Seeing the bubble

Fundamentally, one of the biggest defining factors of life in western countries for the past few decades – one of the things that sets us apart from most other countries, and most previous human cultures, is the comfort, security and stability that we are accustomed to. Regardless of how you decide to measure it, and even when considering personal tragedies and difficulties, we are in a very privileged position.

Ultimately, this unprecedented degree of safety and certainty is a result of our similarly unprecedented material standard of living. As an immensely wealthy society we can afford the kind of institutions (insane and dysfunctional though they may often be) that look after most of us incredibly well, and shield us from the slings and arrows that most human societies, for lack of any other option, have simply regarded as an inevitable part of life.

For me personally, beginning to see the bubble that separates my lifestyle from that of most other humans that exist, or have previously existed, was a huge factor in coming to the conclusions that inform how I live my life and what I expect from the future. Prior to really seeing this gulf, my reference points were all set from within the bubble – which meant I was by default accepting it as a given. Starting to see the entirely different examples of human life on the outside, and starting to understand what was required to maintain these differences, allowed me to gain some perspective on the future (and arguably the lack thereof) of our current living arrangements.

We could drop the bubble metaphor here for a minute and instead talk about this in terms of thermodynamics, by thinking of western culture as running at a higher temperature compared to cultures outside of it. Any differential in energy will naturally dissipate over time until it reaches an equilibrium – in the case of a hot cup of tea, the cup will lose heat to the air around it until it reaches room temperature. It is possible to maintain a temperature difference in such a way, but this requires certain steps to be taken, such as applying more heat, and ideally insulating the cup, but this requires the input of more energy. The greater the difference, the more it takes to maintain.

Here I will need to pause for a minute to explain one of the big premises running through all of the articles on this blog (which many of you may not accept). The premise here is that there are 3 significant factors which combine to mean the exceptional conditions that underpin Western standards of living are coming to an end around us. In order of best narrative sense, the first of these factors is the growing affluence and global influence of non-Western countries. The second factor is our inability to grow global resource consumption to keep pace with this growing affluence. And the third factor is the various non-linear environmental crises that are exacerbated by the growing global consumption of resources (since ‘consumption of resources’ in essence means turning them into pollution faster than either the resources can be replenished or the pollution broken down) As such, a critical glance at the structures which maintain our privileged positions in the global order of things suggests that they inevitably at some point will no longer be able to take the strain.

Among those who have seen the bubble, and recognised in one way or another the implications of one or more of the above premises, its pretty common to see the fragileness of the bubble in absolute terms – i.e. to come to the conclusion that as our way of life cannot be maintained, it could come to an end at any point without warning. In practise, just as it didn’t come into being all at once, it will take decades for our exceptional way of life to completely atrophy. To change our metaphors once again, the bubble acts more like a city wall in this respect – crumbling due to lack of maintenance in some areas and still providing some protection in others, until eventually lack of upkeep makes it more useful as a historical talking point or a source of raw materials than as a barrier.

Seeing the bubble brings with it a lot of uncertainty – something we’re not particularly well equipped to deal with. We can’t be at all certain how long our privileged position in the world order can be maintained (there are some ethical questions about whether we should be maintaining it, but I think I’ll leave that for another time). We also have no idea how this will balance out in the long run – are we heading for a diminished place in a new multipolar world order where things like car ownership and foreign travel become a luxury, but globally most people maintain a quality of life improved by modern technology to some extent? Or will we find ourselves in the rather less privileged position of being a vassal state to the next ambitious imperial nation, more interested in concentrating wealth and power in a different corner of the world than seeing it spread out more widely? Or perhaps we’ll simply be unable to maintain an industrial society at all and begin the slow process of returning to some sort of feudal dark age? And what will the process of transition to whatever future scenario we are heading towards actually look like?

Ultimately these questions are unlikely to be answered in any final sense within our lifetimes. In coming to terms with this uncertainty, the response of many people is to ask: so what shall I do about it? Thats a pretty big question, and so I’ll have a stab at offering at least a partial answer next week.

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3 Responses to Seeing the bubble

  1. Andrew says:

    You make an analogy to temperature dissipation, which is a result of negative feedback. On what grounds is this analogy accurate, i.e. how do you argue that levels of consumption between countries are inevitably brought together by negative feedback, rather than pushed apart by positive feedback, or kept in a non-equal equilibrium by a balance of the two?

  2. I didn’t suggest they were inevitably brought back together by negative feedback – the other two scenarios you posit are also possible, and have quite clearly happened previously for such a disparity to develop in the first place. I am suggesting that the inputs required to ensure that positive feedback either maintains or increases the disparity can’t be counted on for all that much longer (for reasons covered in the post), and that the disparity will shrink over time.

  3. The bubble model works based upon a static economic/industrial model analysis but not a dynamic one. The entropy (temperature equalisation) one works much better viewed based on a dynamic analysis. The static analysis might look, for example, at food production in Africa and assumes this can’t increase e.g. 4 fold, to the point where industrialising and more educated African family sizes are likely to go the way of family sizes in previously industrialised and educated places, towards stable population. From the assumption they will follow a similar model of agricultural change to elsewhere, population stabilisation at 4X current population will then result in very different challenges from the currently presumed challenge of feeding everyone – the challenge of looking after many more old people with fewer young people. A more dynamic analysis (based perhaps on the assumption that 90% of the African population won’t be at war and so will educate much more than the 10% at war) would look instead at what happened in other places which started pumping ground water for agriculture using renewable energy.

    Based on a more dynamic analysis it seems more likely that living standards in the richest countries are likely to be more or less maintained – perhaps with some improvements in some areas (e.g. connectivity) and arguable reductions in others, e.g. more people using public transport and fewer people using cars, or people using their cars for lower annual mileages, while the living standards of currently poorer countries will rise to comparable levels. Much of this rise of poorer industrialising counties will be much more resource efficient than assumed by static models, due to the inefficient, resource-wasteful intermediate technologies used in the oldest industrialising countries being bypassed entirely. E.G.1 I’m told the Sao Paulo, Brazil underground is now efficient, safe and clean by a friend who travelled in what was the world’s largest, most dangerous, car congested and filthy city in the seventies. E.G.2 much of Africa now having developed very effective and resource-minimal mobile-phone networks with fully electronic exchanges, having bypassed fixed line telecommunications with electromechanical exchanges which historically used immense quantities of metals, skilled labour and electricity in comparison.

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