What does the future look like if humanity shrinks, instead of grows?

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:

industrial takeoff by GDP_Core Econ

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:

World-population-1750-2015-and-un-projection-until-2100

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:

Industrial revolution takeoff

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?

Cover of book Falter, by Bill McKibben.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.

Hospicing Modernity coverVanessa 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.

Liked it? Take a second to support Bryan Alexander on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!
This entry was posted in futures. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to What does the future look like if humanity shrinks, instead of grows?

  1. Ed Webb says:

    Demodernity?

  2. Joe says:

    My dream is to see population peak and gently decline before I leave this rock.

    Collapse seems trendy, and given the climate crisis, quite possible. But let’s imagine a better future world where we gradually abandon both the “growth is always good” model of American Capitalism as well as “The State Knows Best” of traditional Socialism. What if a new, sustainable, Distributist economy replaced the wreck we have now?

    For Distributists, we don’t simply own the means of production, in some form of Worker’s Collective. Instead, each of IS a means of production. Returning to local cottage industry for many goods (clothing, food, building supplies come to mind, as well as some metal work) would help us wind down the wasteful consumer economy. Barter would replace fiat currency, or we’d trade some commodity everyone needs.

    I cannot imagine that a cottage industry could build more than a light aircraft or auto, but imagine a world of open-sourced plans for engines, batteries, and simple electronics so village or town workshops might produce what a cottage industry could not. We might have to shrink cities in the manner Jim Kunstler talks about, back to hubs of water-borne commerce. We’d have to learn to sail again. The wind is free.

    I don’t know that we’d get to this sort of steady-state and Greener, higher-tech version of pre-industrial life easily or peacefully. But it’s better than extinction or a return to the Pleistocene.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Fascinating, Joe. Reminds me of some anarchist visions, as well as bolo’bolo.

      What do you think would power such a cultural shift now?

      • Joe says:

        No idea. On the “awful” side, an EMP attack, lost war to China, really bad pandemic, US Civil War.

        On the “not awful” side, a sustainable geoengineering project to stabilize and reverse climate change, open-source projects beyond corporate strangulation, 3D printing, smaller families worldwide, and a generation of DIYers that rejects consumerism globally.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          Agreed on the awful.

          On the not-awful, I like where you’re going with geoengineering. That might entail a massive, cooperative system to work… unless it succeeds in reducing global warming in a way which inspires people to burn carbon again.

  3. George Hart says:

    In the framing, or sensemaking, of this blog post lurks a quiet paradigm. See “humanity switches off growth and descends into something… else.” These words are directional,”switches off” and “descends” are reveals.

    We have a lot of re-framing work to do.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      George, I’m so glad you caught those. Sometimes I offer such linguistic hints and people don’t realize it. In other words, they were deliberate word choices.

      Now, “switches” was aimed at industrial technology. “Descends” recognizes a decline in many metrics, plus what seems to many to be a decline in other senses.

  4. Malcolm Brown says:

    Bryan, congrats on an important post. I vote for more of the same.

    What I think may be ultimately tragic is that we, as a species, have the intelligence to greatly soften the landing. If we can view the background radiation, invent CRISPR and AI, fashion vaccines in record time… that would seem to suggest that if we turn that intelligence and inventiveness in the right direction (and in appropriate amounts), some mitigation of the severest consequences is possible. The question is whether we have the will and the wisdom to do so. The sluggish response to climate change suggests that we don’t, as does the continuing enormous inequality of wealth distribution. While David Byrne’s blog “Reasons to be Cheerful” provides some antidote to such pessimism… well, we will see.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Thank you, Malcolm. More is coming, and I think you’re about 3 steps ahead. Watch for the next post.

  5. Jim Hardy says:

    I think much depends on why degrowth happens. There is a big difference between degrowth that occurs as the result of rampant environmental catastrophe and degrowth that is voluntarily, if grudgingly, self-imposed to prevent or mitigate such catastrophes. Other scenarios are possible with different results from these.

    Maybe I think too much about collective action problems, but I’m very pessimistic about the possibility of voluntary degrowth. Most of the scenarios involving involuntary degrowth don’t turn out well in my imagining.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Either way shrinkage is not a good move, then?

      • Jim Hardy says:

        There are possible ways that shrinkage could happen, in theory, that would be very good. Voluntary shrinkage, where humanity chooses degrowth intentionally and plans for it, would be far better than continued growth. I just don’t think that humanity as a whole is capable of that sort of action. This is where my mention of collective action problems comes in. We should shrink, but doing so requires nations and individuals to act for the good of the world rather than for their own good. Humanity has an incredibly poor track record in this type of situation. It requires a strong central authority to coerce cooperation at large scale, something we don’t have at a global level.

        So, despite thinking that healthy degrowth is essential, I think it is very unlikely. Instead, we will wait until degrowth is forced upon us. At that point we won’t have a lot of choice in how it happens.

  6. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan, what happens when a critical mass of humans carefully examine and employ Quality of Life indicators for assessing species development rather than unsustainable population growth and revenue growth? Is this idea so unimaginable that we have to resort to environmental destruction, war, alienation, and needless suffering?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Dahn, that’s a very positive and hopeful scenario. I hope so.
      But it might end up being a good hospice.

  7. Jeremy Stanton says:

    Wow, wonderful post, Bryan, and such an important question. While none of us will be around in 200 years, in civilizational terms that is really quite short (think 1823 to now), and is a worthy timeframe for thinking about. And great to see mention of Limits to Growth, Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, Dougald Hine, and Rupert Read. I would add Nate Hagens, Jem Bendell, and Tom Murphy to this list. Much of their work agrees with the premise that the ability to “take our foot off the gas” is not within our control.

    “Deindustrial” is a term for this future that’s been emerging over the past few years. As to the question “What does the near future look like if we suspend growth?”, a great source for imaginative work in this space, which readers of this blog might enjoy, is the New Maps fiction magazine (https://new-maps.com/), which bills itself as “a quarterly journal of short stories that take place in the Earth’s realistic future… an era in which our ecological and energy bills have come due.” Or, as the emerging genre has been defined, Deindustrial Fiction. The stories range from funny, to bleak, to humdrum, to terrifying, to hauntingly beautiful. Its predecessor magazine, Into the Ruins, is also a great source; the back issues are still available for purchase online.

    And some thoughts to answer that question (or rather, the variation “what if we’re *unable* to keep growing?”), on what we might see between now and 2030:
    – The economy unraveling under the impossible-to-service amounts of debt and reduced surplus energy and thus materials. This manifests as inflation, which we’re in the beginning phases of now. The result will be (is) contraction of energy- and materially-intensive sectors of the economy, particularly discretionaries. It was no coincidence that our nascent banking crises started literally with a Silicon Valley bank. There’s a closet full of other shoes waiting to drop here.
    – Climate- and energy-driven food crises – GroIntelligence is a good source for climate data-driven forecasting, and worth subscribing to their newsletter. And the UK Met Office now puts the probability of hitting 1.5C above pre-industrial temps at greater than 50% in the 2023/2024 timeframe due to the super El Nino roaring out of the Pacific. Bendell’s multi-breadbasket failures are waiting in the wings. Expect upheaval a la Arab Spring, and expanding crises like the recent issues in Sri Lanka (agricultural/fuel) and South Africa (energy) — is Argentina (100+% inflation, drought-induced crop failures in 2022/23 season) next? The recent high cost of FF inputs for industrial ag (fertilizer and diesel) is still feeding through the system (2022’s harvests supply 2023’s supermarkets). No amount of Fed policy can change last year’s crop yields.
    – Geopolitical realignment around dwindling energy and material resources – this is already happening (Ukraine, China-Russia-MidEast alignments, attempts at a petro-Yuan, etc). A great many countries that have worked out how to live comfortably at lower levels of energy and material throughput are going to do well, while we struggle under the lack of reliable electricity for our AC, data centers, and technology devices.

    But what does this mean for higher education? I imagine we’ll see a contraction, as populations shift attention to practical skills and dealing with the economic trend of shrinking prosperity in a sea of growing hardship, demographics continue to shift older (expect more declines in births as we saw with the 2008 GFC, which is starting to feed through now), undergrad–and particularly grad–programs oriented toward discretionary sectors lose appeal as perceived future value declines, institutional infrastructure maintenance costs consume a greater and greater share of operational budgets (“overhead” increasing, anyone?), and the AI-driven “reality collapse” further erodes trust in institutions at all levels. The question is, does participation in higher ed eventually contract to a 1950s-70s level or a 1750s level? And how might higher ed structurally refactor itself to play a meaningful role in this transformation of our society, and avoid becoming a much smaller version of itself catering to a dwindling segment of elites?

  8. Pingback: Looking Back and Looking Forward — Something Old and a Renewed Sense of Wonder | Rob Reynolds

  9. Andrea says:

    “De-development” (the term appears once in “Overshoot” by William Catton) (Catton also writes about “succession” – our turn is over!) … The trend until now has been of humans harnessing more and more material from the planet for the benefit of our species. Anthropogenic mass is now greater than total biomass. As our numbers and therefore our activity level shrinks, all that stuff (all those pipes and cables and tracks and plastic milk crates) continues to exist for quite some time but gradually ceases to operate as intended, in service of humans.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *