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Sustainable Progress

Notes on climate change and robots taking our jobs.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
May 26, 2023; ported here on May 28, 2024

Due to space constraints I cut this material from my book Getting Over Jesus, but I think it's a pretty-good basic introduction to the ideas that progress can be sustainable and that the robots won't take all our jobs.

Sustainable Progress

Does climate change undermine the meaningfulness of work? A few years ago, the Swedish student Greta Thunberg delivered a passionate speech to the United Nations on climate change. "How dare you" turn to the children for hope, she chastised; "We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money, and fairy tales of eternal economic growth." It is hard to get excited about humanity's future if we think that we are destroying our home planet and that, in the words of broadcaster David Attenborough, people "are a plague on the Earth."

Such pessimism is unwarranted. Steven Pinker takes basically the right approach to environmental problems (and much else) in his landmark 2018 book, Enlightenment Now. Without dismissing the real threat of global warming driven by the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, Pinker points out that environmental doomsayers historically have been mostly wrong, that people have made great progress in protecting the environment in various ways, and that we have the technological ability to develop cleaner energy.

Pinker is especially optimistic (as am I) about the promise of new-generation nuclear electricity plants. A big advantage to nuclear energy as compared to solar and wind is that nuclear can meet (and, in many parts of the world, already does meet) base-load capacity. A problem with solar panels and windmills is that often the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow. Hence, at present, those technologies remain largely dependent on fossil fuels to provide base-load electrical capacity. If we develop the nuclear capacity to meet our base-load electricity needs, then solar panels and windmills will be largely superfluous.

True, solar panels and large batteries have been coming down dramatically in price. Some informed observers think that solar power with battery backup will become so inexpensive that it will become more economically viable than nuclear energy.

Regardless, we already know that we have the technological ability to provide for our energy needs—and, indeed, to vastly expand our energy use—through some combination of nuclear, solar, wind, hydro, and battery technologies. Perhaps with carbon-free energy abundance, we also will be able to start taking some carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere by various means.

Many people still worry about overpopulation (although increasingly some people worry instead about underpopulation), but the number of people who can live comfortably on Earth depends fundamentally on the level of industry and the energy that supports it. Most of today's billions of people would die if they had to depend on the technology and energy production of 1700. Some people take comfort in the fact that human population currently is projected to stabilize at around 11 billion people within the next century or so. It's fine if that does happen. But population projections that do not account for new technologies and the likely radical expansion of energy production may end up being quite wrong.

Given such budding technologies as indoor multi-story farming and lab-grown meat, it seems clear that, with sufficient increases in clean electricity production, a much larger human population could live comfortably on Earth while returning more land to nature and enjoying a far cleaner environment. If we contemplate the possibility of people settling the wider solar system, it seems likely that the off-world human population someday (within a few centuries) will exceed the population on Earth—provided we don't blow ourselves up or otherwise destroy civilization first. Someday the human population could surpass 100 billion people, and that would be wonderful. I take the pro-human stance that, given sufficient advances in technology and energy production in the context of sound institutions, the more people the better.

What about consumerism? Often people talk about the acquisition of goods and services as if it were inherently corrupt or corrupting. It is not. Sure, we can all bring to mind many examples of plastic crap, gross junk foods, and ostentatious wealth displays. But in the main people buy stuff that genuinely improves their lives. To mention a few examples from my family's life: We have enjoyed countless trips in our cars to see family and friends, made many healthy smoothies in our high-end blender, enjoyed watching the weather and the local wildlife out of a large window we added to the back of the house, and spent many hours playing together with toys and games made out of plastic and cardboard and such. People are capable of corrupting practically anything, including friendships, romances, and diets. That people can consume things corruptly hardly changes the fact that people can, and usually do, consume goods and services in an intelligent, life enhancing, and virtuous way.

In the end, I agree with Julian Simon that the "ultimate resource" is the reasoning mind. Our fundamental limitation is not the availability of natural resources, which on the scale of the solar system are practically unlimited. Rather, our basic limitation is the time it takes to create new knowledge and the resulting technologies. One benefit to a larger and wealthier human population is that more great minds will rise to work on solutions to the problems we face.

Open-Ended Possibilities

One worry that some people have is that, with improving technology and more automation, many people will be put permanently out of work. What then will people do with their time? How will people support themselves? This concern is partly behind the movement for a Universal Basic Income. Does this concern undermine my case that people can find meaning in their work?

The "robots are taking our jobs" approach overlooks the basic fact that new technology, even as it eliminates some jobs, opens the door to the creation of new jobs. Consider this basic historical fact: In 1800, around three-fourths of everyone with a job in the U.S. worked in agriculture, whereas now less than 2 percent of people work in agriculture. Does that mean, then, that nearly three-fourths of everyone today just sits around idly watching TV or something because they're out of a job? Obviously not. Instead, as farming became more technology-driven and as fewer farmers produced more output, other people starting working in new fields. There is no good reason to think this trend of new technologies opening the door to new sorts of work cannot continue indefinitely.

No, there are no longer many people who handcraft shoes, make horse-drawn carriages, hand-spin cloth, or plow the fields walking behind oxen. Some sorts of jobs are totally gone, such as switching telephone calls by hand. And thank goodness for these advances. Worry about machines taking our jobs goes back centuries. The Luddites of the early 1800s literally raged against the machines of their time, smashing them in protest. Today people worry about driverless vehicles, mechanized production lines, AI-assisted medicine, and so on. True, these advances will make some forms of work obsolete and will reduce the number of certain sorts of jobs. And some people thrown out of work may have a hard time adjusting to a different career or finding a new job that pays as well. My point, then, is not that technology-driven economic advances are painless, but that, in the long term, people generally do create new career paths.

Consider all of today's careers that would have been nearly unimaginable in 1800: Computer programmer, computer-assisted designers of all sorts, aerospace engineer, electric auto designer, neuroscientist, television actor, cinema tech, medical scanner operator, pet therapist, YouTuber, internet cable installer. Many other careers, although not unknown in 1800, have expanded radically since then: massage therapy, veterinary medicine, writing, pop music performance.

Generally and long term, work for most people has gone from grueling physical labor providing for subsistence to physically easier, machine-assisted, more intellectually interesting work more geared toward services, recreation, and entertainment. A world with more automation and less tedious manual labor is a world with more people creating literature and art, developing and practicing innovative medicine, writing and performing music, studying science or history or countless other subjects, preparing great meals, crafting great coffees or beers, launching space vehicles, offering psychological and physical therapy, and on and on. There is no inherent limit to the number of new career paths that people can create for themselves with rising productivity and new technologies. In the short run, yes, new technologies throw some people out of work. In the long run, new technologies open up new frontiers of human creativity and trade.

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