By Alan Ware
Today, much of the media and our most influential thought leaders have a blind faith that as-yet-undiscovered technologies can save us from overpopulation and ecological overshoot. With the likes of Elon Musk and other giants of Silicon Valley leading the way, belief in technological progress has assumed the contours of a civic religion. Plans for colonizing Mars, mining asteroids, and conducting planet-wide geo-engineering to combat climate change are all on the drawing board for dealing with our ecological overshoot. And their dreams and technological visions unfortunately garner more serious media attention than in-depth stories about overpopulation and our very real and down-to-earth ecological predicament.
But there is now mounting evidence – and hugely underreported evidence – that technological progress has actually been slowing in recent decades compared to earlier decades and centuries. That statement may seem wholly counter-intuitive to many readers, but I ask you to consider some of the building evidence supplied from technology reporters, economists, and scientists. As overpopulation activists we need to marshal the evidence and push back against those who believe that technology can save us from ecological overshoot and collapse.
Low-Hanging Fruit of Innovation
We all know about the “low-hanging fruit” principle as it applies to resource use: like any species we humans take the easiest, best resources first. Early European American settlers sod-busted 3-foot thick Iowa topsoil, felled the towering white pines of northern Minnesota and New England, fished the teeming fisheries of North Atlantic cod, tapped the gushing oil of Pennsylvania and Texas, and mined the richest ores. Now we’re left with Iowa topsoil reduced to half what it was 150 years ago, forests reduced to mono-crop tree plantations, fisheries depleted or collapsed, and land and water ravaged and abused in the search for harder-to-get oil and coal.
As economist Tyler Cowen notes in his 2011 book, The Great Stagnation, evidence is mounting that the “low-hanging fruit” principle also applies in the realm of human technical innovation. We first solve the easiest technical problems that deliver the greatest benefit at the lowest cost. Penicillin was discovered in 1928. It’s estimated to have saved 200 million lives, and it formed the basis for all modern antibiotics. The basic research cost less than $300,000 in today’s dollars! In contrast, the “war on cancer” has received over $105 billion from the U.S. government alone and the death rate, adjusted for the size and age of the population, has decreased by only 5 percent since 1950 (Kolata,2009).
Huge innovations that transformed daily life were carried out by Edison’s small group of researchers at Menlo Park. Life-changing technologies such as the incandescent light bulb, phonograph, movie camera, and electricity distribution came from this small team of researchers. Now, scientific and technological progress requires ever-larger teams of researchers working in interdisciplinary fashion with huge budgets. And, as the problems they’re attempting to solve become increasingly and incredibly complex, the resources required grow ever-larger.
Innovation in Bits, Not Atoms
The fact is that technological advancement of the past 40 years or so has occurred primarily in the realm of electronic bits. We’ve seen amazing advancements in all kinds of digital communications technologies. And yet in the world of matter – of atoms – we’ve seen precious little.
In transportation, we abandoned supersonic passenger airplane travel in the 1970’s, and if you’d told people in the late 1960’s that we’d no longer have human space missions they’d think you were crazy. Blockbuster drug discoveries are fewer and farther between and the cost of biomedical research and development continues to soar. Renewable energy technologies have increased at a rapid rate in recent years, but they supply only a small fraction of the world’s total power needs. Fossil fuels still supply over 80% of all global energy.
Global industrial civilization relies on massive amounts of renewable and non-renewable resources. Many “bright-green” believers in technology have faith that increased efficiency will translate into less consumption of resources. And yet a recent MIT study found the opposite. With nearly all the major 57 materials the researchers studied – from aluminum to silicon chips to solar panels – they found that more efficiency in production led to lower costs which, in turn, led to greater consumption.
The End of Moore’s Law
Most of the current dreams of the “internet of things”, driverless cars, widespread robotization and artificial intelligence are based on expectations of the silicon chip revolution continuing. In the world of silicon chips we’ve enjoyed a half century of nearly uninterrupted operation of Moore’s law – the tendency for the number of transistors on a silicon chip to double every two or so years with a dramatic decrease in cost. John Markoff, decades-long technology reporter with the New York Times, notes that “It is hard to overstate the importance of Moore’s Law to the entire world.”
Now, even in the realm of digital technologies, we are seeing diminishing returns in innovation. Over the past few years many under-reported stories have appeared about the recent and rapid slowing of Moore’s law. As Markoff notes, “If you begin to pick it apart, the fundamental argument of Silicon Valley, it's all about this exponential acceleration that comes out of the semiconductor industry. I suddenly discovered it was over…In fact, things are slowing down. In 2045, it's going to look more like it looks today than you think.”
Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?
That’s the question put by a team of Stanford and MIT economists when looking at the U.S. economy across a broad range of industries (Bloom, Jones, Van Reenen, and Webb, 2017). Their answer is yes: “We find that ideas – and in particular the exponential growth they imply – are getting harder and harder to find.” In areas where exponential growth is observed they find that this growth “results from large increases in research effort.” For example, in the silicon chip industry, the number of researchers required to achieve the doubling of chip density today is more than 75 times larger than the number of researchers required in the early 1970s.
The authors find that across many different industries research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply. The researchers conclude that “just to sustain constant growth in GDP per person, the U.S. must double the amount of research effort searching for new ideas every 13 years to offset the increased difficulty of finding new ideas."
We can’t afford doubling the resources given to research efforts every 13 years for the simple fact that we can’t all be researchers. Someone has to grow the food, tend the sick, teach the children and do all the thousands of other jobs necessary for life in modern societies. And, on top of that, much of the developed world is faced with a maintenance crisis of crumbling infrastructure that requires enormous resources just to maintain what we already have. We simply won’t be able to afford the ever-increasing amount of resources required to push the technology frontier forward.
We need Social Innovation, not Technical Innovation
As overpopulation activists we need to question the dominant narrative of the broader culture that seems to worship a lazy technological “optimism” – an almost child-like faith that technological miracles can deliver us from ecological overshoot and collapse.
If technological innovation is slowing, as much evidence suggests, then we must rely more than ever on social innovation to create a sustainable future.
Technology can’t save us. Solving overpopulation can. Smaller families and a smaller global human population are essential if we want to create a future worth inheriting.
Alan Ware is Research Associate for World Population Balance.