Greetings from a pleasant long May weekend in northeastern Virginia. There’s a holiday on Monday, which makes these three days a good time for reflection. (Also work, but that’s a different matter.).
I’ve been working on a project sub rosa for a couple of years, looking ahead two hundred years, and thinking through different futures we might realize in that period. I’d like to start sharing those thoughts today with a stark question:
How might civilization change if humanity contracts, starting now?
To explain, I’ll set the stage.
For the past roughly 200 years* humanity experienced an extraordinary transformation. By most measures civilization took off, breaking up and away from the lives and conditions we had known for millennia. Call it a series of industrial revolutions, the onset of modernity, the arrival of progress, the Enlightenment’s results, the scientific revolution, a new form of capitalism, colonialism’s apogee, a mix of these, or something else, but after around 1800 things changed drastically.
We can look at a lot of measurements, and that might be a good topic for another post, but let me offer a couple to set the stage. Here’s one looking at gross domestic production (GDP) per capita for several nations, from the CORE economics project:
You can see a flat line dating back to 1000 for some of these nations, then effectively no major changes until 1800 – then wham! Britain, Italy, Japan take right off. (China and India follow much later. We can discuss to what extent Britain depended on delaying India, and Japan China.) Obviously GDP per capita is not a total indicator of experience, as it covers some extensive inequality, poverty, and more; we’ll get to that shortly.
For another measurement, we can look at the total number of people throughout history. Here’s a quick graph from Wikipedia:
Again, the long sweep of history is largely flat, with population barely growing at all – until modernity, and then up we race.
We can broaden our measurement by including other fields and more people. Here’s one Vox put together from several research projects, adding life expectancy, poverty, energy, war, and democracy for all nations:
Again, a largely flat line for centuries and millennia, this time back to 1000 BCE, until around 1800 and LIFTOFF. Were there costs and downsides? Oh yes. I’m getting to those.
Historian Ian Morris has a similar series of measurements and charts, with more discussion, in his awkwardly titled but very useful book Why the West Rules – For Now (2010). I don’t have a copy handy, but recall the author arguing with his publisher about needing a foldout page to really display just how extreme the post-1800 takeoff was. (Instead he settled for a log chart.)
There is a ton to discuss in such visualizations and assessment. There are many research efforts exploring them. We can explore these measurements and their models another time. Today I want to introduce the idea as read, that human civilization experienced an unprecedented transformation over the past two centuries. I want to encapsulate all of that complexity in a single, far too simple word: growth. Humanity suddenly grew, a lot, in just seven or eight generations. Now, turn that historical gaze around. Where does that shocking growth curve take us?
Later this year I’ll explore what might happen if we keep the accelerator pressed to the metal for 200 more years. For today, though, I’d like you to imagine what happens if we take our foot off the gas. Indeed, we might slam on the brakes. What do the next two centuries look like if we reverse civilization’s course, and instead of growing, we plateau, then contract?
Asking that question might seem perverse, considering the immense boons I just described. Why would we want to stop growing lifespans, GDP, democracy, and all?
Bill McKibben offers one argument in his criminally underappreciated 2019 book Falter. He starts with climate change, as you might expect if you know his heroic work on that topic. The past 200 years have yielded progress, but also kicked off global warming, which is building into an existential threat to humanity. Now we need to address that crisis, and continuing to spew CO2 and methane is not the way. Instead, we need to focus our civilization’s energies on fixing this problem and repairing its damages.
McKibben goes further. Those 7-8 generations were also marked by a legion of crimes against humanity. Colonialism seized nearly the entire world in that period. Genocides scarred the species. Hideous inequities by gender, race, religion, and more occurred. We have made progress on many social fronts in this period, but so much remains to be done.
We can pause that epic growth, in other words. McKibben invites us the recognize our achievements and then divert those terrific energies to repairing the world. We can choose to do this, deliberately, and wisely.
It’s also possible that we won’t make that decision because the world is making it for us. In terms of population, modernity has put the kibosh on growing numbers wherever it touches. We should reach peak human in a couple of decades, if not sooner. Planetary overshoot models hold that we have massively overproduced and now a terrible recoil is setting in. Global warming is just one awful dimension of our excessive growth. If the oceans continue acidifying we could experience a global collapse of a big swath of our food systems. The mass extinction of so many species can – among other things – cut into human food and health. Running out of needed industrial and postindustrial supplies (think oil, minerals, fresh water, rare earths) can pull growth up short. Some of you might recall this is what the original (1972) Limits to Growth report concluded.
In addition, we might get lacerated by disasters that we fail to prevent or cope with. Public health experts confidently expect more pandemics. A new Carrington event could cripple our digital infrastructure. And some humans are quite capable of unleashing new horrors upon the rest of us. I’m a child of the Cold War and am intimately familiar with nuclear and biological threats; needless to say, these haven’t gone away.
Vanessa Machado de Oliveira argues in a powerful book that these crises are, as a whole, inevitable. Hospicing Modernity (2021) finds that this immense edifice of progress is starting to crumble and its collapse is inevitable. We cannot stop it, nor can we see what will succeed it, in her estimation. Instead, the task for the present and near future is to minimize the catastrophe’s worst damages. To see modernity off with a minimum of suffering, as the title implies. This will require extensive social transformation, from overturning vast political and cultural systems to doing lots of deep psychological work.
Dougald Hine makes a very similar argument in a recent book, At Work in the Ruins (2023). He advised our Future Trends Forum community that in many ways our present task is to leave the best ruins possible for the future. We must be kind to each other as humanity switches off growth and descends into something… else.
I can share more examples of this idea. No-growth and degrowth economics are current ways of rethinking civilization. Donna Haraway has written and imagined a future where people make kin, not babies, and focus on repairing industrial damages. Naomi Klein asks us to return to the Earth and reduce our footprint. Kim Stanley Robinson wants us to cease space expansion and instead address the ecological and social crises. Rupert Read sees a serious decline happening already; “bullets will have to be bitten,” he darkly advises. And behind all of this lies grim Malthus, back before the great takeoff.
What I want instead to do now is put this question before you all. What does the near future look like if we suspend growth? What might happen in our next two centuries if we shrink back population, GDP, industrial output? Do we also pause science and technology?
What happens to a human culture which has been immersed in go-go expansion for not just all living memory, but also our formative, recent history? How does such a faltering change our senses of identity by self, nation, profession? How might our religions respond, or new ones surface? If we retreat from consumerism, what takes its place: what non-economic rewards do we prefer?
Indeed, how do we make do with less… stuff of all kinds? Imagine a society which travels less than it learned to do in the 20th century. Some climate advocates urge this right now. How would we transition to a world with fewer services, from paid entertainment to health care and governmental offerings?
A quick answer would be “the global north would join the global south” or “the middle class might learn from the lower.” Perhaps that’s what occurs. How many people would voluntarily accept this? How many would resist, and in what ways express their outrage? Through what means would anti-growth proponents – governments, business leaders, nonprofits, cultural figures, “thought leaders” – persuade people to reverse course on growth? With what birth pangs would a reparative epoch struggle to be born?
I’d like to leave these questions open to you all now. Imagine how such a world might shudder into being. Think of the potential contours of this kind of 2020-2220 time period.
One small favor to request: what’s a good name for this future? I’ve been trying out terms for a year and have had nothing convincing appear.
If this is of interest, I’ll follow up with more.
*Brad DeLong argues that it wasn’t the past 200 years, but really the last 150 or so. For him 1870, not 1800 that saw the decisive break. The first industrial revolution didn’t sink deep roots into human society, but the second one is where ordinary life really started to change. I’m just 100 pages into DeLong’s book and will have more to say later. For now, it’s very interesting.