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The CSIRO and the myth of progress

Our society is beholden to many myths. Myths help us view and understand the complex world around us in a meaningful way. The myth of progress is one such myth that has a collective stranglehold on the industrialised world. This myth suggests that human ingenuity will overcome all challenges propelling humanity on an ever upward path of growth underpinned by ever increasing technological complexity. Whilst this myth ignores the oft repeated lessons of history, it appears well entrenched at the CSIRO.

A case in point is the Australian Commonwealth Scientific Industrial and Research Organisation's (CSIRO) recent Our Future World (PDF 1.45MB) report. The report that involved up to 40 CSIRO scientists identified five mega-trends that the authors propose will shape our future world. These mega-trends include obtaining more from less as natural resources deplete while demand increases; a continued growth in the services sector with a focus on the personalisation of services; diverging demographics as OECD countries age while non OECD nations grow rapidly; a more mobile world as people move and travel more; and finally the continuing development of the iWorld with the growth of the internet and computing power.

Are all of these mega-trends equal? I would suggest not, indeed it appears that at least some of these trends are diametrically opposed. If this is the case some of these mega-trends must dominate the others. Let us take a deeper look.

First let’s look at “more from less”. The report identifies that the cost and availability of many resources including freshwater, soil, fish stocks, fossil fuels and minerals will be scarcer and more expensive while having increased global demand. The conclusion made is that “there will be a major global effort to achieve more from less”. This is a view typical of the myth of progress namely that human ingenuity will overcome all of our challenges leading to a better brighter world.

The idea is that increased efficiency will offset scarcity. While it is true that over time humans have become more efficient at using energy and resources, we now, thanks to Jevons paradox, use more of just about everything than ever before.

The next point is that increasing efficiency is subject to declining marginal returns. Many technologies and industrial processes are mature. Thus it becomes increasingly costly to make relatively minor improvements in efficiency. The relationship between energy and resources is also important. As argued by Michael Lardelli in On Line Opinion declining mineral ore quality requires an increase in energy to extract the ore. A corollary can be seen with energy resources. As the quality of those resources declines, for example the transition from onshore light sweet crude to tar sands or biofuels, the energy costs of production increase leaving less net energy available to society.

The idea that we can obtain more from less is simply not plausible. The logical conclusion is that we will achieve less from less but our belief in the myth of progress makes this view politically, socially and culturally unacceptable.

Thus the mega-trend of more from less can be renamed as a giga-trend of achieving less from less. It is important to make this distinction because the giga-trend will dominate many other current trends and mega-trends, such as those included in the Our Future World report. These trends have evolved during a period of unprecedented economic and technological growth, fuelled of course by the seemingly ever increasing consumption of energy and resources. For as long as we can continue to increase our consumption, through either an increase in production or improved efficiencies, these trends are likely to hold. If the more from less mega-trend actually equates to achieving less from less then these other mega-trends are likely to be invalid.

Why will this be the case? The answer lies in two parts: first, the available solution space and, second, is due to a paradox of technology. The solution space is defined by both hard and soft boundaries within which we can respond to problems.

The hard boundaries are those imposed by limits such as the production of the various inputs to industrial society. As an example, for every litre of oil that we burn and every kilogram of phosphate fertiliser that runs into a waterway, we reduce the future options available to society. Humans are ingenious, but the solutions that we can develop with cheap and plentiful resources and energy are far greater than those that can be achieved as they become scarce and expensive.

Soft boundaries are those that our culture and society artificially imposes such as expectations on living standards. Unfortunately these soft boundaries are arguably the greatest challenge to working within the giga-trend of less from less because there are plenty of options and opportunities available to us, just not in the direction that the myth of progress presupposes. As time rolls on the solution space gets smaller and smaller. The 30-odd years since the 1970s oil shocks have essentially wasted the best chance we had of changing course to a sustainable economic system with maintainable living standards.

The myth of progress suggests that technology will solve our problems. Over the centuries, humans have developed technologies of ever increasing complexity to solve problems. Our reliance on technology however creates a paradox, namely that the advantage provided by the increased complexity of a technology increases the vulnerability of that same technology to systemic collapse due to its reliance on complex supply chains. Simply put as this: over the next few decades the economy transitions to achieving less from less, the complex global supply chains that enable the extraordinary levels of technology available today will become a major drawback.

Business failures, oil supply disruptions, power blackouts, shortages of raw materials or spare parts, political upheaval or extreme weather events could trigger this paradox.

Our dependence on global supply chains means that events half a world away, that we have no control over, can cause significant disruptions to our economy. This view is supported by a recent Chatham House/Lloyds report which concluded that “Business must address energy-related risks to supply chains and the increasing vulnerability of 'just-in-time' models”. If this paradox eventuates on a large enough scale, advanced technologies will become increasingly unreliable. At some point thereafter many are likely to be abandoned.

Viewed in this context, the mega-trends identified in the Our Future World report have the potential to be very dangerous. By focusing our scientific effort into fields that aim at ever increasing levels of technological complexity, not only do we risk the systemic failure of those same technologies but we also risk not having developed simpler technologies that could be maintained as we transition to the giga-trend of achieving less from less.

Having identified the problems with the current mega-trends, perhaps it is time to propose some alternative mega-trends of the future and a set of principles for focusing our scientific research. The five mega-trends are:

  1. Less from less. As the production of many of the inputs to industrial civilisation declines so to will the level of economic activity.
  2. Cheap labour - expensive energy. As energy becomes increasingly scarce and expensive many current tasks currently completed by machines will be provided by human or animal labour.
  3. Localisation. As global supply chains falter there will be increased emphasis on local production and distribution of products, services and food.
  4. Low tech. The increasing unreliability of advanced technologies combined with lowered levels of economic activity will see a move towards simpler technologies.
  5. More spin less substance. Governments will increase the level of rhetoric and spin claiming that things will get better while providing less and less service to the community.

What do these trends mean for the focus of scientific research?

The author of The Long Descent, John Michael Greer proposes four qualities for a technology that are likely to be necessary in the giga-trend of achieving less from less scenario. The first property is that the technology is durable, that it will last for a long time and certainly far longer than many consumer items of today.

Second, it is independent and doesn’t rely upon other technologies to make it work. This avoids the risk of synchronous failure, a very real threat to modern societies.

Third, it must be replicable without requiring advanced industrial technology. The last property is that the technology is transparent, that is how the technology works can be determined by studying the technology itself. An approach to scientific research incorporating a move towards these principles in the development of “future” technologies may be a far wiser approach.

Busting the myth of progress is a precursor to changing industrial civilisations' current unsustainable direction. This myth will of course be busted in time. The key question is whether it will be through a voluntary collective awakening or by the hard limits imposed by the finite nature of our planet. Redefining the role and nature of technology as we transition to the giga-trend of achieving less from less should be a task that organisation’s such as the CSIRO lead, as has been demonstrated in the past (PDF 716KB), but has failed to occur in this instance with the Our Future World report.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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