I read an article in the National Journal this morning (thank you C. Bates, an intelligent person from a different political and religious persuasion, for a civil conversation and food for thought) about how democrats lost the election last month in large part due to an overly aggressive position on climate change. Specifically, that turning a deaf ear to the concerns of out-of-work coal miners and other disaffected groups cost them a lot of votes. I don’t believe Trump or the Republican party has put a good answer on the national stage for these folks that is realistic or functional, but I do believe the point is valid. These people are getting left behind, and if we are a decent society, we need to help them. Not “we” as liberals or “we” as conservatives, but “we” as Americans and to a great degree, as human beings.
There are free market solutions out there that seem viable (Cap & Trade, Fee & Dividend), which could function in tandem with another popular response and one I’ve frequently mentioned myself: in a directed shift to a green economy, people will be needed to build the solar panels and windmills, to install them, and to maintain them going forward. I think that’s all true and I think it would help control these issues—but possibly only in the short term. Assume a perfect “green revolution” that lasts 20 years and results in a near-zero emission environment. Once all the panels are installed, so to speak, aren’t we back at square one? Aren’t all those blue-collar sectors out of work again?
Of course, I think that’s a bit short-sighted. More likely is that the technology will continue to advance, and will require upgrades and replacement over time. So the demand for work will continue to increase—but that does not guarantee that human beings will be the ones doing it, because if we’re talking about a period 20 years in the future, we may also very well be talking about drones and robots that can perform the work at a fraction of the price. In other words, technology taking work from people. This isn’t science fiction; it has been happening for years, in the auto and manufacturing industries and elsewhere.
I have a lot of sympathy for the coal miners who are out of work. I understand the reasons, or I think I do: a double whammy of the natural gas alternative being drastically cheaper, and the Obama administration’s “war on coal” (which fueled much of the backlash in last month’s election), driven by a need to respond to runaway CO2 emissions. Said emissions, of course, are the natural result of the industrial revolution and subsequent Information Age, a period in which we as a species are advancing faster and further technologically than we did in all the previous eras combined.
If the coal industry is driven to extinction under the heel of technological advances, it will not be alone. Countless industries are fighting for their survival in the modern world, including traditional print news and just about every publishing medium there is—book publishing, game publishing, music publishing, all are nearly unrecognizable from 20 years ago, hammered into new shapes and sometimes into oblivion by the relentless capabilities of the most visible global technology of the past several decades: the internet.
In my own state of Minnesota, we have a significant population in the iron range that are victims of closing iron mines. Globalization is a primary driving factor in these closings—globalization driven by an unprecedented surge in communication and travel technologies.
And now I begin to see a pattern.
See, this is where I think we as human beings are not really aware of the full scope of our impact on the world. I’m not sure we’ve come to terms with exactly how powerful our technology is, or how vastly it is going to change our lives in the coming 20 to 50 to 100 years. I suspect the underlying issue here is much bigger than coal vs green or domestic vs import or even economy vs climate change.
The underlying issue is that our technology is a tsunami.
It is not “just” changing the way we communicate and purchase and travel. It is in the process of utterly transforming every single aspect of the way our species functions. From how long we live, to how we make our living; from what we know and what we say to what we are. I believe that we started something massive with the invention of the telephone and the automobile in the late 1800s, something that is nowhere near being finished.
Look, a lot of this language is intimidating. I don’t mean to make it sound frightening, and in my heart of hearts, I think it will ultimately be a good thing. This idea has been a source of great comfort to me over the last month, as we’ve seen a sudden, drastic surge in hate crimes and speech across the U.S. I, like many others on all sides of the political spectrum, am appalled by the reappearance of emboldened white supremacists on the national stage, whatever title they operate under.
But I think they, like nearly everyone else, underestimate the power of the very tool that enables them. The technology that let them find each other on the internet, to mobilize and stop feeling isolated and powerless, has also drawn the world together in a fashion absolutely unprecedented in history. Globalization—as painful as it is for sectors that lose business overseas—is not just about the free market. It is about the free exchange of ideas and cultures and people. The reason white supremacists feel so threatened is that racial boundaries are vanishing, with a speed that would have been unimaginable 100 years ago. My own daughter—a blue-eyed dishwater blond whose grandfather is an unmistakably black man—is a fantastic example of a phenomenon spreading across the world. My neighborhood, a fairly affluent housing development in a borderline-rural suburb, is filled with families of every color, many of them interracial. Cultures are likewise intermingling, with knowledge of nearly every single one available at our fingertips, and my children bragging in the backseat with their friends about who has more Pokémon with names in the original Japanese due to online trading.
I suspect we will see an effort to marginalize people of color and normalize hate speech in this country over the next several years, and that our technology—along with the tolerance, understanding, and peace it has enabled—will be a bulwark against it. Because you can’t put this genie back in the bottle. Technology—whether it is busily destroying our global climate or cementing new global relationships—is a runaway train. We can talk about regaining the world as we used to know it, but none of us are prepared to eliminate all global trade, smartphones, work-at-home programs, decades of advances in medical health, the bullet train, the passenger jet. And even if someone claimed they were, even if they launched an all-out war against the advancement of technology, they would have to use technology to wage said war (!), and they would ultimately lose. Popular support for tech is simply not going away.
A better approach is to ask: where is this runaway train leading us? Is there any way to get a handle on it, to look ahead and make sure we steer away from the cliffs?
Market forces are driving us toward more and more automation, but paradoxically, at some point, maximum automation destroys the market. If workers are pushed out of the equation because they have no jobs, who is buying the final product? Without wages coming in to the system to enable demand, supply doesn’t matter and the whole system collapses. This collapse would not be pretty. It would look like global war or constant riots—riots, not the largely peaceful protests we see so many of today. So what’s the alternative? And how do we get there?
I have some ideas, but this post is long enough (and probably dreamy enough) already. I may explore them another time, but I would love to hear your thoughts on the issue, and that’s an open invitation to all political persuasions and backgrounds.
I will just say this: there are two things I am sure of. The first is that the solution to this problem will almost certainly not look like anything we’ve done before. Developing it will require historic courage and imagination, whatever form it ends up taking.
The second is that we are a species that has reached beyond our own solar system, that has split the atom and discovered DNA. We can do this. We are up to the task.
Thanks for reading. All civil comments welcome.