The Long Algorithm

Anand Gopal from Energy Innovations had a great thread on Twitter about differentiating between the primary solutions, supporting side-dishes, and poison pills in the climate policy landscape, but there was one idea in there that frustrates me, about the potential importance of shifting cultural norms:

Ironically, many advocates of degrowth claim exactly the same thing: that in the short term technological solutions can’t deliver the scale and speed of emissions reductions required to limit warming to 2°C (and certainly not 1.5°C). As a result the 1.5-2°C emissions trajectories that get taken seriously today all include substantial negative emissions later in the 21st century. Substantial as in, on the order of tens of billions of tons per year. (Both camps could be correct: our success is not required.)

Gopal’s take is totally understandable and common given trends over the last few decades. It’s charitable, even — a lot of the climate policy wonkosphere won’t even give lip service to social change as a meaningful possibility. I think these assessments are missing an acknowledgement of the degree to which our social norms are literally legislated and then enforced by the state. The fact that we haven’t seen society in places like the US adopt a different, less consumptive way of life doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t be done, or that there aren’t people eager to do it.

Social Rheology

The overwhelming majority of people just want to do what they see other people doing. Occasionally a few weirdos want to do something else. In isolation they have almost no impact, but just like a Rayleigh-Taylor instability in a non-Newtonian fluid, if the pocket of weirdos gets big enough, it can become self-amplifying. They can create a new pocket universe with a different set of social expectations. Once that happens normal people have an easier time picturing themselves as part of that alternative social context. If it has something valuable to offer, it can grow.

This process doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Beyond social norms we have laws, financing mechanisms, tax codes, legacy physical infrastructure, business models, interest groups and other social constructs that can either amplify or dampen newly formed local social changes. These often determine what kinds of things are allowed to establish a positive feedback loop and grow exponentially, and what things are quickly snuffed out. Obviously policy isn’t all-powerful — no amount of state support was able to make Lamarckian genetics work for Soviet agronomists, or backyard steel production work for Mao, or spur a coal revival under Trump — but I think its power to shape society is underappreciated.

It’s impossible to avoid this kind of “social engineering.” Society has been a work of engineering since we started having structured processes for making and enforcing shared rules. It’s just a question of who the rules are engineered by and for.

This is also the (frequently dark) magic underlying Capitalism: we get more and more of whatever produces higher returns in a self-reinforcing loop. With the right underlying ruleset we could imagine getting widespread innovation, improving human well being, and a thriving biosphere out of that machine. With the wrong ruleset we get handwavy technobable nothing burgers, grotesque wealth inequality, and ecological collapse.

At a high level we’re at least talking about explicit industrial and technology policy again. Which sectors do we want to have an easier time growing going forward? Which ones do we want to see wind down? As with social engineering, there’s no way to avoid this fitness landscape existing. The best we can do is acknowledge it and be purposeful about how it’s shaped.

If that conversation is worthwhile in the context of solar, wind, nuclear, biofuels, batteries, carbon removal, geoengineering and heat pumps, why not also have it about the rules that shape our daily social patterns? What patterns of behavior do we want to outlaw, allow, or encourage? What do we want the path of least resistance to be? What do we want to amplify, and what do we want to dampen?

What we amplify and dampen

This is the same question we’re grappling with on social media, but IRL, and on longer timescales. The Algorithm wants to hold our attention for as long as possible so that it can sell our eyeballs and our clicks. So it seeks to enrage us, and inspire in-group reinforcing hot takes. What does our Long Algorithm want us to do? What kind of society does it exponentiate and who does it snuff out?

US Land use codes are designed to isolate us from each other. Shared and intrinsically affordable housing is outlawed in many places. Do it, and eventually Sheriff’s deputies will come and physically throw you out, even if you own the house. In places where it’s legal, financing mechanisms functionally outlaw the creation and stewardship of community managed affordable housing. Who wants to pay 5% interest with 20% down on a 7 year commercial balloon mortgage when the nuclear family can bet everything on a 4%, fully amortized 30 year loan to buy an undiversified, speculative real estate portfolio with only 5% down? Even when that bet works out, it means someone else eventually gets screwed. Apartment buildings are illegal in large majorities of almost every US city.

Legally codified land use patterns and bloated parking requirements make it impossible to serve US cities with active transportation or mass transit, so new infrastructure investments are largely poured into more unhealthy, isolating, dangerous, time-wasting, impoverishing auto dependence. It’s the Lysenkoism of our time. Any time someone says that the energy transition has become inevitable because of the economics, I just think of the US land use and transportation system and wince.

No US city has bike infrastructure on par with all of the Netherlands or Denmark, or a mass transit system that compares to Switzerland. It’s almost impossible to take someone’s divers license away in the US no matter how many DUIs they get because in many places it amounts to an economic death sentence. No matter how much somebody would prefer to bike for transportation, if it feels like they’re risking their life every day to do it, eventually they’ll give up. Massive tax credits for electric cars but a pittance for electric bikes (with much lower income caps) certainly don’t help.

The Long Algorithm of the US does its best to structurally amplify wealth-concentrating hyperconsumption, and damp out the emergence of lower intensity ways of daily life. It effectively prohibits joyful communitarian sufficiency even before we’ve discussed the problems of advertising and public relations campaigns specifically designed to generate artificial demand for unnecessary positional goods by stoking social anxiety.

So it’s hard for me to take someone seriously when they say this kind of social change can only contribute at the margins. Not because what they’re saying is false, but because we’ve specifically engineered society so that it’s true. And it will remain true, until we decriminalize low-consumption social norms, and allow the pockets of weirdos who want to do something different to make examples of themselves.

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Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

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