Every major technological achievement reconstructs our civilizational foundation into a new one better able to sustain the increasingly large population building on top. Why is this important? As a civilization changes, it loses the ideas and infrastructure that supported previous technological eras and if it runs out of the resources that maintain the current level, the collapse will lead to immeasurable death. The perilous situation is best stated by philosopher Ayn Rand (1999) in Return of the Primitive & The Anti-Industrial Revolution: “In real life, there is no such thing as a gradual descent from civilization to savagery. There is a crash-and no recovery, only the long, drawn out agony of chaos, helplessness and random death, on a mass scale” (Rand, p. 273). Technological progress has set humanity down a path it can’t turn back from without suffering catastrophic consequences, but history has proven that the very mechanisms that built up civilization also improved its sustainability and we have no other option than to take full and immediate advantage of all our material, labor, and human resources if we hope to survive long term.
An environment’s survivability is based on its available goods and how easy they are to access. The further away natural resources are the more time and effort it takes to acquire them which affect the supply in the long term, so people benefit from organizing resources in contained locations. A great example of organized resources is a farm that consolidates agriculture and irrigation from distant sources, transforming the land into a productive ecology. Consolidating food sources offers greater, more reliable nutrition than scavenging from the wild, and by systematically replanting seeds the farm is renewable. The increased efficiency is important to understand for several reasons. The first is that a person’s desire to grow a plant means the plant’s chances of surviving increase, as it’s in the grower’s best interest to have the plant coming back year after year and will take special care to make sure it happens. The second is that when fewer resources are consumed, including the amount of labor it takes a person to simply survive, those resources can be used for something else including pursuing scientific or cultural interests. The idea of reallocating resources is central to all technological advancement, and, in this way, the farm is a microcosm of the distributive and productive ideas that civilization requires on a large scale.
The efficiency of a farm applies to other types of factory regardless of what it produces, and when the resources it takes to make many different items decreases the cumulative effect can have profound changes on an area. In Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy, economist Thomas Sowell (2011) explores how when large quantities of goods are mass-produced, their efficiency is so great that the average production cost for an individual item reduces (Sowell, 2011). When many items are easy to obtain, people consume a variety of different things that offer similar benefits, giving the society as a whole options if the supply of one were to decrease. Robert Wilde (2020) observed that the greater availability of mass produced goods more than doubled the British population by improving the quality of life across the board (Wilde, 2020), and when there are more brains to solve problems, they will come up with more solutions including finding alternate resources if one became scarce.
Not only does technology improve a variety of renewable goods, it enables us to quickly transport large quantities of resources to areas without them so people can spread out geographically which lowers the strain on a single location. Once machines had been given wheels that could transport goods great distances, cities didn’t need to directly take up fertile ground and the resources in otherwise inhospitable terrain could suddenly become attainable. Machines increased idea distribution as well, and as Jeremiah Dittmar (2011) explores in Information Technology and Economic Change: The Impact of the Printing Press, cheaper books are easier to disperse, bringing literacy, science, and culture to people in a way never before seen (Dittmar, 2011). With the longer reach of goods and ideas, all the discoveries that make people’s lives and environments more productive could be shared with others throughout the world, increasing sustainable techniques worldwide.
In addition to expanding access to resources to increase our total pool, technological advancement also affects long run aggregate supply by shifting demand from one type of item to another, radically altering consumption habits. Sowell provides a good way to understand why when he discusses how resources have alternate uses (Sowell, 2011). Trees are a great example: wood has a diverse range of uses such as kindling, lumber, and paper. However, with the discovery of electricity, people could provide the same benefits as fire by igniting gas-powered burners and heat filament in lightbulbs, so homes didn’t need to cut down trees to stack logs, and less paper is consumed when people read using a computer screen. Electronics transferred a significant portion of global consumption from wood to materials such as copper for wiring, the former of which now has the chance to regrow and the latter enjoying longer life through recycling. This shift represents a significant benefit of technological advancement, and the electronic revolution wouldn’t have been possible without first consuming enough trees to sustain civilization long enough to make the necessary scientific breakthroughs.
Farms reveal another interesting aspect of technological advancement but computers take it further: The consolidation of resources shrinks the amount of space and materials they require. In The Future of the Internet- And How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain (2008) discusses the computer’s evolution from a machine that spans an entire floor to one that sits on a desk, the change to programmable machines that simulate other machines, and the globally networked series that comprise the Internet, the single greatest distribution channel humanity has ever seen (Zittrain, 2008). The technology became so efficient that our pocket-sized smart phones host meetings, conduct transactions, and stream movies, all in a time when a single hard drive can hold more data than entire libraries. The movement from physical locations to virtual ones freed up the massive real estate that was once required to support even a small city which means that land can be used for something else. Just as importantly, the Internet has replaced local town halls with global platforms, letting all cultures congregate on websites, forums, and social media applications. With only a few small devices, we can now do millions of tasks that used to take up hundreds of city blocks. Our exponential growth is being offset by our hyper consolidation.
As technology has changed so has the types of energy powering it, and electricity is generated by all of the most abundant sources on Earth including coal, solar, wind, water, and nuclear isotopes. Each source has its own advantages and sustainability, but when all are used to produce the same final energy type our net long run aggregate supply shifts dramatically. Electrical energy is easily stored and distributed over hundreds of miles, and according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (the EIA), Arizona’s nuclear Palo Verde Generating Station alone supplies California, New Mexico, and Texas with 3,810,000 kilowatts of power (2021, March 18). The more our civilization depends on electric power to operate our homes, the more imperative it is that we harness the total output of all electricity-producing sources rather than rely on a narrow set, leaving us vulnerable if the environment were to change suddenly. After all, life-saving medical equipment, home climate control, and food processing have all switched to electric power, and if it was taken away those devices would be rendered useless.
Given our rapid civilizational development and increased population, it’s easy to argue that decreasing our consumption will offset the growth, but this good-sounding approach would have disastrous effects: At best, it will prolong consumption by anchoring civilization at the current technological level until we have depleted our current supplies before we are able to advance to something else; at worst, it would ask for the systematic regression of society to previous technological levels that couldn’t support the current population. The view fails to recognize that technology is hard-coded into a civilization and as it changes, the old methods, knowledges, and infrastructure disappear. Look no further than the oil rich Venezuela after new policies cut production and it no longer had the energy supply to pump the oil it needed to power its own machinery let alone sell it to others, and people’s access to food, medicine, and power vanished (Sandys, 2019). The starving Venezuelans frantically stripped the environment of food, including breaking into a zoo and eating the animals, as the once sustainable population found itself with a new paradigm overnight. This collapse perfectly exhibits what happens when a civilization’s foundation is excavated out a from under it; a people that thrived months before can only look at its powerful resources but has no hope of utilizing them.
Despite technology’s ability to make resources more sustainable, it would be unwise to assume that our stocks will last forever. What does our past tell us about how to continue towards a prosperous future? We must continue expanding. Even if there wasn’t still land left untouched above ground, we have vast undiscovered resources under the oceans and in space. Space alone has immeasurable opportunity, and even common cosmic phenomena have resources we rely on daily. As National Geographic’s online encyclopedia (2014) shows, meteoroids are a viable source of iron and silicon, both crucial for electrical components, to say nothing of what awaits us on even the closest planets. Cheap, accessible space travel is a ways off, but we simply will not get there if we don’t take full advantage of the resources we have while we have them. Thanks to the ability for every person and culture to share thoughts and ideas on the Internet, we effectively possess an electronic brain spanning the entire planet with the potential to solve every problem that comes our way, and we must harness its computational power to reach the next level of technological development.
Human civilization is the story of hundreds of thousands of years of development written by the millions of brains that made every tool, process, and idea better and more accessible. If we were suddenly denied access to these technologies we would find ourselves set back decades or hundreds of years and forced to relearn old lessons, but not without suffering massive casualties on the long, grueling climb back to the present. If humanity is to continue, it must come together and discover ways to lift civilization up to new, even cosmic heights. As has been the case with the advancements that have built us up so far, it will take everyone exchanging goods and information for all of us to survive.
Arizona State Profile and Energy Estimates. (2021, March 18). U.S. Energy Information Administration. Retrieved from https://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=AZ#tabs-4
Dittmar, Jeremiah. (2011, February 11). Information technology and economic change: The impact of the printing press. Vox EU. Retrieved from https://voxeu.org/article/information-technology-and-economic-change-impact-printing-press
Meteoroid. (2014, August 04). National Geographic online encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/meteoroid/
Rand, Ayn. (1999). Return of the Primitive & The Anti-Industrial Revolution. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
Sandys, Emily. (2019, May 20). Venezuelan crude oil production falls to lowest level since January 2003. U.S. Energy Information Administration. Retrieved from https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=39532
Sowell, Thomas. (2011). Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy. (4th ed.). New York, NY: Basic Books.
Wilde, Robert. (2020, January 28). Population Growth and Movement in the Industrial Revolution: How Britain Was Changed by the Industrial Revolution. Thought.co. https://www.thoughtco.com/population-growth-and-movement-industrial-revolution-1221640 Zittrain, Jonathan. (2008). The Future of the Internet- and How to Stop It. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.