Thursday, July 16, 2015

Let’s imagine a sunny future for a change

Although the social situation in Europe keeps on deteriorating (we have collectively deluded ourselves once more imposing in one of the weakest country of the union economic conditions we all know they are in no position to comply with, and Greece today seems a sad harbinger of where all the rest are heading) and the economic “recovery” in the USA keeps on disappointing (regarding improvement in the conditions of living of the majority, through those forgotten concepts of wage growth for the middle class and increase in the labor market participation, absent so far) I would like to step for a moment outside my role of self appointed Cassandra that keeps reminding everybody of the more or less imminent demise of Western civilization, victim of its internal contradictions and its inability to procure decent lives for the vast majority of its members, and share with my readership a little tale about how I think the future in this planet may look like. Many will be surprised when they find I’m actually quite optimistic about it, and think that it will turn out good for the most part.

So what I will devote this and the next posts to is a fanciful (I hope) description of how I think our descendants will be living around the year 2500. As any exercise of prognostication, it reveals more about the author’s values and hopes, fears and biases than about what is most likely to happen, specially when it is done over such a long stretch of time. Just to put in perspective how much human society can change in that time lapse, let’s remember that 500 years ago we Europeans had just “discovered” that the world was much bigger than what we thought, as there was a whole new continent not recorded or predicted in any of the wisdom traditions that shaped our mental landscape; we lived in mostly agrarian societies ruled by a still very much feudal clique –the first nation states were taking shape in Spain, France and England with kings starting to assert their authority over rebellious nobles; life expectancy was between 35 and 40 years, the most technologically advanced machines were siege engines and firearms, which were slowly beginning to spread in armies still dominated by armored cavalry and masses of longbowmen and pikemen; only monks and a few noblemen’s secretaries knew how to read, write or perform the most basic arithmetical operations, and there were just a handful of newly invented printing presses on the whole continent; it was a society of orders –noble, peasant, cleric- where what everyone did and could do was very much dictated by the station he was born into. The take home point, then, is that societies can in fact change quite substantially in such a timeframe.

What makes such forecasting valuable, then, is not its informative value (the things I will describe are as likely to come to pass as not in the best case), but rather its normative strength. By describing the society I think will emerge of this “time of troubles” I expect to clarify the kind of society I think should emerge, the kind of society I would like my progeny to inhabit. Knowing that is both a necessary first step and a powerful tool to steer current developments in the direction that make the emergence of such a social arrangement more likely.

So, without more ado, let’s get on with the description of what kind of Earth our grand-grand-grand-grandchildren (I may have dropped or put in some extra grand in there) live in. First, how many human beings people the earth in the XXVIth century (I start with the size of the population because many of the features of the society will be dictated by it)? My rough guess is around 500 million (incidentally, that is also the upper end of the estimation of how many of us were around in 1500 AD, so there is a nice symmetry there). After the total number of humans peaks around 9 billion in the second half of the XXIst century, the numbers will start to go precipitously down, as the old society (the one we live in) utterly fails to provide their hapless inhabitants with the means or the guidelines to live minimally appealing lives. What was already apparent in the most developed economies by the end of the XXth century (reproduction rates well below replacement level) just will became prevalent in all the rest of the world as the next century advances, and the material conditions of living of the less developed ones catches up and replicates the system of incentives dominant in places like the USA, the UK and Germany. With average birthrates hovering around 1.2 children per couple and a life expectancy stubbornly stuck around 80 years, the population will essentially halve every century (in 80 years it becomes 0,6 times what it was before) until it stabilizes in those 500 millions in 2450 AD. We can only expect that the new social arrangements that such a manageable size both enables and requires will create a whole new set of incentives and values that make people value their lives again and make it preferable for them to have larger families, until the reproduction rate stabilizes again around the 2.1 children per couple required to keep total population roughly constant.

How do I believe they will keep that size? As it has been for most of human history, voluntarily. They will have us as a cautionary tale of the evils of overpopulation. This may come as a surprise to many of my readers, used to hear me thunder against the arguments of neo Malthusians of any stripe and to tear apart any argument for stricter measures of birth control. Well, I do think the existence of so many people is highly detrimental to their own well being, and to the conservation of a rich environment that can be conductive to their flourishing. I just deplore the fact that the (non intentionally) chosen way of reducing their numbers is by creating as crappy conditions of life as bearable for the majority, in which they have to fight like crazy for the ever diminishing scrapes the rich allow to fail from their table. But I do recognize that when things become unsustainable, and can’t keep on going a certain way, they usually don’t. That’s why I’ve always been pretty confident than the population explosion that started around 1600 and gained steam in 1800 is a historic anomaly, consequence of a social system gone crazy where more people meant more military power in a  scenario of competing nations with different (and incompatible) ideologies, a scenario that is no more with us. With the consolidation of a single world system (and one which, luckily, sees with deep suspicion any attempt by any group to impose its will on another by openly resorting to violence) and its increasing reliance in technologies that do not require that much man power (which indeed have serious problems to find what to do with the majority of workers) we are already seeing a significant relaxation of the pressures to reproduce. A relaxation so significant, indeed, that (again, more markedly in the advanced economies) people are mostly choosing not to do it.

Of course, such significant demographic reduction will cause an economic implosion, and the GDP figures will be puny compared with today’s. Even per capita GDP will be substantially lower, but we will see that the real quality of life will be much improved. I hope our descendants will realize soon enough that measuring how many material goods we produce and how many unnecessary “services” we grudgingly perform for each other never made any sense anyhow, and never had much bearing on how satisfied we actually were with the lives we led. But before we describe in more detail how people spend their time and how they decide what to produce and how to distribute it, a final word about demography. Many of the struggles of our society, and the conflicting nature of many of the social cleavages that tear it today, are derived from the uncertainty about who holds more power now, and who will hold it in the future. Part of that uncertainty comes from the unplanned nature of the different groups’ sizes. So I would expect our descendants to take the maintenance of a “steady state” a bit more seriously than us (who seem to fail in any of the two extremes of uncontrolled growth and equally uncontrolled collapse), and to put in place some mechanism to keep numbers roughly constant. And I hope that mechanism is non coercive. Something like everybody being allowed to have two children by custom and habit, with a lottery granting the (socially approved) right to have more, and the numbers to be raffled decided by the number of couples that, by choice or inability, forgo their standard allotment. That way the maximum of individual choice is preserved (people can choose not to have any baby, or to have just one if there are other things they cherish more, and for those that would prefer more than two there is a fair and open chance to have them without impacting the “global footprint” of their community ¿how big would that chance be? It would depend, of course, on how many couples preferred to have less than two children, which is impossible to predict in advance). The question remains open of how to deal with non compliance (in this case, people that have more babies than the allotted ones). We will comment on that a bit later, when we review what institutions I see there being in place to enforce the social rules although, of course, enforcement and non coercion may be difficult to reconcile.

Where do I think those 500 million people will live? mostly in little villages, about 5.000-10.000 inhabitants, concentrated in zones of temperate weather (if you can choose, why would you live in a too cold or too hot a place?). There will still be plenty of cities, although with mostly floating populations, as gigantic museums of the kind of crazy lives (and their crazy creations) we accumulated to unimaginable heights between the XIX and XXth centuries, but with little to nobody choosing to spend their whole lives in there. The villages where people do choose to spend most of their lives will be surrounded by enough open field to provide for their food without either intensive farming of stables, so crops could be rotated, fields left fallow to recover, cattle left free to roam (and be slaughtered as humanely and painlessly as possible), forests left enough time to regenerate and wildlife to prosper in them without the relentless pressure we humans exert today. They will also be superbly communicated, both physically (by roads, I don’t see a need for trains or planes, but more on that later on) and electronically (ultra high bandwidth everywhere), so any of them can enjoy a front row view of what is happening in the rest of the world, have similar chances to receive the visit of an outstanding performer, can participate in the creation and diffusion of a cultural trend and can educate their youth in as cosmopolitan a way as they please. To give some back of the envelope idea about required dimensions, 3,000 hectares (30 square km) should be enough to produce enough cereal for 10,000 people. How have I arrived at such number?  today’s current consumption is roughly of 350 kg per person per year, according to FAO, and the average yield of a hectare varies between 2,000 kilograms per year in Afghanistan to 7-8,000 kg/year in USA, UK, France or, surprisingly, Egypt. Imagining a future yield of 3,500 kg/Ha (assuming a minimal amount of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are used, if at all) and aiming at a production of 700 kg per person per year to have some safety margin (and recognizing today’s average is not enough for a significant fraction of the population, although probably that is caused by criminally inefficient distribution rather than by lack of capacity) 2,000 Ha would produce more than enough to feed our 10,000 people village. Let’s grant them an additional 50% of land to lay fallow at any given time, and those 3,000 Ha should take care of their land for crops. That surface amounts to a rectangle of 5 km long by 6 km wide, so, if we allow a similar amount for orchards (to provide them with legumes, fresh vegetables and fruits), three times that for pastures and double that for managed forests for timber, we are saying our future villages require a “footprint” of about 200 square km to provide for a healthy, varied, non processed food supply, fitting in a rectangle of 20 by 10 km. That is the minimum spacing required between villages, so that each of them have enough land to cater to their needs in autarchic fashion. Not that I recommend that each village be self sufficient, but giving each administrative unit the means to be so (we will see how important that is when we talk about how I think our descendants will organize their economic activity) is quite important. So given that it would be nice if there is some wild nature between villages, they should be at least 20 km apart (in very fertile areas, where they can reduce their footprint), and potentially more (where land is more arid and less productive). additionally, 20 km is what could be covered by foot in a day, which makes it convenient for a number of reasons: festivals, markets, fairs and other types of events could draw people from surrounding villages without need for mechanical transportation; in case of natural disaster (flood, earthquake, landslide, attack by marauding dinosaurs, you name it) 20 km is close enough for them to send aid and relief in very little time.  

Before we move to see how their economy works, let’s imagine how the inhabitants of the XXVIth century spend their time. For comparison, of our waking time (about 5,840 hours per year) today we spend close to 40% working or getting to and from work (9 hours a day for 220 days), 25% watching TV (an average of 4 hours/day everyday in most advanced economies) and the remaining 35% in different leisure activities and just being with each other. Five hundred years from now I predict we will devote 20% of our waking time to work (and of that, 30% in agriculture and cattle raising, 30% in industry and 40% building houses and infrastructure; there will be no “service economy” in today’s sense, nobody will find it either convenient or dignified to serve other people, but again, more on that later on), 30% traveling the world and 50% learning/ talking to other people/ leisure (the three will become indistinguishable) wherever they have formed deeper attachments. So the good news is we will work roughly half of what we work today. The “bad” news is that to get there we will need to reengineer society from the ground up, as most of the institutions we have today were born and have developed precisely to extract as much work as possible from the citizenry (and I use the term on purpose, they were the citizens of a particular nation state which had to be exploited to the hilt, as the nation state was the vehicle through which they were forced to participate in a high stakes international competition and thus the conveyor belt that passed the pressure to produce or perish to the increasingly administered populace). Indeed, a good rule of thumb to identify which institutions are likely to be compatible with human dignity, well being and flourishing is to look at when each of such institutions was created and developed in its current form. Be suspicious of all that came into being after 1500 AD, as more likely than not they were either specifically created to better exploit the mass of the people, or were co opted for that purpose.  

Now the fact that people have much more free time, and will spend it (as they have done since the dawn of time) mostly interacting with their fellow human beings (be it in real, face-to-face interactions or through technology that will find new and unexpected ways to bring them together, and make them feel physically present, people in the most remote locations) makes me think that institutions geared towards creating common narratives and a sense of shared purpose will do well, while institutions that fracture communities by instilling a sense of individualism and separateness will do worse. So in all likelihood there will be more assemblies and clubs and what today we group under the term civil society, and less market.

One of the institutions that help people make sense of their lives in terms their fellow humans can understand and share is, of course, religion, and my prediction is that we will very much see the same religions we see today (as for the major religions, 500 years is no big deal, having survived three to five times that long so far). Most people will believe in a transcendent God that takes a personal interest in themselves, that has sent some sort of well codified message on how to live, and that demands certain rites and signs of recognition. Some will content themselves with a more diffuse, generic spirituality (what we call “new age”, that if survives will be for them “ancient age”). And some (a small minority then as now) will think all of that is bullshit, and deride those that don’t share their skepticism. Now some friends will tell me that part of the scenario is highly unlikely, as religion is in decline in the first world, and the advance of technology and science is wont to relegate it to smaller and smaller areas of life, until it is finally vanquished and disappears. I am highly skeptical of such claims myself. At the peak of our current accumulation cycle (between 1850 and 1950) religion was indeed detrimental to the pursuit of material well being (as an all encompassing calling) that had became, for all practical purposes, the overarching social mandate in the West, and that is why some uncoordinated and somewhat unconnected branches of science (mainly biology: The Origin of Species  was published in 1859, how convenient!) were enlisted to undermine it, and were embellished by (mostly unsuspecting) opinion makers to make scientific claims supposedly about the same things than religious claims, and then to reach opposite conclusions, from which it followed that one (science) had to be right and the other (religion) had to be wrong. But this is a historical anomaly, and a most convoluted one, so my hunch is that we will return to the historical average trend of scientists (those in a position to have a better understanding of the wondrous regularities of nature, and of our otherwise unexplainable ability to understand it) being the first proponents of a universal design, that has always gone far beyond the limited realm of living beings (and on which the theory of evolution has little bearing). This being my blog and thus being free to say in it what I fancy, I will end the comment on the belief system of our descendants of 2500 AD with a final prediction: I think that between now and then the Christian churches will reunite, after almost a century of division (actually more that that, if we consider the Eastern schism that dates from the XIth century, and believe that also the Orthodox branches will come back under the fold of Rome), and all the Christians of the world will share a single faith (earning again the name “Catholic” or universal), which hopefully would by then have jettisoned things like the infallibility of the Pope (a relatively recent slip) and its opposition to contraceptives (what? I may criticize the critics, but I myself believe it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever).     

So we have an idea about where our descendants will live (little –for today’s standards- villages, separated a few tens of km from one another) and what they will believe. What about their health, and their lifespan? They will be much healthier than us, as they will live almost entirely free of pollution and eat much more “naturally” (with less poison in the form of artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, mercury and other heavy metals, etc.). They will also exercise far more, as they will have more time and rely far less in mechanical forms of transportation (on advantage of living in a comparatively small village in a temperate climate zone is that you can go walking everywhere). I don’t think smoking will be as extended as it is today, but even if it is, I would expect it to be less deadly, as people would tend towards locally made cigarettes with no extra additives (and certainly not the hundreds of substances today’s brands carry so they are made more addictive). So, given they will be free of most burdens of today’s world (no obesity, no trans fats or unhealthy stress affecting their heart condition, no pollutants in the air corroding their lungs, ,many, many less carcinogens in the atmosphere), would they live to 120 or 150? Nope, for reasons I explained in other post, I don’t think the human lifespan can go much beyond 80 years. After that, it is just a quick succession of deadlier and deadlier maladies, of which one finally makes us croak. What I would expect is for those 80 years to be enjoyed much more thoroughly, in much better shape, being fully functional (and strong, and even fast)  until the very last day. I also expect we will have a much more wholesome attitude towards our own final demise. In the west today (in the words of Antonio Escohotado) “we live well, but we die awfully”. I would like to imagine people will reconcile themselves with their own mortality and (a side benefit of a revived religiosity) may even consider it with curiosity and hope, instead of the awful dread and paralyzing fear that seem to have gripped us collectively nowadays. Nothing would be more revealing of a substantial improvement in the quality of our life (and the positive effect of that quality in our minds) that when the moment of departing this world finally came we took it with strength, temperance and equanimity, and we considered a “death well died” as important as a “life well lived” to round up our presence in this world.

In my next post on this matter I will deal with two big aspects of the future life of men: how they will govern themselves (politics), how they decide what to produce and how to distribute it (economics), and how they acquire the skills and abilities to do both things (education). 

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