Restoring Our Faith in Human Progress: Part 1 – How Prosperity Solves Problems

OK, Doomer… 

Doom and gloom are everywhere, and not just because of what the COVID-19 pandemic has done to societies and economies across the globe over the last 18 months. A deeper contagion of pessimism has been spreading as well. The belief that we are doomed by climate change, and that all other human progress has been for nothing, is a pathogenic idea that has infected an entire generation worldwide.  

Although it is dead wrong, this idea is far more pernicious and destructive than is widely appreciated.  

At the individual level, despair over climate change and the false belief that our future is unavoidably bleak has cast a long shadow across countless lives. Many people openly confess reluctance to have children for fear of the dystopian world they believe lies ahead of us. I have personally had friends, neighbors, family members, and dozens of strangers confess this fear to me, and it breaks my heart every time. 

At the collective level, the false belief that human prosperity is the cause of climate change rather than the solution to it has threatened to poison the well of progress itself. This is not just a dispiriting irony. It is a genuinely dangerous idea that could have disastrous consequences if taken too seriously for too long. 

What are problems, anyway? 

When we see the world is one way, and we wish it were another, we call that situation a problem. And the way we solve problems is by transforming the world from a less desirable state into a more desirable state. This is equally true both for the world outside of us, and the world within ourselves. It therefore follows that our ability to solve problems is directly determined by our capacity to undertake these transformations.  

So, what determines that capacity? 

Different schools of economic thought have slightly varying answers to this question, but most will list energy, raw materials, land, labor, capital, and knowledge as basic “factors of production”. My colleagues, Tony Seba and James Arbib, have a particularly powerful lens through which to answer this question in terms of not just a society’s production system, but its organizing system as well. 

But if we were to distill the answer to the question of what gives us the capacity to solve problems into a single word, it would be: prosperity. 

Prosperity is the term we use to describe the general condition in which all conventional factors of production and organization are available in sufficient abundance to allow us to transform our world (or ourselves) for the better. And the greater the problem we face, the more prosperity we need. 

Now, to be clear, money and other forms of capital are not the same thing as prosperity, they are only part of the picture. And so wealth alone is not enough to solve problems – it is often a necessary condition, but seldom a sufficient condition. Moreover, prosperity (of a sort) is possible even without money or other forms of wealth, and a person can become more prosperous by leveraging knowledge alone to change their personal mindset and outlook. But no matter how “prosperous” our ancestors thousands of years ago might have been, their capacity to solve problems was severely limited compared to ours by any reasonable measure. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t try to solve their problems, however. Though their efforts were futile, they made perfectly heroic attempts to meet the challenges they faced. But their approaches often focused on making ritual sacrifices, signaling piousness and virtue, and attempting to atone for sins in order to appease gods, ancestors, and other imagined authorities. If this sounds eerily familiar, it should, because it is precisely the sort of desperate action we would expect to see from people who lack the resources, wealth, and know-how needed to actually solve their problems themselves. 

As prosperous as our societies are today, there do remain some problems we cannot yet solve – climate change being chief among them. But this does not mean that no amount of prosperity could solve them. For our ancestors 300 years ago, who had only a tiny fraction of the energy, labor, capital, and knowledge that we have today, the problem of feeding all people and ensuring none went hungry was just as daunting as climate change now seems to us. A century from now, amidst a degree of prosperity we can scarcely imagine today, our descendants will look back upon our struggle to solve climate change no differently. 

At some level, this entire line of reasoning should be intuitively obvious. After all, we depend on our own individual prosperity to solve problems in our personal lives every day. Why should it be any different for entire societies? Note, however, that a crucial corollary of this common-sense reasoning strikes a fatal blow to the prevailing climate change narrative: we cannot solve problems without prosperity. 

The path to despair 

A major theme in conventional environmental discourse is that humanity has made a Faustian bargain, and that the prosperity we enjoy today has been bought at a terrible cost whose bill has finally come due. Our only option now, so the narrative goes, is to give up prosperity and embrace austerity instead. We must cut back, tighten our belts, consume less. And the higher our personal or collective prosperity is today, the further we must descend to reach sustainability. It’s no accident that there is a strong moralizing element to this narrative, because it explicitly and unapologetically asserts that we must sacrifice our quality of life going forward to atone for the sins of our past indulgences. And the most prosperous individuals and nations, whose sins are greatest, must be punished most.  

But in my experience, most people intuitively understand that we cannot possibly hope to solve climate change this way. The train of thought goes something like this: 

Their common sense screams at them that solving problems takes prosperity, and so if we really, truly cannot solve climate change with prosperity as the conventional narrative goes, then we don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of solving it amidst austerity. Then, when they hear authorities of various stripes proclaiming that the solution is just to think optimistically and embrace austerity with a plucky can-do attitude, it sets off their bulls**t detector like a fire alarm. It all has the ring of desperation to it, because we would never even consider the nonsense of trading one disaster for another if a real solution were available. OK, so then what if climate change is actually an unsolvable problem, and the authorities are just too afraid to admit it openly? Well, we’ll all just have to learn to live with it, won’t we? But wait… if climate change is indeed the catastrophic existential risk that the scientific community says it is, then there won’t be any “learning to live with it”, will there? It’s a no-win scenario. We’re all just toast. 

I believe this line of thinking is the root cause of why so many people have come to be Doomers. Who wouldn’t be driven to despair by such a dismal view of the future? 

Doom and gloom are dead wrong 

Thankfully, the conventional view is dead wrong. Our research at RethinkX has shown unequivocally that climate change is a solvable problem, and that prosperity is of course the solution – just as it has been for virtually every other problem in human experience. The disruption of energy, transportation, and food will slash costs across these sectors by up to 90% worldwide and trigger an explosion of prosperity, especially in poorer countries across the Global South, while simultaneously reducing global greenhouse gas emissions 90% by 2035. 

I have been overwhelmed by the positive response to our research work about the disruptions of energy, transportation, and food, and their implications for climate change. People not only find our work fascinating and uplifting, but perhaps more importantly they find it convincing. Very tellingly, it comes as a relief to them after the cognitive dissonance they have felt from the conventional narrative. Our findings naturally align with what most people already know in their bones to be true about the need for prosperity to solve big problems. Moreover, because our recommendations aren’t full of logical contradictions or ideological moralizing, they don’t set off the usual alarm bells that we all experience when someone is trying to sell us on something bogus. 

The road to hell is paved with good intentions 

I don’t mean to imply that my fellow environmental scientists or the policymakers, planners, and activists that depend on their research are deliberately misleading us. There is no grand conspiracy, no intentional deception, no malice here. There is only error: a series of mistakes and false assumptions, rooted in a failure to understand the history and dynamics of disruptive technological change, that have compounded one upon the other to result in the terribly misguided prescription that humanity ought to respond to climate change with austerity. Like medieval doctors prescribing bloodletting out of ignorance and desperation, it won’t work, it will only make things worse.  

At some level, the public already knows this. After all, our common sense tells us that when something we’re doing is creating a problem, the solution usually isn’t just to do less of that thing, but to do something different. The same is true for climate change. The solution isn’t less energy, transportation, and food, which together account for almost 90% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The solution is clean energy, transportation, and food. 

The good news is that we already have the clean technologies we need, and the disruption of these three foundational sectors of the global economy is now inevitable. But with the clock ticking on climate change, technology alone is not enough. We must make the right choices – as individuals, as industries, as nations – to accelerate rather than delay these disruptions. We can do so with our voices, with our votes, and with our wallets. The sooner we do, the sooner we can meet this formidable challenge. 

Next time… 

Here in Part 1 of this 2-part series, I’ve explored how the unconvincing message the public has received about how to solve climate change has led to widespread despair. In Part 2, I will explore how this doom and gloom has undermined our collective faith in human progress writ large, and why a return to optimism is not only justified but also extremely important. 

3 thoughts on “Restoring Our Faith in Human Progress: Part 1 – How Prosperity Solves Problems”

  1. This viewpoint could be tempered with some realism about the problem of entropy, which no one can solve.

    As humans exploit larger energy resources, much of that energy is used spuriously and wastefully. While direct energy losses radiate mostly harmlessly, the disposable products of intense industry pile up, as do all the harmful byproducts of human activity, at rates orders of magnitude larger than the natural environment can absorb and mitigate them. Then there is the basic problem of sprawl and ecosystem destruction, which only gets easier and proceeds faster. Even if all food was artificially produced, humans will still see wilderness as worthless and in need of replacement with something profitable.

    To combat that, we need something more than prosperity. We need an attitude change. We need to stop seeing the natural environment as a source of raw materials—including Internet status lifestyle backdrops—on the one hand, and as a vast garbage bin on the other.

    If we can’t direct a good portion of our energy prosperity towards cleaning up our own mess, and to preserving ecosystems, then progress will only mean speeding up the rate at which we turn the Earth into a dustbowl.

    1. There is indeed a limit to growth coming thermodynamic constraints (‘entropy’). But this problem will start kicking much later:

      Imagine that we manage to have clean energy and that we capture the excess of carbon in the atmosphere, this will effectively stop global warming. But now imagine that we continue to use more and more energy, let’s say with fusion power reactors. Since energy conversion always produces heat (2nd thermodynamic law about entropy) this will start heating the planet.

      We are not going to reach that point in this century. But yes at some point we will need to cap the energy we use on earth –on earth. We will still be able to use more and more energy in space.

      Then the thermodynamic limit for energy use by humankind is many millennia in the future.

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