A Techie Perspective – H. Ellinger

The save-the-world topic is a set of arguments that improves in quality after the first few salvos get us past our shorthand versions and inspire us to defend and extend our thinking. Here are some contributions from my perspective.

[1] I don’t mind being seen as unpatriotic. It’s true, and I look forward to the day when national patriotism seems as quaint as Texas patriotism does today. One of the main contributions we can make to American political discourse is to push the idea that America and Americans have no special rights, and that we should be willing to abide by the rules that we want others to follow (and perhaps even let them help decide on the rules). The irony is that this idea is fully compatible with American traditions about equality before the law, due process of law, and democracy, which remain powerful and useful political ideals in spite of the serious shortfalls in their application. The most pressing problem with the neocons is not so much that they are thieves (so are the European ruling classes), but that they are vigilantes. Even bourgeois law offers evolutionary potential, and keeps the peace in a coarse way.

[2] Americans are not all that different from others, even if our flaws are particularly obvious just now. Greed and generosity, ignorance and wisdom, and fear and hope are prominent in all societies, often mixed in the same individuals. Many conservatives I know are painstakingly honest, excellent parents, and generous with their time and money within the boundaries they draw. Their fear (of other races, lifestyles, or countries) is partly from provincial ignorance, but also often reflects a sober awareness of the dangers of the world. While I agree that we shouldn’t waste political energy trying to convert the neocons, we should use every opportunity to encourage our compatriots to expand the boundaries of their community and to show by example how one can live large and more lightly at the same time. This is why the hippy-ness and feminism of the 60’s has had more cultural impact than the leftism. But one thing leads to another, and once people get used to a large world successfully shared with diverse others, most of them lose interest in conquest.

[3] A critical factual issue where I differ from many who have spoken is the question of how limited the resources of the world are. The assumption by many on both the left and the right is that sharing resources fairly would leave everyone much poorer than middle-class Americans are right now. I see this as profoundly incorrect – instead (if we can manage to make it through the next decade or so without irretrievably poisoning ourselves), we are on the verge of science-driven productivity increases from computers, genetics, and nanotechnology that will dwarf those of the industrial revolution. Much of this progress will take the form, exemplified by electronics, of greater utility combined with much smaller cost and resource usage (including much less energy). While I do not deny the danger of some fatal stumbles from this increased power, anyone who wants to shape the future needs to realize that this is the way things are going – we all are going to be rich or dead, not mostly at subsistence while fighting about how big to make the ruling class.

[4] There is a vital political message here – we no longer need to steal from poor countries to live well. We can also afford to produce things cleanly, with no net environmental impact. In fact, we will all live a lot better if there are no poor countries, as few poor people as can be contrived, and fully sustainable production processes for all human needs. How well America’s children and grandchildren live will depend much more on how quickly we make this transition than on how much oil we can grab. I don’t pretend that this tech-optimism analysis will placate the truly greedy, as is shown by their pathological pursuit of wealth (and tax cuts) even after they have more money than they can effectively use. It also will not replace the need for a vanguard whose desire for a fair world comes from the gut rather than an intellectual analysis. But this analysis will encourage those who would like to see a fair world but who lose their nerve because they are afraid that the price of that world would be poverty for themselves or their children. We need to show them that their fear should be in the opposite direction.

[5] I’m not an unbridled optimist, and see the tunnel as well as the light at its end. In particular, I see three places where this future is at substantial risk. Unsurprisingly, Bush is spectacularly wrong at all three. Each risk is a sector that is worthy of as much political work as we can manage or inspire.

[a] The environment – even with the much greater capability for remediation that I expect to see soon, we are being wildly reckless on greenhouse emissions (runaway positive feedback is a distinct danger) and self-destructive on air pollution by poisonous substances. We may luck out and get through this with only moderate damage, but major disasters could disrupt things enough to get us stuck in authoritarian poverty.

[b] Feminism – one element in my optimism is the decrease in population growth that prosperity has been shown to cause in every modern culture that has experienced it. This in turn is largely a consequence of improved status of women in the culture (generally accompanied by less oppression of gays and lesbians). Any successful attempt to return women and children to being valued primarily as possessions could set off population growth that would absorb the wealth increase. While I doubt that feminism can be reversed in the current developed countries, Bush’s encouragement of religious fundamentalism and attacks on birth control in the underdeveloped world are clearly having tragic consequences, and could conceivably lead to eventual conquest of the low-birth-rate cultures by high-birth rate ones.

[c] Property – the shift (exemplified by computer software and entertainment items) of economic value toward tiny-cost-to-copy information and away from costly-to-replicate stuff is steadily undermining the already-shaky moral foundations of the concept of property. The US response has been to adopt and expand draconian “intellectual property” laws and to attempt (with some success) to force the rest of the world to follow them. This is the mechanism to ensure that the head start that the US and Europe have on the world will widen rather than narrow as other countries develop. Probably we can depend on Brazil, China, and India to lead a repudiation of patents at some opportune moment, but this will be easier for them to do if people in the developed countries cooperate in discrediting them.

Enough already. Now let’s hear from the Luddites.

Hunter Ellinger

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