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A Sobering Antidote to Marc Andreessen’s Techno-Optimism
The manifesto is a 5,000-word hymn to the unrelenting power of technology as the solution to all problems, and simultaneously a scream in the wind for less regulation, less government control, and less bureaucracy.
Unsurprisingly, Andreessen’s manifesto has drawn in a fair deal of criticism. Elizabeth Spiers wrote for the NY Times: “As a piece of writing, the rambling and often contradictory manifesto has the pathos of the Unabomber manifesto but lacks the ideological coherency.” If you are looking for a detailed, critical, breakdown of Andreessen’s piece, I highly recommend reading Dave Karpf’s Why can't our tech billionaires learn anything new?.
As I am on the side of Andreessen’s declared enemies who value responsible tech use and regulation, I am not going to comment on the manifesto directly. Rather, I will introduce you to the broader philosophical movement behind the manifesto, and then an opposing theory from the polar opposite end of the political spectrum based on a book from German author, Ulrikke Herrmann, titled The End of Capitalism: Why Growth and Climate Protection Are Not Compatible – and How We Will Live in the Future" (translated from German).
E/ACC’s Influence on Marc Andreessen’s Manifesto
Marc Andreessen’s manifesto is based on a broader, Twitter-based (big red flag), philosophical movement called E/ACC which is an acronym for “effective accelerationism”. E/ACC supporters believe that humanity solves problems through technological advancement and growth and strongly oppose degrowth and central planning. Business Insider defines E/ACC’s main philosophical idea like this:
“in a technological age, the powers of innovation and capitalism should be exploited to their extremes to drive radical social change — even if that means completely upending today's social order.”
E/ACC is a branch of “effective altruism”, a modern philosophical and social movement that was condoned and practiced by the disgraced (and guilty) FTX founder, Sam Bankman-Fried. Practitioners of effective altruism would claim that here-and-now actions that benefit the long-term future of humanity are always justified. One of my favorite Substack writers, Ted Gioia from The Honest Broker, explains how effective altruism can justify selling your grandmother as a sex slave:
“Effective altruists don’t look at the actual actions at hand or their consequences today—hah, that would be too obvious. They only think about long-term holistic results, and hope to maximize pleasure and good feelings in the aggregate:
So it stands to reason that:
1. Granny is old and doesn’t have long to live, so she can’t experience much pleasure even under the best circumstances.
2. But the sex traffickers could use Granny to increase the pleasure of many of their customers.
I’m not going to spell it out for you, but you can guess where this is heading.
You just better hope that, if you’re ever a grandparent, your progeny aren’t Effective Altruists.”
E/ACC’s influence on Marc Andreessen’s line of thinking is clear.
Andreessen believes that economic growth is THE answer, and the only answer, no matter the question:
“We believe everything good is downstream of growth.
We believe not growing is stagnation, which leads to zero-sum thinking, internal fighting, degradation, collapse, and ultimately death.”
Andreessen strongly believes that governments should step back and let the powers of the free markets dictate innovation and tech development:
“We believe central economic planning elevates the worst of us and drags everyone down; markets exploit the best of us to benefit all of us.
We believe central planning is a doom loop; markets are an upward spiral.”
In Andreessen’s mind, two of the world’s most pressing challenges - climate change and inequality (whether financial, social, or technological) – are also problems better left to tech geniuses, entrepreneurs, and market powers to solve. Supporters of E/ACC, Andreessen included, have strong faith in nuclear fission (and longer term, nuclear fusion) as the silver bullet to a future-proof and sustainable, zero-carbon economy:
“We believe energy need not expand to the detriment of the natural environment. We have the silver bullet for virtually unlimited zero-emissions energy today – nuclear fission.”
In her book from September 2022, Ulrike Herrmann makes the case that climate change is going to break capitalism whether we like it or not. To solve the climate crisis, we will have to do the exact opposite of what E/ACC is proposing: downscale the economy, prepare for degrowth, and allow the government to plan and control the production and distribution of society’s resources.
Ulrike Herrmann’s Case: The End of Capitalism
All the world’s leading climate scientists agree that the increasing temperatures we experience today are caused by greenhouse gas emissions from humanity’s consumption of fossil fuel-based energy sources such as coal, oil, and gas. Our global energy system has to transition from fossil fuels to renewables over the next few years and decades to support humanity's long-term survival on planet Earth. So far, so clear.
In Marc Andreessen’s view, climate change is a technological problem, but in Ulrikke Herrmann’s view, it’s a social problem.
Herrmann claims that the economy has to shrink by at least 30% to make the global energy transition a reality. To achieve a net-zero carbon future, countries have to move away from the traditional liberal-capitalistic way of thinking and adopt a “survival economy” with inspiration from the British war economy during World War II.
Herrmann’s most important point is that “green growth” is impossible. The world cannot transition to a green and sustainable future in the near term and grow the economy at the same time. The economy is based on everlasting growth, whereas the earth has a finite amount of resources. The two goals contradict each other.
Economists who claim otherwise are not taking into account that:
Windmills and solar cell panels cannot provide stable clean energy all year around to all locations.
Storing renewable energy is costly and resource-demanding.
Carbon capture and storage technologies (that removes CO2 from the atmosphere) are still immature and costly.
Nuclear power plants are costly to operate.
Overall, the energy transition will be an extremely costly affair, and not at all an economic opportunity.
To achieve carbon neutrality, no individual can emit more than 1 tonnes (t) Co2 per year. A long list of poor countries is already below, and often well below, that threshold. In Malawi for instance, the average citizen is only emitting 0.1t Co2 per year. At the top of the country list is Qatar, where the average citizen emits 34,2t Co2 per year. When we look a bit closer at the numbers on a country level, it’s becoming clearer that climate change is exclusively caused by the expensive habits and overconsumption of the rich. For instance, the richest percentage of the German population emits 117,8t Co2 per year.
Herrmann convincingly argues that the problem of overconsumption – we take much more from nature than we can give back – is a problem that capitalism is unable to solve. The only way through is for the richer part of the world to consume way, way less. Meaning: no more air traveling, much less meat, much less streaming, everything has to be rationed. Herrmann writes:
“When important goods become scars, it is only the state that can ensure a fair and efficient distribution, because it rations and is responsible for the distribution of the aspired goods and services (..) In financial markets, scarcity always leads to speculation which drives up prices, makes the speculators rich, and exacerbates the emergency. If all citizens are to have their fair share of the available goods, the state is required to step in.” (translated from German)
According to Herrmann, this is what the British Empire successfully did during World War II. Companies maintained property rights to the goods and services they produced and maintained self-governance, but the state decided what was to be produced and distributed it to citizens to ensure that everyone had enough.
Now, standing against the humbling threat of climate change, the richest countries in the world should consider to do something similar. There is only so much renewable energy to go around, and the state should be responsible for its distribution to make sure all have enough, and none is wasted. The economy will take a massive hit, but if we consider the long-term magnitude of the climate change threat, there is perhaps no other way to ensure the survival of homo sapiens.
Marc Andreessen and Ulrike Herrmann could not stand much further from each other on the political spectrum. Personally, I am leaning much more towards Herrmann’s position than Andreessen’s.
The fewest of people would like to see the government interfere more with their life or business or tell them what to do. On the other hand, people in the global North have such a large energy consumption and we depend on so many redundant luxuries that evidently damage the environment. No one needs a private jet, to eat expensive steaks every week, or to use social media every day. These are fake needs created by consumer culture.
In my mind, it makes sense for the government to step in and control the distribution of resources, at least for a few years while the world transitions to clean energy sources. It would probably be less intrusive than the curfews and mask requirements imposed during covid, and potentially save even more lives while people remain free. Most rich people would greatly benefit from a more minimalistic lifestyle, while rich societies would benefit from less commercial nonsense. Honestly, adopting a planned economy to prepare for and mitigate the consequences of climate change seems like a sound idea.
Reads of Week
Toward a real-time decoding of images from brain activity - Yohann Benchetrit, Hubert Jacob Banville, Jean-Rémi King, October 18, 2023 (Meta).
Starlink - the end of the free internet? Or a new birth? - davidw, October 18, 2023 (stacker.news).