Rise and fall
A plot of how interesting this post is over time

Rise and fall

2020, Jun 20    

Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, PM of the UAE and emir of Dubai was once quoted saying:

My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel

And in a somewhat similar vein, Einstein was once quoted as saying:

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.

And in another, somewhat similar vein, a German politician recently said:

In Germany, it is expected that the plumber’s taxes pay for a doctor’s education. The plumber is the parent and the medical student is the child.

Three different visions of how we can expect the future to play out - Einstein was privy to the knowledge of how humanity was knocking at death’s door once we had unlocked the power to destroy our global environment. Al Maktoum was sensitive to the non-renewable nature of Dubai’s oil wealth - how extractive practices unlocked the power to destroy the local environment while providing a temporary high. The German politician instead focuses on a vision of collective investment in the future via individual progress. A society is sustained in its progress when a parent can unlock opportunities of prestige unavailable to themselves. The entire notion of progress and growth relies on the idea that the future can be better than the present. Al Maktoum and Einstein saw futures that were decidedly worse than the present.

I don’t think it likely that we will blow ourselves to bits - warriors tend to lose their fervor over time. History is littered with conquerors who sit down to govern and just go oh shit this is a lot of paperwork, but these chairs sure are comfy. Humans as a race are tired of conquest, though we’re not above a rational pursuit of national self interest. This, in our incredibly connected economy, means that nations cannot pull off very much without risking alienation or at least a weakening in their bargaining power. I think we can leave Einstein’s fear behind.

However, Al Maktoum’s prediction is probably going to apply to many regions of the world that are currently seeing a boom. This is in some ways just the rhythm of things - rise and fall. A great visualization of this charts the trajectory of the world’s 10 most populous cities over the past 500 years. The cities falling off the chart are not just slowing down in their growth - they are shrinking. If you’re not growing, you’re shrinking. In a world where everyone is trying to maximize growth, pushing hard on that pedal, not growing fast enough might as well be shrinking. There are very few parts of the world that have arrived at an acceptable level of prosperity and population and just keep it stable for a few decades. Growth is a fire that consumes everything, including our tastes and our bodies.

I watched a series of lectures on capitalism from Yale back in 2014ish which introduced me to the concept of an ‘ever-reinventing order’. We’ve built systems that are capable of looking at, measuring and readjusting themselves, much the way Sheikh Rashid did. Our rapid growth in capability as a species means we can change ourselves faster than ever before. This capability enabled our incredible collective rise in standard of living over the past century. It remains to be seen if it can prevent our fall.