Sustainable Dystopia

The classes of existential risk identified by Nick Bostrom include permanent stagnation, which Bostrom defined as “Humanity survives but never reaches technological maturity,” and which includes the subclasses of unrecovered collapse, plateauing, and recurrent collapse. To these I would add the subclass of sustainable dystopia as another kind of permanent stagnation.

What is sustainable dystopia? Sustainable dystopia is when human civilization achieves sustainability for the foreseeable future, but this sustainable form of civilization includes some or many dystopian elements. This is the kind of development that Churchill warned against when he said that, “…if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”

Sustainable dystopias might cover a range of suboptimal civilizations from the mildly dystopian to the hellishly dystopian, depending upon how many dystopian elements are integrally part of the sustainable civilization, so that an ongoing dystopia is baked into the cake, so to speak, of all futures following this stage of sustainable dystopia (if there are any further futures). One might say that a sustainable dystopia, even if it were not permanent — we could call this permutation an ephemeral sustainable dystopia — would leave a permanent mark on human experience and subsequent human societies, much like the experience of the Black Death.

An example of a sustainable dystopia might be what Joseph Voros has called an “energy disciplined society,” as described in his paper, Big History and Anticipation: Using Big History as a framework for global foresight:

“The notion of constraints on what human society can do being forced upon it by relative energy scarcity can also be considered an unusual twist on the Disciplined / Constrained Society archetype. In essence, at the end of the energy descent process, human civilisation is in this case constrained not by the social values held by the majority of the populace (that is, by an ‘endogenous’ constraint), which is the more usual form of this archetype, but by the fact that cheap abundant energy is no longer easily available for use by the society — an exogenous constraint.”

In this scenario, civilization is ongoing, certain accomplishments are possible within this civilization, a range of experiences are to be had, but the accomplishments and the experiences are limited by the need to ration energy resources, so that the accomplishments and experiences aren’t all that they might have been. In this way, suboptimal outcomes would be incorporated into everything achieved by that civilization, even if that civilization had attained a robust sustainability for its foreseeable future, and even if many people within that civilization lived happy lives.

In a minimally dystopian society, or a middling dystopia, it is entirely possible that some members of society would feel perfectly content (at least, the ones who could live happy lives in spite of the constraints), and may even judge their society to be a realized utopia, while other members of the same society might find themselves chafing under the required discipline and limitations, and such persons would be likely to judge their society as being more than mildly dystopian.

To give a concrete example, an ideologically-committed environmentalist might experience an energy-disciplined society as a joyful social experience, and take pleasure in upholding the required constraints of life under such a regime, because this regime was fulfilling an end of great (perhaps transcendental) importance: sustainability. On the other hand, the kind of individual who would have, under other circumstances, taken risks, lived fast and recklessly, or who aspired to live large, would chafe under the obligated constraints.

As we moderns are often uncomfortable talking about our moral experiences in explicit terms, we tend to gloss over perhaps the most important aspects of the human condition (including the experiences that bring us the most joy, such as practicing our moral beliefs), either dismissing it out of hand as illusory, or assuming the universality of moral experience and thus the implicit agreement of all persons (and therefore the lack of any need to discuss this presumptively universal element of human experience). Because of this, we often fail to see how individuals take joy in practicing their virtues, and feel like better human beings for doing so. For the same reason we fail to see that different individuals are likely to experience joy from practicing different virtues.

Our overly-simplistic conception of the moral life leaves us wondering how earlier human societies — take, for example, the Puritans — could have suffered through their seemingly repressive societies. In fact, we have reason to believe that the Puritans took joy in practicing the faith they professed. Being ideologically committed to founding a New Jerusalem, the hardships of the wilderness were likely borne with good will and with a sincere desire to fulfill a goal of great (perhaps transcendental) importance. To the extent that they felt they had contributed to realizing this end, a sincere member of Puritan society might experience a kind of felicity unknown in more permissive societies. In this way, endogenously disciplined societies (and presumably also exogenously disciplined societies, under certain conditions) will not be repressive or dystopian for the true believer.

In the same spirit, the true believer in sustainability may experience the repression and limitation of energy discipline as a contribution to a greater good, and to the extent that this individual contributed to the greater good, that individual may experience a felicity unknown in energy profligate societies. Making a virtue of necessity (literally so), the exogenous constraint is transformed into an endogenous constraint by the individual whose personal morality spontaneously conforms to the social need.Thus a sustainable dystopia might well not be a dystopia for everyone, but it would be enough of a dystopia for enough individuals that punitive measures who have to be employed to ensure compliance with the limiting regime. (And it is likely that the infliction of this punishment would bring further satisfaction to those who wholeheartedly assent to the regime and believe its limitations to be just.)

I have made a bit of digression away from the exposition of a sustainable dystopia, but personal beliefs and happiness and social harmony are crucial elements in any society. In so far as a society — whether a sustainable dystopia or not — can provide a context in which personal beliefs can be practiced in happiness and harmony, that society will experience some measure of success, and be accounted a success by some of its members, and some part of posterity.

Moreover, if humanity were faced with a choice between a sustainable dystopia and an unsustainable dystopia, I assume that the sustainable dystopia would be the preferred choice, as it at least leaves the elements of human society in place, so that further developments may be possible in the future. From this perspective, those who chafe under a regime of discipline and limitation are the price that must be paid for the maintenance of the human condition through a period of privation. And if this privation were to be overcome in the future (perhaps through a scientific or technological innovation that removed the previous constraints), the disciplined society would be seen in retrospect as an exercise in delayed gratification.

One could plausibly argue for sustainable dystopia as a subclass of flawed realization (instead of permanent stagnation), except that sustainable dystopia could come about without any realization of technological maturity, however technological maturity is defined. A flawed realization assumes a realization, whereas sustainable dystopia assumes no such realization of technological maturity.

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Nick Nielsen

Nick Nielsen

One Man Think Tank

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