Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Kinsella - Ireland in 2050

UL Economics Lecturer Stephen Kinsella has recently released a book called Ireland in 2050. The book is partly inspired by the classic essay "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren" by Keynes and attempts to map out the major changes in Irish economy and society that will take place over the next 40 years. The book is divided into twelve chapters (roughly speaking - introduction, background, demography, leisure, environment, energy, work, suburbs and cities, health, inequality, governance, conclusion). The basic concept of the book is a good one - a neccesary attempt to start some long-term debates even as the immediate present seems urgent enough to occupy the vast share of public debate. The basic thrust of the book is continuity, with the author seeing a 2050 world very similar to our own but one where the growth of China, an aging population, innovations in energy, changing health demands and health technologies, changing gender roles, increased flooding, changing attitudes to work and privacy and so on have left their mark. The average irish householder in 2050 will, among other things, be older, will be more likely to have run a number of businesses, will drive an electric car and view China as an intimate part of their business plans. NAMA is just winding down, Ireland is still heavily embedded in the EU, Dublin has sprawled further, Nuclear power has become a reality and, in general, if you fell into a coma now and woke up in the imagined Ireland in 2050 you would probably figure things out reasonably quickly.

I am inclined to agree with Gerard O'Neill's view that the book is painting a picture of ireland in 2020 as much as in 2050, with many of the trends being picked up processes that are already underway, though this is not a fatal weakness. The author puts together a set of trends that almost every analyst agrees on as important and knits them into a simple vision that can act as a spark to a wider debate. In doing this however, the book does not delve deeply into potential disruptive events that are being widely discussed across many fields. We do not spend much time thinking about the consequence of a major bio or nuclear strike on the US mainland (see for example Martin Rees Our Final Century). Other major debates, such as the implications of human genetic engineering or increasing human-machine interfaces, are also absent from the story of the book. If I could take up any part of Stephen's offer of a row, it would be to debate the extent to which such "black swans" should be an integral feature of our planning. In one school of thought, worrying too much about catastrophic events with low predictability that are outside of our control distract us from the very pressing and predictable problems outlined in the book. Take, for example, the number of people who are now worrying about ancient Mayan prophecies on the back of a new blockbuster peddling another apocalypse story. On the other hand, failure to adapt a society to the potential for catastrophic changes or major disruptive technologies is clearly also dangerous in its way. A debate about the types of human values and institutions needed to get a population through a major disruptive event should be a feature of the row that Stephen is trying to start.

I think this book works well as a first gambit designed, as the author suggests, to start a debate rather than conclude one. It represents a sensible view on a very wide range of issues facing Ireland and other countries in the next forty years and I commend the author for getting this debate going. As a lecturer in several broad economics courses in UL and someone continuously and frantically active as a teacher, researcher and commenter, the author is very well placed to moderate a national debate on the long-term future of the country and I look forward to seeing how this concept develops over the next few years. To make decisions clearly about the future, it is important to be able to see clearly the potential outcomes, to identify with things that are not in our immediate surrounding, to divorce ourselves from current pressures to enable rational thought. This book and follow-ups will help with that. Being able to think far ahead has many potential benefits and I hope that Stephen is successful in bedding this concept into political and popular debate.


Kevin Denny said...

Important issues,need for debate etc etc but since I will probably be dead in 2050 its a little hard to get motivated about it.

Liam Delaney said...

its an interesting question in itself the extent to which people can get motivated to think about things that will be after they are gone. Current life expectancies and all that Kevin suggest you have a good chance of still being around.

Kevin Denny said...

Yeah but even as I write my enemies are plotting.

lorcan said...

Good review Liam. I think it is best not to concentrate too much on the exact timing of changes and more on the trends themselves. As it is, I think 2050 was a good choice, striking a balance between the mostly incremental technological improvements and economic/demographic change that will be seen by 2020, while avoiding the more speculative treatment that would be required for 2100.

Kevin, aside from appealing to common humanity etc or pointing out the possibility of trends happening more quickly or life expectancies lengthening, the implications of futures thinking often require investment and policy change several decades in advance.

Liam Delaney said...

i think steve has dealt with the issue of timing on a number of occassions. i agree 2050 is a really nice time horizon to shoot, particular for people our age for whom this time horizon represents the bulk of the remainder of our lives (working lives at least).

the main point of debate for me is the extent to which we should look at catastrophic events. in stephen's book, there is an "end of history" feel wherby the next 40 years will be a relatively smooth continuation. I think a follow-up book that looked at alternative catastrophic (by which i mean completely game-changing rather than neccesarily bad) changes to the world order and Ireland's place in it. Obviously, Taleb has become practically a prophet in pointing out the need for this type of thinking and it would be nice to see some of this as the concept progresses.

Liam Delaney said...

btw lorcan, don't get Kevin started on arguments based on common humanity. I am surprised you haven't already been rebuffed!