The Age of Abundance

by George Hatjoullis

Gloom seems to be the prevailing mood of the world. Yet we are on the cusp of the Age of Abundance. This may sound like a rash statement given the huge quantities of ‘things’ we produce. The problem is that the way we produce things now results in poverty in the midst of plenty. It is also unsustainable both because of what is used up and the damage it is causing. For an age of abundance to come about a necessary condition is that these phenomena are not present.

The key to this age is energy. Technology has reached the point at which the natural sources of energy such as sun, wind, and tide can be harnessed directly. This has happened at the same time as technology has enabled new sources of old energy types (fossil fuels) to be accessed (fracking). The result is plenty of energy and a falling price. The next few decades will most likely see this surplus of energy increase. The owners of old energy have no incentive to save reserves though investment in new exploration should logically slow. Investors in new energy seem overwhelmed with excitement and may be less driven by economics. The new energy investment trend seems to be accelerating.

Underlying the new energy investment trends is a powerful conviction that new energy is the only way to save the planet from disastrous climate change. It used to be because we expected fossil fuels to run out and did not want nuclear power. It does not much matter what drives the underlying excitement. It is sufficient that new investors pile money in without too much thought. Logically, early returns on new energy may disappoint. There will be an initial excess of energy as new energy comes on stream, and fossil fuel producers pump and frack like crazy to realise cashflow. There will be a period of excess and this should not be confused with the age of abundance. The latter will emerge from this somewhat chaotic and destructive process. It occurs when there is a global infrastructure of new, clean energy which is available to all at very little cost. This period is now in sight (acts of God and war permitting).

Infinite clean energy is the key to the Age of Abundance. Energy is central to all human activity. In the world of Start Trek, it powers the replicator that can produce anything from anything (it reorganises matter at the molecular level). This is some way off but it illustrates why the Age of Abundance is so clearly conditional on abundant clean energy. If you have enough energy you probably can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Moreover, if the energy is so abundant that it is widely distributed, issues of poverty and inequality start to fade.

The technology aspect is also important as the replicator illustrates. New technologies are emerging and the potential for producing with minimal human labour involvement is increasing rapidly. The problem is not with technological innovation. It is with social innovation. How does society organise for an age of abundance? Many worry about the loss of jobs and implicitly resist the change (history suggests it cannot be resisted). In the same breath we are told there is a pension crisis and old people must work until they drop. Joining the dots (as I have done in previous blogs) suggests these are non-problems. They appear as problems only in the previous social structure. The Age of Abundance needs new social structures.

Interestingly, new ideas seem to be emerging as the Age of Abundance comes into view. The social income is now widely discussed. Basically, every citizen is guaranteed a standard of living whether they are employed or not. Income distribution must also be addressed. I have suggested that concentration of wealth is simply concentration of political power which undermines democratic pluralism. The concentrations of wealth that constitute political power need to be addressed. Finally, society must address motivation.

The irony is that the Age of Abundance has been brought about by the desire to accumulate wealth. This motivation can still operate up to a point but as is implied by the last paragraph, wealth inequality must be and will be constrained. The question is will this leave sufficient drive in the population to sustain the activity that will keep technological progress. No one really knows as no one has tried it. Innovation is risky and the additional motivations must sustain this willingness to take risks amongst some. This is the real challenge. It is should be noted that the most recent social experiments in similar social structures (Soviet Russia, Communist China) failed and reverted to old fashion greed and power through wealth so it is not a trivial question. However, it is the question and one which it is now important to address. For the Age of Abundance is in sight.