The Big Sort

Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort explores the complex causes of a simple observation:  Since the late 1970s, Americans have sorted themselves into roughly two different types of culturally and politically homogeneous communities. There is a liberal, Democrat-supporting, high-growth, tech-oriented, weak social ties, low religiosity type, and a conservative, Republican-supporting, low cost, family and tradition oriented, strong social ties, high religiosity type. Why? What caused this?

Bishop, with the assistance of numerous others mentioned in his book, lists the following forces that were active in the mid-to-late 20th century.

First, there is the growing affluence of developed nations, which leads to greater personal autonomy and, therefore, a greater focus on self-expression and individualism. People no longer settle for being just a face in the masses, but increasingly want choices and seek out communities and institutions that cater to their individual needs and which allow them to express themselves. These people join fewer organizations and generally reduce their participation in communal activities compared to previous generations, leading to weaker social ties (the main discovery of Bowling Alone). There is some decent evidence supporting this theory based on surveys conducted over time in developed nations, with the richest and most equitable countries (e.g the Nordics) ranking highest for individualism. The US is a bit of an outlier here due to our much stronger religiosity and higher levels of poverty, but the trend generally holds for us as well.

The New Deal era, and particularly the post-WWII era, was very public-oriented in its solutions and ideals. Big government, big business, big unions, and the social gospel of prosperity and good works were the focus of the time. This naturally led to a quiet counter reaction among those who were either economic losers, political outsiders, or whose ideals just didn’t really fit in. The counter reaction could be described by the terms private, conservative, family, faith, and individual salvation. It was in many ways the antithesis of the prevailing post-war attitudes.

This counter reaction had two prongs, one led from the bottom through popular, fundamentalist religious movements and voters in some areas of the growing outer suburbs, and one led from the top, by certain business leaders and Republicans who sought to wrest power from the dominant Democratic liberal order. Somewhere in the 1970s, the top found the bottom and the extremely strange Republican coalition of the Religious Right, sunbelt suburbanites, corporate socialists, and Ayn Rand acolytes took shape.

In addition to the above, cheap automobiles, cheap gas, and the interstate system lowered the barrier for people to pick up and physically relocate, while increasing affluence and individualism gave them the impetus to do so.

And yet another force was at play, the development of sophisticated marketing techniques enabled by information technology. Just as people were becoming more individualistic in their affluence, computers were gaining the power to churn through masses of consumer data and develop market profiles tailored to them. This was the big move from “mass appeal” advertising to lifestyle targeted advertising via market segmentation. This would have political implications, to be discussed shortly.

Finally, we have to tie all this together. We have affluence leading people toward greater self-expression than is commonly believed to be the historical norm. A high mobility / low barrier transportation infrastructure allows people to move around. There is a counter reaction to the New Deal era’s emphasis on public life that mingles with the new individualism and a religious resurgence, creating a silent revolution and a sort of alternative society away from the centers of power. This reaction is noticed by the out-of-power national political party and promoted as a means to attack its opponents. Meanwhile, innovative forms of marketing and dividing up the population into lifestyle bins are developed.

Bishop’s thesis is that all this led to a great sorting of America, where we all moved into two different and increasingly homogeneous camps. His reasoning is we did this because we wanted to, because we had the means to do so and it was only natural that people move to places where they feel more comfortable among like-minded people and that, over time, minor lifestyle or ideological differences between adjacent communities would get picked out and snowball into major disagreements about politics and life itself. While the last bit of that sentence (snowballing) is correct, the main explanation of voluntary sorting is lacking.

In particular, he notes that the 1976 presidential election featured the highest degree of mixed party voting, by county, in the post-war era. Meaning that Democrats and Republicans lived next door to each other, and that most Americans routinely encountered people whose political beliefs, or at least allegiances, were different from their own. But for that to be the most mixed election, there must have been an increase in heterogeneity compared to the past—people were living in increasingly mixed (political) communities, and these communities functioned while allowing individuals to disagree. After 1976, communities become more homogeneous.

Something changed.

People had mobility and affluence pre-1976. Many lived in areas at the center of the emerging counter reaction to the New Deal and got along fine with their neighbors, or well enough to not move away. On top of all that, most people will choose to continue living near the friends and family they grew up with if they can afford to, and if they believe doing so will lead to a good, purposeful, and plentiful life. They move, if they can, when opportunities are lacking or when some other area is clearly better. There is a strong economic driver not accounted for here.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you’ll know what’s coming—the American Thermidor that Stirling Newberry has outlined, the counterrevolution against FDR’s New Deal that, while not exactly destroying it, severely warped its mechanisms and forced many of them into reverse. Wealth started to flow to the top, wages were frozen, organized labor was broken, speculative economic bubbles became the norm, and everything was thrown into preserving a suburban land rent economy that pays for oil it can’t afford by buying cheap goods from overseas in order to wage speculative stock market battles with foreign elites for control of the US economy.

This created two economies in America. The first is the extractive plunder economy that runs entirely on the land rent casino, military adventurism, resource strip mining, and the enforcement of rigid social and religious traditions. It is essentially the old economy put on life support, unable to innovate away from its technological, resource, and ideological constraints, subject to increasingly severe austerity in order to maintain its unaffordable lifestyle. These are the low cost homogeneous communities that Bishop finds in his book.

The second economy is the future tech economy. Exactly what it runs on is hard to say at the moment, but it’s some combination of information technology, artificial intelligence (really just “smart” systems), renewable and other low carbon energy, electrified transportation, and relatively permissive, liberal social mores. This economy is trying to emerge in half a dozen or so tech-centered cities around the country, and is most clearly being built in the state of California. These are the high growth homogeneous communities that Bishop finds in his book.

The Big Sort happened not because we all decided to start moving to places where we agree with everyone, but because we were forced to—at least, those who had the means and the smarts to do so. If you wanted to do well, if you wanted to make more money, have your kids go to a good school, live in a clean, prosperous place, free of heavy religious indoctrination, you had to move to either one of the tech hub cities or to one of the established mega cities that have also done well. There was a selection for certain types of people to move to these locations in order to pursue their economic interests.

All the elements were there for people to move to live in likeminded, culturally homogeneous communities—but what Bishop seems to miss is the impetus to do so. “Like attracts like” isn’t enough, people need a serious threat to their material wellbeing to move. Stirling supplies this.

So, where are we now?

I haven’t said much about that market segmentation comment above—so here it comes. Politics has finally learned from marketing and has started running political campaigns, especially Presidential campaigns, as if they were marketing campaigns. Bishop documents how the Republicans first did this in 2004, when, upon review of survey data and historical voting patterns by county, they realized that true independents were actually just 10% of the population—completely against the popular wisdom of the time. They focused on messaging to get their base to turnout and completely ignored independents and Democrats. They marketed to their base. The Democrats figured this out for 2008 and the Obama campaign adopted the same tactics, leading to a massive win.

Most of the country supports one party or the other, so the challenge isn’t convincing people to switch their vote or even to have a discussion, but it is instead to activate enough of a party’s base to win the election. Campaigns are now marketing events, almost totally ignoring the other party’s base. This works because homogeneous communities where everyone mostly agrees on major issues have a tendency to spiral off into more extreme and conformist views. Seemingly minor decisions or opinions or product choices tie upward to political party affiliation. Our political culture has become some horrible lifestyle branding initiative.

We have lost the commons, so our challenge is now to recreate it, by either finding cross-cutting issues that can tie these two lifestyles back together, or by creating a new platform that allows them to coexist while still securing the existence and continued prosperity of the US. The future tech economy must happen, but we need everyone to come along for the ride.


Rapid Money Ideas

Rapid in the sense that I haven’t taken the time to think these through, but they present interesting possibilities.

Marginal land valuation.  Apply a marginal tax structure to land value.  Value the land as you normally would, but every dollar of value between (e.g.) $100,000 and $200,000 is reduced by 20%, every dollar from $200,001 to $500,000 is reduced by 75%, etc.  There would be an estimated market land value derived in the current fashion, but this marginal valuation structure would then be applied and reduce it to its final value, which would then be used for determining rent, taxes, prices, and so on.

This has the advantage of removing the incentive that many cities have for raising land values in order to increase revenue and it could be used to clamp down on speculation and highly inflationary real estate.

Money IDs.  Every cent should have a unique digital ID associated with it, possibly allowing it to be tracked through a blockchain or similar technology.  The system would be able to compare every cent to every other cent and prevent fake money from being created.  Could track money across borders, even across corporations, households, etc.  This might just be me reinventing a tiny part of blockchain/bitcoin technology.

Acceptable Costs and Gun Control

The gun control debate in the US can be usefully understood through the lens of “acceptable costs,” defined as those costs which are worth paying in exchange for a certain way of life or for certain ideological reasons.

In 2013, motor vehicle deaths totaled 33,804 while all firearm related deaths came in at 33,636.  These are pretty much equivalent, yet gun control is a huge issue while motor vehicle restrictions are not.  This is because there is a broad consensus in the US that deaths due to automobiles and trucks are an acceptable cost, something that is simply part of the landscape of our way of life.  There is a small constituency of citizens that oppose the automobile, but they are primarily driven by concerns for the environment or for urban renewal.

On the other hand, there is a clear split between three separate constituencies on the acceptability of gun-related deaths.  The first constituency, composed of hunters and rural people who use guns to acquire food, is rarely heard from on the national scene and is often subsumed by the second, NRA-ideological constituency.  This first group is theoretically amenable to some restrictions that leave (e.g.) hunting rifles alone.  But the ideological group that speaks in their place sees guns the same way that everyone sees cars–any accidents or deaths are an acceptable cost to (1) maintaining an arsenal to fight a future totalitarian government or (2) maintain general constitutional rights, starting with the second amendment.  Relenting on the second is seen as the start of a slippery slope to fascism, communism, or whatever -ism is opposed to the American way of life.

The third constituency consists of gun control advocates and those who do not see gun-related deaths as an acceptable cost for a modern, civilized nation.  They see no purpose for guns and therefore cannot justify any accidental or purposeful gun deaths.  They point out that other developed nations have strict gun control laws and have far fewer gun related deaths.  Gun deaths are pure waste, not an ideologically or materially justified cost.

Automobile culture is so hegemonic that virtually no one questions it.  We all need to drive somewhere, right?  But gun culture is increasingly split between a group who sees guns as an ideological necessity and one that sees them as a dangerous, useless affectation that kills far too many.  The only group that has reason to actually use the guns in day-to-day life is not heard from.

This is why, for roughly equivalent annual fatalities, a shooting where 9 people are killed makes national headlines while a 10 car pile up that kills 9 does not.  No one really cares about the latter, except those directly affected, while the former is a national tragedy.

Update:  Jonathan Korman writes on Twitter:

This sparks a couple more ideas in my head.  First, you don’t see an “acceptable costs” argument being made on the national level, or at least very rarely.  That’s because there’s actually a fourth group that I didn’t mention above, consisting of people who have no strong feelings on gun control or the second amendment, but who can definitely be moved to action by media coverage of mass shootings.

The NRA, meanwhile, is a lobbying and PR group that primarily represents interior US and southern citizens’ political interests as well as gun and ammo manufacturer’s interests in a media environment that is heavily concentrated along the urban centers of the northeast and west coast.  These urban corridors are the home base of the gun-control groups, which is why NRA spokespersons rarely go to the media with “acceptable costs of freedom.”  They know the media won’t like it, and they know that the uncommitted members of the population will see an argument for theoretical rights juxtaposed with pictures of dead children and will make the obvious choice.  This is why NRA spokespersons cannot make the claim–as soon as that becomes their standard, they will scare off most of the uncommitted population.

Remember, the NRA is the PR arm of US gun interests–both citizen and corporate–and it faces a hostile media environment and a very divided national political environment.  Believe it or not, it treads lightly.

Though its filters appear to get weaker and weaker every year.  Since Harlon Carter, its message has increasingly embraced the paranoid, Charles Bronson-in-Death Wish world in which the only thing that can stop criminals and terrorists and overreaching government are good people carrying guns.  But going full-tilt into “price of freedom” arguments on the national stage is still taboo.  Instead, you find these arguments made by random pro-gun advocates on forums, on social media, talk radio, and sometimes at the local government level.  The argument is used for internal propaganda, to reinforce the beliefs of those who already believe when they are faced with mass shootings and high body counts.  “Remember, this is all worth it for the greater good” only works on those who share a common conception of how having more guns secures the greater good.  It sounds callous and immoral to those who do not, and who see gun deaths as pure tragedy in the service of no cause whatsoever.

Second, the above dynamic accounts for why conspiracy theories about staged mass shootings persist within pro-gun advocacy circles.  They’re roughly aware of how guns stack up to other causes of death, they know that the media is generally hostile to them and to gun rights, they see that shootings get way more publicity than (e.g.) fatal car accidents, and they perceive the government as an enemy bent on slowly taking away their ability to defend themselves.  At the same time, they’re often surrounded by like-minded people who agree with them either online or in their communities.  Thus, fringe theories claim that mass shootings are staged, while more “mainstream” theories claim that shootings are over-hyped as part of a larger agenda to disarm the populace.  And at least on the latter, they are correct about the hype and may be correct about the larger systemic effects on gun rights, even though there is no actual conspiracy involved.

Babies and Evolution

Caring for our newborn child has led to some thoughts on evolutionary optimization.

First, humans have big heads to accommodate our large brains, but we must be born through a rather tightly constricted canal. Thus, heads cannot be too large at birth, and thus humans are born premature and with soft heads. We cannot even crawl on our own and are entirely physically helpless. Most other mammals have offspring capable of walking from almost the moment of their birth. Marsupials are an exception, but “birth” is a kind of nebulous concept when your offspring spend an extended amount of time in a placental pouch on the outside of your body.

If humans were not born so premature, the incidence of both maternal and child death during birth would be huge. Infants would get stuck, mothers would bleed to death. And trust me, there are enough complications and risks during birth as it is in the current situation. Tilting the scales toward larger babies would not help. On the other hand, being born too premature would result in increased infant mortality.

Since humans are born premature, they require excessive amounts of care and attention. The average newborn must eat every 2 or 3 hours, including overnight. This means that her caregivers must wake up every 2 or 3 hours as well. This is near the limit of what adult humans can do. If the child had to wake up every 45 minutes to eat, then there would be two possible results: Either her parents would die from exhaustion, or we would have a very strong emphasis on communal child raising, multiple wet nurses, etc.

If the child only ate every 6 to 8 hours, which is in line with an adult sleeping pattern, then infant mortality would rise dramatically during the early months of life. This is too long for such a small person to frequently go without food and raises the risk of malnutrition, sickness, and death.

I’m also convinced that infant amnesia is an adaptation, though its probable that it has more to do with the very early stages of brain development than anything else. But being an infant is tough. Your only mode of communication is screaming. You cannot crawl or walk, you cannot even turn yourself over. You cannot lift up your own head, at least not for long. You depend entirely on caregivers for food, hygiene, entertainment, and warmth. You can barely see anything for the first couple months. You have no theory of mind and don’t understand that your caregivers are other people with their own needs, so you get upset if they have to put you down to tend to their needs. You go through drastic digestive and other bodily changes in the early months, often causing great pain (look up colic or infant acid reflux for more). Your sleep is restless and shallow. You are susceptible to many more diseases. You grow so fast that it must be uncomfortable (at least, our child has grown 2 inches per month for 2 months). If you cry out because you’re hungry or in pain, and no one comes, then you can do nothing.

I’m not sure how strongly infants feel fear, but I’d be scared out of my mind most of the time. I don’t think anyone would want to clearly remember this period of their life. Instead, we learn without conscious recall.

Finally, parents (and people in general) are programmed to find babies cute and to want to protect them. The reason for this is that babies are exhausting and demanding. Caring for one full time requires huge amounts of patience, drains your energy, and, especially if you’re a nursing mother, requires you to relinquish your bodily autonomy. If we didn’t find them so cute and hilarious, if we didn’t have some baked-in affinity for neotony, we’d have problems.

Even as it is, there are still problems. The optimizations above lead to lots of stress. Every single parent I know has had at least one minor breakdown, and many have had major ones. When you become a parent, suddenly other parents start opening up to you. Its like a club that you kind of new existed, but you had no idea what it was like to be a member. Women rarely tell other women the gory details of pregnancy beforehand, because if they did then a lot of people wouldn’t have kids in the first place. But then once they have a kid, many of them are actively planning for the next one. Couples rarely tell their unmarried friends that they broke down and cried last night because their child screamed for 5 hours and they haven’t slept at all. Etc.  Everyone has some form of postpartum depression or anxiety, even if in most cases it is not severe enough for a medical diagnosis or to put anyone’s health in danger.

For all that, its almost crazy that we do have kids. But I know why we do. Despite all the exhaustion and stress, when my two month old sees me, smiles, and starts waving his arms around and cooing nonsense sounds at me to come play with him, I think “yeah, I’d be happy with having another one of these guys.”

If any of the above were pushed significantly in one direction or another, human reproduction would be disastrous.  We’re in a very roughly optimized spot.

Youth Disenfranchisement is Baked In

In fact, tech and engineering companies are creating products and businesses that rely on it.

Another quick hit from Arstechnica today:

The construction industry is set to expand significantly in the coming years. In 2013, Arcadis, a construction consultancy, reported that construction output will grow by more than 70 percent to $15 trillion worldwide by 2025.

“By 2050, there’ll be two billion additional city dwellers—sustainable urbanization will be a major construction challenge and the industry must strive to find innovative new products and solutions, to contribute to building better cities,” Bruno Lafont, chairman of Lafarge, a building materials company, said in a statement at the time.

As the skilled construction workforce gets older, and with fewer younger workers coming up to replace them, older workers can potentially work longer and suffer from fewer injuries with an exoskeleton.

If Ekso Bionics can capture even a small slice of those future construction jobs, it seems set to do well.

The third paragraph makes no sense coming after the first two.  Fact 1:  The construction industry is going to expand significantly in the next ten years, and likely beyond.  Fact 2:  There will be 2 billion more people living in urban areas by 2050.  This implies that much of this construction will occur to accommodate these people.

Fact 3:  The skilled construction workforce is getting old, and there won’t be enough young workers to replace them.

Wait.  What happened to those 2 billion new city dwellers?  A lot of them are going to be young or middle aged.  I’m sure they’ll want jobs, and it looks like the construction industry will be booming just as they get into the cities, which are where all that construction will be happening.  It sounds like a perfect match, and so Fact 3 seems completely out of place.

Oh, they want skilled workers.  Training, particularly for skilled manual labor, is expensive.  I’m not sure if its more expensive than buying a bunch of mechanical exoskeletons for aging workers, but it sounds like the industry is keen to find out.  And what’s even more expensive than training new workers is hiring so many of them that the labor market gets tight and wages increase across the board.  Maybe that $12,000 exoskeleton is the cheaper option.

Regardless of the explanation, the notion that “there aren’t enough young, skilled laborers” is bullshit.  Youth unemployment is particularly high everywhere.  Give them good jobs, give them training, pay them well, and you won’t need geriatrics in exoskeletons.

(That said, I love this exoskeleton technology.  I just disagree with the economic environment that is apparently driving it.)

Computers as Space/Time Control Systems

Reported on Arstechnica:

The alternative is to try to drive a reaction that will simply not occur, but, then you have no starting signal to optimize. Instead you have to know a reasonably good pulse shape to use right from the start of the experiment.

This is what makes the experiment reported in Physical Review Letters remarkable.

The other important factor is that any sufficiently intense light pulse would cause bond formation. That meant that, like destroying molecules, the researchers could optimize a pulse shape starting from a non-zero signal. So, in this special case, molecules can be made. And, after optimization, the process occurs eight times faster than it would if driven by a generic pulse from the laser.

You might think that such a low enhancement would mean that this might mean that there is no real control here. The experiment just adds energy and hence the reaction proceeds. However, the molecule is simple enough that reasonably accurate calculations of the states were possible. These calculations showed that certain pulse shapes should enhance Mg2 production, while others should suppress production. Experiments confirmed that this was the case, indicating that molecular formation was due to a coherent process, rather than just due to the injection of lots of energy.

The way we do a lot of chemistry today is akin to brewing beer:  You add a certain quantity of inputs, provide particular environmental conditions, give it some time, and you get a mix of product and waste at the end.  Advancements typically come from discovering more efficient and faster recipes, or from reducing the number of steps needed.  I’m oversimplifying, but not by too much I hope.

The technology quoted above is a qualitative change in methods and capability.  The end-game for this tech is computer controlled arrays of coherent energy (lasers mostly) acting on a raw substrate or gaseous cloud to generate desired chemical end products, or to at least shift the statistical distribution of products toward a more useful one.  The metaphor moves from cooking/brewing to something a bit closer to construction, with a precisely ordered expenditure of energy and materials used to construct molecules.

To think about this technology, I find that conceiving of information technology and computers as “control systems” is much more useful for clarity than thinking of them as just computers.  A computer is something you write emails and play games on.  A computer is a familiar part of your home and maybe work.  But from a pure physical capability point of view, personal computers and even cell phones are among the least interesting things to come out of the entire information technology complex.  They are pedestrian, mass market tools.  They are not the cutting edge, and focusing too much on them draws attention away from the more radical uses of transistors operating in the GHz and higher ranges.

Like the above.

No human could turn a laser on and off in 100 femtoseconds, and most people would be lucky to do it in one tenth of a second.  Our hands are our own control systems, and the computer beats them easily.  Manipulation of matter and energy on a very small and precise scale in both time and space opens up new possibilities.  In this case, a chemical reaction that does not naturally occur in a given environment was made to happen.  A qualitative change in capabilities emerges from a quantitative change in speed and scale.

Computers are control systems that segment space and time into ultra-fine quanta, thereby enabling, with the right tools, small amounts of precisely tuned energy/information to be used to very rapidly manipulate matter and other energy.  Or I should say, “smaller” amounts of precisely tuned energy/information.  Femtosecond laser pulses are definitely small, but the macro-scale effect of these systems is that you replace large nukes on ballistic missiles that can only get “close enough” to a city with small warheads and smart munitions that can specify which square meter of which city block you want to explode.

The results are completely novel capabilities, and I believe we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg so far.

The War Nerd has made a similar observation re: weapons of war (bolded emphasis is mine):

Compare the Patriot MIM PAC-3 with the MIM-14 and you see a very weird progression, from massive warhead to…no warhead at all. Computing power replaces explosive power, or tries to.

It’s an odd development. I can’t think of another moment in military history when contending powers dialed down their weapons to something close to zero, as the US and Soviet developers did.

Missiles that needed small nukes to kill another missile that they were “close enough” to can now be used as kinetic darts to precisely strike that other missile.

I can’t drive it home enough:  This is what computers-as-control-systems do.  Email, instant messaging, word processing, digital painting, computer gaming, and programming are all high-level derivatives of this capability.  The computing device you’re reading this on is derivative.  How these derivatives are used and evolved is very important, but we get distracted by and obsessed with them.  The central action is taking place far, far under the hood and mostly out of sight, and it has implications for virtually every aspect of human existence–from laser control of chemical reactions to the use of supersonic missiles against entire cities.

The Future

A broad prediction for the next couple hundred years.

  • Severe climate change will happen. The period from 1980 to ~2050 will be derided by future generations as a great waste of time, time during which we could have preserved a climate much more hospitable to our civilization but instead played games to see who could burn the most oil.
  • Various geoengineering schemes will be tried. They will fail, possibly making things even worse in the long run.
  • As the climate shifts, we will see things like failed monsoons, extended droughts, persistent severe storms, and sea level rises. These will lead to mass migrations, especially in poor areas that cannot adapt or in rich countries that are too stupid to adapt.  There will be ethnic guerrilla wars, resource wars, and likely billions dead when all is said and done.
  • There will be a retreat into cities, more so than has already occurred in developed countries. We will become an exclusively urban species.
    • Cities are increasingly controlled environments and will become shelters from a malevolent climate.
    • Cities have resources. They are precisely large accumulations of natural resources processed into technology to support human life.  These resources can be mined and re-used quite easily if the appropriate methods are developed.
    • Cities are now points of elite control, which means the elite will be on board with this, which means it will be allowed to happen. It won’t be pretty for the rest of us, but it will allow us to survive.
  • Rapid urbanization can be seen as the accumulation of naturally sparse resources into very small, concentrated areas on Earth’s surface. Start mining cities and their citizens for resources.  Create closed loop industry.
  • Eventually create closed-in environments. Intensive urban farming, natural preserves shielded from the transformed climate.  The ideal technological infrastructure takes high quality energy as input (fusion, fission, renewables) and emits only waste heat.  Recycles all other materials inside.
  • Cities become arcologies, bastions of human life and the old climate and ecosystems, designed to preserve into the future. We must learn how to create and sustain small, artificial ecosystems.
  • We will colonize another world without leaving Earth, and in the process we will develop the technologies necessary to truly colonize other planets.
    • In the worst case scenario, total collapse of the oxygen cycle, our cities will inhabit a barren world little different from (e.g.) Mars.
  • States and governance. Those parts of the world with a head start on capital accumulation will tend to do best, but there is no guarantee.  Rotten governments and societies may fail to adapt and crumble, even given a huge head start.
  • States and empires are designed to extract resources from rural hinterlands and defend access to these resources. If most necessary resources are now concentrated in cities and can be mostly recycled, the need for the territorial state will weaken.  Collections of cities may become more important, aside from some regions where special rare resources remain available, or where there are strategic land/water/etc. access points.  Something more akin to the Greek city-states.  Note this doesn’t mean that states and empires will disappear, only that the modern arrangement of well-defined and long lasting state borders may diminish and we’ll go back to something more fluid.  The median area controlled by a polity will shrink.
  • At some point in the future, someone may construct the following historical narrative: Nation states arose in Europe as a means to create loyal populations and claim natural resources that were both fed into domestic production systems, the outputs of which were then used to acquire further resources and land through advancing military technologies and healthier, more capable populations (and, therefore, soldiers).  Nation states fed industrialization by establishing firm control of large, contiguous tracts of land and associated resources.  They were organized methods of centralizing resources into city areas and for violently breaking old social institutions that kept labor out of the newly emerged and state-promoted science/technology/military industry complex that required these cities to function.  This process, driven largely by the urge for power and military dominance, grabbed the easiest and most potent sources of energy, namely hydrocarbons, without understanding the full implications of their use over long periods of time and at scale.  The coupling of hydrocarbon resources to military competition and technological progress, particularly in the 20th century, led to drastic climate change, mass extinctions, and war in the 21st and 22nd centuries, all of which challenged the science/technology/military industry complex and provided the driving force for its maturation beyond its disastrous, inefficient, and largely hacked together capitalist phase.  The simple need to survive led to the development of contained environments to preserve human civilization and the old ecosystems.  The 100 years from 2050 to 2150 are widely acknowledged as a second upheaval, an order of magnitude greater than the Industrial Revolution in both costs and eventual benefits.  Billions died and much of the Earth was ruined, but the societies that came out of this difficult period possessed the ability to live in hostile, barren environments and soon colonized other planets, asteroids, and moons.

In summary, imagine that we’ve been participating in a centuries-long process of concentrating resources and developing technology to fight each other, the side effects of which will be the devastation of our natural environment and the development of the means to live on devastated worlds.

Given that severe climate change is a foregone conclusion at this point, I believe this may be the best future we can work toward.  If we don’t make it, then its Mad Max, or possibly outright extinction.