Friday, October 3, 2014

The Coming Dark Age

At the end of World War II, the global population was a little over two billion.  That was the most that had ever lived on the earth, but the fruits of the industrial revolution were coming on line – especially chemical fertilizer – and this number could have been easily maintained in comfort.  By today the world could have been, not a utopia, but as close to paradise as fallible humans could ever have hoped for.  There should today be effectively no poverty, no wars, and no conflicts or hatreds between different people: when there is plenty to go around, and everyone has a good paying job, old ethnic tensions eventually melt away.  We could be heading out to the stars.

But as John Maynard Keynes famously warned at the end of his magnum opus the “General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money”, that rosy prospect could only come about if population growth was moderated.  Sometime in the 1960’s, the rich gradually decided that they didn’t want a paradise.  At least not for other people.  A world that is uniformly rich would be one where labor was king: the only rich would be people of unique talent or energy, and most rich are talentless parasitic rentiers who could not run the night shift at a gas station.   So little by little the rich used their influence and donations to wear away at the old consensus that excessive population growth created poverty; little by little the rich enacted policies that were aimed at growing populations to ensure that wages stayed low, and blocked any honest discussion of policies that might have restrained population growth in other lands.  And now the global population is about seven billion and growing rapidly.  The industrial revolution was not a secret to unlimited wealth, but a one-time-only shot, and barring some fundamental miracle like cheap practical fusion power its productive abilities are basically tapped out.  The possibility of a golden age is now effectively ended.  The loss of the potential that we had at the end of WWII is by far the greatest tragedy and the greatest crime ever perpetrated against humanity, certainly to date and perhaps for all of history ever.

As of this writing it is finally being acknowledged that we are in trouble: food production is not keeping up with population growth.  Oh, usually it is poor weather that is blamed: but poor weather is only a problem when populations push up against the limit, a bad year’s harvest is never an issue when food production per capita is many times subsistence.  Sometimes population growth will be mentioned, but it is always publicly treated as an act of god or a law of physics, beyond any human control.  Never is it mentioned that this oncoming catastrophe is the direct result of deliberate human policy.

We increasingly hear cries in the press that agricultural scientists must somehow double crop yields “one more time”, or a disaster will strike.  But why must we double crop yields?  Why have we placed ourselves on a course where we need to gamble on this, when it is currently far from certain that it is achievable with the time and resources available?  And if we do double crop yields one more time, what is to prevent population from continuing to be forced ever higher?  There is a long track record of past increases in crop yields being promised to end hunger – but all that happened was that it fueled a population explosion.  Why not plan on stabilizing population now, instead of putting it off yet another generation, when most likely it will not in fact stabilize, just as putting it off in the past has done?  Why not work for a world that starts to get better today, than take a wild gamble that maybe we can keep ever more people alive in misery for the next few generations and somehow a miracle will happen a hundred years from now?

And there is that tired old chestnut that we need to increase living standards before people will stop having large numbers of children.  The historical record should by now be crystal clear: if people wait until they are rich before limiting their family sizes, they will wait a very long time indeed…. FIRST comes low fertility rates, THEN maybe comes prosperity.

What’s done is done.  As mentioned previously, there is a momentum effect to population growth, and short of widespread chronic malnutrition (happening in India) there is no realistic prospect of slowing population growth for the foreseeable future (and a population that has been stabilized because of a lack of food is NOT a good thing).  All we can do now is the best we can, and hope that the industrial revolution has one more rabbit to pull out of its hat.  So why bother to rehash the past?  First, for the sake of truth and justice.  What’s happening now didn’t have to happen.  It was deliberately created.  Those people and governments that acted to maximize population growth, the economists who insisted that population growth was irrelevant, should be held accountable.  But also for practical reasons.  As things get worse, it is possible that governments will suddenly get religion and impose frantic and harsh population control measures.  The elites don’t really believe that more people are always better, they believe that they have the right to control populations, to breed people in large numbers when that suits them, and to cull them when it does not.  But if, somehow, we pass the current crisis, and wages look to maybe move up a bit, suddenly the siren cry of the “labor shortage” will be heard again and moves made to yet again maximize the growth of the herd.  We must acknowledge what happened, or we will be unable to resist being treated like domestic animals yet again.

No matter how bad the odds we must always try our best: perhaps things will work out.  The only real certainty is that things won’t get better unless we try.  But the odds are clearly against us: we are likely heading into a new Dark Age.

The coming Dark Age will not be dark for the rich, for them it will be a new age of gold (at least as long as they don’t perish in peasant revolutions.  Think Emperor Valens).  The rest of us will slowly adapt to ever increasing poverty.  We will not run out of food: we will just get poorer.  A lot poorer.  Society-wide progress will stop, both because there will not be any spare capital to create it, and because, if somehow some meager increase is eked out, it will be swallowed up by ever more people.  The climate may collapse and population fall; or agriculture may continue to improve for a bit and population increase; it doesn’t matter because in either case the population will be pressing at the limits.  Corruption will become a way of life, for when people cannot make a decent living (or indeed, any living) through honest work they will jump at any chance to cheat the system, and who could blame them?

Normally when we talk about corruption we think of government employees demanding bribes, and this is part of it, but there are other forms of corruption that are even worse.  Academics falsify results; journalists report only what they are told to report; inspectors certify defective equipment or tainted food; leaders are surrounded only by sycophants; police become criminals; the rule of law is replaced by the rule of the strong or connected.   The labor of a genius can be had for a bowl of rice, yet standards in most professions actually fall as nepotism replaces meritocracy.  One might imagine a vicious circle where corruption creates poverty which creates corruption, but the cycle can only be broken with prosperity: lecturing poor people about the need to behave honorably is useless and insulting.

The equalizer of nuclear weapons may eliminate the traditional vulnerability of third-world societies to external invasion, so the main challenge of governments will be keeping order given on the one hand weak and corrupt security forces, and on the other, a desperate but weak and disorganized populace.  Nevertheless, centralized states have a hard time dealing with endemic poverty, and the trend will be towards chaos and local warlordism.

The coming Dark Age, like the Dark Age before it, will not be simple or uniform.  Some societies, steeped in poverty for millennia, will hardly notice.  Others may avoid being dragged down, defend their borders and quietly go on minding their own civilizations.  Perhaps some areas will collapse into barbarism, and the rich will recreate Constantinople, shifting their vast wealth into the global equivalent of a walled villa.  There will still somehow manage to be some progress, and the occasional work of art or magnificent building.  Life, for those that are not dead, will continue in some form or another.  But the main structure of what is commonly called “Western Civilization” will have ended.  The fall will be slow and uneven but the main trajectory is now all but inevitable. 

Welcome to the Coming Dark Age

No comments:

Post a Comment