Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Red Queen's creative cash flow crises

Jonah Lehrer has a new book out Imagine: How Creativity Works.  It discusses all of the ways that people both simulate and dull their creative instincts.

It sounds very interesting.

But in a column for wired he discusses some larger issues that derive from our creative impulses.

Jonah Lehrer, Wired 27 March 2012 (Hat tip: Gene Expression)

Although West celebrates the inventiveness of cities – all those knowledge spillovers leads to new knowledge – he is quick to point out that our creativity has its disadvantages. New ideas, after all, have a disturbing tendency to become new things, and things aren’t free.

West illustrates the problem by translating the modern human lifestyle – and we live surrounded by our own inventions – into watts. “A human being at rest runs on 90 watts,” he told me. “That’s how much power you need just to lie down. And if you’re a hunter-gatherer and you live in the Amazon, you’ll need about 250 watts. That’s how much energy it takes to run about and find food. So how much energy does our lifestyle [in America] require? Well, when you add up all our calories and then you add up the energy needed to run the computer and the air-conditioner, you get an incredibly large number, somewhere around 11,000 watts. Now you can ask yourself: What kind of animal requires 11,000 watts to live? And what you find is that we have created a lifestyle where we need more watts than a blue whale. We require more energy than the biggest animal that has ever existed. That is why our lifestyle is unsustainable. We can’t have seven billion blue whales on this planet. It’s not even clear that we can afford to have 300 million blue whales.”

The historian Lewis Mumford described the rise of the megalopolis as “the last stage in the classical cycle of civilization,” which would end with “complete disruption and downfall.” In his more pessimistic moods, West seems to agree: he knows that nothing can trend upward forever, that eventually our creativity will make life utterly unsustainable. In fact, West sees human history as defined by this constant tension between expansion and scarcity, between the relentless growth made possible by our creativity and the limited resources that hold our growth back.

Although it is not exactly the Red Queen’s Race.  You aren’t exactly running very hard to stay in the same place.  You none the less don’t really have the option of stopping running.  You won’t stay were you are at. 

He notes:

Because our lifestyle has become so expensive to maintain, every new resource now becomes exhausted at a faster rate. This means that the cycle of innovations has to constantly accelerate, with each breakthrough providing a shorter reprieve. The end result is that our creativity isn’t just increasing the pace of life; it is also increasing the pace at which life changes.

Of course from this perspective, there is a ray of hope.

Instead of being creative to do more, we should attempt to be creative to do less.  Much of the drive towards more is through societal/state competition.  With all corners of the world explored, and nuclear warheads putting a logical cap on military matters, there would appear to be some room for curtailment.

For myself, I have always thought that the Europeans with their short work weeks and long vacations were moving in the right direction.   And presumably if our governments were not so busy trying to do so much, we would have less taxes, and various people could afford endeavors (small hold farming?) without being under so much of a cash flow – to pay those taxes – squeeze.

Does it sound like tax season…LOL


PioneerPreppy said...

In a way Europe was on to something as you mentioned. Especially Germany until the progressive social engineers got control and the immigration problem exploded there as well.

I haven't read that they have increased the work days yet but several have wrestled with increasing the retirement age.

russell1200 said...

PP: Yes, they got a little carried away.

If you cut the work week and get by on less, that is one thing.

But paying people to do nothing is something entirely different because it means that the people who are working, are having to work for multiple people. No slowing up for them.

I take the immigration issue to be a combination of bringing in people to do the work you won't due, and an aging population.

The later issue is a problem, and has no easy solution. But getting rid of the incentives to do nothing would help.