Industrial-Strength Calamity

July 23, 2013

Lowry-industrial_river_sceneFog and quiet this early Tuesday on California’s north coast as we travail through the week.

At least the pressure is finally off — Kate had a son yesterday, so the whole world can freakin’ chill out! And for the first time in a 100 years, three future kings are alive at the same time: “We might have a succession of very elderly monarchs.”
Alright, already.

Other bloody news, you know, old boy.

(Illustration found here).

Beyond the baby crying, the world is approaching a bad wall of life. And even beyond climate change and something as primitive as nuclear proliferation, the US is seemingly coming to a conclusion in a way of living, and a future fairly bleak.
History reveals the future — even in the current weird unreal, reality of the joke in a “jobless recovery,” there’s more amiss than just economics.

This past weekend, I came across a most-excellent article by Benjamin Wallace-Wells at New York Magazine, which examines a proposition that life on this planet is entering a new, not-so-fun era, and the 2008 financial meltdown wasn’t a fluke, but part of a trend.
And indeed, history does reveal the future — back-to-back industrial revolutions created our modern era, but is a third one enroute to save us from disaster?
The piece is long (five InterWeb pages and dense paragraphs), but way-well worth the read in its entirety.
A few highlights:

For all of measurable human history up until the year 1750, nothing happened that mattered.
This isn’t to say history was stagnant, or that life was only grim and blank, but the well-being of average people did not perceptibly improve.
All of the wars, literature, love affairs, and religious schisms, the schemes for empire-making and ocean-crossing and simple profit and freedom, the entire human theater of ambition and deceit and redemption took place on a scale too small to register, too minor to much improve the lot of ordinary human beings.
In England before the middle of the eighteenth century, where industrialization first began, the pace of progress was so slow that it took 350 years for a family to double its standard of living.
In Sweden, during a similar 200-year period, there was essentially no improvement at all.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, the state of technology and the luxury and quality of life afforded the average individual were little better than they had been two millennia earlier, in ancient Rome.
Then two things happened that did matter, and they were so grand that they dwarfed everything that had come before and encompassed most everything that has come since: the first industrial revolution, beginning in 1750 or so in the north of England, and the second industrial revolution, beginning around 1870 and created mostly in this country.
That the second industrial revolution happened just as the first had begun to dissipate was an incredible stroke of good luck.
It meant that during the whole modern era from 1750 onward—which contains, not coincidentally, the full life span of the United States—human well-being accelerated at a rate that could barely have been contemplated before.
Instead of permanent stagnation, growth became so rapid and so seemingly automatic that by the fifties and sixties the average American would roughly double his or her parents’ standard of living.
In the space of a single generation, for most everybody, life was getting twice as good.

The common expectations that your children will attend college even if you haven’t, in other words, or will have twice as rich a life, in this view no longer look realistic.
Some of these hopes are already outdated: The generation of Americans now in their twenties is the first to not be significantly better educated than their parents.

The classic example of the scale of these transformations is Paul Krugman’s description of his kitchen: The modern kitchen, absent a few surface improvements, is the same one that existed half a century ago.
But go back half a century before that, and you are talking about no refrigeration, just huge blocks of ice in a box, and no gas-fired stove, just piles of wood.
If you take this perspective, it is no wonder that the productivity gains have diminished since the early seventies.
The social transformations brought by computers and the Internet cannot match any of this.

“We’re not going to get to 2.25 percent GDP growth—that’s way out on the tail,” Dale Jorgenson of Harvard told me.
“There’s going to be a slowdown.
“It’s not a secular stagnation.
“It’s a change in demography.
“And this is a watershed event.”

Wallace-Wells quotes extensively  from published papers and interviews of 72-year-old economist Robert Gordon, a professor of social sciences at Northwestern University. Gordon is a realistic pessimist.
From the New York Times in August 2012:

That leads Mr. Gordon to question the notion that growth is a “continuous process that will persist forever.”
We might not stop growing.
But he argues we will stall out.
“Doubling the standard of living took five centuries between 1300 and 1800.
“Doubling accelerated to one century between 1800 and 1900.
“Doubling peaked at a mere 28 years between 1929 and 1957 and 31 years between 1957 and 1988,” he writes.
“But then doubling is predicted to slow back to a century again between 2007 and 2100.”

So don’t worry — it’s not going to blow over, it’s going to blow down.
Off to work, thankless Tuesday.

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