2007 March 27 Tuesday
Future Technology As Spur To Massive Consumption?

Julian Simon and others (myself included) have argued we do not have to worry about near to medium term future shortages of natural resources because technological advances create access to ever more resources. For example:

  • increasing quantities of cheaper energy from longer lasting sources.
  • new ways to extract raw materials.
  • better ways to clean up the environment and avoid polluting it in the first place.
  • better ways to use resources more efficiently.

But while I expect all the items listed above will come to pass I'm not convinced this means we need not worry about resource scarcity. I also do not foresee an end to resource competition. Anyone see the problem? No matter how efficient we get at extracting and harnesses resources we will just as quickly get efficient at using those same resources. Even worse, at some point we'll run up against limits due to thermal pollution and other side effects of our coming enormous ability to sculpt the environment.

Currently structures in America cover an area equal to the size of Ohio or about 112 thousand square kilometers. The land of the United States covers about 9.1 million square kilometers. We only need to go up by a factor of 81 to cover all of the United States with structures. Well, a rise of living standards by 1 order of magnitude will create wealth which people will use to build massive mansions, swimming pools, vacation homes, stables for horses, tennis courts, and other structures. Look at how the wealthy live today. The middle class may live that way eventually.

You might say that we'll refrain from consuming and owning so much. But look at the wealthy people who do not refrain. The founder of Peoplesoft is building a 72,000 square foot mansion which surpasses the 60,000 square foot Hearst Castle (the grounds and other externals also cover much surface area too) and Bill Gates' mere 40,000 sq. ft. manse. Much further down the ranks of wealth from Bill Gates, Presidential candidate John Edwards manages to own a 28,000 sq. ft. house. Also, former US Vice President and prominent environmental propagandist Al Gore uses more electricity and natural gas than 20 or 30 middle class families - and this at just one of his residences. So we do not all need to become billionaires in order to own houses more than an order of magnitude greater in size than the average American home of today. Suppose 100 years from now people with average incomes can afford to build houses as big as the biggest so far. How big are we talking? According to the New York Times the biggest to date are the 174,000-square-foot Biltmore House and the 109,000 square foot Oheka. If technological optimists are right then such structures might become commonplace.

The problem extends beyond massive structures. The truly rich and famous are stepping up from mere Lear Jets and Gulfstream Vs to 757s and 767s. Picture hundreds of millions or even billions of people flying around the world in their own personal jumbo jets.

A future of robotics, nanotechnology, and self-replicating machines will produce quantities of wealth with very little human labor. With that greater ability to harness energy and manipulate raw materials will eventually come huge external costs that will create competition and clashes of interests between people on a scale that does not exist today. Look at cities as compared to rural societies for an analogy. In cities, as Paul Simon sang, "One man's ceiling is another man's floor". People in urban environments can't yell without another person hearing it. They can't shoot a gun without many others hearing. Out in the country many more human activities won't bother your neighbors. But in a future where each person controls enormously more resources use of those resources generates more conflicts of interests.

To state my argument at a philosophical level: Technological advances increase what one can do with one's positive liberty and by doing that they increase the ease which people can violate negative liberty. This rift came as a result of reading a post by Tyler Cowen on positive and negative liberty.

What I want to know: Will rejuvenation therapies lead to such a huge boost in the world's population that even the industrialized countries will fall back into a Malthusian trap? On Darwinian grounds this seems inevitable. I've previously argued that natural selection will reverse the trend of declining fertility in industrialized countries. Combine that selective pressure with bodies that stay young for centuries and a population explosion seems inevitable unless either humans get wiped out by robots or a world government decides we do not have an unlimited right to reproduce and enforces restrictions on reproduction.

What is nature's only hope? That rich people decide that owning their own unspoiled rain forests is a hugely status enhancing form of consumption. Show your benevolence and wisdom by buying half the Amazon and let your friends visit its untamed wildness.

By Randall Parker    2007 March 27 10:25 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (66)
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