Why am I a proud solver?


Discussions about technology and progress are usually shaped around the concepts of “optimism” and “pessimism”. For example, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Johan Norberg, Max Roser, and Hans Rosling They’ve been called the “New Optimists” for their focus on the economic, scientific and social development of the last two centuries. His rivals, such as David Runciman and Jason Hickelaccuse them of being blind to real problems in the world, such as poverty, and catastrophic risks such as nuclear war.

Economic historian Robert Gordon himselfprophet of pessimism” his book The Rise and Fall of American Growth He warned that the days of high economic growth for the United States were over and could not return. Among Gordon’s opponents is a group he calls “techno-optimists” such as Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson. guessed A growth spurt in productivity from information technology.

Choosing sides is tempting. But while it makes sense to be optimistic or pessimistic on any specific question, these terms are too vague to be considered questions. general Intellectual identity Self-identified optimists may be too quick to ignore or downplay the problems of technology, while self-conscious tech pessimists or progress skeptics may be too reluctant to believe in solutions.

As we look forward to post-pandemic recovery, we are once again caught between optimists emphasizing all diseases that may soon be overcome with new vaccines, and pessimists warning that humanity will never win the weapons of evolution. Race against germs. But this represents a wrong choice. History provides us with powerful examples of people who were brutally honest in identifying a crisis but equally active in seeking solutions.

At the end of the 19th century, William Crookes, physicist, chemist, and inventor of the Crookes tube (an early type of vacuum tube), was president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. On September 7, 1898, traditional annual address to give a serious warning to the association.

The British Isles, he said, are at serious risk of food depletion. His reasoning was simple: the population was growing exponentially, but the amount of land planted couldn’t keep up. The only way to continue to increase production was to increase crop yields. But the limiting factor on yield was the availability of nitrogen fertilizer, and nitrogen sources such as the rock salts of the Chilean desert and the guano deposits of the Peruvian islands were running out. His argument was detailed and comprehensive, based on wheat production and land availability figures from every major European country and colony; He has already apologized for boring his audience with statistics.

He criticized the “criminally overrated” waste of non-renewable nitrogen resources. He pointed out to those who were shortsighted that only the last years of the sufficiently adequate harvest were unusually productive, which masked the problem. The grace of the recent past was no guarantee of prosperity in the future.

In a sense, Crookes was an ‘alarmist’. Its purpose was to draw attention to a problem caused by progress and growth. He tried to open the eyes of the smug ones. He began by saying that “England and all civilized nations are in mortal danger”, referring in various ways to “a colossal problem of urgent importance”, “an impending disaster” and “a question of life and death for posterity”. He insisted that his message was “based on stubborn facts,” according to those who called him alarmist.

Crookes became a sensation, and many critics disagreed with his message. They stated that wheat is not the only food, that its consumption will be moderate if necessary, and that land for wheat can be bought from those used for meat and milk production, especially as prices rise. They said he underestimated opportunities. American farmers will supply food to other nations better adapt their methods to soil and climate to increase production

write Nature in 1899, one R. Giffen compared Crookes to Thomas Malthus and others who predicted scarcity of various natural resources—such as Eduard Suess, who said so. gold would run outand William Stanley Jevons, Warned about Peak Coal. Giffen’s tone is weary as he notes, “There has been a lot of experience with these debates since Malthus’ time.” Each time, he explains, we are unable to make precise predictions because the expected limits of growth are far in the future or we know very little about the causes.

But there were Crookes always intended His words were supposed to take the form of “a warning rather than a prophecy.” In his speech he said:

“It is the chemist who must come to the rescue… The chemist will step in and delay the day of famine so far before the real famine falls that we, our sons and grandchildren can legitimately live without undue anxiety. for the future.”

Crookes’ plan was to exploit a nearly unlimited source of nitrogen: the atmosphere. Plants cannot use atmospheric nitrogen directly; instead they use other nitrogen-containing compounds produced in nature from atmospheric nitrogen by certain bacteria, a process called fixation. Crookes said the artificial fixation of atmospheric nitrogen was “one of the greatest discoveries waiting for chemists’ ingenuity” and was optimistic that it could happen soon, calling it a “problem in the not too distant future”.

He devoted a significant part of his speech to exploring this solution. He pointed out that nitrogen could be burned at high enough temperatures to form nitrate compounds, and this could be done using electricity. He even estimated the practical details, such as the cost of nitrates produced in this way, competitive at market rates, and whether the process could be upgraded to industrial levels: He concluded that the new hydroelectric power station in Niagara Falls, on its own, would provide it. all the electricity needed to close the gap he estimated.

Crookes knew that synthetic fertilizer was not a permanent solution, but was glad that his successors could deal with it when the problem resurfaced in the distant future. His alarmism was not a philosophical position but a contingent one. When the realities of the situation changed with the invention of appropriate technology, he was happy to turn off the alarm.

Was Crookes right? By 1931, when he said we might run out of food, it was clear that his predictions were not foolproof. The harvest increased but not because the crop yield has been greatly increased. Instead, acre actually increasedTo some extent, Crookes thought it was impossible. This was partly due to improvements in mechanization, including the gas tractor. Mechanization has driven down labor costs that make marginally fertile land profitable. As is often the case, a solution came from an unexpected direction and invalidated the assumptions of both optimistic and pessimistic forecasters.

But if Crookes wasn’t correct in his detailed predictions, he was essentially right. Two key points were true: first, food in general and yield in particular were issues to be reckoned with in the next generation; Two, this synthetic fertilizer from atmospheric nitrogen fixation will be an important aspect of the solution.

Less than two decades after his speech, German chemist Fritz Haber and industrialist Carl Bosch developed a process for synthesizing ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen gas. Ammonia is a chemical precursor to synthetic fertilizers and the Haber-Bosch process is still one of the most important industrial processes today and almost half of the world’s food production.

chemist, after all. made come to the rescue.

So is Crookes optimistic or pessimistic? He was pessimistic about the problem – he was not indifferent. But he was optimistic about finding a solution – not a defeatist.

In the 20th century, fears of overpopulation and food supply once again raised their heads. In 1965, the world population growth rate reached an all-time high. 2% per year, enough to double every 35 years; and as late as 1970, it is estimated, More than a third of people in developing countries are malnourished.

1968 book population bomb, It was opened by Paul and Anne Ehrlich with a call to surrender: “The war to feed all humanity is over. In the 1970s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death despite any crash program now launched. Nothing at this late date can prevent a significant increase in the world mortality rate.” Paul Ehrlich in 1970 reinforced the corruptionsaying that in a few years “more effort will be in vain” and “you can take care of yourself and your friends and enjoy the little time left”. The Ehrlichs see the situation as hopeless. supported A proposal to cut aid to countries like India that do not appear to be doing enough to limit population growth.

Fortunately for India and the rest of the world, others were not ready to give up. Working on a program funded by the Rockefeller Institute in Mexico, Norman Borlaug developed high-yielding wheat varieties that resist fungal diseases, use fertilizers more efficiently, and grow at any latitude. In the 1960s, thanks in part to new grains, Mexico transformed itself from a wheat importer to a wheat exporter, and India and Pakistan nearly doubled their yields, avoiding the famine the Ehrlichs saw as inevitable.

Still, even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his achievements, Borlaug never overlooked the challenge required for agriculture to keep up with the population, and he never thought it was completely resolved. inside that 1970 Nobel conference, described the increases in food production as “still modest in terms of total needs” and said “there is no room for relief”, pointing out that half the world is malnourished. “Most people still fail to grasp the size and threat of the ‘Population Monster’,” he warned. “And yet,” he continued, “I am optimistic for the future of humanity.” Borlaug was confident that the human mind would eventually control the population (and indeed the global birth rate has been falling ever since).

The risk of having an “optimistic” or “pessimistic” mindset is that you are tempted to take sides on an issue based on general mood rather than forming an opinion based on the facts of the case. “Don’t worry,” says the optimist; “accept the challenge” opposes the pessimists.

Basically, we should be solutionists, not optimistic or pessimistic.

We can see this in discussions on covid and quarantine, climate change and energy use, the promise and danger of nuclear power, and economic growth and resource consumption in general. As the debate escalates, both sides get involved: “optimists” question whether a threat is real; The “pessimists” mock any proposed technological solution as a false “quick fix” that only allows us to rationalize our delaying difficult but inevitable disruptions. (For an example of the latter, see the “moral hazard” arguments against geoengineering as a strategy for addressing climate change.)

To embrace both the reality of problems and the possibility of overcoming them, we must be fundamentally solutionists, not optimistic or pessimistic.

The term “analysis”, often in the form of “technocratic analysis”, was used. since the 1960s It is the belief that every problem can be solved with technology. This is wrong, and therefore “resolution” has been ridiculed. But if we set aside any assumptions about the form the solutions should take, we can see that the problems are merely real, but solvable.

Analysts may seem optimistic because resolutionism is fundamentally positive. It advocates violently advancing against problems, neither retreating nor surrendering. But this is as far from the fatalistic, doomsday pessimism as from the Panglossian, “everything is for the best” optimism. It is a third way of avoiding both vanity and defeatism, and we should use the term with pride.

Jason Crawford is the author Roots of ProgressA website about technology and industry history.


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