are being created in order to produce consumer products for developed nations.", that's the spread of wealth. They give us chotzkes, we give them jobs. One person's preferences regarding things that he/she can live w/o is another person's livelihood. Underlying it all is allocation of scarce resources.

Economies are volatile, but that's no reason to shy away. Job-losses & recessions are terrible, but they're usually for the better. If investors get too enthusiastic about the internet, the bubble needs to pop. Similar recession after the trans-cont. railroad was built (partly funded by gov't). The result however is the internet. If an economy gets to the point where it forgets the meaning of "credit", it deserves to put itself on hold. Hard-times all around, but the result is the internet, increased transportation, & hopefully better future financial policy. None of this would've happened w/o a free market. Rather than talking about bailing out the Big 3, we'd be negotiating w/wagon-maker unions.

I've been trying to teach myself about the economy for the past few months, & what keeps intriguing me is how you have to look backward & forward at the same time. Looking backwards only, communism/socialism, universal health care, & any sort of check on the economy actually makes a lot of sense. Looking forward tho, it's all about growth, fostering conditions that allow innovation. When it comes to something like consumption, there's a similar picture. The analogy to cancer I think is apt for the role of gov't. An artificial monopoly seems similar to a tumor. Past predictions that we'd run out of food or water overlooked future agricultural/tech innovations. I just wonder what sort of future innovations we maybe overlooking in our current predictions.