Share

cover art for 492: Did Steven Pinker's Better Angels of our Nature miss why we're less violent?

This Sustainable Life

492: Did Steven Pinker's Better Angels of our Nature miss why we're less violent?

Ep. 492

Here are the notes I read from:


Comments on Better Angels of Our Nature

I finally finished Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature. I started it more than skeptical of its main thesis. The book is 800 pages long, so I’m sure I’ll oversimplify and not do it justice, but I recommend it so you can get his full message. He says that we are living in the least violent time in history and it was due to enlightenment values of classical liberalism. I was sure he’d missed some important issue or discounted the risk of nuclear war or pandemic. I’d find some flaw in his analysis.

On the contrary, the more I read, or listened to to be precise, the more compelling I found his case. I won’t recapitulate the whole thing, but I agree with his thesis, if I’m not oversimplifying, that we live in the least violent time and it’s due to classical liberalism.

What caused liberalism is another question. He spent time looking for exogenous causes. After all, humans were human when we were more violent and now that we’re less violent. Did something change? One main cause he found was the development of printing. Printing spread ideas. Some cultures adopted it and others didn’t so observing their different evolutions suggested its value. I agree printing was a major cause.

In this episode, I want to suggest a major potential point he barely touched on, but that 1. I believe is a greater cause, or at least worth considering more, and 2. if we miss this cause, we miss other effects, especially if the cause disappears. More importantly, this cause may be changing today, and if we misunderstand it, if a critical pillar of support goes away, we could lose everything we’ve gained and a lot more.

Reading from The Smithsonian Magazine and The Nation:


On August 24, 1967, Abbie Hoffman and a group of friends invaded the heart of American capitalism, the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. They threw money from the visitors’ gallery onto the floor, and the brokers and traders there leapt into the air to grab the dollar bills floating down. Trading was interrupted, briefly. News coverage was massive.Before entering the stock exchange gallery, Hoffman had passed out handfuls of dollar bills to each of the protesters. Once in the gallery above the trading floor, the protesters threw the dollars over to the stock traders. Participant Bruce Dancis recalled, “At first people on the floor were stunned. They didn’t know what was happening. They looked up and when they saw money was being thrown they started to cheer, and there was a big scramble for the dollars.”The protesters exited the Stock Exchange and were immediately beset by reporters, who wanted to know who they were and what they’d done.

People risked their jobs whose cash flows dwarfed mere dollars to scramble for them.

With that historical example in your mind, imagine this fictional scene: a battle where suddenly manna fell from heaven. By manna, I mean something that satisfies all your wants. You can kill the guy next to you or gather manna. Once everyone starts gathering manna, who wants to fight and risk being killed when you can gather more? Now imagine you learn that not only will tomorrow bring more manna, but so will the next year, decade, generation, century, and as far as anyone can foresee.

Would you expect people to fight less? I would. Would they not devote themselves to more liberal pursuits in the traditional sense of the word—culture, arts, learning, trade? I believe humans with an unending supply of manna would trace the path Steven Pinker’s book described.

Well, the manna started appearing over 500 years ago. Well, before written history, people knew of coal, but our ancestors really started learning its utility, though not its potential global danger, centuries before the Industrial Revolution. That foundation, among others, eventually enabled the Industrial Revolution to happen.

Most people attribute the gains of the Industrial Revolution to human ingenuity in creating machines, economic systems, political systems, and so on. They built machines to cross oceans and continents, manufacture things to scrape the sky, and so on, enabling people to work in teams as large as nations. Sure, humans were ingenious, but imagine a locomotive or steamboat without coal. Ingenuity doesn’t boil water to make steam. It tells you how, but we didn’t create the coal. We found it.

Besides increased liberal pursuits, would you not have more kids, especially if your neighbors did? After all, your need to work to feed them or bequeath them land just dropped precipitously. If everyone you knew had just learned of two new continents, isn’t that manna in the form of real estate?

Of course, independent of fossil fuel and real estate manna, plenty of other advances in science and humanities contributed to the explosion of technology that led to the Industrial Revolution and its material abundance but once Watt's steam engine and Smith's Wealth of Nations kicked in, they were tied together in a cycle driven by that manna.

As long as you take that manna for granted, you might assign the progress to human ingenuity, but we needed the fossil fuels too. Without them we would have had no steamships, no railroads, no steam-powered factories, no coal mines, no substitute for slavery, no artificial fertilizer so no Green Revolution, no solar panels, no nuclear. Just windmills, water wheels, sailboats. Ability to amass armies, navies, and build pyramids and empires.

Even if we discover that the manna will run out—that is, we have limited fossil fuels—a system based on it with enough momentum will sustain itself long after we’d want to stop using it. We can’t easily stop using them today even if we want to. I would say we’re addicted to their results.

Because we now know that the limit to this fossil fuel manna is only partly running of it. Equally, the global danger is that It poisons our air, land, water, and wildlife we depend on, like bees. Burning fossil fuels is lowering Earth’s ability to sustain life. We've used up the space and resources to process that waste and with plastic and toxic chemical increased its toxicity.


Back to Steven Pinker, he searched for an exogenous cause to the changes he described. He found printing as one candidate. Europe's adoption led to its liberalization while Islam's rejection led to its stagnation.

I started his book expecting to find flaw. I thought, “he must not realize how much less violent we are today, or how less stable our peace today is compared to his imagination,” but I found him completely persuasive. I agree we're less violent than ever and the causes all as he suggests.

I grant him everything in his book and offer this one change that I think will strengthen his case, fill in the missing exogenous sources he sought, but change his outlook. While not the only contribution, the fossil fuel manna contributed to everything he described.

I’m not a historian, so I’m only going on broad trends. The timing seems to work. Fossil fuels started kicking in on brightening human futures well before the Industrial Revolution so around the right times and places, as well as not in the wrong times and places. I’m not saying fossil fuels were the only cause, but I expect a major one.

I don't mean to take away from all the achievements he described. They're tremendous, but they depend in part on discovering something we can take no credit for producing and whose deadly side effects, combined with the laws of thermodynamics they helped us discover, force us to choose from stopping accepting the manna or allowing it to kill us. First we didn’t know the side-effects. I don’t blame anyone. But now they are undeniable and incalculably deadly, on the scale of billions.

I believe we can retain the advances fossil fuels helped us discover and achieve without them, but the transition requires time. Had we started transitioning generations ago, with a smaller population and less addiction, we could take time.

If we start today, and we haven't in earnest, well, already nine million died in 2019 from breathing air, a number on par with the Holocaust and Atlantic slave trade, except annual and increasing, so there's no avoiding destruction.

But if we reduce fossil fuel use with everything we've got, we'll face economic shocks. A lot of economists worry about them, but I understand that government management within historical norms could keep those shocks within historical boundaries, as described in JB MacKinnon's upcoming book The Day the World Stopped Shopping, but we can keep from losing billions of lives.

To clarify, by reducing fossil fuels I don't just mean adding more renewable sources. Humans throughout history have met new manna with new growth. So yes we have to produce more energy through renewables, but also shut down what burns fossil fuels first: coal plants, airplane engines, container ships, car engines, artificial fertilizers, and more. To leave it in the ground or risk billions of people dying.

My point is to speak to one person—Steve Pinker—in, I believe, the view of his thesis, that I agree in his view of the better angels of our nature, but I believe those angels were fed on fossil fuels beyond what he recognized. I didn't spend the time in this discussion to reach his rhetorical level, but I hope I crossed enough of a threshold for him to engage on the topic: how much did our society develop from fossil fuels and what happens if we remove them?

I have no self-interest to promote. I'm motivated as much through the wonder I felt at his masterful book. It's almost fifteen years since I read The Blank Slate and loved it. I’ve seen him speak in person and found it riveting. I saw him once in my neighborhood and said hi.

I believe that if he considers this one element, that he will either see flaw in my perspective or not. If he does, I would love to be relieved of my mistaken view. If not, I believe he will feel compelled to consider it more and may even reach the point I have, that it is the most important pursuit anyone could work on.

I think many people don't consider it because, well what can anyone do? Only governments and corporations can make a difference. But believing one's first attempt at a solution won't work is no proof no solution exists. I have found many and would love to pick up from this point.

As I said, he walked right into likely reader disagreement, took it on, and persuaded. I expected to disagree with him. I expect most did. But I agree with him and consider myself educated for it, plus admire his research and writing skills. If I’m off point or he considered it, I hope to learn what I missed. If I hit something critical, I’d love to engage him further on how to spread word of the danger.

I’ll put on the page a plot that previous guest Tom Murphy calls his most important plot with a link to his description of it. It shows humanity’s source of energy. Wood and food for hundreds of thousands of years. Then suddenly it shoots up almost instantaneously. Then for the next hundreds of thousands of years, he has a question mark, but makes a strong case there will be a drop.

Question remains: how much of our decreasing violence resulted from blind luck of fossil fuels? Independent of contribution to past, how much of present lack of violence depends on fossil fuels and disregard of pollution? If we remove fossil fuels or take heed of pollution and future looks less abundant than assumptions contributing to peace, do we lose peace? If we believe renewables and nuclear will replace, what if time scale is off -if can't ramp them up as fast as fossil fuels decrease. Problem isn't lack of coal. What if pollution lowers future more than expectations?

Even accepting seamless shift to renewables, positive-sum of future from fossil fuels will disappear. Will our philosophies adjust fast enough?

What if some things can't substitute, like container ships, flying, and artificial fertilizers? What if pollution overwhelms?

Seems to me his thesis may be correct, but if fundamental cause is not human philosophy and if much of the philosophy that was proximate cause resulted from that fundemental cause, and that fundamental cause will disappear or harm than help, then the final takeaway may be to eloquently showcase what we erroneously take credit for and may lose.

Are we sitting on a four-legged stool about to lose one, which might mildly affect our stability? Or a three-legged stool about lose one? Or two or all three?

Not a matter of opinion. Can be quantified, not argued as belief.

But greater issue is what to do if we're about to lose a leg or two of a three-legged stool.

More episodes

View all episodes

  • 760. 760: Adam Alter: Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked

    52:42
    Adam treats dependence and addiction in some ways different and unique than past guests who have covered addiction. One way is the business side. For example, early in this conversation, he talks about how people at companies that create products designed to addict, like cell phones, tablets, and the apps and games on them, don't allow their children to use them. Yet they gleefully reach trillion-dollar valuations based on making it difficult for children or anyone to stop using their products.Is this pattern not outrageous? Adam reinforces about how widespread the patterns are.The result is growth in addiction beyond anything before and people keep finding more ways to addict. People often feel isolated and helpless. Addiction wrecks your self-esteem. We miss that our culture supports it. Adam shares how they keep us coming back for things we don't even like.Adam teaches at one of the world's top business schools. He doesn't oppose business, but he explores our culture's addiction problems. He elaborates on the problems, research, and possible solutions.At the end, I ask him his thoughts about the viability of contracts and society when people can control others as predictably and effectively as by coercing through threat or violence. We as individuals are outmatched by corporations and institutions able to control people this effectively with big, long-term consequences.Adam's home pageHis book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked
  • 759. 759: Bruce Alexander, part 1: Rat Park, Addiction, and Sustainability

    01:02:18
    I start by describing how podcast guest Carl Erik Fisher, author of bestseller The Urge, reviewed my upcoming book Sustainability Simplified as a subject matter expert on addiction. Carl mentioned how my book suffered from what Bruce describes as the demon drug myth. He pointed to Bruce's work as seminal, so I started reading it.I'd heard of Rat Park and later remembered Johan Hari mentioning Bruce in his TED talk where he said "the opposite of addiction is community". I couldn't wait to talk to Bruce. Carl introduced us. We spoke. Bruce clarified the demon drug myth. I described how addiction and doof figure in my sustainability leadership work.In our conversation, Bruce described how working with self-described junkies in the early 1950s led him to reinterpret the common wisdom "proved" by experiments that some chemicals addicted people, end of story. He then described how he created Rat Park, which showed a lot more nuance and alternative explanations. You can read about Rat Park on Bruce's page or this comic book version, but his description in our conversation is engaging and thorough.Then he shares how people continue to stick with the old view of addiction and drugs. It's easy. It takes parents and others off the hook.He describes new views of addiction. You won't see addiction the same after. If you want to stop polluting and depleting yourself and help people you know and communities you are a member of, this conversation will change how you view it forever. You'll approach it with more understanding, empathy, and compassion.Bruce's home page, aka Bruce K. Alexander's Globalization of Addiction Website
  • 758. 758: Peter Singer, part 2: A philosopher approaches sustainability

    46:43
    I started by sharing my experience giving after reading Peter's book The Life You Can Save. I confess I only read it after our first conversation, but loved it. I feared reading a book by an academic philosopher arguing a point would be dry and boring. Instead it led me to donate to causes. Then, even though I didn't donate for recognition or personal benefit, the organizations I donated to contacted me with gratitude, connected to me, and one even invited me to its annual dinner.Then we talk more about flying, following up our last conversation. From Peter's perspective, I view flying too black-and-white, not considering someone's reason for flying or what benefit it might provide. I don't challenge that perspective. I'm just looking to learn from my guest. My book treats that perspective.Then I share my new take on his drowning child analogy as it relates to sustainability.Other topics too, but we close with our mutual appreciation for calm conversation and democracy, both lacking these days.Peter's home page
  • 757. 757: Dr. Anna Lembke, part 1: Dopamine Nation

    39:14
    Regular listeners know I see our relationships with many activities that are enabled by pollution as behavioral addictions like gambling or playing video games. Thus, I bring experts in addiction.Anna's book Dopamine Nation is one of the most accessible I've read. She covers the scale of addiction, how much it's increasing, how it works, her personal history with her own addiction, and the stories of several of her patients.After she describes her background, we start by talking about the shame that accompanies addiction and makes it hard to share about, including our personal experiences of it. We cover how much our culture and economy have embraced addiction. It's profitable, after all.She describes in lay terms how addiction works, how it disrupts homeostasis and the results, for example tolerance. She talks about the paradox that as we create more material abundance, we see more anxiety, depression, and other problems. We find addictive things lead us to feel we're treating our problems, but more often add to them.She asked me about avoiding packaged food, doof, and other sustainability experiments. I read she asked out of genuine curiosity, recognizing I'm not just doing it for myself. I think she wants to practice sustainability more and is looking to learn how.We talk about our culture. She identifies commercially-driven epidemics for profit. You can tell I enjoyed this conversation.Selected publicationsLembke, A., Digital Addictions Are Drowning Us in Dopamine, The Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2021Lembke, A., Eyal, N. Is Social Media Hijacking our Minds?, Pairagraph: A hub of discourse between pairs of notable individuals, 2021Lembke, A. Unsafe Supply: Why Making Controlled Prescription Drugs Available for Unsupervised Use Will Not Target the Syndemic of HIV, Hepatitis C, Overdose, and COVID-19, Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 2020 Sep;81(5):564-565.Lembke, A. Purdue Pharma is Done Promoting Opioids: Here’s Why It’s a Big Deal, Fortune Magazine, Feb 2018Lembke, A., Papac, J., Humphreys, K. Our Other Prescription Drug Problem, NEJM, 2018; 378(8):693-695.
  • 756. 756: Kimberly Nicholas: How Fly Less? Fly less.

    48:43
    Kimberly has, by dramatically reducing her flying, improved her life, living more deliberately and consistent with her values.I met her when she was a panelist at an event on promoting hurting people less by flying less. I invited her as someone to explore her journey of reducing her flying. In our conversation, the shared how she went from learning the possibility to promoting staying grounded. Many stages overlapped with mine, from the analysis paralysis of not starting to finding more travel experience despite less flying, or rather because of it.She shared how you need to act to see what we have to do, not just to change ourselves but to change culture. After being in room where Paris Agreement was signed, she realized, we have to do what the signatories agreed to. It means action, not just talk. She realized that every nation, company, and individual has to live sustainably (to which I add: we'll love it even though from our current perspective it looks like sacrifice).The point of acting on important issues is to know how to lead others. Science, facts, and lecturing had their role, but have to act on emotions to motivate and sustain action.Much of what she said was music to my ears.Kimberly's book Under the Sky We MakeHer Substack newsletter We Can Fix ItHer home page
  • 755. 755: Stefan Gössling: Busting self-serving myths about flying

    01:03:42
    People who fly think most people fly, but it's more like a few percent. A small fraction of people fly, let alone across oceans or multiple times per year. If you fly, it's probably your action that hurts people most through its environmental impact, but you probably rationalize and justify it. Unlike many other polluting activities, most of the money you spend on flying goes to polluting, displacing people and wildlife from their land to extract fuel and minerals, and lobbying governments to pollute and extract more.Stefan has been reporting and publishing on flying for decades longer than I've worked on it. I met him following a panel he participated in hosted by Stay Grounded on the impacts of flying on people and wildlife. That talk was on frequent flyer programs, but Stay Grounded works on many related issues.After sharing his background, Stefan talks about his research. My biggest takeaway: People believe a lot of myths about flying. Partly the industry promotes the myths, but people will do whatever mental gymnastics they have to to accept those myths, even when they're blatantly false. Some things Stefan shares:Around 2 - 4 percent of people fly in a given year outside their countryPeople who fly think more like half the population fliesFlying is heavily subsidizes, so poor people help fund rich people flyingAirports and airlines are often supported and bailed out by taxesPoor people are hurt moreStefan shares more information in more detail. Despite knowing much of it, even I was outraged anew at new things I learned of how much flying hurts people and how much people who fly pay to cause more of that suffering, while telling themselves they are helping. Of course, they aren't choosing to fly from reasoning things out. They want to travel without effort, feel inner conflict at hurting people, and try to resolve their inner conflict by rationalizing and justifying their choices.Here is the post I refer to, documenting the travels of a guy whose email newsletter I subscribe to: What do you think of this person’s flying habits? (part 1).Stefan's home pageHis page at Linnaeus University, including links to his recent publications.Some recent publications:Are emissions from global air transport significantly underestimated?. Current Issues in Tourism. Status: Epub ahead of printNational tourism organizations and climate change. Tourism Geographies. Status: Epub ahead of printOn track to net-zero? Large tourism enterprises and climate change. Tourism Management. 100. 104842-104842Net-zero aviation : Transition barriers and radical climate policy design implications. Science of the Total Environment. 912A review of air travel behavior and climate change. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews : Climate Change. 14 (1)
  • 754. 754: (Aunt) Trish Ellis and (Niece) Evelyn Wallace, part 1: Not Even Cancer Holds Her Back

    01:16:14
    "What I do doesn't matter" is one of the more common sentiments of our time. We use it to avoid acting when we see problems. A similar rationalization not to act: "I have faith that younger people will solve our environmental problems. After all they will be affected more." People say these things to avoid acting, avoiding personal responsibility.If anyone can say she deserves to relax and not have to work on problems, nobody would tell someone with incurable cancer she can't spend her time how she wants. Trish has incurable cancer. She worked her whole life to enjoy her retirement. She didn't grow up planning to act on sustainability. She didn't plan to take my sustainability leadership workshops, but her niece, Evelyn, and sister, Beth, told her about taking the workshop so she did.In this episode, you'll hear Trish sharing why acting on sustainability and leading others is spending her remaining time how she wants. She once envisioned flying around in her retirement. She could and no one would judge her. But having learned that she can make a difference from the workshop, she's acting on sustainability. Living by your values and helping others live by theirs isn't deprivation or sacrifice.The above is my read of Trish's situation and motivations. Listen to the episode to hear her describe why someone who could do anything she wants and doesn't have to care about people far away or younger finds helping future generations and people far away she'll never meet the best way to spend her precious time. Then sign up for a workshop to create as much meaning in your life.
  • 753. 753: Martin Doblmeier, part 2: Sabbath and Sustainablity

    58:45
    A blackout struck New York City and a large part of the U.S. northeast in 2003. It happened only two years after 9/11. How could we not first wonder if it was terrorism. I had been at work at the time. After waiting maybe an hour, we all walked down the stairs and went home. Phones worked for a while, so I called the woman I was dating and coordinated to meet at her place. I ended up hitch-hiking a ride there.The people who gave me the ride were having a great time. In a big van, they were picking up people here and there, navigating intersections with no traffic lights. We all had a great time, which continued when I reached my girlfriend's place. Later I heard of people dancing around bonfires and so on.For months afterward, when we saw someone we hadn't seen since the blackout, we asked each other's blackout experience. I soon noticed that nearly everyone enjoyed themselves.At first I thought it odd, since we suspected terrorism at first. After a while, I realized technology wasn't the unalloyed good I had thought it was. I started telling friends I was thinking about taking time off from things that used power regularly. One person responded, "You know, orthodox Jews have been taking time off from technology every week for thousands of years."Martin Doblmeier returns for a second conversation to talk about his latest movie, Sabbath, which explores the day of rest in culture. The movie explores several groups each of Protestants, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, and secular communities. It covers history, stories, motivations, and many relevant viewpoints.You'll hear me in the conversation considering how to manifest and explore this concept in my like. I predict you'll consider bringing more sabbath to your life. Since recording the conversation, I've been thinking about how to manifest some regular rest in my life, seeing if I can bring others in on it.Whether you act or not, you'll appreciate how Martin's movie provokes introspection. How did most cultures lose this day of rest? At what cost did we lose it? Do we want to restore it?Watch Sabbath onlineMartin's site: Journey FilmsUpcoming screenings and eventsEducational materials, including many thought-provoking and conversation-provoking questions and discussion points
  • 752. 752: Dave Kerpen, part 1: Delegation for leaders and entrepreneurs

    42:04
    Dave and I go back years, to when we both wrote columns at Inc. I'm surprised I didn't bring him on before. He helps entrepreneurs, leaders, and aspiring leaders develop social and emotional skills, as well as college students aspiring to internships.We recorded now on the occasion of his new book, Get Over Yourself! How to Lead and Delegate Effectively for More Time, More Freedom, and More Success, on improving your skills working with others, like all his books. He shares stories of himself and clients, often personal, leading to practical advice.Sustainability requires changing American and global culture, which requires entrepreneurship and leadership.Dave's page, which links to his books and how to book him for a one-on-oneApprentice