In 1972, a group of researchers funded by the Volkswagen Foundation published a seismic book called Limits to Growth, which used the most sophisticated techniques of the day to model the planet Earth and project its future. The book’s authors were trying to figure out how rosy a future the world’s poor could count on: would they some day enjoy the cars and refrigerators and other benefits of the industrialized, developed north? As the title suggests, the authors came to pessimistic conclusions.
The authors didn’t take obvious shortcuts in their models, either. A sloppy team might have added up the amount of steel in an average car, multiplied by the number of people who might want to own cars some day, and announce that this would require more steel that the planet Earth could provide. Smart researchers, though, would take note of the fact that technology is not static: competitive markets encourage companies to invest in R&D projects to reduce the material inputs to finished goods: in other words, the cars of the future will have less stuff in them. They’ll also take less energy and less labor to produce – not because companies care about environmental footprints, but because the less energy, labor, and material there is in a product, the less it costs to make, which means you can sell it for cheaper than your competitors’ products.
Even with optimistic projections of technological advances in material and labor efficiencies, the authors were pretty glum. Population grows geometrically, and technological efficiencies advance linearly, so technology won’t be able to keep up with population, and that meant that if all the world’s poor were to get an equal share in technological abundance, the resulting division would leave those of us in the rich world with a lot less.
(Let me note in passing that it’s not clear that populations grow geometrically – credible estimates have world population growth slowing and leveling off at nine billion people – nor that technology advances linearly, at least when we’re talking about computers, which have many curves that grow through doubling or even steeper exponents).
Limits to Growth had a profound impact on the world, one that’s felt still. The contemporary ‘‘de-growth’’ movement in the green left is a direct result of debate created by the book. If you’ve ever worried about how we were all going to get by with less, or railed at the waste of consumerism and the pursuit of stuff, or imagined a life of less – less meat, less air conditioning, less air travel – as a sad but necessary step we’d have to take to save our planet, you were likely feeling one of the aftershocks of Limits.
In his blazing 2015 book Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence Of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff, Leigh Phillips – a British Marxist science writer – blamed the de-growth movement for the political retreat of the left, which had historically sought to elevate peasants to the lifestyles of lords, rather than bringing lords down to live like peasants. When the left started telling people that they’d better get used to doing less with less, that flying to your holidays was an act of depraved environmental indifference, that the new normal meant flushing your toilet only when absolutely necessary, meant stooping to pick pests off of crops, meant foregoing the pleasure of blueberries in winter, the left transformed from the side that promised comfort for all to the side that insisted that comfort was the luxury we couldn’t afford.
Phillips is much rosier about a future of material abundance than the green left’s leading voices. He thinks that we can have the technology without the pollution, by removing profit motives – which insist that a company that pays a $1,000,000 pollution fine after saving itself $1,000,001 by dumping its waste in our drinking water has done the right thing, netting a dollar in profit for the shareholders it owes everything to. He thinks that, in the absence of market economics, we can harness technological developments to a common good that continues to enrich everyone on Earth. Rather than labor and land-intensive organic farming, he wants us to use technologically intensive, super-efficient farming crops and bioengineering techniques, to get the benefits of Monsanto without the abuses and shenanigans.
Phillips’s work overlaps science fiction in many places (I mean this as a compliment, of course). Bruce Sterling’s 2005 MIT Press pamphlet Shaping Things and his 1998 novel Distraction describe a future material culture populated by objects that exist as pure information, stored in a database, until the day when someone needs them, whereupon the objects are automatically fabricated. The materials in these objects are closely matched with their duty-cycles (the biggest problem with plastic bags being that they’re made of materials that last for millennia, but are intended to be used for hours), and the objects are designed so that when their use is complete, they gracefully degrade back into the material supply-chain. The objects produce a continuous stream of data about their use, and that data is constantly analyzed to improve the next version of the object that is conjured into existence (Sterling called these ‘‘spimes’’).
Both Phillips and Sterling envision a world in which all material comforts are available on demand, as a reliable, steady utility. That is the gold standard of technological civilization: you flip your light-switch and the lights turn on. Every time.
But technology hints at another model, one that hybridizes the pre-industrial rhythms of work and play and the super-modern ability to use computers to solve otherwise transcendentally hard logistics and coordination problems.
Here’s the kind of thing I’m thinking of: in 2009, Google opened a data-center in a shady valley in Saint-Ghislain, Belgium where the weather is so naturally cool that two thirds of the time, the outside temperature is low enough that the data-center doesn’t need to run any kind of air conditioning. The biggest expense in data-center operation is the chillers that keep the computers from overheating. About one third of the time, the valley gets too warm to run an uncooled data-center. On those days, Google shuts off the data-center and farms requests for computing power and files to other data-centers around the world. It’s cheaper to run a data-center at two-thirds capacity than it is to run it around the clock with air-conditioning.
Here’s another example: I live in Burbank CA, in the drought-stricken San Fernando Valley, where months go by in which the sun blazes down pitilessly, without a single cloud in the sky, with daytime temperatures of 27C-35C or even hotter, day after day after day. Shortly after moving to Burbank in 2015, I was walking through my neighborhood when I came upon a man whose house had just been fitted with one of the photovoltaic roofs that you see dotted around the area. It was a remarkably hot day, and my neighbor was sitting on his porch with his doors flung open. Even from the sidewalk, I could feel the cool air wafting out of his house. He was running his air conditioner full blast, with all the windows and doors open. We struck up a conversation and he told me he was getting so much electricity from his rooftop solar cells that he couldn’t actually use it up. The pittance offered by the local utility for feeding back to the grid didn’t interest him. He preferred to use that surplus energy to keep an island of cool air around his porch and lawn that helped him enjoy the weather.
Both Google and my solar neighbor are up to something simultaneously high-tech and pre-industrial. In the pre-industrial era, goods were made by artisans, not industrial workers. Because the artisans worked to their own schedules, they were free to alter their production choices to suit their moods and environmental conditions. The carpenters could choose a warm day to sit outside and paint, and then retreat to their heated, enclosed workshops on rainy days to do fine detail work on their workbenches.
With industrialization came the need to coordinate your schedule and labor with other workers. Craft processes were decomposed into industrial processes, a series of simple steps that could be done quickly, with minimal training, by a series of workers who could be easily interchanged. Workers lost the ability to dictate their working rhythms. You can’t wander away from the assembly line to enjoy a sunny afternoon – the people up and down the line from you are counting on you. What workers lost in autonomy, they made up for in material abundance. Freed from the inefficiencies of one-off workshop production, goods plummeted in price and soared in reliability and quality. The material comforts available to the average worker surpassed those enjoyed by the aristocracy of the pre-industrial age.
Years, decades, centuries of this, and goods are unimaginably cheap, so cheap that we struggle as much with finding ways to do away with the things we’ve discarded as we do with acquiring those goods in the first place. The green left argues that these goods aren’t really cheap at all: they have hidden costs, externalities in the form of carbon and other pollutants. Factor the cost of cleaning up all the mess that companies have foisted on the rest of us, and those cheap goods become very expensive indeed.
Well, yes and no. The inputs – labor, energy, material – for goods are falling with no bottom in sight. Production of these goods still results in pollution, but the pollution is constant and the goods produced are rising. That is, refining a kilo of aluminum doesn’t get more polluting over time – if anything, it gets more efficient and thus less polluting. If the pollution in refining the kilo of aluminum is constant, and the number of goods we can make with the kilo of aluminum is on the increase, then the pollution attributable by each object is decreasing (even if we’re buying so many cheap aluminum parts that overall pollution is increasing).
Cheapness and coordination go hand in hand. Trains gave us railroad time, the first system of timekeeping that synchronized clocks beyond earshot of the clocktower’s bells, so 11:00 a.m. in New York was also 11:00 a.m. in Toronto – and they also made it drastically cheaper to move goods from one place to another, both to bring them to market and to refine them further in multi-stage, distributed industrial processes. Spoke-and-hub aviation gave us flight transfers in 45 minutes, including baggage logistics, making it possible to go from small, out of the way places to large, centralized places without having to provide economically unsustainable point-to-point direct routes between every small town and every big city. Walmart’s supply chains stretch from China to Burbank with fantastic reliability, so that everything Walmart sells is always available, without having to wait for misshipments and misorders. A single McDonald’s hamburger can contain beef from 1,000 animals – the company isn’t a restaurant chain, it’s a logistics firm that solves problems involving fractional cows.
Your boss needs you to be at work on time because otherwise your co-workers can’t do their jobs. I have to turn this column in to Locus six weeks before publication or it won’t get printed and mailed to subscribers. We trade autonomy for efficiency, as individuals, as collectives, as companies, as nation-states (companies in the Far East get a lazy day when their American colleagues take Thanksgiving off and the company goes into station-keeping mode).
The result: the light-switch works every time. The thermostat regulates the air-conditioner with uncomplaining and perfect accuracy, whenever the house gets warm. We’ve got blueberries in February. These are the gold standards of industrialization.
Phillips and Sterling speculate that process efficiency will continue to the point where we can deliver this gold standard to every corner of the world, so efficiently and transparently that we don’t melt the polar ice-caps and kill ourselves. That’s a hopeful bet.
It’s also science fiction, and good science fiction goes beyond simple scenarios like, ‘‘Here’s how we’ll solve our material production problems’’ and goes into more interesting ones like, ‘‘What if we had a different gold standard?’’
Think back to our artisans, arranging their days to their personal satisfaction rather than the demands of the system. How many times have we wished we could take a ‘‘mental health day’’ and skip work to play in the sun or huddle down in front of a winter fire with a good book? The light-switch doesn’t work every time for the artisan, but the artisan doesn’t have to work when it’s dark, either. The farmer makes hay when the sun shines. Kids splash in summer rain-puddles and make snowballs in winter. When it’s raining soup, you fill your boots.
This variety doesn’t just confer the advantages of autonomy; it also serves as useful tonic against adaptation. Do anything over and over again, even something you enjoy, and you will adapt to it, and it becomes rote and joyless. Take a break from it, and when you return, it’s a fresh delight. Varying your routine makes the sweet parts of it sweeter.
(Not that artisans lived lives of comfort or good health or economic security: they were vulnerable to microbes, scarcity, war and famine, and locked out of social mobility, which confers a different kind of satisfying freedom of choice upon its beneficiaries.)
That brings me back to Google’s chiller-free Belgian data-center and my neighbor who’s air-conditioning all of Burbank with free energy from the sun. This is better than the gold standard of industrial comfort. The light-switch doesn’t work every time – don’t try to run the air-conditioner with the windows and doors open on a cloudy day or your next power-bill might send you into bankruptcy – but when it works, you get the light for free.
My neighbor can only enjoy his air-conditioned front lawn because he’s working in a flexible environment (he’s almost certainly doing something in the movies, as most of my neighbors are, but I didn’t ask). He has a core of activities he has to do in concert with others, but he’s also got a large amount of unstructured time that’s his to fill as he sees fit.
Google’s data-center doesn’t work all the time, either, and it’s impossible to say with perfect confidence which days it will and won’t work. If it wasn’t for the heroic coordination work done by Google’s master computers, farming files and tasks redundantly around the globe, turning off the company’s computers for one day in three would be a nightmare. Add software to coordinate the labor of that data center with many others, and it’s a dream: a data-center housing thousands of cores with a carbon footprint not much bigger than the one generated by the laptop on which I type these words.
Networks and software solve coordination problems. Kickstarter helps you find people who’ll fund your novel; Twitter helps you find likeminded people with whom to elect a madman to the American presidency. Private LGBTQ message boards help queer kids exchange survival strategies without having to figure out which other people are living in the closet in their physical worlds; free/open source software lets strangers cooperate to build operating systems and wikis help strangers write entire encyclopedias.
The limits to labor/energy/material efficiency are speculative. We don’t know what the hard limits are on how little material can go into a car, how little fuel can propel an airplane, or how much of the labor embodied in your house could be performed by robots.
We don’t need to speculate to understand how sweet our lives could be if they were re-tuned to the rhythms of the natural world, if every time the sun shone we stopped having to worry about closing the door, if every time it rained we stopped worrying about whether the toilet really needs flushing, or whether it can mellow for one more yellow.
My next novel, Walkaway, includes an entire subculture called ‘‘the bumblers.’’ These are the survivors of a speculative investment bubble in zeppelins, a global phenomenon that left millions around the world with the knowledge and capacity to build airships, and networks of friends, fellow travellers, and potential couch-surfing hosts all over the world. These sky-hobos go aloft in their minimally steerable zeppelins and literally go wherever the wind blows them, knowing that they will almost certainly meet someone interesting, wherever the zeppelin happens to take them. It’s not jet travel. You can’t decide where you’re going. But if you don’t care where you end up – because all you want is to get somewhere – then bumbling is superior to conventional aviation on every metric.
Here is where the green left and the bright green left can meet: using bright green, high tech coordination tools, we can restore the pastoral green, artisanal autonomy that privileges mindful play over mindless work. The motto of Magpie Killjoy’s Steampunk zine was ‘‘love the machine, hate the factory.’’ Love the dividends of coordinated labor, hate the loss of freedom we suffer when we have to coordinate with others. Have your cake and eat it too.