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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.

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