Is it possible to grow in complexity without expanding in size?
October 6, 2018
Is uncontrolled exponential growth is some sort of absolute norm, some sort of necessary eternal feature of human civilization? I don’t think so. This kind of growth must come to an end at some point. It is necessarily limited, and temporary by its very nature. A colony of bacteria will, of course, multiply exponentially until it is limited by space, resources, or competition. The case is the same with people. Right now, human civilization is thinking and acting similarly to a bacterial colony, keep growing, keep multiplying, fill up all the space, use all the resources. Uninhibited expansion and consumption can of course continue until all available resources and space is exhausted. At this point, resources simply don’t exist anymore.
There is, however, another kind of exponential expansion happening. Consider Moore’s Law, which predicts the doubling in computer transistor counts every two years. This isn’t really an expansion in size, or of volume of resources used. It is an exponential expansion in complexity. This complexity allows more sophisticated, complex computations and technologies to exist. Could this expansion in complexity actually be able to decouple human civilization from its physical expansion in size and resource use? Complex advanced technologies already allow human beings to enjoy increasing quality of life, while at the same time using less space and overall resources. For example, solar and nuclear energy allow people to have more energy, while using less total physical resources than coal power. Technology can allow us to get more while using less stuff.
The natural limitations of the physical world apply directly to size and resource. There is only so much hardwood, or coal, or clean water. This limitation does not apply as readily to complexity. We still have a long way to go before our technology eclipses the complexity of living organisms. Therefore, the expansion in physical size and resource use should be considered as a separate phenomenon from the expansion in complexity. They are not bounded in the same way, not subject to the same ultimate limitations. Consider a society that undergoes an expansion in complexity, while expansion in physical size and resources used is limited, or even reversed. A society that, as it gets more technologically savvy and complex, actually gets smaller and uses less. I believe this is where we could be headed.
It is possible in this way to have a beautiful outcome. A beautiful future, instead of a apocalyptic future. An outcome where we vastly reduce total resource use, while continuing to expand in technological complexity. Where we reach a point of harmony and balance with the environment, while still growing onward and upward in possibility. We have our cake and eat it too, our green world and high quality of life. The big question is, what can actually be done to help us reach this future instead of the one where we turn the earth into a barren wasteland? A big step would be to start incentivizing quality over quantity. Make it worthwhile to build things that last, that can be repaired instead of replaced. Consider the total resources used in the production of goods, and not just the profit.
A second step would be to stop subsidizing resource use. Stop making it easier to use resources in wasteful ways. Let the market reflect the full, real cost of resource use. This way, all of a sudden, it makes more sense to use the more tech savvy and expensive, but far more efficient method of watering crops, or using materials for manufacture.
A philosophy underlying this logic is that what really matters isn’t the money, the subsidies, or the costs. It is using resources and technologies in the most effective way possible that is of primary importance. Using resources is such a way that the least amount of resources do the most amount of work. Taxes, subsidies, and regulations simply become tools to achieve this end. Ultimately, it isn’t the money that matters, it’s the resources and the technologies.
These kinds of philosophies and incentives can help push increases in technological use and complexity, while at the same time leveraging the power of tech to allow us to use far less resources. This describes, in many ways, exactly what is currently occurring. One example is the development and deployment of renewable energy. Nuclear, solar, and possibly one day fusion energy allowsn human beings to enjoy a larger energy output, while actually consuming far less resources in total than equivalent coal energy sources. We can continue to expand in the domain of technological complexity without expanding in the domain of physical size, or total volume of resource use.