The Long Futures

 

How will this all end?

Fortunately, there are only so many possible answers to that question, regardless of the particular subject. Think about some quantity that changes over time. The number of dollars in your checking account. The number of inches around your waistline. The number of people who live in your city.

Just stop right now and actually pick one of those things, or think of a new one on your own.

Now think about that quantity over time. Forget about short-term changes. Worry only about where this quantity could possibly go over the very long future – tens of years, hundreds of years, or thousands. Draw that graph. Please, actually draw it.

Look at the graph. Recognize that there are only three places a quantity can go in the long run.

(1) It can go off to Infinity, way off the top of the chart.

(2) It can go to, or hover around, some Finite Number. (It might be 10 or 100 or 10 million, but some finite number.)

(3) Or it can go to Zero.

(Some quantities, like net worth, can theoretically become negative, but here too they can only approach Negative Infinity, a Negative Finite Number, or Zero, so the rest of this discussion won’t worry about them, because conceptually they are the same situations.)

That’s it – three possibilities – off to Infinity, toward (or around) a Finite Number, or down to Zero.

And, let’s face it, for any physical object, it is simply impossible to have an infinite number of them. The population of the Earth can grow exponentially, for a while, but it can’t grow to Infinity, because there isn’t enough material in the entire Universe.

Even for some non-physical quantities, it doesn’t do any good to have an infinite number. If the government created infinite dollars, any individual one would be worthless. And even if you had all of them, no one would give you anything in exchange for some, because, again, any individual one would be worthless.

So, for practical purposes, there are only two long futures: to approach a Finite Number, or to approach Zero. The only question is the path taken to get there.

If a quantity grows continually and there is some fundamental upper limit it can withstand, there can be a catastrophic collapse. Keep pumping air into a balloon and the pressure will go up until the balloon ruptures.

When the difficulty of increasing a quantity goes up as the quantity itself increases, then the system will slowly approach an upper limit. If your pump is not strong enough to burst the balloon, then the difficulty of adding more air will increase as the pressure goes up. Eventually, the pressure in the balloon will simply reach a maximum limit.

Meadows, Meadows and Randers wrote a book by the same title on this subject.

When a delay is present, the quantity can overshoot the upper limit and then might decay back toward the limit, falling below it, and resuming growth again. This process is sometimes referred to as the ‘Wavy Plateau’.

Some think that world oil production will follow this path, though others worry it will simply be a catastrophic collapse.

In some cases, overshooting the carrying capacity of the system can itself cause the carrying capacity to decline. When the U.S. Coast Guard released reindeer on St. Matthew’s Island (off Alaska) in 1944, the population grew quickly, until the the reindeer had stripped most of the land of its vegetation. As a result, the population quickly collapsed, but so had their source of food.

Perhaps, as resources are consumed, the global economy production is following this sort of path. But Daniel Gross wrote a book called ‘Pop!’ which argues both that the economy tends instead to undergo a series of perpetual rejuvenations in the form of ‘bubbles’ – a Dot Com bubble, a real estate bubble, etc. – and that this behavior, ultimately is good for the economy.

The collapse of the Dot Com bubble, he argues, with lots of smart but unemployed engineers and cheap Internet bandwidth, allowed companies like Google to blossom. Had they been founded three years prior to or later, they probably would not be the dominant force they are today, he argues.

Ultimately, as far as I can see, every quantity must fit into one of these moulds. But, in the long perspective, only 2 seem desirable.

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