Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Have we reached “Peak Civilization” yet? (Hint: you already know the answer)

In my previous post I stated that looking around at how our society is evolving, the kind of cultural manifestations it produces and the long term trends of growth it displays (both economic and demographic) I was becoming more and more Spenglerian (the West is significantly decaying) and less and less Toynbeean (no, we will not end up being the first civilization in the history of the species that escapes from the cycle of rise, consolidation, degeneration and final demise). In this post I want to develop a bit more such argument, and share with my readers the reasons for such a (at first sight pessimistic) assessment of our immediate prospects.

But first I would like to subject the argument to a bit of self-critique, as my contention about the already apparent decadence of the west (and, as the West already encompasses the whole world-system, the decadence of humanity) can be accused of unfalsifiability, and of being held by the expedient (and all-too-extended) method of paying attention only to those news that portray increasing violence, riots, revolutions, conflicts and social and technical failures, whilst ignoring all the good things that are happening out there. Such biased perception can easily enter in resonance with the overtly negative tendency of the media to over-report bad news, which sells more papers that just highlighting how everything is reasonably hunky-dory. That is indeed a danger of any generalization about society, and that is why “social sciences” (an oxymoron, I know, but just bear with me) try to be extra careful in the collection of significant enough data to support their theories (big background laugh, of course). Any semi-literate conservative (and most members of the dominant liberal elite that rules the opinion forming circles in the West are semi-literate conservatives these days) would tell you that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and that humanity as a whole never had it so good (exhibit A would be that recent classic by Steven Pinker The Better Angels of our Nature), and present an impressive amount of statistics about declining violence, increasing wealth, improving health and unclear tendencies about reported happiness (but “reported happiness” is another canard, an insufferably self-referential and vacuous concept that we should never be fooled by). Which may very well be both true and inconsequential. It could very well be true at the same time that “this is the best age in humanity’s history” AND “the current state of affairs of the world is morally unacceptable”…

Back then to the accusation of unfalsifiability regarding my original contention about the demise of our civilization. Being ultra skeptical of quantitative analysis of big scale social trends (you end up with bad political philosophy masquerading as bad statistics), I’ll rather counter such accusation by offering a number of predictions that, were they to come true in the next decade, would make me seriously consider I am (was) wrong about our whole culture going already to the gutter:

1.       We put a living human being on the surface of Mars

2.       We have a working fusion reactor (one that can extract more energy than the amount required to ignite the plasma)

3.       We have a functioning (commercial) fission reactor of 4th generation or above

4.       We have a supersonic means of transportation (plane or hyperloop)

5.       We have more that 40% electric vehicles worldwide

6.       We have banned and destroyed all existing nuclear weapons

7.       We have defeated extreme poverty (the percentage of population living with less than 2 $/day -2010 $ is below 10% of the total population of the planet)

8.       We have built a permanent (habitable) moon base

9.       We have launched a vehicle aimed outside our solar system (obviously, with the capability to get there and send us communications from there)

10.   We have reached a life expectation above 100 years at least in one country of more than 5 million inhabitants

11.   We have developed a general purpose AI capable of passing a full-fledged Turing test (with unlimited time and no confounding factors)

I’m strongly confident that exactly ZERO of those predictions will come true between now and 2026. Indeed, if my thesis of civilizational decline is right, to reach any of those milestones we may need to wait centuries, since the collapse of our current system plays out, and a new system emerges, more capable of tackling those kind of challenges which will have proved too much for our current collective capabilities.

Am I putting the bar too high, and setting objectives that is unreasonable to ANY civilization to reach, no matter which phase of development it finds itself in? I don’t think so, as previous civilizations, or even our own one in previous decades, have cleared similar hurdles, except for the last one (indeed, our civilization is the first one so deluded as to think it could fashion something that it doesn’t understand, and somehow manufacture artificially that which still can’t characterize in its more humble, natural appearance).

So, having established the factual bona-fides of my position (“our civilization decays” can be translated for “our civilization is not capable of achieving any of those milestones… or any other of similar significance”) let’s guide our attention of what such inability teaches us. The first thing that a critic may retort is “well, there is one reason why those things may not be achieved in a decade, which has nothing to do with the vibrancy or overall capacity of society as a whole: there is not enough money NOW for such expensive undertakings, but as the economy keeps on growing and we get richer they will fall more and more within our grasp, and sooner rather than later we will end conquering all of them, most likely within the current form of social organization”. That’s the argument from techno-optimism, and it has been straw manned under the name of “cornucopianism” countless times. As I find it a most pernicious mystification, I will devote the remainder of this post to its rebuttal.

Let’s start unpacking what may lie behind the argument that just a “lack of money” prevents us from achieving faster such lofty goals. I won’t go in the debate of “what is money” (a social mechanism to keep track of who owes what to whom) and present the techno-optimist with the following predictions:

1.       The US will have spent an estimated amount of 350 billion $ in the development and purchase of its new F35 fighter jet, assuming it can have the first units ready by mid-2018 (a very big if, additional overruns are expected). The total cost including maintenance and operation of the planes is currently estimated to be in the ballpark of 1.5 trillions (about 650 million $ per plane)

2.       The current projected cost at completion of the Flamanville-3 EPR reactor (still 3rd generation, and with a technology that outside of the nuclear industry would be considered already obsolete) is of 13 billion $ (depending on the exchange rate with the euro), assuming it can go online in 2018 (again a big if, in the face of continuous delays that also affect Olkiluoto-3 in Finland, with the same technology). The initial cost estimate was around 4 billion $

3.       If it just sticks to its currently approved budget, the UK will spend roughly 565 billion dollars between now and 2026 in its "defense" (basically armament and payroll of its armed forces). Let’s remember we are talking of a relatively peaceful island with no territorial disputes (well, there’s the Falkland islands, which Argentina famously attempted to seize in 1982…) Only slightly more ludicrous, in the same timeframe Brazil (yup, that paragon of wealth and welfare for all its citizens) will spend in the ballpark of 270 billion $

4.       The technological giant Apple recently disappointed investors with his profit for the 2nd quarter of the fiscal year, of only 1 billion $ (analysts expected ten times that, as in previous quarters they had easily passed the 10 billion mark) with sales of roughly 50 billion $. The total valuation of the company stumbled to “only” 700 billion $. It is interesting to note that for many years Apple has been unable to find lucrative enough venues to invest the tons of money it was making (at the clip of roughly 40 billion $/ year no wonder!) and even before announcing an increase in what it pays back its shareholders via dividends it is believed to be sitting on a humungous pile of cash (about 200 billion $ of it, according to some estimates)

5.       In 2015, an especially tough year (“the worst since 2011”… jeez, these guys have really short term memories!) the 20 most successful hedge funds “made” 15 billion dollars (net of fees, which were in a similar ballpark of stratosphericity) to their top clients

I could go on and on and on. To put those figures in perspective, I’ll just quote some estimates of what it would cost (a very imperfect and most likely insufficient estimate, but it’s the best we have) to reach some of the civilizational goals I mentioned before:

1.       Sending a manned mission to Mars: 80 to 100 billion $ /, btw, Elon Musk claims he can do it for much less, and recently announced he expects to send the first flight there around 2015, in direct contradiction to my first prediction. I still know who I would bet for in this one

2.       Cost at completion of ITER (the closest thing we have to a fusion reactor, it is doubtful if it will be able to produce it first plasma –still with a gigantic energy deficit- within a decade): anything between the current 15 billion € and 20 billion € (up from an initial estimation of 5 billion €)

7.       Cost of eradicating extreme poverty: 730 billion $/year (just give 2 $/day to each of the roughly 1 billion people still living with less than those 2 $... the cost of getting below the threshold I marked of having less than 10% of the population below that level would be substantially lower, though, as it would be enough with getting just a third of those out of destitution, with a third of the cost)

I mention the Mars travel and poverty as they are supposedly some of the most intractable problems of humanity, which dwarf because of its sheer size very other problem (and interfere between them: how can we morally devote a single penny to space adventures when innocent children are dying by the thousands every day by easily preventable maladies? Conversely, how can we just give them food and incentivize their reckless reproduction when there isn’t enough space for all of us in the planet already?). Well, confiscate Apple’s benefits and the 100 more rapacious/ luckiest hedge funds and you can solve both and still have some money to spare. I don’t mean literally you can “solve” things so easily, I’m just saying that the “lack of money” is a false argument, which reveals the underlying problem I pointed at in my previous post: civilizations collapse not because they can not raise enough resources to keep working, they collapse because they loose common narratives that are required to set a common set of values everybody can agree on, and that are essential to set themselves common goals that keep their peoples working in coordination.

The hedge fund manager and the Apple investor have very different views of what a life well lived consists in, what priorities would be attended first by collective agency, and what is the proper way to allocate resources (especially scarce ones). The goy in the slums of Mumbai and the taxi driver in Buenos Aires have yet a different set of values and priorities, and we, collectively, don’t have a clue on how to adjudicate between their competing interests, so we have settled for the minimum common denominator, and let everybody decide for themselves what to do with their time, how to employ their talents and what to do subsequently with their gains. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with such approach (I don’t like the collectivist tone I was using, either, and it is not that history supplies us with tons of examples of how to do things differently and more satisfactorily), only that it is not the most conductive to achieve great things, do great deeds and utter great words.

And indeed, what our epoch seems to be chock full of is small deeds and small words, and what we have to investigate relentlessly are the mechanisms of our current era that impede such great achievements as those of the past. Not just the Acropolis of Classical Greece and the cathedrals of Paris, Burgos or Prague bequeathed to us from our forebears in Medieval Europe, but our most immediate predecessors, which just a generation ago formulated new encompassing models to understand reality (quantum mechanics, relativity, the Standard Model), built the complex machines to prove the validity of those models (CERN), sent a craft outside the solar system (Voyager 1 recently surpassed the limits of such system, we launched it in 1977), built supersonic passenger transportation systems (the Concorde, first flight in 1969, retired since 2003), reached the moon (first lunar landing in 1969, haven’t been there since December 1972) and developed and deployed a completely new source of energy (nuclear fission reactors, first went in operation in 1954 in Obninsk).

But hey, the last 30 years have been amazing, too! We have invented and deployed mobile telephony! (well, that’s truly something) and the Internet! Doom (the videogame)! Grand Theft Auto! And soon Oculus Rift and Virtual Reality! Call me old-fashioned, but somehow I think they are not on the same level of greatness, and I can’t see our descendants 3,000 years from now looking at us in awe and wondering how we could conceive and materialize such wonders 

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