Degrowth for Whigs

There's a certain kind of dour leftist that always goes on about "degrowth".

Growth has been the lodestar and definition of virtue to generations of economists. Robert Lucas famously quipped, once you start thinking about it you can't think of anything else.

But to "degrowthers", economic growth is not merely undesirable, It is a profound evil. "Growth for the sake of growth's is the ideology of the cancer cell". In a monstrous capitalist system that produces absurd and wasteful bounties for some while delivering cruelty and scarcity to most, fetishization of growth becomes license to do ever more of the same, even while pushing planetary ecosystems beyond capacity, into a collapse that will destroy us all.

Economics is sometimes described as the dismal science, but in fact its dominant mainstream is characterized by a chirpy whiggishness. The supercilious voice that narrates The Economist magazine is not just telling you that unfettered "free markets" and a light-touch state are the way to go. It is also cheerfully instructing that if we do set markets free, we will all be delivered to an ever more brilliant, prosperous, happy future.

You see this chirpy whiggishness in the degrowthers' online nemeses, Max Roser and his happy data charts, Steven Pinker and his pink Steven-Pinkerish-ness. Let's keep going as we have been going, we are growing, getting richer, making everything better for everyone along the way. Radical changes that aim to improve things for the have-nots by imposing constraints on the have-too-muches, rather than just growing the pie, will destroy the goose that is slowly but consistently delivering ever more golden eggs to everybody. If it doesn't feel that way to you, well, your pain is misinformation. Follow the science, look at the data, find a psychiatrist.

Of course, climate change and the ever more pressing possibility of ecological collapse is a real fly in the whiggish ointment. The follow-the-science crowd does not dispute that if historical correlations between say, fossil-fuel use and GDP growth continue, the planet would boil more spectacularly than an egg in the microwave.

But, they point out, the fossil-fuel intensity of GDP is declining, and thanks to growth (with which they conflate, contestably, with technology), we'll soon be able to replace fossil fuels with clean electricity even while the economy continues an exponential trend.

Unfortunately, if by some miracle we succeed at conquering carbon, waste heat from even clean energy sources would start to boil us in a century or so, unless we radically reduce the total energy intensity of growth, or else deploy very risky forms of geoengineering. And it's not just energy and global warming. Economic growth is correlated with raw material extraction, deforestation, industrial pollution, microplastics and megalittering. We'd have to reduce the GDP intensity of all of these impacts at a pace that exceeds economic growth in order to maintain a survivable planet.

Of course! say the whigs. Let's do these things!

Degrowth is immoral, it is short-circuiting the engine of humanity's collective prosperity. But dematerialization, well, dematerialization is great! It is just the application of human ingenuity to produce more value with less physical stuff and energy.

The whigs point out, correctly, that value is not a physical commodity, subject to physical laws or limits. Value is an incorporeal construct, its measures invented by economic statisticians to capture putative behavioral correlates — primarily willingess to pay incorporeal units which themselves are available without physical limit, constrained only by judgments made by elaborate technocracies about the "real" value of those units to a hypothetical species of utilty maximizer.

The laws of physics need not apply!

Okay. But let's get real. But what would this actually look like?

A few weeks ago, I think I got my first glimpse. It looks like this.

Until recently, virtual reality (like artificial intelligence) has been a joke, a transformational technology perpetually a decade away from transforming anything. But Apple's preternatural knack is to take technologies that already exist but are marginal, mere toys for hobbyists, and turn them into products so ubiquitous they upend society. Its one-two punch of the Apple ][ then Macintosh gave us modern computing. A variety of tablets and mp3 players preceded Apple's blockbuster versions. Laptops and mobile phones were already far from marginal. But when Apple put all these pieces together in the form of the iPhone, the world changed so radically we now have no idea how to raise our children.

What if it turns out that "mobile" was mere dress rehearsal, and the main event will be virtual reality for the rest of us? Smartphones have already delivered dematerialization. Kids aren't breathless for their drivers' licenses at age 16 anymore. They don't want rides back and forth to live out a decade as mallrats. They do a lot of socializing that might otherwise have involved fuel consumption, cosmetics, fast-fashion, condoms, day-after pills, and abortions over their phones now. That's dematerialization!

As they grow up, an increasing share of them may join a "laptop class" in one form or another, delivering whatever services it is they sell over wires, driving nowhere to do so.

So far this has all been a bit unsatisfying, a kind of Tofurkey-substitute for the real meat of face-to-face socialization and collaboration. The kids have dematerialized but they are fucking depressed about it. We've dematerialized meetings to Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but how do we do mentoring without relationships that form parsimoniously in the hallways and might be nourished over a drink after work?

But virtual life is also in some respects better than the real thing. In its heyday we hung out on Twitter not because we couldn't have a real social life, but because most of us couldn't possibly have conversations within our physically-accessible circles as lively and well-informed and potentially relevant as the exchanges that we could join online. Like the kids, we grew depressed, because there are things we get from face-to-face sociability that no amount of shared interest or extraordinary knowledge or accessible status hierarchy could make up for. But for what we were losing, we weren't just getting a shadow of the real thing. We were getting something new, something better than what had ever been available to us before. It's just there were some hard tradeoffs we had to make.

What if that ceased to be the case? What if virtual copresence, in the form of goggle-free avatars whose form and expressivity are reconstructed and enhanced from our goggled faces by uncanny artificial intelligences, proves to be better than the real thing? What if we augment ever cleverer, ever lighter, dematerializing goggles with body suits that allow (consistent with user-defined, algorithmically gatekept safety) even for warmth and touch?

This would be The Matrix, except emerging "voluntarily".

We need those scare quotes. Acquiescing to technological change is never voluntary, exactly, at an individual level. If this is the way the world goes, you don't really have a choice but to join it. It becomes voluntary like driving was voluntary once jobs and residences became so far dispersed you could only access both with a car. But, like that evolution of the mid-to-late 20th Century, this brave new world might emerge without much in the way of overt coercion by states. The notion of "collective choice" is always touchy philosophically. It sits in deep tension with conceptions of freedom that center individuals. But it is plausible — and I think the fact of ecological and environmental limits renders it quite likely — that we will collectively choose our own quasi-Matrification. To a large degree, we already have.

Obviously this could be dystopian. But it might not be. We would not, after all, be literally confined to pods subsisting on liquid nutrient injections. Like kids and dying shopping malls, we would just all become homebodies even more than we have already. Immersed in brilliant virtual outings with friends, in virtual workplaces and virtual romances, large, luxury, housing would just become less important to us. As the resources associated with, say, inefficient exurban living grow more costly — as they have, as they are, as they will likely continue to do — we will simply choose it less. Materially efficient forms of living — think dormatories, or smallish apartments for families — will become less unappealing when we spend much of our time in not-Mark-Zuckerberg's metaverse anyway.

In any case, as virtuality continues to sap, as it already has sapped, our physical sociability, the business case for dense urban life will grow ever stronger. One reason to live in New York City is because if you want access to cornucopic and obscure commercial niches, if you want both Eritrean and Estonian restaurants and you want exotic musical instrument shops offering theremin lessons, then you need a lot of people tightly knit so that the tiny fraction interested in these obsurities will be enough to support some businesses.

The same logic works tragically in reverse. The fewer people that share a single tightly knit geography, the more basic and generic the business ecosystem will be. The scale of a "tightly-knit geography" is not just geographical, but it depends upon our behavior, on how far we find it convenient to wander. Holding physical population density constant, as people become less peripatetic in their everyday lives, less dense cities will become less able to support niches that right now we don't consider very obscure.

Right now, most of us prepurchase mobility across a wide geography by paying high fixed costs for a capital good (a car), and then enjoy low variable costs for physical movement. But as the kids and their cellphones are already showing, in a more virtualized world we'll be content to move about less. So we'll less frequently choose to pay the large fixed cost of a vehicle, and we'll rely upon taxi services like Uber, and maybe occasional car rentals for longer-distance travel. But once we cease prepaying for our transportation with that big vehicle purchase, once the cost of each journey takes the form of a steep variable cost, the expense becomes very salient. We'll rearrange our lives to take those journeys even less.

The decision not to purchase a car is a lifestyle watershed. The convenience of either the corner store, or Amazon, over big boxes warehouse stores grows hugely. As we drive less, we physically interact across geographies less. The social distance between physical selves grows, unless we live more densely. We accept smaller homes in order to have nearer neighbors, and a greater variety of corner stores. We replace homes we maintain ourselves with apartment blocks maintained at scale. And we buy a lot less, at least a lot fewer physical goods.

There will, no doubt, be a huge new array of virtual services to keep "real GDP" growing at some arbitrary economist-prescribed clip. The whigs will always have been right. We'll have grown wealthier and wealthier every year! It's just that, um, relative prices, will have shifted in ways that make our present standard style of living impossible.

I suspect we will still want to eat out, to physically meet sometime. We will still want and need to exercise our physical bodies in the real world. We won't have our lawns and leafy streets, so we will want wonderful parks, close to our flats. The gardens some of us will still want to plant will become community gardens, or perhaps green balconies and roof terrances. The family and friends we will still want to physically see, we will want closer by.

To one of our political tribes, all of this is likely to sound dystopian. To the other, it may come off as more-or-less desirable. There are reasons why Tribe Red — tribe rural and exurban — is in greater denial than Tribe Blue about global warming, climate catastrophe, ecological limits to growth. Tribe Red has much more to pay, much more to lose, in terms of its current values and way of life. The efficiency and environmental case for consolidating humans into dense, efficient urbanity has long been clear. But the humans have values that diverge from and stand above abstract, distant concerns. The wise central planner might long ago have imposed a carbon tax that would compact us into 15-minute cities. But the humans, living lives whose basic contours we want to keep, have resisted.

Yet Tribe Red kids have been seduced into their phones, just like Tribe Blue kids, if only a bit more slowly. And the next round of kids can look forward to technological worlds far more compelling and seductive than six inch screens that we relegate to our pockets. Even if your job still involves making or moving things in the real world, these virtual worlds are where you'll meet with your boss. They won't be any more optional than the late 20th Century commute was.

Whether at the end of these seductions are fulfilling brave new lives, or mere shadows of lives left bereft by the loss of unmediated physicality, remains to be seen. In large part, that may be determined by choices we make now, as we build our virtual worlds. Will we build a free, liberal, pluralistic society, or will we all be serfs to Mark Zuckerberg — or Tim Cook — in the metaverseTM? That's on us, on all of us.

But if you are looking for a vision of a future that lets the planet heal from all the damage we've done and are doing, one that citizens of the resource-profligate developed world might be seduced into accepting as market-based "dematerialization", rather than coerced into accepting as "degrowth", that vision is Apple Vision Pro. And then the changes that follow, once the status and relevance of the physical world decline so much, we finally acquiesce to some efficiencies.

p.s. One might also find an answer to the Fermi paradox in Apple Vision Pro.

Update: My friend Chris Peel thinks I've been unfair to Max Roser and Our World In Data in characterizing them as whiggish Panglossians. My characterization comes from hazy memories of ancient Twitter fights, in which polarization over the virtue of growth necessarily left Roser's camp coming off as a bit apologist for status quo economism. I do apologize for the caricature. Chris offers these two pieces as a fairer representation of Roser's views, and I am happy to pass them along. Roser is nothing if not quantitative, and in the first piece he uses data and a bunch of thought experiments to conclude that even in implausible scenario of complete global redistribution to his (reasonable) choice of a $30 per day poverty line, "the world economy would need to more than double."

The question I would ask of him, and of you, dear reader, is what does that actually mean? Measuring things in dollars is nicely quantitative in form, but does that literally mean that the number of car and plane trips and stuff mined would have to double? If we expect, in this more equal world, that the composition of production and consumption would very dramatically shift, so perhaps there would be much less plane and personal car travel, and a much greater share of our collective resources devoted to maximizing very basic forms of food and shelter, does describing that as some multiple of dollars transacted under present patterns of consumption provide useful information? If "we" (as the mythical wise central planner) were implausibly able to reconfigure our collective physical and human resources towards the welfare of a materially equal humanity, we either would or would not achieve for all those humans a standard of living Roser or you or I might judge as "not poor". "30 dollars" becomes entirely meaningless, despite the fact it takes the physics-like form of a number and a unit. Perhaps Roser thinks his calculation predicts that no matter how we reconfigure the resources we have in our capacity to mobilize, we could not achieve "not poor", since that would require "growth".

But "growth" itself is nothing more or less than a reconfiguration of resources that humanity has at our disposal. If we could "grow" to eliminate or substantially reduce poverty, a reconfiguration of how we deploy our resources must necessarily be able to achieve that result as well.

If Roser would claim that we won't know how to get that degree of poverty reduction out of reconfigurations of resources until we have in a conventional economic sense "grown" to a much bigger economy, then he's smuggling in some very contestable assumptions about the relationship between economic growth in its conventional forms and measures, technology, and the variety of physical and social arrangements under which some semblance of human satisfaction might be achieved such that people might perceive themseves to be, and we might concede them to be, not poor.