Category: <span>Technology</span>

1971 Continued – It’s Energy Stupid!

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I- The Historical Increase in the Amount of Energy Available

This is a continuation of my last post, where I examined different explanations for the way a bunch of things all seemed to simultaneously go off the rails in 1971. In simpler terms in the last post I attempted to answer, as the eponymous website asks, WTF happened in 1971? But I left one explanation out. I saved my favorite for this post. But before we can get to that I need to go much farther back, all the way to 1650.

It was in about 1650, a century before the Industrial Revolution, that the United States (or what would become the United States) started growing and from then until (almost) now it grew at a steady average of 2.9% per year. Despite the passage of decades and centuries this growth was basically constant. Though recently there are signs that it’s started to slow. (Average growth since 2001 has only been 1.7%, 2% if we don’t include last year.) After hearing this one is immediately prompted to ask: What was the long term average growth rate before 1650? Or in any case before the industrial revolution? As it turns out it was all but zero, perhaps a long term average of 0.1%? Based on this one might just as reasonably ask, WTF happened in 1650? 

It was presumably a combination of a lot of things. The mother country was at the tail end of 300 years of fighting the black death with the associated drop in population. (The last great outbreak, the Great Plague of London, ended in 1666.) Such plagues, while being vast, unimaginable tragedies, also end up being great for innovation. Additionally, the U.S. is a vast continent, full of resources, and in 1650 it had been emptied by its own set of plagues, the black death being only one of many. And then of course there was the scientific revolution, which got the ball rolling on all of the inventions that would come to define the later industrial revolution.

This last element was what really made the difference. There had been temporary surges in growth before. Rome experienced one every time they conquered a new territory. But the scientific revolution changed a short-term surge into a long term trend. Growth that continued decade after decade and year after year as the scientific revolution gave way to the industrial revolution. When people think of the industrial revolution they picture the associated inventions: the cotton gin, the telegraph and most of all the steam engine. And while these inventions were all important, what really enabled the ongoing growth was the additional energy our improved ingenuity allowed us to extract. First in the form of coal and then in the form of oil. 

In other words, lot’s of things may have gotten the growth going, but it was the extraction and use of millions of years worth of accumulated energy in the space of a few centuries, that really kept it going. The engine of growth has always been energy, and the big difference between the pre-1650 0.1% growth and the post-1650 2.9% growth was the amount of energy available. And between 1650 and 1950 or 1971 (depending on how you slice it) economic growth and the amount of energy available went up at basically the same rate. In some respects this connection is almost tautological. If you want to make more stuff you need more energy to do it. Economic growth implies a similar growth in the amount of available energy. 

To be fair, having more energy isn’t the only way to increase economic output. You could become more efficient in using the energy you already have. You could also increase output by increasing the number of people — though in essence this is just another form of energy, just not in the way we normally think of it.

II- The Henry Adams Curve

These three things, growth in population, efficiency and the amount of energy being produced in turn created the 2.9% economic growth we’ve been experiencing since the mid 1600s. By predictable I mean that we can fit it to a curve, in this case it’s the “Henry Adams Curve”, a concept introduced in Where Is My Flying Car? by J. Storrs Hall (which I reviewed here, and also reference here and here). From the book:

Henry Adams, scion of the house of the two eponymous presidents, wrote in his autobiography about a century ago: “The coal-output of the world, speaking roughly, doubled every ten years between 1840 and 1900, in the form of utilized power…”

In other words, we have a had a very long term trend in history going back at least to the Newcomen and Savery engines of 300 years ago, a steady trend of about 7% per year growth in usable energy available to our civilization. Let us call it the “Henry Adams Curve.” The optimism and constant improvement of life in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries can quite readily be seen as predicated on it. To a first approximation, it can be factored into a 3% population growth rate, a 2% energy efficiency growth rate and a 2% growth in the actual energy consumed per capita. 

Here is the Henry Adams Curve, the centuries-long historical trend, as the smooth red line. Since the scale is power per capita, this is only the 2% component. The blue curve is the actual energy use in the US, which up to the 70s matched the trend quite well. But then energy consumption flatlined.

The 1970s were famously the time of the OPEC oil embargo and the “energy crisis.” But major shortages preceded the embargo by a year or two. They were caused by Nixon’s energy price controls, instituted in 1971. The embargo wasn’t until 1973. [emphasis mine]

III- What Happened in 1971? Energy Decoupled from Growth

In 1971 (or thereabouts) energy decoupled from economic growth. Okay, fair enough, but a lot of other things also happened in 1971. Why is this a better explanation than the end of Bretton Woods, or the peak of American power? Why do I think this is the true disease rather than just another symptom? Why is it my favorite explanation? 

First off, one of the points I brought up in the last post was the lack of data for so many of the phenomena that were being highlighted. Half of the graphs didn’t go back farther than World War II, making it impossible to know if 1971 was the beginning of something exceptional or a return to normality. But this is a trend that has been going on since before America was even a country. Making this change, potentially, far more consequential. This isn’t a reversion to the 1920s, as was the case with inequality, this is completely new territory: Modern technology without the associated growth in energy which made the world modern in the first place.

This gets us to the second reason I prefer this explanation. It illustrates the fact that this is completely uncharted territory. Modern society is built on the idea that the amount of energy available on a per capita basis will just keep growing. Perhaps you’ve seen the meme where there’s a picture of the Wright Brothers on one side and on the other side is a picture of Neil Armstrong, and the caption points out that only 66 years separate the Wright Brothers first flight from the moon landing. I don’t know about you, but that fact blows my mind. It’s also the perfect illustration of what it looks like for the amount of available energy to grow at a compounding rate. In the mid-1900s we had been experiencing this sort of growth in available energy for centuries, and in those years, when science fiction was at its height, it’s vision of the future was based on it continuing. Which is how they arrived at the idea of flying cars, moon bases and manned missions to Jupiter. But in 1971, shortly after the moon landing, per capita energy flatlined.

One of the biggest revelations to come out of Flying Car, for me at least, was the fact that had growth in energy continued at the pre-1971 rate we would have had flying cars and moon bases and probably much else besides. The science fiction writers would have been right. The reason they were wrong had nothing to do with their understanding the dangers, difficulties and desires of and for flying cars. They were wrong because they didn’t foresee that the growth in energy which had so dominated the previous two hundred and fifty years, going all the way back to Newcomen’s steam engine at least, was only a few years away from coming to an abrupt end. 

It’s now been 52 years since that legendary first walk on the moon and 50 since 1971. Not quite the 66 years between that and the Wright Brothers flight, but getting pretty close. Can we point to any comparable achievement? And does anyone imagine that waiting an additional 14 years will change that?

Despite all of the foregoing, the economy is still growing even if it’s doing so in a slightly slower fashion than it was for most of the country’s history (2% vs. 2.9% as mentioned previously). What does it mean for the economy to grow without a corresponding growth in the amount of energy? What does it mean to increase output in a way that doesn’t require any energy? What does that output look like? These questions take us to my third reason for preferring this explanation: energyless output is a credible cause for most of the things people have been complaining about. 

But before we get to that it is necessary to make sure we’re not barking up the wrong tree. There were three components to the curve, growth in available energy, growth in population and gains in efficiency. Before we focus on that first one we need to make sure it’s not one of the other two. As I pointed out in a recent book review, it’s definitely not growth in population. The US population is only growing at 0.3%. But might we be using the same amount of energy more efficiently? 

The math here gets a little complicated, but if we keep it simple, energy output and efficiency were both growing at 2% a year. If energy output stops growing then for efficiency to “take over”, for there not to be an increase in the amount of “energy-less output”, efficiency would have had to double from 2% to 4%. I have not come across anything that leads me to believe this is what happened, nor does it seem very plausible for something like that to suddenly double. Though given the timing — the 1970s was the first big energy crisis, and we’ve been emphasizing efficiency since then — it wouldn’t surprise me to find that it went from 2% to 2.5% or something like that. But it seems very implausible for it to have suddenly doubled, and if you look at the graph,energy per capita hasn’t just flatlined it’s gone down, so efficiency would really have to more than double, at the same time that the other factor, population growth, was also flatlining.

If you’re with me this far and you agree that there has been an increase in the amount of economic output that doesn’t require any energy, or at least far less energy, what would that look like? For me this whole process was put into stark relief in the process of writing my last newsletter. In particular this fact:

During the Trump Presidency the national debt increased by nearly $8.3 trillion dollars. This is enough money, in today’s dollars, to refight World War II twice over.

Here we can clearly see the difference between productivity which is tightly coupled to energy use, and productivity that is not. During World War II the money we spent went into ships and planes and tanks, and the salaries of the 16 million people in the armed forces plus all of the people working on the home front. I would imagine that World War II is as efficient as we’ve ever been at turning “energy” into “stuff”. But at the time of the Trump Presidency when he was increasing the debt by twice the cost of World War II, most of our economy had nothing to do with stuff. Nor is this a recent phenomenon. In 2007-2008 you had Wall Street investors moving around billions of dollars which had no connection to anything tangible. And as early as the 80s, the finances of Wall Street were only tenuously connected to tangible outputs, as illustrated by books like Liar’s Poker and movies like Wall Street. In more general terms the financial sector is growing to be an ever larger slice of GDP (output) but requires very little in the way of energy. And beyond that a huge slice of the economy has moved on to the internet. Which suffers from much the same problem of disconnecting the economy from energy. 

One of my readers pointed out that you probably couldn’t literally compare the $8.3 trillion increase in the national debt under Trump with the money spent fighting World War II. That you needed to do more than just adjust for inflation, you also had to account for the mass mobilization factor and the other extraordinary circumstances associated with World War II. I’m sure that he has a point. If nothing else, a peacetime economy is very different from a total war economy. But even so the difference is stark. We’re not talking about the same amount of money, we’re talking about twice the money, so even if a peacetime economy is only half as efficient we still should be able to point to some accomplishment as impressive as beating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, instead it was swallowed without much to show for.

As one example, look at employment. At the start of the pandemic there 6 million people unemployed, within two months that had surged to 23 million. So an additional 17 million, which is very close to the 16 million under arms during World War II to say nothing of all the civilian workers essentially being paid by the government. Back then we were able to use the money we spent to pay them for years plus provide them with everything necessary to fight a war. Today there’s still 10 million people unemployed and of the 13 million who re-entered the workforce very few were directly employed by the government. In fact if anything the consensus seems to be that government money is keeping people from seeking employment. Meanwhile the stock market has nearly doubled from it’s pandemic low-point. A lot of money has gone into financial instruments and very little into stuff. Near the beginning of the pandemic Marc Andreessen, the famous venture capitalist, made this same point in his much shared post, It’s Time to Build. But building is precisely what you’re not doing if your economy has become disentangled from energy usage.

IV- Nuclear Power

In the past I’ve mentioned the idea of a religion of progress, an almost mystical belief that progress will continue essentially forever — that humanity is on a permanent upward trajectory. Some people believe this is happening with morality, and offer up the ongoing decline of bigotry and racism as evidence of its continuing impact. Or as Dr. King put it, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Some people believe that this is happening with technology, that scientific innovations have lifted people out of poverty, cured diseases and otherwise improved the lot of man. That if we just get out of the way human ingenuity will lead us to the promised land. Some people believe that both things are happening. Beyond the division between moral progress and technological progress, a further division can be made between those who have a primarily humanist interpretation of this progress, and those who think the process is primarily spiritual. With people like Steven Pinker on the first side of the divide and new age spiritualists on the other side. 

I don’t fall into either camp, at least not in any recognizable fashion. But reading about what happened with nuclear power almost changed my mind. Here we are, it’s the early 70s, OPEC has just imposed a petroleum embargo. Things in general are not going well in the Middle East (and will continue not going well down to the present day). Fracking, and the vast supplies of domestic oil and gas it will make available, is still 30 years in the future. We didn’t know it at the time but energy production per capita has already started to stagnate. But it’s at this exact moment, when it seems that we’ve run out of road, when it looks like progress has been derailed, that nuclear power is finally ready for prime time. The way that just as one door has closed that another one opens is almost mystical. 

But it was also at this moment, that for the first time since 1650, we hesitated. We had no problems moving from wood to coal, and from coal to oil, but when it came time to make the transition from oil to nuclear we dropped the baton. And nuclear power, which had been getting continually cheaper, suddenly started getting more expensive. The universe had provided us with the next step in the long march of progress and we refused to take it.

As we get near the end of things, I want to make it clear that I’m not claiming that the world fundamentally changed precisely in 1971. (I fundamentally changed in 1971, but the world didn’t.) But I do think things are different now than they have been. That the 52 years since the moon landing have been very different than the 52 years preceding it. And that the primary (though certainly not the only) cause of this difference was the stagnation in per capita energy availability. 

V- Final Thoughts

Many years ago one of my close friends (we had been roommates in college) died because his liver failed. The question was why did it fail? The doctor’s decided it was alcoholic hepatitis, but I had my doubts. Yes my friend did drink, but I didn’t think he was that heavy of a drinker. But what he did do, more than anybody I’ve known, is take lortab. For those unfamiliar with lortab it’s a pain reliever which is a combination of hydrocodone (an opioid) and acetaminophen. I don’t think the alcohol destroyed his liver, I think it was the acetaminophen. As I was preparing to wrap up I was reminded of this story. We’ve identified the underlying disease, the available energy has stopped going up, but just like with me and my friends doctors, we may not agree on the behavior that’s causing the disease. 

Alcohol is generally considered to be a bad thing, while medicine is generally considered to be  a good thing, so it was easy for the doctors to blame the former rather than the latter, regardless of what was actually at fault. And as we move from identifying our malady to identifying behavior causing that malady I think we need to be careful to consider all possibilities. Even things we thought were beneficial. And here I am reminded of my newsletter from April. I would argue that this disease stems from the entirely understandable desire to maximize safety. 

Clearly in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it’s understandable that people would be biased against a form of power that used the same mechanism as that used by the bombs. From this an understandable caution developed, but eventually some caution became an abundance of caution which became a super abundance. The chief example of this being the linear no-threshold doctrine of radiation, which holds that there is no safe level of radiation. That in tandem with trying to achieve perfect safety we decided to designate radiation as being perfectly dangerous. That zero is the only safe amount. 

But it turns out that, just like with my friend, it’s actually the medicine that’s killing us, because once this ideology is widespread it’s only natural that the cost of nuclear power would go up, and as the cost rises it becomes even more difficult to take this next step. Accordingly, the amount of available energy stagnated. And economic growth without a corresponding growth in energy is a strange thing — we have yet to appreciate all of the consequences. 

In pointing out the fact that available energy stopped growing, I am not going beyond that to claim that it’s a bad thing. In fact, in another post I pointed out that it was inevitable. Further, I am not convinced that if we had smoothly switched to nuclear we would now be living in a technological utopia. I am sure it would be a very different world, but I’m not sure it would be any better. And as available energy usage had to plateau eventually this is a transition that was coming one way or the other, but just because the transition was inevitable doesn’t mean it’s easy. This is in fact a massive shift from how things have worked for centuries — a shift that hasn’t received nearly enough attention.

Obviously this is a complicated problem, not only is there the disease itself, there’s also the matter of the behavior that got us there: our overwhelming timidity. Things are changing in ways we don’t understand and we’re not prepared for. We’re in a world that’s superficially similar to the one we’ve had since 1650, but under the surface it’s vastly different. Perhaps the best answer to “WTF happened in 1971?” Is that we  entered uncharted territory, and it’s going to take all of our skill and wisdom, and yes, our courage as well, to avoid catastrophe.

One of my readers thought that I spent too much time on my own connection to 1971 in the last post. But clearly blogging is inherently a narcissistic activity, so I’m not sure what they expected. Going beyond that to ask for money to engage in this activity may be the most narcissistic thing of all. And yet, here I am, once again asking you to consider donating


In Defense of Prophets

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A few weeks ago I came across a book review for The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann. I haven’t had a chance to read the book, but it seemingly presents an interesting way of categorizing our two broad approaches to preparing for the future, and harnessing new technology.

According to the instructions on the tin, The Wizard and the Prophet is meant to outline the origin of two opposing attitudes toward the relationship between humans and nature through their genesis in the work and thought of two men: William Vogt, the “Prophet” polemicist who founded modern-day environmentalism, and Norman Borlaug, the “Wizard” agronomist who spearheaded the Green Revolution. Roughly speaking, Wizards want continual growth in human numbers and quality of life, and to use science and technology to get there: think Gene Roddenbury’s wildest dreams, full of replicators and quantum flux-harnessing doodads that untether us from our eons-long project of survival on limited resources and allow us to expand limitlessly. “Prophets” believe that we can’t keep growing our population or impact on the world without eventually destroying it, and ourselves along with it. Their ideal future is like one of those planets the Federation ships would Prime-Directive right over, where humankind scales back and lives in harmony with the land, taking just enough to sustain our (smaller) numbers and allowing the intricate web of human and non-human creatures to flourish.

This idea of dividing people into “Prophets” and “Wizards” intrigued me, particularly since it’s a distinction I’ve been making since my very first post in this space, though of course I didn’t use those terms. But I did point out that the modern world is racing towards one of two destinations, on the one hand, a technological singularity that changes everything for the better and, on the other hand, a catastrophe. Both are possible outcomes of our increasing mastery of technology. And one of the most important questions humanity faces is which destination will we arrive at first?

From the review it appears Mann approaches this question mostly from the perspective of the environment, with particular attention on carrying capacity, but I think the two concepts are useful enough that we should broaden things, using the label of Wizard for those who think the race will be won by a singularity, and the label of Prophet for those who think it will be won by catastrophe. Not only does broadening the terms make them more useful, but I also think it’s in keeping with the general theme of the book.

Of course, in that first post and in most of the posts following it, I have been on the side of the Prophets. The review takes the side of the Wizards. And indeed the Wizard side is pretty impressive. The quote mentioned the Green Revolution which probably saved the lives of a billion people. To this we could add the billion people saved by synthetic fertilizers, the billion people saved by blood transfusions, and the billion people saved by toilets. If we wanted to further run up the score we could add the millions saved by antibiotics, vaccines and water chlorination. With numbers like these, what possible reason could anyone have for not being on the side of the Wizards?

It gets even worse for the Prophets. I was recently listening to a podcast and the host was interviewing Niall Ferguson. Ferguson was on to promote his new book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. In the course of the interview he pointed out that when it comes to the most extreme claims of the Prophets, namely a total apocalypse, they have been wrong 100% of the time. That essentially in every age and among every people there have been predictions of apocalypse and armageddon, and no matter the time or the person they’ve all been wrong. So given all of the foregoing why on earth would I choose to defend the Prophets?

In order to answer that question we’re going to need to break things down a little bit. There’s a lot of things tied up in the labels “Wizard” and “Prophet”, and it’s easy to declare one the victor if if you only consider what has happened already and don’t consider what might happen, but once you start looking into the future (which is precisely what Prophets are doing) then the situation becomes far less clear. To illustrate, let me turn to another one of my past posts, and the metaphor of technological progress as an urn full of balls.

Imagine there’s an urn. Inside of the urn are balls of various shades. You can play a game by drawing these balls out of the urn. Drawing a white ball is tremendously beneficial. Off-white balls are almost as good but carry a few downsides as well. There are also some gray balls and the darker the gray the more downsides it carries. However, if you ever draw a pure black ball then the game is over, and you lose.

This is a metaphor for technological progress which was recently put forth in a paper titled, The Vulnerable World Hypothesis. The paper was written by Nick Bostrom, a futurist whose best known work is Superintelligence… [He also came up with the simulation hypothesis.]

In the paper, drawing a ball from the urn represents developing a new technology (using a very broad definition of the word). White balls represent technology which is unquestionably good. (Think of the smallpox vaccine.) Off-white balls may have some unfortunate side effects, but on net, they’re still very beneficial, and as the balls get more grey their benefits become more ambiguous and the harms increase. A pure black ball represents a technology which is so bad in one way or another that it would effectively mean the end of humanity. Draw a black ball and the game is over.

This metaphor allows us to more accurately define what distinguishes Wizards and Prophets. Wizards are those who are in favor of continuing to draw balls from the urn, confident that we will never draw a black ball. Prophets, on the other hand, are people who think that we will eventually draw a black ball, or that, on balance, the effect of continuing to draw balls from the urn is negative i.e. we will draw more dark gray balls than white balls. Viewed from this perspective whether you have any sympathy for Prophets depends in large part on whether you think the urn contains any black balls. Accordingly, stories about the amazing white balls which have been drawn, like the green revolution and vaccines and all the other stuff already mentioned, are something of a distraction because it doesn’t matter how many white balls you draw out of the urn, that can never be proof that there are no black balls. And of course Prophets are not opposed to white balls, they just know that if we ever draw a black ball the game is over.

To be fair there is one other possibility. More recently some of the Wizards have started to argue that it’s also possible for the urn to contain a ball of such surpassing whiteness that it also ends the game, but with a win, instead of a loss. That rather than permanently destroying us it permanently saves us. This permanent salvation would, by definition, be a singularity, though not all singularities ensure permanent salvation. But put in terms of the metaphor, my point from the very beginning is that we have been playing the ball drawing game for quite a while and eventually we’re probably going to draw one or the other, and I not only do I think drawing a pure black ball is more likely than drawing a pure white ball. I think that even a small chance of drawing a pure black outweighs even a large chance of drawing the pure white ball. To show why takes us into the realm of something else that’s been part of the blog from the beginning. The Ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Most of the balls we draw from the urn, particularly those that are very dark or very white, are black swans. I’ve already linked to the whole framework of Taleb’s philosophy but for those that don’t want to follow the link but still need a refresher: black swans are rare events with three qualities:

  1. They lie outside the realm of regular expectations
  2. They have an extreme impact
  3. People go to great lengths afterward to show how they should have been expected.

Technological progress allows us to draw more balls, which means there are more black swans. More things that “lie outside the realm of regular expectations”. The word “regular” is key here. Regular is the world as it was, the world we’re adapted for, the world we were built to survive in. This “regular” world also had positive and negative black swans and in fact may have had even more negative black swans, but since it didn’t involve the ball-drawing game, this regular world didn’t have to worry about black balls. We may not have been thriving, but there was no chance of us causing our own extinction either. Another way of saying this is that we already had the pure white ball. We had developed sufficient technology to assure our permanent salvation.

Part of the reason for this is that whatever the frequency of black swans, they were less extreme. The big thing capping this extremity is that they were localized. Until recently there was no way for there to be a global pandemic or a global war. This takes us to the second attribute of black swans: their extreme impact. Technology has served to increase the extremity of black swans. When the black swans are positive, this is a very good thing. No previous agricultural black swan ever came close to the green revolution, because a change of that magnitude was impossible without technology. It’s the same for all of the other Wizardly inventions. In their hands technology can do amazing things. But the magnitude of change possible with technology is not limited only to positive changes. Technology can make negative changes of extreme magnitude as well. In allowing us to draw all these fantastic white balls, it also introduced the possibility of the pure black ball. A negative black swan so bad we don’t survive it. A point we’ll return to in just a moment, but before we do that let’s finish out our discussion of black swans.

The third quality of a black swan is that in retrospect they seem obvious. When it comes to technology this quality is particularly pernicious. Our desire to explain the obviousness of past breakthroughs leads us to believe that future breakthroughs are equally obvious. That because there was one green revolution, and in retrospect its arrival seems obvious, that the arrival of future green revolutions whenever we need them are equally obvious. Somewhat related to this having demonstrated that we should have expected all previous advancements, because someone somewhere imagined they would come to pass, Wizards end up confusing correlation with causation and assume that anything we can imagine will come to pass. And in doing so they generally imagine that it will come to pass soon. You might be inclined to argue that I’m strawmanning Wizards, when in actuality I’m doing something different. I’m using this as part of my definition of what makes someone a Wizard as opposed to just, say, a futurist. They have a built in optimism and faith about technology.

A large part of the Wizard’s optimism derives from the terrible track record of the Prophets, which I already mentioned. Out of the thousands of times they’ve predicted the actual, literal end of the world, they’ve never been right. However when it comes to their record for predicting catastrophes short of the end of the world, they’ve done much better. Particularly if we’re more concerned with the how, than the when. Which is to say while it’s true that Prophets are often quite premature in their predictions of doom, they have a very good record of being right eventually.

This point about eventually is an important one because above and beyond all the other qualities possessed by black swans the biggest is that they’re rare. So the role of a Prophet is to keep you from forgetting about them, which because of their rarity is easy to do. And while most of the warnings issued by Prophets end up being meaningless, or even counterproductive, such is the extreme impact of black swans that these warnings end up being worth it on balance because the one time they do work it makes up for all the times they didn’t. I think I may have said it best in a post back in 2017:

Finally, because of the nature of black swans and negative events, if you’re prepared for a black swan it only has to happen once, but if you’re not prepared then it has to NEVER happen. For example, imagine if I predicted a nuclear war. And I had moved to a remote place and built a fallout shelter and stocked it with a bunch of food. Every year I predict a nuclear war and every year people point me out as someone who makes outlandish predictions [just] to get attention, because year after year I’m wrong. Until one year, I’m not. Just like with the financial crisis, it doesn’t matter how many times I was the crazy guy from Wyoming, and everyone else was the sane defender of the status quo, because from the perspective of consequences they got all the consequences of being wrong despite years and years of being right, and I got all the benefits of being right despite years and years of being wrong.

As I pointed out, technology has served to increase the extremity of black swans, and the mention of nuclear war in that quote is a good illustration of that. Which is to say the game continues to change. At the start of the scientific revolution we were only drawing a few balls, and most of them were white, and the effects of those that weren’t were often mitigated by balls which were drawn later. (Think heating your house with coal vs. heating it with natural gas.) But as time goes on we’re drawing more and more balls, which results in more extreme black swans both positive and negative.

You might say that the game is getting more difficult. If that’s the case how should we deal with this difficulty? What’s the best strategy for playing the game? It’s been my ongoing contention that the reason we have Prophets is that they were an important part of the strategy for playing the old game. They were terrible at predicting the literal end of the world but great at helping make sure people were prepared for the numerous disasters which were all too frequent. The question is, as the game becomes more difficult, does the role of Prophet continue to be useful? My argument is, if anything, the role of Prophet has become more important, because for the first time when a Prophet says the world is going to end, they might actually be right. 

One such prophet is Toby Ord whose book Precipice I reviewed almost exactly a year ago. I think what I said at the time has enormous relevance to the current discussion:

I’m sure that other people have said this elsewhere, but Oord’s biggest contribution to eschatology is his unambiguous assertion that we have much more to worry from risks we create for ourselves than any natural risks. Which is a point I’ve been making since my very first post and which bears repeating. The future either leads towards some form of singularity, some event that removes all risks brought about by progress and technology (examples might include a benevolent AI, brain uploading, massive interstellar colonization, a post-scarcity utopia, etc.) or it leads to catastrophe, there is no a third option. And we should be a lot more worried about this than we are.

In the past it didn’t really matter how bad a war or a revolution got, or how angry people were, there was a fundamental cap on the level of damage which humans could inflict on one another. However insane the French Revolution got, it was never going to kill every French citizen, or do much damage to nearby states, and it certainly was going to have next to no effect on China. But now any group with enough rage and a sufficient disregard for humanity could cripple the power grid, engineer a disease or figure out how to launch a nuke. For the first time in history technology has provided the means necessary for any madness you can imagine.

In the same vein, one of the inspirations for this post was the appearance in Foreign Affairs of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “Moore’s Law for Mad Science”, which states that, “Every 18 months, the minimum IQ necessary to destroy the world drops by one point.” If you give any credence at all to either Yudkowsky, Ord, or myself, it would appear impossible to argue that we have passed beyond the need for Prophets, and beyond that hard to argue that the role of Prophet has not actually increased in importance. But that’s precisely what some Wizards have argued.

One of the most notable people making this argument is Steven Pinker, and it formed the basis for his books Better Angels of our Nature and Enlightenment Now. His arguments are backed by lots of evidence, evidence of all the things I’ve already mentioned, that over the last hundred some odd years while Prophets were busy being wrong, Wizards were busy saving billions of lives. But this is why I brought up the idea that the game has changed—growing more difficult. When you combine that with the time horizon we’re talking about—a century, give or take a few decades—it’s apparent that the Wizards are claiming to have mastered a game they’ve only barely started playing. A game which is just going to continue to get more difficult. 

Yes, we’ve drawn a lot of fantastic white balls, but what we should really be worried about are the black balls, and we don’t merely need to avoid drawing one for the next few years, we need to avoid drawing a one forever, or at least until we draw the mythical pure white ball that ensures our eternal salvation. And if I were to distill out my criticism of Wizards it would be that they somehow imagine drawing that pure white ball of guaranteed salvation will happen any day now, while refusing to even consider the existence of a pure black ball. 

If you’ve been following recent news you may have heard that there has been a shift in opinion on the origins of the pandemic. More and more people have started to seriously consider the idea that it was accidentally released from the Wuhan lab, and that it was created as part of the coronavirus gain-of-function research the lab was conducting. Research which was intentionally designed to make viruses more virulent. One might hope that this causes those of a wizardly bent to at least pause and consider the existence of harmful technology, and the care we need to exercise. But I worry that instead the pandemic created something of a “no true science fallacy”, akin to the “no true scotsman fallacy” where true science never has the potential to cause harm, but only to cure it. That the pandemic was caused by a failure of science rather than possibly being exactly what we might expect from the pursuit of science over a long enough time horizon. 

As I conclude I want to make it clear, Wizards have created some true miracles, and I’m grateful every day for the billions and billions of lives they’ve saved. And I have no doubt they will continue to create miracles, but every time they draw from the urn to create those miracles they risk drawing the black ball and ending the game. So what do we do about that? Well, could we start by not conducting gain-of-function research in labs operating at biosafety level 2 (out of 4), regardless of whether that oversight was involved in the origin of COVID-19? In fact could we ban gain-of-function research period? 

I am aware that once you’ve plucked the low hanging fruit, like the stuff I’ve just mentioned, this question becomes enormously more difficult. And while I don’t have the space to go into detail on any of these possible solutions, here are some things we should be considering:

  1. Talebian antifragility: In my opinion Taleb’s chief contribution is his method for dealing with black swans. This basically amounts to increasing your exposure to positive black swans while lessening your exposure to negative black swans. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s a way of maximizing the miracles of the Wizards while avoiding the catastrophes of the Prophets.
  2. Make better use of the miracles we do have: This is another way of getting the best of both worlds. While I have mostly emphasized the disdain Wizards have for Prophets it goes both ways, and many of the things Prophets are most worried about, like global warming, get blamed on the Wizards and as such people are reluctant to use Wizardly tools like nuclear power and geo-engineering to fix them. This is a mistake.
  3. Longer time horizons: Yes, maybe Wizards like Ray Kurzweil are correct and a salvific  singularity is just around the corner, but I doubt it. In fact I’m on record as saying that it won’t happen this century, which is to say it may never happen. Which means we’ve got a long time where black balls are a possibility, but white balls aren’t. Perhaps each year there’s only a 1% chance of drawing a black ball, but over the timespan of a century a 1% chance of something happening goes from “unthinkable” to “this will almost certainly happen”.

And finally, whatever other solutions we come up with, it’s clear that one of the most important is and will always be, give heed to the Prophets!


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Eschatologist #4: Turning the Knob of Safety to 11

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In the previous newsletter we told of how we discovered the Temple of Technology, with wall after wall of knobs that give us control over society. At least that’s what we, in our hubris, assume the knobs of technology will do. 

Mostly that assumption is correct. Though on occasion an overager grad student will sneak out under cover of darkness and turn one knob all the way to the right. And, as there are so many knobs, it can be a long time before we realize what has happened.

But we are not all over-eager graduate students. Mostly we are careful, wise professors, and we soberly consider which knobs should be turned. We have translated many of the symbols, but not all. Still, out of those we have translated one seems very clear. It’s the symbol for “Safety”.

Unlike some of the knobs, everyone agrees that we should turn this knob all the way to the right. Someone interjects that we should turn it up to 11. The younger members of the group laugh. The old, wise professors don’t get the joke, but that’s okay because even if the joke isn’t clear, the consensus is. Everyone agrees that it would be dangerous and irresponsible to choose any setting other than maximum safety. 

The knob is duly “turned up to 11” and things seem to be going well. Society is moving in the right direction. Unsafe products are held accountable for deaths and injuries. Standards are implemented to prevent unsafe things from happening again. Deaths from accidents go down. Industrial deaths plummet. Everyone is pleased with themselves. 

Though as things progress there is some weirdness. The knob doesn’t work quite the way people expect. The effects can be inconsistent.

  • Children are safer than ever, but that’s not what anyone thinks. Parents are increasingly filled with dread. Unaccompanied children become almost extinct. 
  • Car accidents remain persistently high. Numerous additional safety features are implemented, but people engage in risk compensation, meaning that the effect of these features is never as great as expected.
  • Antibiotics are overprescribed, and rather than making us safer from disease they create antibiotic resistant strains which are far more deadly. 

Still despite these unexpected outcomes no one suggests adjusting the safety knob.

Then one day, in the midst of vaccinating the world against a terrible pandemic it’s discovered that some of the vaccines cause blood clots. That out of every million people who receive the vaccine one will die from these clots. Immediately restrictions are placed on the vaccines. In some places they’re paused, in other places they’re discontinued entirely. The wise old professors protest that this will actually cause more people to die from the pandemic then would ever die from the clots, but by this point no one is listening to them. 

In our hubris we thought that turning the knob “up to 11” would result in safe technology. But no technology is completely safe, such a thing is impossible. No, this wasn’t the knob for safety, it was for increasing the importance of our perception of safety.

  • When the government announces that a vaccine can cause blood clots we perceive it as being unsafe. Even though vaccines prevent a far greater danger.
  • We may understand antibiotic resistance, but wouldn’t it be safer for us if we got antibiotics just in case?
  • Nuclear power is perceived as obviously unsafe because it’s the same process that goes into making nuclear weapons. 
  • And is any level of safety too great for our children? 

Safety is obviously good, but that doesn’t mean it’s straightforward. While we were protecting our children from the vanishingly small chance that they would be abducted by a stranger the danger of social media crept in virtually undetected. While we agonize over a handful of deaths from the vaccine thousands die because they lack the vaccine. The perception of safety is not safety. Turning the knobs of technology have unpredictable and potentially dangerous consequences. Even the knob labelled safety.


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