The end is not quite nigh

I spend too much times reading about the end of the world, whether it be peak oil, population growth or nano machines turning the world to goo. This addictive habit of mine is supported by the fact that I have many equally pessimistic friends. After reading my friend Sean’s post on the end of society I have decided to turn over a new leaf. Here is an attempt to explain why the game is not over yet.

In spite of the many problems humanity faces in the world today, I think that there are two main reasons to hold back from coming to pessimistic conclusions.

1) People in developed economies stop breeding exponentially. Birthrates across the board in these countries are below replacement levels. Population growth is supported by people from predominantly agrarian societies. Current trends suggest that eventually all people in the world will become city dwelling knowledge workers. This only requires that we have technology to completely automate production, which is no stretch. This means that population growth will eventually stop, who knows when this will happen, perhaps too late to stop the damage, but my point is that the assumption of unmitigated population growth does not fit with the observed facts of human behavior.

2) Technology is difficult to predict, now more than ever. In previous eras technological development was so slow that an expert could foresee some of the coming innovations. Turing for example conceptualized machines that didn’t exist, and he foresaw many of their implications that are still being realized. In the current world we are experiencing technological innovation across many fields and many societies, creating synergies and crossover effects.

The only thing we could be certain of is that with current technology and current population growth rates we are doomed. As we have no evidence to suggest that either of these will remain stable, then we can not come to firm conclusions.

The future of our society hangs on whether our technological development is fast enough to mitigate the resource demands of the rest of the world playing catch up.

    • David Human
    • May 31st, 2011

    I absolutely agree with this new angle of yours.
    Certainly, before the modern era of industrialisation, the Malthusians were right, but they’re not any more.

    I’ve been won over by the so-called cornucopians at the opposite end of the spectrum (ie the “we’ll be fine” philosophy).

    The data seems to support the cornucopian position (e.g., things just keep on not running out; we keep getting better at agriculture and feeding ourselves; surprising new technologies and trends keep changing the game); yet the rational argument – the logic of it all – supports the Malthusian. This leads me to conclude that the reason we’re pessimistic is some kind of simple cognitive distortion.

    • David Human
    • May 31st, 2011

    Having said that, I love a good disaster/armageddon/apocalypse movie as much as anyone.

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