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It's interesting to imagine a world where humanity never invented the transistor and therefore never had a digital revolution. In that world, the obvious interpretation of economic history would be that the discovery of fossil fuels gave humanity a one-time growth spurt.
It would be clear that the invention of the steam engine in the 1770s triggered a 200-year, S-shaped growth spurt. From the perspective of 2019, people would view the moon landing 50 years earlier as marking the point where the S curve leveled off.
It's not that there would have been no progress post-1969. The developed world would have made incremental gains on the great inventions of the early 20th Century, and the developing world would have catch-up growth.
But few would be surprised that post-1969 growth was slower than it had been previously. Few people would be wondering if bad economic policies had caused the growth slowdown. The technologies of 2019 would be similar to the technologies of 1969, so why should we be a lot richer?
Instead, the digital revolution took off right around the time the fossil fuel revolution was tapering off. The digital revolution started its exponential growth phase just as the fossil fuel S-curve was tapering off.
This made it seem plausible that advanced economies might be able to enjoy perpetual ~2 percent real per capita growth rates. So rather than rejoicing that the massive fossil fuel windfall was quickly followed by a (smaller) transistor windfall, we wonder if something went wrong.
But I think it's telling that we haven't been back to the moon in 40 years. Computers have tricked us into thinking that stuff naturally gets smaller, cheaper, and faster every year. But most stuff doesn't work like this.
You still (thankfully) need nation-state resources to build a nuclear weapon. We're nowhere close to having personally owned rockets. Flying cars are still a fantasy—and if they do become viable in a decade or two they'll be too noisy for people to park them in their driveways.
Even Moore's law is likely to run out of steam soon. Progress in PCs has slowed to a crawl. I don't know if the digital revolution has another 10 or 50 years to run, but it's crazy to think that we'll continue enjoying exponential improvement in computing power forever.
This was the mistake people made in the 1960s when they imagined that the previous century of progress would continue indefinitely. They imagined flying cars and space colonies. But fossil fuel technologies had inherent limits and the world was already bumping up against them.
I've been thinking about this because I recently read @tylercowen's recent book Stubborn Attachments. A key premise is that the exponential nature of growth means that today's choices could have a big impact on our distant descendents' living standards. amazon.com/Stubborn-Attac…
He seems to regard the premise of endless exponential growth as so obviously reasonable that he doesn't bother to defend it at any length. But it seems pretty implausible to me. I think fossil fuel revolution might be a one-off event, or maybe we'll have a few more like it.
But either way I suspect that the living standards of mature post-industrial civilizations probably tends to converge on a sustainable level that doesn't depend very much on how quickly it got there.
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