Q: What do you think of the degrowth movement?
A: There’s something to it. But solving the climate crisis requires growth. It requires development of alternative energy systems. That’s a huge amount of work. That means reconstruction of buildings and cities. That means efficient mass transportation. All kinds of growth are required. Now, what’s required are the right kinds of growth, not the kind that’s wasteful consumption that you throw away tomorrow, not using non-biodegradable plastics, not destructive agricultural processes, high-fertilizer agricultural processes that are destroying the land. You have to have the right kinds of growth.
Q: Let me ask you about another technology that I’ve heard you say could solve a lot of problems. Automation usually gets thought of in the way you could lose jobs from it. I’ve seen you talk about it in an interestingly optimistic way, that if you could harness the right politics around it, automation could be a way toward a better, more economically dignified future for people. How do you think about automation and its role in the future of the economy?
A: Any on-Earth boring, destructive, dangerous work should be automated to the extent possible. That frees people up to do better work, more creative work, more fulfilling work, safer work. So, that’s all to the good. How automation takes place is a matter of social and economic policy. It can take place in many ways. Let me just mention one important careful study, which showed what the choices are, by a former colleague of mine — the fine historian of technology David Noble, who unfortunately died a couple of years ago. His major work was on the machine tool industry, the core of much of modern industrial capitalism. By the 1950s, the machine tool industry was beginning to be automated. Numerical processing was coming in. Computers were coming in, ways of potentially changing the machine tool industry using the new tools were coming along. There were two ways to do it. Both ways were experimented with. One way, de-skilled machinists replaced skilled machinists, first of all, by automation, but also by turning the people themselves into robots, who just followed orders and so on. That was one way. The other way to do it was to put more power into the hands of skilled machinists, still using the same technology. As Mr. Noble shows pretty convincingly, there was no economic reason to pick the first way. It was picked, it was picked — that’s the way it was picked, but for power reasons. The ownership management class wants to de-skill people, wants to turn them into subordinate subjects, not independent agents and actors. So, they pick the mode of automation which de-skilled machinists — still around, but not skilled — and turn them into servants, rather than controllers and actors. That happens all the time.
Q: How likely is it, in your view, that a nuclear bomb gets used in combat in the next decade?
A: Well, you can predict with confidence that it won’t be used. Because if it is being used, nobody’s going to be around to care about it. So, nobody will show you that you were wrong. No, I’m exaggerating. That’s a nuclear conflict between major nuclear powers. India and Pakistan could have a nuclear war, which would probably wipe out South Asia, but people would survive elsewhere. If there’s a nuclear war between China and the United States or China and Russia, it’s essentially saying everything is over. I mean, there will be survival, but nobody would want to live in a world of the kind that would survive. There is an international treaty — just was accepted by the U.N. General Assembly a couple of months ago, the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Prohibition, that means no manufacturing them, no storing them. Prohibition, get rid of them. None of the nuclear states joined the agreement, unfortunately. But if the U.S. wants to demonstrate this leadership role that American intellectuals like to talk about, OK, here’s a way to do it. Let’s take the lead in making efforts to move toward accepting the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. I mean, I should say that’s not an extreme position. It’s been advocated by people like Henry Kissinger; George Shultz, late Secretary of State under Reagan; Sam Nunn; people who’ve been right at the heart of the nuclear weapon system. They understand that you can’t have a nuclear war. And we’ve got to make moves toward eliminating. There’s another way to do it, a very significant way — establish nuclear weapon free zones around the world. Doesn’t end the problem, but it limits it. And it also indicates symbolically, which is not insignificant, that we want to opt out of this. It’s totally wrong. We don’t want to be part of it.
Klein: That’s an appropriately sobering place to end.