Discussions of technology and progress are often set in terms of “optimism” versus “pessimism.” For example, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Johan Norberg, Max Roser and the late Hans Rosling called “New Optimists” because of their focus on economic, scientific, and social progress in the last two centuries. Their opponents, such as David Runciman and Jason Hickel, accuse them of being blind to real-world problems, such as poverty, and to disaster risks, such as nuclear war.
Economic historian Robert Gordon calls himself “a prophet of pessimism. “His book The rise and fall of American growth warned that the days of high economic growth for the United States are over and will not return. Gordon’s opponents include a group he calls “techno-optimists,” such as Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, who they predicted rapid productivity growth from information technology.
It is tempting to choose sides. But while it may be rational to be optimistic or pessimistic about any particular issue, these notions are too imprecise to be accepted as in general intellectual identity. Those who identify as optimists may be too quick to dismiss or downplay technological problems, while self-proclaimed technological pessimists or skeptics of progress may be too reluctant to believe in solutions.
As we look forward to a post-pandemic recovery, we are again drawn between optimists, who point out all diseases that could soon be defeated by new vaccines, and pessimists, who warn that humanity will never win the evolutionary weapon of the race against microbes. But this is the wrong choice. History provides us with strong examples of people who were brutally honest in recognizing the crisis, but equally active in seeking solutions.
In the late 19th century, William Crookes – a physicist, chemist and inventor of the Crookes tube (an early type of vacuum tube) – was president of the British Society for the Advancement of Science. On September 7, 1898, he used the traditional annual address to the association to issue a terrible warning.
The British Isles, he said, are at great risk of running out of food. His thinking was simple: the population grew exponentially, but the amount of cultivated land could not keep up. The only way to continue to increase production was to improve crop yields. But the limiting factor of the yield was the availability of nitrogen fertilizers, and nitrogen sources, such as rock salts of the Chilean desert and guano deposits on the Peruvian islands, were running out. His argument was detailed and comprehensive, based on data on wheat production and land availability from all major European countries and colonies; he apologized in advance for annoying his audience with the statistics.
He criticized the “wrongly extravagant” waste of non-renewable nitrogen sources. To those who had a short-sighted look only at the last years of the harvest, which were quite sufficient, he stressed that those years were unusually fruitful, which obscured the problem. The grace of the recent past was no guarantee of future prosperity.
In a sense, Crookes was an “alarmist.” Its purpose was to draw attention to a problem caused by progress and growth. He tried to open his eyes to the smug. He began by saying that “England and all civilized nations are in mortal danger”, variously referring to the “colossal problem” of “urgent importance”, “the impending catastrophe” and “the question of life and death for generations to come.” called an alarmist, he insisted his message was “based on stubborn facts”.
Crookes caused a sensation, and many critics spoke out against his message. They pointed out that wheat is not the only food, that people will moderate consumption as needed, and that land for wheat can be taken from what was used to produce meat and dairy products, especially with rising prices. They said he underestimated the possibilities for American farmers for supply food to other nations, to better adaptation of their methods to soil and climate to increase production.
Writing in Nature 1899one R. Giffen compared Crookes to Thomas Malthus and others who predicted a shortage of various natural resources – like Eduardo Suess, who said that it would run out of goldand William Stanley Jevons, who warned the Peak Coal. Giffen’s tone is tiring as he notes that “there has been much experience in these discussions since the time of Malthus.” Each time, he explains, we have failed to make accurate forecasts because growth limits are predicted too far in the future or we know too little about their causes.
But Crookes had always intended his remarks that they have “a form of warning, not prophecy.” In his speech he said:
“It is the chemist who must come to the rescue … Before we find ourselves in distress, the chemist will jump in and postpone the day of famine for such a long time that we and our sons and grandsons can live legally without unnecessary worry for the future.”
Crookes’ plan was to use a virtually unlimited source of nitrogen: the atmosphere. Plants cannot use atmospheric nitrogen directly; instead, they use other nitrogen-containing compounds, which are naturally produced from the atmospheric nitrogen of certain bacteria, a process called fixation. Crookes said artificial fixation of atmospheric nitrogen is “one of the great discoveries awaiting the ingenuity of chemists,” and he is optimistic that it could happen soon, calling it “a matter of the not-so-distant future.”
He devoted a significant part of his speech to researching this solution. He pointed out that nitrogen can be burned at high enough temperatures to form nitrate compounds, and that this can be done with the help of electricity. He even assessed practical details, such as the price of nitrates thus produced, which were competitive at market prices, and whether the process could be extended to the industrial level: the new Niagara Falls hydroelectric plant, he concluded, would provide all the electricity needed to close the gap. he predicted.
Crookes knew that synthetic fertilizer was not a permanent solution, but he was pleased that his successors, when the problem reappeared in the distant future, would deal with it. His alarm was not a philosophical position, but a contingent. Once the facts of the situation were changed by the invention of the appropriate technology, he gladly turned off the alarm.
Was Crookes right? By 1931, the year he said we could run out of food, it was clear that his predictions were not perfect. The harvest has increased, however no because crop yields have improved significantly. Instead of that, surfaces actually increased, to some extent Crookes considered it impossible. This was partly due to improvements in mechanization, including the gas tractor. Mechanization has reduced labor costs, making marginal fertile land profitable. As is often the case, the solution came from an unexpected direction, nullifying the assumptions of forecasters both optimistic and pessimistic.
But if Crookes was wrong in his detailed predictions, he was basically right. His two key points were correct: one, that food in general and yields in particular are problems that would have to be reckoned with in the next generation; second, that synthetic fertilizer from atmospheric nitrogen fixation would be a key aspect of the solution.
Less than two decades after his speech, German chemist Fritz Haber and industrialist Carl Bosch developed a process for the synthesis of ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen. Ammonia is the chemical precursor to synthetic fertilizers, and the Haber-Bosch process is still one of the most important industrial processes that provides fertilizer for almost half of world food production.
Ultimately, a chemist I did jump to the rescue.
Was Crookes an optimist or a pessimist? He was pessimistic about the problem – he was not complacent. But he was optimistic about finding a solution – he wasn’t defeated either.
In the 20th century, fears of overpopulation and food supply rose again. In 1965, the world population growth rate reached its highest level of 2% per year, enough to double every 35 years; and as early as 1970, it is estimated, over a third of people in developing countries were malnourished.
1968 book Population bomb, Paula and Anne Ehrlich, opened with a call to surrender: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, hundreds of millions of people would starve to death despite any crash programs that began. At this late date, nothing can prevent a significant increase in the death rate in the world. “1970. Paul Ehrlich intensified defeatism, saying that in a few years “further efforts will be in vain” and “you can take care of yourself and your friends and enjoy what little time you have left”. Because they saw the situation as hopeless, the Ehrlichs supported a proposal to cut off aid to countries like India that are considered not doing enough to limit population growth.
Fortunately for India and the rest of the world, others were unwilling to give up. Norman Borlaug, working in Mexico in a program funded by the Rockefeller Institute, developed high-yielding wheat varieties that resisted fungal diseases, used fertilizer more efficiently, and could grow at any latitude. In the 1960s, thanks in part to new cereals, Mexico transformed from an importer to an exporter of wheat, and India and Pakistan almost doubled their yields, avoiding the famine that the Ehrlich considered inevitable.
Yet, even after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his achievements, Borlaug never lost sight of the challenge that kept agriculture keeping pace with the population, and he never thought it was solved forever. In his 1970. Nobel reading, called the increase in food production “still modest in terms of overall needs” and, noting that half the world is malnourished, said “there is no room for complacency”. He warned that “most people still do not understand the magnitude and threat of the“ Population Monster. ”“ Yet, ”he continued,“ I am an optimist for the future of humanity. ” Borlaug was convinced that human reason would eventually bring the population under control (and indeed, the global birth rate it has been declining since then).
The risk of adopting an “optimistic” or “pessimistic” way of thinking is tempting to take a side on the issue depending on the general mood, instead of forming a fact-based opinion. “Don’t worry,” says the optimist; “Accept the difficulty,” he opposes the pessimist.
We can see this game in discussions about conservation and locking, about climate change and energy consumption, about the promises and dangers of nuclear energy, and about economic growth and resource consumption in general. As debates escalate, each side digs in: “optimists” wonder if the threat is real at all; “Pessimists” express each proposed technological solution as a false “quick solution” that only allows us to rationalize the postponement of difficult but inevitable reductions. (For an example of the latter, see the arguments of “moral hazard” against geoengineering as a strategy for tackling climate change.)
In order to accept the reality of the problem and the possibility of overcoming it, we should basically be neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but solutions.
The term “solution” is used, usually in the form of a “technocratic solution” since the 1960s that means believing that every problem can be solved with technology. This is wrong, so such a “solution” was an expression of ridicule. But if we discard any assumptions about the form that solutions must take, we can recapture that it means simply believing that problems are really, but solvable.
Solutionists may seem optimistic because solutionism is basically positive. He advocates strong progress against the problem, neither withdrawal nor surrender. But it is as far from the pangloss, “everything is for the best” optimism as from the fatalistic pessimism of doomsday. This is the third way to avoid complacency and defeatism, and we should wear that term with pride.