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Risk aversion getting in the way of essential breakthroughs

It’s challenging to bring urgency to diffuse problems whose dire consequences happen over time, bringing fatalism to the situation —and the feeling that nothing can be done.

Those refusing to see the correlation between extreme weather events and human activity’s impact on climate will still suffer the consequences of such changes. Some seem to bank their fate on their ability to fence themselves from unease information, imitating small children who cover their eyes with their own hands as if they could pause reality to disappear instantly.

The fatalism of some around the effects of phenomena at the macro scale (geopolitics, climate, pandemics, inflation) over society contrasts with the incredulity of others, who envision risks of any action as a part of too small, too late approaches.

For example, non-pragmatist ecologism in Germany succeeded in imposing on the country a plan to discontinue the use of nuclear energy in the coming years. Yet, it was clear for all the parties represented in the Bundestag that the energy needs of the biggest economy and most populated country in the EU would not be covered with the aggressive expansion of renewables; Germany’s realpolitik had brought its political class to think it could rely on Russian gas to cover its needs for the coming decades, but the war in Ukraine has shacked this view.

Their thing, your thing, and the current thing

Like Germany with its energy mix, societies across the globe seem to have adopted the cynical approach of Groucho Marx to our collective future: “Why should I care about future generations – what have they ever done for me?” Some things may change as it becomes clear that the dire consequences associated with the frequency and intensity increase of extreme weather events —such as heatwaves and droughts— will amplify local or regional conflicts happening right now.

Just before the beginning of summer 2022, pre-solstice temperatures in the northern hemisphere have soared across regions: India recorded 49.2 degrees Celsius (120.5 Fahrenheit) just after Spain and France had registered days of temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius (104 F), while North Dakota and the San Francisco Bay Area have reached temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. And, on June 21, one reporting station from Abadan in Iran, recorded a staggering 126 F (52.2 C), the hottest temperature recorded on Earth in 2022. So far.

Yet few will want to associate such events with a bigger pattern that concerns us all and our activity and habits over the coming decades, whether we like it or not. Journalism has lost the battle of explaining the relations between the aggregate of our actions and the evolution of some externalities we don’t feel responsible for because they are perceived as too big and diffuse. And while conspiracy theories maintain their popularity on social media, we risk being trapped in a diffusion of responsibility that reinforces mutual denial.

Social psychology has a name for this paradox: the bystander effect, in which we will resume engaging in some serious action to tackle a perceived societal problem because we interiorize that somebody will take care even if we do nothing about it. The bystander effect, or apathy, explains why sometimes a house burns to the ground and nobody will show up for help for long periods, sometimes because nobody called the fire department (thinking some other neighbor would have done so).

Trapped in the bystander effect

When it comes to long-term climate trends, we all are trapped in a bystander effect in which the current generation blames the previous ones for the effects of human emissions on the world’s temperature and climate patterns, sending to the future the difficult decisions needed to transform the impact of human activity at a global scale. Among countries, new polluters (emergent economies) claim their right to have a bigger impact as they develop, and more wealthy ones struggle to reduce their emissions.

Even when incentives for big polluters (such as carbon trading schemes for countries and factories) or fiscal advantages for individuals (to increase the use of public transportation and trade old “thermal” cars for electric ones) are in place, change often stagnates due to the diffusion of responsibility anybody feels like a part of a bigger, multigenerational group. Because, in the end, “what have the future generations done for us?” We all quote Groucho Marx in silence.

As one situation unfolds while we don’t intervene because “the issue is too big” or because “it is too late,” we miss the opportunity to speed in a constant transition over better solutions for individual and collective challenges. And, when examples of successful collective action taken at a civilizational scale and over the generations occur, the diffusion of the phenomenon prevents media from covering it as a paradigm of what civil engineering or even geoengineering could achieve to, for example, grow more food with fewer resources or keep the sea level rise at bay.

Overcoming uncertainty

The case of the Netherlands is relevant in these two examples, as it has become one of the biggest food exporters in the world while reducing its greenhouse emissions and protecting its land under sea level with a maintenance system whose roots go way back, well before the arrival of giant mechanical pumps. Thanks to the careful planning and maintenance of dikes, barriers, and windmill pumps (later replaced by cast iron pumps during the industrial revolution), the Dutch not only prevented the North sea from flooding cities and farms but consistently gained land area to the sea.

And, even though roughly 17% of the total land area of the Netherlands was reclaimed from either the sea, lakes, or marshlands, few relate this collective effort undertaken in a small and democratic country, as individualistic as its neighbors, as a successful geoengineering project ongoing after many centuries and generations, which currently relies on dunes, dikes, pumps, and other techniques (both ancient and contemporary) to avoid the fate of gravity if human intervention in the area were to collapse: 65% of the country would be under water at high tide without such system in place.

To understand the scale of change in the Netherlands, we only have to consider that the Zuiderzee, an inlet of the North Sea that caused many floods, was modified with a 20-mile (32km) dike, completed in 1932, creating the largest freshwater lake in Western Europe: the IJsselmeer (or “sea of the river IJssel). The polders, or “artificial island,” created with such interventions.

Paradoxically, the diffusion of responsibility effect increases when individuals have a strong sense of belonging to a group that favors homogeneity and gregariousness: the bigger the group, the less likely a person will take the responsibility of getting to act on a complex issue, deferring such need to the collective.

Acquired optimism

Theoretical physicist David Deutsch believes that progress and human breakthroughs rely on a society’s ability to tolerate critical thinking and dissent among individuals. Talking about the emergence of critical thought in Ancient Greece, Deutsch talks about the contrast of societal models in Athens, a city that nurtured debate and the notion of disciples contradicting their teachers (as long as it was well-argued), and the militant gregariousness of Spartans, the egalitarian society of citizen-soldiers relying on the State for important decisions that discouraged any transformation of the polis.

Athens’ individualism didn’t guard its society against disasters, war, and civil unrest but laid the foundations of the idea of progress and meliorism, or the belief that our surroundings can be improved over time by effort and by a constant substitution of old conjectures by new ones that adapt better to the current circumstances. This substitution happens when old hypotheses are proven wrong by using the essay and error approach that can prove their empirical content false: it’s not feasible to demonstrate a conjecture “true,” but it takes only one demonstrable flaw to refute it.

According to this pragmatic, hands-on model of human progress, a framework that only accelerated with the methods of the so-called Age of Reason, there’s no physical or conceptual obstacle that could prevent a given society from overcoming new threats and challenges, no matter how big. Optimism and ingenuity consider problems and challenges as inevitable and, to some extent, desirable since they prompt individuals and groups to seek out and eventually acquire new conceptual and practical knowledge to leave obstacles behind. To David Deutsch:

“Optimism is, in the first instance, a way of explaining failure, not prophesying success. It says there is no fundamental barrier, no law of nature or supernatural decree, preventing progress.”

A possible beginning

Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity is a highly speculative work that starts nonetheless with a lengthy explanation that refutes the common idea of conceptual and technical progress and replaces it with the humbler, hands-on approach of old-school entrepreneurs: we advance by essay and error or tinkering, replacing old conjectures by better ones, updated to the latest iterations. Bold conjectures aren’t derived from evidence but get tested by it. Karl Popper explored this theory of acquiring knowledge as critical rationalism or “falsifiability.”

Experimentation and optimism drive our hunger for finding ways out of current difficulties, and this urge to advance in the exploration and replacement of old conjectures with more accurate (but fallible) ones thrive in societies that prevent the bystander effect from no one taking responsibility by protecting and incentivizing breakthroughs coming from individuals (with the urge and drive to move on from things that don’t work or stagnate) and not only institutions or groups.

Cultural and individual differences, but also the context and time where we are born and brought up, may explain why some individuals and groups favor the model of Sparta in Ancient Greece (egalitarianism, technical equilibrium that disincentivizes further technical and conceptual advances) over the one that thrived in Athens under Pericles. To the former group, conclusions to any challenge are invariant to information, and “reasoning” needs to adapt to a preexisting set of values, whereas the latter is permeable to new information and will adjust its conclusions to any new set of patterns detected.

Those favoring a pretended “equilibrium” or “maturity” (or limit) change their method to reach over and over the same conclusions, as opposed to those who use the same method (tinkering, essay, and error) to transform their conclusions based on updated information.

Testing possible breakthroughs vs inaction

In our time, proponents of stasis explain that we have reached what the Earth can sustain, and all we can do is drastically reduce our cumulative impact, hence discarding the effect of any possible breakthrough; optimists, on the contrary, would focus on testing practical solutions with a hands-on approach to reality. Instead of promoting legislation to limit our impact, optimists actively seek out ways to, say, reduce individual and aggregate human impact by replacing current technologies.

When it comes to diffuse problems that seem too big to be detached from our very perception of reality, though, almost everybody (including governments) seems caught in the bystander effect: those who aren’t climate denialists seem to go with the climate promises reached internationally, as long as they remain simple promises that don’t affect our everyday life.

Neo-Malthusians point to the current trouble with international food supply and inflation (due, among other phenomena, to post-pandemic economic overheating and the ongoing war among major grain producers Ukraine and Russia), as symptoms of a bigger issue related to overpopulation and overconsumption, which would increase resource depletion and environmental degradation, eventually leading to total collapse (a thesis sustained equally by serious economists, environmentalists, and the Unabomber manifesto).

Others, from journalists Noah Smith and Matt Yglesias to economists (Marginal Revolution‘s Tyler Cowen, among others), investors (most venture capital) or Elon Musk (who has time to assure anybody listening that Earth can sustain a much bigger population), think the way out the current set of big crises has to come from an accelerated experiment in a meliorist conceptual framework.

Echoes of the seventies

Is it desirable or even realistic to believe that the concerning trends we observe in climate and governance could be overcome with an optimistic reliance on technological and conceptual breakthroughs? The 1973 oil crisis, high inflation, and political instability in countries such as Great Britain and the United States, gave way to an era of technological experimentation (including public incentives to develop renewable energy and commercial solar panels to be installed in homes) and of weirdo utopian experiments in alternative living arrangements.

The overall population relates Jimmy Carter’s years as a period of “stagflation,” urban violence, and “experiments going wrong,” whereas the Reagan years, one of cheap oil and growing capital wealth thanks to real estate, became to a majority of the American public opinion “boom years.” In reality, bold experimentation had taken place in the seventies, while the Reagan years became, according to economist Tyler Cowen, the kickstart of an era of technological stagnation.

Can breakthroughs take place in a risk-averse society?

In the prologue for her work The Human Condition (1958), Hannah Arendt tries to conceptualize the challenges and Apocalyptic millenarianism of the Cold War by opening with another extraordinary event: the 1957 launch of Sputnik 1, “an earth-born object made by man” propelled into the universe and circling the Earth according to the laws of physics.

Our first technical outing from Earth’s atmosphere relativized differences among humans and prepared us for the future world government envisioned by pacifists such as Bertrand Russell and sci-fi writers or techno-utopians such as Buckminster Fuller.

-isms won’t save the world

Arendt’s point of view of the future of humanity is not that different from that of meliorists and optimists, also held by thinkers such as German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and his concept of Anthropotechnics.

We live today in a state of over-excitement resembling that of the “crazy” seventies, including the oil hikes, stagflation vibes, and experimentation on the fringes of society. Still, nobody with a memory from the seventies and eighties will switch the “boring prosperity” of the Reagan years in the ’80s for the “high idealism and bad economy” of the better-forgotten Jimmy Carter era.

But can we fix big problems at the scale needed without being more aggressive and ready to lose more? Nietzsche would agree with the optimists of today, but who is sure the majority of current societies are willing to trade comfort for any risky technical era.

Groucho still resonates in their cynical position: “Why should I care about future generations – what have they ever done for me?”

Short-termism, NYMBYism, and gas prices are still king, whether we like it or not.