Sunday, July 1, 2012

What is the greatest threat to human progress?

It seems pretentious to be posing this question for myself. But the question is difficult to avoid in the book I am writing. It might help me to take it out of the ‘too hard’ basket and get my ideas straight if I try to draft an answer here first.

The background is that the world has seen massive human progress over the last three centuries. Human societies have generally become much more peaceful; the opportunities for individuals to live lives that they value have expanded greatly in much of the world; and people in many countries now enjoy a great deal of economic security. From what we know about the drivers of this social progress it would be reasonable to expect this process to continue as long as conditions remain broadly favourable.

Whenever I read statements like ‘as long as conditions remain broadly favourable’ I begin thinking up reasons why conditions will not remain favourable. That response probably has something to do with being human. Loss aversion probably makes us sensitive to future threats to our quality of life, so that we can avoid them.

Matt Ridley suggests in ‘The Rational Optimist’ that loss aversion makes people ‘naturally gloomy’ about ‘the future of society and the human race’. He argues that for 200 years those preaching doom and gloom ‘have had all the headlines, even though optimists have far more often been right’. I think he overstates his case. I am old enough to remember what today seems like a naive faith in progress that seemed to pervade western society in the 1950s and ‘60s, despite a real risk of nuclear Armageddon during much of that period. Even today there is a fair amount of optimism in reporting of scientific progress. Slow progress is being made in treatment of cancer, for example, but press reports of breakthroughs often seem to paint an excessively optimistic picture.

I agree with Ridley that there has been a tendency to forecast the future on the assumption of no technological change and to find it dire. Ridley quotes Paul Romer: ‘We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered’. Most gloomy prognostications about the world running out of resources and the potential for widespread famine should be heavily discounted on those grounds. Disease pandemics are a greater threat, but we have lived with this threat at least since the beginning of urbanization and scientific progress has been improving our ability to cope.

While optimists have generally been on a winning streak over the last few centuries that cannot be because perceived threats are always exaggerated by gloom and doom merchants. The threat of a major nuclear war is a case in point. As Ridley acknowledges: ‘There were very good reasons to be a nuclear pessimist during the Cold War’ (p 299). Everything that I have read about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 suggests to me that this could easily have escalated to nuclear war, despite mutually assured destruction. Steven Pinker seems to me to make a strong case that a taboo against use of nuclear weapons emerged gradually as a result of pressure of public opinion rather than because military and political leaders decided spontaneously that use of such weapons of mass destruction would be futile (‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’, pp 268-271). In my view Gregg Easterbrook is right on target in his observation that ‘historians will view nuclear arms reduction as such an incredible accomplishment that it will seem bizarre in retrospect that so little attention was paid while it was happening’ (‘The Progress Paradox’, p 70).

It seems to me that the only known threat we face that could rival the threat of nuclear Armageddon in terms of severity of its impact is climate change. Even in that context, however, the threat of human-induced climate change seems likely to be much less severe than the aftermath of a major nuclear war (or infrequently occurring natural occurrences such as super-volcanoes and asteroids). I have written recently about human-induced climate change (here and here) so I will be very brief. The most likely outcome in my view is that the world will stumble on toward a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, relative to what would otherwise occur. This will not prevent climate change, but the general story is likely to be one of successful adaptation. It is within the bounds of possibility, however, that climate change could accelerate and the costs of adaptation could begin to rise steeply within the next few decades. It therefore makes sense for governments to take precautions by contributing substantially to funding of research to mitigate climate change.

There are other potential threats to the quality of life over the next few decades that apply particularly to high-income countries. Globalization and technological progress will continue to have the potential to raise overall living standards in these countries, but there seems to be a fair chance that the distribution of benefits will become more unequal and jobs will become less secure. There are some good reasons why the aphorism, ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ should be questioned. The forces of globalization are likely to subject an increasing proportion of occupations, including some occupations requiring substantial skills, to increased international competition. It is also possible that technological progress will impact unevenly in ways that benefit some groups (e.g. successful innovators, owners of robots) and disadvantage others (e.g. those whose skills are becoming redundant). If that happens, expressions of collective guilt/responsibility, like this one by Jim Belshaw on his blog yesterday, are likely to become more common:
‘We talk about the need for management and people flexibility in that most basic area, secure employment. We say that a young person will follow multiple career paths in their lives. Yet we do nothing to address the most basic questions: how might this actually work? How do we create a world that might provide the desired business and personal flexibility? How do we give people a degree of certainty about their own lives in an unstable world?’

It seems likely that governments in high-income countries will come under increasing pressure to provide people with a greater degree of economic security. If we are to avoid a return of protectionism – protecting  existing jobs at the expense of new job opportunities - more adjustment assistance may need to be provided. This could involve more government assistance for retraining of people whose skills are becoming redundant and broadening social welfare safety nets that are already coming under increasing stress as a result more predictable developments such as the rising age structure of populations.

Some people are concerned about a rather different potential threat to the quality of life in high income countries. This is a concern that rising affluence brings with it epidemics of obesity, diabetes, depression, and other ills of modern life. (See for example Jeff Sach’s introductory chapter in ‘World Happiness Report’, 2012.) Such concerns seem likely, increasingly, to convert the problems that individuals and families have in making good use of the opportunities available to them into ‘social’ problems that governments are called upon to address. For example, some governments (including the Australian government) are already taking increasing responsibility for preventative health care, weakening the responsibility of individual adults to manage their own lives.

It seems to me that the greatest threat to human progress over the next few decades arises because threats to human progress seem to provide a compelling case for collective action - the threats to human progress discussed above give rise to greater demands on government. As I see it, the greatest threat we are faced with over the next few decades is that democratic governments in high-income countries will not be able to cope with the increasing demands that seem likely to be placed upon them.

I will write about that in my next post.

For a highly relevant recent discussion of effects of globalization and technological change on income distribution see: Jonathan Haskel, Robert Z. Lawrence, Edward E. Leamer and Matthew J. Slaughter,
'Globalization and U.S. Wages: Modifying Classic Theory to Explain Recent Facts', Journal of Economic Perspectives (26) 2, Spring 2012.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that a good place to start when talking and speculating about the human future would be the essay by the truth-telling writer Chris Hedges titled A Brave New Distopia.
An essay which describes how we are now all living in the nightmare future described and prophesized by both George Orwell in 1984 and Aldous Huxley in Brave New world.