Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Low variance or convenience?

The other night I had a long discussion with a friend about the carrying capacity of the Earth. I have posted on this before, and I'm convinced the Earth can sustain plenty more people than we currently have.

So, Malthus was wrong: we are not in a population trap. He assumed population would increase exponentially, which technology increases linearly. In fact, technology has been moving far faster than what we need.

So much faster, that I came up with the following hypothesis: if in the US we use our modern technology to produce our food, but revert our lifestyles back to the year 1800, a person would only need to work, on average, about 2-3 days a year in order to live.

Imagine it: if we allowed infant mortality rates, malnutrition and sanitation to go back to 1800 levels, and all gave up electricity, it would actually take very little to provide ourselves with the necessary things to live. An 1800 lifestyle is also pretty good by relative standards. People in 1600 would have loved the conveniences.

I contend then that Karl Marx's ideal of communism - take what you need, produce what you can - would then work perfectly fine. Except no one wants to be there. Life in 1800 was bad, even for the rich. Life today, while requiring plenty of work to get, is very good, even for the poorest American.

So, in 200 years from now, I suspect people will be working just as much as we do today and enjoy a lot more conveniences. So many in fact that they will find our lifestyles today miserable.

This hypothesis came up after discussing the implications of our species moving to agriculture. Some, like Jared Diamond, have claimed that agriculture was the worst mistake in the history of the human race. It actually decreased our average lifespan, at least for the first 10,000 years, and increased the work we all had to do.

But it did decrease the variance effect from environmental shocks and meant we could have many, many more people. It also meant that specialization of labor could happen, so doctors, philosophers and even economists could emerge.

I think we are a species that realizes the value of decreased variance. Financial regulation may decrease growth, but it also decreases the incidence of really bad crises. Living like someone from 1800 would give us all a lot more free time and probably make us happier, but it also increases the effect of disease.

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