Sunday, July 30, 2006

zero sum game?

I want to respond a little bit about this comment. I certainly don´t
want to argue that technology does not and could not make a difference
about the total amount of goods being divided up among people of the
world. Goodness knows that the agricultural technology that was
introduced in the 1970s, which made possible a doubling and tripling
of the yield of many food crops, would be enough to clinch any
argument about that. But I also don´t think that the changes we´ve
seen over the last couple hundred years are enough to invalidate a
hypothesis of zero-sum.

Picture the world economy as a single system, within which goods and
people circulate. Picture it being subject to entropy: it tends
towards a state of even distribution of wealth. However, due to the
application of energy via more or less coercive economic/political
relationships, most of the wealth flows to just one part of the
system. (There are a number of problems with this metaphor which I
won´t go into now.) Another dynamic of the system is that there is a
constant demand for growth in the rich parts of the system. There are
two ways this can happen: first, more wealth is taken from the poor
parts, leaving them even poorer. Second, the total area encompassed
by the system grows.

This system has only recently reached its current size. Preiously,
say 600 years ago, the "world economy" may have only encompassed the
metropolitan centers of Europe and the Middle East. During this time,
there was less total wealth encompassed by the system, so although the
rich centers were rich compared to the poor ones, they weren´t all
that rich compared to current standards. Over the next centuries,
however, as technology improved (under the favorable conditions of the
concentration of wealth in the rich places) more and more places were
incorporated into the system, partially due to the application of that
technology. Now the wealth is still flowing towards the rich parts,
but there is a lot more of it, so the rich parts are better off. And
technology is advancing even faster.

What´s the difference between now and a few hundred years ago? We´ve
hit limits in two directions. First, there are very very few places
left on this planet which are not incorporated into the world economy.
(Nicaraguan peasants, for example, are very very completely
incorporated. That´s a big reason why they´re so poor.) So since the
system is still demanding growth (read stock market analyses if you
don´t believe me) the only alternative is to get more and more wealth
from already-incorporated places. And there are limits to this sort
of thing. Even if it doesn´t provoke a revolution which directly
opposes the rich countries, people die out... from plague (think HIV),
or from other, easier-to-fight wars (think the Congo), for example.
Second, we´re rapidly approaching an environmental crisis, if we
aren´t already in it. (My husband´s uncle and aunt strongly recommend
a book called The Long Emergency, by James Howard Kunstler. I haven´t
read it yet myself, but I very much respect their endorsement.)

Frankly, I think that the one way we could really get out of this
without a total break with the system (which would probably involve a
lot of human death, unless we´re way luckier than we deserve to be),
is space colonies, both to increase the area encompassed by the
economic system and to have an environmental safety valve. So maybe
I, too, am a believer that technology can be a way out.

In any case, now that I´ve made myself sound like a total radical, I
want to say that I´m not a nihilist, I´m not terminally depressed
about the immediate future of the human race, and I don´t rule out a
non-violent solution. I´m not arrogant enough to think that I can
forsee what will happen in the next 100 years. I just firmly believe
that we won´t be able to proceed the way we´ve been going on.
"Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will" -Antonio Gramsci

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