The Shape of Things to Come

Is history a J-curve, an S-curve, or a spike?

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The Shape of Things to Come is the name of the H.G. Wells science fiction novel of 1933 which inspired Alexander Korda’s 1936 movie, Things to Come. Is there a shape of things to come? Does history have a shape as a whole?

For some ancient Greeks and Romans, history was a downhill slide. In Works and Days, the Greek poet Hesiod identified five ages, each worse than the one before, from the age of the Gold to the present age of Iron. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid presents a version of this scheme.

Nowadays some optimists think that history slants in the opposite direction. Some techno-utopians argue that technological progress is following an exponential curve, a J that is bending upward toward the vertical. At some point in the next generation or two the “singularity” will occur — a sort of secular apocalypse in which advanced technology transforms humanity and the world beyond recognition.

At the other extreme are today’s gloomy Malthusians. They view history as a spike, in which industrial and population growth overshoot the limits to sustainability, followed by a sharp crash likely to involve the collapse of industrial civilization and perhaps the die-off of much of the human species.

Will human beings merge with machines and upload their immortal minds into data servers in the year 2050, as some members of the Singularity school predict? Or will the Malthusians be vindicated? Will barbarian nomads out of a Mad Max movie fight to survive in the crumbling ruins of today’s downtowns and suburbs?

There is a third alternative: The shape of things to come may be a logistic curve or S-curve. After a sharp inflection upward, associated with the industrial revolution that began in the 18th century in Britain and Western Europe, growth rates of both technological innovation and population eventually may slow, tapering off into a plateau at a much higher level of productivity and population.

This has been the pattern of history in the past, a kind of stair-step progression. Each major change in the technology of food production has resulted in an uptick of population. But population growth then levels off, for centuries or millennia, restrained by Malthusian mechanisms like famine and high rates of infant mortality. The demographic plateaus of ancient Egypt and China, as reconstructed by demographers, only look like level lines from a distance. Up close, they look like a series of overshoots and collapses, associated with natural disasters, wars and revolutions — a series of Malthusian mini-spikes.

Agriculture permitted far larger populations than did the economy of hunter-gatherers, and industrialization — powered by fossil fuels and other energy sources — has allowed the explosive population growth of recent centuries.

The Malthusian nightmare — population growth outstripping food supply or natural resources — has not been realized since the beginning of the industrial era. To date, agricultural productivity, enabled by mechanization and fossil fuel use, has outstripped hunger in most parts of the world. And a combination of technological substitution and increasing efficiency has kept the nightmare of civilization-destroying resource depletion at bay. Greenhouse gas emissions that might cause dangerous global warming are a pollution problem, not an agricultural or resource problem.

Some, like the economist Robert J. Gordon, argue that the rate of technology-driven productivity growth will slow or is already slowing. The historian of technology Vaclav Smil similarly argues that the 19th century saw far more fundamental innovation than any period before or since.

This seems plausible. The low-hanging fruit of technological innovation has already been plucked. Each successive breakthrough in technology is more difficult than the last. It was easier to invent the steam engine than the internal combustion engine, which was child’s play compared to the nuclear reactor.

If productivity growth driven by technological innovation does level off while the population grows exponentially, then the result could be a paradox: A world much more technologically-advanced than our own in which most people live in desperate poverty. Is the end of history a global feedlot for humans?

The good news is that human reproductive behavior is not identical to that of bacteria on a Petri dish, which will multiply until they consume all available food resources. Contraception permits parents to choose the number of children they have, and in most developed countries the fertility rate has fallen beneath the rate needed for population replacement. Countries that have too few children face various problems — financing old-age social insurance, debating whether to admit immigrants and how many — but these problems are manageable, compared to Malthusian overpopulation.

Demographic projections are uncertain. But many demographers expect the global population to peak around 10 billion and then to decline. Suppose that the maximum number of people who can be supported at subsistence levels by technology is 20 or 30 billion. The gap between the maximum possible population and the actual population — let’s call it “the Malthus Gap” — could be the difference between global affluence and global poverty, assuming what is far from inevitable — a reasonably fair distribution of the gains from economic growth.

A world in which the rate of technological and population growth gradually decline while affluence gradually spreads would be much duller than the Mad Max world of the overshoot-and-crash Malthusians or the Cyborg Millennium of the Singularity School. I think it is the most likely.

But who knows? Is history a J-curve, an S-curve, a spike — or something else entirely? Check back in a thousand years. •

Photo by Adrian Kenyon via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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