The Anti-Promethean Backlash
Brink Lindsey has a series of Substack posts on the Great Stagnation. The first two
are very good reviews and summaries of where we stand. The third discusses what Brink calls The Anti-Promethean Backlash
…the anti-Promethean backlash — the broad-based cultural turn away from those forms of technological progress that extend and amplify human mastery over the physical world. The quest to build bigger, go farther and faster and higher, and harness ever greater sources of power was, if not abandoned, then greatly deprioritized in the United States and other rich democracies starting in the 1960s and 70s. We made it to the moon, and then stopped going. We pioneered commercial supersonic air travel, and then discontinued it. We developed nuclear power, and then stopped building new plants. There is really no precedent for this kind of abdication of powers in Western modernity; one historical parallel that comes to mind is the Ming dynasty’s abandonment of its expeditionary treasure fleet after the voyages of Zheng He.
…And this is what happened as a result:
This is a chart of U.S. energy consumption per capita, which until around 1970 showed steady exponential growth of around 2 percent a year. The author calls this the “Henry Adams curve,” since the historian was an early observer of this phenomenon. But around 1970, the Henry Adams curve met the anti-Promethean backlash — and the backlash won.
The chart comes from Where Is My Flying Car? by J. Storrs Hall. It’s a weird, wacky book that rambles all over the place; it’s also brilliant, and it changed my mind about a matter of great importance.
Before reading Hall, if I had seen this chart — and maybe I did see something like it before, I’m not sure — I would have had a completely different reaction. My response would have been along the lines of: “Wow, look at capitalism’s ever-increasing energy efficiency. We’re getting more GDP per kilowatt-hour than ever before, thanks to information technology and the steady dematerialization of economic life. All hail postmaterialist capitalism!”
But Hall argues convincingly that the plateauing of the Henry Adams curve didn’t represent the natural evolution of capitalism in the Information Age. The bending of that curve, he claims, constituted self-inflicted injury. Our midcentury dreams of future progress — flying cars, nuclear power too cheap to meter, moon bases and underwater cities — didn’t fail to materialize simply because we were lousy at guessing how technology would actually develop. They failed to materialize because the anti-Promethean backlash, aided by with loss-averse apathy, left them strangled in their cribs.
He is especially convincing on nuclear power. My prior impression was that nuclear power had always been a high-cost white elephant propped up only by subsidies, but Hall documents that back in the 1950s and 60s, the cost of new plants was falling about 25 percent for every doubling of total capacity — a classic learning-curve trajectory that was abruptly halted in the 1970s by suffocating regulation. In 1974 the Atomic Energy Commission was abolished and the new Nuclear Regulatory Commission was established. In the almost half-century since then, there has not been a single new nuclear power plant approved and then subsequently built.