Clearly, when people argue that environmentalists want a return to us all living in caves, this isn’t what they have in mind. That, or they’re imagining rather luxurious caves. The major reductions in consumption necessary don’t present barriers to anyone achieving a high standard of living. Solving the ecological crisis doesn’t have to be the attack on modern living that many fear.
But it does represent an attack on modern life in many other ways. This vision can’t be reconciled with a system that requires permanent growth in economic output to maintain employment levels, or one that incentivises shifting factories to places where rampant ecological destruction is inevitable and wages are barely sufficient for basic subsistence.
The new world
Ecological breakdown isn’t the only 21st-century challenge that capitalism seems ill-equipped to face. Fears abound that artificial intelligence and automation will bring mass unemployment, spiralling inequalities, even biological castes of superhumans. A world of decent living standards using minimal energy requires flattening global inequalities. But these developments promise to push us precisely the other way.
Like it or not, change is coming. We may see the entirety of Uber replaced by self-driving vehicles, and robotic factories producing an abundance of synthetic meat. Even large fractions of healthcare and legal work are likely to be outsourced to algorithms fed by torrents of globally sourced data. All this alongside a rapidly ageing population, requiring increasing amounts of care.
Can business as usual cope? In an increasingly automated future, no work means no wages – who’ll then buy all the stuff automated factories produce? It may seem unthinkable, but increasing economic activity enough to keep a world of 10 billion employed nine-to-five alongside all that automated production would mean the planet would almost certainly be toast.
In a new world of intelligent machines doing much of the work, looming environmental limits and an increasing fraction of the population too old to work, wages and money may cease to make sense. We’ll need to totally rethink our systems of ownership and distribution.
And why not? The technologies underpinning automation are an outcome of hundreds of years of human ingenuity (and blind luck). Why should the benefits be captured by a minority of super-rich owners?
Universal basic services – including the public provisioning of housing, healthcare, education and transport among other things – may be needed to meet the basic needs of everyone. This could provide the basis for decent living in a world with less work, allowing people the time to undertake all the unpaid care work required to support children, the mentally ill and, increasingly, the elderly.
We’re a long way from utopian visions of luxury for all, but providing decent living standards to all is already technologically possible. When the alternative is ecological catastrophe and social breakdown, aspiring to such a world seems not only desirable, but essential.