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Was It All Worth It?
Epistemic confidence: Very low, I’m just throwing an idea out into the ether here. The chance of there being some obvious objection to some of the stuff I say in the post that refutes it entirely is high, proceed with caution.
Advocates of ‘degrowth’ say that legislators and economists are too focused on GDP Growth, and in fact societies ought to focus on maximising well-being, which would probably mean that GDP decreased rather than increased. I think the arguments against degrowth are good - Tom Chivers has written a post here, Noah Smith has one here, and you can probably find a bunch more that are well argued and well written. But I do think there’s an interesting question raised by the Degrowth movement - suppose that we could go back in time and prevent the explosion in economic growth after the industrial revolution (which can be seen in England's GDP per capita figures in the chart above), would it be a good idea?
Intuitively, the answer is a resounding ‘No!’. Economic growth has pulled more than a billion people out of poverty, and it’s correlated with (and almost definitely causes) all sorts of other good things, as Tom Chivers writes in his article:
If you live in the rich Iceland, for example, your child is 60 or 70 times less likely to die before its fifth birthday than if you live in the poor Central African Republic or Democratic Republic of Congo, where about one child in every 10 dies in its first five years.
Plus, the reason I’m able to spend this morning writing an article and sending it out to hundreds (or thousands, if some of you share it - hint hint) of people and not toiling away on a farm owned by the nearest lord is thanks to economic growth, so who am I to slag off prosperity? But I do think that if we take the view that the lives of people before the industrial revolution were worth living at all, utilitarians might be forced to say that it would be better if the growth explosion hadn’t occurred. I mean, I sort of think this. But I’m not sure, and I think there are a lot of assumptions you have to make to get there. But still, I sort of think it.
It seems pretty obvious to me that while GDP growth increases living standards, it also increases the chance of the world ending. If you look through Toby Ord’s list of existential risks to the world (x-risks) seen above, you’ll notice that the most dangerous x-risks almost certainly wouldn’t exist if not for the industrial revolution and economic growth. From nuclear war (1/1000 risk of wiping us out) to engineered pandemics (1/30 risk) to AI Risk (1/10 risk!), we’re basically playing Russian roulette with the future of the world, and most of the bullets are ones we could only put in the chamber thanks to economic growth.
Let’s suppose that Ord’s estimate is actually wrong, and that rather than there being a 1/6 chance of an existential catastrophe, there is actually only a 1/20 chance of existential chance of catastrophe each century. Even with this conservative estimate, the chance of an existential catastrophe occurring reaches 95% within about 6000 years, and it reaches 50% after only 1400 years. That might sound like a long time, but given that human beings have existed for about 6 million years, and homo sapiens have existed for about 300,000 years, it would be a huge shame to only get 1400 more years! And imagine all the billions or trillions of people who wouldn’t get to exist because of an existential catastrophe.
I don’t think we can actually put the growth genie back in the bottle, and I think that any reduction in economic growth doesn’t really change the calculations around x-risks (there are good arguments that more growth at the margin reduces the chance of an existential catastrophe occurring), but I think it’s at least plausible that utilitarians should think that it would have been better if the explosion in economic growth never happened. There are a few counterarguments that I would need to think about more seriously though before I actually take this position - for one thing, it needs to be clear that the lives of people prior to the industrial revolution were actually worth living. If they weren’t, the argument is a non-starter. I guess there are also relevant population objections - the number of people living now is much higher than prior to the growth explosion, and if economic growth caused many more people to exist, then we have to account for all the extra utility gained from having many more people, and this might make the argument fail.
But let’s just run with some assumptions for the moment, just to explore the idea. Let’s just put the population objections to one side for the moment, and assume that even without a huge increase in GDP Per Capita, we still would have seen huge increases in population. Let’s also assume that the chance of extinction in a slow growth state (or a growth plateau, if you take the view that slow growth would lead us to just develop nuclear weapons and AI eventually so we’d just be delaying the risk) is 1/10,000 per century, and the chance of extinction in a fast growth state is 1/20 per century - is a growth explosion worth it if you could somehow prevent it before it has happened? I know there are a lot of assumptions here but I’m still interested in answers - let me know in the comments or on Twitter. I’m too lazy and stupid to do the proper expected value calculations here, so if anyone wants to throw something at me that would be cool too.
Apparently Substack has a new iOS app for reading newsletters. I’ve downloaded it and it seems pretty good, so I guess go and download it and read All That is Solid on there if you want.