Sketches of a Future Society [Part Two]

JUNE 19, 2017

This week we share Part Two of ‘Sketches of a Future Society’. Last week Liam and Rufus looked at new possibilities for a future society, with an emphasis on culture as the invisible structure on which economies are built. This week they discuss what a material economy, shaped by this culture, would look like.

Photographs by Sarah Hickson

We want to paint a vision of the future. Here the ground is less certain. Our proposal is necessarily incomplete. We ask you to bring a spirit of openness: this is an area where it is easy to critique and hard to create. Take what is presented as indicating direction rather than detailed prescription. At the same time, though this is about vision we still seek be as concrete as possible. The devil is often in the details and it is important to tease out the implications of a particular path and fine-sounding pronouncements must yield a concrete course of action to be useful.

Sketches of a Future Society

by Rufus Pollock and Liam Kavanagh

The Material Economy

Let us start with the material economy. We need resources for food and shelter. We need resources to build schools and universities, to build hospitals and parks.

These, in turn, come down to energy and the ability to turn energy into something useful: a loaf of bread, a house. To a great extent these are solved problems - at least at a reasonable level of population (an issue we return to later). Using modern organic and sustainable farming practices we can grow enough food for ourselves sustainably - that is, whilst not over-exploiting the land and depleting it of essential nutrients. This would be even easier if we moved to healthier, more vegetarian, diets. We may need to dedicate greater human labour to this - at least in the wealthiest countries. But this would be no bad thing: a greater contact with the land for all of us would be valuable culturally and spiritually.

Then we come to housing. Likewise here we already have the capacity to build sufficient dwellings for ourselves. Properly distributed, in the wealthier countries we already have more than enough. In the less wealthy there is a way to go but we have the resources and know-how. Like in agriculture, we would adopt fully sustainable approach, building for the long-term. The centrality of housing and its long-term nature require that we move away from the purely private model. We should adopt cooperative or fully state-owned approach to supply that guarantees decent housing for everyone. At the same time, the design and building of houses should be driven and overseen by the individuals and communities that will actually live in them.

Finally, energy. Specifically, the ability to produce energy in a structured form such as electricity. Here, real transformation is needed. We need to move entirely to renewable energy and eliminate entirely our use of fossil fuels. In the near-term this must involve a reduction in consumption. Along with that we need a large and rapid increase renewable production. Ultimately, energy, along with our ability to transform energy into useful work, is the basic constraint of the material economy. We also emphasize that a wiser, more future oriented culture must be a more patient, more egalitarian and more frugal one. In many places we already have more than enough to be well. We do not need five thousand dollar barbecues systems or hundred thousand dollar sports car to be well - in fact, most evidence suggests they have little impact on individual well-being and a negative one on overall societal well-being. We believe that $15k equivalent per capita in current PPP US$ is sufficient to provide a good quality of material life covering food, housing, healthcare and related energy requirements such as for heating, transport etc.

Children and population. The question of children is important for many reasons. We start with the most obvious: population. Our total numbers are determined by the number of children we choose to have and our mortality rates - the rate at which we die off. Mortality rates are not something we want to intentionally affect other than to reduce them with better healthcare. Thus, if we wish to reduce the population then the major factor we can affect is the number of children we have.

Do we need to limit our numbers? The simple answer is: yes. If we are to live in balance with the planet at a good level of material well-being we must limit our numbers. Our current population - and its projected growth to ten billion - severely threaten our well-being: through famine, catastrophic climate change and the general over-use of limited natural resources. We must therefore reset our population at a reasonable level.

The exact population level we should aim for is open to debate. However, a sensible target would be 3-5 billion near-term (next 100-150 years) and 2-3 billion longer-term. This population level along with our $15k per person for food, shelter and energy would imply global production in money terms of $45-75 trillion per year. This is actually close to 2015 global GDP of $74 trillion.

Current population is nearly seven billion. To get to 3-5 billion implies a 30-50% reduction. We could achieve a 50% voluntary reduction in just one generation if we had an average of one child per couple. The same reduction could be achieved in two generations at around 1.4 children per couple.

How would this change come about. In part we need to re-orient our thinking. Some people imagine that having children is a “right”. This must change to something more of a privilege, honour and responsibility. We do not recommend an authoritarian solution as pursued, for example, by China with its one child policy. Instead, we should focus on culture and social norms. Two routes suggest themselves.

First, we should move away from an individualistic perspective to a collective one on children. Children are something that an entire family and community can see as “theirs” - as something they can support and contribute to. Second, we must recognize and appreciate our deep-seated evolutionary desire to have children. Recognizing this, we can use mindful practice and meditation to avoid being driven only by “craving” and attachment in this area. This will allow us to retain our deep emotional connection and wonder at birth and the bringing into existence of new beings whilst developing greater continence in this area. Understanding true inter-being and the extent to which existence and non-existence is illusory, and a zen sense of the way in which we exist and re-occur in others can help us to avoid the trap of imagining that procreation is the only way to perpetuate ourselves.

Together, these attitudinal changes could enable us to be well with one or even no children. In addition, we should provide explicit societal support for having fewer children. We should recognize and appreciate those who choose to have no children or just one - and ensure that, as per our first point, that they have the opportunity to participate in bringing up children - “to not have children should not mean to be childless”, “I have children though I may not have given birth to them”. In addition, if necessary we may need to increase informal social sanctions on those who have lots of children. This is not to make such people wrong, but we do need to understand that such behaviour is selfish - in a similar, but much bigger way, that dropping litter in a park or playing your music loudly at 1am in the morning is selfish and has an impact on others and the shared world we live in.

Aside: aging populations and population growth. Today, there is often concern over aging societies and even an encouragement to increase the birth rate. We would see this as a mistake. Much of the concern over aging populations centres around potential funding problems with social security systems (there won’t be enough money or the burden on future taxpayers will be too high). This in turn, comes not so much from aging populations but a combination of problematic pay-as-you-go funding models and a failure to increase retirement ages in line with growing life expectancy. The solution to aging societies cannot lie in continuing population growth and short-term “baby-booming” - these simply push the problem out. Instead, we must address the root causes. In particular, we should be finding ways to incorporate older people more into society. Both surrounding them with community and utilizing their talents. Retirement ages, especially where linked to social security systems, must be increased in line with life expectancy - in fact, rather than being fixed at the start of one’s working life they should remain linked to life expectancy, only becoming fixed much later in your working life (post fifty for example).

Supposing we had sufficient resources for essential material needs. Enough to feed, house, clothe and transport us comfortably along with sufficient spending on essential healthcare and education to keep us reasonably healthy and reasonably wise. Suppose we had surplus above those needs. How should it be used? We should use it in two main ways. First, to invest in the research and development of new tools and technologies that add to our material capacities. Second, to invest in research and practice that add to our spiritual capacities. For example, the latter includes education as well as cognitive, philosophical spiritual research. It also includes all the aesthetic and intellectual endeavors that bring joy and wellness to us. Both in our enjoyment of them and in our creation of them. Pleasure gardens and plays, sculptures and sport, poetry and picnics as well as friendship, community and leisure to benefit from these.

How do we generate this surplus? What does production look like? Agriculture and construction obviously play a significant role, perhaps larger than today, at least in the near-term, as we move to less intensive and more sustainable methods of production.

However, the big change is that more and more of the economy is focused around the creation and use of information. Information in the broad sense of everything that could be turned into bits: from drug formula and software to music and novels, research from particle physics to history, databases and statistics. This material is not only the basis for our technological advancement but also part of our fundamental pursuit into a deeper understanding of ourselves and our universe. This move to an information economy also supports a gradual and increasing automation that frees up labour from mundane physical and intellectual tasks. Work in the information sector crudely partitions into two parts: specific work to create new information and work to apply that information to concrete problems. To illustrate think of healthcare. There are researchers investigating our biology and searching for new ways to treat or avoid disease. And there are doctors who use that knowledge to treat specific patients. Of course, the same person may do both. Take lawyers: they both apply existing law and help create new law - law being information of course!

We can already see the beginning of our transition to an information economy. We highlighted it above as one of the specific changes that underpins the creation of a new and better world. Technological advancement in its essence is the discovery of new and better ways of doing things. This is information production. As technological progress continues it will generate enough for our basic needs as well as surplus beyond that. This is therefore a fundamental driver of improving material well-being.

In addition, as we pointed out, a piece information is costlessly copyable once created. This makes software or novels or anything made of information fundamentally different from traditional physical things such as bread or iron. Not only does this contribute to our abundance - make one copy of an app or a song and the whole world can have it. But it also supports a much fairer and more egalitarian economy. It is simply not possible for everyone to have Ferraris but it is possible for everyone to have a copy of Harry Potter, Breaking Bad or Microsoft Word. However, the true benefits of the information economy for fairness, freedom and innovation are only realised if we adopt a wholesale policy of openness where everyone has freedom to access, use, build on and share any piece of non-personal information. At the same time, creating information is costly. Whether it is a writer who spends a year laboring over a novel or the billions we spend finding new cures for cancer or finding the Higgs Boson. Going forward we should resource these efforts out of collective funds raised for this purpose. Distribution of the funds can combine a mix of expert-selection and demand-driven market-oriented processes. For example, universal basic income would support those like artists and mathematicians who only need their own labour to pursue their creative endeavors. For projects requiring creating capital and team coordination we would use a combination of up-front funding via expert selection and demand-based market mechanisms using remuneration rights. The former approach is what we already do today in much of research, whilst the market-oriented approach has long been used in areas like music and is also being pioneered (in a privatized form) by the likes of platforms like Spotify.

Finally, we reiterate the importance of culture. An open information economy fosters collaboration, sharing and creativity - in contrast, to a tendency today to individualistic competition, greed and domination. Thus the very structure of the economy supports our new culture. Conversely, our new culture supports the very mechanisms we seek. A growing emphasis on intrinsic and non-material rewards, a recognition of innovation and creativity combined with egalitarian collaboration. Thus, the two developments in a move to an open information economy and the development of a new mindful culture go hand in hand.

Edited by Brigitte Arndt