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Malthus had a fever dream in the 1790s. While the world was marveling in the first manifestations of modern science and technology and the industrial revolution that was just beginning, he was concerned. He saw the exponential growth in the human population as a terrible problem for the species—an existential threat. He was afraid the human population would overshoot the availability of resources, and then things would really hit the fan.
“Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation.”
So Malthus wrote in his famous text, an essay on the principles of population.
But Malthus was wrong. Not just in his proposed solution, which was to stop giving aid and food to the poor so that they wouldn’t explode in population. His prediction was also wrong: there was no great, overwhelming famine that caused the population to stay at the levels of the 1790s. Instead, the world population—with a few dips—has continued to grow exponentially ever since. And it’s still growing.
There have concurrently been developments in agriculture and medicine and, in the 20th century, the Green Revolution, in which Norman Borlaug ensured that countries adopted high-yield varieties of crops—the first precursors to modern ideas of genetically engineering food to produce better crops and more growth. The world was able to produce an astonishing amount of food—enough, in the modern era, for ten billion people. It is only a grave injustice in the way that food is distributed that means 12 percent of the world goes hungry, and we still have starvation. But, aside from that, we were saved by the majesty of another kind of exponential growth; the population grew, but the ability to produce food grew faster.
In so much of the world around us today, there’s the same old story. Take exploitation of fossil fuels: here, there is another exponential race. The exponential growth of our ability to mine coal, extract natural gas, refine oil from ever more complex hydrocarbons: this is pitted against our growing appetite. The stock market is built on exponential growth; you cannot provide compound interest unless the economy grows by a certain percentage a year.
“This relentless and ruthless expectation—that technology will continue to improve in ways we can’t foresee—is not just baked into share prices, but into the very survival of our species.”
When the economy fails to grow exponentially, it’s considered a crisis: a financial catastrophe. This expectation penetrates down to individual investors. In the cryptocurrency markets—hardly immune from bubbles, the bull-and-bear cycle of economics—the traders’ saying is “Buy the hype, sell the news.” Before an announcement is made, the expectation of growth, of a boost—the psychological shift—is almost invariably worth more than whatever the major announcement turns out to be. The idea of growth is baked into the share price, to the extent that even good news can often cause the price to dip when it’s delivered.
In the same way, this relentless and ruthless expectation—that technology will continue to improve in ways we can’t foresee—is not just baked into share prices, but into the very survival of our species. A third of Earth’s soil has been acutely degraded due to agriculture; we are looming on the brink of a topsoil crisis. In less relentless times, we may have tried to solve the problem by letting the fields lie fallow for a few years. But that’s no longer an option: if we do so, people will starve. Instead, we look to a second Green Revolution—genetically modified crops, or hydroponics—to save us.
Climate change is considered by many to be an existential threat. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already put their faith in the exponential growth of technology. Many of the scenarios where they can successfully imagine the human race dealing with the climate crisis involve the development and widespread deployment of carbon capture and storage technology. Our hope for the future already has built-in expectations of exponential growth in our technology in this field. Alongside this, to reduce carbon emissions to zero on the timescales we need to, we will surely require new technologies in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and electrification of the transport system.
Without exponential growth in technology continuing, then, we are doomed. Humanity finds itself on a treadmill that’s rapidly accelerating, with the risk of plunging into the abyss if we can’t keep up the pace. Yet this very acceleration could also pose an existential threat. As our global system becomes more interconnected and complex, chaos theory takes over: the economics of a town in Macedonia can influence a US presidential election; critical infrastructure can be brought down by cybercriminals.
New threats, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, or a generalized artificial intelligence, could put incredible power—power over the entire species—into the hands of a small number of people. We are faced with a paradox: the continued existence of our system depends on the exponential growth of our capacities outpacing the exponential growth of our needs and desires. Yet this very growth will create threats that are unimaginably larger than any humans have faced before in history.
“It is necessary that we understand the consequences and prospects for exponential growth: that we understand the nature of the race that we’re in.”
Neo-Luddites may find satisfaction in rejecting the ill-effects of technology, but they will still live in a society where technology is the lifeblood that keeps the whole system pumping. Now, more than ever, it is necessary that we understand the consequences and prospects for exponential growth: that we understand the nature of the race that we’re in.
If we decide that limitless exponential growth on a finite planet is unsustainable, we need to plan for the transition to a new way of living before our ability to accelerate runs out. If we require new technologies or fields of study to enable this growth to continue, we must focus our efforts on these before anything else. If we want to survive the 21st century without major catastrophe, we don’t have a choice but to understand it. Almost by default, we’re all accelerationists now.
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