Review: Seeds of Science: Why we got it so wrong on GMOs (Mark Lynas)

Book: Seeds of Science: Why we got it so wrong on GMOs, by Mark Lynas (2018)
4.7k words (≈16 minutes)
Every review or description or even mention of Seeds of Science that I’ve seen notes that the author, Mark Lynas, used to be an anti-GMO activist before he switched sides and wrote this book. I assumed this fact was either an unimportant piece of trivia or was spread by the publishers as a marketing gimmick. However, after reading the book I think that the balance Lynas achieves as a result is one of the book’s best features.

This does not mean Lynas is not on the fence about the issue. He rightly stands with the scientific consensus regarding the safety and utility of genetically modified crops, and does not hesitate to set the record straight about many popular myths. But he also lets the anti-GMO activists – many of whom are his personal friends – state the strongest arguments for their case. He also embarks on a thoughtful exploration of the underlying philosophical issues.

Seeds of Science is an important book about GMOs. But it is also about how fragile the commitment to science and objectivity can be in the face of a stirring narrative or political ideology or even gut feeling. It also reveals the method through which Lynas changed his mind.

(The terms GMO (genetically modified organism), GE (genetic engineering), and GM (genetically modified) are all used when talking about GMOs/GE/GM. The term “GM” is misleading, since every organism is genetically modified, so I use “GE” to refer to the technology of artificial genetic modification. I will use “GMO” to refer to the resultant organisms.)

Genetic engineering: the theory and the practice

Genetic engineering got started in the early 1970s with the invention of techniques for splicing together DNA strands.

There have been times in the history of science when all caution has been thrown to the winds following the invention of a new technology, leading to a disregard for safety that has had disastrous consequences.

This was not one of them.

Instead, lead by Paul Berg, many of the world’s most eminent biologists got together in Asilomar, California and created a strong, self-imposed set of rules and regulations to prevent any possibility of research into the new technology causing harm. Then the biologists returned to their labs and continued doing research, in accordance with the decisions of the Asilomar Conference.

What they found was that horizontal gene transfer (transfer of genes between organisms that is not the “vertical” transfer of genes from one generation to the next) was common in nature. There are species of bacteria that transfer genes to other bacteria, or fungi, or plants, or even animals. Genetic sequencing has shown that horizontal gene transfers have played a central role in the evolutionary history of life, and have occurred between organisms that are only extremely distantly related.

Horizontal gene transfer had therefore been happening for billions of years, rather than happening for the first time in Earth’s history in 1970s biology labs. This, and various other findings, eventually convinced the vast majority of biologists that there was nothing intrinsically dangerous about horizontal gene transfer.

(Just as scientists were reaching a consensus, public opinion began moving in the other direction. The details of this are a long story, recounted in Seeds of Science.)

This is not to say that all genetic engineering is good or safe. There are many examples of questionable GE products, some of which I will discuss here, and a case-by-case evaluation of GMOs is obviously desirable. The point is that genetic engineering is not inherently unsafe. It is just a faster and more powerful way of changing the characteristics of crops than the classic method of selecting which crops to breed for generation after generation. Since crops and other food items are important – without them, we’d starve, and they have enormous economic and environmental impacts – the ability to change their characteristics can be of enormous benefit.

In practice, study after study has shown that the GE products on the market today are safe, that consumers who eat them suffer no ill effects, and that they generally benefit the environment and increase agricultural productivity.

Yes, you can use chemical engineering to make a bomb. But to resist all chemical engineering on this basis is ridiculous.

Monsanto, everyone’s favorite company

The story of Monsanto has become linked with the broader story of GE.

Monsanto no longer exists. In the spring of 2018, anti-monopoly regulators in the EU and US gave clearance to a $66 billion purchase of Monsanto by Bayer (leaving some to wonder whether these anti-monopoly regulators are doing their jobs).

For some companies, their name and brand are a significant part of their value. Not so for Monsanto. Bayer has announced that it will discontinue the Monsanto name and operate the company under the Bayer brand.

What made Monsanto so infamous? In the mid-twentieth century, Monsanto was a typical big chemicals company, with the typical lax attitude of a big chemicals company towards trivialities like health and environment. Perhaps the most damaging scandal was over its role in supplying Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide used to clear jungle in the Vietnam War, to the US military.

Ironically, where things really went wrong is when Monsanto decided to make a turn-around.
Ever more conscious of the environmental movement (and its impact on the company’s profits), around 1980 Monsanto started a pivot towards becoming a “life sciences” company. Throughout the 1980s, it sold off assets in chemical manufacturing and oil exploration, investing the money into biotechnology.

Monsanto’s vision was simple. Genetic engineering could obviate the need for pesticides and herbicides while reducing land and fertilizer use. Monsanto would spearhead this charge towards a more sustainable, environmental future. The only risk was that Monsanto shareholders might drown in cash.

However, Monsanto’s history returned to haunt the company, and its first foray into commercial GMOs was not quite in line with the goal of reducing herbicide use.

In 1970 Monsanto had discovered a pesticide so powerful it had only one flaw: it was too powerful. The pesticide was called Roundup, a name invented by a participant in a competition to name the compound (the winner received $50 for inventing the name of a product that would earn billions). By genetically engineering Roundup-resistant crops, Monsanto had a killer combination: plant the GE crops, spray Roundup, and everything on the field that is not a Roundup-resistant crop will die, up to and including your cat.

Realizing how attractive such a product might be to farmers, Monsanto rushed it to the market as its first GE crop. Farmers loved it. Consumers didn’t. Monsanto didn’t really care about consumers, since they weren’t the ones paying for the product.

But consumers had a point. By introducing Roundup Ready as their first GE product, Monsanto had forgotten its commitment to using biotechnology to reduce the use of chemicals. There were also monopolistic undertones in packaging the crop and herbicide together in a way that meant neither could easily be substituted for competing products. Roundup Ready also increases the benefits of scale, benefiting larger producers at the expense of smaller ones (as confirmed by studies by Oxfam).

Soon after, Monsanto introduced a GE corn crop that produced bacteria-derived proteins that acted as an insect repellent. The use of this crop could majorly cut insecticide use.

But public perception had already associated Monsanto, and GMOs in general, with the competition-snuffing, chemical-intensive Roundup Ready.

Had Monsanto introduced the insect-resistant corn first instead of focusing on Roundup Ready, the subsequent history of GMOs might have gone differently.

Outside observers predicted Roundup Ready might be a public relations disaster. So did Monsanto’s competitors. Therefore, the mistake seems specific to Monsanto. Perhaps, had Monsanto been less blinded by the perceived righteousness of its mission, it would have made better decisions and avoided a PR disaster that stymied the entire industry.

GMOs: the plant, the myth, the legend

The most egregious myth about GE crops is that there is no scientific consensus on their safety. In fact, I have never seen a sentence on Wikipedia that has as many citations on it:
There is a scientific consensus[5][6][7][8] that currently available food derived from GM crops poses no greater risk to human health than conventional food,[9][10][11][12][13] but that each GM food needs to be tested on a case-by-case basis before introduction.[14][15][16] Nonetheless, members of the public are much less likely than scientists to perceive GM foods as safe.[17][18][19][20]
Forget meta-analyses, this is the new gold standard of scientific evidence.

More seriously, there is a lot of evidence on this.

There are several other myths about GMOs. The first, and one that I thought was true before reading Seeds of Science, is that GE seeds are sterile. The technology to enable this, dubbed the “Terminator gene”, was partially developed by a company that Monsanto purchased in the 1990s. Thankfully, it was never been put into practice because even Monsanto knows enough about public relations management to not put “Terminator”-anything into food.

Many farmers do buy new seeds each year, but this practice predates genetic engineering and has nothing to do with Terminators. A major part of the famed Green Revolution which increased agricultural productivity starting in the mid-20th century was the use of hybrid seeds to get plants with better characteristics. The disadvantage of hybrid seeds is that, due to basic Mendelian genetics, subsequent generations will not breed true. For example, let’s say you want a plant with a trait for which there is a dominant allele B. A hybrid of two plants with genotypes of BB and bb will have the Bb genotype and hence the desired B phenotype. However, breeding these plants together results in a mix of BB, Bb, and bb genotypes in the next generation. Of these, BB plants have the B trait but are not hybrids, and bb plants do not have the B trait at all.

As a result, it has long been the norm for farmers to buy new seeds each year. It is true that GE seed contracts often include a clause forbidding the saving of the seed for intellectual property reasons, but for the most part this is something few people in modern agriculture would have done anyways.

A popular idea about GMOs that does have some credence is that they tend to concentrate power in large biotech companies. This is because only the largest companies can afford to develop GMOs. But why is this the case?

One reason is that genetic engineering is a capital-intensive technology. However, the price of the technology has gone down, making this a far less significant factor. What is driving the costs? Lynas writes:
[…] these enormous costs mostly now arise because of over-strict regulation, meaning that only the deepest-pocketed corporations can afford the multiyear process of steering new crops through the byzantine approvals processes of multiple countries. Costs are also increased by delays resulting from opposition by anti-GMO groups like the Center for Food Safety, which generally opposes, through court action or lobbying regulators, every new genetically engineered product, irrespective of whether it is private or public sector-derived. Indeed by raising costly barriers to market entry for open-source, small business or public sector innovations, these anti-GMO groups have ironically helped to cement the very same corporate consolidation of the seed industry that they cite as a justification for their opposition.
There is a terrible irony here:
Activism has been most successful in locking out small and public sector players from the biotechnology revolution, thus cementing exactly the monopolistic situation that many campaigners say they are fighting against.

GMOs in the wild

A 2014 meta-analysis of over a hundred studies produced what might be the most important statistics on the real-world effects of GE technology.

Among farmers who adopted GE crops, the average effects were:
  • a 37% reduction on use of chemical pesticides,
  • a 22% increase in crop yields, and
  • a 68% increase in farmer profits.
All the usual caveats apply. These are averages, not guarantees. Maybe the numbers are driven up by the fact that only the most useful GE crops are currently grown because of legal hurdles.

But still. If you care about the environmental effects of pesticides, a technology that allows a one-third reduction is great news. If you care about food production, a technology that allows a one-fifth increase is amazing. If you care about farmer livelihoods, a technology that allows a two-thirds increase in profits is incredible (especially taking into account that many of the farmers in question are in developing countries – though note that it might be that the extra profits from GMOs are accruing disproportionately to, say, large American farms rather than small ones in rural Africa).

Anti-GMO activists in the wild

No argument about food technology is complete without a reference to the proverbial “kids in Africa.” So let’s talk about Africa.

Africa has a strong history of anti-GMO laws, often driven by (mostly foreign) NGOs rather than national governments, let alone farmers.

In 2002, Zambia banned GE food, with president Mwanawasa claiming it was poisonous. 14 000 tons of maize supplied by charities was locked away in warehouses amidst a famine caused by severe drought. Non-GE food was eventually distributed and the Zambian government’s official statistics claimed no lives had been lost to starvation.

Nevertheless, this debacle remains highly controversial due to its scale. The drought left about three million people without food, and aid efforts were significantly delayed due to the GMO ban. Anti-GMO organizations, including Greenpeace, have been blamed for pressuring the Zambian government into its GMO ban.

In Uganda, efforts to pass legislation that would allow various disease-resistant GE plants, many of them already tested in laboratories, to be sold to farmers, have been paralyzed by anti-GMO activism. Much of it is funded by foreign activist organizations (Lynas’s interviewees in Uganda name ActionAid, the Catholic charity Caritas, and the Food Rights Alliance), and much of it consists of blatant misinformation, including Photoshopped images of mutilated plants. Tanzania is also locked in a legislative battle over GMOs.

Many anti-GMO organizations claim to speak on behalf of farmers and indigenous groups. They paint a picture of themselves as protecting the rights of farmers to “traditional farming”. Lynas writes:
Maybe farmers preferred traditional lifestyles, and the NGOs were right to defend them? ‘There is no farmer who wants to remain poor!’ Nyange [a Tanzanian scientist] responded passionately.
This, of course, is just one opinion by a Tanzanian GE scientist. But the disconnect between the (mostly poor and rural) farmers and the (mostly wealthy, foreign, and urban) anti-GMO activists is one that is echoed in many of the anecdotes that Lynas tells about his time in Uganda and Tanzania.

As the proverb goes, the plural of anecdote is not data. Thankfully, actual data is available.

Several studies of transgenic bananas in Uganda have found them to have high potential for reducing rural poverty. While farmers tend to be strongly in favor, surveys in Uganda have found that wealthy, urban consumers tend to be skeptical of GE products.

An even greater divide exists between African farmers and European GMO ideologues. Nevertheless, the latter have had a great influence on the former. Lynas cites the conclusion of Robert Paarlberg, an agriculture and environmental policy researcher: “Africa’s rejection of genetically engineered crops today is far more western than it is African. Governments in Africa did not begin to get cold feet about GM crops until they saw activists and consumers in rich countries – particularly in Europe – rejecting the technology.”

Some take this conclusion even further. Lynas interviews a Ugandan farmer representative who says the motive behind anti-GMO activism is for Europe to reassert colonial influence on Africa by preventing Africa from achieving food security. This, of course, is not true. Anti-GMO activists may be many things, but somehow I doubt they are neocolonialists.

However, it is easy to see how such suspicions may arise. Many anti-GMO organizations extend their disdain to things other than GMOs, such as the use of fertilizer, hybrid seeds, and weed control techniques – in short, anything that reeks of technology, modernity, or improved agricultural productivity. If your goal actually was to covertly sabotage agricultural development under the guise of “poverty reduction”, you could not do much better.

Remember the previous statistics on GE technology: on average, a one-third reduction in pesticide use, one-fifth increase in yield, and two-thirds increase in farmer profits. Is it surprising that most of the farmers are in favor?

GE gets philosophical

Like many entrenched debates, the furor over GMOs does not seem to have very much to do with facts.

Where does the intense backlash against GMOs come from? It does not seem to be politics; opinions on GE technology are not split on political lines.

However, they are split on scientific ones. A Pew Research Center survey found that the difference in percent of the general public that holds a particular stance and the percent of AAAS scientists that hold the same stance was greatest for the issue of GE food safety: 88% of surveyed scientists considered GMOs safe to eat, compared to 37% of the public (for comparison, 87% of surveyed scientists said climate change is mostly due to human activity, compared to 50% of the public).

So what is it about the issue of GE food that makes it so controversial?

Lynas discusses several arguments, which don’t have very much to do with GMOs at all, but provide an interesting perspective on one side of the environmental movement. If you’re here for the GMO stuff, skip the next two sections.

Can’t concentrate

One argument, given by many of the anti-GMO activist friends Lynas interviews, is opposition to any kind of concentration. Sure, they say, GMOs are known to be safe. But that’s not the real issue. The real issue is how they contribute to a trend of increasing technological and economic concentration that empowers the capitalist elites.

Okay, sure. But why GMOs? Yes, some GMO products favor large producers over small and therefore contribute to concentration. Others help farmers in rural Uganda survive a blight. I understand concern over the former, but now how it justifies opposition to GE technology of any kind.

Unless, of course, you think that any technology that requires centralization and specialization is inherently bad (this is not a straw man; this view is held by some of the anti-GMO people Lynas discusses). But a complex technological stack is a feature of any civilization worthy of the term. I think it is also generally worth it.

Narratives, facts, and torpedoes

Another argument is offered by Paul Kingsnorth, in an essay that Lynas recommends and quotes at some length.

The essay is called “The Quants and the Poets.” It argues that, in the environmental movement, there are quants, who “might be telling you to change your lightbulbs or come out on the streets in favour of a nuclear power plant or a windfarm”, but “[don’t ask] you to examine your values or your society’s underlying mythology”. Then there are poets, who “start by observing that worlds are not ‘saved’ by the same stories that are killing them” and go on to “explore what it is about how we see ourselves which reduces us to […] arguing about machines rather than wondering what those machines give us and what they take away.”

Kingsnorth uses the debate over nuclear power as an example:
Though both sides pretend to be informed by ‘science’ and ‘facts’ both are actually informed primarily by prejudice. Whether you like nuclear power or not is a reflection of the kind of worldview you have: whether you are a confident embracer of the Western model of progress or whether it frightens or concerns you; whether you trust science or tend not to; whether you are cautious or reckless; whether you are ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative.’ On issues ranging from GM crops to capitalism, these are the underlying stories that actually inform the green debate. That they are then supported by a clutch of cherry-picked facts ’ easy to come by, after all, in the age of Wikipedia, is a footnote to what’s really going on.
Kingsnorth is correct in saying that someone’s broader worldview is an essential part of what determines someone’s position on GE or nuclear, and that we should be aware of those biases. Where he goes off the rails is when he relegates “science” and “facts” (note the quotation marks) to the role of footnotes, arguing that they’re not central to the debate. While he may be uncomfortably correct about the quality of the public debate, that doesn’t imply some kind of balance between the sides because they’re both somehow relative. Whether someone supports nuclear power is a question about values. But questions about the safety of nuclear power, or its level of pollution, or its level of nuclear waste, are factual questions to which there are objective answers, and any sane evaluation of nuclear power is based on the answers to these questions. If you’re saying that the facts are relative or unimportant, it’s usually not because they are, but because the other side has them and you don’t.

Narratives are important. A pragmatic approach to environmental issues obviously involves an examination of these narratives and an attempt to change the ones that aren’t working (for instance, a change of cultural narratives could likely reduce material consumption while increasing human welfare). The fixing of narratives and the fixing of the physical should also mutually reinforce each other. Kingsnorth’s attitude, however, seems to be that there is a conflict here, and that narratives are everything: forget the tedious bickering over facts and figures, what we need is a good story.

The implicit assumption here is that narratives are somehow deeper and more fundamental than the merely physical. There are a great many philosophical debates we could have about whether this is true. However, you can have all the inspirational narratives you want, but some problems (including feeding people or reducing emissions) require someone to actually deal with the external world at some point. When it comes to solving these problems, disparaging the work of figuring out which objective things we need to change is counterproductive.

I think there is some truth to the “quant/poet” distinction in the environmental movement, though I hesitate to use those terms. Speaking in very broad caricatures, it is the distinction between the often science-skeptical, activism- and ideology-oriented, nature-is-sacred environmentalism and the pro-science, technology- and policy-oriented ecomodernist environmentalism. The former may work as an aesthetic movement or a radical political ideology, but it is counterproductive when it comes to deciding what we should actually do.

“[T]he green movement has torpedoed itself with numbers”, Kingsnorth writes. I think it’s the other way around: the green movement has torpedoed itself with narratives. Right now the environmental movement is stuck opposing important technologies like GE and nuclear precisely because of the compelling narratives that can be crafted against these high-tech, “unnatural” things. What the environmental movement needs to solve real-world problems is the opposite of what Kingsnorth recommends: a greater, not lesser, focus on facts and numbers. And, perhaps, some narratives that are in line with the facts, rather than opposed to them.

Back to GMOs

I emphasize once again that the point is not that GE is the Second Coming (GE-sus?). Like any technology, GE can be, and has been, used for good causes, for bad causes, and for dumb causes. When used for good causes with proper caution, it is a powerful, proven tool for increasing agricultural productivity and minimizing environmental impacts.

Yet today, largely due to misguided activism, only 12% of global cropland is used for GMOs. Disease-resistant crops sit out blights in Tanzanian laboratories.

Lynas’ discussion of anti-GMO activism focuses on the high-brow, philosophical arguments. In Seeds of Science, he does not offer much of a verdict about these arguments, but I’ve presented my own views in the preceding sections.

I don’t think these reasons explain the sheer magnitude of the GMO furor. Something about GE technology, the adoption of which would not inconvenience consumers in the slightest, has lead to a greater gap between public and scientific consensus than the one over climate change.

Sure, several accidents of history (which are well-documented in Seeds of Science) lead to a few charismatic leaders (like Jeremy Rifkin) and influential organizations (like Greenpeace) turning anti-GMO. That was just the spark, though. Plenty of other thinkers and organizations have campaigned equally eloquently and extravagantly, and often far more reasonably, for other causes. In the case of GMOs, the spark seems to have hit a four-ton pile of highly-combustible dried wood. So where did that wood come from?

Humans have many moral instincts. Some of them are noble and good, like altruism. Others are artefacts of evolution. Take xenophobia, for instance: it was a valuable tendency to have in hunter-gatherer tribes to strengthen the tribe and avoid diseases. Perhaps we owe the existence of our species to it. But today, there’s a strong case to be made that this particular moral tendency is not at the core of morality, and hence we spend a lot of effort trying to combat it when it infringes on more important moral principles, like the right to life, or the right to equal treatment.

Likewise, it is no surprise that humans value food purity. This has many good consequences, not least that it helped prevent our ancestors dying of disease. Other consequences are simply confusing, such as whatever the latest food fad is, or the fact that many religious texts read like they were written by an extremely picky food addict.

But then there are the times when the instinct towards food purity conflicts with deeper moral principles. I would argue GMOs are such a case. Some deep part of the brain feels that the intrusion of industrial lab-based high technology into the food supply is a violation. The benefits – to the environment, to farmers in developing countries, to agricultural productivity – are about distant places and people, so they don’t have the same emotional salience as the gut-level feeling that this is wrong. Reason goes out the window.

You might argue that some principles are sacrosanct and should not be violated, whatever the benefits are. It is certainly possible to construct a moral philosophy where food purity is inviolable. I think such a philosophy would be morally reprehensible – a vaguely defined notion of food purity? Really? Is that the highest good, above environment or sustenance or life?

Anti-GMO activists, from this perspective, are unwittingly exploiting a bug in human moral instincts, with the side effect of derailing the deployment of an important technology. We have been misled by our gut feelings to take a stance antithetical to our higher goals. As the world grows bigger and stranger, this is the type of mistake we must learn to avoid making.

How to change your mind

How did Lynas come to change his mind? The inciting incident, as he describes it, was being extremely embarrassed after a misguided piece of activism that involved throwing a pie at a pro-GE speaker. This episode, Lynas writes, taught him “to pay careful attention to supporting evidence.”

I wonder how scalable this method is.



More Energy and More Civilization

Book: Energy and Civilization: A History, by Vaclav Smil (2017)
1.9k words (≈7 minutes)
(This is an addenda to my main review of the book, which you can read here.)

Energy and Civilization: A History is one of the most information-dense books I have ever had the pleasure of reading, and so my review (which focused on energy transitions and the lessons they hold for the future) covered only a small part of the book.

In this post, I’ve compiled some facts and other tidbits from my notes that did not make it into the review. This is still only scratching the surface of the information available in Energy and Civilization, so get the book if you want more.

  • Perhaps the most significant energy innovator before 18th and 19th century Britain was Han China (207 BCE to 220 CE), which was the first society to use coal in iron-making, drill for natural gas, cast steel from iron, and use curved plows, collar harnesses, and multitube seed drills.
  • Even in 1700, Chinese and European per capita energy use levels were broadly similar, but by the middle of the century the regions started to diverge and by 1900 there was a four-fold difference between them. Smil does not dive too deeply into the debate over what caused Europe’s development, but notes that the Christian belief in the dignity of manual labor is something many scholars consider to have played a role.
  • Coal is not necessary for mass production or even some degree of industrialization; mass workshop manufacturing built on cheap labor and international markets was present in some parts of Europe as well as Ming and Qing China, Tokugawa Japan, and India centuries before the Industrial Revolution.
  • Likewise, Smil notes that consumerism and materialism were not spawned by the Industrial Revolution, but had been present to some degree in France and the Netherlands already in the 15th and 16th centuries.
  • An often neglected fact is that the world’s first commercial oil-distilling factory was built by Russians in Balakhani (now in Azerbaijan) in 1837, long before the Pennsylvanian oil extraction projects prominently featured in many western histories.

Energy and resource use
  • Everyone knows electricity generation and agriculture consume significant amounts of energy. Other surprisingly large consumers of energy:
    • Iron and steel production alone consume 35 EJ, or 7% of the world’s total energy annual energy consumption.
    • Information and communication takes another 5%.
    • During the Cold War, a rough estimate is that about 5% of US and Soviet energy was spent spent on developing and building nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.
    • World War I required about 15% of US energy, compared to 40% for World War II (with a peak of 54% in 1944). During the worst years of the war, Germany and the USSR spent a staggering 70-80% of their energy on the war effort.
  • How has China accomplished so many huge infrastructure projects in so little time? Answer: lots of cement. China used almost 5 billion tons of cement in the three years from 2008-2010 alone,, compared to the United States’ consumption of 4.5 billion tons in the entire twentieth century.
  • Which embodies more energy, phones or cars? (Spoiler alert: in practice it’s cars, but complicating factors make it surprisingly close). Despite the four-order-of-magnitude difference in weight, phones embody about 1 GJ of energy, compared to 100 GJ for cars (thus, gram for gram, the production of phones is 100 times more energy intensive than the production of cars). More phones are sold than cars, bringing the total amount of energy used on the production of each to 2 EJ and 7 EJ respectively. This is further evened when accounting for the five-fold difference in average lifespan (2 years versus 10), so all in all the energy spent on the production of phones and cars per year of use is used for is roughly the same. Of course, during their lifetime a phone will consume only an additional 30 MJ of energy (3% of its embodied energy), while a car can consume several times its embodied energy in gasoline.
  • The IMF estimates that $5.3 trillion, or 6% of world GDP, is spent on energy subsidies (subsidies for renewable energy are a very small fraction of this number).

Fossil fuels
  • American coal production peaked already in 2001 at 1.02 billion tons.
  • British coal production chart from 1700 to 2015 is an especially neat illustration of energy transitions:

Fossil fuels are not running out
  • Smil does not mince words about this: “…only a fundamental misinterpretation of clear geological evidence can see in the rising use of fossil fuels a cause for concern about their early exhaustion.” Available reserves of fossil fuels are only a small part of the total theoretically extractable total, and so extraction will effectively always be limited by the cost of further extraction rather than by oil literally running out.
  • This is, of course, no cause for complacence: “But the eventual exhaustion of fossil energies is most unlikely because the burning of coal and hydrocarbons is the principal source of anthropogenic CO2 and the combustion of available fossil fuel resources would raise the tropospheric temperature high enough to eliminate the entire Antarctic ice sheet and cause a sea-level rise of about 58 m (Winkelmann et al. 2015)” (read: it’s bad).

  • Smil highlights just how shocking the impact of electrification was on society. First, electricity was unprecedented in that its adoption meant not just a substitution of one fuel for another, but the construction of entirely new infrastructure systems and appliances. Secondly, its usefulness was unparalleled; it made possible everything from cheap lighting to vaccines (which require refrigeration).
  • Electricity also transformed household work, the burden of which had generally increased in the 1800s due to the need to uphold ever higher and higher standards of life and hygiene:
“The liberating effects of electricity are unforgettably illustrated in Robert Caro’s (1982) first volume of Lyndon Johnson’s biography. As Caro points out, it was not the shortage of energy that made life in Texas Hill County so hard (households had plenty of wood and kerosene) but the absence of electricity. In a moving, almost physically painful, account Caro describes the drudgery, and danger, of ironing with heavy wedges of metal heated on wood stoves, the endless pumping and carrying of water for cooking, washing, and animals, the grinding of feed, and sawing wood. These burdens, which fell largely on women, were much harder than the typical labor requirements in poor countries as the Hill County farmers of the 1930s strove to maintain a much higher standard of life and run much larger farming operations than peasants in Asia or Latin America. For example, the water needs for a family of five came to nearly 300 t/year, and to supply them required an equivalent of more than 60 eight-hour days and walking about 2,500 km. Not surprisingly, nothing could have been as revolutionary in the life of these people as the extension of transmission lines.”
  • The United States and Canada are the only developed countries without an integrated national grid.

  • The (very general) specifications of the Beetle, the most produced car model in terms of both quantity produced and duration of production (production continued in Mexico till 2003), were decreed in 1933 by none other than Adolf Hitler. Perhaps he should have considered a career in automotive design?

“Moreover, the drudgery of field labor in the open is seldom preferable even to unskilled industrial work in a factory. In general, typical factory tasks require lower energy expenditures than does common farm work, and in a surprisingly short time after the beginning of mass urban industrial employment the duration of factory work became reasonably regulated.”
  • Smil provides a series of statistics on French living conditions that illustrate the speed of improvement:
    • In 1954, less than 60% of households had running water, about 25% had indoor toilets, and 10% had bathrooms and central heating.
    • In 1970, 90% of households had refrigerators, 75% had indoor toilets, and 60% had central heating and washing machines.
    • In 1990, all of the above were practically universal. 75% of people also owned a car.

  • Smil claims energy considerations are very rarely the actual reason for war. He lists Germany in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the occupation of Afghanistan, and most civil civil wars as examples of recent conflicts in which energy considerations were not at play. Even the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the response, and the later 2003 US invasion of Iraq, involved significant non-energy factors. East Asia is the largest buyer of Iraqi oil, which in 2015 constituted only 3% of American oil imports and has not been much higher historically. Smil concludes: “The conclusion is clear: broader strategic aims, whether well justified or misplaced, and not a quest for resources have led America into its post–World War II conflicts.”
  • The most destructive bombing in World War II was probably not the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The firebombing of Tokyo by 334 bombers in March 1945 killed (very roughly) at least 100 000 people, compared to 70 000 - 126 000 people in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (the atomic bombing of Nagasaki killed 40 000 - 80 000). What’s more surprising is that the destructive energy of the conventional bombing of Tokyo matches that of the Hiroshima bomb; both released about 60 TJ of energy. However, the bombs dropped on Tokyo were incendiary and thus caused far greater fires than the atomic bombs; using the number of wooden buildings that were destroyed, Smil estimates that very roughly 18 PJ, or 300 times the Hiroshima bomb’s energy, was released in the fires.

  • Horses and people have approximately the same mass to power ratio (1000 grams of weight per watt of power delivered). Early steam engines were barely better (600-700 g/W), but by 1900 car engines had mass/power ratios of 30 g/W, rapidly falling to 1 g/W in modern cars. The Saturn V rocket, with a power output of 2.6 GW (equivalent to about 40 Boeing 747s or a large nuclear reactor), had a mass/power ratio of 0.001 g/W.
  • In 1977, GM produced the first car with an electrically controlled spark ignition. By 1981, GM’s new car lineup had software with a total of 50 000 lines of code in it. In modern cars, the software can run up to 100 million lines of code and contribute 40% to the car’s cost (a lot of those 100 million lines is some combination of automatically generated, reused, bloated, and a result of having to deal with the vast number of different car configurations). Compare this to major airline systems; the F-35 and Boeing 787 both have “only” 6 million lines of code in their software.

Business cycles and energy
  • Smil notes that there is an inverse correlation between business cycles and innovation periods; that is, periods of intense innovation (as identified by Mensch) often center on major economic downswings (as identified by Schumpeter). I don’t know what to make of this, so I’ll just leave you with this diagram:


Review: Energy and Civilization: A History (Vaclav Smil)

Book: Energy and Civilization: A History, by Vaclav Smil (2017)
3.8k words (≈13 minutes)
The broad picture of civilizational energy use is often considered to look something like this:
  • Hunter-gatherers rely on muscle power for their energy needs, expending energy primarily on hunting and foraging.
  • Agriculture is invented; humans switch from nomadic to sedentary lifestyles and labor (and therefore energy use) is switched from humans to domesticated animals. Renewable, animate energy drives civilization for millennia.
  • The potential of coal and steam engines brings about the industrial revolution, giving rise to mass production, industrialization, and rapid a switch from renewable animate to nonrenewable inanimate power in the middle of the 19th century.
  • In the 20th century, oil replaces coal as the main energy source.
In Energy and Civilization: A History (an ambitious title if there ever was one), Vaclav Smil shows that such a narrative is a simplification, and that transitions from one form of energy to another have typically been more complex.

The work is in good company among other books that explain long-run historical trends from a certain perspective, like Yuval Noah Harari’s famous Sapiens (cognition), Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay (political organization), Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (geography), and Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (economic power). The lens of Energy and Civilization is, predictably, energy. However, while at least as broad in scope (and in contrast to, say, Sapiens), Smil’s Energy and Civilization is also very ready to dive into details.

What I mean by this is that Energy and Civilization is full of facts and statistics. I opened a random page and counted 8 figures on that page and 21 on the next one. From the first to the last page, Smil will assault you with facts about everything from the efficiency of different waterwheel designs to the mass/power ratio of the Saturn V to the energy density of seal meat (15-18 MJ/kg, if you were wondering). And yes, this does lend a certain dryness to the book. But it’s well worth it: the result is a comprehensive outline - if there is such a thing - of energy generation and use since prehistoric times.

What, then, is wrong with the simplified picture of energy transitions presented above? And what does it mean for the future transition to renewable energy?


When dealing with global energy supplies, the numbers get fairly large. Since the larger SI prefixes are not used very often, here is a complete list of SI prefixes for quick reference, including reference points for power and energy shamelessly stolen from the book’s excellent addenda and some other sources:

  • Kilo- (k): 1 000 / $$10^3$$. 1 kW is the peak power of a strong horse.
  • Mega- (M): 1 000 000 / $$10^6$$. 0.9 MW is the maximum power of a steam locomotive; a wind turbine provides several megawatts of power; a Boeing 747 uses 60 MW.
  • Giga- (G): 1 000 000 000 / $$10^9$$. Nuclear power plants are typically in the several gigawatt range
  • Tera- (T): 1 000 000 000 000 / $$10^{12}$$. The world energy consumption is 17 TW. The Hiroshima bomb released 63 TJ of energy.
  • Peta- (P): $$10^{15}$$. 170 PW is the power of sunlight hitting the Earth's surface.
  • Exa- (E): $$10^{18}$$. 500 EJ is around the world's annual energy consumption.
  • Zeta- (Z): $$10^{21}$$. 15 ZJ is the total energy the Earth receives in sunlight in one day. About 40 ZJ of energy are estimated to be contained in the world's fossil fuel reserves. Fossil fuels in the 20th century provided about 10 ZJ of power.
  • Yota- (Y): $$10^{24}$$. 300 YW is the sun's power.
(Do not confuse power (measured in watts (W), which are joules per second) with energy (measured in joules (J), which are defined as force times distance))

Energy transitions

A central concept in all the discussions in the book is that of a prime mover. Thankfully, this does not refer to the philosophical concept of an unmoved mover, but instead to something that uses energy from a source to do work.

One surprise to the conventional narrative presented above is that animals were never were even 20% of prime movers.

This is despite the fact that an animal like an ox or buffalo (both about 250-550 watts) or a horse (500-850 W) have power outputs for manual labor much higher than humans (70-150 W). While domesticated animals played an important role, the energy delivered by human muscle remained much greater.

Further, the animal share of prime movers peaked fairly late. In the US, animal power capacity was overtaken by internal combustion engines only around 1910, and by electricity only around 1920. The number of American horses peaked in 1917.

Though inanimate power achieved primacy only in the 1900s, it was an important part of energy supply for centuries before then. Waterwheels and, later, windmills had played an important role since Roman times (especially in Europe in grain milling, and later iron metallurgy and cloth fulling), and again their capacities were surpassed fairly late - installed capacity of steam engines in the US in 1849 was 920 MW compared to 500 MW of waterwheels, but because waterwheels had less downtime the energy delivered by them was 2.4 PJ / year, compared to about 1 PJ / year from coal (energy delivered by coal surpassed waterwheels in the 1860s). As late as the 1920s, there were more than 30 000 operational waterwheels in Germany. Even the rise of European colonial empires was based on two sources of inanimate power: wind and gunpowder. And today, only a fifth of humanity has fully completed the transition to full reliance on inanimate power sources.

The second of the great great energy dichotomies - renewable versus non-renewable - also turns out to have a more complex history. In many pre-industrial areas, logging was far from sustainable, as evidenced by extensive deforestation in the Mediterranean, northern China, and later England and the United States (other pre-industrial fuels include dried dung, crop residues, and - in northern China - coal).

As cities grew, supplying them with wood - about 650 kg per capita per year in Rome in 200 CE, 1 750 kg per capita per year in medieval London, and 3 000-6 000 kg in 19th century European cities - became increasingly problematic, requiring more and more complex logistics chains and affecting many parts of life.

Perhaps the most serious effect was air pollution. Air pollution is often thought of as a modern or at least post-industrial problem, but air quality was often likely worse in pre-industrial rural environments than in industrialized cities. There are two main reasons for this: first, much of the combustion was done indoors (fireplaces, furnace, and so on), and secondly wood is simply a bad fuel: it is dirty, and is typically not very efficient (completely dry coniferous wood can approach coal in energy density, but air-dried wood in dry climates typically contains 15% moisture, reducing its heating potential).

Charcoal is an improvement over wood, providing an energy density of 28-30 MJ/kg (about 50% higher than completely dry wood) and burning more cleanly, though its production involves losing about 60% of the wood’s energy potential.

How quickly did the world transition away from biomass (wood, dung, and crop residues) to coal?

In 1800, the world’s annual energy consumption from fuels was 20 EJ, of which 98% was wood. In 1900, energy consumption had doubled to 43 EJ, which was split about evenly between wood and fossil fuels. In other words: after a century of industrialization, the world used about as much wood as before!

Of course, many European and American countries were ahead of the curve, but not always by much, or even at all: French oil and coal power reached the 50% level 1875, about 25 years before the world, the US in the 1880s, but Russia only around 1930.

What about the latest historical energy transition, from oil to coal? We have already seen that the 19th century, often considered the century of coal, was dominated by wood. From this you might already guess that the 20th century was not the century of oil: oil delivered 4 ZJ* from 1900 to 2000, compared to 5.2 ZJ* from coal (and coal remains ahead even after non-energy uses of oil are accounted for).

(*My copy of the book has these numbers as 4 YJ and 5.2 YJ, or 4 000 ZJ and 5 200 ZJ respectively, implying that from 1900-2000 the world consumed a total of $$9.2 \times 10^{24}$$ J from fossil fuels. However, the world's total annual energy consumption is on the order of only $$5 \times 10^{20}$$ J; a century at this level of consumption would bring the total to $$5 \times 10^{22}$$ J, two hundred times less than the amount that the book lists as being supplied by fossil fuels alone in the 20th century. This is obviously implausible. Since energy consumption today is several times higher than the 20th century average, the numbers are consistent with Smil having used yotajules when he meant zetajoules. I assumed this is the case and changed the numbers.)

(Burning oil is far from good for the environment, but it is already a massive improvement over wood and coal. In a complete combustion reaction, every mole of carbon in the fuel results in another mole of carbon dioxide as a product, so minimizing the amount of carbon in the fuel directly reduces CO2 emissions. The hydrogen:carbon ratio of wood is about 0.5, compared to 1 for coal, 1.8 for gasoline and kerosene (though there is some variation because of differing concentrations of the constituent alkanes), and 4 for methane (CH4). CO2 emissions per gigajoule are 30 kg for coal but can be under 15 kg for natural gas. Wood and coal also produce far more side products (such as sulfur dioxide for coal and various toxic components of woodsmoke for wood).)

Energy transitions are slow

The two great industrial energy transitions have been the ones from muscle and wood to coal, and then from coal to oil. The greatest challenge of 21st century civilization will be enacting another transition, this time from oil to renewables.

But the history shows that both of the previous energy transitions have been slow:
“My reconstruction of global energy transitions shows coal (replacing wood) reaching 5% of the global market around 1840, 10% by 1855, 15% by 1865, 20% by 1870, 25% by 1875, 33% by 1885, 40% by 1895, and 50% by 1900 (Smil 2010a). The sequence of years needed to reach these milestones was 15–25–30–35–45–55–60. The intervals for oil replacing coal, with 5% of the global supply reached in 1915, were virtually identical: 15–20–35–40–50–60 (oil will never reach 50%, and its share has been declining). Natural gas reached 5% of the global primary supply by 1930 and 25% of it after 55 years, taking significantly longer to reach that share than coal or oil.
The similar progress of three global transitions—it takes two or three generations, or 50–75, years for a new resource to capture a large share of the global energy market—is remarkable because the three fuels require different production, distribution, and conversion techniques and because the scales of substitutions have been so different: going from 10% to 20% for coal required increasing the fuel’s annual output by less than 4 EJ, whereas going from 10% to 20% of natural gas needed roughly an additional 55 EJ/year (Smil 2010a). The two most important factors explaining the similarities in the pace of transitions are the prerequisites for enormous infrastructural investment and the inertia of massively embedded energy systems.”
Both of the past transitions have taken 55-75 years from the 5% to the 40% level. Compare this with the state of renewables today: in 2017 solar provided 1.7% and wind 4.4% of global energy consumption (hydropower is at 16%, but unlikely to grow too much since viable locations are limited).

Accelerating the next energy transition

The picture might look bleak. However, there is a pressing need for the next energy transition, meaning that significant resources will likely be devoted to accelerating it. So all we need is rapid, expansive international commitment, and … okay, it does look pretty bad.

What advice does Smil have? He is not a fan of biofuels, which currently supply 1.8% of the world’s energy; Smil writes: “Scaling this industry to supply a significant share of the world’s liquid biofuels is, bluntly put, delusionary (Giampietro and Mayumi 2009, Smil 2010a)”. He does, however, have three main ideas for hastening the energy transition.

First, more nuclear power. This is not surprising. In my review of Enlightenment Now, I noted Pinker’s strong support for it, as well as providing links to further statistics and articles on nuclear power that support its efficacy and safety. When all the knowledgeable and rigorous sources support something, I think it’s time to listen.

The world - and particularly the West - is not listening. Nuclear provided only 10.7% of the world’s energy in 2015 (though the share was 17% before the Chinese surge in coal energy). Of the 67 reactors under construction worldwide, 60% are Chinese, Russian or Indian (25, 9, and 6 reactors respectively), leading Smil to conclude: “The West has essentially given up on this clean, carbon-free way of electricity generation” (though countries like France, with 77% nuclear power, are a notable exception).

The second major step would be the invention of cheap, large-scale energy storage. This would allow fluctuating renewables like solar and wind to take over a far larger share of electricity generation. However, while battery technology continues to advance, the search for this Holy Grail has so far yielded as many results as the expedition in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Efficiency? What efficiency?

The third major step is more rational energy use. Smil notes that energy’s true cost is not reflected in its price, driving uneconomic trends in energy use.

For example, the power of an average American almost doubled from 90 kW in 1990 to 175 kW in 2015. It seems hard to imagine such an increase being driven by economic considerations - were the cars of 20 years ago really bottlenecked by their power output? Of the trend towards larger cars, particularly SUVs, Smil asks: “Where is the sport and what is the utility of driving these heavy minitrucks to a shopping center?”

But perhaps the clearest damnation of the economic value of cars is the following:
“After taking into account the time needed to earn monies for buying (or leasing) the car and to fuel it, maintain it, and insure it, the average speed of U.S. car travel amounted to less than 8 km/h in the early 1970s (Illich 1974)—and, with more congestion, by the early 2000s the speed was no higher than 5 km/h, comparable to speeds achieved before 1900 with horse-drawn omnibuses or by simply walking. In addition, with well-to-wheel efficiencies well below 10%, cars remain a leading source of environmental pollution; as already noted, they also exact a considerable death and injury toll (WHO 2015b).”
Smil’s disdain is not limited to modern cars. In the last chapter, he writes:
“On a more mundane level, tens of millions of people annually take inter- continental flights to generic beaches in order to acquire skin cancer faster; the shrinking cohort of classical music aficionados has more than 100 recordings of Vivaldi’s Quattro Stagioni to choose from; there are more than 500 varieties of breakfast cereals and more than 700 models of passenger cars. Such excessive diversity results in a considerable misallocation of energies, but there appears to be no end to it: electronic access to the global selection of consumer goods has already multiplied the choice available for Internet orders, and the customized production of many consumer items (using individualized adjustments of computer designs and additive manufacturing) would raise it to yet another level of excess. The same is true of speed: do we really need a piece of ephemeral junk made in China delivered within a few hours after an order was placed on a computer? And (coming soon) by a drone, no less!”
Though Smil somewhat overstates his case (are classical music recordings and customized computers really egregious examples of misallocated resources?), I think he is correct in decrying the inefficiency of consumerism. Excess consumption of unnecessary goods is not just detrimental to the world, but also unlikely to serve the true interests of the consumers themselves; I’m not sure what the path to happiness and enlightenment is, but I will bet you it has little to do with designer clothes or 4K TVs.

However, keep in mind that such energy use is far from the global norm:
“[…] regardless of the indicators used, those kinds of wasteful, unproductive, and excessive final energy use are still in the global minority. When looking at average per capita energy supply, then only about one-fifth of the world’s 200 countries have accomplished the transition to mature, affluent industrial societies supported by the high consumption of energy (>120 GJ/capita), and the share is even lower in population terms, about 18% (1.3 billion among 7.3 billion in 2015).”
From an energy perspective, parts of the developed world’s economies are wasteful. On the other hand, many countries remain constrained by energy considerations.

How much energy is required for an industrialized welfare society? Here Smil provides a comprehensive scale:
  • Hunter-gatherer energy consumption is hard to estimate, but given a daily food intake of 10 MJ per capita (about 2400 kcal), about 3.6 GJ of food energy is needed per capita per year. In addition, Smil estimates that the wood for cooking meat might very roughly translate to another 2 GJ
  • 5 GJ per capita per year (120 kg oil equivalent) is required for even the most basic necessities. This is somewhere around the energy consumption of Ethiopia, Bangladesh, China in 1950, and Western Europe before 1800.
  • 40 GJ/capita/year (1000 kg oil equivalent) is required for industrialization and basic well-being (around the level of 1980s China, 1930-1950s Japan, and late 1800s Western Europe and US).
  • 80 GJ/capita/year (2000 kg oil equivalent) corresponds to more affluent industrial society (1960s France, 1970s Japan, and 2012 China (though high industrial energy use in China means that its level is not directly comparable to the others)).
  • Over 110 GJ/capita/year (2.5t oil equivalent) is the minimum level for highly affluent societies.

Note, however, that the approximately 100 GJ level is not a guarantee of welfare and affluence, but simply the minimum level. It also seems to be a threshold level: above this, further energy use no longer correlates with wellbeing:

Thus, countries like Japan, Germany, France, UK, and Italy manage to sustain affluent industrialized societies with 100-175 GJ of annual per capita energy use, while other countries take much more energy to reach a similar level. In some cases this makes sense: looking at a list of countries by per capita energy consumption, many northern countries like Iceland, Canada, and Finland have fairly high consumptions (760, 300, and 255 GJ/capita/year respectively). Other countries don’t have this excuse - many Middle-Eastern oil nations, like Qatar (800 GJ/capita/year), Bahrain (430), Kuwait (410), and UAE (320), have very high energy consumption. The United States, Russia, and Saudi Arabia also have disproportionate levels of energy consumption compared to their standards of living.

Therefore, it seems that there is a lot of room for cutting energy consumption in many countries without reducing quality of life. However, as Smil laments, this tends to be politically unfeasible.

Efficiency gains

The efficiencies of many processes have improved by an order of magnitude or more.

The most dramatic example is light. The number of lumens (the unit of light) produced per watt has risen from 0.3 for candles to 2 for gas lights to 5 for incandescent light bulbs to 15 for modern light bulbs to 100 for fluorescent light bulbs and almost 150 for LEDs (this has been accompanied by a drop in real prices of four orders of magnitude, and a 200-600 fold decrease during just the 1900s!).

Similarly, the efficiency of cooking has increased from a few percent for open fires, to 30% for wood stoves to 45% for coal stoves to 65% for gas furnaces and up to 97% in the newest models, like the one which the author has in his “super-efficient home” (somehow I’m not surprised that Smil knows the efficiencies of his household appliances).

On a larger level, Smil estimates that while energy use increased 14-fold during the 20th century, useful energy increased 30-fold due to an increase in weighted global energy efficiency from roughly 20% in 1900 to 35% in 1950 to 50% in 2015.

A doubling of energy efficiency is no small thing. However, the issue with efficiency improvements is that they cannot be eternal: X joules of work can never be done with less than X joules of input (in fact, thermodynamics dictates it will always take at least a bit more than X joules). With many things - including light, heating, and power plant boilers - already operating near the theoretical limit, reductions in energy use in developed economies will increasingly require decreases in delivered useful energy as well.

As noted above, one industry where efficiency gains are still possible is cars, which currently have efficiencies of below 10% (though this figure includes all inefficiencies between oil in the ground and the kinetic energy of a car). There are two obvious ways to increase efficiency: switch from ICEs to electric motors, and - once autonomous vehicles are finally a thing - switch to a shared-ownership model; the production of a car takes about 100 GJ, which, as we saw earlier, is comparable to the total annual per capita energy use of an efficient welfare society.

Efficiency gains, however, are far from automatic, in large part due to the distorting effect of unpriced externalities on prices. Once again, the American car industry turns out to be far from a paragon of excellence in these matters: the fuel efficiency of American cars fell from 13.4 to 17.7 liters per 100km from the early 1930s to 1973. The gains from new technology were eaten up by cars becoming bigger and faster.

The cheapest and most important efficiency gains will, however, come from the developing world. Smil points out that even something as simple as introducing modern stoves with efficiencies of 25-30%, compared to 10-15% for traditional ones, would cut the energy required for cooking by half, hence halving the wood requirements and having a sizable impact on deforestation rates.

Despite inefficiencies in some industries, it is important to remember that there is an overall downwards trend in the energy intensity of GDP in every industrialized nation:

For Canada, the US, and Western Europe, the energy intensity of the economy peaked in the early 1900s and has been declining since then. The pattern has repeated for Japan’s industrialization, and will likely repeat as more and more countries industrialize.

Man perisheth?

Smil ends his book imploring the world to commit to action with this cheery quote from Senancour:
“Man perisheth. That may be, but let us struggle even though we perish; and if nothing is to be our portion, let it not come to us as a just reward.”
Indeed, the image painted by Smil’s remorseless statistics is not promising when considering the enormous speed with which humanity must complete the next energy transition. Assuming solar and wind grow at the same rate as coal use, they will be providing a majority of the world’s power by 2070 at the earliest. Electricity production is also only part of the challenge; agriculture, industry, and transportation are all significant polluters. There is no greater task for a civilization than overhauling its energy basis. And yet, given the stakes, there is little choice.


Powerful proof techniques

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There's proof by contradiction. There's proof by construction. For the brave of heart, there's proof by induction, and for the untiring, proof by exhaustion.

But sometimes you need something more. And for those cases, Strata of the World proudly presents the following collection of powerful proof techniques.

Proof by the algebra is boring: "... and the result follows after some uninteresting algebraic manipulations." An excellent choice when you're running out of space, need to cut words, or don't remember the intermediate steps.

Proof by boring algebra. Let's be honest, if your proof involves (or can be modified to involve) thirty lines of algebra, how many people are going to go through the details? To maximize the effect, write out the steps with a small font and no line spacing, use pixellated text, and separate it from the rest of the document by putting it in a textbox or appendix. If you suspect this to be insufficient, sprinkle remarks like "the details are not relevant to the main discussion", or "the intrepid reader is warned that the proof is arduous and somewhat tricky" into the surrounding text. Use this if you need to conceal some algebraic sleight-of-hand to "prove" your not-quite-a-theorem, or if you simply want to avoid annoying questions about it.

(Note: extremely determined readers may still decide to figure it out, but they are likely to spend at least an hour trying to work it out before they think to question its validity. This is when you make your getaway.)

Proof by circular reference: Write "We prove B by seeing that it follows from A, which we know to be true" in one place, and "We prove A by seeing that it follows from B, which we know to be true" somewhere else. This is especially effective when at least one of the statements is outside the main body of the text (appendix, textbox, etc.).

Proof by the proof is complicated: "To prove A, we invoke theorem X, the proof of which is beyond the scope of this discussion."

A special case of the above: proof by the proof involves calculus and is therefore omitted. This is a time-honored tactic used by many high-school physics and chemistry books.

Proof by elegance: "One possible solution to problem A is $$X$$. $$X$$ is an extremely elegant solution because [reason], and therefore is correct." A good "reason" might be that $$X$$ is the first thing you thought of. If all else fails, mumble something about "symmetry".

Proof by making a hella assumptions: "This can be shown rigorously if we first assume that $$\Delta x$$ is small, $$s^2 ≈ s$$, $$\sin (\theta) ≈ \theta ≈ 0$$, $$\alpha < \beta$$, and there is a full moon tomorrow."

Is your result shaky even after making all possible assumptions and simplifications? Simply appeal to proof by usefulness: "Though A is not proved here, assuming it allows us to solve/prove B, C, D, and E."

Proof by authority: "This result holds because [the teacher]/[the professor]/[the Mathematical Establishment]/[God]/[Richard Feynman] says so."

If proof by authority is too crass, replace it with a proof by impressive citation: "Theorem A holds (Einstein 1905b; Euclid 302 BCE; Euler 1779e; Hawking, et. al. 1997; Gödel 1931a; Turing 1953; Wiles 1993; Euler 1764g; Erdös 1964; Tao, et. al. 2005; Euler 1778$$\omega$$)".

If mathematical induction is not up to the task, why not try proof by electromagnetic induction? "This result holds. Doubters of this result will be administered electric shocks until they desist their doubting."

A more peaceful means of alternative induction is proof by cult induction: "This proof is the truth, and the whole truth. All those who want to be saved must agree, immediately transfer all their funds to [bank account details], and join us in the Kalahari Desert, where we await the alien messiah."

And, of course, the classic: proof by the proof is left as an exercise for the reader.

Inspired by conversations with friends, as well as the process of writing a longer math paper for school. More examples of this genre of humor can be found online, for example here. See also this article, specifically page 28 (page 5 of the PDF).


Review: Enlightenment Now (Steven Pinker)

Book: Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker (2018)
5.0k words (≈17 minutes)
Enlightenment Now makes a convincing case that the state of human civilization has improved massively over the course of history, particularly the last few centuries, and that this progress is continuing today.

More generally, Pinker argues for a set of principles, which he succinctly sums up as “reason, science, humanism, and progress”. These are the ideals formulated during the Enlightenment: reason over superstition, knowledge over ignorance, humanism over religion, and a proactive, rational approach to solving problems. These are also the ideals that have guided civilization towards good, and with which our greatest achievements are built.

But first: the idea that life, on average, is improving is a surprising idea (at least to people answering surveys with this question). So is it?


How has the world improved? Let me count the ways

The majority of the book is about statistics on long-term trends in the world. Let’s take a look.

(Much of the data in Enlightenment Now and lots more can be found on the incredible Our World in Data website.)

Material progress
  • Human lifespans have increased, reaching 71.4 years in 2015.

  • Child mortality has declined from 30-50% even in the richer European countries in the 1800s to a fraction of a percent in developed countries (the global average is 4%).
  • The lifespan increase is not just a result of decreasing child mortality: the life expectancy for people of all ages has increased, and if anything the trend is accelerating.
  • Deaths from diseases have declined.
  • The percentage of undernourished people in the developing world has fallen from 35% in 1970 to less than 15% in 2015.
  • World GDP, well …

In many of these cases, it is not just the total progress that it shocking, but how much of it has been recent. Until around 1970, the number of people living in extreme poverty increased as the population rose, and then started falling, and then went into a massive fall starting in 2000.


I discussed the decline of warfare in a previous post. Meanwhile Steven Pinker has written an entire book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, focused on the decline of conflict. For more on this topic, see one of those resources.

Other aspects of safety have also improved:
  • Car-related deaths per kilometer in the US have fallen to about 1/20th of their 1920 value and 1/5th of their 1950 value (though total car deaths have risen, and are a significant global cause of mortality with over 1 million deaths per year).
  • Pedestrian deaths have also fallen: in the US, 5 000 pedestrians died in 2014, compared to 15 500 in 1937. This is especially surprising when you consider the difference in the number of cars on the road and even total population.
  • Aircraft deaths have fallen from about 5 per year per million passengers in 1970 to a value so close to the x-axis that I can’t read it off the graph (0.1 or less) in 2015.
  • Deaths from falls, fire, and drowning have fallen steadily during the 1900s.
  • Workplace deaths have declined by about a factor of over 10 since 1910.
  • Natural disaster deaths, though, can’t be helped - except, wait, they can. Natural disaster deaths have fallen from about 8 per 100 000 people to 1 per 100 000 since the 1950s.
  • Deaths from lightning strikes have declined by a factor of over 50.
Pinker reiterates the standard - though seemingly much needed - litany that terrorism deaths are insignificant compared to practically any other cause of death. Pinker lists lightning, attacks by non-dog mammals, bathtub-related drownings, and, I quote, “contact with hot tap water” as causing more deaths per year in the US.

It is true that terrorist acts are high-variance events; if 2001 had been selected as the year instead of 2015, it is likely that “contact with hot tap water” might have to settle for a lower ranking. And there is a very small chance of statistically significant terrorism - a nuclear attack on a large city could kill millions. But even taking all the existing and potential outliers into consideration, the fact that ISIS tops the list of threats on a recent opinion poll is a colossal failure of reason.

Pinker notes that terrorist groups have utterly failed to accomplish long-run strategic objectives, and their prominence in the media is mostly due to their being so few real security threats. He quotes Yuval Noah Harari (author of Sapiens): “If in 1150 a few Muslim extremists had murdered a handful of citizens in Jerusalem, demanding that the crusaders leave the Holy Land, the reaction would have been ridicule rather than terror. If you wanted to be taken seriously, you should have at least gained control of a fortified castle or two.”

Freedom & democracy

Perhaps civilization has enjoyed a brief respite from starvation and violence, while temporarily beating back illness and death. Perhaps the fragile international order has bestowed us a brief respite from conflict and genocide. But surely the world is once again sliding towards autocracy as our democratic institutions crumble, after which all the material advances will be rolled back and the tanks rolled in?

(The graph shows the average score of countries on a democracy vs autocracy index from -10 to 10. The arrow is 2008, the last year plotted in the 2011 The Better Angels of Our Nature, to show that, no, Pinker has not jinxed the world with his optimism)

It is notable that the upwards trend in this graph was reversed for the time period from 1920 to 1980; progress is far from smooth or constant. But even in the 2010 to 2015 period, the latest shown in the graph, democracy marched steadily onward.

Pinker takes care to point out that this is not because democracy works like the “civics-class ideal” of rational voters electing reasonable, uncorrupt politicians. Instead, perhaps the greatest strength of democratic systems is their ability to foster peaceful power transfers. Pre-modern monarchs would have looked with envy on, say, the United States, which has transferred executive power 44 times without it causing a single coup, revolution, or peasant uprising.

It is also true that many recent trends (including ones in the United States, Turkey, Russia, China) are not positive; it will be interesting to see what the data looks like once it’s updated to 2018. But the long-run trend offers hope that democracy is far from fragile.

Once again, the simple fact that the world has improved so much makes it harder to realize the extent of progress. Human rights watchdogs find more and more evidence of wrongdoing, not always because there is more of it, but because we are - rightly - getting better at finding and eradicating it.


Alright, maybe civilization is a lot more safe and prosperous and free and democratic, but surely this just allows humanity’s worst tribal instincts to show in the form of discrimination?

In what seems to be a recurring trend, media reports on the latest wrongdoings and failures around the world can give the impression that sexism and racism are on the rise. But surveys show that attitudes are improving, and fast.

Perhaps people are simply concealing their hidden prejudices? In a clever piece of statistics, Pinker looks at trends in Google search terms (which people don’t exactly take pains to filter, at least judging by some of the most popular ones): searches for sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes have all declined by a factor of over 3 since 2004. This is likely understating the effect, since during this time Google has gone from being the platform for young technophile liberals to being the platform for everyone and everything (except a few ardent DuckDuckGo users).

There are dozens of other statistics to back up this trend: hate crimes are decreasing; partner-inflicted violence in the US is down to one-third of the number in the 1990s; in 1950, half of the world’s countries had laws that discriminated against minorities, whereas in 2003 the share had fallen to a fifth; more countries are decriminalizing homosexuality each year; a 2008 survey found that in all countries polled, a majority of people were in favor of ethnic and religious equality.

In general, discrimination decreases as countries grow richer; rich, Western countries are the most tolerant, and developing ones the least. But everywhere, the trend is upwards. The World Values Survey’s Emancipative Value Index shows a remarkably steady upwards increase in every region from 1960 onwards. For instance, the Middle East in 2005 ranks as high as 1960s Western Europe or 1970s United States.

By far the best predictor of liberal, emancipative values, however, is knowledge. The type of knowledge in question is the World Bank Knowledge Index, which explains 73% of variation in emancipative values (much more than per capita GDP). Who would have guessed?


Sure, let’s grant that people are healthier and safer and freer and more equal, but is the world more knowledgeable?

Yes. For example, in 1950 35% of the world population was literate, compared to 85% in 2014. Enlightenment Now has an entire chapter on knowledge full of similar statistics.


Fine. Civilization is a lot better, and rapidly becoming even better, at keeping people healthy and safe, at the same time as people become freer and more equal and less affected by discrimination and more knowledgeable. But surely all this material progress and increased comfort and safety and wellbeing and equality and understanding merely sets the stage for crushing existential ennui that leaves people more sad, depressed, and lonely than in the simple old times?

There’s something called the Easterlin paradox which states: within countries, richer people are happier, but richer countries are not happier than poorer ones.

This paradox is easy to resolve, because the claim is false.

(The arrows on the country dots represent the correlation between income and life satisfaction within that country)

Firstly, the trend is so clearly upwards that you can barely ask for any better when you’re comparing 131 different countries. Secondly, all the arrows are upwards; in no country is there a negative correlation between income and happiness.

Note, however, that the x-axis scale is logarithmic, so the straight line would actually look like heavily diminishing returns on a linear plot. In other words, the absolute increase in GDP per capita required to make a country x units happier increases as GDP per capita increases (the formulation of the Easterlin paradox was a result of noisy data making diminishing returns look like no returns).

Do you want more statistics? Another study found that in 8 out of the 9 European countries studied happiness trends tracked changes in GDP per capita. The World Values Survey found that 45 out of 52 countries were happier in 2007 than 1981. Outliers exist - for example, life satisfaction has remained roughly constant in the United States for the past few decades, and what’s up with Bulgaria in the graph above? - but the general trend is clear.

All this means that as developing countries develop, they will become happier. As developed countries continue to grow, they will also become happier. This is great news: there is a relatively straightforward way to make the people happier, and it is already happening and will continue to happen, absent a major disaster, for the foreseeable future.

What about loneliness? Despite the “loneliness epidemic” that sensationalist articles claim is ravaging the West, studies have found that loneliness rates among high school and college students in the United States have steadily trended downwards since the 1970s. The few studies on loneliness in the general population show no increase or a slight increase, probably due to more people being single. Despite social media’s supposed destruction of face-to-face interaction, it turns out people enjoy real social interaction and have not traded it away: on average, people report having as much quality friendships and emotional support as in previous decades. Though avid internet users have less face-to-face contact with people, they spend more time with friends and on average report that social media has a positive affect (once again, increasing averages do not imply a uniform effect on everybody and say nothing about outliers).

Of course, not all modern social trends are positive. But the message in the data is that the net effect of modernity on mental health and wellbeing is positive. Increasing quality of life is not causing epidemics of anything. People tend to be happier and more satisfied with life when they are healthier, safer, richer, freer, and live longer. This is not quite breaking news.

In defense of progress


The case for the case for progress

Enlightenment Now is not a dispassionate, academic overview of the effects of modernity, progress, and Enlightenment; it reads more like a lawyer defending a client.

This is not a bad thing. An outright defense of progress is much needed.

Our World in Data published an excellent article about people’s perceptions of worldwide trends. In most surveyed countries, a majority of people think global poverty is increasing. In no country does a majority think it’s decreasing; only China is close, with 49% correctly answering that it is decreasing (and fast; see the graph above). In many countries, particularly developed ones, only 10-15% answered correctly.

As the article argues, this is important because people are far too pessimistic about the future.

(From the same article)

Look at the bottom of that graph. In France and Australia, only 3% of people think the world is getting better. 3% of people is a ridiculously low fraction to get for any survey question, especially one with only three answer choices. That’s probably close to the percentage of people who clicked the wrong box by accident. I would be surprised to see such pessimism if I ran a survey with this question in an underground zombie apocalypse survival shelter that ran out of canned food last week.

So there is need for perspective recalibration, especially in the developed world. If you look at the graphs in that article, you will see that China is always near the top, along with places like Kenya, Senegal, Nigeria, and Indonesia. It is easy to forget how much modernity has done for us when you’re not experiencing it first-hand.

Perhaps modernity has run its course, and though developing countries can still benefit from it, the developed world is about as saturated with progress as it can get without ill-effects? This is the conclusion that each generation seems to come to, and so far they’ve all been proven wrong by the next.

Progress: 2/5, would not recommend

Though the fruits of progress are as popular as ever, the idea that civilization advances is remarkably unpopular. As Pinker illustrates:
An entire lexicon of abuse has grown up to express [scorn about the idea of progress]. If you think knowledge can help solve problems, then you have a “blind faith” and a “quasi-religious belief” in the “outmoded superstition” and “false promise” of the “myth” of the “onward march” of “inevitable progress.” You are a “cheerleader” for “vulgar American can-doism” with the “rah-rah” spirit of “boardroom ideology,” “Silicon Valley,” and the “Chamber of Commerce.” You are a practitioner of “Whig history,” a “naïve optimist,” a “Pollyanna,” and of course a “Pangloss,” a modern-day version of the philosopher in Voltaire’s Candide who asserts that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”
Several biases contribute to a distorted view of progress. Intuitive ideas of frequency often rely on the availability heuristic (judging frequency based on how readily examples come to mind). Negative examples feature more often in the media and remain in memory for longer, tilting people’s perceptions.

Meanwhile, the “Optimism Gap” is a phenomenon where people tend to assume that their own circumstances and future outlook are good, while those of society as a whole are bad. The most flagrant example of this is a survey which found that across the world, people underestimate the percentage of other people who say they’re happy by 42 percentage points.

But Pinker argues that resistance to the idea of progress runs deeper.

First, there’s an asymmetry between bad outcomes and good outcomes. A random change to something that works is much more likely to do harm than good, simply because of how many things need to go right for something to work. Therefore it is rational to assume that, given random change in a complex system, the trend would be down.

Second, the world is big, so questions of whether there has been progress are almost bound to be quantitative ones. The way to counteract availability bias is to look at numbers, and assigning enough weigh to mere numbers to cancel out vivid examples is something humans are notoriously bad at.

Third, cynicism looks intellectual. Pinker cites a study showing that critics who praised a work were rated as less competent than those who criticized it. If one journalist writes “The Crisis in Crime: How the latest crime epidemic reveals the sickness of modern society”, and another writes “Crime Trends Pretty Okay, Actually: Some further incremental improvement still needed”, which seems like serious, quality journalism?

How might this perception come about? Skepticism is a key attitude when discussing claims and arguments. Most sophisticated, fancy claims rely on a lot of skepticism; this might lead to the impression that cynicism and skepticism are required properties of a sophisticated idea. But these are just surface-level appearances; it does not follow that all skeptical ideas are correct. It’s easy to hear “critical thinking” and think it means “critical thinking”.

Fourth, Pinker argues that during the 20th century, pessimism and skepticism towards Western progress were the Mongol hordes of the intellectual landscape, sweeping out of their far-off lands to conquer the entire continent (he cites Arthur Herman’s The Idea of Decline in Western History and Robert Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress). In particular Pinker, bemoans Nietzsche’s resurgent popularity and argues against his misanthropic views. It’s hard not to agree with him. A philosopher who calls for the need of a “declaration of war on the masses by higher men” to annihilate the “decaying races” and the “humbug called ‘morality’”, or says “Man shall be trained for war and woman for the recreation of the warrior. All else is folly” is not a philosopher whose views should be admired by people who value human life or wellbeing.

In addition to philosophers who are diametrically opposed to any reasonable humanist morality, philosophies that seek to undermine knowledge and objectivity are surprisingly popular; Pinker lists critical theory, existentialism, postmodernism, and poststructuralism as examples. His tour of anti-objectivity philosophies also outlines the influence of Nietzschean romantic heroism and the denial of objectivity on the ideologies of such historical heroes as Benito Mussolini, the Nazis, and the “theoconservatism” of Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. Pinker perhaps paints a bit too broadly here; the type of anti-objectivity and romanticism that gives you millions of people sacrificing themselves for the glory of the fatherland is different from the type that philosophy majors debate in coffee shops or Trump voters coddle themselves with. But he does have a point. No society has ever failed due to being too humanist or too rational, while example after example tells us that in the other way lies danger.

Houston, we … don’t have a problem?

So, is everything in the world improving? Is everyone who talks about negative trends wrong? Should we just sit back and watch the inevitable march of progress?

This is not the point. Civilization advances when people work to advance it. Emphasizing the progress we have made is not an argument for laziness and blind faith; it is an argument for doing more of whatever it is we did right to achieve that progress.

And, of course, there are many negative trends in the world, perhaps most notably inequality, climate change, and existential risks.


First, inequality. GINI coefficients have been rising in the United States and some other developed countries. While this is a problem, Pinker points out several facts that should be taken into account. The world as a whole is becoming more equal, and fast, as developing countries catch up. In large part due to the rise of China and India, the world income distribution is less like a two-humped camel and more like a single distribution, as vividly illustrated by the graphs on this page.

Even within developed countries like the US and UK, the GINI coefficient is still below the level it was in the 1700s and 1800s. At the same time, social spending as a percentage of GDP has been on a near-continuous rise in developed countries:

While Thomas Piketty writes in Capital in the Twenty-First Century that “The poorer half of the population are as poor today as they were in the past, with barely 5 percent of total wealth in 2010, just like in 1910”, Pinker notes that this is confusing inequality with poverty. Though incomes have, in recent decades, risen slower for the poor, they have still risen. Government statistics on poverty often understate improvements because the definition of poverty is readjusted; using the 1980 definition, consumption poverty in the United States fell from 30% in 1960 to below 15% in 1980, and has since then declined at a slower rate to about 4% in 2015 (disposable income trends are mostly similar, though have stagnated instead of falling slowly since 2000).

There is a lot of room for improvement, but the trend is far from apocalyptic.


One of the greatest challenges facing civilization, is, of course, sustainability. There are a few good trends here: CO2 emissions per dollar of GDP have been declining in developed countries like the US and UK since 1950, and in the world as a whole as 1980, due to the economy’s carbon intensiveness falling and environmental concerns being accorded more weight as countries develop. Predicted resource shortages have failed to occur, international cooperation has worked in slowing ozone depletion and protecting ever greater areas on both land and sea, and the population explosion scenario has largely been averted.

However, at the same time global CO2 emissions have quadrupled since 1960 and, despite staying roughly steady in recent years, there is no sign of the required rapid decrease.

What should we do? Actually, let’s take an easier question: what should we not do? Pinker correctly identifies some things that we definitely should not do, yet which have somehow become associated with the environmental movement.

Part of the mainstream environmental movement has developed an ideology Pinker calls “greenism”, which holds as its basic principle some variation of sacred nature being defiled by human greed. The only solution is to protect nature at all costs, switch to “natural” ways of life and production, scale back industrialization, and, according to more extreme ideologues, reduce human population in rapid, unspecified ways.

I think the central mistake in greenist ideology is selecting shallow terminal values. We care about the environment because of its necessity for human and animal welfare. We care about biodiversity because it is our greatest heritage and, as far as we know, unique in the universe. Greenist ideology forgets the reasons we need to fight for the environment, replacing them with worship of a semi-coherent ideal of nature as an end in itself.

Needless to say, this sometimes goes wrong. Take nuclear power. Pinker writes: “It’s often said that with climate change, those who know the most are the most frightened, but with nuclear power, those who know the most are the least frightened.” The consensus on nuclear power is that it is the most scalable zero-carbon energy production method we have, as well as the safest power source (even solar and wind cause more deaths per watt-hour, though admittedly this is because the installation of rooftop solar and wind turbines dangerous (see here and here). Another study estimates that the use of nuclear power has saved 1.8 million lives, and replacing it worldwide with fossil fuel power could cost from 420 000 (if it’s replaced with only natural gas) to 7 million (if it’s replaced with coal) lives by 2050. The rational, science-based climate policy is to massively ramp up nuclear power production alongside renewables to maximize carbon-free energy generation. (For more depth on nuclear power, see my post here.)

But the end-goal of greenists isn’t solving climate change or preventing deaths from pollution. It’s about “nature”, whatever that means, and everyone agrees that “big complex machine that uses dangerous artificial materials” is not really natural.

And so we get absurd situations, such as Germany, a country more likely to be hit by an asteroid than a tsunami, deciding to phase out all nuclear power plants after the Fukushima disaster (which caused exactly 0 deaths (EDIT: a week after this post was published, the total was updated to 1 death), compared to 11 000 air pollution -related deaths per day), cancelling out a lot of the country’s considerable progress in carbon-free energy generation.

A similar situation, where complaints of something being unnatural hinders real progress on environmental issues, exists for GMOs.

(This is not to say that there are no valid arguments against GMOs or nuclear power; just that in both cases the scientific consensus is that, on balance, they are safe, practical, and their correct use could be an essential part of solving environmental problems.)

Pinker’s alternative to “greenism” is a movement called ecopragmatism, ecomodernism, or bright green environmentalism. Instead of railing against any human effect on nature, ecomodernism acknowledges that some amount of environmental impact is both unavoidable and desirable. Instead of calling for degrowth and the dismantling of modern civilization or, alternatively, bemoaning the inevitable eco-Armageddon, ecomodernism advocates for rapid and constructive technological and societal innovation to solve sustainability problems. And finally, like (one of) its name suggests, it is pragmatic: let’s not waste potentially climate-saving innovations just because they look unnatural.

To sum up: various sustainability problems are the greatest issues facing 21st century civilization. The way forwards, like with any other problem, is not preaching doom and gloom, or pursuing the wrong goal, but working to solve it using knowledge and reason.

Existential threats

Pinker makes good points about world-ending disasters: predictions of apocalypse have a long and unsuccessful history, society is surprisingly resilient to disasters, many existential threats are immensely low-probability events, well-known ones often doubly so, and alarmism is counterproductive (variants of “we are all going to die and there’s nothing you can do about it” are strangely ineffective at inspiring action).

Other points are less convincing. Pinker raises questionable objections to AI threats; he critiques the paperclip maximizer thought experiment by saying that a superhuman AI would not make such “elementary blunders of misunderstanding”. But the point of the though experiment is that very few value systems, executed executed to their fullest by a powerful agent, will align well enough with human values for the results to be good. Pinker seems to implicitly assume that any intelligent system will have goals that are reasonable by human standards.

More generally there is a danger in assuming that the future is assured. This is not to say that Pinker directly endorses such a view, but it is an easy misinterpretation to make. There is no law of nature that forbids civilization-ending disasters. There is no benevolent force making sure that nothing too bad happens, or if it does, it will at least not be for a stupid reason. Maybe Trump wakes up in a bad mood tomorrow morning, starts a nuclear war, and that’s it.

Enlightenment when?

To modify the opening of book 2 of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series:
The story so far:
In the beginning [modernization was started].
This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.
Enlightenment Now argues that it has, in fact, turned out to be a very good move. On practically every metric of human wellbeing and satisfaction, the world is doing better than it was two centuries ago, let alone two millennia ago.

This might be hard to believe, at least until you look at the data. But is progress really so improbable? There are 7.6 billion people in the world, the vast majority of whom want things like life, safety, happiness, comfort, and freedom for themselves and others. Even factoring in all of humanity’s worst tendencies and institutional failures and whatnot, there is still an enormous amount of goodwill being directed towards solving these problems.

A key theme in Enlightenment Now is that, contrary to the opinions of edgy philosophers, civilizational progress is neither an oxymoron nor unattainable nor undesirable nor ill-defined. Good things, it turns out, are good. Futhermore, they are interrelated: education, GDP per capita, life satisfaction, freedom, health, and safety correlate with and bolster each other.

This is great news. It means that we are not locked in a trap of sacrifices: in general, increasing wealth does not leave us listless and decadent; longer life does not make us bored; being educated rather than superstitious and ignorant does not make us sad.

Finally, Enlightenment Now is a reminder of how humanity has wrought the progress it has achieved: rational problem-solving, guided by humanist morality. To continue the upwards rise of civilization and to fix its problems, these Enlightenment ideals are what we need.