What is progress? How far have we really come?

JDN 2457534

It is a controversy that has lasted throughout the ages: Is the world getting better? Is it getting worse? Or is it more or less staying the same, changing in ways that don’t really constitute improvements or detriments?

The most obvious and indisputable change in human society over the course of history has been the advancement of technology. At one extreme there are techno-utopians, who believe that technology will solve all the world’s problems and bring about a glorious future; at the other extreme are anarcho-primitivists, who maintain that civilization, technology, and industrialization were all grave mistakes, removing us from our natural state of peace and harmony.

I am not a techno-utopian—I do not believe that technology will solve all our problems—but I am much closer to that end of the scale. Technology has solved a lot of our problems, and will continue to solve a lot more. My aim in this post is to convince you that progress is real, that things really are, on the whole, getting better.

One of the more baffling arguments against progress comes from none other than Jared Diamond, the social scientist most famous for Guns, Germs and Steel (which oddly enough is mainly about horses and goats). About seven months before I was born, Diamond wrote an essay for Discover magazine arguing quite literally that agriculture—and by extension, civilization—was a mistake.

Diamond fortunately avoids the usual argument based solely on modern hunter-gatherers, which is a selection bias if ever I heard one. Instead his main argument seems to be that paleontological evidence shows an overall decrease in health around the same time as agriculture emerged. But that’s still an endogeneity problem, albeit a subtler one. Maybe agriculture emerged as a response to famine and disease. Or maybe they were both triggered by rising populations; higher populations increase disease risk, and are also basically impossible to sustain without agriculture.

I am similarly dubious of the claim that hunter-gatherers are always peaceful and egalitarian. It does seem to be the case that herders are more violent than other cultures, as they tend to form honor cultures that punish all sleights with overwhelming violence. Even after the Industrial Revolution there were herder honor cultures—the Wild West. Yet as Steven Pinker keeps trying to tell people, the death rates due to homicide in all human cultures appear to have steadily declined for thousands of years.

I read an article just a few days ago on the Scientific American blog which included the following claim so astonishingly nonsensical it makes me wonder if the authors can even do arithmetic or read statistical tables correctly:

I keep reminding readers (see Further Reading), the evidence is overwhelming that war is a relatively recent cultural invention. War emerged toward the end of the Paleolithic era, and then only sporadically. A new study by Japanese researchers published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters corroborates this view.

Six Japanese scholars led by Hisashi Nakao examined the remains of 2,582 hunter-gatherers who lived 12,000 to 2,800 years ago, during Japan’s so-called Jomon Period. The researchers found bashed-in skulls and other marks consistent with violent death on 23 skeletons, for a mortality rate of 0.89 percent.

That is supposed to be evidence that ancient hunter-gatherers were peaceful? The global homicide rate today is 62 homicides per million people per year. Using the worldwide life expectancy of 71 years (which is biasing against modern civilization because our life expectancy is longer), that means that the worldwide lifetime homicide rate is 4,400 homicides per million people, or 0.44%—that’s less than half the homicide rate of these “peaceful” hunter-gatherers. If you compare just against First World countries, the difference is even starker; let’s use the US, which has the highest homicide rate in the First World. Our homicide rate is 38 homicides per million people per year, which at our life expectancy of 79 years is 3,000 homicides per million people, or an overall homicide rate of 0.3%, slightly more than a third of this “peaceful” ancient culture. The most peaceful societies today—notably Japan, where these remains were found—have homicide rates as low as 3 per million people per year, which is a lifetime homicide rate of 0.02%, forty times smaller than their supposedly utopian ancestors. (Yes, all of Japan has fewer total homicides than Chicago. I’m sure it has nothing to do with their extremely strict gun control laws.) Indeed, to get a modern homicide rate as high as these hunter-gatherers, you need to go to a country like Congo, Myanmar, or the Central African Republic. To get a substantially higher homicide rate, you essentially have to be in Latin America. Honduras, the murder capital of the world, has a lifetime homicide rate of about 6.7%.

Again, how did I figure these things out? By reading basic information from publicly-available statistical tables and then doing some simple arithmetic. Apparently these paleoanthropologists couldn’t be bothered to do that, or didn’t know how to do it correctly, before they started proclaiming that human nature is peaceful and civilization is the source of violence. After an oversight as egregious as that, it feels almost petty to note that a sample size of a few thousand people from one particular region and culture isn’t sufficient data to draw such sweeping judgments or speak of “overwhelming” evidence.

Of course, in order to decide whether progress is a real phenomenon, we need a clearer idea of what we mean by progress. It would be presumptuous to use per-capita GDP, though there can be absolutely no doubt that technology and capitalism do in fact raise per-capita GDP. If we measure by inequality, modern society clearly fares much worse (our top 1% share and Gini coefficient may be higher than Classical Rome!), but that is clearly biased in the opposite direction, because the main way we have raised inequality is by raising the ceiling, not lowering the floor. Most of our really good measures (like the Human Development Index) only exist for the last few decades and can barely even be extrapolated back through the 20th century.

How about babies not dying? This is my preferred measure of a society’s value. It seems like something that should be totally uncontroversial: Babies dying is bad. All other things equal, a society is better if fewer babies die.

I suppose it doesn’t immediately follow that all things considered a society is better if fewer babies die; maybe the dying babies could be offset by some greater good. Perhaps a totalitarian society where no babies die is in fact worse than a free society in which a few babies die, or perhaps we should be prepared to accept some small amount of babies dying in order to save adults from poverty, or something like that. But without some really powerful overriding reason, babies not dying probably means your society is doing something right. (And since most ancient societies were in a state of universal poverty and quite frequently tyranny, these exceptions would only strengthen my case.)

Well, get ready for some high-yield truth bombs about infant mortality rates.

It’s hard to get good data for prehistoric cultures, but the best data we have says that infant mortality in ancient hunter-gatherer cultures was about 20-50%, with a best estimate around 30%. This is statistically indistinguishable from early agricultural societies.

Indeed, 30% seems to be the figure humanity had for most of history. Just shy of a third of all babies died for most of history.

In Medieval times, infant mortality was about 30%.

This same rate (fluctuating based on various plagues) persisted into the Enlightenment—Sweden has the best records, and their infant mortality rate in 1750 was about 30%.

The decline in infant mortality began slowly: During the Industrial Era, infant mortality was about 15% in isolated villages, but still as high as 40% in major cities due to high population densities with poor sanitation.

Even as recently as 1900, there were US cities with infant mortality rates as high as 30%, though the overall rate was more like 10%.

Most of the decline was recent and rapid: Just within the US since WW2, infant mortality fell from about 5.5% to 0.7%, though there remains a substantial disparity between White and Black people.

Globally, the infant mortality rate fell from 6.3% to 3.2% within my lifetime, and in Africa today, the region where it is worst, it is about 5.5%—or what it was in the US in the 1940s.

This precipitous decline in babies dying is the main reason ancient societies have such low life expectancies; actually once they reached adulthood they lived to be about 70 years old, not much worse than we do today. So my multiplying everything by 71 actually isn’t too far off even for ancient societies.

Let me make a graph for you here, of the approximate rate of babies dying over time from 10,000 BC to today:


Let’s zoom in on the last 250 years, where the data is much more solid:


I think you may notice something in these graphs. There is quite literally a turning point for humanity, a kink in the curve where we suddenly begin a rapid decline from an otherwise constant mortality rate.

That point occurs around or shortly before 1800—that is, it occurs at industrial capitalism. Adam Smith (not to mention Thomas Jefferson) was writing at just about the point in time when humanity made a sudden and unprecedented shift toward saving the lives of millions of babies.

So now, think about that the next time you are tempted to say that capitalism is an evil system that destroys the world; the evidence points to capitalism quite literally saving babies from dying.

How would it do so? Well, there’s that rising per-capita GDP we previously ignored, for one thing. But more important seems to be the way that industrialization and free markets support technological innovation, and in this case especially medical innovation—antibiotics and vaccines. Our higher rates of literacy and better communication, also a result of raised standard of living and improved technology, surely didn’t hurt. I’m not often in agreement with the Cato Institute, but they’re right about this one: Industrial capitalism is the chief source of human progress.

Billions of babies would have died but we saved them. So yes, I’m going to call that progress. Civilization, and in particular industrialization and free markets, have dramatically improved human life over the last few hundred years.

In a future post I’ll address one of the common retorts to this basically indisputable fact: “You’re making excuses for colonialism and imperialism!” No, I’m not. Saying that modern capitalism is a better system (not least because it saves babies) is not at all the same thing as saying that our ancestors were justified in using murder, slavery, and tyranny to force people into it.

Is there hope for stopping climate change?

JDN 2457523

This topic was decided by vote of my Patreons (there are still few enough that the vote usually has only two or three people, but hey, what else can I do?).

When it comes to climate change, I have good news and bad news.

First, the bad news:

We are not going to be able to stop climate change, or even stop making it worse, any time soon. Because of this, millions of people are going to die and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Now, the good news:

We can do a great deal to slow down our contribution to climate change, reduce its impact on human society, and save most of the people who would otherwise have been killed by it. It is currently forecasted that climate change will cause somewhere between 10 million and 100 million deaths over the next century; if we can hold to the lower end of that error bar instead of the upper end, that’s half a dozen Holocausts prevented.

There are three basic approaches to take, and we will need all of them:

1. Emission reduction: Put less carbon in

2. Geoengineering: Take more carbon out

3. Adaptation: Protect more humans from the damage

Strategies 1 and 2 are classified as mitigation, while strategy 3 is classified as adaptation. Mitigation is reducing climate change; adaptation is reducing the effect of climate change on people.

Let’s start with strategy 1, emission reduction. It’s probably the most important; without it the others are clearly doomed to fail.

So, what are our major sources of emissions, and what can we do to reduce them?

While within the US and most other First World countries the primary sources of emissions are electricity and transportation, worldwide transportation is less important and agriculture is about as large a source of emissions as electricity. 25% of global emissions are due to electricity, 24% are due to agriculture, 21% are due to industry, 14% are due to transportation, only 6% are due to buildings, and everything else adds up to 10%.


1A. Both within the First World and worldwide, the leading source of emissions is electricity. Our first priority is therefore electrical grid reform.

Energy efficiency can help—and it already is helping, as global electricity consumption has stopped growing despite growth in population and GDP. Energy intensity of GDP is declining. But the main thing we need to do is reform the way that electricity is produced.

Let’s take a look at how the world currently produces electricity. Currently, the leading source of electricity is “liquids”, an odd euphemism for oil; currently about 175 quadrillion BTU per year, 30% of all production. This is closely followed by coal, at about 160 quadrillion BTU per year, 28%. Then we have natural gas, about 130 quadrillion BTU per year (23%), wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal altogether about 60 quadrillion BTU per year (11%), and nuclear fission only about 40 quadrillion BTU per year (7%).

This list basically needs to be reversed. We will probably not be able to completely stop using oil for transportation, but we have no excuse for using for electricity production. We also need to stop using coal for, well, just about anything. There are a few industrial processes that basically have to use coal; fine, use it for that. But just as something to burn, coal is one of the most heavily-polluting technologies in existence—the only things we burn that are worse are wood and animal dung. Simply ending the burning of coal, wood, and dung would by itself save 4 million lives a year just from reduced pollution.

Natural gas burns cleaner than coal or oil, but it still produces a lot of carbon emissions. Even worse, natural gas is itself one of the worst greenhouse gases—and so natural gas leaks are a major source of greenhouse emissions. Last year a single massive leak accounted for 25% of California’s methane emissions. Like oil, natural gas is also something we’ll want to use quite sparingly.

The best power source is solar power, hands-down. In the long run, the goal should be to convert as much as possible of the grid to solar. Wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal are also very useful, though wind power peaks at the wrong time of day for high energy demand and hydro and geothermal require specific geography to work. Solar is also the most scalable; as long as you have the raw materials and the technology, you can keep expanding solar production all the way up to a Dyson Sphere.

But solar is intermittent, and we don’t have good enough energy storage methods right now to ensure a steady grid on solar alone. The bulk of our grid is therefore going to have to be made of the one energy source we have with negligible carbon emissions, mature technology, and virtually unlimited and fully controllable output: Nuclear fission. At least until fusion matures or we solve the solar energy storage problem, nuclear fission is our best option for minimizing carbon emissions immediatelynot waiting for some new technology to come save us, but building efficient reactors now. Why does France only emit 6 tonnes of carbon per person per year while the UK emits 9, Germany emits 10, and the US emits a whopping 17? Because France’s electricity grid is almost entirely nuclear.

But nuclear power is dangerous!” people will say. France has indeed had several nuclear accidents in the last 40 years; guess how many deaths those accidents have caused? Zero. Deepwater Horizon killed more people than the sum total of all nuclear accidents in all First World countries. Worldwide, there was one Black Swan horrible nuclear event—Chernobyl (which still only killed about as many people as die in the US each year of car accidents or lung cancer), and other than that, nuclear power is safer that every form of fossil fuel.

“Where will we store the nuclear waste?” Well, that’s a more legitimate question, but you know what? It can wait. Nuclear waste doesn’t accumulate very fast, precisely because fission is thousands of times more efficient than combustion; so we’ll have plenty of room in existing facilities or easily-built expansions for the next century. By that point, we should have fusion or a good way of converting the whole grid to solar. We should of course invest in R&D in the meantime. But right now, we need fission.

So, after we’ve converted the electricity grid to nuclear, what next?
1B. To reduce the effect of agriculture, we need to eat less meat; among agricultural sources, livestock is the leading contributor of greenhouse emissions, followed by land use “emissions” (i.e. deforestation), which could also be reduced by converting more crop production to vegetables instead of meat because vegetables are much more land-efficient (and just-about-everything-else-efficient).

1C. To reduce the effect of transportation, we need huge investments in public transit, as well as more fuel-efficient vehicles like hybrids and electric cars. Switching to public transit could cut private transportation-related emissions in half. 100% electric cars are too much to hope for, but by implementing a high carbon tax, we might at least raise the cost of gasoline enough to incentivize makers and buyers of cars to choose more fuel-efficient models.
The biggest gains in fuel efficiency happen on the most gas-guzzling vehicles—indeed, so much so that our usual measure “miles per gallon” is highly misleading.

Quick: Which of the following changes would reduce emissions more, assuming all the vehicles drive the same amount? Switching from a hybrid of 50 MPG to a zero-emission electric (infinity MPG!), switching from a normal sedan of 20 MPG to a hybrid of 50 MPG, or switching from an inefficient diesel truck of 3 MPG to a modern diesel truck of 7 MPG?

The diesel truck, by far.

If each vehicle drives 10,000 miles per year: The first switch will take us from consuming 200 gallons to consuming 0 gallons—saving 200 gallons. The second switch will take us from consuming 500 gallons to consuming 200 gallons—saving 300 gallons. But the third switch will take us from consuming 3,334 gallons to consuming only 1,429 gallons—saving a whopping 1,905 gallons. Even slight increases in the fuel efficiency of highly inefficient vehicles have a huge impact, while you can raise an already-efficient vehicle to perfect efficiency and barely notice a difference.

We really should measure in gallons per mile—or better yet, liters per megameter. (Most of the world uses liters per 100 km; almost!)

All right, let’s assume we’ve done that: The whole grid is nuclear, and everyone is a vegetarian driving an electric car. That’s a good start. But we can’t stop there. Because of the feedback loops involved, we only reduce our emissions—even to near zero—the amount of carbon dioxide will continue to increase for decades. We need to somehow take the carbon out that is already there, which brings me to strategy 2, geoengineering.

2A. There are some exotic proposals out there for geoengineering (putting sulfur into the air to block out the Sun; what could possibly go wrong?), and maybe we’ll end up using some of them. I think iron fertilization of the oceans is one of the more promising options. But we need to be careful to make sure we actually know what these projects will do; we got into this mess by doing things without appreciating their long-run environmental impact, so let’s not make the same mistake again.

2B. But really, the most effective form of geoengineering is simply reforestation. Trees are very good at capturing carbon from the atmosphere; it’s what they evolved to do. So let’s plant trees—lots of trees. Many countries already have net positive forestation (such as the US as a matter of fact), but the world still has net deforestation, and that needs to be reversed.

But even if we do all that, at this point we probably can’t do enough fast enough to actually stop climate change from causing damage. After we’ve done our best to slow it down, we’re still going to need to respond to its effects and find ways to minimize the harm. That’s strategy 3, adaptation.

3A. Coastal regions around the world are going to have to turn into the Netherlands, surrounded by dikes and polders. First World countries already have the resources to do this, and will most likely do it on our own (many cities already have plans to); but other countries need to be given the resources to do it. We’re responsible for most of the emissions, and we have the most wealth, so we should pick up the tab for most of the adaptation.

3B. Some places aren’t going to be worth saving—so that means saving the people, by moving them somewhere else. We’re going to have global refugee crises, and we need to prepare for them, not in the usual way of “How can I clear my conscience while xenophobically excluding these people?” but by welcoming them with open arms. We are going to need to resettle tens of millions—possibly hundreds of millions—of people, and we need a process for doing that efficiently and integrating these people into the societies they end up living in. We must stop presuming that closed borders are the default and realize that the burden of proof was always on anyone who says that people should have different rights based on whether they were born on the proper side of an imaginary line. If open borders are utopian, then it is utopian we must be.

The bad news is that even if we do all these things, millions of people are still going to die from climate change—but a lot fewer millions than would if we didn’t.

And the really good news is that people are finally starting to do these things. It took a lot longer than it should, and there are still a lot of holdouts; but significant progress is already being made. There are a lot of reasons to be hopeful.