Sunday, September 29, 2013

Is There Such a Thing as Progress?

= Dare we dream of a world free of poverty by 2030? =

In this interview, ex imam Ahmed Akkari, one of the main denouncing voices during the 2005 crisis about Denmark Mohammed cartoons, explains how study of enlightenment thinkers lead to reconsidering his stances on freedom of expression and secular societies. 

Indeed. We've spoken before of the evidence shown by Harvard Prof Steven Pinker that percapita violence rates have been plummeting, (on average) since 1945.  Now… here is yet more news that shatters pat nostrums of both the right and the left.  In April, the Development Committee of the World Bank set the goal of ending extreme poverty by the year 2030.  Sound naive and delusional? Jeffrey Sachs in the NY Times shows a strong case that this goal can (roughly) be met and indeed is being met.

Progress"According to the World Bank’s scorecard, the proportion of households in developing countries below the extreme-poverty line (now measured as $1.25 per person per day at international prices) has declined sharply, from 52 percent in 1980, to 43 percent in 1990, 34 percent in 1999, and 21 percent in 2010. Even sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the most recalcitrant poverty, is finally experiencing a notable decline, from 58 percent in 1999 to 49 percent in 2010."

Sachs shows that "…anti-market sentiment is no friend of poverty reduction. But neither is free-market fundamentalism. Economic growth and poverty reduction can’t be achieved by free markets alone. Disease control, public education, the promotion of new science and technology, and protection of the natural environment are public functions that must align with private market forces." In other words, the much-maligned Mixed-Approach that we inherited from the Greatest Generation turns out to have been exactly right, all along.  Read the article by Sachs.  

It supplements Steven Pinker's work and shows what we might still accomplish, if vigorous, pragmatic, non-dogmatic ambition and goodwill take hold ...  if we thwart the grouches and cynics whose dyspeptic and demoralizing grumbles make them by far the worst enemies of humanity and Planet Earth.

As President John F. Kennedy said: “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were and ask, why not?"

== And even rougher (deserved) treatment for cynics ==

The always acerbic, clever and sometimes on-target David Wong uses his modernized CRACKED site to deliver some truly eye-opening rants, slapping the reader with wake-up! calls.  In this case, he provides: 7 Reasons the World Looks Worse Than It Really IsSome of them even ones I haven't mentioned before.

For example: "You can hate the greed and cutthroat competition of capitalism, but before that it was the much-worse feudalism. You can say that communism was never given a chance because countries like Russia and China were taken over by crazy assholes, but you have to understand that susceptibility to crazy assholes will always be one of the fundamental weaknesses of that system. You have to give credit to the people who worked hard to make things less bad today." 

CynicismAnd: "This is why I've grown to find cynicism so frustrating -- cynicism doesn't cause inaction. The desire for inaction causes cynicism. And so you fight to defend your cynicism tooth and nail."

Alas he ignores the MAIN reasons for nostalgic cynicism!

(1) The alluring romanticism of look-backward  worldviews which dominated nearly all human societies, perceiving some lost golden age in the past, instead of a human-built one in our future.

(2) The tendency of the political right to deny that human improvability is possible and urgently necessary and hence worth paying taxes to pursue.

(3) The tendency on the political left to demand lots of (necessary) improvement, but only with chiding, never encouragement, angrily denouncing any admission that lots of progress has already happened, because that admission might "reduce the perceived urgency to improve and do more reform." (A presumption that is as loony as anything at Fox.

But heck, while you're at it, check out The 5 Ugly Lessons Hiding in Every Superhero Movie.

This is a frequent theme of mine. One that I will elaborate more upon... next posting.

== Poking at sacred cows ==

This riff attempts to make excuses for Robert E. Lee's loss at Gettysburg, on cartographic grounds: Lee's ill-fated combat decisions and ultimate defeat likely stemmed from bad reconnaissance reports, his forces spread too thinly across 7 miles, and an inability to see the more compact and elevated Union forces, according to geographers and cartographers who synthesized old maps, text and data into a digital model of the three-day Pennsylvania battle in 1863. "We know that Confederate General Robert E. Lee was virtually blind at Gettysburg," Anne Kelly Knowles, a geography professor at Middlebury College, wrote in the article accompanying the interactive map on smithsonianmag.com.

There is a problem with that excuse… it is just as easily applicable to almost all of the Union commanders Lee defeated during the previous two years.  The problem was a general one… in several senses of that word.  Hence, applying it to make excuses just for Lee is disingenuous. In fact, Lee collapsed every time he tried to take on the vastly more difficult job of strategic attack that his much derided opponents faced. Generals McDowell, McClellan, Rosecrans, Halleck and so on, had to maneuver vast, invading armies and their supply chains through poorly mapped territory with almost nonexistent communications.  Inevitably, one wing or another became exposed for an aggressive defender to pounce-upon.

Lee's admitted brilliance was less a factor than historical circumstance and the transient effects of technology in the 1860s. These combined to offer huge advantages to agile and aggressive defense, Lee's specialty as he recklessly chewed at the flanks of his lumbering opponents.  But at Antietem and Gettysburg, he was the one attempting to coordinate a strategic advance.  And in those cases, Lee's approach -- charge at anything you see that's blue -- was  more crudely ill-conceived and reliant on luck than the advances of Rosecrans, Grant, Sherman, or even Halleck and Pope. Indeed, he was spectacularly fortunate, in both cases, that he did not face an aggressive Lee-type on the Union side. In fact, his lucky stars saved him at both battles.

== TWEETABLES! ==

Some wisdom on reality vs. perception:  http://www.viruscomix.com/page528.html


DARPA's next Robotics Challenge. Challengers will deal with a complex search-and-rescue scenario.  http://www.theroboticschallenge.org/Default.aspx

A fascinating look at how dolphins react to mirrors! http://bit.ly/15C1O8q

Okay this is cool music appreciation:  90 theramins doing Beethoven's 9th. http://bit.ly/1bj7N4g 
Sweet and moving, from SMBC. http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=3088#comic

And this lovely lecture-tribute-perfomance to Gershwin.  http://www.youtube.com/embed/w-nznS0FXKc?feature=player_detailpage

From The Onion: a naive and irresponsible father refuses to create castle-bunkers to protect his family against the looming apocalypse!  http://onion.com/1fS0nVb

Kewl chance to put your life -- and time -- in perspective. http://bit.ly/1hbR7t2 

And talk about perspective!  A camera strapped to an eagle's back. http://bit.ly/19NT5vB

How we survived the sixties I'll never know. It is the biggest evidence for alien or heavenly intervention.   http://n.pr/1hbQVtA 

== Recommended ==

BookQuestionsUCLA Prof Gregory Stock was one of the earliest of the modern wave of scientists promoting what became known as "transhumanism" or improvement of the human species.  Now he has come out with an interesting new "Book of Questions" -- which is what the title suggests, a series of posers, puzzlers, and cringe-worthy shit-disturbers… the sort that you raise once-per-evening at a dinner party or discussion group or the work-lunch room, to get some lively passions raised.  

Sample some at thebookofquestions.com

== And … ==

Can you believe the web browser is 20 years old? Or that MOSAIC took the world by storm ONLY 20 years ago? Either way, it makes you blink, just to imagine the world of back-then.  Have a look back via Frank Catalano's brilliant essay about the things we used to take for granted.

Finally - a teaser for folks in Arizona:  How do we fit in a universe that's unveiling itself in confounding ways? Might we share the cosmos with other intelligent beings, or are we alone in the vastness of space? Could the universe be a Matrix-like simulation?
flier-for-savethedate
I’ll be giving the Shoemaker Memorial Lecture about "Humanity’s Place in a Very Strange Universe" at Arizona State University’s BEYOND Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, in Tempe, on Oct. 1 at 7 pm. Free, and open to the public, with a book signing afterward.  Click here to RSVP

Next day I'll speak at ASU's Center for Science & Imagination: Science Fiction and the Future of Journalism at 1:45 pm; Sign up at EventBrite




36 comments:

Alex Tolley said...

Is There Such a Thing as Progress?

I'm taking a Devil's Advocate position here.

How is "progress" to be defined - by a collection of specific measures as defined by a specific group of people? How do we weight the importance of the mix of these measures that are improving or worsening?

Just as we no longer say that evolution is progressive, "improving" species, we might equally say that the state we find ourselves in is the result of forces driving that state. How you view it defines whether an individual or group see that as progress or decline.

Just as "the winners write the history books", so might we suspect the winners in the world might be defining "progress".


David Brin said...

Alex, sorry, but that is sophomorism. When a civilization becomes better at achieving its own short AND long term goals, while enhancing its resilience and robustness and diversity and capability to react adaptably to changing circumstances... including arguing (in comfort) collegially and sophomorically about the meaning of "progress..." I think only a sophomore could maintain that's not progress.

Robert said...

I absolutely loved the geek girl video. Especially as I've a geek friend who insists fake geek girls are real. *rolls eyes* I keep telling him there are no fake geek girls, only incipient geeks. (Sadly, I've not found any who are single and interested in me as more than friends. But on the plus side I've made some geek girl friendships. ^^)

Alex Tolley said...

@DB When a civilization becomes better at achieving its own short AND long term goals, while enhancing its resilience and robustness and diversity and capability to react adaptably to changing circumstances.

Try unpacking that sentence.

Civilization has goals? And if so, which one of the many are we talking about?
Civilizations have achieved LONG term goals? "Long term" being a tiny fraction of human existence?

When a technological civilization displaces a non-technological one, are the long term goals of the non-technological civilization not to be considered?
If our current technological civilization fails, and worse, the collapse seriously damages the planet, how is the risk of that result evaluated?

What I find hubristic (not sophomoric), is the assumption that our current civilization is on the UNARGUABLE best trajectory, which is based on nothing more than our living within it and not in some other one. When individuals have left their "higher" civilization to reside permanently in another "lower one" and prefer that transition, is their choice to be considered "wrong", or "mistaken"?

"I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken." - Oliver Cromwell

David Brin said...

Alas, Alex you fail to include YOURSELF and the values you just expressed as not just epipehnomena of this civilization, but expressing among its core values. Constant poking and ornery boundary sniffing are traits that "our civilization" encourages in its brightest...

...including its VERY brightest who congregate at... ahem... "contrary" and ornery gathering places. Seeing as how that means one major "goal" is to question everything, your fealty to that goal makes your failure to recognize that fact both ironic and "sophomoric."

Robert said...

We are at a point, technologically, that it would take a Planet-Killer level apocalypse to totally wipe out humanity. In fact, our technological ability is the very thing that will give humanity the ability to survive most disasters... and in turn also provide us with the tools needed to retain some level of technology so that it becomes that much easier to uplift ourselves in the process of reclaiming civilization.

I mean, seriously. If we're hit by a supervolcano, then one region will be FUBAR but everyone else will do okay. There will be some problems with food shortages, perhaps, but it will be more of an opportunity for some nations to expand (if say the U.S. or Europe were where the supervolcano struck).

Likewise, a large asteroid that was significant enough to cause significant infrastructure harm to the region that it hit would inconvenience that area... but civilization and technology would remain elsewhere, and that very technology would allow those other areas to survive the problems with acid rain and food shortages.

And thanks to the Internet, knowledge has spread far and wide. I am quite certain there are dozens if not hundreds of private libraries printed from the Internet by various survivalists so that if the Internet went down and technology wasn't available for a period of time... that person and those with him or her would be able to recover and expand as needed.

There is no longer a Library of Alexandria with all the knowledge concentrated in one place. Instead, knowledge is diversified and spread among many nodes. Each of these is a seed for a future technology center if something big happens to wipe out the majority of humanity.

Rob H.

locumranch said...

"Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible-- at any rate, without believing in some infallibility. For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress".

So sayeth G. K. Chesterton.

What most people call 'progress' or 'evolution' is merely 'change', and the myth of progress springs from the mistaken assumption that this change must necessarily represent an improbably non-reversible, unidirectional or infallible improvement, as if the Dodo evolved into nature's most perfectly progressive bird.

Tell us more about this magnificent 'Climate Progress' of which you fear. Tell how mankind has reduced human suffering and 'improved' the natural world by the indiscriminate use of fossil-fuels which has allowed us to pollute, over-fish, over-farm and over-populate the globe; and then sing us some praises about the 'progressive' nature of Humanity, its industry and its consequence-free Manifest Destiny. What utter bosh, this myth of progress, this product of an optimistically delusional perspective.

With its 'cheery outlook', mystical belief in 'progress' and 'best of all possible worlds' dogma and/or faith, Optimism is neither 'pragmatic', 'non-dogmatic' nor 'scientific' by any stretch of the imagination. It is a messianic cult variant. In contrast, it is the very faithlessness of the Cynic & Skeptic which allows them to lay claim to the qualities of pragmatism, practicality & rationality -- qualities that require a certain measure of faithlessness -- explaining why Pragmatism, Science and Empiricism are the literal & figurative descendants of the Cynic & Skeptic philosophies.



Best.

Randy Winn said...

That quote nicely illustrates that G K Chesterton was sometimes a bit of a crank.

Since no facts are produced to support its sweeping claim, no facts need be produced to disprove it; it suffices to point out that "... the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress" is just silly.

Alex Tolley said...

@DB - so you are saying that other civilizations like Greece, Rome, China, have never had individuals who questioned their cultural norms, experimented on nature, and otherwise attempted to do things that have become the norms (so far) of the post enlightenment civilization we inhabit. Or are you just saying that far more people can engage in such activity today?

I am fully aware that I enjoy benefits that our civilization has granted me. Life is not even close to being "nasty, brutish and short", especially after the late Victorian era.
But you evaded the question, which I now put directly, and in the spirit of Gregory Stock's "Questions".

Which is the preferred situation?:
1. A pre-technological culture that is pretty much guaranteed a future of another 100,000 years.
2. Our culture with a finite (and not small) probability of self destructing.

While I know your preference is 2, what I don't know is how you weight those preferences. For example, if was simply how many lives would ensue, situation 1 might be higher, depending on the probability of self destruction.

BTW, I get irony (and as a Brit, I know irony), but sophomoric?

Randy Winn said...

@Alex Tolley hold on ... I know you're querying DB but...

1. Are you so confident that those two choices are the only possibilites?

2. Do you think that a "pre-technological culture" is not capable of accidental suicide, per Easter Island?

3. Do you think that a technological society is incapable of learning not to commit suicide?

David Brin said...

What malarkey!

Progress can be pursued incrementally and pragmatically and with eclectic contingency. Indeed, it is absolutely necessary, as -yes - last year's solutions (e.g. fossil fuels which propelled the industry that created the educated middle class - later creates problems that need tweaking or even revolutions.

None of what I described above fits locum's convenient strawman of fanatical and dogmatic progressivism. But I have made very clear that I consider such utopian dogma-pushers to be just as insane as cynics are.

The spectrum is not fervent utopian-optimists versus realist cynics.

It is eclectic and cautiously hopeful pragmatic progressives seeking incremental discovery of failure modes and incremental improvements in the diverse capabilities of a broadly argumentative and creative generation that is devoted to being good ancestors of better generations...

...versus the would-be tyrants of simplistic utopian dogma and their cousins, the cynics who would have us all give up with not a bang or a whimper, but an I-told-you-so snarl. A plague on both their houses.



David Brin said...

Given that stone age people were well on their way to destroying the world... via herds of goats in Eurasia and by chopping all the trees on Easter Island and Iceland etc... the nostalgist prescription is just a recipe for going to hell a bit slower... with no chance of a way out.

At least we, by studying and learning , MIGHT become expert planetary managers. Especially if we create sustainable systems and gradually reduce the population to sustainable levels... maybe three billion.

It is by far a better wager.

Also: "so you are saying that other civilizations like Greece, Rome, China, have never had individuals who questioned their cultural norms, "

Hell yes I am saying that, if you mean "did they teach a majority of their children, including most of the best and brightest to question and doubt cultural norms." That is a very different thing than a few mental rebels rising up, from time to time....

... you trained-from-birth rebel, you!

Duncan Cairncross said...

"Especially if we create sustainable systems and gradually reduce the population to sustainable levels... maybe three billion."

Why three billion? - why not nine billion?

I am pretty sure if we were doing things optimally we could support nine billion sustainably

Tony Fisk said...

There are plenty of areas where humanity can optimise but, seeing as how World Overshoot Day currently occurs in August with a population of 7 billion, I'm dubious about getting by sustainably with 9.

Valkyrie Ice said...

You know I'm both a cynic and a pessimist despite what most people claim. The simple truth is that progress is inevitable. So long as knowledge accumulates, progress will advance. So long as history is not able to stagnate, progress will be made. Stasis cannot be forced to occur. Anti progress forces seeking to prevent a change to the status quo are present in every era, yet never in all of history have they successfully prevented change.

I hold no romantic views that any individual seeks anything other than self gratification. That everyone seeks to "climb the ladder." But the more time passes, the higher the ground under the ladder becomes for everyone. Reversing progress cannot be done. Envision all the apocalyptic scenarios you wish, none of them can erase the knowledge we have gained permanently. It lies in every thing we have ever built, and even a full scale atomic war cannot erase everything. Nations might fall, tyrannies may come and go, but progress is the one single inevitable certainty.

Things HAVE gotten better. They always will. Only a lack of willingness to look at reality in exchange for a ideological worldview that says otherwise enables the majority of us to ignore that fact.

Alex Tolley said...

@ Randy - Not at all. I just picked 2 contrasting examples. All I want is some examining of how we should measure a good outcome, as "progress" is pretty much defined by our current civilization in this thread, not by others, AFAICS.

Feel free to offer other choices.

Alex Tolley said...

The spectrum is not fervent utopian-optimists versus realist cynics.
- strawman argument.

It is eclectic and cautiously hopeful pragmatic progressives seeking incremental discovery of failure modes and incremental improvements in the diverse capabilities of a broadly argumentative and creative generation that is devoted to being good ancestors of better generations...
- Provide historical examples to show that is possible. Otherwise you are just claiming "this time is different". You may wish to cite sustainability examples of success from Diamond's "Collapse" - but that is just a very narrow view and the successes seem to apply to climate stable regions only, IIRC.

Given that stone age people were well on their way to destroying the world... via herds of goats in Eurasia and by chopping all the trees on Easter Island and Iceland etc..
- Even if Iceland and Easter island were turned into uninhabitable rocks, that wouldn't "destroy the world". Even if stone age people were "destroying the ecology of the Eurasian steppes with goats", this was self limiting and repairable by reduced populations. We know know these ecological changes happened in the Americas, yet the European settlers didn't find an apocalyptic stone age continent either. This is in stark contrast to global impacts today.

if you mean "did they teach a majority of their children, including most of the best and brightest to question and doubt cultural norms."
- Obviously without a move from agrarian to industrial culture and good transport, that was impossible. Education was expensive even in cities. It was expensive even by the beginning of the enlightenment and universal schooling didn't happen until the 19th century (UK). Advanced schooling (university) is now rapidly becoming expensive again - at least in the US and UK. (hopefully a temporary blip in the big scheme of things).

I did preface my first statement with "Devil's Advocate" because I actually agree that progress has been made. Even in my lifetime, as I have no desire to live in the mid century world that I was a child in. But that doesn't mean that I think we are even close to monotonic improvements at all. There are many aspects that I think are regressive, including your transparency meme, which I consider unproven as progress.

@Valkyrie enables the majority of us
Note, not the majority of all humans on the planet today (have you asked them), and certainly not for the civilizations and cultures we have replaced who may have had very different views about progress. We see progress from our perspective, which is as foolish as believing humans are the highest example of, and end product of evolution. I would expect that a millennium from now, the features that aggregate as progress may well be very different than those we select today. But tautologically, that might be progress too.

Paul451 said...

Alex,
"have never had individuals who questioned their cultural norms,"

I think David's point is that such questioning is our cultural norm. Our culture's core assumption is that there's a better way to do things.

sociotard said...

But heck, while you're at it, check out The 5 Ugly Lessons Hiding in Every Superhero Movie.

Funny, I just finished "Steelheart" by Brandon Sanderson. (a novel) It had the odd premise of a world where all supers were villains (opposed by a ragtag team of protagonist terrorists). And yet, thinking on it, it had many of the problems that article mentioned, even while killing the supers.

David Brin said...

Duncan "Why three billion? - why not nine billion?"

Quibble quibble. Sure, the higher-end projections of optimistic tech would let us give comfortably equipped and spacious apartments to nine billions, while restoring half the rapes/grazing land to forest. But with 3 billion all could have a big house and yard and rain forests could be abandoned to nature.

Alex - "Provide historical examples to show that is possible."

I can only point to a few glimmers in the past. But the civilization Adam Smith built has been at it for 250 years, utilizing the power of regulated competition. Which has proved vastly "wiser" and better at incremental error discovery than any of the "wise" societies that were led top-down. The fact that it creates a copious supply of unsatisfied and critical grouches - like you - is a FEATURE, not an accident or flaw.

"Even if stone age people were "destroying the ecology of the Eurasian steppes with goats", this was self limiting and repairable by reduced populations."

How blithely you accept the devastating loss of vast forests turned into deserts, which were NOT recovered after the populations plummeted. The oceans may have permanently become less fecund because of whaling by primitive peoples (like Herman Melville.) You shrug off the population collapses, which were misery and hell.

As for the self-critical meme being simply a product of education-- bull! All over the world, scholarly traditions pushed acceptance of handed-down authority.

Generations of young medical students could see with their own eyes that Galen's anatomy was wrong, yet no one objected till the renaissance made it STYLISH to object. Even today, memorization-based education systems stifle rebellion in most nations on Earth.

David Brin said...

To be clear... Duncan's successful nine billion world is our goal! In such a world, the enlightened people might then decide to calmly, slowly, move toward three. That will be their decision, not ours.

Paul451 said...

In case I'm not the only one who couldn't get the dolphin-mirror link to work:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YBYU1eayaXs

Jumper said...

I see some arguments misunderstanding each other. Some say progress is possible and the others act as if the proposition was "progress is inevitable."

Speaking of progress, I remember a time when I could hear and be heard quite well on the phone routinely, TV and movies were always displayed with the correct aspect ratio, and music was not compressed to the point of unlistenability. I even remember when YouTube videos played all the way through without halting...

Unni Warrier said...

David:
Totally off-topic. Just re-read (well, re-re-re-read) Glory Season.
1. This is one of your best books
2. This NEEDS to be made into a movie
3. Needs sequels - at least two ASAP
Regards,

David Brin said...

Unni thank you very much. Yeah that was a good one.

Anonymous said...

Huh! The book of questions!

I remember receiving the original one as a gift from my parents about 25 years ago, when I was in high school... it blowed my mind, but even if I tried a lot, I never managed to really involve other people in the very interesting discussions I saw inside it.

Everybody always reacted with some "so?" and shrugging to those questions.

An exercise in frustration but still quite instructive, in its own way.

Alfred Differ said...

'Progress' does require an agreement on the measurement standards if one is going to get anywhere in a discussion. One can reasonably disagree about standards that define progress without looking too much the fool. Most don't though and wind up looking dumb. My favorite is the people who expect ideological purity as a measure without consideration for their culture dying off when facing competition from a better adapted group of people. 8)

If we get to 9 billion sustainably, I seriously doubt we will push for a lower number. Ricardo made it very clear what the advantages of big markets are. We will push into space instead. I could be wrong, but I think history backs me up. When have we EVER wanted to reduce our overall numbers? I may want to live in a lower density community, but I want the advantages of trading with the high density cities. Pfft! This seems like a no-brainer to me. 8)


It may seem circular to some, but I think the best measure of progress is that their are over 7 billion of us living past child bearing age to where we can be grandparents and the vast majority of us aren't starving to death. The other measure I use is 'free time'. I can easily spend half my day doing stuff that isn't directly related to my immediate survival needs or my need to produce trade goods/services for that survival. That means I have time to play FB games... or innovate in the markets. Pfft^2!

Alex Tolley said...

Our culture's core assumption is that there's a better way to do things.

I used to think so. Now exposed to the US, there seems a sizable minority of the population that doesn't believe this in a number of spheres.

The oceans may have permanently become less fecund because of whaling by primitive peoples (like Herman Melville.)

I don't understand this. Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" was set in the C19th - our civilization. Are you referring to something else?

How blithely you accept the devastating loss of vast forests turned into deserts, which were NOT recovered after the populations plummeted.

Name a forest area that turned to desert. AFAIK, the Sahara desert was a grassland, not a forest. What evidence is there that human activities turned it to desert and not climate change? Easter Island is no longer forested, but it isn't a desert either. Human activity has caused environmental changes, even local ecosystem collapse, in the past, but compared to the scale as practiced today, it is dwarfed by the extent and speed of our current actions. We have the capability of reversing some of those trends quickly too, if we act, but I don't more than marginal action at best. The largest deforestations in history are happening right now as the Amazon and Indonesian rainforests are being turned into farmland and biofuel production. Where is our smart sustainability coming from?

shrug off the population collapses, which were misery and hell.

You are putting words in my mouth. I did nothing of the sort. I refuted the claim that primitive people were on the way to destroying the planet". We've had population collapses dues to disease too (Black Death: >1/3 of Europe). Not to mention self inflicted population reductions due to war. I will give you that we have made progress in no major war outbreak in 70 years since WWII. That is certainly a good way to reduce misery and suffering.

David Brin said...

Key is the Hastert Rule, under which all Republican House members have vowed to always and absolutely obey the majority of the House GOP Caucus, no matter how slender (or crazy) that majority might be. This means that 51% of the 51% can utterly control the agenda and proceedings and output of the United States House of Representatives. This, plus gerrymandering, plus Fox News, compose all the explanation anyone needs.

Despite all the pundit-ravings about a "civil war within the GOP," The 21st Century Republican Party remains (for now at least) the most tightly disciplined political force we have seen in American political life since the "solid south" of the old Dixiecrats, seventy years ago. Pundits tell us that discipline and the Hastert Rule are maintained by fear of Tea Party insurrections in next spring's GOP primary. Don't you believe the pundits.

In fact, nothing happens in the Tea Party without say-so from Fox News. Fox is co-owned by Rupert Murdoch and several Saudi princes who have made their agenda clear. So do not let the appearance of internal GOP strife fool you. All -- (or nearly all, so long as the Hastert Rule applies) -- is choreographed.

Were these sane days, just twenty House GOP members would break off and form a Grownup Conservative Caucus, taking their chances with the inevitable Tea Party vengeance in their district primaries, next spring, in order to make common cause with moderate democrats, as used to happen all the time, back in the 20th Century. They would do this for the sake of the nation, out of courage and love of country… and love for a version of conservatism that Barry Goldwater might recognize.

Alas, Rupert Murdoch and his partners have made clear their agenda to destroy Goldwater Conservatism in America… and thereupon all meaningful discourse. God help us if the Democrats ever become likewise dominated by their loony fringe. (And don't for a minute believe that they don't have one - as feeble as it currently is!) If that ever happens -- and the disappearing Middle Class might drive just such radicalism -- then our only escape will be Canada… or space. And Pax Americana will be finished.

Which has been the aim of Rupert & co., all along.

http://www.davidbrin.blogspot.com/2013/09/is-there-such-thing-as-progress.html

Ian said...

"1. A pre-technological culture that is pretty much guaranteed a future of another 100,000 years."

How "pre-industrial" are we talking/

Hunter-gatherers?

Agricultural kingdoms?

If it's the latter, the Khmer, the Anasazi, the Mohenjo-Darans, the Maya all suggest you're looking at well under 1,000 years "guaranteed" existence.

If it's the former, there's pretty good genetic evidence our species nearly went extinct at least once with the last 100,000 years with our global population dropping to a thousand or less.

Ian said...

First, what's this "our civilization" business?

Human progress is not an artifact of western civilization/"the enlightenment". Globally, the average human life expectancy, the sum of human knowledge and per capita income have ben going up before there was any such thing as
"the enlightenment".
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_expectancy#Life_expectancy_variation_over_time

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_regions_by_past_GDP_%28PPP%29_per_capita

Second, while I agree with his conclusion - that large-scale absolute poverty as a long-term endemic condition can be eliminated,Sachs probably isn;t the best person to be making that argument.
http://www.amazon.com/The-Idealist-Jeffrey-Sachs-Poverty/dp/0385525818

Alex Tolley said...

@Ian Globally, the average human life expectancy, the sum of human knowledge and per capita income have ben going up before there was any such thing as
"the enlightenment".


Not really. Life expectancy from birth increased during the industrial revolution as public health measures improved. The biggest of course, being clean water and a sewage systems. The C20th century saw further improvements due to the introduction of anti-biotics, better physicians and nutrition.

We don't have a great handle of average life expectancies in historical times unless there are birth and death registers, such as church records. But just look at the longevity of English monarchs and you will see that even the head of state didn't have a long life span even if he (and very occasionally she) died in bed.

Paul451 said...

The Swiss are training for the inevitable Helvetian war.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/switzerland/10344029/Swiss-war-game-envisages-invasion-by-bankrupt-French.html

Swiss troops trained in a wargame based on the premise that a bankrupt France invades to get their money back.

Swiss authorities claimed there was no significance in the choice of "enemy", but interestingly France has recently been pushing against Swiss banking secrecy laws.

locumranch said...

In the sense of continual & inevitable change, it looks like the US Government is 'progressing' nicely into shutdown but it remains a matter of perspective, direction, opinion & subjective value-judgment as to whether or not this particular change represents 'improvement' or not, just as the Arab Spring may or may not represent either 'progress' or 'improvement' in the Mideast Peace process, according to the maxim that one man's meat can be another man's metaphorical poison.


Best

AJ Snook said...

Currently, doesn't our perceived wealth depend on the scarcity of those below us? A tycoon is not rich without a manager who's not rich without a sales person who's not rich without a service worker without a Chinese laborer... How will we define wealth without this ladder? (not that I'm for this system or anything) Or how will the world look without this ladder?

Roger Kent said...

I like the question, "Is there such a thing as progress?" In many ways, our modern, industrial civilization is better than what existed over two centuries ago. We are living wealthier, longer, healthier lives. We have learned to be more tolerant, peaceful, and egalitarian.

In addition to the ideas of the Enlightenment which shaped the governments of world like the United States, we developed the technology that transformed our lives. The "Green Revolution" transformed agriculture to make food incredibly cheap and plentiful; the personal car has revolutionized distance transforming a days walk into a half hour drive; cheap and ubiquitous electricity has powered other technologies like air conditioning, internet, and refrigeration. In China, millions of people a year are raising their standards of living from the poverty of Sub-Saharan Africa to the affluence of the United States.

However, all those achievements were made possible through the use of hydrocarbons in the form of cheap coal, oil, and natural gas. This blog has documented the long term problem of climate change that could destroy this civilization unless we stop using fossil fuels. In the short term, the price of oil has risen dramatically. The capital expenditures for oil production is higher now than before because more expensive unconventional reserves and enhanced oil recovery technologies are require to increase production. Our civilization requires exponential growth which has been historically coupled with exponentially increases in energy production. In theory, this may be possible to create a long term viable energy system. In reality, China is building a new coal power plant every week.

I propose another question, "Is our civilization sustainable progress?" At the risk of being labeled a pessimist and a grouch, I am not sure of the answer. Nuclear power plants could replace some of the coal plants, but after Fukushima, there does not seem be a "Nuclear Renaissance." The power of our success could be the cause of our destruction.