Robots and Resource Depletion

Prevailing narratives of crisis reflect more than just our mistakes. They show our inability to imagine an alternative future.

By Mark Rickerby

5th November 2014

The robots are coming! It’s a constant media saturating refrain. From the 2013 Oxford Martin report suggesting that 47% of jobs in our society risk being replaced by automation and robotics over the next generation, to Pew Research Center’s recent survey of technologists where respondents were evenly split between optimism and pessimism about the future of work, the robot revolution—our ‘second machine age’—is framed as a near certainty.

As compelling as these widely referenced studies might seem, they’re based on speculative predictions of the future that depend on technology that isn’t yet invented rather than falsifiable empirical research. Fiction more than evidence; perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If we look at actual facts, the pessimistic predictions of mass unemployment and a shrinking middle class caused by robots and algorithms are not easily distinguishable from what’s already happening in advanced industrial economies. Nowhere is this better represented than in the retrograde futurism of economist and neoliberal think-tank leader, Tyler Cowen, whose vision of the ‘robot economy’ involves little more than taking descriptions of contemporary America and replacing the present tense with the future tense.

Cowen’s description of the social consequences of robotics and automation is disappointingly familiar: “We will move from a society based on the pretence that everyone is given a decent standard of living to one in which people are expected to fend for themselves.” Yet somehow: “In the long run the picture will be fairly calm and indeed downright ordinary.” How such contradictory states of society can be so blithely combined probably doesn’t make much sense unless you believe that unmediated social inequality is a necessary, natural part of reality.

Far from belonging to a separate sphere of technological innovation, robotics and automation appear purposely designed to meet the demands of neoliberal capitalism, with its emphasis on efficiency and rationalisation of labour. This is why so much of the contemporary discussion about robots is about job displacement and economic change rather than post-scarcity and human freedom. This obdurate focus on unemployment is in stark contrast to traditional visions of an automated society where the displacement of human labour with machines was a utopian outcome—liberating rather than destructive. In a world where ‘hard work’ in service of a capitalist economy is seen as the proper way to live a good life, the vision of a society where work is no longer necessary becomes an existential problem that traps anyone who is psychologically unwilling to question the basic orthodoxy of capitalism.

Perhaps we can go further than this and speculate that the robot revolution is in part a social fantasy that provides a morally commensurable cover for the ugly and traumatic reality of inequality caused by capital accumulation and the source of profit in exploitation. Rather than accept displacement and unemployment as emerging from conflict between forces and relations of production—which raises the uncomfortable spectre of Marx—it is less psychologically destabilising to understand the situation in meritocratic terms, where the most highly skilled and adaptable technology workers reap the rewards while those unable to retrain get left behind.

If the robot revolution is a narrative of crisis reflecting specific ideological concerns to do with jobs, work, production and consumption, what it leaves out is equally important as what it emphasises. All predictions about the ‘robot economy’ rest on the assumptions that technology is cumulative and can be built on top of existing infrastructure, and that resources are available to produce, deploy and operate the technology. What if these assumptions are wrong?

Industrial civilisation is based on mining hydrocarbons and minerals. To keep the industrial economy afloat, the energy spent on extracting a resource must be less than the energy obtained from that resource, a ratio known as energy return on investment or EROI. Though there are some problems with this formulation—mostly to do with the difficulty in comparing energy returns over different periods of time—it is a useful way to model the rise and fall of complex societies.

There is a large amount of historical evidence that suggests that the general pattern for the exploitation of non-renewable resources follows a bell-shaped curve. This was formalised by Hubbert’s theory of peak oil, but it can be applied to many other cycles of depletion. What matters for the economy is not the total remaining amount of a resource, but whether that resource can be extracted at a net energy benefit. No industry can continue to function if resources become so expensive that they’re impossible to profit from or sell.

Peak Whale Oil

The bell-shaped production curve of American whale oil in the 19th century shows a direct correspondence to Hubbert peak theory. When whales are hunted faster than they can reproduce, their depletion rate looks the same as non-renewable resources like oil, coal and mineral ores. By the end of the 1870s, there were reputedly less than 50 female right whales left in the oceans.

The X axis shows whale oil production in kgallons.

Source: Price Trends Over a Complete Hubbert Cycle: The Case of the American Whaling Industry In 19th Century, Bardi, 2007.

The problem of resource depletion is the flip-side of climate change, though it isn’t widely recognised as such. Profligate stripping of the planet’s natural resources has gotten us to the point where we are today. No amount of fiddling with carbon credits, market-based solutions or pollution taxes can change the basic fact that our civilisation is consuming more than we can produce long-term.

Contrasting with predictions of an emerging robot revolution is the complex and energy intensive process required to extract the rare-earth minerals necessary for the electronic components that the robots will be built from, as well as the provision of a guaranteed stable supply of electricity that will power them. Technological change and regulatory intervention may have a short term influence in sustaining and growing the industrial economy, but all resources are finite. Unlimited growth is a denial of the basic laws of physics.

The opposure here is scarcity versus post-scarcity. If the energy intensity required to power the robot revolution cannot be sustained long enough, our civilisation will never cross the tipping point of a technologically driven post-scarcity economy that provides universal access and abundance of energy and resources to support ten billion humans living in dignity. This is not to say that the robot revolution won’t happen; rather that the revolution marks the establishment of an unimaginable digital divide between an elite minority and the poverty stricken masses.

This process of segregation has already begun. A world of near infinite abundance exists today, but it’s only accessible to the super-rich. As China Miéville has said: “We live in a utopia, it’s just not ours.”

Neither the robot economy nor mass resource depletion and catastrophic climate change are inevitable. If they happen, they happen as the result of many small individual choices over decades, multiplied into larger effects. Our civilisation has already caused mass extinctions, terraformed the planet and altered the climate irreversibly, but the Anthropocene is the culmination of thousands of years of human development, not a wholly recent phenomenon. We know that this civilisation as it operates now will not exist in a few decades time. The choice we have is how to respond to this transition. What takes its place?

Just as we have thousands of years experience plundering our environment, we have thousands of years experience learning to live in harmony with it.

If we can sever our submissive attachment to capitalism, the ideology of endless growth and hierarchies of command and control, we can start to imagine how the world might be different. Changing these patterns is not just an individual or societal choice, but an evolutionary one.