Peter Thiel on the flawed mantra of endless growth: “What if the Club of Rome is right, though, and we really have reached the limits to material growth? I put to him for a number of reasons — culturally and materially — it seems more than possible that we’ve irretrievably passed the point of Peak Progress. If this is so, he tells me, the first response should be frank realism. We should, he suggests, “at least be able to talk about it, and figure out ways to make our society work in a low-growth world”. But he sees this attitude less as realism than a cop-out: “I think that sounds like a lazy excuse of people who don’t want to work very hard. It sounds too much like an excuse.” Far from being a matter of humans bumping up against natural limits, he argues, “I want to blame it on cultural changes, rather than on us running out of ideas”.
What, then, does he see as driving the cultural side of stagnation? Thiel thinks the decline of Christianity is a major factor. To him “a more naturally Christian world” was “an expanding world, a progressing world” that hit its apogee in late Victorian Britain. “It felt very expansive, both in terms of the literal empire and also in terms of the progress of knowledge, of science, of technology, and somehow that was naturally consonant with a certain Christian eschatology — a Christian vision of history. Then somehow the stagnant ecological world that we’re in is one in which there’s been a collapse of religious belief. I want to say they’re somehow sociologically linked.
What’s missing from the world now is a clear vision of the future — or even any vision. Reviving Christian faith might help, he thinks: “if we were more Christian, we would also have more hope for the future, and if we’re less Christian we’re going to have less hope. And there’s probably less action.” Failing this, any vision of the future at all would help, especially if it’s an optimistic one. Thiel thinks even bleak or apocalyptic visions are better than no vision at all. The picture of European climate catastrophe associated with Greta Thunberg is, as he sees it, one of only three realistic European futures; the other two are “Islamic sharia law”, and “Chinese Communist AI”.
“I think there are dangers to science and technology, but there are also great dangers in stagnation,” he tells me. In his view, though, the only way out is through: the fantasy of returning to some form of vanished past is just that, a fantasy. “We can’t go back to the Paleolithic era, we can’t go back to an agrarian economy, we can’t even go back to a 19th century industrial economy. And then it seems to me that we don’t know how to make a zero-growth society work.””