The world is at a cross-roads. There are a number of threats to our survival as a society and the conventional solutions to them only seem to present new problems. We are threatened by overpopulation, an aging workforce and technological unemployment. All three of these scenarios presents a tragedy in light of our current way of life, and yet the solutions to each problem precipitate another problem.
A close look at these three issues and how they intersect reveals a necessary solution that will help us avert these tragedies. The solution feels unnatural, however. So will we balk at it or will we listen?
Tragedy by Overpopulation
A potential tragedy is overpopulation. There are 7 billion people in the world today. In 1999 there were 6 billion people. Yes, these are stats we all know. Yes, we all know that the population growth is accelerating. The question is, how much can we afford to continue at this accelerated pace?
It is hard to say where the limit is, but it should be obvious that there is a limit to the number of people this planet can support. It is possible that we are approaching some of those limits already. The United Nations estimated that by 2050 the world will have to increase its food production by 70% if population growth continues as predicted. Do we have the ability to do that? From the same reference, the U.S. already has a population that cannot be supported by its own agricultural capacity. Can we ensure that it never loses its imports? The situation may be more fragile than it appears and tragedy may be just around the corner.
It seems the way to avoid the problems of overpopulation is to decrease birthrates. Unfortunately, that solution presents its own problems.
Tragedy by an Aging Workforce
Maybe a decrease in birthrates will help us. Developed countries tend to experience a decline in birthrates, resulting in a decreased population growth. As a result, we might feel optimistic that the tragedy of overpopulation may be avoided naturally without any effort on our part.
But that solution presents an entirely new problem.
As of 2008, there were 4.7 working age adults in the United States for every person over the age of retirement. This is expected to fall to 2.6 by 2050. This will undoubtedly be a positive as far as overpopulation is concerned, but it presents an enormous challenge in supporting the elderly. This could turn into a tragedy of its own. Will two or three average persons be able to support one elderly person? Will they be able to do this with all of the healthcare expenses that come with getting old?
Immigration might help individual countries. Young immigrants can perform the portion of the work that the aging natives are unable to perform. Bear in mind however, that for this to work we have to assume that the countries supplying the young immigrants would have to be contributing to overpopulation. Bear in mind, also, that this solution would necessarily entail depriving other countries of their labor source. It seems that the resolution of one tragedy precipitates another tragedy.
Technological development seems to be paramount. We need to develop the technology to support either an increase in population or an aging population. We need technology that increases production or we need technology that performs the work of a population that is less able to work. In either case, we require automation.
Automation is the way out of these tragedies. Unfortunately, it is also a tragedy of its own sort.
Tragedy by Automation
This has been an ongoing debate: Are self-checkout lanes a benefit to society or a means to impoverish cashiers? Are self-driving cars a blessing or will they create the mass unemployment of the myriads of people who drive for a living?
One thing is certain. We need to automate. If we do not, we are caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of overpopulation and an aging population. Automation, however, puts people out of work.
What to make of this?
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It cannot be debated that automation is a benefit to the society that employs it. It necessarily increases production and moves us towards a society of plenty. If a society employs automation but it is found that the average person in that society is suffering as a result then that something is not what it is claimed to be. Either it is not society that is employing automation or the average person is not really suffering.
With some predictions suggesting technological unemployment will reach levels as high as 75%, it seems that the average person will, in fact, be suffering.
The concerns arising from technological unemployment might indicate that it is not society that is employing automation. Rater, it is an ownership class that employs automation. In a private market, automation is not used for societal benefit. It is used instead for the benefit of the individuals who employ it. It is that simple.
Take self-checkout lanes as an example. They may be convenient for you, but they are a goldmine for the rich. The net-result of you getting your Chinese manufactured flip-flops a little bit faster and the cashier losing her job is very much negative. Add some negligible savings, and the net result is still negative. The average between the two of you suggests these lanes work against society. They are used, nonetheless. They are used to benefit the segment of society that actually has say in their use. These are the people who own the company that employs them.
So, what of automation that creates jobs? Will the jobs that result from automation successfully replace the ones lost. Perhaps, but that scarcely addresses the problem. There are plenty of technology jobs available in the U.S. with not enough people to fill them. That does not mean that unemployment does not exist. It takes a great deal of time and effort to learn those jobs. In the mean time, business moves forward leaving the unneeded people out in the cold. Technological development is accelerating, which means that more and more people struggle to remain relevant. Translation: they struggle to remain of service to the elite.
Efficiency is a good thing. The more we can accomplish with less, the better. What is not a good thing is the fact that the work being done is being done in service of a small segment of society. This segment is the ownership class. We may have thought we were progressing towards a future when we no longer needed to work. Instead, we are heading towards a tragedy where the elite no longer need us to work.
The truth is that the people need to take control of automation. It should not be a small elite that dictates what gets used and who benefits.
Three Forms of Tragedy
If the elite stay in place, we can expect one of three futures. First, we can expect an overpopulation scenario where the Earth can no longer support us. Second, we can expect an aging population scenario where we can no longer support ourselves. Third, we can expect a technological unemployment scenario where it is laid bare that we never had any claim to this planet in the first place. As long as we have an ownership class, we will progress towards one of these three tragedies.
The solution to these problems it is quite simple. Remove the ownership class. The problem is that this is rather unpalatable for many. So, we balk. Are we going to keep balking or will we acknowledge reality for what it is and deal with it?
Jason Calhoughney writing for the Apollo Institute of Reason AIR Review©