Great Transition Initiative (GTI) forum

Response to Opening essay for GTI Forum The Population Debate Revisited – Ian Lowe

[ 17/August/22 ]

I have been seriously exploring the space of survivable strategic/economic/political/technological environments since the early 70s.
Some of my recent writings are collected at https://tedhowardnz.wordpress.com/
I am searching for ways in which intelligent entities have a reasonable probability of living a very long time with reasonable degrees of freedom. It is deeply complex.
I have been on your mailing list for a long time under ted@fishnet.co.nz

The email today and link to the below initiated this response:

https://www.greattransition.org/gti-forum/population-lowe

Opening essay for GTI Forum The Population Debate Revisited
Ian Lowe
August 2022

Ian makes some very good points, but also a large set of claims that are commonly accepted but do not seem to be realistic if one actually looks at what is happening in the worlds of technology, evolutionary theory and strategy.

Some of those claims are:
1/ This intractability will continue unless we address a significant, yet underacknowledged, driver of environmental degradation, namely, the size and growth of the human population;
2/ I = PAT, with human impact I the product of P population, A affluence, and T technology;
3/ Stopping climate change tomorrow would not avoid deepening food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa; that can only happen long-term through efforts to curb population growth and foster forms of economic development that benefit poor people;
4/ In the absence of significant changes in lifestyle, energy demand is directly proportional to the number of people using the energy;
5/ it is not feasible to limit global warming to less than 2 °C if population increases in line with the mid-range UN population projections;

1/ – Size and growth of the human population will hit real limits on this planet, but right now we are not at them. So yes – we need to think seriously about them, and they are not the core issue right now.

2/ I = PAT – A very simple formula that hides vast complexity in the A (Affluence) & T (Technology) terms (Impact & Population other terms), and completely ignores the key drivers of behaviour – which is currently the paradigm of money and market based economics. The fact that lighting manufacturers have an agreement to not make long lasting lightbulbs is one example of the perverse incentive sets present. The incentive is to make profit, not to achieve affluence with long lasting low impact technologies. Yes, technology is a key factor, and at the boundaries technology is changing exponentially, and is now capable of delivering reasonable abundance to all, but there is no possible way of doing that within the existing economic structure – where we have debt based money creation and no real incentive to close all the material loops (recycle everything). It is deeply more complex than Affluence and Technology – and putting that simple equation there cements in far more issues than it solves – it is a “problem multiplier”, not a “Solution multiplier”.

3/ food insecurity, is not solvable within the current economic paradigm that most accept as reality. That does not mean that it is not solvable, it just demands that we go beyond the accepted paradigms.

4/ Energy demand. Of course changes are required, but what is actually reasonable. 20KW continuous power per person allows for the equivalent in mechanisation of 100 slaves working continuously in antiquity. That allows for what most would consider a reasonable lifestyle. That is entirely achievable, and could actually be done with solar energy gathered in either the desert of the Sahara or the desert of Australia, but would be more sensibly done distributed around many locations. It is not the reasonable needs of people that is the issue, it is the unreasonable demands of an economic system based in debt, driven by profit, promoting consumption at any cost. Focus on the real issue – do not get distracted. Oversimplifying that which is actually deeply complex is the core driver of most of our current issues.

5/ Global warming. The technology to solve global warming is in a sense trivially easy, but, it is also extremely powerful. To deploy such power in a competitive environment, is a guarantee of destruction. It is a solution worse than the problem. We need to solve global warming, and all the other climate variation threats of ice ages, supervolcanos etc, but deploying technologies of sufficient power to do so demands that we have economic and political systems that acknowledge the need for fundamental cooperation and acceptance of diversity underlying all competitive systems we may build upon that base. The notion of freedom, without the acceptance of the diversity that must logically result from any real expression of freedom, is neither logical nor survivable. Freedom, without responsibility for the necessary sets of constraints required to support the systems that make that level of freedom possible, is not possible either. Any and all levels of freedom come with necessary and deeply complex sets of responsibilities, if they are to survive long term.

This approach as currently framed is actually driving the fascist movement, as the levels of awareness and logic used are not capable of generating survivable outcomes. Sorry, but that is as close to factual as it gets (for someone like me with fundamentally probabilistic views on all non-trivial subjects).

Less Is More
Contribution to GTI Forum The Population Debate Revisited
Eileen Crist
August 2022

I was going along well with everything written right up to the point of this sentence:
“Growing food is not an engineering problem for technocrats to solve with efficiency schemes and micromanagement. Growing food is the art of farmers in dialogue with Earth’s bounteous fertility.” Sorry, but we past the point where that could solve the food issue in about 1960. Technology is the only way forward, but technology needs to decouple from current economic practice. There is some very good work being done in some economic circles, but few have yet come to the realisation that using markets to measure value fails in the presence of advanced automation. Market values are no longer a reasonable indicator or proxy for survivable options.

And we need technology to solve for a very large class of well characterised existential level threats. Low tech is not a long term survivable option.

We need to look at the system as a whole.
We need to understand the depths of biology, both at the biochemical levels and at the levels of evolutionary strategy.
We need to understand the necessarily fundamental role of cooperation in the emergence and survival of all levels of complexity, and the self terminating nature of any level of competition that is not fundamentally based in cooperation.

We need to accept that the systems that got us to this point, cannot get us past this point. New levels of cooperation and responsibility are demanded of us, if any of us wish to retain reasonable levels of either security or freedom (and there is a necessary and eternal tension and balance required between those two concepts – over simplifying understandings of systems leads to overly constraining rules, eliminating freedom, and that leads to systems failure due to exogenous shocks).

The statement “To this point, the modern lifestyle is spreading, which underscores the argument: There must be far fewer of us, if humanity also desires to inhabit a biologically vibrant planet” is simply wrong.
It is true, assuming currently dominant technology and conceptual paradigms.
How many of those reading this foresaw the technology of today when they were at secondary school – including not just cell phones, but CRISPR, fibre optics, AlphaFold, … ? How many understand what technologies like molecular manufacturing can make available?
The problem is not technology. The issue is trying to solve deeply complex issues using simplistic economic metrics. That is not possible.
We can have a future that is better than most imagine possible, but not by continuing market based economics and “business as usual”, nor by using the ways of thinking and acting that got us to this point.
We must have reasonable levels of individual freedom, and that demands reasonable levels of technology and empowerment, but those also demand levels of responsibility commensurate with the levels of freedom claimed. There are no competitive solutions to that problems space that are survivable long term. Long term survival demands fundamental cooperation – all levels. And accepting any level of freedom demands that we accept and respect any and all diversity that must result from it, provided only that it is not an unreasonable threat to life or liberty – and that gets deeply complex with multiple levels of agents present simultaneously.

We need some significant fraction of the planet to return to rich biological diversity; and that can only happen if we have very advanced technology, and total restructuring of economic and political systems to deliver both diversity and cooperation between all levels and classes of diversity. That is doable, and it is as far from simple or trivial as it gets!

We need a living planet and a colonised one – it is not an “either or” sort of a question; it is a “both and” sort of deeply complex and eternally uncertain becoming, in creativity and responsibility.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) with reasonable security, tools, resources and degrees of freedom, and reasonable examples of the natural environment; and that is going to demand responsibility from all of us - see www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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