Breaking big – how to fix modernity’s Godzilla problem Published in "Quartz Ideas", December 2017

Published by: Quartz Ideas, December 22, 2017

Have you ever wondered why trees grow to a few hundred feet but not a mile? Did you realize that most companies stop growing at half a trillion in assets? Have you wondered why the city in which you live is much older than the state that issued your passport?

Growth and stagnation are so pervasive, so deeply engrained in the experience of life that we hardly notice—until something breaks. Trump and Brexit have become synonymous for the unanticipated sudden collapse of the status quo, the fracturing of something big. But, to make sense of what is really happening, and what to do about it, we must look up from Trump’s Twitter feed and the headlines of Theresa May’s Brexit mayhem. A meaningful conversation about a fracturing world must start with a deeper sense of why things grow and why things break.

We’ve figured out the basics in the biological world. All living beings burn energy. It flows into three essential tasks: growing, living (depending on the complexity of the organism, this spans a spectrum from basic functions of survival to composing a symphony) and repairing the “wear and tear” that occurs along the way. Over time, more things break, which means, the repair function consumes more and more energy. The moment the organism fails to keep up, it dies.

But not all organisms are equal. As Geoffrey West points out in his recent opus magnum, Scale, the speed of decay is mainly a function of size. Big mammals live longer than small mammals; an economist would say they benefit from economies of scale. Biologists have calculated that, on average, every mammal dies after 1.5 billion heart beats. What makes the difference is heart frequency. An elephant only needs 30 beats per minute; a mouse needs 1,500.

If efficiency explains why things scale, what explains why they stale and eventually fail? First, there could be external limits to growth. Take the blue whale, the world’s largest animal. It must swim sufficiently fast over long distances to supply itself with 1 million calories’ worth of plankton each day. From the biomechanics of the whale and the density of zooplankton per square kilometer, one could infer a natural limit to growth. Call this the plankton problem.

Yet, there is another constraint. In fiction, a lizard can turn into Godzilla and an ape into King Kong. The reason these creatures don’t exist in reality is not resource constraints; it is structure. Godzilla would collapse under its own weight: muscles would tear, bones would break and the capillary system would fail to supply its cells with sufficient oxygen. Strength grows with size but at a declining rate. Elephants are stronger than humans, and humans are stronger than ants; but relative to size it is the opposite. Ants lift five times their weight; humans lift much less, and no elephant ever lifted an elephant. Call this the Godzilla problem.

Humanity’s dominance as a species results from its capability to carry the power of scale from the biological into the social realm.

Humanity’s dominance as a species results from its capability to carry the power of scale from the biological into the social realm. From the Cognitive Revolution approximately 70,000 years ago, to the Agricultural Revolution around 10,000 years ago, to the Industrial Revolutions of our modern age, every wave of progress has been marked by innovations that helped us push these two boundaries. Our energy footprint as biological creatures has not changed much since the Cognitive Revolution; it is 90 watts, the equivalent of a lightbulb. But our footprint as social creatures has changed dramatically; in wealthy economies, it amounts to 11,000 watts, the equivalent of a dozen elephants.

Conversely, much of human suffering and social fracturing is a consequence of humanity overstepping these limits. As historians from Yuval Harari to Walter Scheidel to, most recently, James C. Scott point out, human history has never been a straightforward story of progress. Thomas Hobbes famously described pre-modern life as “nasty, brutish, and short” but the past and present is rich in examples of modern life causing suffering at grand scale. “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”, said Walter Benjamin, the great German Jewish philosopher and cultural critic who committed suicide fleeing from Nazi Germany. Every beautiful and ingenious thing that humanity ever made has a shadow, a history of oppression. Scale gives us superpowers, but also makes us frail.

As a result of the digital revolution, we have entered a new age that is testing the boundaries of scale in unprecedented ways. We have made significant progress in quantifying the extent to which humanity is growing beyond its means (presently we would need “1.7 planets” to meet our resource demands). There is less certainty about our ability to move back into our planetary boundaries without hampering growth and development. But there is reason for optimism. In the 1960s, researchers warned that growth will create a population explosion and mass starvation. Shortly thereafter, the “green revolution” boosted agriculture and busted the forecast. That might be why today’s champions of the climate agenda express more confidence in the possibility of fixing the plankton problem by leveraging technological progress. Unfortunately, however, that won’t be enough, as many of the fractures we see today have little to do with resource scarcity—they are caused by the Godzilla problem.

The physical expression of the Godzilla problem is manifest in the spatial geography of expanding urban communities. Economic growth over the past half-century was powered by a small number of big cities. In the United States, Greater New York alone generated 12% of the nation’s aggregate output growth between 1964 and 2009. But as economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti argued, spatial misallocation ate up two-thirds of the gains. Using data from 220 metropolitan areas, they found that the linear scaling of an outmoded suburban industrial model lowered aggregate growth by more than half. Globally, cities account for 80% of the world’s GDP and 90% of its patents, yet a surprising number of them are fragile–posing a threat to the citizens they house and nations they support.

Much of this fragility is linked to the social expression of the Godzilla problem: The growing stratification of civil society along lines of class and identity. All modern societies need to grapple with the insecurity that emerges from market competition on the one hand, and the dismantling of traditional forms of belonging on the other. Especially in free market economies, associations and clubs traditionally played a big role in filling this gap. They offered platforms where people could not only express grievances, but also experience some form of socialization, collective identity and a sense of control; associations are in that regard also schools of democracy and civility.

Over the past decades, however, association life greatly declined in significance. Robert Putnam detailed it for the US in his seminal book “Bowling alone”: Attendance at a public town or school meeting: Down 35%; service as an officer of a club or organization: Down 42%; service on a committee for a local organization: Down 39%, etc. Their social integration function got reduced, too, as communities became more segregated. Ever more families are moving to uniformly affluent or uniformly poor neighborhoods. “Whether we are rich or poor, our kids are increasingly growing up with kids like them who have parents like us,” the Harvard professor concluded in his latest book.

Community life is waning in importance for a complex set of reasons. In affluent neighborhoods, the market crowded in. Rich people pay for the things neighbors and families used to do. In poor neighborhoods, trust is a rare commodity, too: Only one in four trusts their neighbors “a lot” compared to three in four in wealthy areas. The ubiquitous digitization of life amplifies these divides by making it easier to construct enclaves for like minded people. As a result, the modern individual, faced with social pressures and change, is frequently forced to rely mainly on their own resources. Even those who are gainfully employed and anchored find their subjection to economic pressure harder to bear in a climate where mediating forces and buffers are missing or seriously diminished. Individualization, in other words, has transformed from an element of the civilizing process into a potential driver of decivilization.

From these fractures emerge the political expressions of the Godzilla problem: First, festering anger and resentment culminating in anarchic expressions of individuality and hostile quests for superiority. Critics from Rousseau to Camus identified ressentiment as the defining ill of the modern world, where dissatisfaction with the available degree of self-realization collides with elaborate promises of possibility. Policy makers around the world today face growing populations of uprooted citizens, yearning for belonging and community on the one hand, and individual autonomy and affluence on the other.

And, in more and more countries, political leaders have learned to capitalize on the cracks caused by these tensions and contradictions. Many of them are flipping individual narratives of victimhood into narratives of collective moral, cultural and national supremacy; most of them seek to retrofit old-style nationalism into neo-liberalism, while only a few of them shy away from repressing minorities and dissidents, stifling free speech or using the law to throttle their enemies.

As Pankaj Mishra concluded in his latest stock-taking of modern society, “with the victory of Donald Trump it has become impossible to deny or obscure the great chasm … between an elite that seizes modernity’s choicest fruits while disdaining older truths and uprooted masses, who, on finding themselves cheated of the same fruits, recoil into cultural supremacism, populism and rancorous brutality.”

The disturbing success of the new authoritarian populists is difficult to grasp without considering a second political expression of the Godzilla problem: Identity liberalism. In the neoliberal fantasy of individualism, we are all entrepreneurs of the self, reskilling ourselves in a dynamic economy, alert and ready to adapt to rapid technological progress. In our relationships with one another, we have evolved from being citizens in more or less organized communities with institutions of collective solidarity to “taxpayers” and lobbyists of the self on “political markets.” By greatly valuing individual freedom over mutual responsibility, liberal-minded leaders not only unleashed new growth, but also turned the chasm between material inequality and political equality into a vicious force: if we are to accept a decision that goes against us, we must see ourselves as part of a group whose decision this is. When we lose this consensus, every collective decision we do not benefit from infringes upon our freedom and needs to be fought.

As a result, fissures emerge and groups disintegrate into ever smaller and more homogeneous units that are more likely to grow suspicious of the political process and hence more likely to use the power they acquire to dominate others. By allowing the corrosion of political identity into identity politics, liberal elites lost not only their compassion, but also their ability to foster solid majorities. As Mark Lilla puts it: “Liberalism has ceased being a political project and morphed into an evangelical one; the latter is about speaking truth to power; the former about seizing power to defend the truth.”

Material inequalities are playing into the complex physical, societal and political dimensions of the Godzilla problem, but are going astray without taking into account the fears, desires and resentments that emerge for different reasons. Europe’s recent elections are telling: Poland enjoyed a decade of remarkable economic growth along with a decline of social inequality, yet voted for a far right populist party. The same holds true for Hungary. Austria also experienced a strong push in that direction.

Various studies of these election outcomes have shown that, in contrast to often-held beliefs, income and material circumstances are not especially important for understanding the results. In many Western nations today, the electoral pie is instead divided between those who value freedom, diversity and difference and those who are looking for order and stability.

The Godzilla problem poses a great threat to advanced and rapidly developing societies, on par with the undeniable resource challenges due to hundreds of millions of people joining the ranks of the middle class. Whereas the political agenda flowing from the plankton problem is intertwined with and inseparable from an expansionary growth paradigm, an agenda flowing from the Godzilla problem brings to the fore another core function of every organism, no matter if physical or social: Maintenance and repair.

The biggest flaw of modern market societies is that they channel most of their energy into growth, hoping for maintenance to take care of itself.

The biggest flaw of modern market societies is that they channel most of their energy into growth, hoping for maintenance to take care of itself. This is caused as much by greed as by the conviction that scale makes us stronger and safer. Indeed, cells in an elephant enjoy longer lives than in a mouse but, when an elephant dies, a lot of cells turn belly up, too. To the author and investor Nassim Taleb, the “big is safe” delusion is like saying “nuclear bombs are safer because they explode less often.” Collapse is rarely linear which is why we often realize it too late. Asked for how he went bust, a character in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises responded: “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.”

In an influential essay published last year, scholars Andrew Russel and Lee Vinsel called upon researchers and policy-makers to pay greater attention and recognition to the work of “maintenance”, and have since launched a conference to bring the work of the “maintainers” into focus. Their essay extolls the enduring fascination with flashy, shiny, trivial things in modern society, and invokes infrastructure failures, train crashes, bridge failures, urban flooding and so on as manifestations of and allegories for America’s broken political system and frayed social safety net. “Focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going,” the authors conclude.

A renewed focus on the constant process of entropy and decay and the work that is needed to halt it is a promising opening not just for new research programmes, but also for those who reject the Hobson’s choice between progressive neoliberalism and the new authoritarian populism. Different as they are, both political movements are about deconstruction, about tearing down structures of hegemony. And, both in their own ways turn a blind eye to the constructive side of our modern heritage: science, reason, humanism and universal principles of freedom, equality and justice.

The good news: Change is underway. While less visible than right-wing nationalists, new political movements invoke the nation state as the basis for a community of solidarity while recognizing that global problems also require global solutions. Whether or not these movements—from Macron’s En Marche to Podemos in Spain or Italy’s Five Star Movement—will stand the test of time, they demonstrate how to build a sense of political identity that is inclusive rather than deferring to categories of moral, cultural or ethnic supremacy.

The backlash to what Nancy Fraser has called “the unholy alliance of emancipation with financialization” also opened up spaces for a radical rethink of how to tackle economic insecurity and inequality. Bold proposals are ranging from job guarantees to a universal basic income to unwinding the enclosure, privatization and commercialization of the commons. Similarly, with bold initiatives, ranging from boosting co-operation with African countries in areas like education or the digital economy, to stepping up the integration of refugees, moderate leaders in Europe have regained a foothold in a migration discourse which was long dominated by radical voices on the far right for “closing the gates”.

Populists often conflate the work of maintenance with putting something back into its original state. But in dynamic systems it is much more than repairing the “wear and tear”; it is about redesigning and rebuilding society’s supporting structure. Of course this holds true for the physical world, too. Richard Florida, whose book on the Creative Class argued that cities must attract knowledge workers to thrive made him into a high priest of Silicon Valley capitalism, conceded lately that running highly clustered digital economies on the old platform of the suburban, industrial model has come with large costs. Florida urges policy-makers to create new transit-based infrastructures and more flexible housing systems. China’s Xiongan New Area and Saudi Arabia’s Neom go a step further. They are ambitious attempts at constructing entirely new cities from scratch with the objective of “coordinated, inclusive and sustainable growth”.

Technology is playing a major role, too. In his 2013 book The End of Power, Moises Naim noted that while information technology has transformed the way economies generate growth, it has not arrived in domains that deal with maintenance–politics, government and political participation. A few years later, “civic tech” is beginning to take off. They reach from digital identity programs like India’s Aadhaar, which aim at helping millions of people who are deprived of basic services because they cannot prove who they are, to big data driven credit scoring and verification platforms like Lenddo, which aim to economically empower emerging middle class consumers. Technology cannot fix the Godzilla problem but it can be a key part of the solution. Sensors, big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence and digital ledger technologies are poised to become building blocks of a new social and economic DNA.

Russel and Vinsel recount in their essay how, with the passing of the golden post-WWII decades, it became harder to associate innovation with moral and social progress. By rebalancing the focus of innovation from growth to maintenance and repair, a new generation of change-makers in politics, society and business is holding the key to reversing this trend. After all, blue whales are not just scaled-up microbes; Tesla cars are not just bigger horse carriages; and cities are not just scaled-up medieval villages. They are the result of ingenious solutions to the Godzilla problem.

Yet the most astonishing example of taking maintenance to the next level is us. For those who shuddered at reading that all mammals on average die after 1.5 billion heartbeats there is good news: Thanks to science and reason we live longer today than ever before; to be precise, we gained a billion heartbeats over all our fellow mammals. Let’s use them wisely.

Illustration by Francesco Cattani

About Sebastian Buckup