Ultimatism Vs Path Focused Thinking
How a useful POV might lead to wrong conclusions
Do you think peak oil will happen anytime soon? Or ever? How about other potentially depleting resources?
Some groups want to make humans extinct (voluntarily), thinking that we’ve exceeded Earth carrying capacity.
There is opposition to that view, that I’ll explore today.
Rationalist Roko recently shared on his substack an account how peak oil and other resource depletion scenarios (water, energy and living space) are just alarmist virtue signalling memeplexes.
He emphasized the distinction between absolute depletion and contingent lack.
I see that as opposition between absolute and relative scarcity problems.
Readers of Roko’s article might have walked away with the conclusion that these problems with resources are JUST contingent. I don’t agree with the emphasis on ‘just’. The fact that they are contingent just points at a certain solution set, distinct from the set if it was absolute. It is in the latter case that you would want population reduction and radical decrease in resource consumption.
My thesis for this essay:
The fact that the resource problems we face are contingent does not mean that they’re easy or dismissable.
Note: quotes unless indicated otherwise, are all from Roko’s article.
Why relative scarcity is not that much better
Two things that Roko seems to not emphasise - distance and time.
“Even space for trash isn’t limited, because waste dumps and landfill sites will eventually be mined for usable resources. It just takes energy to transform it back into a useful form, and we have much more of that than we need.”
Time and distance are a factor in transport.
Contingent problems are still problems: transport
We can see all of Earth’s (Universe’s?) resources as feed for humano-machinic assemblage of extraction, processing and absorption.
The places of extraction depend on physical quantity distribution on resources. Locations of processing and absorption depend on different sets of resources from the extracted one.
Place of extraction can be different from place of absorption and sustaining the exchange of a good between them takes some energy, usually lower than the initial investment - see Roman aqueducts.
The distance matters.
One of the advantages of petrol is that it is transportable with low tech. Just barrels, not long cables that electricity needs. That made initial investment cost smaller and facilitated adoption of petrol cars at the turn of 19th and 20th centuries.
There’s limits to markets - distances and speeds make it possible or impossible for certain transactions to occur.
So it is possible that something being ‘absolutely’, i.e. physically possible, but the contingent factors, cost of transport for instance can make it economically impractical.
Conclusion: Not all physically possible extractions and absorptions will happen.
Still moral failures
Relative scarcity is a big factor. It is powerful enough to make some people live in poverty or starve, while tons of food are thrown away. (This specific case is a market failure - lack of market for the goods in question.) The relative scarcity status is because of the claims that we could feed the world, which equates to saying that food is not absolutely scarce.
Roko says that every person would get many square kilometers to themselves if the space was divided equally. Yet obviously, not every plot of land is worth the same.
If we relocated all land equally ceteris paribus on scarcity and tech, after some time, we’d get a picture more similar to what is now rather than each - person - same space - coastal metropolises hosting most of the population.
Conclusion: relative scarcity is persistent and still creates morally undesirable (from some POV) situations.
Low elasticity of demand = vulnerability to supply shocks
And elasticity of demand is another thing.
When EROI in a region for some essential good is negative, it goes catabolic. Some capital is eaten up, disappears from the region, either through corollary damage, genocide, or just outflow of people and capital.
Aggregated demand for a resource such as water necessary to survive is a function of population size.
Take a region - say Pakistan - India border area, where water scarcity is worse than elsewhere.
The minimum demand for water is fixed, and then rises when people have more needs (such as bathing regularly) than bare survival. In low water conditions locally, with limited transport capabilities scarcity increases.
With enough scarcity, or sudden increase of it (negative supply shock), game becomes zero or negative sum and the price shifts to blood, not tradable goods - just like drug smuggling gangs.
Conclusion: local markets are at risk of losing capital when there’s limited supply of essential goods to them.
Remember Thanos from Marvel’s movies?
In the story he snapped away from existence half of the population.
Now how much did that impact global GDP?
We can only guess, but for sure more than half. The connections are organic and whole systems would crash, not having enough redundancy.
What if instead of killing half the people he duplicated the resources while randomizing their location globally?
Some considered that scenario as more humane. What would happen to global GDP then?
I argue that it would decrease in the short term. It would be a supply shock for the places from which it disappeared. And the newly enriched lands would have limited capacity to seize the moment and reach full productive capacity on these resources.
What is more, trade routes and transport infrastructure in general would need to be repurposed.
All currently fragile subsystems of the assemblage, such as the abovementioned Pakistan - India border would get out of equilibrium. With the consequences listed above.
But there’s no resource shifting Thanos in our timeline, right?
In our case there’s a similar yet slower process. New resources - solar energy (possibly even from space ( Isaac Arthur’s video on the topic is a good summary ), fracking, where / are discovered in some places while destabilizing other places.
Conclusion: the pulse of discovery of new resources changes local equilibria in the world chaotic system, possibly resulting in butterfly effect scenarios.
The fact that something is socially contingent or a social construct does not mean that it’s amenable to human will more easily than matter. Social engineering is not easy.
If forces of nature were deified in the past, and market forces are personified today (Lovecrafitan - Landian view), the social momentum of the machine is a force to be reckoned with as well. Some people (Hobbesian monarchists) say that this requires one person to be the master of the beast to achieve desirable states of the assemblage.
Conclusion: If the problem with scarce resources is just a social challenge, not a technical one it does not mean it’s easier.
‘Ultimatism’ as a POV
Do I agree with Roko’s stance in this article?
Do I agree with his conclusion? (“[...]the obstacles to progress are not a lack of resources”)
Do I agree with the conclusion that a reader can get?
I just see that it’s a valid thing, when surrounded by a disclaimer what point of view it represents, one not very pragmatic one.
So what is that point of view?
That’s ultimatism, a physical materialist variant in this case.
The below quote, for instance, is a physical fun fact, not a pragmatic stance. Or is it?
“All the different substances and physical resources that we think about - coal, clean water, food etc can be summed up into a single resource called negentropy: sunlight comes in, waste heat goes out, entropy increases and useful work is done (such as purifying water). Surprisingly, physics tells us that the only resource that ultimately matters is the cold nighttime sky to get rid of waste heat, and solar energy coming in from space. Everything else can be made from that! “
You can also see ultimatism in other contexts.
As a mindset it’s used by nihilists ‘but ultimately, what do our lives matter in the vast expanse of spacetime’? And Pascal wager - takers.
I’ll define ultimatism as follows:
Ultimatism is a POV of extrapolating a trend / relation of value to the furthest point in the future it is imaginable.
That is useful to step in for all people from time to time. Some people (futurists) may use it more, to the extent of it becoming default.
It is very useful to repeal some bad arguments. Yet it becomes fallacious when we confuse the ultimate bounds with our bounds in the present. And that is the danger with reading Roko’s article.
The landscape of options for assemblage configurations is limited by physical bounds, but our possible configurations in future spacetimes are dictated by our state in the present.
Set of configurations allowed physically is much larger than the set of configurations reachable from now within some time bounds.
Is there any place where we are actually at physical limits?
If not, it seems that these limits existing make little difference to us. That’s an empirical question, possibly microprocessors are getting small near the limits of non-quantum computing.
If we are with some tech closer to the physical boundary of the possible, that would mean that our set of assemblages (the ‘current bubble’ as our actual precise position is unknowable) is closer to the wall of the physical bubble.
There’s a progression of power of this point materially as we appear to be closer and closer to reaching the limits of empirical investigation of matter.
Yet the pragmatists (presentists?) have very limited use of that POV;
Yes, Earth does not run out of XYZ, that is an empirically correct sentence. But the sentence ‘some countries have increasing scarcity of some goods’ is also correct, and more directly related to what we are doing right now.
The fact that they are contingent does not mean that they’re easy or dismissable.
List of partial conclusions:
Not all physically possible extractions and absorptions will happen.
Relative scarcity is persistent and still creates morally undesirable (from some POV) situations.
Local markets are at risk of losing capital when there’s limited supply of essential goods to them.
The pulse of discovery of new resources changes local equilibria in the world chaotic system, possibly resulting in butterfly effect scenarios.
If the problem with scarce resources is just a social challenge, not a technical one it does not mean it’s easier.
A possible conclusion of reflection on his article that I can agree with is: ‘no, we haven’t exceeded Earth carrying capacity. With specific social and technological arrangements we can get out of this.’
It is correct to say that these problems are not with the physical fabric of reality (intensity of physical laws), or physical quantity (amount of resources), but rather with social engineering.
It is incorrect to say that resource scarcity is not a problem and will certainly not become more of a problem.
Roko’s reasoning in that article is reminiscent of utopian socialism.
It’s one thing to say that a survivor in a desert can dig into groundwater as a possibility.
It’s another thing when it's a few meters deep and the survivor has just a spoon.
“If one builds 300 storeys of continuous structure on all the land on earth, one gets about 50 billion square kilometers of living area. This is enough for each of 10 trillion people to have 5000 square meters (about 50,000 square feet - that’s the size of a mega-mansion) to themselves. This could include artificially lit interior wilderness spaces with artificial skies, artificial weather etc that are maybe 10-20 storeys high, and with the significant advantage of being less crowded, safer, having better and more predictable weather and being easier to get to than wilderness we have today.”
It is one thing to say that some machinic assemblage with high population living at comfortable levels exists in the fitness landscape of possibilities.
“In summary, Earth is not running out of resources in the ultimate sense. There are many temporary, contingent shortages caused by wars, incompetence or various institutional failures, but planet Earth can support 10 trillion peopleᶠ in extreme luxury indefinitely without anything running out assuming present-day science is pushed to its maximum potential and is used to provide things that people really want. Those may be unrealistic assumptions, but the obstacles to progress are not a lack of resources”
And it’s another thing to say that the path there from the current arrangements is an easy or straightforward one.