This is a transcript of a recent roundtable discussion between science writer Matt Ridley and "Ten Global Trends" co-authors Ronald Bailey and Marian L. Tupy.
“Ten Global Trends” Discussion with Matt Ridley
The following is transcribed text from a video event featuring Ronald Bailey, Marian L. Tupy and Matt Ridley discussing our new book, “Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know.” The full event can be viewed here.
Matt Ridley: Welcome to this podcast about Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know, a fabulous new book by Ron Bailey and Marian Tupy, a book that I’ve been longing to get my hands on because it’s exactly what every schoolchild needs to read, every university student needs to read to escape the indoctrination in pessimism that young people get and that I got in the 1970s when I was told the future was bleak on all sorts of levels. I was influenced by that, and it took me quite a long time to shake it off, so one of the reasons I’m a passionate rational optimist is because I badly want young people not to be given this council of despair about the future. There’s a lot of things going right in the world, and the ten trends that Marian and Ron write about in this book are the great enrichment, the decline of poverty, the abundance of resources, the slowing progress of population growth, the extinction of famine, the reforestation of the planet, the growth of cities, the rise of democracy, the decline of war, and fewer deaths from natural disasters.
The book is both images and words; it’s exactly what we all need. I think it’s a fantastic effort, and I’m really pleased that it’s come into the world. As many of you will know, Ron Bailey has written for Reason magazine for many, many years and is almost the godfather of us rational optimists. I would say he was at it long before I was. Marian Tupy has been running the Human Progress project at Cato Institute for a number of years and has done a fabulous job of collating and conducting a conversation about the trends in the world.
Let’s kick off with some questions. These are questions, two questions, one for each of you, that I get asked all the time and that I have an answer to, but I’m interested to hear what your answer to them is. The first is: why does pessimism persist? I don’t know which of you wants to take that.
Ron, do you want to take that?
Ronald Bailey: Sure. Why don’t I start with. First of all, it’s this kind of evolutionary psychology glitch for human beings. As you probably already know— after all, you’re trained in zoology— you are aware of the notion that when our ancestors were evolving, if someone heard a rustle in a bush and thought, oh, that’s just the wind, [but] it turned out to be a lion, they got selected out. The person who was going, oh my goodness, that wind there could be a lion and ran away, they are, in fact, our ancestors. Therefore, we have inherited those pessimistic glitches where we are looking for problems as opposed to waiting to find a fruit tree or something that will benefit us.
Another thing, I think, that happens is that progress hides itself over time. It’s a glitch that we forget how much progress is done. Part of the reason we have the book and we look at very long-term trends in the book, is for the purpose of people understanding exactly how far we’ve come. One of the problems is that we solve things, and we just put that in the category of solved and move on to new problems. Therefore, there are always problems and problems and problems. Finally, the reason we address this to smart people specifically is because they already know what the negative things are in the world. They are the problems, they’re engaged with trying to solve them, to figure out what’s going on with them; so, we didn’t need to highlight those. You already, as a smart person, know what’s going on in the world and what’s going wrong in the world.
What we wanted to show you is all the things that have been going right. The tagline is, if you don’t actually know what’s going on in the world, you can’t fix the problems of the world. What we’re trying to do is to give you some background on what is actually going on.
Marian Tupy: I would only add that it is a mistake to think about negativity bias, which is what psychologists call this frame of mind, as being a monocausal or just one thing. There’s really a plethora of psychological glitches, including some others in addition to what Ron mentioned, such as, for example, that bad is more powerful than good. I like to talk about my annual review with my boss; my boss can spend forty-five minutes telling me about all the successes that Human Progress had and all the good things that we have done, but when I walk out of the office, I will always remember just those five minutes when the boss says something critical, the things that didn’t go so well. So, we fear losses more than we look forward to gains. We dwell on criticism rather than appreciate the praise.
Another thing which Matt, you have talked about, and others pointed out as well, is this notion of “turning-point-itis’— the idea that our ancestors were able to solve all sorts of problems in human history and adapt; but, somehow we are standing at a very peculiar juncture in human history when this will stop happening, all that adaptation and all that change and all those solution to problems which our ancestors have achieved will suddenly stop, and we are somehow historically special. Of course, every generation thinks that they are historically special, but ultimately what we have shown over time is that when problems arise and when they become sufficiently serious, people will come up with solutions to them. So, the turning-point-itis is actually not a real phenomenon.
MR: Yes, as Lord Macaulay put it, “Why is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we’re to expect nothing but deterioration before us?” He was writing in 1830, before many of these improvements had happened.
There’s another aspect to it that I think probably feeds into the points both of you have made, which is that good news is gradual and bad news is sudden to a surprisingly large extent. Most of the good things that happen happen rather gradually and aren’t really newsworthy and don’t make the front page.
Starting with you, Marian, can I just then ask a different question, which is: has 2020 changed your mind at all?
MT: It reminded me of a debate that I’ve been involved in— I’m sure that you and Ron have been involved in [as well]: no matter how many times we point out in our speeches and in our written word that progress is not guaranteed, that we do not live in a world without problems, that there is no guarantee that serious things will not occur, people refuse to take us for our word. In other words, there is a misconception amongst the pessimists that what we are advocating is that we live in the best of possible worlds. That’s not what we are saying.
What we are saying is that looking back at human history, humanity has accomplished a lot of wonderful things, but there is no guarantee that we will continue to do so into the future, that horrible things cannot happen, that we cannot have a terrible viral outbreak, or nuclear war. Some of those problems are very serious, and none of us have been blind to the challenges ahead. Perhaps we didn’t see COVID coming, but we did acknowledge problems in the future.
To your question, I guess the outbreak of the pandemic reminded me that human progress is always subject to reverses, it is always subject to some terrible catastrophe, and we have to be on the lookout [for those problems]. We have to be aware that things don’t go on improving at a steady pace, that there are occasional reversals.
That being said, I was also tremendously encouraged by the speed with which humanity has responded to the COVID problem. It took thousands of years for us to recognize an outbreak of a pandemic. It took thousands of years for us to recognize what the pathogen was and then come up with a solution. It now looks like we’ll be able to come up with a vaccine within twelve months of the outbreak, and I think that is absolutely terrific.
MR: Yeah, would you like to comment on whether 2020 has changed your mind? You don’t have to confine your remarks to the pandemic. You can also talk about social media, the rise of demagogues, the rise of statists, socialism, and so on.
RB: Right, well, onto the pandemic, just very briefly. Actually, Marian made this point earlier in conversations, and the fact is, think of where we would be if this hit us 25 years earlier, say 1995. The biotechnology had not developed nearly to what it is now, and as Marian was saying, we’re likely to have a vaccine in less than twelve months, which is the first time ever that anything like this was accomplished. If certain vaccines work out— for example, the Moderna platform— that basically suggests that we’ll be able to make vaccines as rapidly as we need to in the future if that platform works out, I’m not saying that it will, but there’s good indication that it might at this point. I may be a cockeyed optimist, but this may be the last pandemic. We may not have to worry about that in the future.
With regard to the rise of demagoguery and so forth, we’ve had these periods before, and they didn’t work out very well, honestly, in the 20th century, so how badly is it likely to go? I do have one concern that I do bring up: if people ask me, well, what is the thing that you do worry about? I’m worried about the rise of the social credit state, basically the Chinese model of surveillance authoritarianism. Technology may be able to enable that, and we have to be very on guard to prevent that from occurring in our countries and so forth. I worry about a kind of turnkey totalitarianism that could arise in Western democracies. We have, essentially, a private surveillance state now that companies are watching us and gathering data and all that kind of thing. So far, it’s okay because they use that data to sell us things, and that’s fine, and figure out what we might like, and they know where we go; as someone said, our cell phone in our pockets is one of the best surveillance devices ever invented with regard to keeping track of us.
My fear is, say some sort of horrible event occurs like 9/11 or worse; then, people demanding safety may allow the government to aggregate all of the access to that private information and establish, if you will, a kind of surveillance state. That is my main concern for the early part of the 20th century at this point. I’m not completely nuts. My middle name is not Pollyanna Bailey. I think that there are problems out there, but I think we’re already highlighting them [and] worrying about them.
MR: I wrote The Rational Optimist ten years ago, and I often say when people ask me that very question— that in every year since then that I’ve gone around the world, people have said: well, you can’t still be an optimist; What about Syria? What about Ukraine? What about Ebola? What about the Euro crisis? Every year there’s been a reason. Now, this year may have a somewhat bigger reason than others for us to be pessimistic, and, as Marian says, we aren’t in the business of panglossianism, here. We’re not saying the world is perfect— far from it— but, I do think that we optimists should perhaps have been a bit more careful to say, you pessimists are talking up the wrong problems; that actually, the pandemic is a bigger threat than you think and climate change is a smaller one. That’s my current view. To illustrate that, the World Health Organization, not the World Meteorological Organization, the World Health Organization said in 2015 that the greatest threat to human health in the 21st century— this was a formal statement from them— is climate change. Now, that suggests to me an organization that wasn’t doing the day job, which was to look at pandemics and things like that.
Do you think there is a case to be made that we haven’t been pessimistic enough about the threat of viruses, for example, even though we’ve been too pessimistic about some other threats?
RB: I think that’s probably true in some sense. When the first SARS virus came out back in around 2003 and so forth, I was quite heartened by the immediate response to handling it that came through. I mean, it was amazing— it was contained within months. I marveled at the time that we were able to sequence the virus in less than a month. Now, we did it in less than three days, so I was actually quite optimistic that we might have the tools already to handle the pandemic, but I didn’t count upon government failure, among many other features here.
There are obviously countries that are doing a much better job of handling it than my country, the United States, and that had something to do with the ability of those governments. They had capacity to respond and get, if you will, social buy-in. Unfortunately, the United States is in a polarized situation where social buy-in is really hard to manufacture at this point. Perhaps we were not as pessimistic as we should have been, but again, when we look on the longer trends, and here I go back to this: if— when we were looking at life expectancy from the last 500 years— when you’re looking at that trend for the 20th century, the Spanish Flu killed possibly 50 million people, and you see just a little tiny dip and then the trend continues and longevity continues to grow. Since the beginning of the 20th century to now, human life expectancy has doubled on planet Earth. That’s a huge benefit for humanity, so, yes, perhaps we should have been more worried about the pandemic.
The other problem I have with thinking about the pandemic is an institutional one; I think of it occurring in what I call an open access health commons. It’s like any environmental problem. I argue that all environmental problems occur in an open access commons, and the problem here is you can either privatize it, in which case you have a vaccine and people take responsibility for their health; you can regulate it, which is lockdowns or what Sweden is doing, or whatever; or, you can ignore it and let it burn itself out as it were. One of the things is that we are in the 21st century. I think that people are more precautionary— we are more aware of what’s going on out there with disease and so forth, and I don’t think that just letting a disease go through the population is something the governments really can allow to happen anymore.
MT: I would also say that there is a silver lining to this particular pandemic, and the silver lining is as follows: we have been awakened to the vulnerabilities of humanity to a pandemic outbreak by a virus that is less deadly than we know viruses can be. Yes, the virus has caused a tremendous amount of economic damage that’s going to take us years to recover; however, its mortality rate is much lower than a mortality rate of other viruses or bacterial outbreaks that we have seen in the past. I mean, Black Death, for example, is supposed to have had a death rate of between 30 and 50 percent. Smallpox was certainly very deadly. So, we know where our vulnerabilities are now. We know that other pandemics are coming down the line, and this is a wake-up call to put our house in order.
MR: Just going specifically to the book, Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know, can you contrast the world of 2020 as it is with the world that people in 1970/1969, when the first Earth Day happened, thought that 2020 would look like? Can you talk about population and resources and pollution and those kinds of things, and just contrast what we were told would happen with what has happened.
RB: I’ll take this one, at least initially, because I was around in 1970. I have to say I agree with you, Matt. At the time when I was in college, I was being taught The Population Bomb, where Paul Ehrlich in 1968 was saying that hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in the 1970s in spite of any crash program that may be embarked upon now, period. Then, The Limits to Growth in ‘72— we’re going to be out of oil, natural gas, gold, copper, zinc, a whole bunch of different things; the world was simply going to be running out of non-renewable resources. Of course, prior to that in the 60s, we had Silent Spring, which was nominated in the year 2000 as possibly the most significant book of the 20th century, by Rachel Carson, where, among many other things, we were all going to die of cancer caused by chemical pollution and plastics and such. In my early twenties, I was looking around the world thinking, my future is very bleak and there’s probably not much of it left. Then, sometime around 1990, I looked around and discovered that we’re still here, and things are a lot better than they used to be, which changed my mind.
I’m afraid that what you bring up is that younger people today are still getting these same messages of doom [and] gloom and pointing to problems and basically saying your future is bleak, the world is going to be terrible, you’re going to die early. What we’re hoping to do with the book is to suggest, no, you have to get a longer term perspective. This is exactly what people have been saying for decades now, and why would it be the case in your life? There are problems, and you as young people will have to deal with them, but now you have much greater wealth and technology than we had back in the 70s to deal with these problems. I have every good prospect that the future generations will be immensely better off than we have been.
MR: Marian, why doesn’t that argument get more traction? I find that when you say to people, look, they were just as pessimistic fifty years ago and they were wrong, they say, well, it could be different this time. People shrug that off with surprising ease.
MT: When Ron was talking about his experiences, I keep thinking about growing up in the 1980s and seeing those terrible images from the Horn of Africa with thousands, hundreds of thousands of babies with swollen bellies due to a famine that was happening there, and everybody expected this was going to be the future of Africa ad infinitum.
In fact, as a result of economic progress, and also as a result of huge productivity gains in agriculture, today famine is gone from the African continent. The only places where there are still food shortages are places like Zimbabwe, which is caused by bad government policy or, alternatively, by wars. Yet, with all that progress, as you say, people simply shrug it off, and I guess the best answer I have is that the negativity bias that we discussed at the beginning of this interview is real. Our brains are predisposed to look for bad news even at times when they say that they are not interested in bad news.
There are some very interesting psychological studies that have been done with cohorts of people who are asked: what kind of news are you most interested in? The cohort said, we are interested in positive news, we want to read good news. On a split screen, the psychologists provided the viewers with bad and good news, and people’s eyes immediately gravitated toward the bad news because that is what grabs our attention first.
One thing that we didn’t mention when we were talking about negativity biases is, of course, the role of human evolution in terms of actually structuring our brains. The role of the amygdala— the fact that visual information goes straight into the amygdala, which is part of our brains that is responsible for rage, fear, [and] the primal emotions— and why is that? Well, it’s there for evolutionary reasons, but that also means that all the information that our brains receive are received through that particular part of our brain which is always on the lookout for something to fear.
MR: Right, so there’s a sort of value judgment added to what we actually see in the world, and we are not only rational observers of the world.
Let me describe to you a famine that is happening and that does worry me. You’re right that real famine is largely extinct— an extraordinary achievement, particularly when you consider the predictions that were made by Paul Ehrlich and others— but we are experiencing something of an innovation famine, I argue in my latest book. A little bit of pessimism creeps into the end of my book because I say if you’ve put the digital industry to one side, if you put aside online innovation, then actually, we’re not living through a period of great innovation. We can’t get nuclear power to innovate at all, we can’t seem to change the speed of transport— indeed, it’s going backwards. Our grandparents lived through extraordinary changes in transport with the invention of airplanes and motor cars and things, whereas our experience has been that, if anything, they’ve got slower.
You mentioned vaccines, Ron, but actually it took two women just four years to invent a vaccine for whooping cough in the 1930s. It would take that long now, if not longer, in some cases. We think we should have a platform going forward for vaccine development, but we didn’t have one ready in this case. It takes up to 70 months to get a new medical device licensed in many European countries. That is one of the reasons we don’t have enough diagnostic devices ready to go when a pandemic comes along.
Can you not make the case that the vested interest ranged against what we might call ‘technical fixes’, which I call innovation— the vested interests, private sector and public sector, have grown more powerful and are preventing us from doing the things that make the future better, and the future might not therefore be as much better as as it could be.
RB: I completely understand the argument. [inaudible] Olson pointed this out long ago; vested interests will in fact try to kill off innovation. What happened, and the reason that we have enjoyed the two centuries of magnificent achievement that our humanity has enjoyed, is largely because we set up the institutions that basically swept the vested interest more or less out of the way. Those institutions, basically, can be summarized as democratic capitalism. We got rid of kings, we got rid of government monopolies being granted, and so forth, and that allowed huge amounts of innovation for the first time in human history. I do see your argument. I have some glimmers of hope; I think that there are some technologies—
MR: I could make the argument that we do have kings now. Xi Jinping is a king. We do have government monopolies; UK energy policy is all about the granting of monopolies.
RB: I do understand, and I do think that another phrase that Jonathan Rauch came up with was ‘demosclerosis’— that essentially, what happens is that the vested interests clog up the innovative pathways. I think that part of what all three of us do is to fight against that, is to argue against these accretions onto the body politic.
One of the things the pandemic might have done is shake loose a lot of different things, at least in the United States. Whole swaths of regulations have been just set aside very rapidly because it’s an emergency— now we can get rid of them. I have a lot of hope with regard to biomedical innovation that our regulatory agencies will take at least a couple of decades before they stop up the system again. I don’t know that that’s true, but I think that that is one possible glimmer of hope out of the pandemic in that regard.
Then, there are a bunch of technologies in the wings that could take off. Again, we’re looking at the West, and we’re looking now at the development of the People’s Republic and so forth, but there are other places where innovation might take off if we flag. I mean, the whole world is not yet overregulated, I don’t believe. We have biotechnology that’s coming along. Artificial intelligence is going to be a huge productivity enhancer over time, and I don’t see the regulators being able to stop that, but, you know, regulators are very clever, they may be able to do that.
You mentioned nuclear power; there are brilliant, new, walk-away, safe designs for nuclear power plants. I can’t believe that places like India would not take advantage of them at some point. Then, what I keep hoping for is like a Sputnik moment. The United States, for example, or maybe Western Europe, will go, oh my goodness, look— these Indians have developed this wonderful thing, and we’re going to lose out if we don’t immediately break through our own log jam and allow that to go.
Again, these are more hopes, but I still think that the end is not nigh for innovation for humanity at this point.
MR: Marian, can I ask you about finite resources, because David Attenborough is fond of saying: infinite growth is impossible in a world of finite resources, or, as he sometimes puts it, only economists are stupid enough to believe that it is. Is that true? Is there some sense in which we will, in the end, be limited by the amount of gold, coppe, molybdenum, silicon, whatever it might be in the world?
MT: No, it is not true. Before I address the logical flaw in Attenborough’s argument, let me point to the empirical evidence of the Simon Project, which is a part of Human Progress. We have looked at prices of 50 commodities going back to 1980, and in a second book that I’m writing, we are going back all the way to 1850. We try to see how much cheaper commodities, which can be anything from uranium to a pound of pork, have become relative to human labor, because that’s what counts: how long do you have to spend at work earning enough money to buy, say, a dozen oranges? What we found was that all of these 50 commodities have declined in price relative to human labor, which means that from the perspective of human beings, which is really the one perspective that counts, things are becoming more abundant.
Now, let me address the logical flaw in Attenborough’s argument. Attenborough thinks that the future will look very much like the Industrial Revolution, which is to say that we are going to do what we are doing now, we are just going to do it bigger. The steel mills which we currently have, there are just going to be many more of them, and they are going to be bigger. We are going to have bigger and more polluting mines, we are going to have more cars in the streets, etc; but, economic growth and prosperity doesn’t only have to come from bigness, which was the key to the Industrial Revolution. It can also become from miniaturization and from dematerialization. If you look at what computers looked like 50 years ago and what they look like now, our computers are minute, and of course, it’s possible to envisage a future where economic growth and productivity gains will actually come from making things smaller.
Consider an iPhone. The iPhone is not just a phone: it is also your television, it is also your compass, it is also your calculator, it is also a radio, it is many other things— and of course it is a camera. So, instead of buying all of these things individually, we pack them into one item, and that’s what’s called dematerialization: we are using fewer materials to try to get the same functionality.
In fact, what Andrew McAfee found in his latest book, which I think is called More from Less, is that sophisticated economies around the world— primarily the United States and the United Kingdom— are currently producing more goods and services absolutely whilst using fewer resources absolutely. So, there is a decoupling going on in very sophisticated economies between the use of resources and then production of GDP.
MR: By the way, this isn’t just because of less production— it’s also because of less imports. People think, well, you’ve just offshored the manufacturing, and to some extent, countries have; but, if you take that into account, we’re still dematerializing according to the statistics. Sorry, Ron, you were going to—
RB: I was going to just give two macro examples of how that works as well. What, when we talk about it, is the vast productivity and the production of food. World agricultural land usage, that is the amount of land humanity is using to raise both meat and carbohydrates, basically peaked in the year 2000, and it looks like it will continue to go down. Why did that happen? Because we’re growing a lot more food on a lot less land. As Jesse Ausubel pointed out, and many other people pointed out, if we were trying to grow the same amount of food for the population of the world now as we were trying to in 1960, we would basically have chopped down an additional area the size of North America in order to do it if there were no improvements in productivity.
So, what’s happened is productivity has gotten so much faster than population growth that we are in fact using fewer resources to grow food over time, and that has a lot of other benefits, for example, with regards to wildlife and wildlands and so forth.
This is more speculative. What most people, I argue, want are transportation services. They don’t want to own an automobile; they just want to get to one place from another when they want to. There are some analyses that basically show that you could reduce the number of cars that are in a city by over 90 percent with self-driving cars and with people waiting less than a minute to get to where they want to go to catch a car. Now, I don’t know if that’s the way it will necessarily go, but the truth is that this is another technology, and it will be a lot cheaper for people to use than having a hunk of metal sitting in their driveway not doing anything all day. I think that that’s another technology that is going to also dematerialize a large usage of resources that is the transportation sector.
MR: I’m often asked about the future, and I often try and duck the question by saying the future is very difficult to forecast in detail, and a lot of very clever people have said a lot of very stupid things about the future.
Paul Krugman famously said in 1998 that by 2005, it will become clear that the internet’s impact on the economy is no greater than the fax machines, which was wrong. So, I try and avoid being trapped into predicting the future; but, 2050, when I shall be 92 years old, is only 30 years away. I’d love you to paint me a picture of what the world in 2050 will be like. What things won’t have changed much and what will? Where will we be getting our energy from? What diseases will we be worried about? How bad will allergies be? How long will we live for? What will transport look like in and out of cities? Will we have found life elsewhere in the universe? Will we have colonized a planet?
Paint me a picture that I can come back to you on. Ron, you’ll be about my age, I think, in 2050.
RB: I actually intend to be physically younger by then— that’s part of the future.
MR: Okay, right! Give me some hostages to fortune.
RB: Before we go to specific things, one of the ways I think about it is— and we deal with this in the book— is trying to project what the GDP of the world would look like over the coming decades. People going, it cannot possibly be that right now the world’s economy is 120 trillion dollars— how could it be a quadrillion dollars by the end of the century? That’s just too much growth— it’s just crazy!
I go back and say, do you realize that your grandparents experienced that amount of growth in percentage terms due to what it is today. To them, our world was unimaginable. We are, from their point of view, living in a science fiction world, and it is a science fiction world. I think that by 2050, it’ll be even more science fiction in that sense. It’s really hard to predict what technologies are going to come out and, specifically, how biomedical things will improve and so forth. I think that what you’re going to find is, if someone Marian’s age— if what he’s just seen in 20 years, let’s say I know how old you are really, still has to be astonishing in that regard; the cell phone, the internet extensions, even biomedicine has improved somewhat.
MR: Yeah, but hang on. There was a lot of talk 60-70 years ago that by now, we’d be living on Mars, we’d have routine space travel, we’d have personal gyrocopters, we’d have jet packs on postman— there’s a lot of stuff that was overpredicted as well as underpredicted.
RB: Yes, and as you say, you’re very careful about the predictions you want to make about the future. It turns out that we don’t live in the George Jetson world, that’s aging me now as a cartoon, where people have flying automobiles, though people are working on those now. We’ll find out if they actually are worth the energy cost or not, but we shall see. In 2050, the other thing I say— and this is going to get me in trouble, but I will find out— is I actually think that by that time with the progress of biomedical science, the average life expectancy is going to be basically what it is that people want it to be. In other words, people Marian’s age will get to live as long as they would like. In fact, we will have discovered the roots of aging and figured out ways to ameliorate them and reverse them. That’s my boldest prediction.
With regard to computer technologies, I don’t know if you all have been following the GPT-3 thing— the generative language model that’s open AI, has been releasing and allowing certain people to play with [it]— but it essentially is artificial intelligence on steroids. It’s Siri, but intelligent. You can ask it anything: to write an essay, for example, and it’s very hard to tell the difference between what it’s writing. You give it a prompt, say, I would like to know something about the philosophy of Hegel, and it will write you an essay about Hegel, and it would be very hard to tell that it was not written by a human being; it still can be, there are some little edges here and there, but that’s here in 2020. Imagine what that would be in 2050, as well. I don’t know what that would mean to journalism, and I am a journalist, so I may have to find another career by then, but we’ll find out.
But, artificial intelligence is going to be a huge productivity enhancer over time, and it’s going to appear in all kinds of things that we can’t even imagine at this point. The world, in a certain sense, will become interactive. We will be able to interact with all kinds of things, get information whenever we want them, and I think that will have, again, huge productivity gains. The idea is that we’re not competing with machines, we are working and cooperating with the machines to enhance productivity in life over that period of time and to help us to flourish.
The other thing is, I think that the sixth mass extinction idea will have abated, that people will have gone away, because so much cropland and agriculture will have returned to nature at that point, and more people will be living in cities. I know right now people are saying, no one wants to be in these disease infested conservations and so forth, but I think that, again, we’ll have a much better way of controlling infectious diseases at that point, and people will want to return to cities and enjoy them even more. What that means is there’ll be fewer people living on the landscape relatively speaking— actually, absolutely speaking fewer people living on the landscape— again leaving more land for nature over that period of time. If you’re leaving more land for nature that helps, if you will, downregulate any fears we have for, ultimately, mass extinction occurring.
Those are some of the things I’m thinking about in that regard.
MR: I’m curious that you haven’t mentioned climate change at all in that answer, which is interesting, and I want to come back to that, but Marian, first I want you to paint for me the picture of 2050. You definitely will be alive. Ron and I may be alive and we may be rejuvenated and look like 25 year olds.
MT: You both have a lot of good books to write. I just want to focus on two things: in spite of the rise of authoritarianism that we have seen in some countries, I’m very bullish on human freedom. That is because, I think, that in a world where information is basically free, and it’s much more difficult to control— I mean for goodness sake, even in North Korea people are bringing in clandestinely flash drives with information and Western movies and so on. I think that in the future, it will be very difficult for regimes to maintain control over a population that demands dignity and knows that it can be gotten. Every villager in Africa or in South Asia or wherever else, will be able to see that people have basic rights, basic dignity in other parts of the world, and it doesn’t matter whether you are black, white, gay, straight, old, young— people are treated better in other parts of the world. I think that they will start demanding the same rights for themselves, and so in that sense I think that a representative form of government has a good future.
The other thing that I want to just briefly mention is energy. I don’t know if fusion reactors are going to become a reality, as the saying goes, they always seem to be 20 years into the future. However, small portable fission reactors are here; there’s an American company called NuScale whose revolutionary design for a portable small fission reactor, which can power 50,000 homes, has been approved. The first one is supposed to be built in 2029 with 11 others to follow in 2030, and I do think that we need to get to a future where energy is basically free– or close to free— and where it has no negative impact on the environment. I think this is perfectly doable so long as we are able to successfully take on the vested interests and the rebellion extinction and environmentalist doomsayers, who seem to be opposed to it for reasons that frankly are illogical and shouldn’t be enjoying as much public space as they are given.
MR: Well, can I pick you up on that? Extinction Rebellion is a manifestation of a strong indication in human society that people are objecting to modernity, objecting to technology, etc.— that there is a sort of anti-progress feel. I say that perhaps a bit boldly, but you know if you said to an Extinction Rebellion spokesman, “Don’t worry, I’ve invented a free and emission-free energy form called fusion which is only going to take up a small amount of space, and it’s going to produce unlimitless quantities of energy, so you can desalinate water from the sea to your heart’s content, and you can make fuel for vehicles and airplanes and things like that, so the energy problem is solved. No emissions, no more warming, etc.”— would they say, “Phew, thank you?” No, they would say, as Amory Lovins said in the 1970s, giving cheap energy to humanity is like giving a loaded gun to a child. They hate the idea that somebody is enjoying themselves with all this energy, basically; it’s the old itch of the puritans. Isn’t that part of something that we might describe as a cultural revolution that’s going on, whereby all this forcing of older people to abase themselves before certain new nostrums feels a bit like China circa 1966, or even in one’s worst nightmare, Cambodia? Is that a possible pessimism that I can introduce into the conversation before I come back to climate change, Ron?
MT: Well, you started by asking whether this is technophobia, which is a specific objection to modernity. I’m not sure that I buy the notion that the climate concerns and Extinction Rebellion and so on is about technophobia; these people ride on trains, they use cell phones, they post selfies, they enjoy the fruits of technological revolution. So, I don’t think it’s technophobia specifically, but then you introduce another thing, which is puritanism and objection to people enjoying themselves. I think that that is more to the point; I think that’s the jugular of the matter.
First of all, the most important thing which every human being has to ask is, how do I cope with the inevitability of death? Traditional religion provided some sort of a theory about how things are going to work out after people die and where they go. In the absence of traditional religion, people still have to create some sort of a story of immortality. That to them, I think, means getting involved in something heroic, something meaningful, something that is devoid of the religious overtones, but in fact is actually quite religious in the sense that there was at some point in the past a Garden of Eden where people were happy, and everything was clean, and everything was abundant, and then humans— through industry and technological progress— have destroyed it all.
I see Extinction Rebellion as a secular religion— as an attempt by secular and traditionally irreligious people to create their own story of immortality [and] get involved in some sort of a heroic enterprise so that even when they are dead, they know that someone, somewhere will say, “Aha! But, at least Greta Thunberg was right because she predicted that the world was going to end in 2030 or what have you.” That’s my take on that.
MR: Ron, can I come back to you and ask you about climate change? You and I have disagreed over the years because I have thought that the problem is exaggerated. I think you think that it’s less exaggerated, but you probably share my view that technology will allow us to both adapt and mitigate the issue. You didn’t mention climate change in 2050; how hot do you think the world will be, and how well will we have adapted to it, and how far down the track will we be to decarbonization?
RB: On current trends, I think the world will probably be at around two degrees centigrade warmer than pre-industrial by 2050, on its way to about three degrees by the end of the century with the proviso if we actually do nothing.
The truth is, I think that technology, also forced by policies and more expensively done than we probably have to do, we will be well down the path to decarbonization by 2050. it’ll be a mixture of renewable technologies, but I think a good percentage of it will be on nuclear power of various sorts. Unless somebody comes up with a brand new way of holding those gases together inside of a reactor, I think fission is the way to go, and particularly if I were picking things—
MR: You do or you don’t think it’s the way to go?
RB: Oh, fission is the way to go.
MR: Fission, sorry,
RB: Not fusion— I don’t think fusion is the way to go. The truth is that we could do it with thorium reactors, and as someone said, all you need are basically seeds to go inside of thorium reactors, so you need one nuclear power plant at most on a planet in order to provide what you need for the neutrons you need to keep thorium reactors operating. Anyway, that’s a little on this on the side here.
We will have adapted fairly well: sea level rise will have continued, it will not be at the high end of these things, but people will be retreating. What I hope we will be doing is using the mechanism of insurance to figure out where we should be departing from. We should allow the market to decide whether or not we should be rebuilding millionaires’ homes in Cape Hatteras Island in North Carolina, or maybe they could live somewhere else.
What’s fascinating is the numbers of fires on planet Earth have been declining over time despite the predictions, but then you look at the various models and so forth, which, again, must be taken with a grain of salt, and fire weather has been increasing; that is, places that are drier longer and so forth. The question is will that ever catch up, or will we have adapted so rapidly to it that we will be able to contain whatever fires are out there, for example? Again, I’m looking to insurance to tell people, maybe you shouldn’t build your house in the middle of a fur forest that gets dry every summer. Again, we’ll be able to adapt.
My best guess is that climate change by 2050 will have shaved off one or two percent of what GDP would possibly have been, but then you have to balance it against what it is that governments are likely to do, and my question always is, is what government’s likely to do about climate change worse than climate change? I’m afraid that I go on the side that governments are probably going to screw this up, but, again, with the developments and technology and innovation and increased wealth, the world will be a lot better. It will be warmer, but it’s not going to be disastrously so.
MR: One of my beefs with the exaggeration is the overuse of a scenario called RCP 8.5, which is the extreme scenario for what might happen to climate change in which we’re burning ten times as much coal as we do today by the year 2100, which doesn’t seem very likely; we’re using coal for transportation again like we did in the 19th century— all sorts of weird assumptions of 12 billion people on the planet. By the way, that assumption is nearly always the ones being used when you read a politician or a pressure group saying we think the UK needs to get used to the following problem in the next 50 years. They’re nearly always using RCP 8.5, but they bury it in the small-print even though it’s a highly implausible scenario.
I once drilled down into the economics behind RCP 8.5, and in this terrible, terrible world— where it’s four warmer in 2100, and we’re back to relying on coal, and we’ve had much slower economic growth than in the other models, and the sea level has risen much faster— in that terrible world the assumption is, and the assumption has got to be, by the way, that the average person in the Congo has a higher standard of living in terms of GDP per capita in today’s dollars than the average American has today. So, fantastically richer people in the poorest country— surely, they can afford to do something about these problems that are facing them. Isn’t that one of the arguments we need to make?
RB: I completely agree that that is certainly the argument that we need to make. I’ve been on the climate change beat at a journalist for over 30 years now, and what I have become concerned with slowly but surely over time is that there are, what they call, fat tail risks out there, and you have to worry about what if there were, in fact, these turning points? I think that buying a little bit of insurance is probably not a bad idea, but then that’s the problem: how much do you want to buy?
Most people who are concerned about this, I don’t think of them as ideological environmentalists; I’m thinking of the people who are the leaders who are degrowth, someone like Naomi Klein, who wrote a book basically saying, this changes everything— climate change is the best argument we’ve ever had to destroy capitalism, let’s go for it. She bluntly says that. I think that those sorts of people or Extinction Rebellionists and so forth are trying to use this as a way of transforming the world.
Another way to think about this— I always found it fascinating— is that people don’t remember why we had the renewable energy push back in the 1970s. Now, why did we do that? That’s because we were running out of energy. Now, we have no problem with that, and we still want renewable energy. The same solution, from the same people, for different problems, but the idea is that this gives them power and control over the economy. That is what I do fear about that.
MT: Can I just add to that, I think that the sooner we depart from the answer to climate change being fewer people consuming less stuff the better. You can divide the world into two parts: the advanced rich countries which tend to be democracies, and there the idea of limiting births and also limiting consumption is simply not going to fly within the context of democratic politics. People are willing to put up with slightly increased taxation and greater degree of redistribution, but they are not going to live like we do now during COVID forever just to cut down on emissions. That’s a non-starter. Then, you have the second part of the globe which is essentially countries which perhaps are not politically free but also are very poor, and there an advocacy for limiting energy and consumption, in my view, is just plainly immoral. We cannot ask the people in Africa to rely on some sort of a hypothetical future where they will have green energy, when in fact they are sitting on large amounts of coal or other fossil fuels that they could be using straight away in order to generate electricity.
Let’s get away from these limitations as an answer to climate change, and let’s perhaps put some money behind scientific research so that we can come up with better sources of clean energy. I’m not suggesting this has to be done through government subsidies of individual private corporations or government agencies, but maybe we can push research forward through different prices, like the XPRIZE and things like that.
RB: Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, he and I discussed this, what was going on in Africa and so forth with regard to energy. He had no patience whatsoever for people who wanted to deny electricity to poor people in Africa It was madness to him. He said, the people who want to do that, they should go to Africa and live like those people, and they will discover it’s like camping, but it’s camping forever, and how much would they enjoy that?
MR: Can I end with— because I think we’re getting towards the end of an hour— a question which is one that I grapple with and don’t don’t find easy to answer, so I’m hoping you will find it easier, and that is: human beings have been around for two million years. In effect, it’s only the last 200 years of that enormous span of time that have seen these extraordinary changes. Yes, there were big changes 10,000 years ago with the invention of agriculture but on a much slower scale, and then it didn’t really go anywhere for a long time. By 1700, most people in the world were no richer than they were 10, 000 years ago I suspect, at least not much. But then, from 1700, 1800 even, onwards, there is an extraordinary take-off starting on this foggy little island where I live, funnily enough, but spreading to the rest of the world.
In that time, we have seen ludicrous transformations in lifespan, poverty, wealth, health, and so on, and in technologies and in culture, too. How long can that go on? How long can this play run?
I can imagine it going to 2100 easily. I can imagine my great-grandchildren being much richer than today and having a much better cultural life and much better technologies and so on, but I can’t imagine it in the year 3000 continuing at this rate. I just find that idea rather baffling, and then I start to worry about the Fermi paradox, the idea that we’re not finding any signs of advanced civilizations out there, which implies that there might be a great filter— there might be a something that prevents civilizations getting beyond a certain point, whether it’s nuclear war or something even worse, we don’t know.
Can you imagine us growing at this rate till the year 3000? If so, where on Earth is Hollywood going to come up with new plots for movies for the next 1000 years, let alone the next ten years? Any thoughts on that, either of you?
MT: I think that technological innovation could continue for a very long time. I don’t see any limits to the ability of human beings to come up with new technological breakthroughs so long as we have the people to do it within an atmosphere of freedom where they can think, where they can interact, where they can write and they can benefit from their innovations. So long as freedom and people appear on this Earth, we can continue to generate new ideas, and even if population should decline but AI kicks in, then hopefully a generation of ideas will continue.
It’s very difficult to think about the world in 300, but for the foreseeable future, I think we have the tools to make the world a better place, and that’s where I would probably end, maybe due to lack of imagination.
RB: One of the ways that I try to think about the world, and we’re living in a golden age of science fiction right now, by the way, of novels— they’re just amazing what’s coming out— but one of the ways you can think about it, and science writers have been trying to figure out exactly your question, so what would the world look like in the year 3000?
One particular vision I find persuasive in some sense is that humanity will migrate into their machines, slowly but surely. What will happen is that the digital technologies and quantum technologies, possibly, will migrate into our brains and our bodies over the course of this century, and slowly but surely, more and more of our activities will be taking place outside of our bodies. Perhaps, our bodies will disappear at that point and, in a certain sense, our descendants will be our very smart machines. Our cultures— to the extent that it remains our culture— will become part of that.
Now, the question is, if this is a process that’s happening here, you’re right about the Fermi paradox— why have we not encountered these machines from other cultures so far? Another science fiction trope is that we live in a dark forest; if, in fact, your civilization has advanced so that you are interstellar and able to move about the galaxy, you want to hide from other cultures because they may find you as a threat, and you don’t know if you’re a bigger threat to them or not, and it could be a war of all against all. I don’t know. That’s a more pessimistic view of these things. But, I do think that some version of humanity or our culture will be around in the year 3000— we shall see.
I hope, in fact, if my transgenic hopes work, perhaps we’ll all be here having this discussion of the year 3000 imagining, what the hell— who knew this would be happening?
MR: Well, I think that’s a suitable note on which to end. We’ve been loosely discussing a fabulous new orange and blue book, called Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know: And Many Others You Will Find Interesting by Ron Bailey and Marian Tupy. I think the best comment on it is the great Vernon Smith, the Nobel Prize-winning economist on the back cover who says, “Read this book and find out why, if you are not an optimist, you should be.”
Thank you, Ron and Marian for a fascinating discussion, and thank you for all the work you do.
RB: Thank you for moderating us.
MT: Thank you very much to both of you. Much appreciated.