Was anyone smarter than Freeman Dyson? In 1965 a Nobel Prize was awarded to three physicists who developed the field of quantum electrodynamics; but it was Dyson who made these men’s disparate theories cohere with one another. Many mind-bending concepts bear his name. In the “Dyson Scenario,” for instance, an immortal society uses a finite amount of energy to create an infinite amount of subjective time, thereby evading the heat death of the universe. Dyson’s books are everything that their seductive titles—Dreams of Earth and Sky; The Scientist as Rebel; Infinite in All Directions—promise them to be. To the last—he died in February, at 96—Dyson’s mind remained deep yet broad, daring yet humane.
Any mental trap that Dyson could fall into is a perilous snare indeed. So it is worthy of note that when Dyson turned his attention to economics, and, in particular, to innovation, his thinking became startlingly static.
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Dyson complained in a 1997 essay that companies spend too much time developing “toys for the rich.” “The laptop computer and the cellular telephone” were, he claimed, “the latest of the new toys,” the latest sign that technology “ignor[es] the needs of the poor.” In a postscript appended to his piece in 2006, he doubled down. He admitted that by then, when he sat in a waiting room “among a crowd of the poorer citizens of New Jersey,” many of them had cell phones. No matter; “new technologies have continued,” Dyson insisted, “to make stockholders richer and workers poorer.”
New technology makes workers poorer? Dyson discounted the evidence before his eyes. The year after he produced his postscript, moreover, Apple released a handheld computer, the iPhone. Today more than four in five Americans own a smartphone. “Every modern technological change,” writes economist Deirdre McCloskey, “has aroused fears of a ‘digital gap’”; but such gaps never persist. “In the third act,” she observes, “the poor get smartphones, cheaply. Every time.”
And it’s not just gadgets, revolutionary though they may be. What McCloskey calls “innovism” or “commercially tested betterment” has made the poor much richer. A system that lets ordinary people benefit (yes, that means profit) from solving problems—from inventing a safer vehicle, a stronger medicine, a cheaper appliance—is a system that generates new wealth not only, or even mainly, for the problem-solvers or for the rich. Everyone gains. Even during the ongoing pandemic, about which more later, most people today live better in material terms than did the very rich of just a hundred years ago. On the day Freeman Dyson was born, no amount of money could buy a television, a long-haul flight, a Zoom call, or a tablet of Lipitor.
But what of inequality? It depends on one’s perspective. Feudal societies, with their hereditary lords, were no doubt unequal. Authoritarian states, with their privileged party members, were, and are, unequal, their paeans to egalitarianism notwithstanding. And if what matters is simple resentment, the case can be made that the developed countries of today, too, are unequal. But equality in a brute sense—better that my neighbor’s sheep die than that my neighbor have more sheep than I do—is an equality not of wealth but of misery. If, on the other hand, what matters is dignity, opportunity, and well-being, no one has ever been more equal than the people of the modern West. It is an equal chance to exploit one’s talents and work-ethic that delivers the goods.
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A common and persistent fear, among leading thinkers, is that civilization will soon suffer tremendously from the byproducts of all this success. When the biologist Paul Ehrlich looked at the global drop in infant mortality fifty years ago, he saw not a blessing but an impending cataclysm. “Each year food production in [poor] countries falls a bit further behind burgeoning population growth,” Ehrlich wrote in 1968, “and people go to bed a little bit hungrier.” In those countries, he predicted, hundreds of millions would die of starvation in the 1970s; and those deaths would be a mere prelude, he believed, to the deaths of billions of people, including at least 65 million Americans, from starvation in the final decades of the twentieth century.
This, surely, must count as one of the most errant sets of predictions ever made by a serious scientist. The rate of famine has dropped sharply since 1968, even as the world’s population has doubled. What’s more, modern famines are a result not of an inability to grow enough food, but of political turmoil. The calories available per person has increased dramatically since Ehrlich offered his predictions. Even activists acknowledge that there’s plenty of food.
Ehrlich engaged in deeply static thinking. He did not account for innovation. He failed to foresee that scientists would find ways to increase plant resilience, improve pest control, and bolster crop yields. Over the last seven decades, in fact, as population growth remained steady, farmland growth tapered off almost completely. The land devoted to grazing peaked around twenty years ago, and is now shrinking.
But Ehrlich remains as pessimistic as ever, and he is far from alone. “We’ve had an amazing run since the end of World War II,” the environmentalist Bill McKibben acknowledges in his recent book Falter: Has The Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, “with crop yields growing fast enough to keep ahead of a fast-rising population.” In other words, Ehrlich’s predictions were rubbish. But now, McKibben says, crop growth “seems to be running into the brute facts of heat and drought.”
It would be a mistake to dismiss warnings about climate change out of hand. The grounds for concern are real. McKibben adeptly summarizes the terrible harm humans are inflicting on the biosphere. The fire season in the American West is more than two months longer than it was in 1970. Many glaciers in the Himalayas are hundreds of feet shorter than they were when George Mallory trekked among them in 1924. The ocean is becoming more acidic, endangering the planet’s oxygen-producing phytoplankton. The reckless Ehrlich may be a menace to his own cause; and he may be spiteful (his critics, he says, are just greedy and stupid; even Harvard scientist Steven Pinker he dismisses as “not too bright”); and he was certainly wrong yesterday. But none of this proves that he is wrong today. The well-fed turkey thinks life is roses until Thanksgiving morning. Every prophecy of doom is wrong except the last one.
At the heart of the matter is whether we can keep growing indefinitely. “Economic growth is [a] disease,” Ehrlich declares. “Perpetual growth,” he warns, “is the creed of the cancer cell.” Putting it this way invites yet more static thinking, because it treats growth as nothing more than more of the same: ever more people using ever more stuff. In reality, growth includes problem solving—innovation that remedies the side effects of innovation. Growth often means less stuff. In 1959 a typical soda can contained 85 grams of aluminum. Today it contains around 13 grams. Such examples abound.
Still, a more nuanced framing does not resolve the dilemma. At the very least, it’s unsettling to expect that as yet unperfected, or even unimagined, inventions are going to fix immediate, palpable problems. Taken too far, such a belief becomes lazy and heedless. The smog in Delhi has given 2.2 million children irreversible lung damage. Noting that the air quality in Los Angeles has improved will not help the children of Delhi. Chanting the words “human progress” will not do the trick either. Maybe the next generation of young Delhites will get a better deal—but maybe they won’t. The city’s poisonous air is a stubborn presence. The problem is not going to fix itself.
Consider too the difficulty of generating an endless series of solutions. A constant rate of growth requires an exponential amount of growth. “To sustain continuous growth,” the physicist Geoffrey West explains, “the time between successive innovations has to get shorter and shorter.” We are running, West says, on an accelerating treadmill.
So just as no one can promise that without degrowth, billions of people will die miserable deaths, no one can promise that with growth, things will, slowly but surely, simply work themselves out. The future is unwritten. Uncertainty is ineradicable. What, then, are we to do?
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Past progress does not guarantee future progress. Those who want to halt growth are well within their rights to point this out. But the pro-growth optimists have something the anti-growth pessimists emphatically lack—a solid track record. McKibben praises the year 1978, when “the top 1 percent of Americans saw their share of the nation’s wealth fall to 23 percent.” Aside, perhaps, from its being a better time for someone bitten by envy, what’s so admirable about 1978? Was an American with cancer more likely to survive then, or now? Conditions have improved not just in America, but almost everywhere. Global poverty has plummeted, at the fastest rate ever, since 1978. The number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by more than half, even as the total number of people on earth has doubled.
And the dastardly neoliberal system doesn’t just save lives; it makes life better. McKibben is free to opine that “a man with a phone more or less permanently affixed to his palm is partway a robot already.” Much modern progressive thought stands on supposedly sophisticated people’s fear of change. Normal people are not obliged to share such fears, and generally they don’t. Actually, change can be rather agreeable. Remember when laptops and cell phones were “toys for the rich”?
Nor will normal people find much to like about life in a degrowth world. Aaron Timms recently reported in The New Republic on his three-week stay at a French degrowth “summer school.” The “students” there lived in a commune without refrigeration, air conditioning, or Wi-Fi. They subsisted on leaves, legumes, grains, and bread. They entertained themselves by talking “long into the night about capitalism and interspecies extinction.” At a seminar a Dutch man presented a vision of the degrowth lifestyle. He lavished praise on the Amish and said that “it would be great to have more darkness.” Listeners from the Global South were not impressed. A woman from Chile upbraided the speaker for idealizing the primitiveness of the past. “People in the developing world are living in that past,” she said; “it’s called poverty.” “I’ve heard all my life about the need for personal limits and personal sacrifice,” an Indian Ph.D. student added; “it feels like a regression to go back to that world.” The school’s only Chinese attendee told Timms that no one in China would accept the school’s living conditions. “Everyone in the country wants to move to the city,” he said, “and everyone in the city wants to copy the West.”
The Chinese would know; they have tried degrowth on for size. Although capitalism has yet to produce the kind of ruin Paul Ehrlich is always picturing, the Great Leap Forward, China’s sharp departure from capitalism, did so to the last degree. Communal farming and rural industrialization—deindustrialization, really—created the worst famine there has been. Equally tragic was the Khmer Rouge’s attempt to turn Cambodia into an autarkic socialist agrarian utopia. This is not to say that every rigid environmentalist is an eco-fascist. (McKibben, for his part, is laudably clear-eyed about the failures of Soviet autocracy and central planning.) It is simply to note that, on the few occasions it has been implemented, abrupt, widespread, top-down degrowth has been a disaster.
The world is too complex for centrally imposed formulas. Planned degrowth would limit our options. It would purposely restrict our energy supply, cutting our capacity to solve problems by literally reducing our output of ideas. (“It is naïve,” West writes, “to dissociate ideas from energy—one cannot flourish without the other.”) Unplanned growth, by contrast, is a gigantic problem-solving machine. Such growth is diversity itself. As Matt Ridley explains in The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge, innovation is the product of dispersed experimentation; the process is “gradual, incremental, undirected, emergent and driven by natural selection among competing ideas.” Give humans energy and freedom, and they will do the rest.
Innovators must, in Ridley’s words, stay “one step ahead of the naysayers and the nihilists and the protestors.” Maintaining a one-step advantage will be that much harder amid the fear and distrust, the suffering and disorder, that accompany a modern plague. COVID-19 is spreading death and poverty. It may in time call forth political reactions and ideological zealotries of every sort. And already there are those who see our closed shops and empty roads not as a calamity, but as something very like a triumph. They believe their hour is come. Although the full significance of the coronavirus as an agent of change cannot yet be known, we may be sure the antimoderns will gladly ride this catastrophe as far as it will carry them. Our duress is, in their view, a grand opportunity for deep and lasting reversals. But it is no such thing. Growth, Walter Russell Mead reminds us, is why we are not as helpless now “as our ancestors were in the times of the Black Death”; and it is likewise “going to be more important than ever as the world recovers from the pandemic.”
There is cause for hope. The great enrichment has been going for more than two centuries. It has outpaced economic panics, global wars, and, indeed, other pandemics. Some aspects of the rise have persisted even in the thick of such setbacks. Technological change, Ridley points out, was remarkably steady throughout the 20th century, the Great Depression included. Although this or that nation might for a time cast itself into the dark, as China and Cambodia once did, and as some would have us now do, Ridley suspects that, overall and in the long run, we “could not stop the march of technology even if we wanted to.” It is “a far more spontaneous phenomenon than we realize.”
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The proponents of degrowth are, at bottom, reactionaries. They are religious fanatics in a post-religious world.
It is, to be sure, no sin to be ill at ease in a deconstructed society, a place where standards are contingent, meaning is fabricated, and instincts run in every direction. All narratives are happening at once, and none is definitive. This can cause a lot of discomfort. But there is no going back. The unlocked mind cannot be taped shut. Scientists and artists will continue to question all assumptions, to rattle all faiths, and to alter perceptions. Free thinkers, J.B.S. Haldane said, are “the wreckers of outworn empires and civilizations, doubters, disintegrators, deicides.” They are the wielders of reason and imagination, irrepressible forces that improve lives but corrode values. We are doomed, if that is the word, to live in a time of increase and anxiety, a paradoxical age when rich harvests sprout from rootless stalks.
This is more than tolerable. The past was no traditionalist arcadia, and revolution is no path to a bucolic future. Many policies merit consideration; someone who wants to impose taxes on carbon, limits on entitlements, racial quotas on college admissions, or restrictions on abortion shouldn’t have a copy of The Road to Serfdom or The Handmaid’s Tale waved in her face. But gross deviations, in whatever direction, would make any liberal country less free, less varied, and far more miserable. It may be unsettling to accept that no story is complete, no truth absolute; that there is no one cause for which to fight; that life is messy and confusing. But some psychological vertigo is a fair price to pay for the benefits of living in an open society.
Nietzsche, in one of his many fits of exuberance, announced that reality shows us a marvelous wealth of types. He warned against the prig who draws his own face on the wall and exclaims, “Behold the man!” Smartphones make us less human, says Bill McKibben. Behold the man. “Doing stuff with your hands is great fun,” says a Dutch primitivist; “that’s what’s missing in our lives.” Behold the man.
One might say, turning the intended (and rotten) meaning of Rousseau’s famous phrase on its head, that we are forced to be free. There being no general will to tap, we need the most dynamic kind of thinking of all, the kind that embraces uncertainty, contradiction, and difference. So check your premises; do it often, and ask that others do the same. Accept that you usually can’t tell strangers how to live, never mind how they’re supposed to want to live. Curiosity and genuine toleration are the keystone of good citizenship in an evolving postmodern republic.
The more spiritual among us can catch a glimpse of the cosmic in the fact that our ancestors, our siblings, and, above all, our descendants need not see the world as we do. Freeman Dyson knew a thing or two; take it from him. “Freedom,” he wrote, “is the divine spark that causes human children to rebel against grand unified theories imposed by their parents.”