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Waiting for the lights to go out

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This is an article that appeared two years ago in the Sunday Times.

The message seems clear: we must act, not wait.

The question remains if the "action" amounts to working for real solutions or whether must be called mere actionism, as described here, for instance, in the The deceptive rethoric of opinion leaders (from the BBC).

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    The Sunday Times October 16, 2005

    Waiting for the lights to go out

    The greatest getting-and-spending spree in the history of the world is about to end. The 200-year boom that gave citizens of the industrial world levels of wealth, health and longevity beyond anything previously known to humanity is threatened on every side. Oil is running out; the climate is changing at a potentially catastrophic rate; wars over scarce resources are brewing; finally, most shocking of all, we don't seem to be having enough ideas about how to fix any of these things.

    It's been said before, of course: people are always saying the world will end and it never does. Maybe it won't this time, either. But, frankly, it's not looking good. Almost daily, new evidence is emerging that progress can no longer be taken for granted, that a new Dark Age is lying in wait for ourselves and our children.

    To understand how this could happen, it is necessary to grasp just how extraordinary, how utterly unprecedented are the privileges we in the developed world enjoy now. Born today, you could expect to live 25 to 30 years longer than your Victorian forebears, up to 45 years longer than your medieval ancestors and at least 55 years longer than your Stone Age precursors. It is highly unlikely that your birth will kill you or your mother or that, in later life, you will suffer typhoid, plague, smallpox, dysentery, polio, or dentistry without anaesthetic. You will enjoy a standard of living that would have glazed the eyes of the Emperor Nero, thanks to the 2% annual economic growth rate sustained by the developed world since the industrial revolution. You will have access to greater knowledge than Aristotle could begin to imagine, and to technical resources that would stupefy Leonardo da Vinci. You will know a world whose scale and variety would induce agoraphobia in Alexander the Great. You should experience relative peace thanks to the absolute technological superiority of the industrialised world over its enemies and, with luck and within reason, you should be able to write and say anything you like, a luxury denied to almost all other human beings, dead or alive. Finally, as this artificially extended sojourn in paradise comes to a close, you will attain oblivion in the certain knowledge that, for your children, things can only get better.

    Such staggering developments have convinced us that progress is a new law of nature, something that happens to everything all the time. Microsoft is always working on a better version of Windows. Today's Nokia renders yesterday's obsolete, as does today's Apple, Nike or Gillette. Life expectancy continues to rise. Cars go faster, planes fly further, and one day, we are assured, cancer must yield. Whatever goes wrong in our lives or the world, the march of progress continues regardless. Doesn't it?

    Almost certainly not. The first big problem is our insane addiction to oil. It powers everything we do and determines how we live. But, on the most optimistic projections, there are only 30 to 40 years of oil left. One pessimistic projection, from Sweden's Uppsala University, is that world reserves are massively overstated and the oil will start to run out in 10 years. That makes it virtually inconceivable that there will be kerosene-powered planes or petroleum-powered cars for much longer. Long before the oil actually runs out, it will have become far too expensive to use for such frivolous pursuits as flying and driving. People generally assume that we will find our way round this using hydrogen, nuclear, wave or wind power. In reality, none of these technologies are being developed anything like quickly enough to take over from oil. The great nations just aren't throwing enough money at the problem. Instead, they are preparing to fight for the last drops of oil. China has recently started making diplomatic overtures to Saudi Arabia, wanting to break America's grip on that nation's 262 billion barrel reserve.

    Even if we did throw money at the problem, it's not certain we could fix it. One of the strangest portents of the end of progress is the recent discovery that humans are losing their ability to come up with new ideas.

    Jonathan Huebner is an amiable, very polite and very correct physicist who works at the Pentagon's Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, California. He took the job in 1985, when he was 26. An older scientist told him how lucky he was. In the course of his career, he could expect to see huge scientific and technological advances. But by 1990, Huebner had begun to suspect the old man was wrong. "The number of advances wasn't increasing exponentially, I hadn't seen as many as I had expected — not in any particular area, just generally."

    Puzzled, he undertook some research of his own. He began to study the rate of significant innovations as catalogued in a standard work entitled The History of Science and Technology. After some elaborate mathematics, he came to a conclusion that raised serious questions about our continued ability to sustain progress. What he found was that the rate of innovation peaked in 1873 and has been declining ever since. In fact, our current rate of innovation — which Huebner puts at seven important technological developments per billion people per year — is about the same as it was in 1600. By 2024 it will have slumped to the same level as it was in the Dark Ages, the period between the end of the Roman empire and the start of the Middle Ages.

    The calculations are based on innovations per person, so if we could keep growing the human population we could, in theory, keep up the absolute rate of innovation. But in practice, to do that, we'd have to swamp the world with billions more people almost at once. That being neither possible nor desirable, it seems we'll just have to accept that progress, at least on the scientific and technological front, is slowing very rapidly indeed.

    Huebner offers two possible explanations: economics and the size of the human brain. Either it's just not worth pursuing certain innovations since they won't pay off — one reason why space exploration has all but ground to a halt — or we already know most of what we can know, and so discovering new things is becoming increasingly difficult. We have, for example, known for over 20 years how cancer works and what needs to be done to prevent or cure it. But in most cases, we still have no idea how to do it, and there is no likelihood that we will in the foreseeable future.

    Huebner's insight has caused some outrage. The influential scientist Ray Kurzweil has criticised his sample of innovations as "arbitrary"; K Eric Drexler, prophet of nanotechnology, has argued that we should be measuring capabilities, not innovations. Thus we may travel faster or access more information at greater speeds without significant innovations as such.

    Huebner has so far successfully responded to all these criticisms. Moreover, he is supported by the work of Ben Jones, a management professor at Northwestern University in Illinois. Jones has found that we are currently in a quandary comparable to that of the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass: we have to run faster and faster just to stay in the same place. Basically, two centuries of economic growth in the industrialised world has been driven by scientific and technological innovation. We don't get richer unaided or simply by working harder: we get richer because smart people invent steam engines, antibiotics and the internet. What Jones has discovered is that we have to work harder and harder to sustain growth through innovation. More and more money has to be poured into research and development and we have to deploy more people in these areas just to keep up. "The result is," says Jones, "that the average individual innovator is having a smaller and smaller impact."

    Like Huebner, he has two theories about why this is happening. The first is the "low-hanging fruit" theory: early innovators plucked the easiest-to-reach ideas, so later ones have to struggle to crack the harder problems. Or it may be that the massive accumulation of knowledge means that innovators have to stay in education longer to learn enough to invent something new and, as a result, less of their active life is spent innovating. "I've noticed that Nobel-prize winners are getting older," he says. "That's a sure sign it's taking longer to innovate." The other alternative is to specialise — but that would mean innovators would simply be tweaking the latest edition of Windows rather than inventing the light bulb. The effect of their innovations would be marginal, a process of making what we already have work slightly better. This may make us think we're progressing, but it will be an illusion.

    If Huebner and Jones are right, our problem goes way beyond Windows. For if innovation is the engine of economic progress — and almost everybody agrees it is — growth may be coming to an end. Since our entire financial order — interest rates, pension funds, insurance, stock markets — is predicated on growth, the social and economic consequences may be cataclysmic.
    Is it really happening? Will progress grind to a halt? The long view of history gives conflicting evidence. Paul Ormerod, a London-based economist and author of the book Why Most Things Fail, is unsure. "I am in two minds about this. Biologists have abandoned the idea of progress — we just are where we are. But humanity is so far in advance of anything that has gone before that it seems to be a qualitative leap."

    For Ormerod, there may be very rare but similar qualitative leaps in the organisation of society. The creation of cities, he believes, is one. Cities emerged perhaps 10,000 years ago, not long after humanity ceased being hunter-gatherers and became farmers. Other apparently progressive developments cannot compete. The Roman empire, for example, once seemed eternal, bringing progress to the world. But then, one day, it collapsed and died. The question thus becomes: is our liberal-democratic-capitalist way of doing things, like cities, an irreversible improvement in the human condition, or is it like the Roman empire, a shooting star of wealth and success, soon to be extinguished?

    Ormerod suspects that capitalism is indeed, like cities, a lasting change in the human condition. "Immense strides forward have been taken," he says. It may be that, after millennia of striving, we have found the right course. Capitalism may be the Darwinian survivor of a process of natural selection that has seen all other systems fail.

    Ormerod does acknowledge, however, that the rate of innovation may well be slowing — "All the boxes may be ticked," as he puts it — and that progress remains dependent on contingencies far beyond our control. An asteroid strike or super-volcanic eruption could crush all our vanities in an instant. But in principle, Ormerod suspects that our 200-year spree is no fluke.

    This is heartily endorsed by the Dutch-American Joel Mokyr, one of the most influential economic historians in the world today. Mokyr is the author of The Lever of Riches and The Gifts of Athena, two books that support the progressive view that we are indeed doing something right, something that makes our liberal-democratic civilisation uniquely able to generate continuous progress. The argument is that, since the 18th-century Enlightenment, a new term has entered the human equation. This is the accumulation of and a free market in knowledge. As Mokyr puts it, we no longer behead people for saying the wrong thing — we listen to them. This "social knowledge" is progressive because it allows ideas to be tested and the most effective to survive. This knowledge is embodied in institutions, which, unlike individuals, can rise above our animal natures. Because of the success of these institutions, we can reasonably hope to be able, collectively, to think our way around any future problems. When the oil runs out, for example, we should have harnessed hydrogen or fusion power. If the environment is being destroyed, then we should find ways of healing it. "If global warming is happening," says Mokyr, "and I increasingly am persuaded that it is, then we will have the technology to deal with it."

    But there are, as he readily admits, flies in the ointment of his optimism. First, he makes the crucial concession that, though a society may progress, individuals don't. Human nature does not progress at all. Our aggressive, tribal nature is hard-wired, unreformed and unreformable. Individually we are animals and, as animals, incapable of progress. The trick is to cage these animal natures in effective institutions: education, the law, government. But these can go wrong. "The thing that scares me," he says, "is that these institutions can misfire."

    Big institutions, deeply entrenched within ancient cultures, misfired in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1933, producing years of slaughter on a scale previously unseen in human history. For Mokyr, those misfirings produced not an institutionalism of our knowledge but of our aggressive, animal natures. The very fact that such things can happen at all is a warning that progress can never be taken for granted.

    Some suggest that this institutional breakdown is now happening in the developed world, in the form of a "democratic deficit". This is happening at a number of levels. There is the supranational. In this, either large corporations or large institutions — the EU, the World Bank — gradually remove large areas of decision-making from the electorate, hollowing out local democracies. Or there is the national level. Here, massively increased political sophistication results in the manipulation, almost hypnotising, of electorates. This has been particularly true in Britain, where politics has been virtualised by new Labour into a series of presentational issues. Such developments show that merely calling a system "democratic" does not necessarily mean it will retain the progressive virtues that have seemed to arise from democracy. Democracy can destroy itself. In addition, with the rise of an unquantifiable global terrorist threat producing defensive transformations of legal systems designed to limit freedom and privacy, the possibility arises of institutional breakdown leading to a new, destructive social order. We are not immune from the totalitarian faults of the past.

    The further point is that capitalism is one thing, globalisation another. The current globalisation wave was identified in the 1970s.

    It was thought to represent the beginning of a process whereby the superior performance of free-market economics would lead a worldwide liberalisation process. Everybody, in effect, would be drawn into the developed world's 200-year boom. Increasingly, however, it is becoming clear that it hasn't happened as planned. The prominent Canadian thinker John Ralston Saul argues in his book The Collapse of Globalism that globalisation is, in fact, over and is being replaced by a series of competing local and national interests. Meanwhile, in his book Why They Don't Hate Us, the Californian academic Mark LeVine shows that the evidence put forward by globalisation's fans, such as the World Trade Organization, conceals deep divisions and instabilities in countries like China and regions like the Middle East. Globalisation, he argues, is often just making the rich richer and the poor poorer. It is also destroying local culture and inspiring aggressive resistance movements, from student demonstrators in the West to radical Islamicists in the Middle East. Progress is built on very fragile foundations.

    Or perhaps it never happens at all. John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, is the most lucid advocate of the view that progress is an illusion. People, he says, are "overimpressed by present reality" and assume, on the basis of only a couple of centuries of history, that progress is eternal. In his book Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern, he argues that human nature is flawed and incorrigible, and its flaws will be embodied in whatever humans make. Joel Mokyr's institutions, therefore, do not rise above human nature: they embody it. Science, for Gray, does indeed accumulate knowledge. But that has the effect of empowering human beings to do at least as much damage as good. His book argues that, far from being a medieval institution as many have suggested, Al-Qaeda is a supremely modern organisation, using current technology and management theory to spread destruction. Modernity does not make us better, it just makes us more effective. We may have anaesthetic dentistry, but we also have nuclear weapons. We may or may not continue to innovate. It doesn't matter, because innovation will only enable us to do more of what humans do. In this view, all progress will be matched by regress. In our present condition, this can happen in two ways. Either human conflict will produce a new ethical decline, as it did in Germany and Russia, or our very commitment to growth will turn against us.

    On the ethical front, Gray's most potent contemporary example is torture. For years we thought the developed world had banished torture for ever or that, if it occasionally happened here, it was an error or oversight, a crime to be punished at once. Not being torturers was a primary indicator of our civilised, progressive condition. But now suicide terrorism has posed a terrible question. If we have a prisoner who knows where a suitcase nuclear weapon is planted and refuses to talk, do we not have the right to torture him into revealing the information? Many now reluctantly admit that we would. Even the means of his torture has been discussed: a sterilised needle inserted beneath the fingernail. Having suffered this pain for a few seconds when having an anaesthetic injection prior to the removal of a nail, I can personally attest that it would work.

    The Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz is now arguing for giving proper legal status to torture. "Torture is a matter that has always been unacceptable, beyond discussion. Let's not pretend, those days are passed. We now have ticking-bomb terrorists and it's an empirical fact that every civilised democracy would use torture in those circumstances." Dershowitz doesn't like the "surreptitious hypocrisy" that allows torture but pretends it doesn't. Look, he says, at the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Al-Qaeda planner captured in 2003 in Pakistan. American interrogators subjected him to "water-boarding", effectively threatening him with drowning. This wasn't classified as torture because he wasn't hurt, but of course it was.

    Dershowitz thinks a legal basis for torture would prevent abuses like the horrors perpetrated in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. If, for example, Tony Blair or George Bush had to sign a torture warrant, the whole business would be kept visible and legal. For Gray, torture represents obvious regress. Dershowitz partly agrees but argues that progressives must be ready to do deals. "Terrorism is a major step backwards in civilisation. Hitler was a major step backwards. Sometimes we have to step backwards too to combat such things. But progress happens in other areas. A generation now growing up may have to accept more security measures and less privacy, but in other areas like sexual conduct we are making progress. I don't think overall we are making a step back."

    Progress, therefore, is faltering but, on aggregate, it moves in the right direction. Hitler was defeated and judicial torture may, in time, defeat terrorism. We just have to accept that three steps forward also involves two steps back. The point is to keep the faith.

    But what if it is just faith? What if the very "fact" of progress is ultimately self-destructive? There are many ways in which this might turn out to be true. First, the human population is continuing to rise exponentially. It is currently approaching 6.5 billion, in 1900 it was 1.65 billion, in 1800 it was around a billion, in 1500 it was 500m. The figures show that economic and technological progress is loading the planet with billions more people. By keeping humans alive longer and by feeding them better, progress is continually pushing population levels. With population comes pollution. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that global warming caused by human activity is happening. According to some estimates, we will pass the point of no return within a decade. Weather systems will change, huge flooding will occur, and human civilisation if not existence will be at risk. This can be avoided if the US and China cut their carbon-dioxide emissions by 50% at once. This won't happen, as they are fighting an economic war with progress as the prize. There are many other progress-created threats. Oil is one diminishing resource, and fresh water is another, even more vital one. Wars are virtually certain to be fought to gain control of these precious liquids.

    In addition, antibiotic drugs are currently failing through overuse. No new generation of medicines is likely to be available to replace them in the near future. People may soon be dying again from sore throats and minor cuts. The massive longevity increase in the 20th century may soon begin to reverse itself.

    Joel Mokyr's response to all this is that our open-knowledge societies will enable these problems to be solved. John Gray replies: "This is faith, not science." We believe we can fix things, but we can't be sure. And if we can't, then the Earth will fix them herself, flicking the human species into oblivion in the process.

    Of course, the end of the world has been promised by Jews, Christians, Muslims and assorted crazies with sandwich boards for as long as there has been a human world to end. But those doomsdays were the product of faith; reason always used to say the world will continue. The point about the new apocalypse is that this situation has reversed. Now faith tells us we will be able to solve our problems; reason says we have no answers now and none are likely in the future. Perhaps we can't cure cancer because the problem is simply beyond our intellects. Perhaps we haven't flown to the stars because our biology and God's physics mean we never can. Perhaps we are close to the limit and the time of plenty is over.

    The evidence is mounting that our two sunny centuries of growth and wealth may end in a new Dark Age in which ignorance will replace knowledge, war will replace peace, sickness will replace health and famine will replace obesity. You don't think so? It's always happened in the past. What makes us so different? Nothing, I'm afraid.

    Copyright The Sunday Times Limited 2007
    This article has been reproduced for reference purposes only.