Sunday, July 13, 2008

Could sustainability lead to an authoritarian future?

Those who imagine humans eventually returning to agrarian societies also often imagine that such societies have the potential to be much more democratic and egalitarian than our current world. But, among those who imagine what I'll call a sustainable industrial future, there is little discussion of future political arrangements. It is implied that we will continue with nominally liberal democratic governance in North America and Europe. (It's hard to see, however, how that model will apply to say, the governments of central Africa.) But a sustainable industrial future, if it can be achieved, might require the regimentation of the individual beyond anything we have so far experienced.

One need look no further than the issue of population to realize that this assertion is not overblown. In any sustainable society population cannot grow indefinitely. It must be stabilized at some point. How then to stabilize it? Normally, nature manages this task by making the death rate equal to the birth rate. The question that should concern us is whether we want to allow nature to match high birth rates with high death rates or whether we'd like to keep both birth and death rates low. Presumably, one of the principal advantages of industrial society is that it is able to provide a healthy longevity to many more people. This implies that to stabilize the population we must achieve birth rates low enough to match our low death rates.

The right to bear children, however, is regarded as a fundamental human right not to be interfered with by the state. And, the choice not to bear children is also regarded as a right in many countries. But if the choice is left up to the individual, there is no guarantee of a stable population. How then should we go about matching birth and death rates? Harrison Brown, writing to us from the year 1954 in his book, "The Challenge of Man's Future," suggests a method that would strike us as a crass violation of the rights mentioned above:
Let us suppose that in a given year the birth rate exceeds the death rate by a certain amount, thus resulting in a population increase. During the following year the number of permitted inseminations is decreased, and the number of permitted abortions is increased, in such a way that the birth rate is lowered by the requisite amount. If the death rate exceeds the birth rate, the number of permitted inseminations would be increased while the number of abortions would be decreased. The number of abortions and artificial inseminations permitted in a given year would be determined completely by the difference between the number of deaths and the number of births in the year previous.

But that wouldn't be all. If we are to maintain a worldwide sustainable industrial society, we will need to control population across current borders. If we don't, many members of overpopulated societies will soon be knocking at our doors asking for assistance or even entry.

Brown also suggests that such control over reproduction might be used to slow down the deterioration of the human species. This has occurred in industrial society because humans are no longer subject to natural selection to the same degree that they have been in the past. Those who are healthy and able might be encouraged through incentives to have several offspring, while those who have deficiencies, say, of sight or hearing or mental ability might be discouraged. The problem, he notes, is in deciding what really constitutes "fit" or "unfit" and overcoming our revulsion to such a eugenics scheme. Still, he adds, when one considers the bald evolutionary facts, it behooves human societies, if they want to remain resilient in the face of changing conditions on Earth, to somehow replace nature's cruel hand in pruning the so-called "unfit" with something less drastic. It's that or face eventual extinction.

Brown acknowledges that none of this will seem acceptable to the vast majority of his readers. But, he is concerned that unless population stability and other problems are addressed head on, arrangements that are far more restrictive and objectionable than the ones he proposes may be implemented in their place.

Already many of you who are reading this are probably squirming, and we are only getting started down the path of regimentation. In relating Brown's ideas, I am not advocating them. But I recognize that so much of the freedom we now enjoy is premised on access to increasing amounts of energy and other resources. This surfeit reduces the frequency of conflict over resources and makes sharing resources more palatable. Our abundance makes us less inclined to object, for example, to the roughly 80 million new mouths the world needs to feed every year.

There is also a second critical limit on human behavior in the sustainable industrial society. We will not be free to increase our consumption at will. There is, of course, the possibility that people will try to circumvent such a restriction; but to the extent that this occurs, others in society will have to consume less to stay under acceptable limits for consumption that keep the society in balance with the natural resources available to it. It is possible that efficiencies in resource use will allow some growth in perceived consumption, that is, increased satisfaction of wants with the same amount of throughput. But infinite efficiency is not possible and so at some point increased satisfaction of wants will presumably have to cease, at least satisfaction based on boosting the quantity of matter and energy consumed. (Spiritual and perhaps some social satisfactions may not have similar limits.)

Since both production and consumption will have to be carefully controlled, the necessary organization of a sustainable industrial society suggests considerable centralization of governance and regimentation of daily life.

While this rather unattractive outcome is not inevitable, it seems all too likely to materialize if we succeed at making the transition to a sustainable industrial civilization. Those who propose that we can and will make such a transition need also to contemplate what institutions will be required to govern such a society. How might we retain important freedoms that we now enjoy such as freedom of expression and freedom of association while acknowledging that increased control of human activity will be inevitable under such circumstances? And what of love and sex in a world of tight control over reproduction?

Perhaps, you will say, we can inculcate self-restraint in the future denizens of the sustainable industrial society, and this will serve in the place of regimentation. You will certainly be able to do this with some people who find self-restraint a virtue. But, what will you do with those who will not or cannot restrain themselves from violating the principles of sustainability?

As Garrett Hardin, author of "The Tragedy of the Commons," points out, it takes the cooperation of all to maintain the viability of the commons; and that's what a sustainable society must be considered, one big commons. But it takes only one person acting on pure self-interest to bring destruction to the commons by forcing everyone else to overtax it or lose out in the competition over resources.

Those who are selling us the bright green sustainable industrial future must tell us how they plan to regulate the behavior of humans in this future. It is either that or give up any pretense that what they are selling is, in fact, sustainable.


Doug said...

We are already headed for an authoritarian future. Blackwater, USA is building bases in various locations in the United States and is the government's default private police force during times of natural disaster. It's only a matter of time before social chaos and unrest breaks out over food shortages and then say goodbye to personal freedoms. Also, the USA PATRIOT ACT and the new FISA bill are precursors to the authoritarian future.

Anonymous said...

I remember hearing Garrett Hardin speak in 1994. I looked forward to the talk-- his essay on Tragedy of the Commons was so widely quoted 24 years before.

His talk was disappointing, and contained a few insights, but for the most part resembled some music of 1973- interesting at the time, much dated afterwards.

During the Q&A session, someone asked something about women and population-- he replied something to the effect that 'women should revisit their desire to have so many kids'. I was amazed that someone could be so clueless and sexist that many years after 1970, as if men had nothing to do with having kids.

Anonymous said...

Good post. Environmentalists are going to have to embrace immigration restriction. The last president that truly controlled immigration was Eisenhower. There would be some constitutional issues with restricting the right to procreate, but not if it is part of a punishment for crime, after due process. Vasectomy should be a condition of parole for most felons.

Ben said...

I think that an authoritarian future or an agrarian future are both guaranteed to fail. The authoritarian will fail because sooner or later all authorities fail, especially if they try to implement increasingly draconian measures. The agrarian future will fail due to overpopulation.

The irony is that population control is such an easy problem to fix.

The issue here is embedded inside the question. The question shouldn't be 'how do we control population' - for that presupposes there must be a 'we' who are strong enough to control a population. The proper question is 'why do people have a child' or even more specifically 'why would somebody have a third child?'

There are a number of incentives for individuals to have a child:

1. To pass on their genes
People are biological beings and all things being equal they want to produce a next generation. In many societies child mortality is high, so there is an incentive to have multiple children to improve the chances of passing on your genes.

2. To provide security for people in their old age

In many societies, children look after parents in their old age, so the parents have an incentive to have as many children as they can.

3. Cultural pressure to have children

Some societies value large families, although this is often a reflection of generations of 1 and 2.

There is a good reason not to have a child
1. It's expensive.

Having and raising a child is an expensive process, and this increases with the number of children. For most people this is a real cost that will effect their quality of life. Ironically this is a much higher hit in a modern industrial society, where a child is likely to be dependent for many years of education. Compare this to an agrarian culture where education holds little value, and even young children can 'earn their keep' by helping to plant crops and sow seeds, and you can see why population is more dangerous in these societies.

So to control population, all you need to do is control the incentives of the individual.

1. Provide decent birth control, so that people have a choice
2. Provide decent health care to reduce the infant mortality to as close to zero as possible
3. Provide decent aged care and pensions so that people no longer rely on children to support them as they age.

These effectively removes much of the incentive to have a child, or more specifically to have a third child.

And it works. If you show me a country that has those three things, then odds are I'll show you a country that can't make its replacement rate without government incentives (like the Australian 'Baby Bonus') and immigration. Show me a society without these things, and I'll show you a population explosion.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, Your comment smells of eugenics, remember US had castration for mentally ill people in the past. and any suggestion with "should" can very easily disintegrate to eugenics or racism.
Plus author's emphasis on immigration is misplaced. Even if over populated people don't knock on less populated countries they still exert a great demand and destructive pressure on resources. Like it has come to fashion to blame India and China for all the ills. And they are not knocking on US's door. Plus US is knocking on middle eastern door. SO the pressure analogy is misplaced.
Any resource hungry populace (in numbers- China/India or quality-US et el.) can grow aggressive. Immigration makes us think in one dimension of population and not on consumption.
Sustainable future has to be universal otherwise simple osmosis of population pressure itself will derail sustainability.
The "universality" factor itself suggests control and authoritarianism, but now that we have uncontrolled population growth and consumption, the window for a credible and sane solution that can save the freedoms is closing.

Anonymous said...

Don Quixote,
Eugenics is not discussed in polite society, but most people still believe in punishment for crime. That is why I am only suggesting this for criminals.
And few would deny that criminals are more likely to breed more of the same.
Immigration restriction is important to world population control because immigrants to the US have much larger families than they would in their native land. Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles have nearly twice as many children as Mexicans in Mexico City. China has a somewhat effective one-child policy. Ironically, illegal immigrants from China get refugee status in the US, by saying they are fleeing the tyranny of the one-child rule

Robert D Feinman said...

You might want to read some of the works of ecological economist Herman Daly. He was one of the first to talk about steady state economies.

A good place to start is with this short essay:
Daly Essay

You can also read my take on the issue, which focuses a bit more on implementation issues:
Planning for a no-growth society

As for population control, the situation is both dire and (relatively) easy to fix. The strongest influence on birth rate is the educational level of women and their ability to work outside the home and earn their own money. In societies where female literacy rate goes up, the birth rate drops dramatically, usually within a generation. Typical changes are from 5+ births per woman to 2.

The developed nations are all seeing a birth rate below replacement rate and are taking steps to increase this, usually via immigration. Our capitalist/consumerist economies can't visualize a society not based upon unending growth.

This is where the real focus should be, what would a post capitalist economic system look like and how would we transition to it? That's what I try to discuss in my essay cited above and several related ones.

Anonymous said...

There is feudalism in your sustainable future, far removed from the seat of the federal government...and, hopefully, peppered with city states teeming with commerce and democracy.

And, population rationing is easy to do. See here:

Cangrande said...

It is equally rare and refreshing to see anybody giving thoughts about the organizational effects of a future with less energy etc. While you are talking about the political structure of a sustainable society ("Those who are selling us the bright green sustainable industrial future must tell us how they plan to regulate the behavior of humans in this future. It is either that or give up any pretense that what they are selling is, in fact, sustainable")
the same problems will face a society that doesn't care about sustainability, but is deprived of energy.

Personally I belive that we might be able to somewhat prolong our stay of execution (but I doubt that we will do even that much or that little), but as long as mankind uses non-renewable resources (to which I see no large-scale alternatives for an industrial society), our civilization is not on a path of sustainability - growth or no growth.

For me your central statements (with which I basically agree) are:

"... a sustainable industrial future, if it can be achieved, might require the regimentation of the individual beyond anything we have so far experienced."

"I recognize that so much of the freedom we now enjoy is premised on access to increasing amounts of energy and other resources. This surfeit reduces the frequency of conflict over resources and makes sharing resources more palatable. Our abundance makes us less inclined to object, for example, to the roughly 80 million new mouths the world needs to feed every year."

What impacts might resource shortages have on the various levels of society?

- Family: might get more important, like in the olden days. Maybe back to clan-society? (This situation might favor Moslem religion, which seems to be more connected with old tribal-/clan-values, over Western Christianity.)

- You rightly say "Since both production and consumption will have to be carefully controlled, the necessary organization of a sustainable industrial society suggests considerable centralization of governance and regimentation of daily life." But what is going to happen will more likely be a Balkanization of the political landscape: Internal resource wars (Nigeria!); states vs. federal government (USA, EU and that may go on even inside the European Nations), countryside vs. cities.

- Drastic increase of stealing will threaten vital technical lines of supply and communication: Electric wiring (shortage or at least high price of copper?!) but maybe at a later point even rails might get stolen. So back to medieval punishments?

- Cohesion of society, efficiency of rationing etc. will get undermined by increasing corruption.

- Problem of fair distribution. I'm not very familiar with the peak oil- and climate-discussion in the USA, but over here in Germany many people think "If each of us would only give up a little ...". That of course is illusionary for two reasons: a) scale (a little won't do) and b) certain critical and even absolute limits: when you drive a BMW you can always change to a Mini, but below that the next step is not gradual any more: back to the bicycle (or a horse). (And in worse circumstances the alternative might even be between eating a steak only every other day for the one and substarvation-diet for the other.) So the quarrel between social layers about what is to be considered a 'just' distribution of what is left will be a growing problem.

Under those cirumcstances, we Europeans in particular will be forced to reconsider and probably revoke what I consider to be our present 'sunshine-ethics' and (re-)introduce capital punishment, draconian measures against immigration etc.
We might even have to get our hands dirty by getting involved in those vicious resource wars instead of presently (arguably) letting America do the dirty job and take the blame for it.

Anonymous said...

There is no such thing as a "worldwide sustainable industrial society." You get authoritarianism only by clinging to this as something desirable.

Clay said...

It's the agrarian societies that have the motive to increase population. Family-based modes of production. That's who's churning out the superfluous population now. The one country in the world with serious population authoritarianism, China, has been a "sustainable" agrarian society (i.e. balanced by famine and disease) for 3000 years.

Rice Farmer said...

I don't think there are any easy solutions.

First, I don't see a future for industrial civilization because there simply won't be enough energy to keep it going. "Industry" in the future will be small-scale. Back to the days of carpenters and blacksmiths. I am not romanticizing this; I'm just saying it's going to happen.

Second, there is no guarantee against so-called eco-fascism. Authoritarian regimes can arise under any circumstances, including societies "living in harmony with nature."

Third, societies have to learn to hold down their populations to levels that do not tax their resource bases and leave a cushion for hard times. Unfortunately, there are not many examples of societies that learned to do this. One thing, though: Farming families often have many children for labor. In fact, my own mother came from a farming family with 12 kids. But it's important to realize that this happens because one farming family is expected to feed a lot more idlers in the cities. I'm not saying that everyone has to become a full-time farmer, but that everyone should at least do a little gardening. You can grow a surprising amount of food by gardening just two hours a day. That would considerably lighten the burden on full-time farmers, and take the pressure off them to have so many children.

Anonymous said...

Only with a set of givens, or assumptions--none of which are showing any signs of developing. IOW, a disastrous unwinding is in our current pattern of responses--just like all of the other civilisations before us. We got here by the same pathway taken by all of these prior civilisations, I don't see any reason to expect that taking that same path, to this point, will lead to a different outcome this time around. Oops! Did I burst someone's bubble of expectations? Probably not. But that's all the same game as well.

Anonymous said...

I have read the post twice and all the comments.

Presumably, one of the principal advantages of industrial society is that it is able to provide a healthy longevity to many more people....

...replace nature's cruel hand in pruning the so-called "unfit" with something less drastic. It's that or face eventual extinction.

We're flipping pages too quickly. If sustainable industrial society makes people healthy, then it will make "unfit" people more healthy. At the same time, it downgrades the need for breeding a superhuman.

2. Based on my knowledge about Hardin, his fan list is predominantly of master race advocates. Gardin took his life and his wife's. I urge everyone to judge his work on its practical application to his own life and that of his wife. I hope it's easy to see that his writings won't work for us "weaklings". He shouldn't be such widely quoted on anything...

3. I suggest another possible, likely? outcome. Nuclear war wipes out most humanity. It will be sustainable for a long while after that. Then rinse and repeat.

Rock on Kurt.

Anonymous said...

Virginia Deane Abernethy

Ecologist Garrett Hardin never minced words in presenting his unvarnished view of humanity's impact on the planet. And he was no less direct in planning his death. On 14 September he and his wife committed suicide at their home in Santa Barbara, California. Hardin was 88, and his wife Jane was 81. Both were in very poor health.

Sure, blame poor health. Why mince words here? Why just say he killed himself.

I stay away from this Hardin guy. The picture of the dead man looking at me from his web site is like an offense to me. Choose your hero well or your children will judge you.

mattbg said...

I never really understood the appeal of eugenics, but your post made me realize that it's a good complement to sustainability.

With the availability of cheap energy, we can abide the addition of 80 million people every year in the hope that some small percentage of those people will be of disproportionate benefit to the rest of the population: the idea that, for example, for every 80 million people, we will realize 1 Einstein, 1 Stephen Hawking, and a bunch of other people -- but a very small minority -- that are at the top of their classes.

When energy is cheap, we can afford to make that compromise because it doesn't have much material impact on our lives. As resources become more scarce, it will be much more important that increased efficiencies be extracted from any population increase... and eugenics seem to offer that possibility.

Obviously, I'm uncomfortable with the idea. I think we learn a lot from diversity, and I wonder what the point of keeping life going is if we shut it out.

Jerry said...

Great article. It raises a lot of questions that many people find too "icky" to discuss.

It seems to be clear that some "elitist" organizations already believe and are pushing for an authoritarian approach to a sustainable future. The top printed goal of the Bilderberg organization is to enforce a global population of 1/2 Billion people. Nazi Germany and Communist China seem to have had significant financial support from western sources for their respective eugenics operations.

But another arguable fact seems to be that humanity always comes to accept, even to aspire for authoritarian leadership. That seems to be another ongoing cycle in the evolution and devolution of human societies. We fight brutally for freedoms, and then seem to find these freedoms too difficult to bear and slowly begin to move towards desiring more and more guidance from a spiritual or political leader...handing over more and more freedoms until we wake up and realize that these leaders rarely want what is best for us, but for themselves.

On top of this, even after having achieved a state of relative freedom in the last 2-300 years, we have made choices based on selfishness and pride. We, especially in the west, have been content to watch the super-rich gather more and more wealth and power to themselves, so long as we have our "(north) American Dream". It's not until the middle class began to feel itself slipping that the "elites" began being called out.

We've been manipulated nicely in this tho. "A Century of Self" which can be viewed on Google Video, shows how the powers-that-be have used psychology and human nature to manipulate us into accepting this very subtle authoritarianism.

But yes, it's very likely that unless we smarten up, as a whole, our only salvation as a species may lie in another long period of blatant authoritarian control.

Anonymous said...

To the other anonymous. Vasectomies for criminals won't control population since criminals who are caught are a distinct minority of the population and women, because they can only have about one child per year, are the bottleneck for population growth.

Also rendering criminals infertile might encourage young men who commit felonies to try to make more children so that they'll have sired some before they are made infertile.

Encouraging individualism in women is currently the most effective way of limiting the amount of babies produced.

Jerry said...

"The Will to Order can make tyrants out of those who merely aspire to clear up a mess."
- Aldous Huxley "Brave New World Revisited" (1958)

Anonymous said...

many "felons" are the type of people with the gumption to do things the lambs will not. We may need them. Have Fun!