Progress, Stagnation, & Collapse

The Progress Equation

In 1960: The Year the Singularity was Cancelled, Scott Alexander discusses what I’ll call the progress equation. The equation states that technological progress increases the carrying capacity of the environment (the size of the largest population which can sustain itself with the resources available), but also, that technological progress is itself proportional to population (more people, more brains, more progress). This turns out to imply hyperbolic growth, with a singularity of infinite population around 2026.

As indicated in the title of Scott’s post, the progress equation stopped being a good model of population growth around 1960. My personal interpretation is that this is merely the time when technological growth outpaced population growth: the carrying capacity started rising faster than the exponential growth of the population. You see, the progress equation assumes that the population is always around carrying capacity (we could call this “the Malthusian assumption”). This is usually a pretty fair assumption; populations will boom and crash, but hover around the carrying capacity.

However, once the population is large enough that technological growth outpaces population growth, we should expect to enter into the exponential regime: population and technology grow at a merely exponential pace, so we don’t see a hard singularity like we get if we extrapolate hyperbolic growth. More thoughts on this here.

Bronze Age Collapse

I recently watched this video series on the Bronze Age Collapse. It’s very speculative, because we know very little about what really happened; in most places, writing and permanent settlement disappear shortly after, making records of the event scarce. One theory is that a powerful armada, “the sea people”, simply wiped out every mediterranean civilization at once for some reason. But the theory which the video series focuses on is the “system collapse” theory:

  • Over time, civilization builds up infrastructure.

  • Infrastructure increases the carrying capacity, and also smooths out small boom and bust cycles.

  • However, infrastructure also tends to centralize things, meaning that people become dependent on infrastructure.

  • Resources tend to have fixed maintenance costs. As a society gains more infrastructure, maintenance costs increase.

  • When a severe bust cycle hits, a society’s resources may fall below the maintenance costs of its centralized infrastructure. The infrastructure then fails. Because society has become dependent on this infrastructure, this exacerbates the problem. This can create a domino effect between different types of infrastructure, so everything collapses at once.

  • Because Bronze Age civilization was highly dependent on trade, the domino effect also continued across the whole set of bronze-age civilizations across the Mediterranean.

This suggests a modification of the progress equation. Rather than “technological progress” being a number which just counts up as people invent things, we can think of it as requiring some population size to support. When the population dips below that number, technological progress is lost. This further worsens the situation for the remaining population, causing a dramatic crash.

Seeing Like a State

Why does technological progress usually lead to centralization and increasing dependence? By design. Combining insights from Seeing like a State and The Dictator’s Handbook, we can see how increasing centralization and dependence is to the advantage of a state. It allows the state to extract resources more efficiently, even if it’s not to the overall benefit of the people. (It becomes amazing that we make progress at all, when you think of it this way: it’s often to the state’s advantage to keep the population ignorant and poor.)

Urban Sprawl

The youtube channel Not Just Bikes provides detailed pro-walkability anti-urban-sprawl rants, by a knowledgeable urban planning enthusiast. In the series Strong Towns (which summarizes points from a book of the same name), it describes how urban sprawl operates in North America. The point that’s relevant for us is the infrastructure Ponzi scheme: how cities usually can’t presently afford to maintain the infrastructure they build, instead relying on future growth to pay for it. This leads to a cycle:

  • Build fancy new stuff to facilitate growth and bring in tax dollars, without worrying about how to pay for maintenance costs later.

  • Grow. Rake in tax dollars. Use them to keep up the old infrastructure.

  • Panic when the new infrastructure starts to decay, and there’s not enough money to pay for its upkeep.

  • Return to the first step, building an even larger set of new developments, to bring in growth and therefore tax dollars which will repair older infrastructure.

This works pretty well until it doesn’t. Then you get bankrupt cities like Detroit, with crumbling districts slowly returning to nature.

I think you can see where I’m going with this. I don’t think I can Bronze Age civilizations had urban sprawl, but I think ancient empires may have fallen into the same growth-dependent “ponzi scheme” as modern cities. This exacerbates the instabilities created by centralized infrastructure. With growth-dependent economics, a crisis can be caused when growth merely slows down too much to keep the Ponzi scheme going.

Will we see collapse?

Is the modern population highly dependent on highly centralized technology? Yes. Do we have growth-dependent economics? Yes. Has that growth been slowing down? Arguably, yes. Are modern civilizations highly interdependent, relying on trade for basic needs? Yes. We’ve just seen the consequences of a global trade disruption. The prices of everything have recently increased by about 15%. That’s a mark-up which many cannot afford. Many items are in severely short supply. (I recently walked into a local bike shop to buy a bike. They didn’t have any, except for a few multi-thousand dollar models which I guess they keep around in case a wealthy customer comes in. The shopkeeper told me to check back next week to see if they’d gotten anything in.)

It also just so happens that the US government has been creating money like mad. It’s easy to tell a story where the inflation of prices will only get worse, the dollar collapses, and things spiral further out of control from there.

But I think every age has similarly compelling doomsday stories. They’ve got a fairly bad track record overall. The same pessimistic story could have been told around 2008, and at many other times. If we’re going to collapse now, why didn’t we then? Centralization and trade-dependence are not new. We have a few advantages which Bronze Age civilization did not.