In January 1941, then US president Franklin D. Roosevelt held a speech that would become known as The Four Freedoms Speech. Here, Roosevelt advocated four fundamental freedoms that everybody in the world should enjoy: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Everybody should have the freedom to speak their minds, practice their faiths, and lead safe lives without deprivation. Now, three quarters of a century later, we could debate how well or badly it’s going with securing the world’s citizens – or even just the American ones – these freedoms, but that is not the point of this article. Instead, I will take my cue from the third of Roosevelt’s freedoms, freedom from want, and look at the possibility for a future society where nobody suffers from deprivation or lacks essential assets – what some call a post-scarcity society. What will it take to get there?
Some will argue that we already have the means – we just have to distribute the assets we have a little better. For instance, there are more severely overweight people in the world than there are people who starve, and the rich countries every year throw out just as much food as is produced in Sub-Saharan Africa, so we do have ample food to feed everybody – and then some.
In connection with the Davos meeting in January, the organisation Oxfam announced that the eight richest people in the world own as much as the poorest half of the world’s population. It is hence obvious to imagine that if these eight people gave up just half of their immense wealth, we could lift the poorest half of the world’s population out of poverty and thus put an end to suffering. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Oxfam’s account has been criticised for looking at individuals’ net wealth – property minus debt – and that is not a fair measure. Many students in developed countries are by this yardstick among the world’s poorest, since they have taken student loans in the expectation of later high income. In fact, 40 percent of the world’s population have negative net wealth, so you, the reader of this article, are most likely richer than the combined wealth of the three billion poorest people in the world, by this measure.This is not to say that a better distribution of the world’s wealth couldn’t do wonders, but a one-time transfer of wealth doesn’t necessarily give a person the ability to maintain this wealth for the rest of their life. Wealth isn’t so much about owning something as about having access to opportunities. “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime,” as the old saying goes. Assuming that the man has access to a place to fish, naturally. The world’s resources are limited, and access to them even more so.
It is no secret that the main cause of growing wealth over the last centuries very much has been technological development. The wealth may not have been all that equally distributed, but while we over the last forty years have seen the world’s richest become extremely rich, more than a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty so that less than a tenth of the world’s population today live under the international poverty line. This has made some say that economic polarisation isn’t a problem, while others inject that we might already have eradicated extreme poverty if we had distributed the wealth just a little bit more evenly. Be this as it may, the development shows that new technology doesn’t just create wealth for the richest part of the world’s population, but also for the poorest parts. This is particularly true for personal technology that decentralises access to opportunities: computers, mobile phones, the internet, etc.
The people who claim that we in a near future will have a society with plenty of goods do in fact put their faith in new technology that can give all people on the planet access to the necessary resources and opportunities for living decent and dignified lives – without the richest having to give up any of their wealth and ultimately without forcing people to slave away to create the wealth. A central element is heavily automated production, which reduces the cost of a product to little more than the cost of its raw materials. 3D printers are often mentioned in this regard, though the cost of raw (print) materials generally is rather high today. In time, however, methods will be developed to make the materials cheaply from waste or plentiful resources like wood or sand, and there are ongoing projects to develop 3D printers that can make copies of themselves, so that we in time can achieve decentralised production of the production system itself – a post-consumer society where everybody becomes the producer of their own consumer goods. In a longer timeframe, scientists speak of nanomachines that can manufacture anything, including copies of themselves, down to the molecular level, making a nanofactory able to make clothes, furniture, electronics, and even processed food out of the same, simple raw materials. Ask for a cup of coffee with cream, and the nanomachines will produce the cup, coffee, and cream in one go.
An important element in a post-scarcity society is plenty of energy. The more a product is processed, the more energy is required, and if energy is expensive, the product also becomes expensive, no matter how automated the production is. To this end, many put their faith in fusion power, which has the potential to ensure plenty and cheap energy for all – but most likely won’t be ready for at least another quarter century. Besides, fusion power will likely be a very centralised energy source, and that runs against the philosophy of self-sufficiency that lies behind many people’s ideas of a post-scarcity society, where the power rests with the individual citizens rather than with central administrations or multinational corporations. These ‘techno-anarchists’ believe that decentralised, sustainable energy sources are the way to go, and they may be right. The cost of solar energy has declined around 10 percent every year since the 1980s, and this has made researchers predict that a fifth of the world’s total energy needs may be covered by solar energy ten years from now. If the cost decline continues, by 2050, the cost of solar energy will have declined to three percent of what it is today – so we may not need fusion at all.
With plenty of energy and the cheap production of physical products, food scarcity will be a thing of the past. Food can be grown in hydroponic plants on multiple floors, in desalinated seawater under artificial sunlight.
Up to now, I have dealt with the eradication of material want and suffering and shown that a world where no one suffers material deprivation doesn’t have to lie very far into the future. Material goods, however, make up an increasingly small part of what we consider wealth. As our basic material needs are covered, the demand grows for immaterial goods: culture, design, entertainment, information, education, experiences, communication, and much else that can’t easily be weighed and measured. Many of these goods can be made available for all, practically without spending material resources. A digital product or a digitised service can be mass-produced and distributed at no cost other than electricity, an internet connection and digital storage, and these all get cheaper year by year – the cost of digital storage in fact drops to a thousandth every decade.
There is, however, an artificial limitation on the copying of digital assets, since they can be subject to copyright, patent or trademark. These intellectual property rights are in place to ensure creators compensation for their work, which most people agree is fair. At the same time, however, we see many people and organisations that work to make digital assets available to all, e.g. through open source and open content. The founder of the GNU project, the world’s first major open source project, has said that GNU in fact was intended to be a first step towards a post-scarcity society.
When an increasing amount of digital resources are made free, and an increasing number of people get access to them through internet and translation software, the scarcity of immaterial goods is reduced. Even today, people with internet connections have free access to more culture, entertainment, design, education and much else than they could possibly manage to enjoy. On the digital front, we are already living in a post-scarcity society, and unless strong forces stand in the way, in a few decades we will also do so on the material front.
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