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Turn the Ship, or Abandon It
I’ve often mocked science fiction stories set centuries in the future, yet with stable tech not much more advanced than our own, especially when they have big successful subgroups who resist innovation. I’ve also mocked stories (and actual plans) wherein some small group purposely cuts itself off from the larger world, and then expects to beat that larger world in a fair fight. (Like Captain Nemo or Bond villains.) Don’t they know that tech has consistently accelerated for at least a million years, is changing fast now, and is expected to change even faster soon? Or that it has long been the whole world that is powerful together, not small isolated parts?
I now see that the joke is on me. While previously my default vision of the future was a standard economists’ rapidly-growing socially-integrated world, my default vision now has a several century economic decline and innovation pause starting in ~40 years. Global population will fall, only to rise again due to the growth of insular high-fertility subcultures (e.g., Amish, Orthodox Jews) who suffer little for resisting absent innovation. Much like how fertile Christians came to dominate a declining Roman Empire. Such insular subcultures will likely discard many values and innovations that we now hold dear. Yes there are off chances that we’ll develop strong longevity or human level AI before this tech pause, or that world elites will see and fix fertility problems.
This situation is like learning that your cruise ship is on a collision course with an iceberg. Ship leaders are roughly aware, but say that turning the ship now might make it lean inelegantly, or upset the current bowling tournament. There should be plenty of time later, they say. If you think they underestimate how close or big is the berg, or how hard is the ship to turn, you face a key choice: stay on the ship and try to persuade its elites to change course, or steal a lifeboat and leave now with a few ragtag fanatics.
Most elites today are vaguely aware that fertility is low, and that population will soon fall as a result. But I don’t think most get how a declining economy will bring innovation to a halt, or just how deeply low fertility is embedded in our world culture. While a great many cultures in history have faced such low fertility, and seen it as a big problem, pretty much all failed to fix it once it got this bad. And the creation of lasting insular high-fertility subcultures is a pretty rare thing.
While most elites may realize that big enough government payments to parents per kid would do the trick, few realize that such payments could be financed by debt at no cost or risk to the governments involved. But even if nations tried this, I fear that elites would choke on the big cuts this would cause to things they deeply value, like gender equality, delayed marriage, long schooling, or intensive parenting. World elites may never be okay with the cultural changes actually required to increase fertility above replacement.
Some love this stark choice - mostly folks eager to burn down the world and rebuild it from scratch. But I am more horrified. I fear that the sort of thoughtful dispassionate analysis that I am good at is quite inadequate to this problem. I need to either join a large coalition of world elites prestigious enough to move world culture, or convince a fanatic insular high-fertility subculture to see me as a loyal enough member to include. Alas, neither prospect seems at all likely.