Thursday, December 8, 2011

The future: megacity margin-dwelling artistry

Malthus saw two equations: the exponential increase in population resulting from the individual action to have more than 2 children per couple, and the sub-exponential rise in resources with which to house, clothe and feed these people. He could see that the first will continue until something limits it, either continuously (for much of human history you needed n children to have 2 survive) or in mass events (war, disease, famine).

Over the last 60 years, the West has suffered no war on its soil, no famine it couldn't buy its way out of, no disease it couldn't contain. It has assisted similar evasion of Malthus in the rest of the world, and the world population has responded by exploding.

We are faced, today, by a series of Malthusian equations, regarding the future of civilisation:

  1. Outside a few countries in the West (notably Germany, France) the population is continuing to rise. In developing countries it is continuing to rise exponentially as the traditional expectation of large families is not met by the same threat of disease and famine it had been for so long. Until people get used to choosing to have smaller families and a better quality of life, this will continue at a breathtaking pace.
  2. There has been a migration from the country to the city for a century or more. As the city offers more modern lifestyles and has lower incidence of famine and disease, the population growth of existing city dwellers is also increasing. This means that the future will be increasingly lived in cities, to the exclusion of all else. Over time, life has been less about the land and more about people; technology, education, consumption.
  3. People are living longer. Not only does this contribute to the rising population, but it also makes more demands on their ability to save for their old age. 
  4. Technology is systematically removing the human component of necessary production. Food, clothes, transport are all global goods, produced wherever is cheapest. But the competitor with no bottom line, no minimum wage, is the machine. Even Chinese and Indian labour will be more expensive than the machine eventually. This means that increasingly people's jobs depend on the unnecessary; on books and holidays and music. We have a fear of recession precisely because in a recession people stop spending and the economy depends on their spending, their consumption.
As population increases beyond our means to produce more, there will inevitably be a food crisis. It may be slow in coming, with people learning to live on less as they see the prices rise, or it may be fast, initiated by a widespread bad harvest in a particular year. If it is the former, and we are ready, we may survive the beginning of it. If it is the latter, there will be famine. There are many ways we can ease the crisis in the near-term; vegetarianism, GM crops, desert irrigation, food supplements. If the crisis is slow, we will use all of these and others, albeit only when finances dictate we must.

With technology reducing the dependence of farming and production on people, and the population rising, an ever-diminishing number of people are needed for production. Since the capacity to farm is limited by the amount of available land, rather than our ability to farm it, the exponentially-rising population cannot result in an exponentially-rising number of farmers.

This means that with a diminishing amount of food available, and an ever-decreasing proportion of the population in necessary work, the rest of us will need something to do. A population needs entertainment, society, events, and so on. This is the expanding industry of the future; art. The creation and sharing of meaningful artefacts of culture, things that bind a group together - film, music, news. All the material things that have possessed the world of the present and the past; farming, manufacture, the management of scarce resources, will be history. The scarcity may be so severe that we cease trying to manage it.

If people are doing unnecessary work which largely benefits only themselves and their group, where will they get the money to buy food? I think the only answer is that the government or some other overarching corporation will give it out. State benefits will be the norm, not the exception, and they will be meagre by today's standards. Imagine that instead of handing out money for food, the city government provided it free. It will have already become the government's job to find enough food for everyone; we already see countries like China buying up land in Africa for food - eventually this is their primary remit. Money and capitalism will still exist, but they will be largely irrelevant to the mass; after all, you don't need money for food.

So we see enormous populations in cities living on low margins; minimising their consumption, minimising their need for scarce resources. Over a few generations of any lifestyle, a group absorbs the techniques and goals of living it into their very psyche; we see it in the philosophy of martial arts, in the way people feel that there is a natural order, their order. We see free speech and democracy as right, as good. But they are constructs we created to handle threats to our existence in the past - tyrants, dictators, corruption. I think we will see a commitment to living on narrow margins enter the collective psyche. People will not be fat even though food is free in this future, because of the social stigma associated with such excessive consumption. You may think that the rational actor will win, that people will overeat anyway. But the rational actor would steal, corrupt and connive in today's world with its low policing and yet people don't because we consider it beneath ourselves to do so. Plus, the food won't be so fattening.

The final piece in the jigsaw is perhaps the most unbelievable, if you have managed to stifle your disbelief so far. In a world where art is the way of life, and money merely a choice between living in one area with its balance of comfort and food and another area, people will not pay each other for things, they will give. Once the meaningless necessities are dealt with - purchasing food, clothing and so on - what is left is the meaningful. Gifts are the ultimate currency of meaning, and one people are only too ready to employ (why else do gift vouchers exist?). In a world of scarcity, to save up your resource, your time, and produce an artefact which you give to another is a supreme sacrifice, and thus a meaningful gift.

Your great-grandchild won't buy a ring for his spouse, he will craft one, and after a special dinner at the local eatery where he called in his favours with the owner to get the tastiest morsels, they will go home to their 2 room apartment and think about when in their life they will have their one child, proud to be living the right way. What will they think of you?

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