A growth frontier is a means by which an agent, group, or population can increase its resources. The term "growth" comes from economics, while the term "frontier" comes from exploration.
Growth can exhibit zero-sum or negative-sum, vs positive-sum dynamics. You can think of this in terms of a pie chart. Zero sum growth is an expansion in the slice of the pie. Positive-sum growth is an expansion in the pie. When creatures pursue unexplored activities, they experience positive-sum growth.
The problem, according to Weinstein, is that organisms can become "addicted" to growth. When positive-sum growth runs out, organisms turn to zero-sum or negative-sum growth. All species have gone through oscillations: periods of zero-sum growth, and periods of positive-sum growth. This means we must have “programs within us that deal with both phases.”
If you live in a phase with positive-sum growth, we come to expect that human nature is good. People will compete, but not by unfairly interfering with each other.
When a creatures finds a positive-sum opportunity, the population will grow to the point where the opportunity is exhausted. The more food you find, the more mouths you create.
An example of a positive-sum opportunity is a geographic frontier. For example, when Paleo Indians discovered the Americas at the end of the last Ice Age. Another example of a positive-sum opportunity is a technological opportunity: doing more with less. Bret gives the example of Inca terracing.
In the absence of positive-sum opportunities (new land or technology), people look for alternative avenues of growth. Bret calls this the “transfer frontier”: one population steals resources from another population. This is zero-sum. An example is when the Spaniards discovered the new world (with Amerindians already there).
Key takeaway: This explains why economic/technological slowdown creates an increase in tribalism. Our political systems are designed on the premise of future growth. When no positive-sum growth is available, people attach themselves to exclusionary groups to corner off resources.
The fact that status is zero-sum might explain why there is so much identify politics surrounding the acquisition of status positions.
“Tyranny is the endgame of prosperity.” Bret says the holocaust was “a monstrous act, but interpretable as rational.” Are we born racist, or made racist? The reality is more complicated: we are all born with racism within us as a “dormant” program, to be unleashed when there are no other options. This explains why the same people who are perfectly nice in peacetime can commit atrocities given the right conditioning.
Populations discover new opportunities, and expand to exhaust those opportunities until they reach carrying capacity again. Then when growth runs, out it sparks tribalism and tyranny, destroying the interconnected systems that supported opportunities in the first place.
Weinstein proposes what he calls “engineered stable abundance”. We need to maintain the sensation of abundance perpetually. Ideas like this are linked to Game B. We can take cues from civilizations that were relatively stable and extremely long-lasting. The Mayan civilization existed for thousands of years. They were such a far-sighted civilization that they measured time in very long time scales, thousands of years.
The Maya were “prone to building massive monuments that don’t appear to serve any material purpose.” If creatures will grow their populations to exhaust positive-sum avenues of growth, then maybe the Mayan monuments were not all waste: they were a mechanism for diverting resources away from unsustainable growth. In periods of low growth, you can simulate normal growth by reducing spend on temple construction.
The future of humans has many dangers.
The conditions in which humans evolved are very different than modern environments. To some extent, all species deal with this issue. The problem for humans is that technological progress comes such a fast rate that our genes do not have time to adapt. Novel complexity: we have developed technologies that are vulnerable, and have not had time to learn that from experience.
Many civilizations have the origin myth that they are a people descended from survivors of a great calamity. Many cults prophesies the end of the world. Humanity has gone through a series of bottlenecks. Perhaps we are all descended from those who made through. Small groups that prepare for disaster, seemingly irrationally, are sometimes rewarded for it. Bret worries that today, however, our systems our so interconnected that we would not be able to recover from a bottleneck.
Sometimes we create evolving systems. These can present a danger when they don’t do what we want them to. For example, when we develop algorithms designed to hold our attention on social media, even people who design these algorithms cannot overcome them.
Bret references the political compass, saying that we get too caught up in partisan debates that we do not see the true enemy of authoritarians.
He goes on to say there is another danger: utopianism. Utopians make “two errors.” First, they optimize for a single value, to the detriment of other values. Second, they reject iterative improvement and course-correcting, thinking they know exactly what the end-society is going to look like.