Category: <span>Progress</span>

Thoughts on Yard Care and the Modern World

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As I mentioned in my last post, we decided to move, but we don’t have a new house picked out yet. The advice we got was that, in this market, you have to sell the old house first so that you have a pile of cash to use when negotiating for the next house. Or in any case that was the advice as of four weeks ago when we made the decision. Now that interest rates are rising precipitously the housing market is changing pretty fast, so I’m not sure it’s quite as important, but it’s what we decided to do nonetheless. 

You may be wondering why we decided to move with interest rates going up and prices (particularly in Salt Lake) super high. Well a little over a year ago my wife told me that it was time for her mother to move in with us. At the same time it appeared that we would shortly be empty nesters, so this seemed to be an ideal time to remodel the house and put in an addition. So I secured the services of a general contractor and then waited, and waited, and waited some more. I could never get him to start the process. I couldn’t even get him to give me a bid. There was always one thing or the other that had to be done first, but he’d promise that next week he’d come out, and then he wouldn’t. 

Eventually after a year of this I decided it wasn’t going to happen and that while it was a terrible time to get the attention of general contractors it was a great time to sell old houses. So we pivoted to that. I never thought I’d sell our house (but I had dreamed of remodeling it for a very long time). As I mentioned in my last post, I have too much stuff. (I’m not a hoarder, but I may be on the spectrum.) But somehow that’s what we ended up deciding to do, and getting that old house full of 22 years of stuff ready to sell has been crazy, but as of posting, my house is under contract, and it was only on the market for four days so it looks like we pulled it off. Of course doing so required a lot of work, which is why this post, despite being short, took forever to put together, but I told you this might happen.

In any case, the point I’m trying to get at is that most of my efforts so far have been geared around selling our old house, the process of looking for a new house has barely begun. As part of that process we’ve obviously come up with some criteria. The two big ones are, my wife wants to have no more than a 15 minute commute to her job, and I don’t want a yard.

It’s not that I mind a yard per se. In my current house I’ve xeriscaped the front yard, and, particularly in the spring, which is right now of course, it looks amazing—if it’s been weeded. See it’s not the yard I mind, it’s all the work I have to do in order to keep it looking nice. Over the decades I’ve lived in the house I’ve tried various things to make that job easier. And while reducing water usage in a desert is nice, lower maintenance was the primary point of xeriscaping. You would think that putting down a weed barrier and then covering it with rocks would reduce that effort. You would be wrong. Somehow life finds a way, and I have spent considerable time weeding my xeriscaped front yard. 

I find this whole business of yard care to be kind of strange. When I’m out hiking I can stop at literally any point on that hike, look to the right or left, pick any spot, and without fail I would be happy if my yard looked like that. I assume most people would feel similarly if they conducted the same exercise, that I am not an outlier. And of course the punchline is, no one spends even a second of work to make that patch of ground look that way, that’s just how it is in a state of nature, in the complete absence of human intervention. Based on this I have long wondered why that isn’t an option for me. Why can’t I just sit back, do nothing, let nature take its course, and end up with a beautiful yard? 

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Well that’s up in the mountains, where you go hiking. Sure that’s pretty, with wildflowers and trees, but would you really want the natural look of the dry desert valley with sagebrush and tumbleweed?” And honestly, I’d be fine with that as well, mostly because my primary goal is not how it looks, but how much work it requires, but even so I think that it would look good. And more importantly it would be natural.

Of course if I sit back and do nothing I don’t end up with a beautiful mountain slope, or a rugged and austere desert landscape, and believe me I’ve tried it. A couple times I’ve been in the middle of starting a business and consequently had no time, and even more frequently I’ve just been lazy. During those times I invariably got a lot of annoying, ugly weeds. I don’t get any beautiful native plants, I got thistles and morning glory, and other crap like that. Of course everyone is familiar with this phenomenon, my experience is not unique, you may have tried it yourself or passed by houses where such an experiment was being conducted, but it is worth asking why does it play out this way?

I witnessed a large-scale example of this phenomenon a few years ago. Near where I live there was an old high school. Since the area where I live was aging the school district decided it didn’t need that school any longer and they closed it down. There were a bunch of different ideas for what to do with it. The city wanted to make it into a community center, but that was voted down (by two votes, something I talked about in a previous post). Then supposedly they were going to turn it into a movie set for those times when filming a high school was required, but that also fell through. At some point it wasn’t clear what was going to happen and they stopped taking care of the property all together. This went on for several years. And the end result was not native vegetation, or yellow grass with scattered weeds, but rather a forest of milkweeds that were all about chest high. (If you’re curious they did eventually build a bunch of houses on the land along with a new county library.)

How many years would it have taken for that land to return to the way it looked 200 years ago, before the Mormon Pioneers arrived? And yes I know that they weren’t the first humans in the valley but at the time this area was a “buffer zone between the Shoshone and Ute peoples” so it was about as untouched as you could get. Would it have happened in 10 years? 20 years? Never? I suspect because of invasive species and other changes to soil composition from fertilization and cultivation that it’s the latter. It would never go back, but how long would it take for it to not look awful? 

Of course the high schools’ original lawn didn’t look awful, which is kind of the whole point of lawns, they look nice, and apparently they’re also great for games like golf and as the name suggests, lawn bowling.  But they also require a significant amount of work. Lawns have to be watered and cut and fertilized, with weed killer thrown in there as well, year in and year out, and if that ever stops… Boom! A forest of milkweeds, or something equally awful.

Once I had this realization I thought about it a lot as I was putting forth my own efforts to keep my yard looking nice, but my ruminations were limited to the context of the work I was doing at that moment. Only recently did it occur to me that my landscaping epiphany is also a cautionary tale about the efforts and works of man in general. 

Obviously having a nice green lawn was not human’s first attempt to change the natural world in artificial ways, making it conform to their needs and desires rather than leaving it unmolested. These efforts have been going on for millenia. Even groups that have traditionally been viewed as living in harmony with nature altered the world to make it better conform to their needs. The Plains Indians didn’t merely live on the Great Plains, they helped make them into plains and keep them that way by setting large fires. They wanted to create as much habitat as possible for the bison they relied on.

But as much as this has been going on for thousands and thousands of years, more recently it has accelerated, and the difficulty at this point is trying to find some area where it’s not happening.

When one considers changes we’ve made to the natural world the mind is drawn to the big changes, the massive cities with their skyscrapers, the millions of acres of farmland, or the billions of tons of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere. And it’s understandable that people are focused on those changes, because they’re so huge, but it’s also interesting to look at it from the other side, at what happens when we make even very tiny changes. 

I mentioned hiking in the wilderness, and even the disturbance caused by a narrow trail can bring in weeds and other invasive species. I took this from a forest service document:

Most noxious weeds are early successional species that prefer highly disturbed sites such as areas along rivers and streams, trails, trailheads, roadsides, building sites, wildlife bedding grounds, overgrazed areas, and campgrounds… In Glacier National Park, exotic plant species showed a continuous distribution along road and trail corridors… Managing knapweed required preventing roadside infestations from spreading.

Road construction and maintenance activities mix soil layers, increasing soil microbial activity. Weeds exploit these newly available nutrients efficiently. This may be one reason that the density of weedy plants increases as intensity of disturbance increases. 

In other words, the minute we change something we alter the natural balance, bringing in short term opportunistic species rather than the long term sustainable stuff we prefer. So the sad truth is that my house couldn’t have the landscaping I see while I’m out hiking because the mere fact of building the house and living in it would make such a yard impossible. 

One could imagine that if I waited long enough, and if I was careful enough I could get pretty close, but generally that’s not what we do. Our solution to the problems caused by the initial intervention is to follow it up with still more interventions. If our activities create a fertile breeding ground for weeds we don’t wait for the natural species to claw their way back in, we introduce different plants we like better. We then water and fertilize the plants we prefer, while pulling or poisoning all the plants we don’t. Any “natural” plants that might still be hanging around are soon forgotten.

My point is not that this is bad, (though it very well might be) it’s that once we have started down this path there’s no easy off-ramp. The requirement to intervene becomes perpetual, and more often than not the amount of intervention that’s required just keeps increasing. And if for some reason we stop these interventions, or even if we just slacken our efforts somewhat because we’re distracted, or if we have to divert resources elsewhere, things don’t end up reverting to some harmonious natural state, rather we end up in the hellish situation where we have something that’s neither natural nor intentional. A forest of chest-high milkweeds.

Even if we never lose focus, and we always have the resources available to intervene as much or as little as we want, it’s not like intervention is an exact science, where we’re always able to get exactly the results we want. Sometimes we misjudge things and we push too much, sometimes we don’t push enough. Other times nature pushes back. 

The difficulties of intervention are legion, but here are just a few:

  • To start with there’s what I just talked about, nature pushing back. The best example of this is antibiotic resistance, but even closer to my analogy, weeds also develop herbicide resistance.
  • Determining the right level of intervention for a yard might be fairly straightforward, but what about more complex systems? Even hardcore government stimulus advocates agree that we pumped too much money into the economy as part of the pandemic response, and now we’re scrambling to undo the inflation that resulted. (Of course other things contributed to the problem as well, but that’s precisely my point.)
  • At the moment the Western US is suffering from a severe drought, which takes us to the next problem: At some point the resources being used for intervention will end up being insufficient, leaving people in the difficult position of deciding which interventions to continue and which to forgo. Do we use the limited water for hydroelectric power or irrigation?
  • Perhaps the most difficult part of all about intervening is the way in which interventions have unintended effects. In a manner similar to thinking that it would be nice to have green lawns, we also thought it would be nice to have cheap and abundant power. And it is very nice, unfortunately in the process we released billions of tons of CO2 into the air. This is another place where it would be nice to intervene, but the scope of the intervention exceeds our capabilities.

This last point is an important one. I fear that as the level of intervention required to solve our problems continues to scale up, both in size and in complexity, that more and more we lack the resources and the wisdom necessary to continue to intervene successfully. That eventually we won’t be able to maintain (some would say “prop up”) all of the various interventions which go into creating the modern world. And in those areas that we have been intervening it won’t smoothly revert to however it was before, but rather just like the lawn of that old high school, it will fail in ugly and unexpected ways.

As a final thought I find this idea that noxious weeds are the first on the scene when the natural order is disturbed to be a fascinating one. I haven’t had the time to fully process it because I just came across this idea as I was writing this post, but it does seem like new industries, changes in regulations, and even technological innovations have a tendency to attract the “noxious weeds”. But more importantly, beyond a discussion of any particular industry, as the pace of disruption increases, could we end up in a situation where so much of the long term order has been recently disturbed that the entire landscape is opportunistic weeds? Is it possible that this is already the state we find ourselves in?


Lots of tangential stuff at the beginning there, and then lots of wild speculation at the end. With nothing concrete in between, if you think paying for these nothing sandwiches is worth it consider donating.


The Problems the Past vs. The Problems of the Present

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I.

A search of my blog reveals that I’ve never had occasion to mention Gwern, of gwern.net. This is the post where I rectify that omission.

Gwern is a prolific and talented essayist who’s, deservedly, famous across maybe 0.1% of the internet and, tragically, completely unknown in the other 99.9%. Not only is Gwern prolific but his essays are obviously well-researched, carefully crafted and extensively footnoted. So one would expect that the first time I mention him it would be to agree and expand on something he said. But no, I’m doing the opposite of that. In an act of apparent madness, I’m going to come out swinging. I intend to criticize one of his essays. The particular essay I’m taking aim at is titled, My Ordinary Life: Improvements Since the 1990s

The essay is mostly a list of such post 1990s improvements or as Gwern introduces things:

When I think back, so many hassles have simply disappeared from my life, and nice new things appeared. I remember my desk used to be crowded with things like dictionaries and pencil sharpeners, but between smartphones & computers, most of my desk space is now dedicated to cats⁠.

In essence the list is an effort in the same vein with Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (which I did a post on back in 2018.) Though Gwern’s effort is more modest and more focused. In particular he worries that we suffer from a sort of blindness because these post 1990’s improvements:

[R]arely come up because so many of them are about removing irritations or creating new possibilities—dogs that do not bark, and ‘the seen and the unseen’—and how quickly we forget that the status quo was not always so. The hardest thing to see can be that which you no longer see. I thought it would be interesting to try to remember the forgotten. Limiting myself to my earliest relatively clear memories of everyday life in the mid-1990s, I still wound up making a decent-sized list of improvements to my ordinary life

After that intro Gwern proceeds to detail around 60 improvements, some of which are very broad (e.g. smartphones) and some of which are comparatively narrow (e.g. movie theater seats), but mostly these improvements are the kind of things you expect from someone who wants to defend progress and modernity. And to be clear I basically agree with him about all the items on the list, they are improvements. Still, despite this agreement I’m left with two observations:

  • We can agree that smartphones are an improvement over dumb phones, and that movies seats which recline are an improvement over movie seats which are identical to the ones in your school’s auditorium, but what precisely are we improving? Comfort? Is this strictly a hedonic analysis, or is there more to it?
  • As long as we’re talking about the seen and the unseen, everything Gwern puts on his list is very tangible, and easy to measure. What about things which are less tangible and harder to measure? What has happened since 1990 in those areas? Is it possible that by putting so much focus on improving our material world that we’ve neglected or even damaged less material aspects of our life?

Before tackling these observations directly, I’m going to start by approaching them obliquely in the form of a story. 

II.

My great-grandmother, Zena, had great difficulty bearing children. Over the course of 6 years she gave birth to five children, and all of them were either stillborn or lived only a few hours. Despite this she wanted to try again. My great-grandfather tried to talk her out of it, but eventually Zena prevailed upon him to try one more time. His condition was that it would be the last time. She was determined that this child would live and so as soon as she found out she was pregnant she went on bed-rest.

In later years my grandfather talked to a woman who lived in the same small Idaho town as his mother-in-law and who attended her during this time. The person said that Zena knew that the baby would live, but that she would die. And indeed that’s exactly what happened, my grandmother was born, but three weeks later her mother died. She was only 31.

My grandmother went on to have 10 kids, and those 10 kids produced 55 grandkids and those grandkids have produced, thus far, over a 100 great grandkids, and there are even a few great-great grandkids.

As you might have already suspected this story has a religious element to it. Obviously there was no way for Zena to be sure that she would die and her baby would live, but I also have no doubt that she had faith that this is what was going to happen. Whether this belief came to her before she got pregnant or while she was on bedrest, at some point she clearly made the decision that this was a sacrifice she was willing to make. 

Why was she willing to make this sacrifice? Here again religion enters the picture. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormons) we have people set apart as patriarchs, and their chief task is to give people what’s called a patriarchal blessing. This blessing is only given once, generally in someone’s late teens, and it is a blessing that lays out the future path someone’s life will take. In Zena’s blessing she was promised that she would have a “numerous posterity”. As you might imagine this promise was critical to the decision she made, and from my perspective, as one of her “numerous posterity”, the promise was very much fulfilled. 

It is not my intention to get into theological debate over the reality of faith, premonitions and blessings. I presented the story of Zena because I want you to imagine what would happen if she was given a choice, perhaps presented by a colleague of Clarence in a different version of It’s a Wonderful Life. She can choose that, rather than going through with her sixth and final pregnancy, she will instead be whisked forward exactly 100 years to 2012 where she will enjoy all the conveniences of modern life, all the things on Gwern’s list, but she will never have any children. 

Even without it being a condition of “the deal”, the idea that 2012 Zena would end up being childless is not hard to imagine, an increasing number of women are. Also as I pointed out in a previous post, fertility issues, which Zena was already grappling with, have only gotten worse. 

I admit that there are certainly a lot of factors to consider when deciding to journey to 2012 from 1912 and one might imagine that Zena would refuse just based on her unfamiliarity and the strangeness of it all. But as part of this hypothetical I want you to imagine that “Clarence” imparts information or reassurances, such that this unfamiliarity is not a factor. Zena still has the attitudes of someone born in 1881 but in whatever fashion 2012 has been robbed of its weirdness. I want Zena’s choice to be simple, have a child secure in the faith that this is the realization of the blessing she was given, or remain childless but have access to all the benefits of the modern world.

We know the choice she made in 1912. Knowing the dangers she chose to have my grandmother anyway. But would 1912 Zena have traded that child for all of the wonders of 2012 and beyond? My sense is that, if she had been given this choice, between having the child she so desperately longed for, but also dying in the process, and having no children, but all the conveniences of the modern world, that she would have still chosen as she did.

You don’t necessarily have to agree with me for the rest of my argument to make sense. I brought up the story of my great-grandmother, because it’s a stark example of what I want to talk about. Not because it’s the only example. But what exactly is it an example of? 

III.

Having told my story let’s return to the observations I was left with after reading Gwern’s list, and particularly the questions it evoked. As you’ll recall the first one was:

  • We can agree that smartphones are an improvement over dumb phones, and that movies seats which recline are an improvement over movie seats which are identical to the ones in your school’s auditorium, but what precisely are we improving? Comfort? Is this strictly a hedonic analysis, or is there more to it?

Having told my story and introduced my hypothetical, are we any closer to answering these questions? What sort of improvements are offered to 1912 Zena by 2012? Do any of them amount to anything other than improved comfort? You may review Gwern’s list yourself but I don’t really see anything on it that doesn’t belong in the comfort bucket. But that doesn’t mean that things other than comfort aren’t part of the 2012 package, just that they aren’t on this particular list.

As I cast around for things which might qualify as non-comfort related improvements it occurs to me that most people would consider the Zena of 2012 to be far more liberated, for one thing she could vote! Also, she would have a much better chance at pursuing some sort of fulfilling profession. But I think even if these things were given special emphasis when our hypothetical Zena made her choice, I still think she would choose having a child vs. not having one and being an attorney or doctor. Obviously this choice would be informed by turn of the century attitudes which are much scarcer these days, on top of her deep religious faith, which has also gotten scarcer. But setting aside whether those attitudes are good or bad for the moment. I think the discussion as a whole has revealed another area where 2012 might be an improvement over 1912. In addition to improving Zena’s comfort, the world of 2012 might also increase her influence and impact.

As I said it might, but right off the bat I’m doubtful. The question which confronts us is whether it’s possible that a childless Zena in 2012 would end up being more influential than the real Zena with her nearly 200 descendents (and counting)? Your answer to this question probably hinges a lot on the value you ascribe to my grandmother, and her numerous descendents. For my part I place a lot of value on those descendents, seeing how I’m one of them. And I think anyone who’s not an antinatalist would have to agree with me. To be sure it’s not inconceivable that 2012 Zena might have more influence. For instance she could end up marrying and then divorcing Jeff Bezos leaving her with billions of dollars with which to make an impact. But absent such improbable circumstances, I think it’s clear that the real Zena ended up being more influential. Particularly since her influence has had so long to operate.

If we decide that 2012 does not offer Zena more influence in the world, then once again we’re back to the idea that the difference between 2012 and 1912 is strictly one of comfort. Which is not to say that comfort is meaningless, but I for one have always believed there had to be more to life than that. And yes, there are all the things religion considers to be important, and certainly that’s a big part of this story. But even if we ignore that in deference to all the irreligious people out there, I believe there is one last measurement we should examine: From the cold and clinical calculus of evolution and genetic fitness, the actual Zena was an enormous success. 

From this standpoint if you survive long enough to reproduce, then you’ve won, and if you don’t reproduce, then it doesn’t matter what else you’ve done, you’ve lost. Now, to be clear this metric isn’t necessarily any more important than the previous metrics we examined of comfort or influence, but it’s yet another area where the actual Zena did much better than the hypothetical 2012 Zena. 

IV.

It may be argued that I’m putting too much weight on this one, somewhat unique example. And I agree, we will be broadening things out shortly, but first I want to extract as much wisdom as possible from Zena’s story, before we broaden our investigation. In particular now it’s time to examine our second observation/set of questions. 

  • As long as we’re talking about the seen and the unseen, everything Gwern puts on his list is very tangible, and easy to measure. What about things which are less tangible and harder to measure? What has happened since 1990 in those areas? Is it possible that by putting so much focus on improving our material world that we’ve neglected or even damaged less material aspects of our life?

Gwern brings up a very valid point: we have mostly forgotten (or in my kids’ cases never known) the inconvenience of looking up something in an encyclopedia, of having to tie up the phone line to use the internet, or of not having GPS when traveling to an unfamiliar location. And because we’ve forgotten about them they are unseen. But presumably the idea that something might be unseen doesn’t just apply to gadgets? If we’re really worried about overlooking something then those worries should mostly focus on things which are more distant in time and more immaterial in nature—things like the emotions, and mental health, and the drives and religious beliefs of people in the past. Yes, many people no longer remember not having wikipedia, but far more people not only can’t remember, but can’t even imagine having the kind of faith Zena did when she decided to get pregnant for a sixth time. Is the fact that they can’t, a sign of one of these unseen improvements Gwern should add to his list? Or is it an unseen setback? A way in which the modern world is worse than the world of the past?

At this point we will start to broaden things. But let’s start very slowly, with Zena’s husband. In the course of his life he lost his first wife and their first five kids. On top of that he lost his oldest son from his second marriage in a tragic accident when the boy was only three. My other paternal great-grandfather also experienced significant tragedy. Two wives, and eight of his children preceded him in death (out of a total of three wives and eighteen children). All of these events are clearly awful, and the fact that such things mostly no longer happen is a major selling point for many of the people who declare the superiority of the modern world. Which is as it should be. 

Given the tragedies I just mentioned, surely even if Zena wouldn’t come to 2012, her husband, and my other great-grandfather would, right? Perhaps, but perhaps not. To begin with, I think there’s a similar chance that they might end up childless, and possibly unmarried. But beyond the tangible trades like kids vs. no-kids, there are almost certainly less tangible things that would be part of the deal as well. I think if they were presented with this choice, they would want to know about these less tangible things as well.

In my initial hypothetical I said that I wanted Zena’s choice to be simple, a choice between having a child in 1912, or remaining childless but getting all the benefits of the modern world. I didn’t mention all of the disadvantages of the modern world. My guess is that you didn’t notice that omission, because most people imagine the story of the future as one of beneficial progress, not one of uneven progress. But clearly there are some disadvantages, and anyone choosing the present over the past would want to know about those as well. But what are they? Is there some list, similar to Gwern’s, which discusses all of the unseen disadvantages of modernity? 

Before moving on to discuss these disadvantages, let me be clear, I am not blind to the problems of the past. I have put a lot of weight on having children in 1912 vs. not having them in 2012, but of course there were millions of people in 1912 (and earlier) who died without ever having children, or who died while they were children themselves; millions of people killed by tuberculosis, smallpox, or the plague; and finally, there were all the people killed by the wars we have hopefully abandoned. I’m not saying that the past wasn’t full of tragedies, rather my point is that by vanquishing the visible tragedies we have been lulled into the false belief that we have vanquished all tragedies. Not only have we failed to vanquish all tragedies, but with our focus on dealing with what can be seen and measured we have created tragedies in areas that are harder to see and measure. What might those tragedies be?

V.

In some sense the whole point of the blog is to explore the unseen tragedies of modernity, so I’m not going to spend very much time rehashing all of the various candidates. Rather I want to examine things in light of Gwern’s list.

The list provides a useful contrast because it’s basically the opposite of my efforts, it’s a list of the unseen benefits. But what’s interesting about it, what sparked me to write this post in response, is that the vast majority of the list is composed of material benefits. Benefits that are actually very tangible even if people have a tendency to discount them. 

There’s the stuff I’ve already mentioned like smartphones, movie seats, and always on broadband. On top of that there are dozens of other things which boil down to the idea of “Yay! Better technology!” But the thing is, no one disagrees with this, with the idea that we’ve recently gotten some really cool gadgets. They may not realize how fast these gadgets have arrived, in just the last few decades, and for that reason Gwern’s post is still useful. But when people talk about the unseen effects of the modern world they’re not talking about the fact that they no longer have to rewind VHS tapes (another item on the list). They talk about unseen societal problems. But never fear, Gwern does have a section for societal improvements. Though perhaps it would have been better if he hadn’t included it. 

Without this section it would have been a perfectly interesting list covering a very narrow, but still interesting topic. But by including it, and I guess if you’ve made it this far I can be blunt, the whole thing comes across as hopelessly naive. Technology’s effect on society is the whole debate, the thing everyone worries about. It’s where the battle is being fought and where casualties are happening. Some of these casualties, perhaps the majority, are unseen. They’re casualties of mental health, of functional sterility, of loneliness and despair. Though not all of the casualties are intangible, even if it may be argued that they’re still unseen. But I’ll get to that in a moment. First, what does Gwern have to say about such things in his “Society” section?

As I mentioned, it’s underwhelming, and it probably would have been better if he’d left it out entirely. About half the word count concerns stuff that seemingly didn’t fit neatly anywhere else. Things like better board games, faster shipping, and IP law. That leaves just five items which are:

  1. Lower Dysfunctionality
  2. War on Drugs Lost
  3. War On Smoking Won
  4. Nicotine gum & patches 
  5. Environment

Whether the environment has, on net, improved since the 1990s I will leave to others. I have no problem granting that we did win the war on smoking, though one could make the case that the modern world made smoking a problem in the first place. (Sales of cigarettes in 1912 averaged ½ a cigarette per adult per day, which rose to 11 in 1963 before falling to 3.5 in 2012. Which is still well above the 1912 rate.) Also, as Gwern himself admits, there has been some retrogression in the form of vaping. If we put nicotine products in with smoking that just leaves “Lower Dysfunctionality” and the “War on Drugs Lost”. 

Let’s take the second one first, and since we’ve narrowed things down to a single point we can afford to include the entire text:

  • War on Drugs Lost: with the gradual admission that the War on Drugs was never a good idea, marijuana has been medicalized or legalized in many states, and psychedelics research is enjoying a renaissance; other drugs are increasingly treated in a more appropriate medical/​​rehabilitative framework.

I don’t really have strong feelings on the issue of marijuana and psychedelics. I think it’s possible that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, from the idea that they’re horribly dangerous to the idea that they’re the cure for everything. But as I said, I don’t really have a dog in that fight. Which just leaves us with the bit about “other drugs” being “treated in a more appropriate medical/​​rehabilitative framework.” So I guess the entirety of the opioid crisis is covered in this one phrase?

If you ever read my previous posts on Dreamland by Sam Quinones, you may recall that the medicalization and normalization of opioids sort of kicked off the whole crisis. In fact there was just a paper released that tied the crisis to the introduction of OxyContin in 1996. (Should it have been on Gwern’s list?) Unfortunately that wasn’t the biggest recent news on this subject. That belonged to the news that overdose deaths from May 2020 through April of 2021 reached 100,000 which was a 30% increase over that same period the year before. Anyone want to place a bet on whether more people will die from overdoses than COVID in 2022 or 2023? What about whether it will get more coverage in the press? As I alluded to earlier, even tangible casualties sometimes get less attention than they should. 

Before I leave the subject of drugs I need to include a statistic I came across recently in The Economist:

There are 50% more injection drug-users in San Francisco than there are students enrolled at its public high schools.

I thought that was a particularly trenchant summation of a lot of our current “unseen” problems.

VI.

This just leaves us with “Lower Dysfunctionality”. Again I’ll quote Gwern in full:

  • Lower Dysfunctionality: crime, violence, teen pregnancy, and abusive drug use in general kept falling, benefiting everyone (even those not prone to such things) through externalities
    • URBAN LIFE: it is now reasonably safe and feasible to live in (most) big cities like NYC, Chicago, or DC—we’re a long way from Taxi Driver and annual summer urban riots (outside California). This is a large part of why urban living has become so much more desirable (with the unfortunate consequence of urban inelasticity driving up rents, as the increases in desirability outpace the non-increases in availability).

To begin with he’s trying to cover an enormous amount of ground with this one point. Furthermore it’s interesting that Gwern, who’s the king of links and footnotes, would have none for this point. Perhaps you can start to see why I think he should have just left it out. It’s both insanely ambitious and woefully inadequate. The point acknowledges the many intangibles of modernity but leaves most of them off of the list (both the list within the point and the larger list) and those it does mention it dismisses in four words, that they: “in general kept falling”.

As you can imagine, I would have really liked to have seen links or footnotes, because while the data on property crime looks pretty good, the data on violence shows a huge spike over the last two years. The abusive drug use I mostly already covered, which just leaves us with teen pregnancy and the larger issue of sex in general. This is a huge topic, and this post has already run long, so let me just toss something out there. Why is porn not on his list? 

Recall that it’s a list of the improvements brought about by technology since the 1990s. It’s hard to think of anything technology has done more to “improve” than the availability of pornograpy. And yet, it’s not on the list. Not only does it match well with the technology criteria, I think it matches well with the theme of “unseen” improvements as well. (It’s not as if it doesn’t get any attention, but it doesn’t get much.) So why did Gwern leave it off his list? Is it because it isn’t clear yet if it’s an improvement or not? Or maybe he decided it was one of the few places where technology didn’t improve things, it made them worse. Or perhaps it’s too contentious. Or maybe, he just didn’t think of it. Certainly all of these are possibilities. And while I’m interested in whether Gwern thinks it belongs on his list, in the end one man’s opinion doesn’t make much of a difference. In reality we all need to have an opinion on it, because everyone is walking around with a smartphone or working on a computer where, unless they do have an opinion and have acted on it, it’s never more than five seconds away. 

This is a great example of my point, it is the intangibles of the modern world and our opinion of them where everything of consequence is being decided. Everyone agrees that smartphones are a cool technology. What they can’t agree on is whether the alchemy of that technology and the technology of social media is awful or awesome. Or whether it’s awesome for adults, but awful for kids. Or whether it’s okay if used in moderation but terrible if used to excess. Or whether it’s possible to become addicted to it. Which is to say no one is arguing that there haven’t been improvements in material conditions since the 1990s. And certainly since 1912. What people haven’t been able to figure out is if it also comes with unseen setbacks. And if it does, whether the setbacks outweigh the improvements or vice versa.

In the end Gwern was right about one thing, there is the seen and the unseen. The problems of 1912 are easy to see. People, like Zena, died in childbirth, and other people died while they were still children. Then there were those who went hungry.  Disease was rampant. But I don’t think they had many unseen problems. On the other hand these days any problem we can see has someone working on it, and on many of them, particularly the problems of the past, we’ve made great progress. But I fear that we have accumulated intangible harms, while also losing many of the intangible benefits as well. There’s more to life than the comforts we’ve created and the toys we’ve built. More to appraising whether the present is better than the past than creating a list of material improvements. More to the world than what we can see.

You may think that it’s a tragedy that anyone would want a child so badly that they would be willing to die in the attempt. I think it’s a tragedy that no one can even imagine that level of devotion and faith any longer. 


I should apologize to my relatives for appropriating the story of Zena for my third rate blog. As penance rather than following my usual strategy of asking for money I will instead ask that you do some genealogy. Work on finding and collecting the stories of your own ancestors. Start with FamilySearch.org


Children, Overpopulation and Tommy Boy

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Frequently, in this space, as I’m discussing one topic, I’ll mention another, tangential topic, and declare that it “deserves a post of it’s own.” In order to help me remember, I keep a list of the topics I’ve promised to revisit, and I was looking through it recently when I realized that I haven’t done a very good job of making good on those promises, so for the next few posts I plan to, at least partially, rectify that. I’ve chosen to start with one of my more recent promises, the promise to talk about demography and population growth.

For most people the term “population growth” immediately brings to their mind the dangers and challenges of overpopulation. They may be thinking of the explosion of people which occurred during the last century, or they may be visualizing the graph of world population which looks like a giant, impossibly steep, peak rising up out the flat valley that was the world’s historical population. Or they may remember China’s recently abolished one-child policy and the tragedy of the accompanying gendercide. (Though I recently heard that China’s missing girls are not as missing as we thought and have started showing up in censuses when they get older.)

These people worry about overpopulation despite the fact that the crises predicted in the late 60’s by such books as the Population Bomb and Make Room! Make Room! (the basis for the movie Soylent Green) never came to pass. And also despite the fact that birth rates are falling everywhere and below replacement level in most of the developed nations.

In light of this, are the people who worry about overpopulation worrying unnecessarily? Do we no longer have to worry about overcrowding and famines and being forced to resort to cannibalism? (Soylent Green is people!) It’s hard to say, but this post will attempt to clarify things, with the caveat that, as always, I’m wary about any predictions of the future.

One of the first people to worry about overpopulation, or more specifically the idea that population growth would outstrip food supply, was Thomas Malthus, an English cleric and scholar. In 1798 he published his influential book, An Essay on the Principle of Population. The central idea was that food supply increased arithmetically while population increased geometrically. In the late 60’s, for someone considering a world where the population had all but doubled in the previous 50 years. It certainly must have have appeared that the Malthusian vision of mass starvation was finally about to come to pass.

But at the very same moment as the new Malthusians were predicting doom, the Green Revolution was taking root (no pun intended) all around the world and in developing countries like India and the Philippines, vastly increased food production was keeping the long predicted famines at bay.

When I was in high school I did two man policy debate and one of our topics concerned US agricultural policy. That year my debate partner and I constructed an affirmative plan around food aid to Africa. This was in the late 80’s and the Ethiopian Famine from earlier in the decade was still fresh in everyone’s mind. As we proceeded to debate this topic we encountered a lot of counter arguments involving the dangers of overpopulation. In particular some people actually argued that it’s better to let 10 people starve now than to let them reproduce resulting in 100 people starving in the future. As you can see things get twisted and dark pretty fast when you’re dealing with this issue.

By the end, after spending a year defending against these sorts of arguments I was convinced that Malthus was just wrong, food production could and would keep up with population. Additionally, even back then it was apparent that, on top of increasing food production, the world’s population growth was slowing.

As you can imagine, a high school student in suburban Utah wasn’t the first to put all this together, and while I don’t know if this belief is as widespread as the belief about overpopulation, people were starting to talk about population decline, or what some people call the demographic winter. And several decades on many countries, most notably Russia, Japan and even Germany have seen years where their total population fell. Obviously this is not unprecedented, but in the past when a country’s population declined year over year there was generally some external cause like war or disease. Historically it didn’t decline by choice.

Of course, as they say, one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and the fact that population has started to decline in a few countries doesn’t mean that world population is declining, but even if it’s not, the proponents of demographic winter point to a time, not far distant, when worldwide population will peak, and after that, start to decline. In other words, when you combine the Green Revolution with the trend towards declining fertility, it’s very reasonable to take the position that we don’t need to worry about overpopulation. And indeed that is the position I myself held until very recently, but over the last couple of years I’ve started to entertain the idea that maybe things aren’t as cut and dried as I had hoped.

To begin with, predictions that world population will peak rely on fertility rates continuing to decrease, especially in Africa as the continent becomes more developed. All of this results from projecting the declining birth rates experienced by most of the developed world into underdeveloped places that still have high fertility rates. And indeed fertility rates in developing countries had been following that trend. But that trend has slowed recently, as evidenced by this quote from The Economist:

Alarmingly, population growth in Africa is not slowing as quickly as demographers had expected. In 2004 the UN predicted that the continent’s population would grow from a little over 900m at the time, to about 2.3 billion in 2100. At the same time it put the world’s total population in 2100 at 9.1 billion, up from 7.3 billion today. But the UN’s latest estimates, published earlier this year, have global population in 2100 at 11.2 billion—and Africa is where almost all the newly added people will be. The UN now thinks that by 2100 the continent will be home to 4.4 billion people, an increase of more than 2 billion compared with its previous estimate.

So which is it? Is overpopulation still a concern? Or is the population in decline? If it is in decline might that also be a problem? (Particularly when you consider that the modern world was built around an expectation of an ever-expanding workforce.) Where do things really stand at this point?

Of course so far when speaking of overpopulation I’ve mostly focused on whether we can feed everyone, but there are obviously a lot of people for whom the problem of population is much greater than just whether or not people are going to starve. For example many environmentalists are desperately concerned about the ecological impact of the people we already have without even factoring in whether world population is going to continue to increase. (Fun fact, the most extreme example of this is the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.) Once you turn to looking at the environmental impact you quickly realize that there are a lot of contradictory dynamics in play.

It is widely agreed that the trend of falling fertility is powered by modernization, development, urbanization, etc. Thus, people have speculated that one of the reasons birthrates, in places like Africa, haven’t fallen as much as expected is that development has slowed. From this it seems logical that we should do what we can to speed up development, but development comes with a large environmental toll. For starters more developed countries emit significantly more CO2 on a per person basis than less developed countries. This creates something of a Catch-22. We can have a lot of people whose individual impact on the environment is low, or we can have fewer people whose environmental impact is a much greater.

To show you what I mean let’s take the country of Kenya as an example. If we look at the graphs provided by the United Nations, we see that, taking the low estimate, the Kenyan population starts leveling off around 2100 at slightly more than 100 million people. Up from approximately 50 million right now. If we assume that in order to keep Kenya’s population at the lower end of the estimate that Kenya has to become at least as developed as, say, Brazil, then in the process of doubling its population it will also end up increasing its per capita emissions by eight times the current level.

In other words, following these assumptions, emissions for the entire country of Kenya will increase to 16x their current level, even though the population only doubles. If on the other hand it’s per capita emissions remain constant then it’s population can increase by 16 times without the actual level of Kenyan emissions being greater in this scenario than in the more developed, lower-population scenario. The actual high-end estimate is that Kenya ends up with 220 million people by 2100 which means the population would only be about four and a half times its current level, so well below the 16x increase required for this option to have the same emissions as the lower population/higher per capita emissions scenario.

Of course this is a crude estimation and doesn’t take into account the fact that better technology should hopefully lower carbon emissions across the board. But even these back-of-the-envelope calculations show that if carbon emissions were your only standard then it’s better for Kenya to be fecund and poor than barren and rich. The colonial overtones of this section have probably already gotten me in trouble. But I wanted to illustrate some of the competing priorities that come into play when you talk about this issue. And this is part of what I was aiming for in my post on global warming. That there are a variety of complex situations facing us in the future and they’re all interconnected. But despite all of the complexities. Everyone agrees that population growth is bad. And that while implementing repressive programs to curb the population, like China’s one-child policy (which I mentioned earlier) are also bad. That, if people, naturally, and of their own choice, start having fewer children that’s great.

But does everyone truly believe this? Or are there some people who actually believe that population growth is good?

I think there is such a group. A group that speaks frequently about the importance of having children. A group that further might even use the word “multiply”, when speaking of child-bearing, as in the phrase multiply and replenish the earth. And while I am loath to speak on their behalf, I don’t think I’m stretching things to claim that they strongly support bringing more children into the world. (Though they get hung up on wanting to make sure these children have two parents who are married.) If you haven’t already guessed I’m talking about the leadership of the LDS Church.

If you do a search on this topic on lds.org you’ll find that there are numerous talks which reemphasis, what is often called, the first commandment. The command to multiply and replenish the earth. A commandment given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Elder Boyd K. Packer gave particular emphasis to this commandment in the last talk he gave before his death:

The commandment to multiply and replenish the earth has never been rescinded. It is essential to the plan of redemption and is the source of human happiness. Through the righteous exercise of this power, we may come close to our Father in Heaven and experience a fulness of joy, even godhood. The power of procreation is not an incidental part of the plan; it is the plan of happiness; it is the key to happiness.

A very similar phrase is found in The Family: A Proclamation to the World. So, as I said, I don’t feel like I’m stretching anything to call this the official position of the Church.

Interestingly as I was going through the talks I came across one given by Elder Joseph W. Sitati titled Be Fruitful, Multiply, and Subdue the Earth. Elder Sitati is from Kenya, which is the reason I used Kenya in my example above. Whatever colonial overtones may be present in my discussion of these issues, I hope you’ll agree that he suffers from no such handicap.

Now does all this mean that the leaders of the Church are advocating for unchecked population growth? What might essentially be called “the more the merrier philosophy”? I don’t think so, though I did find a quote from Elder Dallin H. Oaks where he said, back in 1993, that you should have as many children as you can care for. That aside I don’t think LDS Leaders are pushing to have as many people as possible. I think rather that they understand that not wanting to have children is a sign of an unhealthy society.

What do I mean by this? Well as usual the answer can be found in that greatest of all American movies, Tommy Boy. At one point in the movie the advisers are urging Tommy’s father (played by Brian Dennehy) to wait it out, and he tells them that he can’t because, “In auto parts, you’re either growing or you’re dying. There ain’t no third direction.” As it is in auto parts so it is with humanity. You’re either growing or you’re dying, there ain’t no third direction. Perhaps you think I’m being flippant, but let’s take a moment and break it down.

As we have seen it’s fairly easy to have a growing population. Such has been the case for all of human history up until a few years ago, and is still the case in much of the world. Apparently it’s also fairly straightforward to get to a level of progress and development where your population falls. In fact, it’s alarmingly straightforward. There doesn’t appear to be any special trick or policy, nor do you have to be especially advanced. Countries from Azerbaijan to Brazil have below replacement fertility. Even though one’s a post-soviet, 98% Muslim, central European country of 10 million people and the other is a religiously and ethnically diverse, Latin American country of 210 million people. Evidently we’ve mastered growing and dying, but what about the holding steady. Is there a number of people such that when we reach it we’ll just start having kids at exactly the replacement rate?

I don’t know that there is. Certainly countries who are experiencing a declining population and below replacement level fertility rates have tried various policies to encourage people to have more kids but these policies have largely been ineffective. The most extreme example of falling birth rates is Singapore which has a total fertility rate of 0.82. (Replacement rate is currently 2.1.) They have tried a number of policies aimed at increasing their birthrate including sponsoring a National Night party in which Singaporean couples were euphemistically encouraged to “let their patriotism explode” in order to give their country “the population spurt it so desperately needs.” (The party was sponsored by Mentos: the Freshmaker!)

Some of these tactics have been modestly successful, but none have come even close to raising fertility to the point where the population would be stable. And as you can imagine going from 0.82 to 2.1 is going to be very, very difficult, and involve huge societal changes in everything from marriage, to work, to the underlying culture. If Singapore is the future (and many people think that it is) then the challenge humanity faces is not that of bumping a 1.9 total fertility rate up a few points to 2.1, it’s a matter of taking a world that “naturally” wants to be at 0.82 (or even lower) and then somehow figuring out how to increase that by two and half times.

To return back to the LDS leadership, they encourage people to have children because they want society to be healthy, and a society that stops having children is unhealthy because it’s dying, and by definition that’s unhealthy. As I said above, I’m generally loathe to speak for the Church and it’s leadership, but I’m certain they think that poverty and starvation are bad. And insofar as those follow from overpopulation I imagine that they think that overpopulation is bad too, but there are lots of people who are worried about that. It’s well covered territory, even now, when fertility is falling. What isn’t being talked about is the myopia and selfishness present in a society that has stopped having kids. Perhaps that accusation seems unfair, but I don’t think that it is.

The accusation of myopia, interestingly enough, relates back to last week’s post. For those that need a reminder, I talked about human happiness deriving from being part of a community of sufferers. Beyond the obvious jokes about children causing suffering to their parents, traditionally this suffering has centered around raising and providing for a family. We suffered because we wanted a brighter future, and without children there was no future. These days the future seems pretty well taken care of, and suffering has largely been eliminated (at least in those countries with low birth rates.) Thus there’s no need to worry about the future, and certainly no need to undergo any suffering for it.

As far as selfishness, in countries with a below replacement level fertility, what have people traded their children for? I understand that childless adults get to travel more. I hear from my friends who are childless that they’re able to play more video games. Not having children obviously increases your disposable income and it also unquestionably increases your discretionary time. Both the additional money and the additional time can be used by individuals to pursue personal fulfillment. How is all of this not selfish? I understand that I am simplifying things enormously, but I also think that being selfish is more clear-cut than many people want to admit.

Returning to overpopulation, I am not blind to the potential problems, but neither am I convinced that a society which is still growing is less healthy that one that is atrophying. The more I dig in and discuss these issues the more convinced I am that there are some deep malignancies present in modern society. And that in our pursuit of material comfort that we have profoundly damaged our souls.

The harvest is past, the summer is ended and we are not saved…


I mentioned that kids are expensive, well I have four, so consider donating. And if you don’t have any kids, and I this post upset you, you should also consider donating, I mean think of all the money you’ve saved.


Tribe by Sebastian Junger and the Strange Diseases of Progress

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The subject of unsolved mysteries is one of those topics which can be reliably counted on to spark people’s interest, making it ideal for clickbait lists, questionable cable programs, and, in our own case, blog introductions. Though the unsolved mystery I want to start with does not involve pyramids, or Atlantis, or the identity of Jack the Ripper, you’re probably not even aware that it is a mystery. But not only is it one of the most profound mysteries of our age, but unlike the pyramids, Atlantis, and Jack the Ripper this mystery has serious implications for the future of society.

I first encountered this mystery when I read a review of Empire of the Summer Moon. The review was written by Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex (though it appeared in his previous blog.) The review mentions a curious fact:

All of the white people who joined Indian tribes loved it and refused to go back to white civilization. All the Indians who joined white civilization hated it and did everything they could to go back to their previous tribal lives.

This is the mystery. If modern society is so awesome why did it hold no appeal for the American Indians? At the time, I just filed this fact in the bin, unsure at the moment of what to do about it. Then, a couple of months ago I read the book Tribe, by Sebastian Junger. And he also mentioned this same mystery. Of course Alexander and Junger are not the first people to notice this, and both of them end up quoting from Benjamin Franklin who witnessed this phenomenon first hand:

When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language, and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. But when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoner young by the Indians, and lived a while with them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.

Junger also quotes from a french émigré named Hector de Crèvecoeur who was writing in 1782:

Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European.

What made the American Indian tribes so appealing to the Europeans, and made the Europeans so unappealing to the Indians? And does this imbalance hold any lessons for us today? Junger’s book tries to answer that question, and it ends up being one of the few books where I wish it had been longer, but what he did write about was so great that I immediately knew it deserved a post.

Before I get into the book, however, I want create a framework for things first. I don’t think I’m being too controversial when I say that the vast majority of people feel like 2017 is a lot better than 1917 or 1817 and it’s certainly a lot better than 1017. I would probably count myself among those people. But how do we know that the past was worse? And what standard are we using to decide that it was worse? We can use things like deaths, or disease, or caloric intake, or maybe percentage of people in slavery to estimate what things were like, but when it really comes down to it we don’t know. Especially as we begin to consider more subtle topics like life satisfaction or the ideal way to build a community.

As an example of what I mean, let’s go back to a book I frequently reference, Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker. One of the big themes of the book is that deaths from warfare have declined dramatically over the last few centuries. And that consequently the world is a better place. In support of this Pinker provides lots of graphs, one of which looks at various archaeological digs, and extrapolates the percentage of violent deaths in different eras. If you look at this graph you’ll see that by far the highest percentage of violent deaths was found at an archeological dig in South Dakota dating to the 1300s. This event has come to be known as the Crow Creek Massacre. And it might be an outlier, but even if it is, everyone pretty much agrees, Pinker especially, that American Indians experienced violent death at easily 10 times the rate  present in any modern society. But yet these are the same American Indians Benjamin Franklin and Crèvecoeur were talking about, whose society was so attractive that no one ever voluntarily left it. If violent death is a one to one proxy for unhappiness then this would have never been the case. We all assume that a lower chance of death leads to greater unhappiness, and yet this is evidence that that’s not the case. That we might not understand the past as well as we thought.

If American Indians provided the only example of this counterintuitive result, it would still be a mystery, and it would still be interesting, but I wouldn’t be writing about it. But as Junger shows in his book, this is not the only example of things being the opposite of what we might expect. And consequently the topic deserves a closer look because something similar is happening even today.

For a look at more recent examples of this Junger turns to his experiences during the Siege of Sarajevo in the early 90’s. As you can surely imagine the conditions were terrible. Junger described it thusly:

Over the course of the three-year siege almost 70,000 people were killed or wounded by Serb forces shooting into the city–roughly 20 percent of the population. The United Nations estimated that half of the children in the city had seen someone killed in front of them.

Violence on that scale is scarcely imaginable for most people in a developed country. And the natural assumption is that all of the people who lived through the siege must have been scarred for life, particularly the children, and yet when Junger returned there 20 years later he found that people missed the war, that “they longed for those days. More precisely they longed for who they’d been back then.”

Junger interviews one Bosnian journalist who was seventeen at the start of the siege. After being severely wounded by shrapnel, she was eventually evacuated to Italy. But she missed the wartime camaraderie so much that she went back to Sarajevo, crossing the lines to do so. Twenty years later when Junger talks to her he asks her if people had ultimately been happier during the war. Her response was, “We were the happiest, and we laughed more.”

Sarajevo is by no means the only example of this. At the beginning of World War II when the United Kingdom was preparing for inevitable aerial bombardment by Germany, or what came to be called the Blitz, the government assumed that it would cause mass hysteria among the population. But nothing of the sort happened. As Junger describes it:

On and on the horror went, people dying in their homes or neighborhoods while doing the most mundane things. Not only did these experiences fail to produce mass hysteria, they didn’t even trigger much individual psychosis. Before the war, projections for psychiatric breakdown in England ran as high as four million people [roughly 10% of the population], but as the Blitz progressed, psychiatric hospitals around the country saw admissions go down… Psychiatrists watched in puzzlement as long-standing patients saw their symptoms subside during the period of intense air raids.

That last bit is particularly interesting. It’s not just that normal people pulled together during the Blitz, but more interestingly, the number of people suffering from mental illness and the severity of those illnesses actually declined. And, lest you think this was a particularly English, stiff upper lip response, the same thing happened in Germany which suffered far worse aerial bombardment than England. The Allies expected that this massive bombing campaign would destroy German resolve, and in the end it did the opposite. Industrial production actually rose during the war, and the cities in Germany which hadn’t been bombed ended up being where morale was the lowest.

But of course, as I said in the beginning this sort of thing is the opposite of what we’re lead to expect. We expect war to be psychologically damaging in a way that nothing else is. This expectation certainly didn’t start with Vietnam, but it was arguably popularized by it. Everyone has seen movies depicting Vietnam vets as broken individuals, who were never quite the same after their experiences, and this trend has continued through to the present wars. But how do we reconcile this idea with the stories and examples I’ve already related?

You might not think that it needs to be squared, that everything I’ve said thus far can be dismissed as anecdotal evidence, but this is an issue that has been studied and the results are unequivocal: Large scale disasters improve mental health. The only question is why. For Junger the answer that it re-establishes the tribal societies of the past. This is the link between Sarajevo and the American Indian, between the English and the Germans, and this is where the title of the book comes from. But unlike Junger I’d like to focus more on the disease than on the cure.

If psychological damage due to war and disaster is part of the disease, then the most common symptom of that disease is PTSD, or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.  And indeed the rates of PTSD among returning veterans has reached an historic high, and yet, combat deaths are as low as they’ve ever been. Junger compares the various wars:

This is not a new phenomenon: decade after decade and war after war, American combat deaths have generally dropped while disability claims have risen. Most disability claims are for medical issues and should decline with casualty rates and combat intensity, but they don’t. They are in an almost inverse relationship with one another. Soldiers in Vietnam suffered one-quarter the mortality rate of troops in World War II, for example, but filed for both physical and psychological disability compensation at a rate that was 50 percent higher… Today’s vets claim three times the number of disabilities that Vietnam vets did, despite…a casualty rate that, thank God is roughly one-third what it was in Vietnam.

If you parse this out, Vietnam vets had a disability per casualty rate that was six times higher than World War II vets and current vets have a disability per casualty rate 54 times as high as the World War II vets! You may or may not have noticed that I engaged in a subtle flip. We were talking about how warfare improves mental health and suddenly we’re talking about how modern wars appear to do the opposite. But of course these two things are just opposite sides of the same coin. All of things we talked about leading up to this involved intense bonding experiences, which affected an entire community all at once. Creating what one of the people who’s studied this issue called a “community of sufferers”. With that in mind the difference between World War II and Vietnam and the current wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan becomes obvious. At each step war become less of a community effort and more something that some people do in a far away place that has nothing to do with the rest of us.

In fact people who do more fighting end up with fewer psychological issues. As illustrated by the following statistics:

  • During the Yom Kippur War Israeli rear-base troops had psychological breakdowns at three times the rate of the frontline troops.
  • 80 percent of the psychiatric casualties in the US Army’s VII Corps came from support units which were never under fire.
  • During World War II, American airborne units, which saw the most intense fighting had some of the lowest psychiatric casualty rates.
  • Returning to the Yom Kippur War, Israeli commanders suffered four times the mortality rate but had only one-fifth the rate of psychological breakdown.

It appears that the more modern and safe the war experience is, the more likely someone is to develop some form of disability. As the final example, Junger reports that, roughly half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have applied for permanent PTSD disability, but only 10 percent experienced any actual combat. Obviously one possibility for explaining this is that people may be imagining, exaggerating or even faking their symptoms. Junger mentions that possibility, of course, but even after accounting for that the increases in psychological disability remain. Additionally there is another statistic which is also going up and is unlikely to be faked, and that’s veteran suicides.

If PTSD is the most common symptom of the disease then the worst symptom is suicide, and here again the situation is counterintuitive. Of course, as I mentioned in a previous post much of what we know about suicide runs contrary to expectations regardless of whether it’s the suicides of veterans or the suicides of teens. Though this observation does nothing to make it less tragic.

Suicide is another area where the comparison between modern society and tribal societies is illuminating. Among the American Indians depression based suicide was essentially unknown. And when the Piraha, a tribe that lives deep in the Amazon, were told about suicide they laughed because the idea was so hard to comprehend. Sometimes I don’t think we’re any closer than the Piraha to comprehending suicide, but despite that, no one is laughing.

When examining veteran suicides we see the same things that we saw with PTSD. Specifically that there is no relationship between suicide and combat. Veterans who were never under fire are just as likely to commit suicide as veterans who were under fire, and in fact among recent veterans, “deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan actually lowers the risk of suicide.” As I said at the start this is one of the great unsolved mysteries.

Having spent most of our time looking at the disease through the lens of war and the military it’s time to ask if it’s present in society at large. And the answer to that would have to be yes. In fact the evidence is all around us. If suicide and depression are its symptoms then there is no shortage of examples.

The question we then have to ask is whether these symptoms are getting worse or better, and this is where we come back to one of the subjects I started with. The idea that we can’t, or in any case don’t, know what the past was like. This is particularly true when it comes to a condition like PTSD, which wasn’t even added to the psychological lexicon until 1980 (though there were precursors as early as 1952). Thus, we don’t know if Roman centurions had PTSD, we don’t know if survivors of the Black Death, or of the Lisbon Earthquake had PTSD. And when it comes down to it, we don’t even know much about PTSD outside of richer countries. But as I pointed out what we do know seems to indicate that it might in fact be a modern phenomenon

If Junger is right and the disease stems from not having to struggle, and feeling isolated, then it makes sense that lots of people should be grappling with this disease, since the modern world abounds in both those qualities, in fact you would expect it to be getting worse. But is there any evidence for that?

You may have recently heard that recently there has been a big increase in deaths among the white working class. This was first pointed out by Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton and his wife Anne Case when they published a paper showing that while every other group was experiencing a decrease in mortality, for white working class individuals the death rate was going up. It’s unclear why it took so long to notice this, but now that it’s been pointed out the trend is an obvious one and it meshes very well into the opiate epidemic which I wrote about previously. As more information has come out about the nature of these deaths and as the phenomenon get’s more attention it’s acquired a label: Deaths of Despair.

I’m going to go a little bit out on a limb here, and engage in some speculation, as well, by declaring that rising levels of PTSD and deaths of despair are just the tip of the iceberg. That we have a real and growing problem and that progress is making it worse. Most people are going to find that hard to believe, and it’s easy to talk about the benefits of progress and modernity if you’re not one of those that progress has left behind. And to be clear its beneficiaries get to do most of the talking, while it’s victims have been largely silent. Thus you end up in a situation where when the half of the country that hasn’t gotten quite as good deal elects someone which, at one point, was declared to have a better chance of playing in the NBA Finals than winning the presidency, it’s doubly shocking. First, that it happened at all, and second that no one saw it coming. But that’s the part of the iceberg that’s under water. We may notice the deaths (eventually) but they sit on top of a huge number of people who are experiencing all of the things that Junger was talking about: They don’t have anything left to struggle for, and they certainly don’t have a community to struggle with.

The drug overdoses, the alcoholism and the suicides all sit on top of a large group of people suffering from the disease, whose symptoms are largely invisible. These sufferers include males who don’t have a single close friend or spouse to say nothing of a community. It includes the millions of people who’ve given up looking for work. It includes some of the 1 in 3 millennials who live at home with their parents, 25% of whom are not working or going to school. And it probably includes the people who have decided that it’s easier to sit at home and play video games all day.

Normally it’s easy to dismiss stuff like this by saying that things are getting better, the world is getting richer, technology is getting cooler, everything is getting easier. But those arguments don’t work in this case, because all of those things are very probably making the situation worse. And if they are making it worse how much worse is it going to get?

Our world is full of assumptions. We assume that eliminating struggle is a worthwhile goal. We assume that an eventual life of leisure is what everyone needs. We assume the past was worse than the present. We assume we know what we’re doing. And we assume that peace is always good and war is always bad. And when we make an assumption with disastrous consequences, we correct it, but what about when we make assumptions that have subtle negative consequences, creating diseases of society that only turn up only years or decades later?  If this is what’s happening, will we be wise enough to examine all of these assumptions and admit that maybe we’re wrong?


If you’re one of those who’ve benefited from progress than surely you can spare a buck a month and donate to this blog. And if you’re one of those who’s been on the losing side, keep your money. You may need it.