Slowdown by Danny Dorling

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Slowdown by Danny Dorling

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Not the easiest of reads, but a fascinating exploration of what's really happening in the world today. It will change your mind on at least one or two important issues.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 400 Date: April 2020
Publisher: Yale University Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0300243406

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We are living in a time of rapid change, and we're worried about it. Dorling tells us that the latter is normal, natural and probably good for us. We are designed to worry and with the current state of what we're doing in the world we have much to be worried about. However, over the next three-hundred-and-some pages, if you can follow the arguments, it sets out in scientific detail why either we shouldn't be as worried as we are, or in some cases that we're worrying about the wrong things. Mostly. Because mostly, things are not changing as rapidly as we think they are. In fact, the rate of change in many things is slowing down and the direction of change will in some cases go into reverse.

The key thing to get your head around in order to take on board Dorling's message is that many things are still changing in an unhelpful direction (usually increasing) – but the rate of that increase that is slowing and, according to his hypotheses, will continue to slow until in some cases it settles at or close to zero (i.e. in balance) or in some cases actually goes into the negative (decline).

The key areas he looks at in detail in terms of illustrating where things are slowing down are: debt, data, climate, temperature, demographics, fertility and economics. In each case he looks at the evidence for slowdown, and the potential reasons for it. These he puts in the context of what has happened in the past. In some cases, he relates recent activity to millennia of life on earth, but for the most part he talks in terms of roughly the last 1,000 years. He equates this to (roughly) 35 generations. This approach is clever because it enables us to look at what is happening on an evolutionary scale.

When scientists look at evolution in species they don't talk about years, they talk about generations. Humans however think in terms of years, which gives us a completely distorted view of time. What he then manages to show is that for the most part in the UK (the focus of much of the book – though it does get related to a wide range of other places in telling the story) in the UK very little changed for the first 15 of those generations. Things changed in some places – but then many of those things had changed in other places previously. Civilisations had come and gone for several generations, in China for instance. In Greece, in Rome. But these were really little more than changes in ownership, power shifts. Overall, in terms of humanity as a whole, as a global species, they were really fluctuations. Ripples.

Massive change of the kind our generation has come to take for granted really only started to take a hold in the last 10 generations, and that's on a generational scale which has the most recent one being children being born since 2013… so, from about the mid 1700s.

A lot of the 'stuff' that has brought us to where we are now, the things we think about as both good and bad, but definitely as "cause" in terms of the effects we now see start round about then, with the industrial revolution, the birth of capitalism as we now know it, the increase in global trade, the acceleration of innovation and invention, social progress, rights of men, women and children, improvements in education, population booms etc. All of that really takes a hold about the same time. Up until then, for all of our traditional reading of history the fact is that for most people, their every day life would be little different from that of their parents and grandparents. Change was happening but quite slowly.

The part of the picture that doesn't much get talked about is that over the last three or four generations that degree of change has already slowed markedly.

In terms of innovation and technology it is clearest – looked at a certain way. To take one example: communication – there have been a few leaps: e-mail, SMS, video-conferencing, but none of them (says Dorling) were anywhere near as big a miracle as the telephone. All of our video entertainment is merely refinement of the original moving pictures. Plumbing has scarcely changed in a hundred years. Most of the major innovations have already happened.

It's a persuasive argument. Unless there is some massive 'new' thing on the scale of, say, electricity, that we just haven't grasped yet, but it's increasingly unlikely.

The other big thing we worry about is population growth. But that too is already slowing. The U.N. keeps revising its figures downwards and if the trajectory continues population could actually be declining by the end of the century. Improvements in infant mortality, maternal death rates, female education, living in an increasingly peaceful world (apparently!) are all driving down birth rates around the world. In some places population is only increasing because old people are living longer, not because more people are being born, but that is clearly a bulge that will work its way through the system…there is limit to human life-span. In countries of very different political and geo-societal nature the trend is towards an average fertility rate of between 1.9 and 2.4 children per couple. Allowing for natural and unnatural deaths, that will clearly (over a generation or two) lead to a falling population.

In the economy, debt – which is the lifeblood of capitalism – is still on the rise, but there are signs that it do will shortly start to slow. A lot of the things funded by personal debt are reaching saturation point. Consumerism is being increasingly questioned as a lifestyle. If we consume less and less, the economy will slow down.

This is one of the things we worry about. As I write this review, we are in the grip of a viral pandemic which will cause a notable blip on the Dorling timelines in respect of population and economic indicators, but only a blip. We are also pre-Covid 19, in the grip of an up-coming generation that is questioning the whole consumerist model – and as Dorling freely admits, we have nothing with which to replace it.

He is optimistic, however. He provides evidence to support a world that (no matter how it feels in 2020) is actually becoming more equal, less divided, more peaceful, better educated, better housed, less greedy, less indebted. Along with this is evidence that it is inevitably one which is less innovative (refining rather than creating). He argues that we are heading towards what he calls stasis, but which is really just a more stable position, ebbing about the centre, growing and contracting. He argues that this is actually the norm. That the booms and busts of the last few generations are the anomaly. They only feel like normal because we have such short lifespans.

On climate and global temperature, he is less comforting. Evidence here is still of acceleration, presumably because of the lag between cause and effect. He joins his voice to the calls for action on the climate front. He offers optimism based on the speed with which we started dismantling nuclear weapons once we had a good enough reason to do so. We can 'get it' as a species occasionally.

What he fails to do clearly – and my one real criticism – is to make the direct link between the fact that if we DO take the necessary action there it will intensify the economic slowdown to an extent that we may not have the imagination or political will to handle it well. For me that is the challenge of the next couple of generations. I think they will win the fight for the planet (the climate / environment agenda) but won't necessarily be prepared for the economic consequences.

I would love to say that this is a nice easy, well-paced, read that will astonish you with what it has to say. Unfortunately, it's quite a scientific read so although the message is astonishing and is one we need to hear, I'm afraid you're going to have to work hard to get it. Unless, that is, you're a statistician. OR, you're a lot more visually oriented that I am. Each of the areas of change that he looks at is presented diagrammatically on a timeline, which depicts the actual degree of change and the speed at which it occurs. I have to confess that I only "sort-of" understand the explanation of these pictures. I don't feel too bad about this. Dorling helpfully provides an explanation for how to construct and read a timeline. It covers four pages. I tried. I really did. Then I gave up.

Only on trying to understand the timelines, not on the book. The book is worth persevering with, even if you skip read the more technical stuff, because it is full of interesting explanations not just about the evidence for the slowdown, but ideas as to why it happens and, why sometimes, you get anomalies. The good thing is that when he cannot explain an anomaly, he doesn't try to. I always trust someone more who is prepared to say "I don't know".

Sometimes you read a book and think 'erm, no'. Sometimes you read a book and think 'absolutely, yes, quite!' And every so often a book comes along which you highlight and scribble on and wonder about and know you'll go back to little bits of, to try to make better sense of snippets rather than trying to hold all of it in your head at once. This is one of those.

If you borrow it, please don't write in it! Buy your own, because you will want to highlight and scribble.

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