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Notes on RethinkX’s Rethinking Humanity

In June 2020 the RethinkX think tank published an intriguing report by James Arbib and Tony Seba, Rethinking Humanity (which you can download here for free). The report is 89 pages long and heavily documented, but I think that most who have taken any interest in the issue up to now could cope with it fairly easily, and the essential reasoning underlying it is quite simply explained. Arbib and Seba hold that civilization has five foundational sectors — information, energy, transport, food and materials — and that when the unit cost of all five of these things falls by an order of magnitude, civilization is pushed toward a crisis that can drive it to collapse or, should it develop a new “Organizing System” for itself, ascend to a new peak of “capability.” They hold that this has happened in the past, but only once, when humanity’s invention of agricultural set the stage for its movement from the pre-historic Age of Survival into the Age of Extraction with which we identify with all of recorded history.

The reason all this is of more than purely intellectual interest is that they hold that the five foundational sectors will, in the course of the next decade, see that order of magnitude drop, forcing such a crisis on modern civilization. Simply put, they believe that in the 2020s the price of information, energy, transport, food and metarials will all drop by 90 percent, while more efficient use of them enables a 90 percent drop in unit resource requirements — resulting in the reduction of the waste produced by as much as 99 percent.

The simultaneous cheapening of life’s necessities and lightening of the per unit burden of those necessities on the planetary ecosystem imply enormous positive potentials. That society will seize on this potential is not a given, of course — civilizations can and do fail, with the Age of Extraction, of course, tending toward societies of a particularly problematic type. As the name hints — and as anyone familiar with history or sociology can appreciate — they tend to be predatory, centralized, hierarchical, unequal, unfree, exploitative and brutal (to say nothing of lacking in resilience), with an elite regarding these things as features and not bugs of the system committed precisely to keeping things as they are. However, the age of abundance, and the more complex structures it both enables and requires, would mean a world which is less of all those things, with hierarchy giving way to networks, and enough for all, in what they call an Age of Freedom.

Reading all of this, of course, much of this recalled quite familiar ideas, from Karl Marx (with his thoughts on substructure, structure, superstructure), to Carroll Quigley (with his instruments of expansion and vested interests), to Alvin Toffler (who also wrote of a “third wave” of human reorganization that would see hierarchy give way to networks). Still, I found the provision of a clear quantitative basis for their variant on this body of theory interesting, not least because of the manner in which it enabled them to offer up very explicit and detailed forecasts. In considering their model it also seems to me a significant strength that they did not overlook such basics as energy and food and materials, in contrast with the Kurzweil crowd’s single-minded concentration on the performance metrics of computing, and casualness with all else. (Seba is especially noteworthy as having been attentive to renewable energy back when others were dismissing it — the more so as this, rather than anything in computing, is the true technological success story of the past decade.)

However, it also seems necessary to say that the report heavily references prior RethinkX work, about which I have some reservations, in particular two earlier reports, one on transportation, the other on food and agriculture (both also available freely at the site). The transport report anticipates a shift over the 2020s from the current model of private ownership of internal combustion-powered, human-driven, vehicles, to the ride-sharing of electrically-powered self-driving cars they term “Transportation as a Service” (or “Taas”). The food and agriculture report details the consequences of animal protein production shifting to the lab.

Both of those reports were, in their extrapolations of the consequences of their breakthroughs, rigorous and plausible. The problem, more pronounced in the transportation report, which dates back to 2017, is the starting point of that extrapolation — the treatment of Level 5 autonomy (“a key pre-condition for Taas”) as imminent at that point in time. To put it mildly, it has not proven to be so. As a result everything that might have followed from their arrival has, at the very least, been delayed by several years amid more muted expectations regarding the technology (even if Elon Musk, no more humble after repeatedly getting it wrong, continues to insist on Level 5 Teslas this year, to increasing sneering from a press that has fallen out of love with him, and the idea).

The more recent report about food and agriculture is less obviously flawed that way, forecasting that “modern food” produced through techniques like “precision fermentation” will reach “cost parity with most animal-derived protein” in 2023–2025, see its price drop 80 percent by 2030, and then halve yet again by 2035, with the result the collapse of the livestock industry, and potentially the extraordinary cheapening of food, as well as the extraordinary relief of the natural environment from the burden of livestock-raising. Given that the point of disruption is still some way off only time will tell if that report is any better-grounded than the one on transport, but I have noted that, as with self-driving cars, there has already been some deferral of the date at which we would be seeing the stuff hit the market. (Not so long ago they said we could expect to see it at the supermarket in 2018. Now they say 2023. “I’ve heard that one before,” I can’t help thinking to myself.)

In short, where the cost drops in at least some of the key sectors they detail may be concerned I suspect the authors are overly bullish — though I also admit that the combination of pandemic and economic downturn has seriously confused the situation. (Will economic stress translate to slower R & D and less investment? Or will the problems raised by the pandemic in particular, not least with regard to supply chains, actually accelerate a shift to what the writers call “modern food?”) I admit, too, that while I have been less impressed by their recommendations with regard to how society can best adapt to the changes than other aspects of their arguments, their report does offer some grounds for hope that the most dire problems facing us may be remediable with tools substantially in hand or soon to be, and the world of ten, fifteen, twenty years hence a better place than the one we live in now.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.