The singularity occurs on January 26th 2065 when an automated IKEA factory becomes self-aware and commences converting all global resources to flat pack furniture. Until then – endless innovation on information technology and cybernetics will accelerate and continue to push the limits of what it is to be human and to challenge the adaptability of social structures. New movements, fads, music, designer drugs, cat videos and dance moves will sweep the planet like Mexican waves in the zeitgeist. Materials will be stronger and lighter. Life will be cluttered with holographic TV’s, waterless washing machines, ultrasonic blenders, quantum computers, hover cars and artificially intelligent phones. Annoying phones that cry when you don’t charge them – taking on that role from cars that beep when you don’t put a seat belt on. Space capable flying cars will have seat belts that lock and tension without any intervention of your part. All this will use vastly more energy and materials this century as populations grow and wealth increases.
Coming from a long line of poor white trash – I can see the value of economic growth and am magnanimous enough to wish my moderately comfortable lifestyle on billions of other people. For my money it starts with robust democracies. To quote from Hayek if I may – an enlightenment liberal has a commitment to ‘political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force.’ The outcome is a social contract – the rule of law – that is compromise arrived at in the cut and thrust of politics. It may be obvious that democracy is the foundation for social progress – but it is always worth restating. Under the rubric of democracy freedom, invention, cultural renewal and self-actualisation flourish.
The mechanics of growth are mainstream economics. Markets need fair, transparent and accessible laws – including on open and informed markets, labour laws, environmental conservation, consumer protection and whatever else is arrived at in the political arena. Optimal tax take is some 23% of GDP and government budgets are balanced. Interest rates are best managed through the overnight cash market to restrain inflation to a 2% to 3% target. These nuts and bolts of market management keep economies on a stable – as far as is possible – growth trajectory. There are limits to growth from increased capital and labour inputs – and many economies are far from those limits. There are no limits to growth from ideas and innovation – grossly simplistic math of exponential growth notwithstanding.
The idea that economic growth brings us up against planetary limits is wrong. The reverse is true. Poverty creates a downward spiral of land degradation, water runoff and soil loss, exploitation of forests and woodland and overexploitation of fauna. What is left behind are dustbowls all over the planet. Reversing this is the key to economic progress in many places. Scientific interventions that make people better off are increasing global agricultural productivity. It is happening on both large and small holdings – and includes the potential for genetic engineering to play a part. It includes also precision agriculture – reducing inputs for increased productivity and less environmental impact – and conservation farming. It includes ordinary people and such things as “food forests”. The latter do not just achieve exceptional productivity and diversify nutrition sources but conserve the genetic diversity of our food crops and animals. Rebuilding the organic content – and thus productivity – of soils in cropping and grazing lands conserves soil and water, drought proofs communities, reduces downstream flooding and erosion, restores environments and biodiversity and enhances food security. Reversing land degradation – 5 billion hectares globally – is the most effective way of reversing the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It succeeds with vibrant, diverse, prosperous and autonomous cultures in landscapes – and a little knowledge and organisation.
Agricultural productivity, increased downstream processing and access to markets build local economies and global wealth. Economic growth provides resources for solving problems – conserving and restoring ecosystems, better sanitation and safer water, better health and education, updating the diesel fleet and other productive assets to emit less black carbon, developing better and cheaper ways of producing electricity, replacing cooking fires with better ways of preparing food thus avoiding millions of deaths annually, etc.
Economic growth and innovation are the way forward – at the price of cyberpunks and really smart phones. Water sensitive cities reduce impacts on the water cycle. Increasing production efficiency uses less energy and materials and produces fewer harmful by-products. Higher agricultural productivity allows land to return to forest and woodlands. Progress in energy technology enables a transition to cost effective, low carbon energy sources. Many societies are more peaceful and productive than ever in history. It is a realistic view of human capacities to solve human problems and to conserve ecologies at the same time.