Society Note

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Which of myriad societal conditions and trends shall we deem worthy of attention? With any selection we make we're to some degree arbitrary, and risk including items less important than those we exclude. For this class meeting we chose topics with an eye to students who may well have half a century or more of living ahead, and to identifying those with widespread implications trending in ways we deem impossible to sustain for that long. We asked, "What will we change so that more can live and die well?"

Our first topic is wealth and income. By distributing these as we do, we evidence personal values and shape social relations. When we concentrate wealth and income in a world of complex institutions and technologies where humans are increasingly interconnected we sustain such concentration with growing transaction costs by which we diminish total satisfaction, and we raise risk of instability and strife. If, however, economic growth of a kind that we achieved by burning large quantities of fossil fuels has ended, how will we achieve greater equality without redistribution? Pollsters have found majority support for greater equality among people of diverse backgrounds, status, and philosophies, including those from every wealth quintile, members of Democratic and Republican parties, and those who self-identify as "liberal" or "conservative." Will we persist in embracing that goal if called upon to sacrifice in order to realize it?

Financialization is but one, albeit an important example of escalating transaction costs to protect, even exacerbate inequality. Yet young people of great ability and academic achievement continue to contribute to growth in this sector by seeking employment there. What will result? Secular stagnation is evidence that we're depleting and despoiling environmental resources more rapidly than we can offset these losses with new technology, making ever more difficult generation of value as we've come to define it in an era of plentiful nature. Despite talk of "dematerializing" society, we confront shortages. With current patterns of criminalization and incarceration we lay bare racism by which we've methodically exploited Afro-Americans and other minority groups for almost four centuries, and we deny everyone benefits of these groups' members' more fully realizing potential to contribute. With ever greater resource devoted to militarism we're attempting to maintain an empire made untenable by others' ascent, and perhaps losing much more to transaction costs of violence and threat of it than we gain by these.

Human society is in turmoil. In part because of US leadership in global politics of dominance, factions are warring in dozens of places. Failed and failing states are increasingly common. To escape war, criminal activity, and privation people are migrating in numbers greater than any prior, this time across a "full" planet where only a tiny fraction are privileged enough to be afforded a warm reception. As masses of impoverished are condemned to lives harsher than most of us can imagine a relative handful are finding wherewithal to resist, and justifying their acts with one or another ideology in which we are demonized, are becoming increasingly resourceful in inflicting harm upon those of us they perceive to be oppressing them.

More of us realizing that an old narrative is failing and, feeling adrift with its loss are struggling to maintain or achieve mental health, shed addiction, and adapt successfully. Any who hold out hope for a return to the "good old days" are likely to be disappointed. Only by accurately assessing our condition, and continuously updating aspirations to reflect a rapidly changing environment may we adapt successfully.

Extensive as is this list of trends we examined, we've ignored countless others. Urbanization continues, even as its social and material underpinnings deteriorate. Failed states, freelance terrorism (as distinguished from state terrorism), organized crime and gangsterism, are all on the rise. Polarization, often arising from one or another brand of fundamentalism, including orthodox growth-based economics, is becoming more extreme. With robotics and ever more capable artificial intelligence more and more of us are becoming "redundant" or superfluous from perspectives of those with greatest concentrated power.

Going forward our most pressing concerns may well be how to alter information so that we may reduce human population, conserve resources, abate hazards, and achieve a higher level of cooperation with each other, and implicitly with those who follow. To do this we'll evolve ideas about value to be more accurate. Since value depends upon maintaining a match between us and environment, ongoing reassessment of environmental (in a broad sense encompassing other humans, other life, and abiotic factors both natural and artificial) conditions and trends, those we've examined in this and prior class meetings, those we've omiitted, and others as we become aware of their import, is essential.