Change, Growth, and Sustainability

It is only within the last 200 years out of approximately 200,000 years of human history where we have seen unprecedented changes and transformations in economic and social life. To put things into perspective, more than 95 percent of human history was spent in hunter-gathering, foraging, and small-scale agriculture. What cannot be overlooked is the role of technology and human ingenuity in moving mankind from one epoch of history to another, which started with hunter-gathering and foraging and continued with agriculture, horse transportation, sea navigation, railroads, telegrams, telephones, cars, airplanes, the internet, and now smartphones and artificial intelligence. Whereas philosophy laid the groundwork for scientific progress, the latter laid the groundwork for rapid economic growth and social change.

            According to the economist Jeffrey Sachs, within the last two hundred years of human history, the rate of extreme poverty around the globe has gone from 90 percent in the early 1800’s to now 10 percent around the globe. The rate of urbanization has gone from 16 percent in the early 1900’s to now 55 percent around the globe. Also, the global population has gone from 1 billion in the early 1800’s to now 7.8 billion. By 2050, the world’s population is expected to grow to 10.5 billion. In response to population growth, the creation of the modern state rose as a modern phenomenon in order to organize populations on a local and national level through the “monopoly of force.” But the question is whether the earth can sustain continuous population growth. Philosophers of the past like Thomas Malthus as well as some contemporary thinkers have occupied themselves with this question, and at times their conclusions have been grim.

            The modern state system also came into being in order to protect individual property rights, which were a byproduct of the transition from hunter-gathering and foraging to an agricultural economy. Thus, the creation of the modern state coincided with growing inequality that has remained unabated ever since. The modern state is thus an outgrowth of the notion of individual property rights, whereas common property and egalitarianism were the norm during the hunter-gathering and foraging phase of human history. Only with the transition from hunter-gathering and foraging to agriculture did the notion of individual property rights develop, which in turn prompted the creation of the modern state.

            What explains rapid social changes and exponential economic growth, according to Jeffrey Sachs, is the growing scale of global interactions, which in turn leads to an increase in overall economic activity and transactions. Since the “Industrial Revolution” of the early 1800’s, the world economy has doubled in size every twenty years, according to Jeffrey Sachs. Also, the world has become increasingly interconnected over the last 200 years, and is continuing to become even more interconnected as a result of our digital and technological age which coincided with the start of the 21st century and the new millennium. With heightened interconnection comes new foods, ideas, information, and products, which in turn lead to increases in global population. Agriculture went from being a small-scale struggle to a highly efficient and mechanized enterprise that is able to produce food for large populations and in turn grow and sustain these populations.

At one point, 90 percent of the world’s population was employed in agriculture. Today, agriculture wields only 28 percent of the world’s population, while 50 percent of the world’s population is employed in urbanized services. But is exponential social change and economic growth sustainable? If so, for whom is it sustainable? For one, volatility in our economic and social life signals a lack of sustainability. Also, the first victims of exponential economic growth and social change have been the atmosphere and the physical environment, with climate change and environmental degradation on the rise. The advancements in technology and capital correlate with climate change and environmental degradation. Yet, The Wall Street Journal erroneously claimed before the coronavirus outbreak that economic growth would be endless if the United States were to avoid war with China.

In order to nudge governments and societies towards sustainable social change and economic growth, the United Nations came up with a program called the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) which are to be met by the year 2030 in order to temper global economic growth and social change. Initially, these goals were supposed to be met around the year 2015 or this year, but governments around the world failed to meet these goals. It is likely that governments will fail to meet these goals yet again. Therefore, it does not appear that exponential social change and economic growth are sustainable in the long run. As the American historian Charles Beard once said: “The present plight of the world seems to show that mankind is in the grip of inexorable forces which may destroy civilization if not subdued to humane purposes. It may be that in the end we must…confess the futility of our quest.”

Coronavirus has also been one of nature’s responses to mindless change and growth, which in effect has slowed down things for the time being. But overall, the specter of climate change and environmental degradation, war, global pandemics, mental heath crises, and even extinction by way of extraterrestrial objects such as asteroids and meteors are just a few factors which perhaps stand in the way of infinite social change and economic growth. Changes resulting from technology and the expansion of capital also require adaptability on the part of ordinary people, which is perhaps beyond their capabilities and means. As Thomas Friedman wrote, these economic and social changes suggest that: “You had to become a lifelong learner to get a job and hold that job – but too many people were not equipped to make that change.”

Yuval Noah Harari reinforces Friedman’s point in a somewhat humorous way by stating: “To stay relevant – not just economically but above all socially – you will need the ability to constantly learn and to reinvent yourself, certainly at a young age like fifty.” Harari is known to be a devout believer in endless economic and social change, and he has even written that the goal of humanity will eventually be the attainment of “immortality, bliss, and divinity” once endless economic and social change eradicates hunger, pandemics, and war, which Harari believes is possible. In sum, the possibility of scientists and venture capitalists assuming the role of God is viewed by some modern thinkers as totally within the realm of reason, whether reasonably or not. The flip-side of technology and capital governing and organizing the world based on a whim amounts to leaving things up to chance and thus immanent danger, based on the view of modern thinkers like Harari. But the dangers of technology and capital ruling over the world are also evident by the disastrous wars waged by the “Military-Industrial Complex” over the last two decades and the 2008 global financial crisis.

Harari also believes that scientific breakthroughs such as bioengineering and genetic engineering will eventually transform human beings into cyborgs with unprecedented technical abilities and perhaps even immortality if humans are to overcome the ethical and moral challenges standing in the way of such scientific developments. But “reinventing yourself” and reinventing the human race based on premises such as endless economic growth, social change, bioengineering, and genetic engineering is easier said than done. We may not overcome the scourges of war and inequality which stand in the way of “immortality, bliss, and divinity.” Because of social forces that are perhaps beyond our control such as automation, artificial intelligence, technology, and capital, it is believed that close to 50 percent of American jobs will be lost to machines within the next two decades, based on studies from Oxford University.

Thomas Friedman also wrote that “both blue-collar and white-collar workers in the developed and developing world feel like they are just one small step ahead of a machine or robot making their job obsolete.” Even the role of matchmakers in traditional societies has been drastically diminished because of algorithms that are much more effective in finding someone a spouse. It is also too difficult for ordinary people to keep up with asset bubbles and recurring collapses of the economy in the new millennium that are being prompted by big-money interests and capital, which in turn exacerbate income and wealth inequality. Because of the lethal combination of capital and technology, unemployment benefits and stimulus packages have become the norm over the last couple of decades, and the only solution to growing inequality appears to be a fair distribution of wealth from the top to the bottom, unless there is a renewed emphasis on job creation through bringing manufacturing back to the United States and infrastructure projects.

There are now over 20 million Americans receiving some sort of unemployment benefit from the government, without counting the millions of others who have fallen out of unemployment benefit programs. Based on certain estimates, there are over 40 million people who are either unemployed or underemployed in the United States, with no relief in sight. Everything comes to an end, and the end result of “endless” economic growth and social change – which coincides with the demise of the industrial age and a transition into a technological age – is either a major societal collapse due to inequality and a return to an agrarian society, or a turn towards a massive welfare state. Perhaps the George Floyd protests, brinksmanship with Iran, and the coronavirus outbreak of 2020 were just a preview of what is to come in the future. Thus, as E.H. Carr said: “Not all change is progress.”

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