The Great Acceleration

The strongest vector shaping post-pandemic reality in Europe and the United States will be green modernization. Many years of investment in new energy sources, batteries, information technology to enable coordination, and finally the development of ICT networks are finally beginning to make a systemic impact. 

The pandemic will stay with us for a long time, even if the health threat is gone, argue the authors of the report “The Covid Decade” produced this spring by the British Academy. Let’s take their words seriously, but without panic – it is not the first time in history that  “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same” and life is back to normal.

There is no return to the normality understood as the state before the pandemic, although we are longing for full concert halls, shopping malls and restaurants. Of course, we will go back there, but more and more often these returns will be accompanied by questions as to whether a lifestyle based on unlimited consumption of leisure, space, and material and symbolic goods makes sense. For some, growing ecological awareness will be an increasingly important source of doubt, while for others, it will be the trauma of the pandemic and a subconscious fear of human contact. Still others will discover that the essence of a good life is conviviality – sociability practiced locally, among friends and acquaintances.

It is impossible at this time to predict how social sensitivity and imagination will change as a result of the Covid-19 experience, the economic crisis, and reports of further global threats posed by the climate crisis, environmental destruction, and other accelerating macro-processes that have been reported for years. For Central and Eastern European societies, the most significant challenge is the demographic shift. The pandemic death statistics have highlighted and reinforced the fundamental message that demographers have been conveying for some time – the time of extinction has arrived and the balance of deaths and births has tilted toward death. And it will stay that way, even when the virus stops killing. But at the same time, contrary to the hopes of cynics, coronavirus affecting mainly the elderly has not rejuvenated societies, and extinction is and will be coupled with aging. The complex consequences of the demographic dynamics were brilliantly captured by Ivan Krastev in an essay published last May in the French magazine Le débat. Krastev described the mechanism of a combination of detrimental processes that in the end lead to the erosion of the foundations of liberal democracy and at the same time preclude the opportunity to break out of the vicious circle. The declining share of young people in the social structure translates into their declining political significance – after all, democracy is about the aggregated power of votes. 

A Complex Demographic, Social and Spatial Context

The young respond with escape strategies, choosing emigration (in November 2020, 64% of Poles aged 18-29 declared the desire to leave and work abroad, according to a survey conducted by Ipsos for Oko.press), a refusal to participate in the political system or radicalization of attitudes. At the same time, right-wing populists are gaining ground, consolidating their electorate under the slogan of defending endangered traditional values, with their collapse having allegedly caused a moral and demographic crisis. Such a diagnosis, politically effective in terms of the logic of staying in power, leads to counter-effective solutions: persecuting LGBTQ communities, curbing women’s rights and anti-immigrant rhetoric resulting in a lack of immigration policy at the government level. 

As a result, young people receive a signal confirming their choices, although intergenerational conflict is not the only dimension of the growing social conflict. There is also the territorial dimension resulting from tensions between the cities and the countryside. Nor can we forget the conflict of lifestyles which arises from class differences and leads to a different coding of challenges such as climate change and the necessary responses to it. Representatives of the popular class are willing to give up foreign vacations and airplane flights, because they never made use of this offer in the first place. The urban middle class sees the solution to the problem in a ban on burning coal and waste, because they can afford more ecological solutions.

This complex demographic, social and spatial context should be kept in mind when analyzing other, non-social macro-trends that determine the future.

Undoubtedly, the strongest vector shaping the post-pandemic reality in Europe and the United States will be the green modernization.

The European Green Deal announced in 2019 is coming of age through being transformed from an idea into a set of legal frameworks, strategic goals and strategic funding programs. Increasing greenhouse gas emission reductions to 55% by 2030; Horizon Europe supporting research and development with 95.5 billion euros; the Reconstruction Fund with clearly defined pro-climate priorities; and the new budget perspective clearly show the direction that European Union countries have chosen.

“The Paris Effect”

A similar direction was chosen by the United States after Joe Biden assumed the presidency, and the new line was confirmed by the climate summit organized by the new President on the occasion of Earth Day. The U.S. confirmed its return to the Paris Agreement and its readiness to fight for the leadership role in the necessary and inevitable green technological and economic transformation. 

Can anything stop this process? It seems that the critical mass has already been exceeded, as pointed out by the authors of “The Paris Effect” report. It was published on the fifth anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement and summarizes the developments from the past five years. It turns out that, contrary to the voices of many sceptics complaining that the Agreement is toothless, the process of change for climate has entered the stage of systemic acceleration. In 2015, it was predicted that no sooner than in 2050 electric vehicles would account for more than 50% of overall sales, but today experts estimate that it will happen two decades earlier. Electric cars are expected to be cost-competitive with internal combustion cars by the middle of this decade. The electric Dacia Spring, launched by Renault, is a perfect illustration of this acceleration, as it shows that the transformation has embraced the mass market, that is the most popular segment.

This is just one example of a general trend resulting from the logic of new technology development. Many years of investment in new energy sources, batteries, information technology to enable coordination, and finally the development of ICT networks are finally beginning to make a systemic impact and change is accelerating.

The Paris Agreement was an important stimulus because it provided a signal for regulatory action at the government level, which in turn translated into changes in the strategies of capital investors.

The rising cost of carbon emissions means an increasing risk of investing in fossil-fuel based power generation, so investors are withdrawing ‘dirty’ assets from their portfolios. Since it is increasingly profitable to invest in new technologies, the inflow of money for research and development is growing, so technological change is accelerating and new solutions are becoming cheaper faster. 

An Evolution with Unexpected Consequences

The pandemic has only accelerated many of these trends, which can be summed up by stating that we are indeed seeing the end (or at least the beginning of the end) of the age of oil, the most important fuel of modern times. BP announced at the beginning of the pandemic that “peak oil demand” had occurred, meaning that humanity had passed the breaking point in terms of appetite for oil. Now the demand for oil is only expected to decrease. Even if not all energy market analysts concur with BP’s claim, almost all of them agree that such a breakthrough will occur in this decade. And an important reason for it is the acceleration described above. 

This acceleration also has some completely unexpected consequences. The most surprising and disturbing of them is the semiconductor crisis, that is, a shortage of microprocessors necessary to produce not only computers and smartphones, but also cars, washing machines, and even, as the Washington Post revealed, automatic dog-washing booths.

When the pandemic broke out, sparking off a recession, car companies cut back on microprocessor orders. Electronics companies rebounded by serving the growing demand for computers and electronic devices driven by home learning, work and entertainment. By the end of 2020, demand for cars returned, but there was a shortage of production capacity, meaning a shortage of microprocessors. Car factory production lines came to a standstill, and the problem is far from solved.

It also came to light that the most advanced electronic circuits are produced by just three companies: American Intel, Korean Samsung and Taiwanese TSMC. TSMC dominates and cannot keep up with investments in production capacity – today, the cost of building a factory, capable of producing the most advanced microprocessors, may exceed $20 billion. This is not, however, the end of the story. Only one company in the world, the Dutch ASML, produces the photolithography equipment necessary for ‘printing’ the chips. The semiconductor crisis has revealed a fundamental aspect of modern civilization – its extraordinary complexity, requiring an incredible concentration of knowledge and capital. Are we still able to manage this complexity?

The search for a way out of the semiconductor crisis will provide a partial answer to this question. And it will determine the opportunity presented by the great acceleration described earlier, which was best described in systemic terms by Carlota Peres. The Venezuelan-British economist explores the logic of technological revolutions. Looking at contemporary capitalism, she found that humanity was structurally at a similar point in time to the 1930s and 1940s. It was an era when the accumulation of technological progress, accelerated by World War II, found practical application in the new post-war social and economic model. We remember it under the name of the welfare state.

Deep Institutional Reforms Are Needed

The current acceleration and accumulation of technological change over the next decade or so should lead to a green/information technological revolution that may provide the foundation for a new socio-economic model. It may or may not, because technological change alone does not guarantee the right direction for social and economic change. Deep institutional reforms are needed, but they require an adequate quality of politics. Is it available for us?

It would seem that the aforementioned illustrations of the European Green Deal and ecological transformation in the USA should make us say ‘yes’ to this question. And indeed, they bring hope, but also many concerns, stemming from the socio-demographic processes described earlier, which can produce undesirable developments. The biggest concern is the possibility of using green modernization as a political wedge by populist politicians. This threat is revealed by the study of the London-based think-tank Counterpoint published in the report “Green Wedge. Mapping Dissent Against Climate Policy in Europe”. 

This is not just a matter of fuelling resistance against closing down coal mines and power plants, but a more complex mechanism is at play here.

The climate movements, which are most active among young people, have become increasingly radicalized by scientific reports pointing out that the climate crisis is growing worse. They accuse politicians of acting too slowly and too timidly, and call for radical action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This is ideal fuel for forces posing as the voice of common sense, in defence of traditional lifestyles and freedom, especially if the electorate of these forces, due to their demographic structure, is not directly interested in the distant future.

This is how we reach the starting point. The future depends on whether we can find a way to break out of the destructive logic of accelerating socio-demographic change to take full advantage of the potential of systemic acceleration in the technological and economic dimensions.

Edwin Bendyk

is the president of the Batory Foundation in Warsaw, a commentator for the Polityka weekly, and the author of numerous books, the latest of which is W Polsce, czyli wszędzie. Rzecz o upadku i przyszłości świata [In Poland, or Everywhere. On the Collapse and Future of the World] (2020).

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