The Principle of Illusory Improvements

Consider an optimal society. If one could measure the health of this society over time, it would fluctuate about the optimum point, somewhat like a sinusoidal curve:

This is the graph of sin(x) + 10, and idealized version of this phenomenon. Of course, this is not to imply that the health of society can be measured by a single variable like GDP. Instead, true health of a society must be measured by many variables, perhaps even thousands. But in such a high-dimensional space there is still a distance function and so this two-dimensional curve can be thought of as representing the distance from optimal points in this high-dimensional space.

Of course, there is still the problem of defining where those optimal points are: that is a matter of preferences. But in any case, even if the optimal points are agreed upon, there is still another problem that I will explain.

So, back to the curve. The choice of a sinusoidal curve represents the best possible case: yes, we are pretty much at the optimum, but the health of the society will go through minor ups and downs because that is an inevitable feature of life. Unpredictable events and irregular weather will cause some minor fluctuations and problems, but an ideal society would have the mechanisms to handle these problems.

The choice of the + 10 term is also telling and important: the periodic and bounded nature of the sine function along with the constant of “10” emphasizes that there is no such thing as unbounded increase in health: after basic shelter, food, egalitarian social structure, and a sustainable and symbiotic relationship with other plants and animals have all been established, there is hardly any real improvement that can be had. This goes against the erroneous and mythological assumption of our industrial society: that we can have constant improvements.

In real societies, societal health is the function of millions of variables. And often, optimizing just a small handful of these variables can make it seem like the world is getting better, when in fact, it is getting worse.

For example, it would be ludicrous to simply consider the gross domestic product, the literacy rate, and the average education level as the only three variables that matter. But if you do, they you might have the illusion that society is getting better even though it is not. Consider the following modified distance to optimum graph:

This is the graph of sin(x) + 10 – (1/5)x. Notice that because there are constant, local increases, in this modified society, we will see constant improvements. Yet, each improvement is the climb to a new local maximum within a small subdomain of human history. And crucially, the sequence of these local maxima is strictly decreasing.

This type of phenomenon occurs when we focus only on maximizing a few of the millions of variables that determine societal health. Because the effects of each variable fluctuating has a time delay due to the nature of communication, improvements in overall health will be temporary and then decline again even worse than before.

A simplified example is a country that doesn’t have enough water for growing their food. Yes, they can divert water from the main river to do so, and that will improve things for a while, but that then causes the collapse of their main protein source (fish from the river). The end result is that the society becomes strictly worse than before. Of course then they invent fish farming, which improves the situation somewhat, until the fish farm brings diseases, at which point they invent antibiotics,… well, you get the picture.

The Principle

We can formulate the above phenomenon in the following principle:

Principle of Illusory Improvements. Suppose societal health is determined by sufficiently many variables, and this overall health is decreasing in the long-term. Further suppose that there is continuous technological growth through short-term improvements that lead to local maximae in societal health. Then, people will not perceive on an intuitive level that the local maximae are strictly decreasing and hence they will not perceive the decline of their society.

There are two key ideas behind this principle. The first is that the health of a society is determined by many variables. If the health of a society is determined by just a few variables, then it would be much easier to notice the decline in societal health, and it would be much easier to fix it, at least in theory. For example, let’s imagine that the health of the world is only determined by a single variable: clearly, you just need to work on that one and everything will get better. But the real world is never like that.

The second idea behind the principle involves technological development. Technological development always allows us to solve problems by inventing new technology, which causes new problems that even newer technology must solve. Therefore, technological advancement always guarantees that at least one variable is being maximized: our technological power to solve problems. There are two corollaries to this observation:

  1. Technology improves the lives of some people for a short period of time.
  2. Because technological development is fundamentally unsustainable (it requires mining, land clearance, pollution), and the damage done to the environment takes a while to be felt, there is a significant time delay between the act of creating technology and the resulting destruction.

What’s more, and this is absolutely crucial, is that the positive effects of technology on the lives of people is sharp and defined: if you use a new piece of technology, you immediately feel the effects because the effects are discrete and palpable improvements. On the other hand, the detriments from technological development are slow, diffuse effects like slightly worse air, and a worse society due to the fact that technology breaks up local communities.

We can also phrase it this way: the positive effects of technology are short term, concrete, and immediate, whereas the negative effects are slow-acting, diffuse, increase gradually, and are often irreversible. Moreover, the negative effects are often disproportionately felt by poor people in developing countries, none of whom have a voice in the development of society.

In fact, the very differential in economic power between the richest and the poorest countries is what generates the “social energy” to further destructive global capitalism, just as the transfer of heat from hotter to colder bodies is what generates physical energy. And it is precisely this transference that offloads the negative effects of economic development onto the global poor and the ecosystem, hiding the true devastation of modern global capitalism

Consequences

We are forced to conclude that technological development will lead to a situation of descending societal health with short-term improvements. Moreover, because of the fundamental fact that the likelihood of someone praising technology because they benefit from it is much higher than the likelihood of someone denouncing technology because they suffer from it (often they just die), we get a strong cultural mythology that technological development must continue.

Indeed, imagine a new cobalt mine, required to produce a new batch of smartphones. Who do you think is more likely to spread the word of their changing situation: the person who dies in the mine or the person who is posting on social media with the smartphone, saying that technology is so great?

Now, principle of illusory improvements precisely explains why society on average still has so much hope for science and technology to save us even when the development of all this new technology is powering the very unsustainable consumerism that is causing the entire problem of social and climate degradation in the first place. We are seeing an enormous number of advances that seem to make life better:

And yet, the constant consumption, the constant increase in unsustainable practices like the production of new plastic, and the increasing deforestation is propelling us towards disaster. Of course, we can understand this decline and state it with rational thought, but the masses simply will not feel this impending disaster on an intuitive level.

The principle of illusory improvement is strong, and it may be so partially because of historical precedent: in the majority of human history, we never came close to actually altering the atmosphere. Thus, although previous technological improvements were still slowly but surely pushing the collective human spirit into a mode of mechanized production, which in turn started the chain reaction that suppressed almost completely the true realization of our being in the universe, it was even so much harder to discern the overall damaging effects of technological advancement because we did not have global indicators to slap us in the face.

Now we do have global indicators such as global ecosystem degradation, and yet we are still trapped into believing in technology. We believe this way because we have thoroughly ritualized technological and scientific advancement, and even though the end result is the unequivocal global decline in societal and biospheric health, the psychological effect of illusory improvements distracts us from feeling the true effects within our souls. How often do we hear the message that science will be the answer to save us from climate disaster?

Unfortunately, while science is undoubtedly useful in at least informing us of the precise parameters of our destructive reign, it cannot be effective by itself because it’s very nature is to further the industrial system and only survive because it is thoroughly integrated into global capitalism. In fact, without science, we would not have plastics, worldwide fossil fuel extraction, nuclear weapons, mass global transportation, or global capitalism. It follows immediately that science, if not accompanied by a strong movement of wisdom, will on its own actually be at the forefront of ecosystem failure along with the technological-industrial system to pull the trigger.

In particular, we should be exceptionally cautious of solutions that are purely technological: electric vehicles, geoengineering, and nuclear power. This is precisely because these solutions will continue the pattern of temporary improvements paving the path towards destruction. In reality, at best, these solutions will only slightly reduce fossil fuel use. At worst, they will reduce the environmental cost of doing business as usual so that we can do more business. And if the stock market, CO2 increase, and plastic production are any indicators, we’re doing the worst.

Therefore, the solution to our problem, while impossible to delineate completely beforehand, must at some point involve an entire change in our collective mindset. Absolutely, it must involve realizing the phenomenon of descending local maxima. In turn, we must return to the mode of thinking about plants and animals in terms of relationships, rather than as resources, because it is the as-a-resource mode that has brought us into chasing these resources, regardless of the cost.

Thus, we must dismantle some of our most ritualized thought processes such as the belief that technological and economic progress is a good thing. We must examine our biases and break free from the psychological manipulation caused by illusory improvements. For, it is only by truly understanding the mechanization of our own minds and the grief it brings that we can trace our way back to the source of our problems, and discover new ways to break free from our cultural momentum.


All my posts are written without AI. Feel free to download and copy this image to support the fight against AI!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *