Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Degrowth"
Bending the direction of growth is not only feasible, but to some degree likely; decoupling from the economic engine of capitalism and from growth (in some sense) is not. Indeed, far from facing a resource crisis, we are drowning in cheap resources—oil, natural gas, sunlight. Moreover, it seems quite clear that the on-going and accelerating pace of science and technological change may be one of the best hopes for shaping the direction of growth. Within twenty years, we will likely have grid scale batteries and solar devices above 35 or 40% efficiency. We will likely have synthetic biology so powerful that we can not only increase food yields but nutritional content and transform many chronic diseases. We may even have workable fusion energy sources, thanks to high temperature superconducting magnets. And we will have mobile access to unlimited information and computing power—which, with a little luck, will translate into really effective self-education systems available to everyone. To me, that education revolution and the spreading transformation of the role of women (it is not yet 100 years since women became legal citizens of the US and could vote) are the really big—and the really hopeful—transition drivers for the next 50 years.
I speak in part based on a current project that I am doing with MIT that has provided a look into where science can go/is going. Unless you are paying very close attention, it is really hard to grasp how rapidly the frontier of knowledge is advancing in dozens of fields. So if we avoid a global war or similar total breakdown of society for another three to four decades, I think it likely that the weight of informed opinion in the world will in fact drive change in more positive directions. For one quick example, who would have guessed that the acceptance of gay marriage in the US has spread even more quickly than the change that made cigarette smoking socially unacceptable two decades earlier? This is an example of what I have called the soft variables that can change far more rapidly that the hard variables of energy and infrastructure.
This is overly condensed—the more detailed and subtle version of the argument is not short—but I suggest we look for ways to bend the curve, not break it.