Tag: <span>Progress</span>

The Problems the Past vs. The Problems of the Present

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


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


Reframing Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


The title of this blog is “We Are Not Saved”. I just got done reading a book by Steven Pinker, the well-known Harvard professor, which easily could have been titled “We Are Saved”. Obviously reading a book with a conclusion so different from my own required a blog post. Pinker’s book is actually titled The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. But before getting into it, if I’m going to keep my recent resolution to avoid the curse of knowledge, it’s necessary to give a brief summary.

If you’ve heard of the book at all, it’s probably from the standpoint of the decline of war. And most of the criticism of the book has been in that vein. Perhaps the key question on that front is whether the Long Peace, the absence of conflicts between major powers since World War II, is just a random lucky run, like a winning streak in sports, or whether it represents a new and improved era for humanity. On this point Pinker comes down on the side of it being a new era, while Taleb is of the opinion that it’s random, and as we saw in the last post, Taleb knows how easy it is to be fooled by randomness.

That’s the big headline, but the book is much broader than that. Pinker covers the decrease of violence in all forms, the general march of civilization, increases in humanitarian impulses, and the rights revolution. I said that it could easily have been titled “We Are Saved”, and in Pinker’s opinion things are not only getting better but will continue to get better. As an explanation he offers up the march of technology, reason and the values of The Enlightenment. With reason and technology taking a center stage, his view of religion is mixed to say the least. To be fair, even though he’s a self-admitted atheist, he’s not as bad as Richard Dawkins, or the late Christopher Hitchens. But the book is full of shots at religion and he has nothing but disdain for religion in its ancient form, particularly the Old Testament.  

Hopefully that’s enough of an overview get our discussion started. The book is over 800 pages and I’m obviously only going to be able to talk about a small part of it in the few thousand words available to me in a blog post. And further I’m going to use some of those words to introduce the concept of the motte and bailey argument. This idea was popularized by Scott Alexander of SlateStarCodex (though not his idea originally) and I can’t really improve on his description, so I’ll just quote it.

[The motte-and-bailey was] a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along.

So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.

Instances of this tactic abound, and if you were paying attention there were numerous examples of it during the recent election. As in when Trump starts off by saying he’s going to round up all of the illegal aliens (the bailey), but when pressed, he says he’s only going to deport the criminals (the motte). He whips up his base with the bailey, and then retreats to the motte when closely questioned.

I bring up the motte and bailey tactic because it’s woven all throughout Better Angels, and accordingly makes a good framework for my criticism of the book. With respect to numbers and data, the book is very solid. In every area he covers, he can show a clear trend of things getting less violent. Whether it’s a decrease in deaths due to warfare from prehistory to the present day, a decrease in English homicides since the 1600, or decrease in domestic violence since 1970, things have clearly been getting better. This is his motte. His bailey is to extrapolate that trend forwards in time. But when someone accuses him of that, of claiming the age of war is over, he falls back to the motte and claims that he has made no predictions about the future, he’s just assembling statistics from the past. For example:

I am sometimes asked, “How do you know there won’t be a war tomorrow (or a genocide, or an act of terrorism) that will refute your whole thesis?” The question misses the point of this book. The point is not that we have entered an Age of Aquarius in which every last earthling has been pacified forever. It is that substantial reductions in violence have taken place, and it is important to understand them….The goal of this book is to explain the facts of the past and present, not to augur the hypotheticals of the future…The truth is, I don’t know what will happen across the entire world in the coming decades, and neither does anyone else.

As I said the motte is the unassailable part of the argument, and I think largely Pinker has succeeded in this. But even here he uses some slight of hand. As I mentioned above, we can extrapolate warfare deaths back thousands of years, with archeological data all the way back to 10,000 BC in some places. This gives a pretty clear trendline for violent deaths due to war. But it’s a trendline with big gaps in it. We have data stretching back thousands of years, but if you go back more than a few centuries that data is really sparse. What this means is that it’s hard to know if the decrease in deaths from warfare is the trend a thousand years in the making or a only a few hundred. And even if it is a thousand years in the making the sparsity of data means that we don’t know how smooth the trend is. How many giant peaks of violence are there? And how many valleys of peace?

Whether or not it was intentional, by pulling in data going back thousands of years and comparing hunter-gatherer society to modern civilizations Pinker appears to be making the case that the decrease in violence represents a trend that’s thousands of years old, which is much more impressive than if it’s just a few centuries old. And this is the first example of the bailey, the impression that decreasing violence of all types is a trend stretching thousands of years into the past and therefore likely to continue indefinitely into the future. Even though from the perspective of data we can only talk about warfare deaths and even then the data is spotty.

As I said, Better Angels is not just a book about war, Pinker wants to show that the past was more violent on nearly all measurements. In service of his thesis he moves from deaths due to war to deaths from homicides. Here he’s only able to go back to the 13th century (and I think there’s some significant assumptions involved to get back that far.) And again we see a graph that starts high and slopes downward, giving us the impression that we’re dealing with a trend that’s that’s been progressing in the same direction for a hundreds and hundreds of years. The problem once again comes from the data that’s missing. His numbers are largely from Western Europe, this gives him a particularly low endpoint since present day Western Europe is extraordinarily nonviolent by historical standards, and without saying it explicitly, Western Europe ends up as a proxy for the world at large, and by extension the endpoint to which we’re all headed. However once you’re outside of Western Europe the trend is a lot less obvious, for example the current murder rate in Venezuela is as bad as it ever was in Europe even if you go all the way back to the 13th and 14th centuries. I assume Pinker doesn’t think it will take another 700 years for Venezuela to reach the level of Sweden, but since he never mentions Venezuela it’s hard to say. Instead he selects data in a way designed to give the impression that the downward trend in violence is global, and hundreds of years in the making, when, on closer inspection it appears to be both more recent and more localized.

From homicides he moves on to domestic abuse. Once again we see a distinct downward trend, but with each new category of violence his data is restricted to a smaller and smaller time frame. For war deaths he was able to go back thousands of years, for homicides, hundreds of years, for domestic violence he’s only able to go back a few decades to the 1970’s, and nearly all of that data is from the US. A trend that’s thousands or hundreds of years old is impressive, a trend that’s only as old as I am, less so. But the way it’s structured you get the impression that everything from war deaths, to murders, to domestic violence all the way through to spanking is part of a vast arrow of progress carrying us forward to a continually brighter tomorrow.

This is Pinker in his bailey getting rich, it’s this claim of a trend stretching into the future coupled with the triumph of progress that gets people’s attention, it’s this claim that gets Slate to call the book a monumental achievement. Of course, when necessary, Pinker retreats to his motte and claims that he’s not predicting anything, but the whole appeal of the book is what it implies about the future, and the longer he can extend the arrow of progress into the past, the father it appears to extend into the future.

In tying everything together in a single arc, he does two things. First there’s the structure I already mentioned where he anchors your thinking thousands of years in the past by using archaeological data on warfare deaths and then layering the rest on top that base. And then, secondly, he fills in the missing data, particularly in the realm of domestic abuse and rights more broadly, with the use of countless anecdotes. These anecdotes are naturally compelling. As humans we love stories, and Pinker knows that, but he also knows that they’re no substitute for actual data. Still he uses them to construct something that looks like the fortified tower that is the motte, but really isn’t.

Using both of these techniques together Pinker makes it seem like the decrease in violence is a historical juggernaut whose speed is only increasing as both social and technological progress becomes more rapid. He may deny that he’s making any predictions about the future, but once the reader has an unstoppable, accelerating juggernaut in his head, it’s going to be hard for him to imagine it stopping suddenly, let alone going in reverse. I see, and agree with the same data Pinker does, I just don’t see a juggernaut, I see something far more fragile.

In service of his argument Pinker is very committed to painting the past in as violent a light as possible. The first chapter of the book is titled “A Foreign Country” as in the past is a foreign country. Well the future is a foreign country as well, and I see at least six ways in which the decrease in violence is more fragile than Pinker’s book would indicate. Even if we grant a trend in decreasing violence lasting hundreds of years, which, itself, is a shakier thesis than Pinker wants to admit.

First while Pinker offers various explanations for why violence has decreased. One that he comes back to over and over to is the Leviathan, a term coined by Thomas Hobbes in 1651 to describe an all powerful state. In Pinker’s opinion decreases in violence are directly tied to increases in state power. That in fact if you look closely at his data you’ll find that the clearest trendline for a decrease in violence isn’t the length of time which has passed, but the trend from hunter-gatherer to hunter-horticulturalist to full agriculture, with the accompanying increase at each step in the centralization and power of the state. If you have any libertarian leanings, this trend should worry you, but even if you don’t, by tying up everything into a single larger and larger entity we introduce fragility, even if it’s just through the single points of failure we create. You may agree that this is still a great deal, but is it still a great deal if the endpoint of the trend is zero murders, but a 1984 style surveillance state?

Second, and closely related to the last point, it would appear that Pinker’s juggernaut relies on the continued health and stability of the state. As I said his warfare data had a lot of gaps, even though it went back thousands of years. One of the gaps that seemed particularly noteworthy was the period after the fall of the Roman Empire. Pinker gives the impression that violence has decreased on a smooth line since the Sumerians first planted wheat in the valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates. But if the Leviathan collapses, I can only assume that violence rockets back up. Pinker doesn’t touch on this point, but the biggest single point of failure in the Leviathan is the Leviathan itself. And this time around if there’s any collapse of the state we’ll get to add nukes to the mix. In other words we are only saved if the state remains healthy, and I think that at present there’s reason for a lot of concern on that count.

Third, even if the Leviathan remains healthy, the modern world in general is more fragile. Pinker can be right about everything and still have a single bioterrorist bring the entire thing down, illustrating that however peaceful we’ve become that one big difference between the future and that past is the amount of damage a single individual can do. Catastrophes caused by more powerful weapons aren’t just limited to bioterrorism, they include the potential threat of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and the grandaddy of threats, nuclear war. Pinker doesn’t spend any time on the first two, but as you might imagine he spends significant time with nuclear weapons. On this count he has some compelling arguments, but I think that he overlooks one big part of the argument. Whether this is purposeful or not I don’t know, but the part he overlooks is the enormous time horizon he’s dealing with. Perhaps it’s true that nuclear weapons won’t be used in the next 50 or the next 100, but what about the next 500? Even if we somehow get rid of them all the technology will still be around.

Fourth, even though I claim that the harvest is past and the summer is ended, I don’t claim that there was no harvest or that there was no summer. There was a harvest and there was a summer, I’m merely saying it can’t last forever, and that it won’t provide permanent salvation. If you look at Pinker’s data, and even his anecdotes, you’ll find that they mostly concern this same summer and this same harvest that I’ve talked about. The period that starts roughly with The Enlightenment and continues to the present day. Where we disagree is how long it can last. As I pointed out in my blogpost about the limits of growth, there are limits to progress, limits we may have already reached. As I said in the last post we may already be out of dragons to slay. The technological progress which has enabled the decrease in violence may be about to hit a wall. Historically the few hundred years of progress we’ve experienced is not in the general scheme of things, all that long, the only difference between this period and previous periods of relative stability is the speed of technology, a speed which is ultimately unsustainable.

Thus far I’ve been focusing on more tangible and quantifiable concerns, but for the last two points I’d like look at a couple of things that are more speculative. Thus far I’ve largely talked about the decrease in violence, but Pinker’s writing reaches out to encompass the entire arc of progress, including what he terms the rights revolution. Under this heading he includes everything from civil rights to gay rights to animal rights and unlike with the other trends, he admits that recognition of most of these rights is a relatively recent phenomenon.

As my fifth point I worry about where it all ends. When speaking of rights I agree with Pinker that there is a trend and the trend is accelerating, but we’re running out of road. We already have rights movements for everything imaginable, from animals, to transgendered individuals, to children (though not fetal rights.) What else is there? It may be too soon to tell but it appears now that the only thing left is to restrict the rights of those who’ve traditionally been privileged, a weird circular progression with strange unknowable consequences (including, possibly, the election of Trump?) It is possible to have too much of a good thing? Antibiotics were a true miracle when discovered, but using them for everything eventually makes them completely ineffective. As bacteria develop resistance. I’ve seen the same argument made about accusations of racism. Initially they were useful and very effective, but we’ve gotten to a point where the accusations have been overused. Once again it may not be a big deal, but there are a lot of times where things work until suddenly they don’t, where violence decreases until suddenly it doesn’t and I wonder if the rights revolution is an early example of that.

Finally, when I have an idea there’s one friend in particular that I always run it by. First off explaining it to him inevitably clarifies my thinking, secondly if this friend sees a hole in my argument he’s going to pounce on it, and most of my discussions with him end up more as low intensity debates. Additionally, in any discussion/debate with this friend he wants to make sure that he understands the core value(s) of the other person. Since it’s hard to have a productive debate if the two people can’t even agree on what’s important. For example a productive debate on whether incarceration rates are too high is going to prove difficult if one person’s core value is maximum liberty, and the other person’s core value is zero crime.

And this takes me to my final point. What is our core value? Pinker’s is the reduction of suffering and violence. This is laudable, and I certainly don’t fault Pinker (or anyone) if that is in fact his core value. But it’s not my core value and it probably shouldn’t be yours. To begin with, if you’re Mormon, you believe we already rejected the plan of zero sin and zero suffering. If you’re not Mormon, but you’re still Christian your core value should be to do God’s will. (A sentiment Pinker finds abhorrent.) But what if you’re an atheist like Pinker? Well then a reduction in violence may be your core value, but I can think of one that’s better. It’s the core value of my friend. His core value is “For Intelligence to Escape This Gravity Well.”

You may not initially agree that this is a better core value. But if this doesn’t happen then we’re definitely not saved. Humanity could end up perfectly peaceful and nonviolent, but if they don’t eventually leave the Earth they’re going to be wiped out anyway, even if it’s several billion years from now when the Earth can no longer support life, but it would probably be a lot sooner than that. Or perhaps you do agree that it’s probably a better core value, but you don’t think there’s any reason we can’t do both. I’m not so sure about that. The countries that are the farthest along the Better Angels path spend vast sums of money on the welfare state which is essentially a nonviolent humanitarian project, and very little on making humanity a two+ planet species. A staggeringly difficult project regardless of what Elon Musk says.

I’m glad that we live in a time of unprecedented peace, and I thoroughly enjoyed Pinker’s book. But despite this I think he falls into the trap common to most defenders of modernity: thinking that the recent summer of progress is an eternal summer and that the harvest of technology will last forever.


The Harvest is Past

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


The theme of this blog comes from the book of Jeremiah, verse 20 of chapter 8, and though that verse is included conspicuously in numerous places, it doesn’t hurt for it to appear again.

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

For this post I’d like to focus on that first phrase. What do I mean when I claim that the harvest is past?

We all basically understand harvesting, it’s when you take the food that has been grown and remove it from the plants where it grew, presumably storing it for later use. If we look a little deeper, the harvest is really the final step of turning energy from the Sun into something usable.

It’s not just food that is ultimately made by the Sun, with a few exceptions (nuclear, geothermal and tidal) all energy comes from the Sun. Fossil fuels included. I’m sure this won’t surprise any readers of this blog, but I think that many people are unaware of the fact that fossil fuels are just stored solar energy. Thus when we burn oil, and coal, and natural gas for power, we are withdrawing solar energy that was saved up millions of years ago.

Consequently, when we talk about the total energy available, if we exclude nuclear (geothermal and tidal power being not significant enough to matter) we’re limited to the amount of sunlight which reaches the Earth. We’ve been able to reach back and withdraw the energy of past sunlight, but at some point, as every family knows, you have to stop spending more than you bring in. When we say that all energy comes from the Sun we’re more or less saying that everything comes from the Sun. (I know what you’re thinking. I promise we’ll get back to nuclear power before the end.) Our economy, the conveniences of modern life, economic growth, employment, etc. are all intimately connected with energy usage. And all of these things have been supercharged by the extraction of additional energy. That is the harvest. That is the summer, and as I will show they can’t last forever, if in fact they haven’t ended already.

As we get into things, I’m hugely indebted to a couple of posts by Tom Murphy, a physics professor at the University of California, San Diego. If you want to really get into the math of things and if you’d like to see more charts and graphs, I would check out both articles:

Galactic-Scale Energy

Can Economic Growth Last?

Murphy begins by pointing out that since about 1650, a century before the Industrial Revolution, the United States (or what would become the US) has grown at a fairly steady rate of 2.9% per year, on average. This has continued down to the present day, though recently there are signs that it’s been slowing. (Average growth since 2001 has only been 1.8%.) One might usefully 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 next to zero, perhaps a long term average of 0.1%. So hurrah for the industrial revolution, but how did we go from nearly zero to 2.9%? What changed?

Put simply, we did it by spending a million years worth of accumulated solar energy, in the space of a few centuries.

Now, when I say something like that, there’s a danger that you’re going to tune out, thinking, that this is going to be some kind of environmental rant. You may even be thinking that the next step is for me to start talking about Peak Oil. Certainly a discussion of environmental issues, or whether we’re about to run out of oil is interesting, but for the purposes of this illustration it’s beside the point, because it doesn’t matter if we’re about to run out of oil, or if oil is naturally produced deep in the earth and effectively unlimited (a theory with a surprising amount of traction in Russia) or if we’re going to destroy the earth with global warming, or if fusion will save the day. When you actually look at the numbers, in the long term none of those things matters.

Yes, I do think that for a variety of reasons that the enormous growth rate spike we’ve experienced over the last several centuries is nearing an end. That we have essentially had the biggest harvest ever, as we’ve extracted the accumulated solar energy of all the previous epochs. But even if we leave fossil fuels out of the equation we are still reaching the limits of growth. And that is what I found so interesting about Murphy’s posts, and why I decided to write about them.

As I said, let’s keep fossil fuels out of it and just focus on the solar energy we’re receiving at this moment. Also let’s follow Murphy’s lead and reduce the annual growth rate from 2.9% to 2.3%. This translates into an easy to remember 10x increase every 100 years. So if we’re currently using 12 terawatts of power every year then in 100 years we’ll be using 120 terawatts.

First the good news. We get more energy from the Sun every hour (174,000 terawatts) than we use all year. Of course only 70% of that energy reaches the surface (the rest is reflected back into space.) And only 28% of the earth is land, and thus currently eligible for solar collection, and of that land we’re using 50% for agriculture (which sounds high, but who am I to argue with National Geographic?) And finally our current solar panels are only 15% effective. Taking all of that together we end up with 2558 terawatts of currently usable solar power which still seems pretty good. It’s over 200 times what we’re using now.

The problem is when you have exponential growth, things that aren’t problems can quickly become problems. And they have a tendency to sneak up on you. In 100 years, at a growth rate of 2.3% as I said above, we’re still only using 120 terawatts. Still lots of room, but then 200 years from now we’re using 1200 terawatts (10x every 100 years remember). That’s still less than half, how bad could it be right? Well it only takes another 35 years and we’re out. So in 235 years, at the current rate, we’re using all of the sun’s available energy. Now I understand that 235 years seems like a long time. But it’s less time than the US has existed.

In other words if we expect the US to be around for at least as long as it’s already has been (if we don’t want to believe we’re past the mid-point) and further if we expect it to continue in roughly the same trajectory. Then we have to increase the efficiency of solar panels, start putting them onto the ocean and/or into space, or grow less food. The problem is, that because of exponential growth, none of that buys us very much time.

Let’s assume that we’re able to increase the efficiency of the solar panels to 100%. That buys us 319 years (an additional 84 years.) Or if we’re looking in reverse back to around 1700. Once again that seems like a long time, but we’ve had longer than that to become accustomed to 2.9% growth as a law of nature. Once again we’re looking at being past the midpoint of our growth, in a best case scenario that involves every square inch of land being covered by solar panels or used for farming, and which also involves a premise (100% efficiency) which is physically impossible.

Let’s then assume that we get rid of all the land being used for agriculture. I’m not sure how, perhaps we grow things underground. Doing that adds another 31 years and gets us to 350 years from now. Or looking back it gets us to around 1666, very close to the start of the big harvest. But now of course every square inch of land from Antarctica to the remotest part of Siberia is being used for solar collection.

As you can see once you start running up against the limits, then even doing something as radical as doubling the amount of land being used doesn’t buy you much time. And recall that we are talking about theoretical limits. This is as good as it’s possible to be. Practical limits are likely to be 10x more restrictive. In other words we might be bumping up against those limits a lot sooner than we think. But let’s continue with our thought experiment.

We can add in the oceans, which buys us another 55 years. 405 years into the future or back to about 1600 or when Shakespeare was alive. Historically we’re still talking about a time that was fairly recent. In fact as Murphy points out in order to continue on the same growth rate for 1200 years (so the Dark Ages if you’re looking back) we’d have to use all of the Sun’s energy. And I mean all of it, the Sun would have to be completely encircled by solar panels. And if we wanted our energy use to continue to grow at the same rate for 2500 years we’d need to use all of the solar energy produced by our entire galaxy. Which to put it bluntly, seems unlikely.

I know that some of you have been screaming, “But what about nuclear power? What about fusion?” Here we run into a different problem. Heat. I said above in 1200 years our energy requirements are going to be equal to the entire output of the Sun. What do you think happens if you’re generating as much energy as the Sun, through fusion, in a space much, much smaller than the Sun? The implacable laws of thermodynamics dictate that the Earth, because it’s much, much smaller, would end up, much, much hotter. As I said if you want to look at the math and see some graphs I refer you to Murphy’s paper, but according to his calculations, if terrestrial energy use continues at it’s current rate, the Earth gets hotter than the surface of the Sun in less than 1000 years.

I think you can see now that things are unsustainable. To steal Murphy’s key point:

Continued growth in energy use becomes physically impossible within conceivable timeframes.

Thus far I’ve been using something of a sleight of hand. I’ve mostly used growth and energy growth interchangeably. And in fact for most of human history they have basically been the same thing, though in the last 50 years or so we have started to see a divergence between economic growth and energy growth. This is good news, if we don’t need growth in energy use to get economic growth, then perhaps everything’s okay, and we won’t need to cover the entire Earth in solar panels, or heat the surface to the point where steel melts (730 years). It would be nice if it were true, but there are also insuperable problems with this line of thinking as well.

Basically if at some point we have to keep energy use flat, while the economy keeps growing then the percentage of the economy made up by things that don’t use any energy get’s bigger and bigger. What part of the economy doesn’t use energy? Stuff like fashion, certain innovations, education, and most of all financial transactions. Perhaps this sounds familiar? Perhaps it sounds like the world we already live in? And maybe you’re thinking hey this isn’t so bad. Is it that big of a deal that the UK’s GDP is 10% financial services, and that the economy of New York City is 35% financial services?

First I’m not sure that financial services are as divorced from energy use as even Murphy thinks. Secondly, yes it may be fine that 35% of New York City’s economy is financial services. (I actually think the housing crash proves the exact opposite, that it was not fine, but let’s set that aside for the moment.) Will it be fine when that number is 90%? What about when it’s 99%? Or 99.9%? Because at some point that’s what has to happen if we divorce energy growth from economic growth, and economic growth continues at the same rate.

And what happens to the people who are forced to work in the 0.01% of economy which still uses energy? For example we are presumably still going to have to eat, and presumably even if all of the food is planted and harvested by robots, that someone is going to have to be involved with food production on some level. How do these people get paid? In order for all this to happen, food, manufactured goods, new houses, etc. would all have to be virtually free.

Accordingly, it’s not just energy growth which has to stop at some point. In fact, at some point, all growth has to stop. The problem is, that’s not the way the modern world is set up. All of our assumptions, all of our institutions, all of our systems are built around the idea that growth will continue. Therefore transitioning to a system where growth is flat is not going to be pretty.

Perhaps you’re comforted by the fact that 235 years is a long way away. Long enough away that even your grandkids won’t have to deal with it. But I would argue that we’re already starting to see this world. I already mentioned the increasing percentage of the economy that’s made up by financial services. And of course there’s the giant share of the economy devoted to services (which is sort of halfway between in terms of energy use.) This is not to mention the persistent negative interest rates, not only with government bonds but now extending even to corporate bonds.  And of course I explicitly avoided talking in any great detail about global warming or any of the other potential catastrophes which may befall us before we even get to the point where we’re worried about covering the world with solar panels.

For a long time we have looked to progress and technology to save us. But if they can (and I would offer the opinion they can’t) then they’re running out of time.

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