Ecology, Economy, Growth, and Invention


I've been thinking about how we come to get richer over time as a planetary civilization. It's clear that the world is richer than it was when I was born, more than five decades ago. World population has multiplied by two and half times, and of that population a far smaller percentage is desperately poor (i.e., starving) and a far greater percentage is quite wealthy indeed. This trend is accelerating, and there are those who are starting to predict the end of poverty. In fact, if you look at the actual economic value in the world, it's greater by a big multiplier over even those fifty years.

Why is this? What makes us all richer over time? These questions are easily answered by a mid-level economics student. But I wanted an intuitive grasp of this, and I wanted to try to derive the reasons for it myself to get that.

Take an example from everyday life. When I was born, or even thirty years ago, there were virtually no mobile phones. If you wanted to talk to someone far away, you shared a single instrument or two, attached to a physical pair of copper wires leading from your home or place of business to a switching center where that pair was temporarily tied to another pair leading to more switching centers and, eventually, to the instrument adjacent to the mouth and ears of the person you want to chat with. This is complicated, but it's technology that remained substantially unchanged except in detail for nearly a century.

Even the wired telephone devices added huge value to the economy of the world, but that's not what I want to focus on here. That's just a pedestal upon which the next step rests.

Consider what happened since the 1980s with mobile phones. At first, of course, they were of limited usefulness and were very costly. But gradually, as technologists did what they always do, things got better, more flexible, cheaper, and more reliable. As this happened, more and more people could use the things to add value to their lives, their businesses, or whatever. We went, in thirty years, from nobody having a technology that could only be afforded by the wealthiest members of society to now, when virtually everyone has and uses it daily. Today a middle school child can ask his parents for a mobile phone for Christmas and there might be a brief moment of parental eye rolling, but the parents will eventually realize this is just something that has to happen. At least by high school age, by around age sixteen, where they are starting to be able to drive cars, most kids in families of middle class means have their own phones.

What changed? Yes, the things got cheaper. But they're not free. In fact, my household pays hundreds of dollars a month for the five people on my mobile phone plan to each have a smartphone. They don't actually have to have a this thing to live, but it is convenient and helpful and it is actually expected that everyone will have one. We didn't have to stop eating or driving our cars (another example of this phenomenon in itself), or living in a decent home, or wearing clothes in order to afford the cost of these things. What we did, as a society, was to get richer by enough to afford these devices.

How did we do that? We did it because of the devices, and because of computers and televisions and microwave ovens and many other innovations that have made our lives simpler, quicker, easier, and more productive in myriad ways. All of these, as a whole, have made it possible for all of us, en masse to afford these modern conveniences without corresponding reduction in our lifestyle to do it.

Mobile phones enable instant access to information, freeing time and mental energy for people to do more things that might make society richer — creating works of art, inventing new things, managing a team that builds gallium mines, designing buildings, or whatever. It is the savings of time that was heretofore lost to drudge work or delay of access to information while the thought is fresh or lost time while waiting for someone to arrive at the office to receive a message that has made us all richer — incrementally, over years and decades, but richer nonetheless. These riches help us to pay for our new toys, which in turn help to pay for more engineers, manufacturing, gallium mines, and even stupid TV commercials. These all pay people to do things that enables them to pay for things, completing the cycle.

There is no single flow in an economy. It's more of a cycle, but it's a wheels-within-wheels contraption made up of frillions (a technical term in economics and in science fiction) of those cycles all entangled and intertwined in such a way that nobody can really make sense of them individually, but there can be rules for the results that show some of what is going on at a high level view. (This lack of visibility or attention to details is one reason for economic meltdowns like the one in 2008.)

An ecology is like this too. If you start with the primordial soup, clusters of what is hardly more than loosely organized globs of chemicals that happen to be able to translate energy and other chemicals into more copies of themselves, and then you move forward in time to complex ecosystems like a steaming, fecund world filled with ferns and dinosaurs, you can see how the same process has occurred. The creatures of the ecosystem became richer — more efficient at transforming energy and foodstuffs into more creatures — and were able to afford ever more complicated creatures who were, in turn, even more able in various ways to survive and to make more of themselves, over and over again.

It is hardly a new idea that we humans and our machines and inventions are just another step in ecosystem evolution on this planet. It's also not a new idea that those inventions might become another step.

I wanted to see this by having thought through it in this way, and I wanted to invite you to come along for the ride. I'm probably wrong in some particulars I have described here, but fundamentally, this has to be how it all works, and has worked for sagans of years.