Apply several millennia of compound interest to see what happens next

Tuesday, April 21st, 2020

The far future might be Post-Malthusian or Neo-Malthusian:

On a long timeframe, there are three coherent views of where history is going: we might escape Malthus forever, and our wealth and happiness compounds ever faster above subsistence; we might be locked around new Malthusian barriers, with higher low-hanging fruit that’s all been picked nonetheless; or history might end. You can write a story about the end of the world, but you can’t make it a franchise: either the world ends or it doesn’t, so eventually you have to stop writing.

The two fictional universes the best exemplify the two visions of the future are Warhammer 40,000 and the Culture series. Like all far-future science fiction, they both start in the present, pick a few technological and social trends, and apply several millennia of compound interest to see what happens next.

In the Culture novels, improvements in physical and software technology reach the point that all essential work can be done by robots, whether they’re hyperadvanced Roombas, tiny Predator Drones, or superhumanly smart ship-based Minds. There’s no need for laws or conflict; when everything is free, there’s nothing to fight over. The Culture has conflicts with other societies, but given their immense productive capacity, victory is inevitable. In The Player of Games, for example, The Culture wants to absorb the empire of Azad in order to treat the Azadians more gently than the emperor does. They could overwhelm it militarily, but they think that’s less elegant than subverting the empire from within.

The world of Warhammer 40,000 is… not that. It’s grim. It’s dark. It’s so much of both that the term grimdark was coined to describe it. W40K’s universe, like that of Culture, is superabundant, but only in suffering and terror. The moral center of the Culture is the Minds, which give humans diverting and amusing tasks. The moral center of W40K is the God-Emperor, who is slowly dying over millennia, kept alive by life support and human sacrifice. Technology exists, but science has been forgotten; their engineers are just an elaborate cargo cult. Fermi estimates of the size of the empire range from trillions to quadrillions of people, but their enemies are tangible manifestations of abstract forces like War, Disease, and Excess. The plot of every Warhammer story is a bleak, bloody retreat ahead of an inevitable loss.

The body counts in these universes vary wildly. In one Culture story, the main character has been away from his homeworld for years and years. He asks for recent news, and learns that the most shocking event of the last few years was an accident in which two people died. In W40K stories, million-casualty terrorist attacks are background noise, and the heroes tend to commit murder about as frequently and casually as the average person checks Instagram.


To some extent, you can explain the different traits of these universes by the intents of their authors: Iain Banks wanted to imagine what a socialist utopia would be like; Games Workshop wants to produce novels that encourage people to buy pricey game figurines.

But you can also run them through an theoretical lens: in the very, very long-term, do we live in a post-Malthusian world, or a neo-Malthusian one? It’s a topic I’ve explored in the past. Literal Malthusian math no longer applies; we’re not constrained by arable farmland any more. But meta-Malthusianisms are everywhere. As it turns out, when people don’t spend every waking hour eking out an existence in grinding poverty, they find other things to do.


At the Malthusian limit, the value of a human life rounds down to zero. If you’re either starving, worried about starving, or fighting a war that’s ultimately driven by resource limitations, your ratio of QALYs to lifespan takes a dive. In the other direction, if you’re a hedonic utilitarian — and Iain Banks was an atheist utopian socialist, which tends to eliminate everything but pleasure from the telos menu — then prosperity ratchets up the value of a human life to unfathomable proportions. Banks is making a reasonable extrapolation here; as countries get richer, more of their incremental wealth gets spent on healthcare despite severe diminishing marginal returns.

This variance in values is reflected throughout both books. In the Culture novels, characters are constantly changing their appearance, job, and gender. In Warhammer, too, characters change their appearance — a conceit of the stories is that extended contact with evil causes physical mutations. Intra-Culture conflict is rare and polite (characters argue, even with Minds, but those arguments all have the tone of a loving parent telling a 19-year-old to choose a less practical, more fulfilling college major). In Warhammer, the conflict is constant; the nominal good guys are antiheroes at best, who profess a code of authoritarian values (duty, sacrifice, religious fanaticism, xenophobia) but also hypocritically fail to live up to it. Interestingly, both series tend to have protagonists who are fundamentally loyal to their society, but for opposite reasons: characters are loyal to the Culture because it gives them anything they could possibly want, which makes it the best place it could possibly be. It’s entirely conditional loyalty. In the universe of W40K, loyalty is expected, and unconditional; the reward for intense loyalty is dying in a more interesting way.

Oddly enough, even though Warhammer 40,000 reads as simplistic and the Culture as sophisticated, W40K is the more introspective of the two. Iain Banks was a nice left-wing guy who liked the idea of technology making the world a better place. I don’t know how every Warhammer writer feels, but the whole thing was originally meant as a parody of dark and gritty science fiction. It just turned out that if you took the most extreme parts of that genre, and 10xed them, you got something people absolutely loved. So Banks has a love-love relationship with his creations; he only wants his universe to have conflict so his characters will have something to do. The W40K writers may absolutely loathe their protagonists, and take immense satisfaction in their gory deaths and moral corruption. The way this plays out is that Banks will give his villains halfhearted justifications for going to war against the Culture, whom Banks thinks of as a bunch of fundamentally very nice people who just want to invite every sapient being to their interplanetary orgy. Meanwhile W40K villains make some pretty good points about how crummy it would be to live in a galaxy-spanning police state with widespread misery, zero respect for human rights, and demons.

Both universes are fictional. Moreover, they’re genre fiction, and most of W40K’s literary output qualifies as pulp. They’re good intuition pumps, though. If you extrapolate from the present and don’t get to the apocalypse, one of them is directionally true. Either technology and society improve in a self-reinforcing way, until we reach a future state that rounds up to utopia, or the post-Malthusian period that started around 1800 will end some day. We’ll lose something — social technology, natural resources, all electrical devices — and find that we’re so far beyond our newly-lowered carrying capacity that we simply can’t recover. History doesn’t end, except in apocalypse. Civilization is either a divergent function or a convergent one; it’s either compound interest or a Martingale bet. If you’re building the future, it’s good to pause, think of which part of the function has the biggest exponent, and see what another few millennia of compounding will do.


  1. Silence Dogood says:

    “The two fictional universes the best exemplify the two visions of the future are Warhammer 40,000 and the Culture series.”

    No, they don’t. Counter examples abound. (I like both series.) Fictional evidence does not support the author’s claim, despite this attempted rhetorical sleight of hand.

  2. Harry Jones says:

    What, no cyclical visions? No black swans, either?

    Utopia and dystopia are both monotonous. They’re end states, not bases for a plot.

    Fukuyama once infamously claimed that history was over. It wasn’t.

  3. Gwern says:

    Cyclical visions are unstable on the necessary literally astronomical timescales. Look at two of the attempted counter-example scenarios, the Moties and Dune. Moties requires extreme levels of astronomical handwaving to keep the Moties caged up on their planet, and Dune ultimately destabilizes into the ‘Scattering’.

    “Angels or apes.” Nothing in between.

  4. Dave says:

    WH40K is so dark that instead of designing a conveyor mechanism to refuel starships, they make slaves hand-carry the hot chunks of radioactive fuel across, suffering horrendous burns and dying in excruciating pain after just one delivery.

  5. Aretae says:

    Robin Hanson nailed this one.


  6. Kirk says:

    Aretae… Thanks for that pointer. I’ve never heard of this Hanson character, and his interviews look sufficiently interesting that I’ve ordered his book. No idea why the hell it isn’t available on Kindle, but there ya go. Some people just don’t want to make money, and like killing trees.

    As to the dichotomy between the two extremes of “futures”, I’m honestly not all that impressed by either. The Warhammer crap is just that–Nihilistic crap, and if I want that, I’ll just talk to a Democrat or an academic. The Culture, as envisaged by Banks is just about as bad, Brave New World ameliorated by high tech and the supposed small-g godlike beings he imagines running everything.

    My thoughts on the matter are that none of the above will actually take place, presupposing we don’t manage to trigger the Great Filter somehow. It’s gonna be more of the same old, same old, until something forces us to grow up. What that will be, and then what we chose to make of ourselves after, i have no idea. I don’t hold out a lot of hope for a Vingean Singularity, either–To my mind, I think that playing God and creating an intelligence is not quite as easy as our big brained ignoramuses imagine. I rather suspect that there are limits on it all, ones we haven’t figured out just yet. I’m sure that emulation will happen, but the creation of an actual thinking “ensouled” intelligence that can produce original thought is not going to be something we manage for quite awhile, and the results will probably be as neurotic as we are. And, they’ll probably go insane and then catatonic within seconds of being turned on, which will seem to them to be forever on their time scale. On ours, it’ll be a flash in the pan, and then we’ll be going “But, we wanted to talk to you…”.

    Doubt they’ll have much to say to us, aside from “F**k off…”.

  7. Aretae says:


    I’ve seen you here off and on for a while.

    Robin Hanson is, to my mind, and those of several other weird libertarian smartypants types, the smartest/most innovative of them all. I’ve been tracking him for 20+ years, and he has better new ideas than anyone. As always, most (almost all) new ideas are wrong, but he’s brilliant.

    Dreamtime is a notion Robin Hanson came up with suggesting that all the trends we have actually align:

    1st, the malthusians are wrong in the short term. For some time period, currently exceeding 200 years, innovation outstrips population growth.

    2nd, the Malthusians are necessarily right in SOME time frame, be that 1000, or 1 Million years. Yes, population growth is stalling currently, but there’s solid reason to believe that can’t last too long. If nothing else, the people who are alive will eventually have selected for people who have lots of kids

    If both of those things are true, then the present is properly construed as a magical nirvanna or Dreamtime when we have enough/too many resources. Both in the past and in the future we should expect those things not to be true.

    I think the Simler/Hanson book is magnificent. I think the Hanson Ems book is fascinating. And I hold to my current opinion of Hanson being a revolutionary thinker in the vein of Hume and Hayek.

    Wikipedia isn’t bad on Hanson presently:

  8. Kirk says:


    See, though… Here would be the thing: Malthus was wrong in the short term, wrong in the medium term, and wrong in the long term.

    Never listen to what people say; watch, instead, what they do.

    As we note in Europe and all the other nations of the “birth dearth”, having babies and raising kids ain’t something people really want to do. Witness the current fertility rates in industrialized modern Europe, and everywhere else. Germany, the last time I could steel myself to really look into it, had an overall fertility rate for ethnic Germans of something like 1.14. This is not something that Malthus wrapped into his thinking. He also failed to note what happens when people get to prospering, even in ancient times: Did the Romans not have big problems getting Romans to f**k Romans, and have Roman families? Hmmmm. I think he missed something, there…

    Anyone predicating their “future history” on the idea of overpopulation and scarcity of resources will probably want to rethink things. The reality will more likely be an “Empty Earth” sort of thing, and the only scarcity will be that of humans. It’s going to be damn hard to keep civilization going and prospering when the majority of the work force we’ve come to rely on just… Isn’t… There…

    Hopefully, robotics and AI will take up the slack, but consider this: True AI is gonna have to be treated as human, just like a child. If not, then you’re going to see a slippery slope like never before, and who knows where that ends. And, an AI that you create (kinda like making babies…) isn’t likely to be any more enthused about running a sewage plant or what have you than a “real human” is interested in having babies and doing scut-work.

    The real issue in the future is going to be the lack of people to do things, and the necessity to overcome that “minor problem”. Either that, or we go back to the caves…

  9. Isegoria says:

    I strongly suspect that Robin Hanson is enough of a weird libertarian smartypants type to leave Kirk sputtering with rage and swearing like an old-school sergeant.

  10. Kirk says:

    Oh, I think you’d be surprised. There was a time, and one not too long ago, that I would have had to reluctantly term myself a “pragmatic libertarian”. Not a LaRouche “ineffective libertarian”, but certainly a fellow-traveler of the movement.

    Now? I’m more of a “pragmatic anarchist”, mainly because I just don’t think anything much beyond the hunter-gatherer band sort of affair has any hope for actual longevity. Human beings are not wired for the massive social reef structures we persist in trying to make work, and the more we do them, the shorter the period between robust functioning and corrupt dysfunction. I can read the handwriting on the wall, and that writing is pretty emphatic: Human beings are shiite when it comes to long-term, large-scale organization and hierarchy. We’re too damn chaotic and self-interested, and trying to control that crap equates to self-domestication, and the next thing you know, you’ve exchanged the Roman provincial governor you had for the German nobleman and his band of primitive barbaric idiots that can’t see the value in maintaining the roads…

    We’ll see what I think of this Hanson character. From his interviews, he’s gone down a lot of the same roads I have, in terms of thinking about the future of things.

  11. Aretae says:

    I’m a huge julian Simon fan, as is hanson, and were both quite familiar with declining fertility.

    The picture is weirder than you paint it to be though for at least 3 reasons.

    1. Low fertility folks get outbres by higher fertility types. I see the fertility dip, and think its maybe a generation or two deep

    2. Measured among any socially similar cohort, richer means more kids. As true of the rich NYCers as it is of poor immigrants. Within cohorts wealth is POSITIVELY correlated with fertility. Further evidence of a temporary downturn.

    3. Hanson is perfectly good to discuss the problem in the context of Ems rather than physical humans…and the problem stays the same.

    Humans wont reproduce is one of the better antimathusian lines… but it cant persist for several generations…

  12. Unicephalon40D says:

    It’s not a fertility dip. It’s a downwards slope that got started a rather long time ago.

    “Humans wont reproduce is one of the better antimathusian lines… but it cant persist for several generations…“

    German and Italian fertility rates have been below replacement for nearly 50 years. In ethnic Germans and Italians, there is zero evidence of a rebound; in fact things are as bad as they have ever been, with TFR around half (!!) replacement.

    What do you expect to see? That fertility rates will bounce back soon — which certainly doesn’t seem to be the case — or that our German and Italian friends will be entirely replaced by fast-breeding immigrants or invaders?

    Malthusians are blind to reality and to human motivations. If having a large family isn’t favorable in terms of economic conditions and social norms, you will see large families only rarely. Children, today, are liabilities — and it shows.

  13. aretae says:

    I expect Mormons and homeschoolers and other many-kids-per-family types to outbreed everyone else in the rich world. Population growth should be positive again everywhere in a century.

  14. Kirk says:

    Aretae, I think your optimism on this issue is entirely misplaced. The Mormons are not somehow getting around this issue–I’ve got ties to the community, and most of the young Mormon women I know are not buying into the bullshit anymore than the Islamic girls are.

    Birth rates are dropping all over, even in the “undeveloped” world. We are in unexplored territory, and the long-term effects are equally unknown. Can a society like Japan even come back, locked into its ongoing existing cultural proposition? It’s not like they’re cutting off just a generation or two; this is an ongoing generational thing, and the conditions that created the lack of desire for kids are still there, with now-empty classrooms nationwide. How do you pull out of that sort of thing, when the young males and females don’t even want to date, let alone form families? Japanese girls find little attractive in Japanese boys, and the whole thing has locked itself into a self-reinforcing circle.

    I’m not sure that female education and empowerment are things any society can incorporate, and still keep its head above demographic water. That’s just observational fact, free of ideological weight–The girls don’t want kids, the boys don’t want girls who want kids. Even the “super-producers” can’t make up for five or six sets of their peers who aren’t contributing kids.

    Whole thing is going to go off the rails by about the 2050s or 2070s at the latest. What can’t go on, won’t. I refuse to speculate on what form all this is going to wind up taking, either. It could be solved socially or technologically, but it’s going to have to be solved–And, soon.

  15. Unicephalon40D says:

    The fertility rate in Utah is now below replacement:

    (Aside: This isn’t a problem that’s exclusive to developed countries. Fertility rates in Asia and the Middle East are edging closer to 2.1. Like Utah, India will likely go below replacement within a year.)

    In the US, the only people who are breeding are luddites — the Amish, Mennonites, Hasidic Jews, and other very small if not outright marginal sects like the Quiverfull. Do you expect them to outbreed and replace everybody else?

    Well, we’ve certainly got a problem on our hands, either way!

  16. Kirk says:

    Within a few generations, I fully expect several cultures to enact draconian measures to ensure that every woman has at least three kids.

    One thing you can say for the old system; it at least produced the kids you needed to keep the whole thing running. Modern “enlightened” and “feminist” versions of things… don’t.

    The future belongs to those who show up for it, and right now, most of the human race won’t be. The convulsions that the “hidden hands” are going to go through when that fact becomes apparent? Expect a lot of amusing back-tracking and cognitive dissonance. I expect that at some point, we’re gonna “white feather” non-mommies the same way we did men in civilian clothes during WWI.

  17. Dave says:

    The Amish solution is extreme but effective: No mass media and no hierarchy above local elders, so there’s nothing for SJWs to infiltrate. If one community hoists the rainbow flag, it dies out and is repopulated from another that didn’t embrace the gay, exactly as Darwin intended.

    There can be no political independence without economic independence, so the Amish must reject all technologies that require a central point of production.

    Women do not respond to incentives — they lack the necessary agency — but they are fine with outright coercion. We are descended from a thousand generations of free men and unfree women.

    Feminism has appeared in the end stages of several great civilizations, which then collapsed because men will not fight to uphold a social order that denies them obedient wives and children.

  18. Kirk says:

    “Obedient wives and children”… Yeah, right; pull the other one. I’ve never seen either one, and the “patriarchy” loons on either side of the line haven’t, either. You idiots remind me of the dumbass GIs that would marry some German chick, thinking they’d found the ultimate in compliant wives, and who then wake up around age 50 going “WTF happened… We’ve never done a damn thing I want or like… Ever…”.

    Really successful societies don’t function on authoritarian lines. Each sex has a role/function, and they fulfill it to the best of their ability. The idea that “women are compliant to the male” is a fundamental fallacy, and usually a huge f**king con by the women. Men think they run things, but who the hell is buying the clothes and dressing them? If it’s not them, are they really running their own lives, or are they being “managed”?

    It makes me laugh. Ninety-nine percent of the “I wear the pants in my household…” types are the same ones looking over at the wife for permission to go fishing this weekend. And, like as not, all their “friends” are wife-approved, no matter what the longevity of the relationship might have been with their buddies.

    “Obedient wives”. All y’all talking trash about that are too f**king funny to parody. What most of you clowns actually are would be domesticated animals who are too f**king stupid to recognize the velvet-lined trap you’re in, thinking you run your lives and that your wife does as you tell her. Ninety-odd percent of you don’t even get a say in how your daughters dress, or if they get to pierce their ears, wear makeup, or wear sexy panties. That’s all your wife, and you think you run your household in some significant way. It’s laughable, really… Sheep, all of you.

  19. Jacob G. says:

    As for Mormons, only about half of the youth stay in the church since the Great Awokening. Our fertility tracks society, though higher (or maybe just lagging). I think its still above replacement for now. Proselyting efforts in the USA are basically treading water. Most growth is now coming in what used to be called 2nd or 3rd world countries or their immigrants. It’s possible that in a 100 years or so that our church is not considered an American church, but a global south church. (Or they are the same.)

    Forced fertility will never happen. Children cost at scale just as much as at the family level. Who has a 40 year investment horizon and how would they not get their lunch eaten in the short term? Our rulers would rather our women work and agitate than rear. Those few governments who have tried to boost fertility, have not had an effect greater than noise.

    Another point: for almost all women completed fertility is lower than desired fertility (which in aggregate is above replacement).

    I recommend Lyman Stone, Brad Wilcox’s research on demography. Mary Eberstadt’s book is to this point.

  20. David Foster says:

    Haven’t read this in any depth, but looks interesting:

    I think most women do want children, although this desire often doesn’t come to the forefront of their minds until they are somewhere around 30. Still time to have several kids, if that’s what they want, IF they are already in a relationship…but if they haven’t found Mr Right yet, maybe not so much.

    The pressure on people to get post-graduate education, as well as college, isn’t helping here. Neither is the considerable cost of having additional kids, driven by dysfunctional public education (pay for private school or move to a neighborhood with good public schools, assuming such can be found), expensive college, and land-use practices driving up housing prices.

  21. RLVC says:

    “Obedient wives”. All y’all talking trash about that are too f**king funny to parody. What most of you clowns actually are would be domesticated animals who are too f**king stupid to recognize the velvet-lined trap you’re in, thinking you run your lives and that your wife does as you tell her. Ninety-odd percent of you don’t even get a say in how your daughters dress, or if they get to pierce their ears, wear makeup, or wear sexy panties. That’s all your wife, and you think you run your household in some significant way. It’s laughable, really… Sheep, all of you.


  22. RLVC says:

    Who has a 40 year investment horizon and how would they not get their lunch eaten in the short term? Our rulers would rather our women work and agitate than rear.

    The indigenous populations of most countries are undergoing managed decline. Software and offshoring have together eliminated the demand for most productive work. And in spite of all of the sub-replacement fertility of the middle- and upper-middle classes, the socioeconomic structure still does not have enough vacancies to support the need of the populations’ youths.

    A universal dividend commensurate to the immense per-capita productivity of the modern infoindustrial apparatus is not an option because it would immediately alleviate the financial pressure that is keeping everyone from rebelling.

    This is a critical time for the system and it needs to keep the plates in the air until ordinary humans’ martial potential is eclipsed is eclipsed by the nascent technodroid legions.

  23. RLVC says:

    “is eclipsed is eclipsed” => “is eclipsed”

  24. RLVC says:

    “ordinary humans’ martial potential” => “ordinary humans’ latent martial potential”

  25. RLVC says:

    Scratch that last one. Latent…potential is probably too much.

  26. Dave says:

    “Obedient wives and children” does not mean that women and children have some inherent quality that makes them obey you. It means that you have the right to punish them when they don’t.

    Where no one has the power to punish, no one has the power to manage, and there is no family, just some people temporarily living together.

  27. X-Ray says:

    Hope all is well with you, Izzi.

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