Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, evolutionary biologists and visiting fellows at Princeton University, have written a fascinating new book, A Hunter-Gatherer's Guide to the 21st Century, which Penguin Random House released in September.
The instant New York Times bestseller is riddled with interesting ideas and clever insights, ultimately arriving at a radical conclusion about how humanity must be governed in the future if we are to avoid civilizational collapse. However, the book's concluding argument is built upon one fundamental economic fallacy, and to understand the flaw in the proposal is to understand how truly catastrophic the pursuit of Weinstein and Heying's vision would be.
The Fear of Abundance
Weinstein and Heying’s fundamental claim is about the human propensity to seek economic growth, and the ultimate unsustainability of that goal.
“Humans, like other creatures, are obsessed with growth, and we are capable of driving ourselves extinct in the pursuit of it,” they write. “Even though it is logically obvious that we must accept equilibrium, we are not built to be satisfied with it because being unsatisfied has been an excellent strategy for the last several billion years.”
Being biologists, Weinstein and Heying explain the drive for economic progress in Darwinian terms. “The evolutionary creature in all of us needs to feel growth. Growth is what winning feels like, in evolutionary terms,” the evolutionary biologists write. “‘Times of plenty’ is economic growth.”
But according to Weinstien and Heying, this limitless search for growth will likely be our undoing. “...we have convinced ourselves that growth is the normal state and that it is reasonable to expect it to go on and on. That patently ridiculous idea--exactly as hopeful and deluded as the search for a perpetual motion machine--causes us to stop searching for other possibilities. While this expectation greatly reduces the chances that we will miss out on growth, it also prevents us from recognizing and pursuing more sustainable options,” they argue. “The latter explains the modern experience of watching the goodness of our planet liquidated before our eyes. Growth Über alles is a disastrous creed.”
This skepticism of the sustainability of economic growth is not original to Weinstein and Heying, but contributes to a pedigreed chorus of anti-growth sentiments among intellectuals. The Club of Rome’s blockbuster report titled The Limits to Growth, which sold more than 12 million copies, argues that “the transition from growth to global equilibrium” will happen one way or another, either by civilization’s deliberate choice or economic collapse.
Paul Ehrlich, Stanford biologist and author of the international bestselling book The Population Bomb, complains that, “Our economy actually grew, when we should have been redistributing wealth, and not focused on growth, because growth is a disease.” Further, in her New York Times bestselling book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Naomi Klein advocates for “radical and immediate de-growth” in order to prevent catastrophic climate change from destroying human civilization. And these are just a few of countless prominent examples.
The Fungibility of Resources
Catastrophic predictions aside, one fact that few would contest is that nearly continuous economic growth since the industrial revolution has transformed global society for the better. It has played a major role in bringing more than 80 percent of the human population out of extreme poverty, roughly doubling human life expectancy, radically improving humanity’s access to information and communication, and creating countless other improvements to human well-being. And there is seemingly infinite more good yet to achieve through the creation of new wealth.
Of course, many will say it is “patently ridiculous” to think that economic growth could go on and on. But this perspective misses a critical point. The intuitive claims about the limits of growth fall apart because they rest on the faulty premise that value is intrinsic to a specific set of physical goods.
In reality, economic value lies in the subject's interest in the services provided by a physical good, rather than in the physical good itself. Therefore, any purpose someone has for a specific good can in principle be achieved by some other good. And as any one valuable resource begins to become scarce, its scarcity incentivizes innovators to work on alternative solutions to the problems it solves.
In his book The Ultimate Resource 2, the economist Julian Simon illustrates that the subjectivity of economic value will always allow us to replace a depleted resource with some alternative. He writes, “What is relevant to us is not whether we can find any lead in existing lead mines but whether we can have the services of lead batteries at a reasonable price; it does not matter to us whether this is accomplished by recycling lead, by making batteries last forever, or by replacing lead batteries with another contraption. Similarly, we want intercontinental telephone and television communication, and, as long as we get it, we do not care whether this requires 100,000 tons of copper for cables, or a pile of sand for optical fibers, or just a single quarter-ton communications satellite in space that uses almost no material at all. And we want the plumbing in our homes to carry water; if PVC plastic has replaced the copper that formerly was used to do the job—well, that's just fine.”
This process need not even introduce new physical resources in place of the old ones, but can introduce mathematical solutions instead. Before smartphone navigation apps like Waze and Google Maps were invented, new road construction still seemed like the best way to reduce traffic congestion. But then algorithmic navigation technology started rerouting us based on live traffic data processed through our smartphones, allowing us to find less congested routes in real time and thus reducing the number of traffic jams. Similarly, video conferencing and other telecommunication technology is rapidly transforming countless industries in ways that diminish the use of resources such as transportation fuel and corporate land, and advancements in Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are likely to soon make this transition into the digital realm almost ubiquitous.
The Limitless Growth of Knowledge
As the growth of knowledge progresses, so does our ability to technologically transform our environment in increasingly valuable ways. This process increases the efficiency of resource use, but also constantly transforms and expands what even counts as a resource by allowing us to use the things around us in new and improved ways. This is among the processes known as economic growth, and there is no scientific law or logical reason why it can’t continue for thousands or millions of years to come.
So as long as we continue to gain new knowledge, we will improve our level of wealth by transforming the state of the world according to our needs and desires. We may continue to improve our knowledge on our own, or we may create self-improving AI to do it for us. But short of learning all the knowledge of the universe (which is probably impossible), there is no known limit to our knowledge.
Continuing to bring developing nations out of poverty, solve endemic medical tragedies such as disease and aging, and transform the human condition in other incalculably positive ways for generations to come should all be items on the to-do list of civilization. Achievements like these, which are forms of economic growth, are what constitute human prosperity. As we can see, pursuing continued economic growth is not intrinsically problematic, as Weinstein and Heying suggest, nor is it unfeasible. To the contrary, it is the solution to many of the biggest challenges we face. It is lucky for those interested in human progress that there is nothing ridiculous about humanity’s ever-increasing economic ambitions.