Randall Parker of the ever-interesting Futurepundit had a post earlier this week pointing out that we need to continue to innovate just to maintain our current standard of living. This is a corollary to Tyler Cowen's notion of the Great Stagnation.
The Industrial Revolution happened when a relatively small group of people in northwestern Europe figured out how to unlock the energy in black sunlight, coal, and use it to move heavy things around. Water first, then other stuff, then people. Once they had it around, the energy proved useful for other things, and let them grab a lot of minerals and reform them in useful ways. The intellectual system that resulted proved useful for finding and using yet other hiding-in-plain-sight resources, like oil, atmospheric nitrogen, underground water, previously unaccessible soils, deepwater fish. Each time they climbed over a new lip, there was a big pool of resources to be used.
We had a good run. Now every one of those resources is getting more expensive in terms of energy and effort. Those big pools are gone. If the price of these resources goes up in absolute terms, in energy and time, then we will have to use less. We need to be constantly figuring out ways to get and use them more efficiently in order to have water, food, warmth, light, and entertainment. Innovations need to come regularly just to keep us as comfortable as we are now.
It may well be that our dramatic advances in information manipulation have somewhat misled us on how obdurate physical reality is. Our airy towers get higher and more beautiful. Maintaining the foundations is a constant effort. Do we understand how much effort that really is?
Properly used, of course, it is just that information that will enable us to understand that, and do something about it. Or it might just let us clearly perceive the looming disaster, while enabling an incredible amount of futile squabbling about whose fault it is.
The 2008 financial meltdown and the current pathetic Eurozone refusal to recognize that a snappy new pair of jeans doesn't really do anything about the gangrene in your leg will look like minor intellectual errors in comparison to the history of that collapse.