Some of the crises we are facing aren’t directly related to how we exploit the planet, they are more about how we relate to each other.
In the western world, economic inequality has risen substantially since 1980 both in terms of income (what you earn in a year) or wealth (the sum total of everything you own). According to the World Inequality Database from 1979 to 2014, the ‘share’ of the USA’s top 1%’s income went from 11.2% to 20.2%; if we look at wealth it went from 22.4% to 38.4%. Compared to the population as a whole, the rich got a lot richer in the USA during those 35 years. This isn’t some sort of accident; when Reagan became president in 1979 the top tax rate was 70% and in 2014 it was 39.6%. Deliberate economic policy (call it neoliberalism, Thatcherism, Reaganomics or Reaganism) made the rich richer.
In Europe and especially the USA the less fortunate feel that they aren’t getting a fair share of any growth. In the USA from 1979 to 2014 the average income for the bottom 50% is essentially unchanged when allowing for inflation (when the average income grew 56%, allowing for inflation); in a 35 year period of substantial growth, the bottom 50% got nothing. Again, this isn’t an accident; it’s deliberate government policy; it’s economic apartheid.
This economic inequality has two horrible results. First, it needlessly causes great economic stress for a large part of the population – imagine having to choose between food or medicine. Second, it leaves a huge part of the population unhappy and resentful (Meik Wiking claims in The Little Book of Lykke that “the biggest obstacles to happiness are feeling inferior or excluded”).
But it also provides an opportunity. Even with voter suppression and minority rule, the votes of the economically disadvantaged are important; they will be attracted to a comprehensive plan that addresses inequality as well as climate change. And those that have done very well out of this inequality – e.g. the 1% of the population who now own 40% of its wealth – can now contribute more fully to society by helping to finance a fairer solution.
Automation and AI
Ten years ago the idea of a self-driving car seemed a long way off; well, at a technical level we are now there. Artificial Intelligence has advanced tremendously quickly, exposing many more jobs to automation and changing our day by day experiences. For example, it’s not unlikely that within 5 years you can walk into the supermarket, take the goods you want and walk straight out; cameras will recognize you, see what you buy and charge you. Very quick and convenient for you, of course, but not so good for local employment.
Much of the automation technology will be provided by high technology companies. Today, these companies are all American and very big; Amazon, Facebook, Airbnb, Google and Über are virtual monopolies. This isn’t an accident; Silicon Valley uses several techniques – e.g. the “Get Big Fast” approach (grow quickly even if you make a loss so it’s hard for a competitor to get started), the network effect (when you have a lot of users, you become more interesting to new users), the abuse of patent law (hit start-up competitors with bogus patent lawsuits) and buying out competing start-ups – to restrict competition. High technology companies employ fewer people and run higher profit margins than conventional companies; Facebook has a profit of $25 billion with only 40,000 employees while VW has a profit of about $16 billion with more than 300,000 employees. High technology companies are multinationals; they generate a lot of income outside of America, without contributing much to the local economies in terms of employment or paying taxes.
It’s very reasonable to expect big changes in commerce and employment going forward. But it’s harder to predict the exact changes. Will self-driving cars vastly reduce the number of car makers? Will supermarkets have to buy automation technology from Amazon to be competitive? How do we protect our data and democracy from abuse? Will farms be entirely automated, where machines do all the planting and harvesting? Will the workplace be even more divided up into knowledge workers (highly paid jobs that are hard to automate) and drones (‘free-lancers’ paid to do low skill jobs that aren’t worth automating, like to deliver a meal to someone’s house)?
However all this works out, the idea of full-time employment for everyone for all of their working life is no longer credible.