Part of my series on countering common misconceptions in space journalism. The usual disclaimers apply: These blogs are my own lousy, misinformed opinions ineptly projected on a cheap website with the possibly vain hope of stimulating productive conversation and thus incrementally shaving off shards of my own ignorance. I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoy writing them!
In some sense this post is inspired by the publication and promotion of Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, “Ministry for the Future”. It’s a great read and I heartily recommend it. That said, it got me thinking once again about how Stan’s vision for post capitalism might come about.
Post capitalism. Does that sound weird? It should. As he sometimes quips (quoting Fredric Jameson) “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” And here we are, in the midst of runaway global warming and a global extinction event. It is physically possible to avoid mass death and civilizational collapse, but is it affordable? When we think about the future evolutions of our economic system, what might take place?
In Stan’s novels, various economic mechanisms for internalizing unpriced externalities have been explored, from alternative currencies to eco-economics and, more recently, carbon quantitative easing. The idea being that, in order to slow down our profligate release of CO2 into the atmosphere, the world’s governments and central banks will need to stop subsidizing cheap fuel, electricity, and heating, and instead artificially increase their price to disincentivize usage and encourage greater efficiency.
All noble goals with the unfortunate side-effect of being politically unattainable, at least in democracies, as the bulk of the electorate is composed of people for whom access to affordable gasoline is the difference between pulling a plough by hand or driving a tractor. Nor will abrupt decarbonization and reversion of 99% of the world’s population to abject poverty drastically improve the environmental situation. Indeed, while a rapid return to subsistence (best case scenario) farming will reduce fossil carbon burning, much lower efficiency farming will actually increase other environmental pressures, no matter how much incidental cannibalism occurs along the way.
Incidental cannibalism is no platform on which to win an election and, recent events have reminded us, ideological purity is good politics but actually winning is better. That is, if your political platform doesn’t include as its main priority “being able to win an election” then it’s not very useful, as Jeremy Corbin (re)rediscovered not so long ago.
Is there a way out? I believe so. Indeed, many of the necessary components are already with us, though I could not fault them for coming a bit faster.
At the top of the tree is unbelievably cheap solar power. As I (and others) have written at length, the key to increasing wealth, productivity, and available energy is to make it cheaper. The underlying solar resource is so much richer than biofuels or fossil fuels that it will take us centuries to figure out how to use it. And, at the current rate of improvement, by 2030 it will be cheaper to synthesize hydrocarbon fuels using solar energy, water, and atmospheric CO2 than to suck it out of holes in the ground. This, more than any other single fact, will generate a trillion dollar industry around CO2 direct capture and provide the only practical way to legislatively regulate the level of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. Within my lifetime, human control of the planet will extend to the global thermostat.
But while cheap electricity is necessary, it isn’t the entire puzzle. What’s the use of cheaper power and a cooler world if we’re still killing all the animals and trapping most of the people in capitalist-enabled exploitation?
In “Ministry”, none of the chapters are set in space, perhaps because Stan wanted to focus on the Earth and the experience of the billions here. Indeed, the “billionaire escape hatch” fantasy is an unrealistic moral hazard.
And yet when I think of Stan’s “Mars Trilogy”, the most technically compelling parts are the snippets here and there that describe the Bogdanovists, a sect of technocratic Marxists who, largely behind the scenes, build the industrial base on Mars. Ah, the privileges of the science fiction author, to elide the crazy technical challenges behind the foreground story, which is largely human and political. But it was the “Mars Trilogy” that set me on the path of learning about economics a decade ago, no matter how simplistic and literary its creations may actually be.
Still, in Bogdanov Vishniac Mohole, the followers of Arkady achieve such a high level of industrial development that, for all practical purposes, the Martians exist in a state of post scarcity. Indeed, in an environment as hostile as Mars the traditional factors of production are, at best, strongly contingent on the continuity of highly technological industrialization. Land, labor, and capital are, at present, economically unproductive on Mars. To these we might add disposable energy and technological capacity. Perhaps Solow was onto something after all?
The very notion of post scarcity is a controversial topic and, I think, generally poorly understood. What does it mean to be post scarcity? Stan points out in several interviews (I may have binged some podcasts recently…) that Jevons Paradox undermines the idea that technological development can help the environment. What does it matter if improved tech lowers prices, if the rational consumer response is to increase demand and thus overall consumption and its attendant environmental horrors?
It is a fundamental truth that for many commodities, reduced prices increase demand. That is, there is latent demand that can’t be met at a given price. I believe that much of this latent demand exists in the less well off among us, and that improving production efficiency enables a higher quality of life and better economic productivity in humans who would otherwise be shut out of opportunities we take for granted.
Is it true, however, that reliably low prices will always lead to rampant overconsumption? I don’t think so. LED lighting is about 100x as efficient as incandescent bulbs. It takes a lot more consumption to get close to older lighting power demand, not to mention the environmental cost of lights that actually burned out!
What’s happening here is demand saturation. When the cost falls below a certain level, demand elasticity flattens out and consumption plateaus. A good rule of thumb is that if it’s a commodity or utility that comes out of the wall, it’s post scarcity, it’s not hoarded, and consumption is generally pretty insensitive to price. For most people in developed countries, fresh water, computational power, electricity, internet access, natural gas, and adequate supplies of food are readily available in the home and are not routinely hoarded. Unless I am building a data center or aluminium smelter in my back yard, I exist in a state of post scarcity with respect to electricity. I certainly don’t turn off my computer at night to save 0.01c of power.
I think this is a powerful and underappreciated phenomenon. It’s not something to be taken for granted. Demand saturation is the counter to human greed and the hoarding instinct. If enough is as good as a feast, too much is worse than just-in-time delivery.
So why is space relevant for these goals?
Post capitalism is not a return to manual labor-driven agricultural societies, nor centrally-planned communism. Post capitalism goes hand in hand with post scarcity, a state where the natural abundance of every fundamental human need obviates the need for profit-driven capitalist finance mechanisms to carefully allocate available capital. Where more capital no longer buys a better experience (e.g. everyone has the same iPhone), its productive capacities can be more cleanly separated from basic human necessities and focused on the core infrastructure of material abundance.
A future post scarcity society is post capitalist in the sense that a prehistoric hunter-gatherer society is post capitalist. Material abundance (or not) is decoupled from capital – a key difference being that technological post scarcity enjoys dentistry and health care.
This will not naturally occur on Earth, where entrenched power structures and technical ambivalence cause social stasis. But if people want to live on Mars in any meaningful way, scarcity is a death sentence. When the air and water must be continuously synthesized by a machine, comfortable levels of overproduction are the only alternative to certain death.
This won’t look much like rugged pioneers on the American frontier. Instead, perhaps a million specialists will devote a lifetime’s work to rebuilding the industrial revolution, picking up where it left off. The industrial revolution has increased the per capita energy disposition, productivity, and wealth of Americans by a factor of about 100. Living comfortably on Mars will require yet another factor of 100 on top of this. It’s not forbidden by the laws of physics, but it is required to survive in a harshly adversarial environment.
The record on centralized vs distributed economic control is clear. Martians will use capitalist market mechanisms to accelerate efficiency and build value, ultimately enabling the quality of life sought by socialist theorists but impossible to achieve without a market-mediated decentralized economy.
What does it mean if a million people can build a post-scarcity tech stack from nothing but space rocks and vacuum in a single generation? That same tech, exported to Earth, will enable relatively small groups of people to not seize the means of production, but to actively generate arbitrary new means of production, as required and on demand. Continent spanning financial mechanisms for electricity delivery and food production are largely irrelevant if people can build a Zeppelin from undifferentiated dirt in their backyard in an afternoon. For example.
Post capitalism cannot be achieved by artificially restricting the ability of the market to do what it does best – enable peaceful cooperation between mutually disinterested strangers. Post capitalism is achieved when capital itself becomes irrelevant due not to crippling shortage, but embarrassing abundance.