The Great Acceleration is a term popularised by Will Steffen and colleagues to describe the ramping up of human numbers and human impact over the recent decades. A set of striking graphs show exponential growth of population, energy use, resource extraction, and a host of other trends. And equally, pollution, depletion and deforestation show the other side of the equation.
This acceleration has gone on long enough for it to become culturally embedded. Continuous expansion is synonymous with progress. It is taken for granted that there will be more people with more wealth every year, using more advanced technologies.
Danny Dorling argues that the great acceleration is now slowing down. He describes how this is happening and what it means in his new book, Slowdown: The end of the Great Acceleration – and why it’s good for the planet, the economy, and our lives.
The book tracks this slowdown across a broad range of international trends, from GDP growth to population numbers and fertility rates, to house prices or growth in the number of aircraft flights. Being a man with an eclectic mind, Dorling throws in some more unusual trends too, such as the number of new books published in the Netherlands or the average height of fully grown adults.
This slowdown is a deceleration, not a fall. And it should lead to greater stability in future, a slower rate of change. There’s nothing to fear from that, says Dorling. It’s the constant change that’s abnormal. In words that reflect my own views in The Economics of Arrival, he writes that “a well ordered affluent society slows down.” And besides – we have to slow down to avert disaster. CO2 and global temperatures are the exceptions, and the slowdown doesn’t apply to them yet.
These trends are presented in an unusual format. I’ve added the population of Japan here as an example, and you can see more of these graphs at Danny Dorling’s website. These are timelines that show change through time, and also the ‘change in the change’ – the further a data point is to the right, the faster the growth. With many graphs curving to the left, the slowdown in many global trends is clear, though I have to confess that I don’t find these graphs very intuitive, and it took me a while to get my head round them.
The book does contain a fair bit of rambling. There will be asides and tangents – in this case they include sections on the history of clocks or printing presses, or how the invention of the thermometer changed human experience of temperature. Whether you appreciate this style or not is a matter of personal preference. I find the author’s free-ranging ideas rather helpful, interspersing the central points about acceleration, growth, demographics and inequality with notes from history, technology and culture. It grounds big ideas in more familiar things, bringing potentially abstract statistics back to real life experience.
The whole idea of a slowdown is counter-cultural too, in a world that assumes endless economic growth is good and essential. The never-ending advance of technology is also challenged here. Perhaps most importantly, this is a book that looks at long term trends. Dorling recognises that significant changes can happen over generations and end up overlooked because they are so slow. There is something rather hopeful about stepping back, looking at the story the data tells us, and considering that maybe things aren’t spinning out of control the way it can sometimes appear.