I align with most of what is written, and a lot of “almost got it”s in this article.
There are three major aspects to the growth of productivity:
Materials available; and
Technology available (knowledge/information).
Initially, the energy was only that of human labour, but that was then added to by domesticated animals, buffalo and horses in particular, and by fire, then by water and steam, then coal, and more recently oil powered combustion engines.
Lots of other sources.
Almost all our energy is some form of solar energy, either direct or indirect. Fossil fuels (oil and coal) are in all cases (as is wind or hydro), by some series of indirect steps and stages, in largest measure some form of stored solar energy (even the limestone involved in deep synthesis is biological in origin).
Solar energy hitting the planet directly is equivalent to a layer of oil over the entire planet some 6 inches (15cm) deep every year. Solar dwarfs all other energy sources by a significant margin. When one considers the energy available in orbit, it is easy to conceive of every person having access to as much energy as humanity as a whole currently uses.
We are not really short of energy, just appropriate technologies to harness it.
In the past, we relied mainly on biological or geological process to produce what we needed.
Thus we would grow things, catch things or mine things.
We are now starting to understand chemistry and manufacturing technologies to the point that we can work with elements in almost any concentration.
Within a few years we will have the technology to mine and manufacture at the atomic level.
At that point, there will be no scarcity of any material.
We live on a vast ball of matter.
Matter is not a problem.
Technology is about information. What we know how to do.
Initially we had to each learn things by trial and error, or be shown how to do something by someone who knew how.
Once we developed writing, we could store and retrieve that sort of information.
Now we have automation, and our ability to process information is doubling in under a year.
So we are seeing ever more efficient ways to harness energy, to process materials, to automate processes so that people do not need to be involved much if at all.
So we are not now constrained by our ability to produce stuff, either goods or services.
The major constraint we now have is our ways of thinking about things, and the goals and values we have.
So that brings us to a theory of value.
What is value?
I am now clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that just as most of our energy is ultimately solar, so most of our values are ultimately about survival.
Why do we have the likes and dislikes we have?
Ultimately because either at the genetic, or at the cultural, level, those values survived better than all the other variants, and ended up in us.
That’s it in a nutshell.
Many variations on themes in there.
Liking sex is pretty obvious, if our ancestors didn’t then there isn’t much chance of us being here.
Liking sweet foods is similar, plants that developed the trick of putting high energy sugars near their seeds managed to get their seeds dispersed more effectively by animals than those that didn’t. We need the high energy content. Our big brains in particular use a lot of energy.
Bad smells are associated with things that were dangerous to our ancestors.
Good smells things that were advantageous to our ancestors. On average, over time, in both cases.
When it comes to culture, the same general theme applies. We get to hear the stories that other people tell us. Lots of factors involved in what gets told in what contexts and what doesn’t – really complex, and ultimately all about the stories that survive by being told.
So those philosophers that claim that one “cannot derive an ought from an is” simply have not considered the “is”s of the many levels and contexts of games theory and evolution more generally.
Each of us as humans has to find some way to survive.
We put in effort doing things we may not enjoy much at all, if we can see a survival benefit in doing so (at some level).
So for each of us, value comes down to a variety of measures:
how much time (a temporal measure of survival) does it take to get something one way verses another way?
what are the likely risks associated with this and known alternative strategies?
what contexts are we likely to encounter in the future?
what sort of discount rates seem appropriate on future over current benefits?
what are the likely survival values of past strategies (genetic or cultural) in our current exponentially changing world?
how likely is it that technology will achieve full automation sometime soon?
how likely is it that indefinite life extension will become a reality?
Different people address the assumptions and heuristics implicit in these (and other) sets of questions at different levels.
We are very complex entities.
We have very complex sets of values that are highly context sensitive – each and every one of us.
Fraudulent behaviour is not only possible, it seems to be the norm at higher levels.
In a very real sense, the whole of economics is fraudulent, in as much as it claims to be of general benefit to the majority of humanity. That cannot be so.
Market based systems require scarcity to deliver value.
No market system, in and of its own internal incentive structures, will ever deliver universal abundance of anything.
Universal abundance always has zero or less market value!
Much as I respected and admired Milton Friedman, he was wrong to assert that competition will right most wrongs, and he admitted as much to me on 15th March 2003, once he understood the power of technology to deliver universal abundance.
Compared to automating and decentralising production to the point that we all have our own fully automated nano-tech factories (not yet technical reality and not that far away) any form of market exchange is inefficient.
The age of markets is drawing to an end.
The age of abundance is dawning, if, and only if, we can get over the scarcity imposed by market thinking, and liberate both our creativity and technology from artificially imposed scarcity.
We have some real issues.
There are some individuals for whom hate and destruction is more abundant than love and creativity.
And they can be relatively easily identified, and constrained sufficiently that they do not pose a significant risk to anyone else.
And some issues really are complex, extremely complex.
Freedom must logically result in diversity.
Things can only get even more strange, even more complex, even with the best will in the world.
We need to get over markets, and start delivering technologies that support life and liberty universally.
And liberty is not licence, it contains responsibilities to show reasonable care and attention to the reasonable needs of others (no hard boundaries there, all flexible in many dimensions and highly context sensitive).
Reality is very complex, with a great deal of uncertainty – we need to accept that, and learn to dance with it in a sense. And there is no need for anyone to have to be in need of the basic necessities of life, and there is a need to constrain human reproduction.