The golden age

by John Quiggin on September 27, 2012

Since long before I started blogging, I’ve been planning a big article on the prospects for Utopia, starting off from Keynes’ essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. While I procrastinated, lots of others had the same idea, most recently Robert and Edward Skidelsky. But, with encouragement from Ed Lake at Aeon Magazine, I went ahead anyway and the article has just appeared.

This is also a good time to announce that our long-promised book event on Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias is going ahead, with a target publication date of March 2013.

{ 43 comments }

1

Barry 09.27.12 at 1:06 pm

Test post

2

Luis 09.27.12 at 1:51 pm

Excellent news re Olin. Of course, now it has been so long that I will need to re-read it…

3

UnlearningEcon 09.27.12 at 3:26 pm

“The vast majority of people lived lives of hard labour on the edge of subsistence, and had always done so. No feasible political change seemed likely to alter this reality.”

This needs to be done away with. Peasantry was not exactly great – highly vulnerable to famines, disease, and of course ruled by various aristocracies – but it was certainly not a “life of hard labour on the edge of subsistence.” In ordinary times, peasants generally had enough food and a great deal of leisure time. It was only with the IR that they were forced to edge of subsistence and into wage labour for almost all of their waking hours.

Good article otherwise, though.

4

UnlearningEcon 09.27.12 at 3:27 pm

To quick to hit the post button, I think, as you mention this below.

However you don’t link it with the Keynes quote ?

5

Sandwichman 09.27.12 at 3:59 pm

Nice article, John. Alf Hornborg’s writing on “machine fetishism” raises some interesting and disturbing question about whether technological progress can in fact bring us Utopia. To condense his argument, ultimately it isn’t the machines that are productive but the stored exergy (energy available for work) in, mainly, fossil fuels. When those fuels run down or become too toxic to consume, our technology becomes so much inert sculpture. Machines, in this analysis, are not productive; they are destructive. Similarly, industrially-developed countries depend crucially on terms of trade that are disadvantageous to the periphery.

I am usually inclined to take such technological pessimism and thermodynamic absolutism with a grain of salt. But what is starting to undermine my “faith” is the utter denial and Panglossianism from the technological optimist camp. Evidence counts for shit in the rah! rah! grow! grow! mainstream, which extends far into the social democratic and Marxist left. Surely something will turn up to repeal the laws of thermodynamics! Can’t we please have just a teeny-weeny perpetual motion? Please??

It seems to me that a feasible Utopia has been here all along but the prevailing response to it has always been, “No, no, no, we want Utopia Plus!” The dog in the manger wants that bone reflected in the water more than he wants the bone he has.

6

Tim Worstall 09.27.12 at 4:35 pm

“but it was certainly not a “life of hard labour on the edge of subsistence.” In ordinary times, peasants generally had enough food and a great deal of leisure time.”

Well, not really, not when you consider the other things that JQ talks about, that household labour.

I’d be intrigued to be pointed to any of these estimates of peasant labouring hours actually. For the ones that I have seen about English medieval times seem to think that the time spent labouring on the demesne was that working time. Which wasn’t true at all, that was the labour requirement in lieu of rent. On top of that our peasant also needed to work his own land, do all the coppicing, scutage etc, tend his animals, fix the tack and so on. And the wife was tending children, brewing her own beer, baking bread and so on and so on.

I agree that the average medieval peasant (English at least) wasn’t that badly fed, even if fairly boringly. It’s this lots of free time thing I have a problem with. That just doesn’t sound right about a peasant economy where there is a substantial labour in lieu of rent requirement plus farming one’s own allowance of land.

7

Squirrel Nutkin 09.27.12 at 5:43 pm

Just “Utopia Plus”? … and a pony!

8

Garrtt Burt 09.27.12 at 11:12 pm

@Sandwichman

That’s a solid point. I think, though, that this could change to a large degree with the increase in leisure time. A world in which lives are dominated by the cycles of production and consumption is necessarily a fairly wasteful one. For instance, 80% or more of my gasoline consumption is due to having to get to and from work. And, though I live in a bike friendly city that also has a decent mass transit system, my situation can probably be multiplied by tens-of-thousands of commuters. What a waste.

If leisure time becomes more abundant, this could change substantially. I would be much more apt to walk, bike or use mass transit if time were plentiful. My drain on resources would likely but reduced considerably. Perhaps we can multiply that by tens-of-thousands as well.

In addition, it seems likely that a significant increase in leisure time would lead to less mindless, quick-fix enjoyments that fall under the umbrella of consumption and, instead, more refined forms of enjoyment. What might be soulcraft or inner development. I might not feel so compelled by the lure of cheap, disposable products as some sort of reward for the personal drudgery I have deal with during most of my waking life. Those cheap products also suck a lot of resources only to be discarded either because they were designed to be or because they’re of such low quality that they don’t last that long. If I were spending my time writing songs or playing sports or reading poetry, few resources are needed and I would probably find greater satisfaction.

We would still be dependent on fossil fuels and the like but we might (I stress, might) use those resources much more wisely in that world rather than letting the production and consumption cycles gobble them up blindly and greedily.

9

Sandwichman 09.28.12 at 2:11 am

@Gartt

You don’t have to convince the Sandwichman about the efficacy of leisure. That’s not even preaching to the choir (more like preaching to Archbishop or the Pope). But as John pointed out in his article, Godwin was mooting the possibility of a massive increase in leisure over 200 years ago. Actually, Godwin came up with an estimate of half an hour a day, considerably less than Keynes’s 15 hours a week. Around the same time as Godwin, Benjamin Franklin suggested 4 hours a day. That was in the 1780s, before the Industrial Revolution had “revolutionized” production.

I’m absolutely sure we could do 4-hour days in comfort right now. Globally. But the “techno-optimists” would advise us to wait until we can at least bring up the global South to our industrially-developed standard of living. Yeah, right, suckers, “in the future even the poor will be so rich they’ll have servants.”

10

Sandwichman 09.28.12 at 2:16 am

Multiple choice quiz:

“Economics” is:
a. a science
b. an ideology
c. a pathology

11

PeterC 09.28.12 at 2:17 am

Sadly, (a) is clearly wrong.

12

Anarcissie 09.28.12 at 3:39 am

How about all of the above? Ha ha.

JQ writes, ‘The household appliances that first came into widespread use in the ’50s (washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and so on) eliminated a huge amount of housework, much of it pure drudgery.’ But, actually, according to the feminist screeds I read back in the late Middle Ages, it didn’t. It actually expanded the number of hours devoted to housework, and greatly raised the expected standards of houseworker performance. The problem here is that advances in technology do not generally change power relations, they tend to be absorbed by them. We can expect the same of capitalism as a whole, and overall, that is what we observe. Capitalism is a state system, that is, a system, maintained by coercive force, where some people dominate and exploit others. Widespread leisure does not serve that purpose, so capitalism will not produce it.

13

Matt 09.28.12 at 4:49 am

I am usually inclined to take such technological pessimism and thermodynamic absolutism with a grain of salt. But what is starting to undermine my “faith” is the utter denial and Panglossianism from the technological optimist camp. Evidence counts for shit in the rah! rah! grow! grow! mainstream, which extends far into the social democratic and Marxist left. Surely something will turn up to repeal the laws of thermodynamics! Can’t we please have just a teeny-weeny perpetual motion? Please??

On the energy production side, the sun isn’t a perpetual motion machine but it’s close enough for human purposes. Solar photovoltaic electricity is the most expensive utility-scale electricity available today, yet in inflation adjusted terms it’s cheaper than grid-delivered household electricity was 60 years ago in the United States. Solar’s cost has been falling for 40 years and there are credible reasons to believe it will continue to fall for at least another couple of decades. Wind power, a concentrated though less abundant derivative of solar energy, is cheaper in some regions than electricity generated from natural gas. Renewable energy isn’t just an expensive conscience-salve for rich environmentalists: it’s rapidly being deployed even outside the OECD.

On the energy consumption side, US energy use per capita peaked in 1978 or 1979, but constant-dollar GDP per capita has since increased about 70%. If the median worker hasn’t seen anything like 70% more compensation, deliberate economic and political programs seem like a more plausible explanation than physical resource limits.

Economic growth can’t continue indefinitely in a finite universe — not at 5%, 1%, or even 0.01%. But the far more modest goals of providing housing, food, water, education, clothing, medical care, communications, and leisure time for everyone on Earth, in ways that would mostly seem luxurious to the median American of 1970, seem eminently achievable on a technical basis. You can’t have much steak or gasoline, and housing will be denser, but in most other material respects life can be better than 40 years ago.

I don’t want to hand-wave over ecological constraints as if they don’t matter, but I see a disturbing synergy between plutocrats demanding austerity for the masses and limits-to-resources arguments for similar austerity. I’m afraid it will end with austerity for the masses plus enough accumulation at the top that ecological destruction continues as usual. If the 1000 richest people in the world have about as much control over natural resources and their exploitation as the middle billion, why not force the top to change first?

14

Greg vP 09.28.12 at 5:50 am

Anarcissie – if one glances over the tables of total fertility rates, one might conclude that what expanded the quantity of housework in the 50s and 60s was not increased expectations so much as a doubling in the number of children per woman.

15

Anarcissie 09.28.12 at 3:15 pm

Greg vP — an interesting idea. Per your suggestion, I glanced at a U.S. birth rate table, and it said that the birth rate was 30.1 in 1910, 29.5 in 1915, and 25.3 in 1957 (the height of the Baby Boom). I think 1910 represents the onset of industrialized housework, at first among the better-off. The Great Depression and World War 2, which we might regard as transitory emergencies, cut the rate by about a third, and then it resumed at about the same level until the early 1960s. So I am inclined to think there wasn’t enough of a change in family size for long enough to affect culture. One might also contend, I suppose, that producing more and bigger children was akin to having a bigger, spiffier house stuffed with bigger, spiffier dry goods, now all enabled by advanced technology. The power relations between the housewife class and their proprietors haven’t changed; in fact, they were somewhat retrograde during the period according to many.

16

Glen Tomkins 09.28.12 at 3:33 pm

I’m curious as to why you chose a guaranteed minimum income as the wedge that leads the transition to a post-scarcity society. Sure, let’s have it as a safety net, because it fucntions as that not just for the individual, but for the economy as a whole, to sustain demand during downturns. But I just don’t see what drive and impetus the guaranteed minimum wage provides.

Wouldn’t a much better alternative be to go back to what used to work, to strong unions keeping productivity gains in the hands of workers? Presumably, unions able to do that would demand and get higher total compensation and shorter work hours for their members.

I for one, trust human nature enough to imagine that the shorter work hours and the extra money would allow an appreciation to grow over time for the human value of doing well many of the jobs involved in the total work of living that aren’t paid for in money.

People would start to cook again for themselves and their families, and when they did, insofar as they followed human nature and made their cooking fulfilling rather than drudgery, they would start discriminating between lousy ingredients, especially produce, mass-produced and shippd in from five states away, and the good stuff grown 20 miles down the road. The wider economy would respond by leaving to the old standard of centralized mass production, only foodstuffs , like wheat, for which that made sense, while produce would all end up being grown locally in small operations staffed by people who care about how it tastes, if only because there is now a customer base of people who care how it tastes. Good home-cooked meals would replace restaurant fare as the model of the best food.

People would participate more in their children’s play and education, and not only would those two tend to merge more, but people who had more time to help their children with their homework would become more discriminating in their judgment of what kind of education their children need, and how the present arangements are working or failing. They wouldn’t accept performance on standardized tests as very important, much less the only thing that’s important.

People would become more involved in taking care of their own health and in that of their parents and children. Not only would they do more for themselves and become less likely to be patients, they would become less passive when they were patients. Part of that move away from passivity would involve learning how to use professional help well. They would learn to discriminate between the quality of primary care provided by doctors who see five patients a day, versus those who see 20 a day. The latter would go out of business, and then maybe I could go up to 10 a day, because right now I spend half of my time cleaning up after the messes created by the 20-a-day people. Of course, if people knew how to cook again, demand for my expertise might grow too scarce to allow me 10 a day.

Sure, some of the work of living is inherently drudgery. But much that might seem drudgery to people who are forced to spend so much of their time making money that they have never had time to do things like cook and help with homework or go to the doctor with their parents, only seems hard and unrewarding because they haven’t invested enough in this sort of work to reach the point where it starts to return a payoff in human terms. We have to so organize society so that the things we all need for a good life get produced, we have to get people to do some remunerated work on the economy, but most of the work of living needs to be off the books, and it can be moved off the books because our industrial processes are so monstrously efficient that only a fraction of the work of living needs to be devoted to making things for sale.

17

Tim Worstall 09.28.12 at 4:04 pm

“Economic growth can’t continue indefinitely in a finite universe”

Depends whether you think economic growth is more stuff or more value. Even Herman Daly, he of the steady state economy, seems to think that we can continue to have qualitative growth. Which is just another name for growth in value.

And it’s difficult to see what limits the physical universe has on that most immaterial of things, the human perception of value.

18

Sandwichman 09.28.12 at 4:32 pm

Tim Worstall: “Depends whether you think economic growth is more stuff or more value.”

No, Tim, it doesn’t depend on what I think. It depends on what the Commerce Departments and the Treasuries think. Taken out of context, we could merrily redefine what counts in growth any way we want. But treasuries want revenue and revenue is not as plastic as “value.”

19

CJColucci 09.28.12 at 4:53 pm

The picture at the head of the article said a great deal. It’s hard now to imagine these days what appears to be a bunch of middle-class folk finding as a satisfactory form of leisure hanging out by the motel pool in Wildwood, New Jersey.
And so few of them are fat.

20

Sandwichman 09.28.12 at 4:56 pm

Matt: “On the energy production side, the sun isn’t a perpetual motion machine but it’s close enough for human purposes.”

Only if you ignore the fact that human purposes have been consuming massive quantities of stored solar energy. An infinitesimal proportion of the solar energy that reaches earth each day is available for doing useful work. Add to those facts the wrinkle that what counts is not just the level of energy consumption but perpetual increases in the level energy consumption. Heck, why limit ourselves to the sun? Aren’t there billions and billions of stars? There is indeed an infinite amount of hope. Just not for us.

21

Sandwichman 09.28.12 at 7:27 pm

“Why Solar Panels Don’t Grow on Trees: Technological Utopianism and the Uneasy Relation between Ecomarxism and Ecological Economics”

Ever since the Industrial Revolution saved Britain from ecological crisis in the early nineteenth century, visions of miraculous new technologies have alleviated Euro-American anxieties about the impending doom of the fossil-fuelled capitalism that it inaugurated. Although Malthus’s worries about land shortages were transcended by world-historical events as well as by Ricardo’s and Marx’s different versions of technological optimism, they were soon reincarnated in Jevons’s warnings about the depletion of coal. Today economists generally dismiss the pessimism not only of Malthus and Jevons, but also of current concerns over peak oil, by expressing faith in human ingenuity. To retrospectively ridicule pessimists by referring to technological progress that they did not anticipate has become an established pattern of mainstream thought. Almost regardless of ideological persuasion, the seemingly self-evident concept of “technological progress” inherited from early industrialism has been resorted to as an article of faith serving to dispel the specter of truncated growth. The increasingly acknowledged threats of peak oil and global warming are thus generally countered with visions of a future civilization based on solar power. In this paper I discuss this technological scenario as a utopia that raises serious doubts about mainstream understandings of what “technology” really is, and what it means to say that something is “technologically” feasible. The technological utopianism professed, for instance, by ecomarxists raises difficult but fundamental analytical questions about the relation between thermodynamics and theories of economic value. (Abstract of panel paper by Alf Hornborg for “Life in a zero-sum world: capitalism, socio-ecological crisis and alternatives” 17th World Congress of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, Manchester U.K. August 5 -10, 2013)

22

John Quiggin 09.28.12 at 9:29 pm

I can never get how someone can be concerned both about peak oil and about global warming. If you care about global warming then peak oil would be a good thing. On my reading, if we can somehow stop tar sands etc, we’ve reached at least plateau oil.

And peak oil per person was reached in 1979, which suggests that adapting to less oil is not a big problem.

23

Sandwichman 09.28.12 at 9:58 pm

“I can never get how someone can be concerned both about peak oil and about global warming.”

Here’s the key to understanding, John: on the one hand, anthropogenic climate change is about a LEVEL of parts per million of GHGs; peak oil is about a FIRST DERIVATIVE of increasing production of petroleum. We are already above the 350 parts per million that many scientists estimate to be “safe.” On the other hand, it is possible to be concerned about two potential but uncertain causes of socio-ecological collapse EVEN IF the advent of one of them will reduce the possibility of the other. I mean why worry about the four horses of apocalypse if only any one of them is sufficient?

But nice try at a wholly rhetorical dismissal!

24

Sandwichman 09.28.12 at 10:00 pm

“four horses” should be “four horsemen”

25

Matt 09.28.12 at 10:11 pm

Only if you ignore the fact that human purposes have been consuming massive quantities of stored solar energy. An infinitesimal proportion of the solar energy that reaches earth each day is available for doing useful work. Add to those facts the wrinkle that what counts is not just the level of energy consumption but perpetual increases in the level energy consumption. Heck, why limit ourselves to the sun? Aren’t there billions and billions of stars? There is indeed an infinite amount of hope. Just not for us.

We might have different ideas of infinitesimal. Right now you can buy solar modules from Sunpower that reach 20% conversion efficiency and are based on boring-old-silicon. They don’t need any indium, tellurium, rare earth elements, or future technological breakthroughs to work. There’s enough rooftop space, parking lots, exhausted farmland, and brownfields in the USA to provide more solar electricity than currently provided by American nuclear and hydroelectric power combined; that’s without taking over any wild spaces.

According to a note in the January 1947 edition of Life magazine, residential electricity customers in the USA then paid an average of 3 1/3 cents per kilowatt hour, a tremendous drop from the original 1882 Edison plant price of 25 cents per kilowatt hour. Adjusting for inflation, 3 1/3 cents in 1947 would be 34 cents per kilowatt hour in 2012. Levelized cost of rooftop residential solar in California is already lower. If California were as efficient as Germany when it comes to installing residential PV systems, costs would drop nearly another 50% even without any further hardware price cuts. At that point you can add several hours of battery-backed storage and still pay a lower amortized cost per kilowatt hour than when your grandparents were young.

I’m not advocating or projecting continued exponential energy growth. I’m looking for a combination of efficiency, substitution, and behavioral changes to preserve the nicest things about industrial civilization while spreading its benefits more broadly and pushing down its waste emissions. Colonizing the stars is somewhere between pure fantasy and so-far-off-it’s-like-Babbage-imagining-youtube. I don’t think “give up the internal combustion engine for commuting, eat little meat, shift energy subsidies away from fossil fuels and toward low-carbon energy” is nearly in the same realm of fancy.

26

Sandwichman 09.28.12 at 11:37 pm

“I’m not advocating or projecting continued exponential energy growth. I’m looking for a combination of efficiency, substitution, and behavioral changes to preserve the nicest things about industrial civilization while spreading its benefits more broadly and pushing down its waste emissions.”

I can agree on efficiency, substitution and behavioral changes to push down waste emissions. The part I question — and it’s a question not a refutation — is the notion of “spreading the benefits” of industrial civilization. That depends on whether those benefits arise from “technical improvements” or from a lopsided confiscation of land and labour made possible by the technology. I suspect that there is a combination here. Hornborg is arguing that to a large extent what technology has achieved is the concentration of benefits and the dissipation of the costs of providing those benefits. Hence my crack @9 that “in the future even the poor will be so rich they’ll have servants.” If the benefits to the few of industrial civilization were obtained by spreading the costs to the many, where are the costs going to be spread to enable those benefits to be extended to the many?

Again, I want to disclaim any disposition to “thermodynamic determinism.” I sure hope there is some way to achieve a just, environmentally-sustainable society. But when I see people reach for the easy technological bromides rather than engaging the very difficult political power dynamics it only persuades me we’ve got a cognitive dissonance, dog-in-the-manger problem that won’t be fixed.

27

gordon 09.29.12 at 12:55 am

While sympathising enormously with Prof. Quiggin’s Utopian aspirations, I think he has omitted an important prerequisite, namely the role of the State. It was State intervention in the economies of “the West” in the post-WWII world which enabled the growth of “the social democratic welfare state”. It will require very considerable State intervention to create the Utopia of a guaranteed minimum income and free provision of health, education and other services which he advocates.

On the positive side, the experience of the post-war world seems to indicate that such extensive State intervention isn’t repugnant to the majority of people. There was some whinging (mostly about particular inefficiencies and bureaucratic snafus), but by and large it was widely accepted that “the Government” should take large responsibility for many aspects of life. But State activity is very repugnant to the vested interests of today. This was dramatially shown by Prof. Krugman’s interview with a couple of stalwarts of “market liberalism” on the BBC “Newsnight” programme in May this year. He was frankly told that the fundamental agenda of austerity was to shrink the size of the State.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_r-AKruzmkk
(from about three minutes into the I/V)

This change in attitude to the State and State intervention in the economy and society seems pretty basic to me. It means that any State-based Utopian programme has a much poorer chance of implemention today than was the case in, say, 1946.

28

sanbikinoraion 09.29.12 at 2:48 pm

@JQ: Hurrah! I really look forward to the event. Perhaps it might be wise, given feedback from previous events, to solicit recommendations for contributors now, particularly contributors of a non-white-straight-cis-abled-middle-class-male variety?

Anyone want to throw some names out?

29

Anarcissie 09.29.12 at 3:29 pm

gordon 09.29.12 at 12:55 am:
‘… There was some whinging (mostly about particular inefficiencies and bureaucratic snafus), but by and large it was widely accepted that “the Government” should take large responsibility for many aspects of life. But State activity is very repugnant to the vested interests of today. …’

The vested interests of today are the state. It’s just a different state than the one you like. A ruling class has no reason to create a utopian society of leisure. I could run out an anarchistic argument that such an outcome is the inevitable result of basing one’s social order on the Gewaltmonopol, but being a guest, I don’t want to vex the company so I’ll forbear. Anyway, you’ve probably heard it all before.

30

gordon 09.29.12 at 11:42 pm

Anarcissie (at 29): “The vested interests of today are the state”.

Do you mean that in the sense of Simon Johnson’s “Quiet Coup” and Jamie Galbraith’s “Predator State”? If so, I can understand your scepticism but it wasn’t always that way; there was a time in the immediate post-WWII world when state action to improve social and economic welfare was much more acceptable, even expected.

However you might mean that the form of the state has fundamentally changed since those days and the Simon/Galbraith critique is insufficient. They are, I think, essentially pointing to corruption of democratic institutions and are calling for reform. If you think that those institutions are so fundamentally damaged that no reformist programme can succeed, then we are indeed in deep trouble.

http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2006/05/predator-state
http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200905/imf-advice

31

Anarcissie 09.30.12 at 4:38 am

In the first half and then some of the 20th century, the capitalist ruling classes of the West found themselves in deep trouble. Their system didn’t work very well in the first place, and they were being attacked by powerful, often violent political movements like socialism, anarchism, Bolshevism, and fascism. In order to defeat their enemies, it was necessary to keep the home fronts at peace and vigorously productive. This could be done by imposing a Bismarckian new deal, in which various social programs and tolerance of labor unions were exchanged for loyalty to the state, support for wars and imperial excursions, hard work, and so on. When the danger began to fade, the deal was rescinded, although not all at once.

32

Bill Barnes 09.30.12 at 10:58 pm

“In the first half and then some of the 20th century, the capitalist ruling classes of the West found themselves in deep trouble. … When the danger began to fade…”

The “capitalist ruling classes,” along with everybody else, are in deeper trouble now than humans have ever been before, they’re just refusing to look reality in the face – which in turn assures that hundreds of years of worse trouble will get baked-in before we establish anything close to an effective campaign to back away from completely boiling the planet.

“a combination of efficiency, substitution, and behavioral changes to preserve the nicest things about industrial civilization while spreading its benefits more broadly and pushing down its waste emissions.”

That might have been a “real utopia” if we’d started vigorously down that road 40 or 50 years ago and kept at it. But that opportunity is gone and not recoverable – so that’s now fatally unrealistic. The only “real” utopia for us now is a political economy and a world system that can negotiate the coming climate-destabilized world in an at least minimally effective and humanitarian way. But to get there, we will first have to nip-in-the-bud/defeat the emergence of a neo-fascist fortress America response to that world of trouble (which, in alliance with an archipelago of other local and regional fortresses of privilege around the world, will pursue de facto genocide of the rest of the wor;ld’s population) . We’ve only got about another 15 years to put together the building blocks that will give us a decent chance to do that.

33

Actio 10.01.12 at 8:06 am

Excellent article. Except for this horrifying statement:
“Right now, the world produces enough meat to give everyone a diet comparable to the average Japanese person’s. This amount could be increased by replacing grain-fed beef with chicken and pork.”

Any utopia worth striving for would be one including animal rights and people eating only plant based foods. This is what the animal exploitation path suggested in the quote above looks like in practice:
http://www.mercyforanimals.org/investigations.aspx

34

Anarcissie 10.02.12 at 2:59 am

Bill Barnes 09.30.12 at 10:58 pm:

“In the first half and then some of the 20th century, the capitalist ruling classes of the West found themselves in deep trouble. … When the danger began to fade…”

The “capitalist ruling classes,” along with everybody else, are in deeper trouble now than humans have ever been before….’

I didn’t say they were competent or even perspicacious. They did recognize certain political threats back in the day, and that’s why they tolerated, and sometimes even encouraged, a sort of welfare state.

35

Nick 10.02.12 at 3:46 am

John, I have to agree with Actio. We already consume far too much pork (a grotesque and horrible business), and replacing cattle production with its nutritional energy equivalent of chicken production (an equally grotesque and horrible business) may be significantly less carbon intensive — but it also means replacing the worldwide annual slaughter of some 300 million head of cattle, with the factory farming and slaughtering of some 40 billion more chickens! All pumped full of a lovely Monsanto-type profit maximizing diet of growth and fertility hormones. There are reasons why pork and chicken production are more efficient and less carbon intensive. They’re not pretty. A utopia built on a massive increase in animal misery and death (and its collective denial) is no utopia.

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Futurological_congress

36

Anarcissie 10.02.12 at 2:17 pm

In Utopia, does everything have to be perfect? Because if so, we’re going to be a mighty long time getting there. For instance, as a mildly proselytizing vegetarian I know how much progress has been made on that front in the last 150 years. And that’s just one item of many.

37

Actio 10.02.12 at 6:35 pm

Anarcisse: any utopia worth the name would at the very least not be a worse state of affairs compared to the present. And increasing current animal exploitation practices by (going with Nick’s numbers) roughly 40 billion confined, harmed and killed individuals per year would be a massive worsening.

38

Nick 10.03.12 at 9:34 am

No, not perfect, Anarcissie, but better. And preferably less like the 20C, not more like it!

The microwave is an interesting one (referring back to JQ’s article). The ultimate in post-modern efficiency – faster, but smaller, more for the individual, not cooking and eating together as a family.

I haven’t had one for so long, I’m kinda taken back whenever someone staying asks if they can use it. Cue my mildy proselytizing anti-microwave stance. I’m not sure that it ever makes a difference…

39

John Quiggin 10.04.12 at 10:21 am

@Nick How do you cook vegetables?

40

John Quiggin 10.04.12 at 10:23 am

@Actio If I write more on this, I’ll mention that everything would be easier if we stopped eating meat.

I also plan to look at the trade-offs involved in going from intensive to free range. From what i can see so far, a very modest extra cost for eggs, but substantially more for meat.

41

ajay 10.04.12 at 10:44 am

If I write more on this, I’ll mention that everything would be easier if we stopped eating meat.

Not really a Utopia for a lot of us, then. And a numbers-of-deaths-based approach would surely focus not on stopping beef or chicken, both of which provide quite a lot of food for each animal killed, but on the foodstuff that provides the maximum death per calorie produced. End the Prawn Holocaust Now!

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Nick 10.04.12 at 12:48 pm

John, I suspect I’m being lured into some kind of trap :) Either in a saucepan with a minimal amount of water, or more commonly as part of a sauce in a frypan…occasionally roasted in the oven.

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Nick 10.04.12 at 1:03 pm

“@Actio If I write more on this, I’ll mention that everything would be easier if we stopped eating meat.”

I’d be interested to know how much the cost savings to health care would be. Reductions in heart attacks, bowel cancers etc. As well as eliminating, I don’t know, maybe 70% of all contagious disease? Something Plato remarked upon, I think.

Imagine no more influenza.

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