An old post on adjusting to scarcity

I’ve been going to climate change meetings a lot, and started to notice this one guy as super sharp and knowledgeable and insightful.  Everything he says is relevant and he doesn’t talk just to talk.  I’ve been really impressed with him, and then yesterday he said something I’ve thought too!  En route to another comment, he mentioned that we just spent a century optimizing our infrastructure and farms and cities to our old climate.  (Then he said that the climate will be changing too fast for us to do that for another few centuries, so instead of optimizing like the engineers neeeeeeed to do in their souls, we’re going to have to move to a new approach, designing for flexibility and resiliency instead of maximization.) Then, in the hallway later, he said one of my comments was good, which was all the excuse I need to unload on him.  Way too fast, I said disjointed pieces of all of this:

He’s right about how we optimized to our former climate!  It would be expensive for us to transition to anything different, even a more generous regime.  But we aren’t moving to a more generous regime.  We’re moving from abundance to scarcity.

Abundance (partly because the world was so rich back when we had all that timber and oil and big fish and groundwater and partly because there were so few people) used to be the rule, but I think we moved out of the Age of Abundance into the Age of Information back in the mid-seventies.  That’s when we started writing plans. All those plans, those three-inch thick documents.  Timber Harvest Plans.  Habitat Conservation Plans.  EIRs and EISs.  Water Management Plans.  Grazing Plans.  Biological Opinions.  People thought they were writing those plans for one project or another, but taken together, I think they were the entry fee into the Age of Information.  They were the first pieces of infrastructure in this new era, just like rail lines and assembly lines were for the manufacturing age1.

We only lived in the Information Era for about thirty years, and we didn’t even get good at it.  We’re still figuring out things like how to use GIS all the time, and collect enough LIDAR data and give citizens easy access to rich information.  We’re only barely starting to understand how to present it.  On the whole, we’re could have used another fifty years to collect information and do things with it2. But climate change is now, and climate change forces us into the Age of Management.  From here on out, the unmanaged default is going to suck.

From now on, we have to manage things.  A lot.   Up and down the scale, we’re going to have to finesse the details.  Individual people have to plan trips, find the shortest route and combine errands.  Cities will have to count the greenhouse gas emissions of new development.  Reservoir operators are going to have to plan water releases to the daily weather.  We aren’t rich any more and we will have to pay fine-grained attention.

Once most are fed and sheltered, the true privilege of being rich is mindlessness, Tom and Daisy’s famous carelessness.  That was how America lived from the fifties to the nineties, but that’s over now.  In the Age of Management, we move into constant planning, deliberating, choosing and implementing.  All the time.  It is better than not doing that (because the alternative is Katrina-like collapses), but it is a burden.  It also makes me wonder if over the next few decades, our limiting ingredient is going to be thought.  Each of us will be paying this thought-debt in our personal lives, as we adjust and scrounge and figure out how to live like this.  But the big problems will take just as much care.  We can solve any of them, when we must, with lots and lots of thought and implementation.  But there are so many coming, at once, and we will have to think very hard about all of them.  Maybe I’m completely off-base and labor will be the problem.  Or physical capital.  But I’m not sure of that.  Sometimes when I go to a lot of meetings and read lots of newspapers and blogs and comments, I get worried.  When I see how little dense thought is out there, how much is cribbed or facile or rationalizing, I wonder if we have enough sheer thought to find the least-painful way into our new world3.

UPDATE:  Reader Todd sent me a copy of Jeremy Grantham’s GMO Quarterly letter, which hits on some of the same themes.  I liked the essay about the Age of Limitation, starting on page 8.  Thanks!

1 And some computers came along, too, to help us.

2 No electronic medical records yet? Although I have seen some useful and interesting stuff recently.  I particularly like having public meetings archived online, with agenda items linked and all of it categorized, so you can search by speaker (even the public comment!).  That is actually handy and user-friendly.  Facebook seems to be particularly relentless about tracking me down.  (No!  Do not send me an invitation!  They’re, like, the CIA.  If the spooks want to know who my friends are, they should have to tap my phone without a warrant, the American way.)

3 Tyler thinks this is reason enough to support population growth, because increased people will bring with them increased thought that we can apply to problems4.  I think that having far too many people on the planet create problems that overwhelms the advantages of added thought, especially since most of
them are living in conditions that make abstract concerns low priority.  Better, I say, to get the number of people down and make sure all of them are thinking at top capacity.

4 If I have correctly understood him.


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