First online: 7 June 2021
University of Queensland
Licensing: This article is Open Access (CC BY 4.0).
How to Cite:
Wadley, D. 2021. 'Outside The City of Grace: appraising dystopia and global sustainability'. The Journal of Population and Sustainability 5(2): 75–96.
The City of Grace: An Urban Manifesto (Wadley, 2020) models an
eco-tech settlement, aiming to achieve economic and social sustainability over
a substantial period. The City is intended to be anti-dystopian and
non-exclusive, with the possibility of replication in receptive settings. In
this rejoinder to the book, the potential for dystopia attending population and
sustainability issues in the outside world is appraised. Foundations are
established in general systems, complexity and chaos theories, and an
interpretation of procedural and substantive rationality. Two possible global
failure modes are examined, one contained within the human sphere involving the
future of capital and labour, and an external one founded in the familiar
problematics of the human-environment nexus. Dilatory responses in advanced
societies to these dilemmas are outlined. The subsequent prognosis regarding
population and sustainability co-opts a meta-theory from environmental
management to assess the viability of possible counterstrategies to dystopia
although, in conclusion, its existence is instantiated.
dystopia; systems theory; labour dynamics; economic and demographic growth;
planetary constraints; IPAT.
2020 book, The City of Grace,
models the function and form which a settlement would require to achieve
economic and social sustainability over a substantial period. The resulting
eco-tech configuration, aiming to be gracious in function and graceful in form,
distinguishes itself from paradigms in prior urban-utopian literature by
assuming a surrounding environment of neoliberal globalisation. The
characteristics of grace arguably surpass those of either goodness or
greatness. They are identified through a situation audit of contemporary
urbanism combined with a comprehensive literature review covering religious,
ascetic, aesthetic and material expressions of grace. On this basis,
graciousness is modelled in economic, political and social terms. Gracefulness
of form is portrayed in architectural practice and, at a higher level, city
planning and development. The book undertakes an empirical enquiry to see
whether such a City already exists anywhere on Earth, but a definitive answer
is lacking. Interested parties are invited to continue the search or appraise
the thesis and attempt to create a real-life settlement for themselves.
no future is anywhere assured, the City is designed as an island of relative
stability in a turbulent milieu. It is not exclusive, being spatially
replicable. Nor, in following a survival strategy, is it utopian but, instead,
claims to be ‘anti-dystopian’ relative to its external milieu. The focal
question therefore arises: ‘how dystopian is the future beyond the urban
boundary?’ As a sequel to the book this paper aims to address and resolve the
query with as much foresight as possible: it appraises the potential for
dystopia attending population and sustainability issues in the outside world.
properly constructed approach requires a normative foundation for the assembly
of evidence apropos dystopia. It relies upon general systems, complexity and
chaos theories to expose the context, while unconventional philosophical
baselines are established around the precepts of human (ir)rationality.
With these underpinnings outlined, I gather evidence to adjudge the supposed
dystopia outside The City. As they bear on global population and
sustainability, the drivers and constraints behind two possible failure modes
in the external domain are examined. One involves the future of capital and
labour contained within the human sphere, and a wider one is recognised in the
familiar problematics of the human-environment nexus.
résumé follows outlining dilatory responses to these dilemmas in advanced
societies. It is argued that, as distinct from positive action to address these
modes, western industrialised society appears in denial, preoccupied with
communications media and the advocacy of sectional, systemically-constrained
causes. The subsequent prognosis co-opts a meta-theory from environmental
management to assess the viability of possible counterstrategies to dystopia.
Suggested remedies are found wanting and thus, from the information assembled,
the case for the existence of dystopia outside the City is endorsed. A set of
conclusions rounds off the investigation and provides an answer to the focal
Daly (1977) has helpfully differentiated scholarly disciplines within a
spectrum spanning the ultimate means (matter, physics) to the ultimate ends
(ethics, religion) of human society. High level discussion of future utopian
and dystopian outcomes lies on the boundary of empirical experience and belief
(Rorty, 1991). It requires a solid foundation of deductive reasoning and
applied philosophy which draws on relevant theories and a pragmatic
interpretation of procedural and substantive rationality.
A systems view of human society
any scale of enquiry, general systems theory examines ‘a set of objects and the
relationships between the objects and between their characteristics’ (Hall and
Fagan, 1956 p.18). Human society can be interpreted in this framework, as a
system processing environmental inputs such as matter, energy or information
into physical and conceptual outputs. In transforming the throughput, linkages
among system components can provide stability, with negative feedback acting to
restore settings (as is common in mechanical servo-systems). Positive impulses
can be energising and, on occasion, dis-equilibrating. Thresholds represent a
critical mass of perturbation which exceeds system capacities to contain
change, one example being the emergence of the 2008 global financial crisis.
Passing through a trigger point could cause a phase shift to a new state of the
system. As internal configurations change, the disruption can be experienced
acutely as a shock or, over a longer period, as stress (Leach et al., 2010).
means that there can be numerous independent variables involved in the
operation of a system (Sardar and Abrams, 2013). Their interactions create
entropy, the ‘degree of dissipation…of the energy or force that enables the
system to undertake its work, whether this be internal differentiation or
export to the environment’ (Walmsley, 1972 p.28). Entropy encompasses energy
and matter but, absent negative feedback and subject to the second law of
thermodynamics, it can only increase over time. The inherent depreciation
reduces orderliness (e.g. as observed in the failure to work of a ‘worn-out’
systems employ negentropy to counter the chaos which can infuse and amplify
states of high entropy. Before it eventuates, there is a tipping point known as
the ‘edge of chaos’ which leaves the system in a state of suspension and
indeterminacy (as arguably occurred during the pre-war month of August 1939).
As opposed to regular laws in the physical environment, disorder and
unpredictability can introduce dystopian elements into the affairs of people
a contrarian thesis, The City of Grace questions the precepts of neoliberal
globalisation and devises a model to avoid its most unsustainable expressions.
This positioning has the analytical advantage of mandating the highest level of
systemic resolution (viz. a binary choice, whether or not to ‘believe’ in the
contemporary social trajectory). Questioning conventional assumptions
encourages the doubt necessary in any comprehensive appraisal of dystopia.
this connection, a state of ‘rationality’ is thought to underpin agency,
interpretation and theorising in the physical and social sciences. It is
influenced by the rational choice model in economics and sociology which,
broadly, defines ‘rational’ as applying to actions of which the benefits
(gains) exceed the costs (losses). Though this model is foundational, it
suffers from the lack of a unitary definition of ‘utility’ (and hence value),
and incommensurability among non-economic ends (d’Agostino,
2011). Paradoxically, its difficulty lies in specifying a substantive
definition of rationality.
In The City of Grace, rationality is approached
both procedurally and substantively. First, following Paul O’Grady (2002), it
requires procedural coherence, consistency, and the full and honest use of all
available evidence (as in legal work). Substantively, to avoid the ‘evaluative
pluralism’ besetting utility, it is afforded only one objective, taken to be of
universal (non-relativist) application. This aim, individual and collective
survival based on free-will, is empirically and theoretically defensible. The
intermediation of rationality and survival occurs through strategies of
sustainability which could, in conditions of exigency, recursively engage the
rational choice model.
the purview of rationality established, the next step is to acknowledge irrationality,
as it relates to system dynamics and entropic dystopia. With no fixed timescale
or reference points, irrationality might spread from individuals to groups
bottom up, as in a moral panic, stock market flight, or popular rampage created
by a shock; or, more gradually and stressfully, top down from the wayward
actions of political and economic élites. The condition is recognised in two
forms: motivated and unmotivated.
irrationality can produce definitive social outcomes but they are, on balance,
detrimental. Economic and political end-uses could involve any of the following
contrary observations for ulterior motives or ideological adherence
definitions, so obfuscating a case and replacing logical precepts with an
allegedly ‘better’ definition
obligations applied through the use of moral suasion to impel people to
act against their better judgment
errors including value attribution to persons or situations
blindness, ignoring important evidence
by experience, as in calling people or cases ‘childish’ or claiming to
‘have seen all these problems before’.
irrationality could apply if an agent were ignorant of the ‘logic’ of the
rational choice model. Such a person could regularly lose monetary or psychic
wealth, status or social reputation but fail to realise as much. According to
the philosopher, David Pears (1984), unmotivated irrationality has two modes,
each constructed around the question, ‘how can these things happen, which are
so obvious to the rest of us?’ Unless incompetence (mental illness) is
established, attention gravitates to self-deception and acting flagrantly
against one’s own better judgment or best interests.
is said to involve a perversion of reason, in so far as mentally sound people
are assumed to have an unchangeable desire for truth in their own beliefs. It
should therefore be impossible to deceive oneself simply for the sake of it. An
ulterior motive or goal is always required. Acting against one’s better
judgment indicates that an individual is no longer controlling speech or
behaviour to his or her utmost advantage, hinting at the Greek concept of
akrasia or weakness of the will. It might arise from incorrect processing of
information towards some end. It does not apply if information is just
forgotten or misperceived. It has more to do with the dilution of reason by
emotions such as desire and appetite.
this point, the issue of divergent world views must also be raised. Can a
single definition of ‘rationality’ serve everyone (Rorty, 1991: 26-27)?
Heinrich (2020) contrasts the thinking behind long-standing, holistic
approaches of societies (such as the 60,000 years of continuous adaptation by
Australia’s indigenous inhabitants) with that of WEIRD people. The acronym
refers to the post-Enlightenment analytical reasoning of Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic
societies. WEIRD populations have embraced technological innovation and, in the
last 100 years, have locked their welfare into an encompassing belief in
‘growth’ and ‘change’ (Samways, 2021). Conversely, in linking rationality,
sustainability and species survival, the call in this rejoinder has been to suspend belief.
WEIRDness affords every reason to do so, since
systemically it involves contradictions which could activate two critical
failure modes leading to dystopia outside The City of Grace. The
first could occur in the production régime of
advanced and developing nations. The second, the unbridled pursuit of economic
and demographic expansion against a finite resource base, could, as an external
threat, prompt an environmental crisis.
First mode: changing labour dynamics
first (‘internal’) potential failure mode is contained within human social
systems. It concerns workforce dynamics in WEIRD and other developed nations.
While the sustainability of work is a fundamental issue in The City of Grace, it has been afforded little
emphasis in many world views and geopolitical expositions.
issue is the substitution of capital and management for labour in the factor
mix. Advanced agriculture, mining and construction are trimming their labour
inputs, and manufacturing has been ‘hollowed out’ since the mid-1970s. In
raising productivity and particularly in the virtual sphere, many
business-to-business (B2B) and selected consumer services are becoming more
capital-intensive (e.g., telecommunications, data handling, libraries,
transport systems). Rapid economic and technological transformation influences
company investment and could reduce labour demand by way of:
access to scale economies in production and corporate organisation
‘zero marginal cost’ society (affecting industries in which the marginal
costs of (electronic) production are approaching zero
product and service development (new offerings, inevitably involving
smarter applications, diminished resource use, and greater efficiency in
and contracting (freelancing and the ‘gig’ economy in which regular
employment cedes to project-based engagements)
work (consumers overtly undertaking work for producers as in online
booking, and in uploading personal data for analysis, and in providing
private workspace and facilities when working from home
robotisation and augmented/artificial intelligence (viz. information
technologies, the onset of quantum computing)
trends are underwritten by élites and social classes who own, or support the
interests of, capital. Within the literature, technological optimists, business
and population boosters argue that, as in the past, technology will create
rather than destroy jobs. A whole new range of occupations will emerge, many
yet unimagined. At worst, employment could level out. The alternative view is
that the above six movements could suppress the demand for labour in developed
countries. The resultant falling wage rates could meet rising ones in
developing countries which continue to prosper from offshoring and endogenous
growth. The global equilibrium price for labour would be well below that in the
advanced world today.
scenario might be welcomed by those who argue that much of the developing world
remains locked into subsistence activity which will not benefit from population
growing continuously against a constant resource base. Vast numbers of people
cannot access full employment in the formal sector. Nor, for two reasons, are
their work prospects likely to be sustainable. As the burgeoning young of
underdeveloped countries come of working age, the first cause will lie in the
net annual addition (averaging 35 million people between 2010 and 2019) to the
global labour supply (3.387 billion) (World Bank, 2021). Second is the matter
of emerging economies capturing contract, production and marketing
opportunities. The People’s Republic of China has had estimable success in this
regard. Yet as a middle-income nation, it is now, in its push for higher
technology lines, engaging in exactly the factor substitutions outlined above
(Powley, 2014; Aeppel and Magnier,
2015). Without pressing the point, the limited logic of this strategy is also
pursued in The City of Grace as one of the few ways possibly to
realise financial stability and prosperity.
substitution/displacement thesis outlined here is unacknowledged in advanced
nations which, to support their business interests, eschew effective labour
market policies. This stance could represent motivated irrationality as the
view from the edge of chaos heralds declining real wages and spatial
equilibration over the next 30 or more years. Business is no longer constrained
by the demand/supply relativities of a national market, since there exists in
the worldwide workplace (‘www’) a mobile, ready and price-competitive
workforce. Domestic wage pressure can be relegated when skilled and unskilled
employees can be simply imported. The capital/labour failure mode is one subset
of an unstable future world system. It links with a second one now to be
Second mode: unlimited growth and planetary constraints
the 1920s and 1930s, interest in fledgling neoclassical economics turned to
measuring market activity in an attempt to define ‘progress’ in standards of
living and, in extenso,
quality of life. Today, ‘economic growth’, though the bane of ecological
economists (Jackson and Victor, 2016), is an article of faith in neoliberal
nations. In that setting, it has fostered among believers what Clive Hamilton
(2003) calls a ‘growth fetish’ and Douglas Booth (2004) an ‘addiction.’
Hay (1978 p.8) has correspondingly written that ‘growth, as a central dynamic
of capitalism…serves an integrative and unifying purpose in rationalising or
making sense of our social system.’ Guided by Peterson (2017), we move now to
have a closer look at this concept.
poster child is the statistical quantity of gross domestic product (GDP),
scrutinised and compared in international league tables. It is calculated over
an accounting period in three ways, each respectively the sum of:
creation of goods and services produced at each stage of production less
the costs of production (i.e. value added) (GDP – P)
generated by production (GDP – I)
expenditure on goods and services produced, including a statistical
entity’s exports but minus imports (GDP – E).
(A) is the average of these three measures and, when read at constant prices,
is regarded as the most satisfactory trend indicator of the size of an economy
(McLellan, 1996). The word, ‘gross’ indicates that no deduction has been
made for the consumption (or depreciation) of fixed capital, thereby producing
a flow, not a stock, estimate. Nor does GDP record non-market (untraded)
activity, so that much in the interpersonal realm and that of civil society
goes uncharted, irrespective of its contribution to welfare or the quality of
dollar-denominated, the nominal level of GDP over successive accounting periods
is influenced by inflation or deflation (temporal price movements in a standard
basket of goods). Hence, national statistical bureaux advocate the use of
‘real’ GDP indexed to a base year. GDP per capita relates more directly to ordinary
people’s income level but is seldom referred to in the media. It can be
modified as real GDP per capita which, omnibus paribus,
reflects economic advance or decline over time. Though rarely cited, it is a
strong, practical measure of pecuniary wealth, that being a rational and worthy
aim of society. Yet, this per capita averaging can mask great inequalities
between the rich and the poor in the flow of income and, hence, the accumulated
stock of wealth and standard of living (Piketty, 2014). Such disparities can
persist even as absolute GDP (‘the pie’) grows (cf. Jackson and Victor, 2016).
The effect is that society in aggregate could be getting wealthier but that
initially-poor people are becoming poorer. This is one of several possibilities
which might erode the legitimacy of a growth fetish around the single metric of
expansively, the ultimate constraint on unbridled economic performance is the
physical resource base (Das, 2015 pp.120-47). The ecological economist, Herman
Daly (1977) pointed out that advanced (WEIRD) societies, with their culturally
specific outlook producing certain kinds of material effects, have long tried
to turn the ecosphere into a technosphere. To use
vernacular terminology, so much could be achieved by ‘growing’ economies and
populations. Ehrlich and Holdren (1971) nailed the
dilemma in their IPAT equation. Against the finite bounds of Earth, it asserts
that environmental impact (I) is a multiplicative function of population (P),
times affluence (A), times a level of technology (T). In system terms, (P), (A)
and (T) are inputs to the human-environment system and the economy is the
processing mechanism which produces the output (I), impact. Each of Ehrlich and
Holdren’s interlinked, independent variables relates
to the size of an economy measured in GDP.
in the production arena, the pitch of the political class to increase GDP
relies on the 3Ps of population, participation, and productivity. In a brief
commentary, less nuanced than Peterson’s (2017) analysis, it can be said that
gains in population (P) always imply increased consumption (GDP-E) which will
impact physical sustainability through resource usage, whether of renewables or
non-renewables. Labour force participation (commonly, the proportion of
working-age people who are actually employed or able to look for work) will do
likewise through the production function (GDP-P and GDP-I). Productivity
(a ratio of outputs to inputs in the creation of goods and services) relates to
the (T) in the IPAT equation. Technology attracts hope among the more
intellectual growth leaders as a way of attenuating the irrationality of
endless economic expansion given the fixity of resources and sinks. Evolution
of the IPAT relationship is relatively slow-moving (i.e. over decades),
presently more a stress than a shock. Its trajectory can thus be predicted by
systems theory. Without mitigation (negative feedback), complex
human-environment interaction should advance towards one or more tipping points
followed by a phase shift towards a higher state of entropy and possible chaos
(decline of societies). The underlying disjunction concerns both decentralised
and command régimes since each is characteristically
focussed on GDP (Dale 2012, pp.17-20). The impasse defies any reasonable
reckoning of human sustainability: that is, it beggars belief.
élite convergence around, and support for, economic and demographic growth
contrasts with increasing fractiousness in the Western polis, perhaps
reflective of self-deceptive denial toward emerging problems. Neoliberalism has
urged the primacy of the individual, encouraging self-determination and free
will within a cosmopolitan world view. In certain societies, divergence breeds
incapacity to acknowledge even the fundamentals of a case as per the claims of
procedural rationality. Recent years have seen an upsurge of fake or disputed
facts, spin and ‘post-truths’, all of which erode social consensus. At a
more elevated level of epistemology, ‘truth’ is challenged by relativism and
the rise of ‘polyvocality’ within postmodern social science (cf. Rorty, 1991
p.23). These schools have disputed comprehensive macro-theory as, for
example, in Freud’s psychoanalysis or various ‘laws’ in microeconomics: such
thinking is allegedly ‘totalising’ and too nomothetic to be relevant to a
many-sided society. Relativism drifts toward solipsism as people appropriate
‘rights’ to assert strongly-held values. Whether secular or religious, they are
usually more ideological than original. They concern gender, sexuality, class,
race, skin colour, educational level, politics, energy sources, attitudes to
the environment, culture, outlooks on social justice and many other
intersecting categories. Critical thought about human futures is less common.
atomised, neoliberal democracies, individuals are encouraged by enablers of
identity politics to disseminate their thoughts, claims and censures. The rise
of social media has allowed for extemporary comment upon, and disparaging of,
views challenging progressive expression of headline categories. An efficient
way to deal with contrary standpoints is to eliminate them from the outset, via
a ‘cancel culture’ or ‘de-platforming.’ These initiatives act to banish not
only an idea but also, ad hominem, the
person putting it forward. Such is the mood that a Journal of Controversial Ideas has recently been launched in which
at-risk authors can publish under pseudonyms or anonymously.
Paradoxically, the censure continues despite calls for participative
diversity to ensure a range of thought and opinion. This free-ranging and
reproachful movement might engage any of the irrational cognitive biases
acting as an outstanding ‘influencer’, the neoliberal individual can rarely
match the clout of a collective. Nonetheless, corporations are being forced by
coalitions of stockholders, customers and employees to acknowledge the
spreading politicisation and respond to social media challenges by ‘taking
sides’ on contentious issues, some sectarian in nature and others, regarding
energy uptake and climate change, of wider impact. Against this mixed backdrop
of developments, Furedi (2021) argues that engaged
(‘woke’) business is usurping social space and advocacy roles normally
associated with politics, religion, and civil society, with the ability to turn
workplaces ‘into a university seminar room.’ McGuiness (2021) then asks, ‘why
not give large companies the power to take policy decisions on behalf of the
country?’ As neoliberal enterprise free-rides on progressive thought,
plutocracy and oligarchy would supplant democracy.
these trends appear removed from the early conviviality and promise afforded by
social media. In a marketplace for ideas which can admit irrationality, it is a
moot point how the forces of distraction and inaction might handle higher
entropy, as economic and population growth pressures the natural environment in
line with the IPAT equation. On that note, some prognostication regarding the
world outside The City of Grace is indicated.
and sustainability: prognostications
2020 urban manifesto critiques its own modelling, but there remain broader
issues. From medieval times a literature has existed, often radical and
sometimes apocalyptic, about the passage and future of humanity (cf. modern
‘collapse’ contributions by Ahmad et al., 1997; Diamond, 2007 and Goodrich,
2014). Rather than starting with this broad assemblage, The Journal of Population and Sustainability affords an enlightened platform from
which to mount a prognosis about dystopia. Readers would remember the incisive
ideas of Garrett Hardin (1968, 1974) about the tragedy of the commons and
living on a lifeboat, along with the eminent works of Herman Daly (1977, 2005)
on steady state and ecological economics. They might also recall the
multilateral Brundtland Report (which defined sustainable development as a call
to one generation to do nothing which could impact the welfare of future ones)
(World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987). It was made at a time
when the global population was 5.02 compared with today’s 7.79 billion (Worldometers). These various references have been routinely
ignored as humanity burdens its surrounding environment.
first pivot to any viable prognosis has already been advised: suspend belief in
the rational choice model and in ‘progress’. Similarly, much received ideology
could be set aside as dysfunctional and too static in a turbulent environment.
Since the internal (labour) and external (environmental) constraints upon
humanity apply worldwide, also suspect are sources which fail to take a
high-level systemic view (i.e. involving global geo-economics or geopolitics)
or which (like city planning) offer micro-level solutions to macro-level
problems. Social media posting facilitative ideas might be able to advance
welfare but, so far, it has suffered generous servings of self-infatuation,
punctuated by trolling, grievance, and unauthorised data gathering by
sponsoring platforms or hackers.
second prop is to acknowledge the conceptual power of systems thinking,
especially at high levels of resolution. As it clarifies the status and roles
of entities relevant to sustainability, this technically-oriented analysis has
little time for relativism, obscurantism or flaccidity. Once the foundations of
rationality in individual human behaviour are established, its collective
application should be recognised to enquire whether whole groups and
populations are acting accordingly (Ball, 2005: 372-73). Writ large, and as a
keynote of this rejoinder, the dimensions of rationality and irrationality
introduce a new level of systemic enquiry into social agency and potential
forward view must acknowledge humanity’s constantly turning treadmills. The
most important is global population growth of around 81 million, or 1.05 per
cent per annum. Another is technological advance (total factor productivity)
which Shackleton (2013), over the first decade of the new millennium, estimated
at circa 1.5 per cent each year. Some might hope, from the IPAT equation, that
the rate of technological change should compensate for the pace of population
growth, but the former is subject to much risk, including loss of intellectual
property and difficulties in engineering further breakthroughs. Human
reproduction, multiplied over, is much easier and capable of delivering
proximate results. Further, some applications of technology can have little
effect in offsetting demographic impacts.
Mitigation according to IPAT
IPAT equation should be strongly defended against relativist, idiographic and
irrational challenges. It offers the best base upon which to interpret the
human trajectory. Let us consider it, P-A-T, element by element. Although these
independent variables are strongly interrelated, population (P) is a key to
long-term sustainability (Bradshaw and Brooks, 2014). Complacency could ensue,
in that the rate of global demographic increase is falling. Even so, it is
unlikely to stop absolute human numbers reaching 10.9 billion by 2100,
nearly 40 per cent greater than the present count (Worldometers).
Only writers as ebullient as the (late) expansionary economic demographer,
Julian Simon, might hold that, even if jobs were abundant, such a gain would
lower human stress and ease environmental loads. The thesis is apparently that
more minds produce more solutions – but, in real life, the stock of brainpower
might be less than fully utilised.
immediate appeal of affluence (A) is most probably even greater than that of
technology. Most people are risk and loss averse, few opt for an ascetic poverty,
and even fewer for a return to hunter gathering or feudal serfdom. The wage
freezes after the global financial crisis have seen numerous populations
despair and search for reasons. Putative causes in the realm of capital have
been assembled in this article. Popular silence (‘keep calm and carry on’) does
not preclude a call for scapegoats and doubtless engenders some of the
divisiveness observed in WEIRD societies.
in the writings of Herman Kahn and co-authors (1972) is the view that the
future will be infused with greater technological (T) advance, an apotheosis of
progress to date. Though comforting, the idea has some problems. One is
technology’s ongoing substitution of capital for labour since, as remarked by
Finn Bowring (2002), the aim of the most efficient enterprises is the
elimination of work. Technology could also run into physical asymptotes, as in
there being no further process or product improvements possible (for instance,
in household cutlery?). Nor might there be room to imagine new goods or
services (which would at least check the affluence (A) element of the IPAT
equation by limiting consumption). Another daunting thought is that, if
technology were to solve current impact (I) challenges of
greenhouse gas emission, there would be little to stop growth-obsessed nations
arguing that the threat of climate change had passed and thereafter they could
continue to increase and densify their populations. This prospect would
disconcert the Australian environmentalist, Ian Lowe (2005, p.84), who writes
that, ‘there is no prospect, even in principle, of a sustainable society if
population continues to grow.’
Close-up on population
distinct from a prevailing growth fetish, precautionary views on demography and
economics might be held contrarian but, in future, their inherent realism could
emerge. In one failure mode, chaos could involve millions — why not billions —
of people unemployed. In another, it could consist of global warming of more
than two — well, say four — degrees Celsius. Hardin (1974) paints a sad picture
of those unable to sustain their most basic Maslovian
needs of shelter and nourishment. Such prospects are squarely at odds with the
intergenerational proclamations of the World Commission on Environment and
Development (1987). Very likely, given the shortfalls of technology and
affluence, a slowdown or reversal in human numbers is the most efficacious,
perhaps the only, way to ensure future welfare. In any country, that move would
be hindered by labour immigration, irrationally engaged as if capital
substitution were no longer in operation.
the obstinacy of various religious and political organisations, the case for
population control has been raised over some 50 years by ecologically aware
authors (e.g. Ehrlich and Harriman, 1971; Lowe, 2005). It would desirably
involve ‘carrot’ incentives until a high-entropic phase necessitated ’stick’
solutions. The latter might be hard to imagine in WEIRD societies but famines
before the reforms of the later 20th century influenced demographic controls
in the People’s Republic of China and they proved effective.
this journal and her foregoing book, Sarah Conly (2016) has thoughtfully
debated some of the relevant instruments. Various leads also appear in The City of Grace. A least-worst and still
partly ‘carrot’ approach would raise the opportunity (and probably the actual)
costs of successive births to privatise rather than socialise procreation
(cf. Landsburg, 2007 pp.153-55). Daly and Cobb (1989 pp.243-44) propose a
quota (‘far less harsh than the Chinese plan’) with transferable reproduction
rights. Jeremy Rifkin (n.d.) has sensibly suggested that extension of
electricity supply would improve vocational opportunities for women and so
constrain reproduction. The same goals have been pursued per media of
education and employment by Cohen (2008), Barakat and Durham (2014), Lutz et
al. (2019) and Vollset et al. (2020).
Alexander and Gleeson (2019 p.192) call for a global fund to minimise
unplanned pregnancies and, simultaneously, the abolition of all incentives
toward population growth.
these authors, more ideas could be added, though a whole book of proposals
would be more apposite. Given that world GDP presently approximates $US80
trillion per annum – actual turnover much greater – it could be worth
imagining how far a budget of around one per cent (e.g. $US 1 trillion) might
extend as a yearly insurance premium to check global demographic increase and
thus have an impact on human-environmental sustainability. If a rationale for
large family size in traditional societies is surety for parents in old age,
could other safety nets be devised? How many elderly people in underdeveloped
countries with high population growth rates could be supported by subventions
of say, $US 2,000 per annum? This amount approximates annual per capita GDP in
some of the poorest nations where life expectancy is anyway constrained. Fifty
million people would claim $US100 billion: 500 million (around half the world’s
population aged over 60) would require $US 1 trillion. Moral hazard might
emerge, and the financial sum is estimable but the subvention could be a small
price to pay to avoid systemic phase shifts and possible demographic chaos. It
pales into insignificance compared with the $US16 trillion outlay on the COVID
virus to October 2020 in the United States alone (Cutler and Summers, 2020).
the other end of life, the aim is to restrain some of the world’s 80 million
net population gain per year – logically, the ‘target market’. Indirectly, it
could be made widely known that women disproportionately bear the costs of
childrearing, much in the lost compounding of foregone wages (and pension
contributions should they exist) (Gittens, 2007). More directly, $US 1 trillion
would energise effective family planning, often significantly hampered by a
lack of contraceptive aids. Sadness can engulf couples unable to have children
but can likewise accompany unplanned or excess pregnancies. Checking them would
be a primary objective, despite the aspirations of pro-natalist
administrations. Such practical measures are put in the ‘too hard’ or
‘complicated’ basket by conservative or obfuscating politicians in countries
which could be either donors or recipients of financial assistance. Today,
rapidly growing nations appear as unable to manage population problems within
their borders as they are to stop emigration (cf. Peterson, 2017). Pareto
inferior, large-scale movements offer no real solutions and might only scupper
the rationale of other countries to manage their own fertility. Better to
tackle the issue at source.
rejoinder to The City of Grace has enabled speculation on potentially
dystopian outcomes in the neoliberal world. Just as the treatise on the City
set prior precepts aside, this article has urged suspension of belief in
comfortable social axioms. The most widespread and seductive is the assumption
of a prevailing rationality (and improvement) in human affairs. The current
foray into irrationality uncovers some of the shortcomings of such orthodoxy.
Outside The City of Grace, two failure modes in
contemporary human development were identified. The one inherent in the
socioeconomic system, which concerns labour dynamics, is scarcely touched upon
in the literature. It imbricates into the external threat involving
human-environmental relations, which is well understood but incompletely addressed.
The focus on carbon emissions attempts to reduce the (I) of the IPAT equation
through (T) technology, but leaves the key variable, (P) population
unconstrained. Greater understanding is available through a systems approach
which exposes essential elements, sidesteps relativism and eschews overbearing
ideologies such Margaret Thatcher’s imperative regarding neoliberal
globalisation – TINA, ‘there is no alternative’.
foundations of dystopia are not impenetrable once conventional shibboleths are
set aside. To this end, the building blocks of the growth fetish were
investigated. It was observed that pronatalist and pro-immigration calls
overlook major changes in the means of production in advanced societies, via
which technological substitution of other factor inputs for labour is likely
only to expand. Abetting popular polarisation in WEIRD nations and a lack of
strategic focus in social media, contemporary economic and demographic advocacy
appears substantively irrational as the respective trajectories push further
into resource constraints.
the IPAT equation, the analysis found that technology (T), though applauded by
sections of society, can be an ambiguous influence, since its ultimate end in
production is the diminution of work. Leaders who support reduction in
affluence (A) are misreading human aspiration and will be disregarded. The
societal objective is neither to retreat into poverty nor create unimaginable
riches, but instead equitable and sustainable real per capita wealth. The environmental
failure mode could be avoided by reducing population (P) pressure on the
planet, though falling numbers are not going to address emerging imbalances
from capital substitution in production. In this way, the two failure modes
studied here are linked.
article has tested certain means to deal with entropic tendencies in neoliberal
human development. Unless technological advance and dynamics in the factor mix
falter, it is hard in a globalised and highly-integrated market to see how the
labour disjunction outlined here can be readily avoided. The specific remedy
relying upon cutting-edge technology proposed in The City of Grace would
be hard to scale up in what could be a zero-sum game. Individual countries
which, in a protectionist vein, withdrew from unrestricted engagement with the
world would probably experience politically unpalatable declines in affluence.
This is a research frontier inadequately contemplated, except in management
reports which often exhibit unsubstantiated foresight into, or optimism about,
the future of the workforce. The issue requires critical consideration
and a new generation of pragmatic scholars, just as contrarians switched on to
the natural resource dilemma in the late 20th century.
herculean effort, the environmental crisis might be solvable if societies were
less focused on internal division and state and non-state conflict, and more on
fundamental labour and population (P) issues. There will always be free-riders
sponsoring expansive and ill-advised policies and arguing that the maxim,
‘demography is destiny’, still applies positively rather than negatively. No
country can overcome the environmental impasse alone, the more so when situated
at the edge of chaos. At that point, world governance might be the only panacea¸
maybe under more authoritarian auspices to enforce necessary ‘stick’ measures.
conclusion, foibles and folly seem hard-wired into human endeavour. On the
drive through life, reason is assigned the back seat. Many uncertainties
attend the high-level systemic quandaries reviewed in this article. Hence, the
imputation of dystopia outside The City should stand.
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