The Future Problem of "More"

Prosperity in modern industrial society is absolutely and economically linked to “more,” more production of goods, more use of services, higher levels of profits, and so forth. And when “more” is not forthcoming, the problems begin. For example, due to the higher prices of gasoline, Americans have cut back on driving by more than 40 billion miles over the past year, and by almost 4% last May. That meant they bought less gasoline, and lower gasoline sales meant fewer tax revenues, and for the first time ever, tax revenues that go to the Highway Trust Fund will be more than $5 billion less than projected federal spending on construction, maintenance and repairs in the coming year, resulting in either cutbacks in maintenance [already well-behind replacement requirements] or an addition to the already burgeoning federal debt. Consumers are cutting back on purchases, resulting in layoffs in all manner of industrial areas. Even nail salons are seeing less business. Housing sales have dropped to something like a quarter of what they were last year at this time, and it appears likely that more than a million construction workers are no longer working in that area. It’s very likely that these cuts in employment and earnings will also create more of a drain on Social Security revenues.

All the various policy remedies being suggested are variations on getting more funds into the hands of consumers and creating a climate of opinion that will encourage them to spend those funds in order to maintain a demand that will support the production of “more.”

In short, if economic prosperity depends on producing “more,” what happens when we either can’t physically produce more, or when we can’t afford to buy more in order to pay for producing more? Is there any way to maintain economic prosperity without always having to produce more? Or do we as humans instinctively define prosperity in terms of “more?”

Certainly, there’s a general sense of rejection of life as a zero-sum game, where, for everyone who succeeds or exceeds the societal average in terms of income, accumulation of resources, or prestige and power, there are others who fail and fall below the “average.” That rejection, however, is based on the experience of the post-Renaissance era, where, in the industrialized world, at least, the ability to produce goods and services on a scale always exceeding past years created the impression that a continual supply of “more” was not only possible, but a societal right.

But is production of “more” possible on a global and sustained basis? Even if it is, for a time, is it a “right?”

And… since science fiction is supposed to explore the future, why haven’t more novelists taken on this challenge? Or taken it on without falling back on a government-controlled or tradition-bound solution [as in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed]. Is there a practical and politically acceptable economic and technical approach to maintaining prosperity? Or are humans hard-wired into “more” as the definition of prosperity?

What are the implications if one society insists on “more” and another insists on “balance?” Is that the resource equivalent of Heinlein’s observation in Starship Troopers that peace achieved through pacificism is impossible because any culture that practices it will soon be wiped out by those who don’t?