Munk debate on human progress: Pinker and Ridley vs. Gladwell and de Botton

November 10, 2015 • 12:30 pm

I haven’t yet watched this “Munk Debate” on whether humanity is progressing, but you can be assured I will. (It’s an hour and a half long). The Munk Debates are held twice yearly in Toronto, dealing with social and political issues. One that you might have seen already is the 2010 debate between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens on whether religion is a force for good on Earth. You can see that one on YouTube, and Hitchens won!

The issue of this debate, held November 6, is this: “Resolved, be it resolved, humankind’s best days lie ahead.” On the “yes” side are Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley; on the “no” side are Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell. Pinker, of course, published The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, and Ridley’s just published an equally optimistic book, The Evolution of Everything.

I wasn’t aware that Gladwell and de Botton were on the pessimistic side of human progress, but perhaps readers know more. From what I’ve heard, the debate was really about the value of reason.

Click on the screenshot below to go to the video of the debate:

Screen shot 2015-11-10 at 8.08.06 AM
Matt Ridley and Steve PInker: the “we’re progressing” side
As I said, I will certainly watch this when I have time, but readers who watch it—or have already watched it—are invited to weigh in below, and perhaps opine about who won. There are plenty of other comments on the video page, including one by Peter Boghossian.
h/t: Arno

156 thoughts on “Munk debate on human progress: Pinker and Ridley vs. Gladwell and de Botton

  1. This was really the Heavyweights vs. the Lightweights. Pinker and Ridley trounced them. I was disappointed by Gladwell, and my view of him has diminished. As Ridley said very well, “[He’s] good with adjectives. Now how about some facts?”

    1. Yes. It was not even close. De Botton was lost and almost incoherent. He is clearly scientifically illiterate and profoundly ignorant (of science). He argued against an imagined straw-man position and failed at that. Gladwell was surprisingly antagonistic (is there some history between him and Pinker?) and rude. I had a low opinion of him to begin with and it sank even lower. He just came across as a smug asshole.

      1. I competely agree. I have to be honest and say that I didn´t have the highest opinion of him before I saw this debate. But seeing this debate just reminded me of what Gladwell trademark writing is all about: shallow, scientific superficial writing with al lot of hip words interspersed with mildly interesting case stories.

        And Gladwell was rude, and to me seemed to be more interested in rousing the crowd than actually coming up with any data, surveys or anything else of substance to back his claims.

    2. That has been my impression of Gladwell. I have enjoyed the books Pinker and Ridley have written and respect them both so perhaps I’m just biased.

    3. My take on Gladwell: his books should have been magazine articles and his magazine articles should have been tweets.

    4. I think that both Malcolm Gladwell and Alain de Botton were horrible in the debate. And BTW, Gladwell’s argument about the lack of women on the panel was really a non-argument. Someone should explain to him the difference between an anecdote (or anecdotal evidence) and the actual evidence in the form of hard data which strongly support Steven Pinker’s point.

      1. My sense of the debate was that Gladwell and de Botton were aware going in that they had a weak position. They used quit a bit of buffoonery to at least entertain, but probably were not exactly committed. That is not to say they had no valid and interesting points to make, but that they probably would not have minded being on the other side.

        1. I was surprised that Steven Pinker didn’t debunk Malcolm Gladwell’s non-argument on the spot, but then again, having his manhood questioned in front of such huge audience probably discombobulated him a bit, and so he unfortunately didn’t come up with the much needed rebuttal of the nonsensical anecdotal point. The fact that Malcolm Gladwell continued to refer to Steven Pinker as Mrs. throughout basically the entire debate makes me think that (1) he’s a real jerk, and (2) he really believed he made a valid point on the lack of progress in equality between men and women.

  2. Oh boy, if you think you had a low regard for De Botton before seeing this video, just you wait. This should be a career ending performance for De Botton but alas the world is not just. De Botton puts on a master class in straw-manning, obfuscation and outright demagoguery. Count the number of times he calls Pinker’s ideas “dangerous.” What a looney.

    As for Gladwell, he has one good point about existential threat but it gets so lost in all of his purposeful obfuscation and distractions on other points. Pinker and Ridley win hands down.

    To be fair Gladwell and De Botton took on the losing side of this debate before it even started.

    1. Agreed. de Botton was a disgrace from start to finish, but especially in the start and finish. His opening statement was brilliantly dismantled and ridiculed by Pinker. Really, de Botton comparing his comfortable upbringing in Switzerland to the suffering endured by impoverished people now and throughout history is the height of solipsism.

      In the closing argument de Botton makes this totally unfounded and irrelevant screeching about Pinker and Ridley thinking literature was useless, and how dangerous that is to society. It was insulting and dishonest, and a waste of everybody’s time. He may as well have conceded there. I have a hard time believing that anyone would’ve wanted to talk to him in the green room, or ever.

      Gladwell came off better by comparison, but that would’ve been true of any stammering high schooler. He touched on a few good points relating to the existential problems that progress can entail. For example, Sam Harris has spoken of the threat posed by recursive self-improvement in AI. It’s a position that entails conceding that, yes, as today was better than yesterday,tomorrow will be better than today, but there might be no day after that.

    2. Really? I would have thought pessimism would be the easy side to argue.

      The con side could have made a decent case just by noting how human nature collides with our ability to plan for completely foreseeable disasters. Just running out of oil, which is INEVITABLE, is a huge disaster that is 100% foreseeable, but humans seem unable to even acknowledge it much less prepare. Layering climate change on top of that problem further illustrates the point. We have TWO possibly civilization crippling threats hinging on the same short-term benefit: burning oil. We can completely see these inevitable threats coming and yet we can not mobilize ourselves beyond a few largely symbolic efforts. Contrast the meager efforts to deal with these issues with the $2-5 trillion spent in response to a few airplanes being flown into buildings. A horrific thing worth addressing, but a sight smaller than the collapse of civilization. If that doesn’t make a case for at least a tiny bit of pessimism, what would?

      And that doesn’t even address disease, nuclear weapons, population, threats to food supply, universal surveillance and the potential for even more trenchant forms of totalitarianism, mass AI induced unemployment, etc.

      It’s certainly possible that the successes of the past will be repeated. That technology (e.g. cheap alternate energy) and increased wealth and well being will save us from ourselves (e.g. by naturally reducing child birth rates and so population strains). But making at least a plausible case for pessimism seems like an easy assignment. There are SO many things that can go wrong, and the closer we are to the edge of the Earth’s carrying capacity, the easier it is for something to send us over that edge. Couple that with increased power to affect the earth, and each other, along with our general short sightedness…

      I wasn’t going to watch the debate, but if the debate made optimism seem like the easy winning side, I need to see because I’m naturally pretty pessimistic.

      1. In response to

        To be fair Gladwell and De Botton took on the losing side of this debate before it even started.

      2. Everything you said is true but those are all problems of capitalism and tribalism which are held up by religion and conservatism both of which are waning. The world is becoming more enlightened and people are waking up. Perhaps too slowly but the trend is towards enlightenment. It’s not that humans are incapable of reacting to these impending disasters, our hardware is fully capable, we know that. We are just having difficulty with some very bad software right now but the trend is towards fixing those software issues.

        1. I don’t necessarily think the Enlightenment is a solution to oil use and environmental degradation. Those are ‘tragedies of the commons’ and are mostly due to the fact that when our short term and long term interests conflict, we more often tend to favor our short term interests. All humans do that – it’s not a religious thing and it won’t be solved by turning Christians into atheists.

          I need to watch the video but my initial thought on the debate subject was that it really depends on what sort of time horizon you’re considering. If you’re talking about decades or a century or two, then yes it appears to me that our best days lie ahead of us. If you’re talking about millennia, then I am less sanguine; we seem to be on a track of destroying our own environment and basically making the world a less livable place for animals like us. If, for instance, we kill off all the marine phytoplankton – they produce 50% of our oxygen – I think people in that future time would look back at this time and say it was our best days.

          1. I wasn’t referring to THE Enlightenment, with a capitol E, just enlightenment in general, as in learning new things that change your outlook. What is happening with the environment isn’t something that humans are doing as a whole, it is something that a handful of capitalists are doing, and those capitalists use religion and traditional belief systems to scare and manipulate the masses into voting for them. Fewer Christians does = fewer capitalists, ironically.

            It’s not a human hardware problem but a software problem and the trend is towards fixing that software problem. Every day more and more people are coming to realize that capitalism is destroying us. This is what I means by enlightenment. The trend and direction is good. The speed of this trend may not be fast enough but it is accelerating.

  3. I watched this the other day, Gladwell came across poorly I think – at one point he (of all people) described Pinker as effeminate. It was a setup to a joke I think but it came across as rude to me.

    The Cassandra side (as opposed to the Pollyanna side) had really poor arguments in general and de Botton was incomprehensible at times (at least to my mind).

    1. Never having read or heard Gladwell, I assumed he would be some sort of heavyweight. I was amazed at his facetiousness, want of preparation, lack of moral seriousness and failure to address the issue. Truly shocking for a man with such a high reputation.

      And de Botton was worse. x

      1. It is so strange that Gladwell has the reputation he has, and sells so well that he does, and perphaps most suprising of all he is taking seriously by experts in their fields.

    2. ” . . . Gladwell came across poorly I think – at one point he (of all people) described Pinker as effeminate. It was a setup to a joke I think but it came across as rude to me.”

      I look forward to the honorable Mr. Gladwell describing – and pointing fun at – himself.

      1. Blessed are those of us who can make fun of ourselves because we’ll never run out of material🐸 Going to watch the debate in the next day or two. Love this Munk series but we had other plans last Friday.

        YOOHOOO Word Press. Please fix your sign-in protocol😱

  4. Trying to put the Con side in the best possible light, you could say their argument was that improving the human condition will not necessarily improve human nature. Of course, that’s not what the debate was about, was it? De Botton’s arguments were silly and Gladwell’s fell flat.

    1. Human nature is not alterable in our lifetime or even in a hundred lifetimes. We are stuck with what we got nature wise. Improving the human condition by working with our nature is the only course of action we have. But perhaps De Botton and Gladwell are blank slaters. This would explain their failing in this debate.

  5. It’s worth remembering that Ridley has a touching faith in the power of self-organisation, as part of his devotion to the Free Market.

    And he was Chair of Northern Rock Building Society (i.e. Savings and Loan) at the time of its collapse in 2007; it had been lending up to 6 x income and 125% of property valuation, and was among the first of the dominoes.

      1. Well I haven’t watched the debate, but pretty much everything Ridley says is coloured by his political and moral views. His opinions on the environment, and climate change in particular, aren’t based on a reasoned approach to the evidence but his Panglossian worldview.

        His tenure at Northern Rock suggests that he is utterly incapable of appreciating risk, which I’d imagine is relevant to considerations of human progress and the future.

        1. What evidence do you bring to bear on his alleged coloring of his political and moral views?

          Are you serious? “Panglossian worldview”?

          1. Well, let’s take his views on climate science as a case in point. For the past few years, Ridley has been arguing, contrary to the general view of climate scientists, that climate change is nothing to worry about. See this op-ed for example:


            In support of his position he cites the work of Nic Lewis, a chap who used to work in finance. Lewis has written a small number of papers (perfectly interesting and useful ones) that place climate sensitivity at the low end of the IPCC range. However Lewis’s work is something of an outlier and to rely heavily (almost solely) on this is to ignore a very wide body of evidence suggesting otherwise.

            I would argue that he cherry picks because of his desire to support his pre-existing views about the world. Why do you think he is cherry picking?

          2. Well, he does have an entire book devoted to explaining that libertarian concepts of private property are the result of Darwinian process of natural selection acting on society. Hence, he doesn’t think of evolution as only natural phenomenon, but also as ideology.

  6. I can’t take Matt Ridley terribly seriously any longer after his appearance before a Parliamentary committee, following his disastrous role as chairman of Northern Rock. To be fair, he was no more useless than his co-directors, and perhaps less positively harmful than the chief executive, but he came over as a naughty schoolboy in need of an appropriate punishment.

    And his ‘Rational Optimist’ didn’t fill me with glee; rather naive I thought. I will, however, watch the debate with interest.

  7. Bottom line: Steve Pinker’s opponents were unable to address his well-researched evidence and resorted to limp attacks that, sadly, prevented the debate from nuancing or advancing the ideas. It would have been fabulous had the debate been matched appropriately, but, honestly, is there anyone out there who has spent as much time thinking through the evidence on the issue of progress as Steve Pinker? You’d have to find a counter-Steve. Good luck.

    1. I pity anyone who is an opponent of Steven Pinker. He’d trounce you with vocabulary in the first sentence, not to mention I’d stutter and stammer and look like the primitive primate that I am, next to Steven Pinker.

    2. Yes — Pinker presented a mass of well researched data and all Gladwell had was a few anecdotes. I don’t know what de Botton was up to. It looked like both he and Gladwell did their preparation in the car park.

  8. The pessimists’ obsession with the psychological distress of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary as evidence of intractable first-world problems was bizarre.

    Modern mood-altering medications and/or cognitive therapeutic techniques (unavailable in the 19th century) would most likely have helped both ladies work through their depressive and narcissistic personality disorders.

  9. I’ll not be watching this “debate,” but I would like to make the observation which I think is “rational” and “reasonable.” Both “what is rational” and “what is reasonable” and the very process of “reason” are all very much determined by one’s culture. Those people who are members of ISIS reason quite differently than participants in WEIT. What is “reasonable” to Republicans, Scientologists, Yanomamo Indians?

    I personally (anthropologist, ecologist) think everything is going to hell. Even if world populations were increasing at a “mere” 1% the Earth’s population would double in 70 years. How is that going to work out? Here in Iowa (heart of the cornbelt) there is, this year, a surplus of corn because ethanol use has declined, and there is a bumper crop of corn. Will the surplus go to feed the world’s hungry (often estimated at about a billion)? What would the reasonable thing to do be? Could the reasonable thing be done? Would the newly fed people turn corn into babies?

    1. ‘Those people who are members of ISIS reason quite differently than participants in WEIT.’

      How could this possibly be true? All Homo sapiens have nearly the same genes that build us into members of a species. Our brains have, with minor variations, the same reasoning abilities, which are not, as you claim, ‘very much determined by one’s culture.’ Yes, to a limited degree nurture differentiates both individuals and groups; but in general we all use the same tools of reason.

      I gather that you are a relativist. If so, evolution and biology are against your worldview.

      1. Indeed, it’s not the reasoning that is different culture to culture, it is the perception of reality that differs. If one is convinced by their parents that Allah exists as described in the Quran, then what ISIS is doing is both rational and reasonable to any human mind.

        1. Yes. Rational is not necessarily the hardest part. Vetting the premises and facts from which you rationalize for how likely they are to accurately represent reality is the harder part, I think.

      2. I don’t think they reason any differently, it’s just that they use different “facts” in their reasoning. The conclusions they reach are logical given what they “know.” E.g. they know that life after death is real, and more important than life on Earth. They know following God’s will is more important than anything else. They know it is God’s will that apostates and atheists be killed and not be allowed to poison others with their ideas.

        1. “I gather that you are a relativist. If so, evolution and biology are against your worldview.”

          This is an example of reasoning from inadequate information. The issue is not brain architecture but available information and the cultural system which provides a framework for the processing of this information. I have, in 45 years, studied a multitude of “worldviews,” and am quite confident that a Mayan of the 7th century CE would understand his/her and your world rather differently than you understand it. I’m not sure you understand what a cultural relativist is (in short, all cultures are essentially equal), but you can be sure I am not one.

    2. I think that to hold such an inclusive conception of the word “rational,” particularly in the proper context here, is taking cultural relativism way too far. If reality were as you say all would be chaos and we would not be able to make sense of anything.

    3. Both “what is rational” and “what is reasonable” and the very process of “reason” are all very much determined by one’s culture.

      The philosophical position is that in order for reason to function we seek “equals,” thus placing less emphasis on the variables of culture and more emphasis on the common ground of humanity. Even people without a strong background in humanism pursue this rule as a practical matter within their culture; they are therefore capable of recognizing its merit on more general terms.

  10. One of the more lopsided debates I have ever listened to. As noted repeatedly above, a truly lamentable performance from Gladwell and de Botton.

  11. Cons lost before showing up. Pinker left me with warm fuzzies.

    The problem for the Cons, in America, at least, is that people can not walk around a local public places and think it’s all worse than when they were young. It might all be different, but it is not worse, and everyone knows it. Our infrastructure, our attention to greater needs and safety of all people and animals is ubiquitous. And it is not perfect (which it never is) but it is better.

    The correlated cohesion of knowledge, prosperity, and equality Pinker alludes to is also the reason religion is likely to implode before too long.

  12. You’d think the case against optimism would be easy – any sense of order in the past is fleeting, and technology has been able to sneak in a kind of fascism that spells the end to the enlightenment principles.

    Will watch the debate when I have some time – probably on the weekend.

  13. “Ridley’s just published an equally optimistic book, The Evolution of Everything.”

    I haven’t read Ridley’s book yet, but just wanted to point out that Steven Pinker isn’t arguing that we, as humans, have become “the better angels” through an evolutionary process.

    (minute 38:38)

    1. So in the biological sense, our nature hasn’t in fact changed — we still have the same “reptile” brains our forebears had two or three generations ago, when they were embarking on the most barbaric and genocidal wars of the 20th century.

      1. Which is why I’m so surprised that the con side was unable to fashion a decent argument. Optimism has been shattered before (i.e. before the First and Second World Wars).

        1. I guess we simply couldn’t expect more from this journalist / philosopher duo. Perhaps they were good enough for a brainstorming session (during which no ideas are criticized), whose purpose would be to generate ideas of potential risks, but not so for the subsequent discussion of risk assessment and management, for which more rational, scientific brains are needed.

  14. I feel a bit pity for the cons.

    Where Steven Pinker possibly could be totally wrong is that there is gradual progress.

    Anatomically modern humans are just 200000 years old. Maybe 50000 years ago we see a bit of modern behavior. The real boost in numbers started 10000 years ago when we invented agriculture.

    But at this point we see a (relatively) sharp decline in health and prosperity; people had to much work harder for less food had more diseases and a shortened life span and where badly treated (slavery, less egalitarian societies).

    After this sharp decline in human progress we see indeed ups and downs together with slow progress. But today we still work more hours than the hunter gatherers from 15000 years ago. And we have still not reached the same level of equality.

    Overall I agree with Steven Pinker: today a lot of us are doing reasonable fine and we still see some progress. But whether this recent scientifically driven progress will continue gradually or lasted only a couple of hundreds of years, we will never know. A human life is much to short for that.

  15. I’m a huge Pinker fan, and will get top that debate later, in the meantime I opted for a rerun of the Tony blair-Hitchens debate. Gad I miss him.

    1. ” . . . the Tony blair-Hitchens debate. Gad I miss him.”

      A favorite Hitch line from that debate: “It’s not like God would bugger around with Job to prove a point.”

    2. I saw that Hitch-Blair debate live-streamed a few years ago. Hitch was physically on his last legs but brilliant as ever.

  16. As said many times above, a one-sided debate for sure. The Con argument was always going to be a difficult one but this team made it more so by resorting to attacking the other side and personally. That is generally the end of any debate. Gladwell seemed to continuously rely on the imagination to prove a worsening future.

    1. I don’t think it’s that difficult. Progress is never inevitable and plenty of historical examples (pre-First World War optimism/Whig history) and contemporary examples (nuclear bombs/global warming) to argue that we should not assume our best days lay ahead.

  17. I’ve only made it halfway through, so perhaps there’ll be something to shift my opinion before then.

    But, so far, Pinker and Ridley have been mopping the floor with Gladwell and de Botton…which is a bit of a shame, because there’s one really huge crisis we face that, honestly, has no obvious answer.

    And that’s the fact that all the good stuff the optimists rightly cited as being good…all that good stuff has been built with petroleum, and we’re almost out of petroleum.

    Specifically, petroleum is what powers our transportation sector, it’s what powers our farm equipment, it’s what fertilizes our crops and protects them from pestilence, it’s what our plastics (and thus all our technological wonders) are made of, and on and on and on.

    And, yes; technically, we still have about as much petroleum in the ground as the total mined to date…but anybody who raises that objection doesn’t understand exponential growth. That simple fact means we have exactly one more doubling period — which, at 3% growth, is a mere quarter century — before every last drop is gone. Worse, for obvious reasons, we’ve already dug up all the easy-to-get-to high-quality stuff; all that’s left is low quality and difficult to reach.

    And, yes, there are alternative energy sources…but no alternatives for petroleum. At least, no alternatives that aren’t really, really energy-intensive. You can make liquid hydrocarbon fuels and plastics and the like from atmospheric CO2, but you need more energy to make them than is released by burning them.

    If we don’t solve the petroleum problem, civilization collapses.

    There’re glimmers of hope. Solar energy is taking off like gangbusters, as are electric vehicles — and, with them, necessary complementary technology like batteries and other alternate forms of energy storage. The error bands on those are wide enough that the growth in those sectors might possibly be sufficient to avoid chaos…but those error bands encompass more chaos than they do non-chaos.

    So, there’s reason for hope, but not for optimism.

    On the other hand, if we do make it past the petroleum bottleneck, it’s probably smooth sailing after that. The same solution for petroleum will apply equally to other fossil fuels, and that’ll also take care of CO2 pollution — indeed, we’d eventually get to the point where we’d have sufficient excess energy capacity not simply to refine atmospheric CO2 into liquid hydrocarbons to substitute for what we currently mine, but sufficient surplus to start pumping liquid hydrocarbons back underground.

    But that’s a looooong way away, and little (but not no) reason to think we’ll actually make it there.


    1. +1

      I knew if I kept reading I’d find someone who shared my pessimistic view above, and on the very same point!

      It is a shame that the pessimists weren’t better represented, because making at least a plausible pessimistic argument should be very easy. It is fine and good to say, “We haven’t blown ourselves up with nukes yet” as evidence that maybe we won’t, but the fact is it only takes once. Human nature is short sighted, which is probably why we haven’t blown ourselves up yet… the effects are immediate. But it’s rare to even find a person who acknowledges the energy threat to civilization, much less is remotely serious about addressing it. $500 billion/year investment would be a good low end starting place in my opinion. NO ONE is even remotely considering anything like that.

      There is also a principle of living on the edge. The closer we are to various edges, the maximum sustainable population, the maximum fresh water usage, the maximum biodiversity degradation, the maximum spread of hyper-deadly technologies (ISIS with U.S. grade drones, and/or nukes), the more likely it is that we will fall over one of these edges into a significant abyss.

      1. $500 billion/year investment would be a good low end starting place in my opinion. NO ONE is even remotely considering anything like that.

        To run some numbers…I think a decent-enough ballpark estimate to go 100% solar for all energy usage couldn’t possibly be more than $50,000 / person in initial investment, with negligible recurring expenses after that. That would include solar panels, battery storage, and the like, to meet not just your domestic electricity needs but your transportation usage as well as your agricultural and industrial usage plus inefficiencies in, for example, what it takes to turn atmospheric CO2 into liquid hydrocarbon fuels to burn in jet aircraft engines.

        And I really am overestimating that $50,000 / person figure. A typical household of parents and children could meet their domestic electricity production needs for no more than a third of that, plus about as much each for batteries, transportation, and industry…call it $120,000 for the family of four, well under my estimate.

        So, $50,000 / person is an awfully big number. Scary big.

        In the States, it works out to a total of $15 trillion. A really, really, really scary number.

        But, you know what?

        That’s only three times what we’ve spent killing brown-skinned people in the Middle East and Asia in response to 9/11. And that’s not counting the so-called “War on Terror.”

        Had we shrugged off the attacks and devoted those resources instead to getting the oil monkey off our backs…well, we’d already effectively be off of oil entirely and well on our way to being done with coal and natural gas.

        And our economy would be so insanely booming with all the jobs and cheap energy and the like that we’d be talking about closing down the last coal mines by the middle of this century — and then just imagine what we could do!


    2. “we’re almost out of petroleum”

      At least the energy problem can be solved without new technologies.

      Conclusions from

      North America:

      “North America’s non-solar renewables aren’t enough for North America to live on. But when we include a massive expansion of solar power, there’s enough. So North America needs solar in its own deserts, or nuclear
      power, or both.”


      Let’s be realistic. Just like Britain, Europe can’t live on its own renewables. So
      if the aim is to get off fossil fuels, Europe needs nuclear power, or solar power in other people’s deserts or both.


      We have a clear conclusion: the non-solar renewables may be “huge,” but they are not huge enough. To complete a plan that adds up, we must rely on one or more forms of solar power. Or use nuclear power. Or both.

      1. I haven’t read that report…but the conclusions you present are rather off the mark.

        There’s nowhere in the Continental US that’s worse for solar than the Pacific Northwest, and Seattle is only half as good for solar as Phoenix. Meaning, where you have to cover much less than half your roof in panels in Phoenix to meet your own needs, in Seattle you need to cover most of your roof.

        If we’re talking replacing not just domestic electricity but all energy usage, you can roughly double or triple the domestic electricity figure…and it becomes obvious that covering all domestic (and only domestic, not even commercial) rooftops in panels gives the country a staggering net energy (not just electricity, but energy) surplus.

        And Germany is worse than the Pacific Northwest, as bad as it gets in Continental Europe…and they’re well on their way to solar-powered energy independence.

        Now, granted: Scotland and Scandinavia have a bit of a problem when it comes to solar. But we first shouldn’t let their problems stop everybody else from doing what’s obvious…and, additionally, it’s obvious that, if everybody but them has gone solar, there’ll be far more than enough conventional dirty energy left for them to use while they wait for the rest of us to get to the point that we have enough surpluses that we can start giving them our extra in some form or another.


          1. Wind and hydro are indirect forms of solar power. By their very nature, they are, globally, much less abundant and much more diluted than direct solar power and thus will always be niche power sources. However, where direct solar is, for whatever reason, not a viable option…well, there’s your niche, and wind and hydro can be invaluable filling that niche.

            It’s also worth noting that nearly all the good sites for hydro have already been tapped. When conditions are right for hydro…it’s just too cheap and easy to turn down. So those hydro installations will certainly remain, but there’s not going to be any significant growth in hydro. Wind, yes, especially in sunless areas…hydro, not so much. And, of course, hydro can potentially cause some pretty serious local environmental damage…that will further tend to reduce its attractiveness for new construction.


            1. I’m counting on something else. The innovation that will come over time to harness alternative energy. Commercial solar cells for energy are only a few decades old. Just the other day I read of a German group developing a new manufacturing method for cells to drop the price dramatically. What will we be looking at in 10 or 20 years? Technology got us into this problem, and I’m very optimistic that technology will get us out of it. From an economic perspective, governments are just now getting around to really pushing for an alternative tomorrow. Once they catch the full importance there will be a huge investment.

              1. What will we be looking at in 10 or 20 years?

                Well…that’s the nub of the problem right there.

                Look at any source you care to, and you’ll find that estimates of remaining petroleum reserves are roughly equivalent to estimates of total production to date. There’s variation, of course, with some sources including or excluding this or that projection or this or that potential source (such as shale oil), and disagreements over whether the recovery cost of this or that reserve is sufficient for profitable extraction, and so on. But they’re all within shouting distance of remaining reserves equalling past production.

                And pretty much everybody agrees that production has grown at roughly 2% – 3% historically.

                Basic math tells us that, if we continue to increase production at historical rates, without concern, we’ll suck the last drop dry in a quarter century.

                if we don’t increase production but instead hold it steady, we’ve got enough for maybe 40 years.

                If we want to stretch remaining reserves out a century, we’ve got to ramp down production by the same 2% – 3% we’ve historically increased it.

                The first option is physically impossible. Oil wells just don’t work like that; you can’t keep pumping them faster and faster until they suddenly run dry.

                Even the second option is unrealistic…but it’s also economically disastrous. Just try telling an economist that the entire petroleum industry will remain stagnant for decades, zero growth…and be sure to offer the economist some clean underwear after the shock wears off. That sort of perpetual “stagflation” is the stuff nightmares are made of, and basically what’s causing the Great Recession.

                But a prolonged contraction? At as much as 3%?

                Economic theory literally breaks down. “Reverse” growth means negative interest rates, means the end of borrowing, the complete collapse of banking. It’s literally the end of the world as we know it…

                …and it’s coming in that exact same ten- to twenty-year timeframe as you’re projecting.

                Now, if we’re very, very, very, very fortunate…well, the solar, battery, and electric vehicles are growing like gangbusters right now. Crazy double- and even triple-digit growth rates in some cases. That won’t last, of course…but if it persists long enough, they’ll make it from their current position of an unnoticeable rounding error in the energy matrix to a small-but-visible fraction sometime in the next few years. And if they can make it that far and continue to sustain the same kinds of growth that electronic gadgets (smartphones, etc.) saw…if they can do that, then they might be able to take up the slack of declining petroleum production.

                It’s just barely imaginable that, a decade from now, solar will be a low-double-digit percentage of the energy mix and continuing to grow at a low-double-digit rate, which would just about be enough for it to make up the slack in declining petroleum production. If that’s the case, then there’ll be reason to hope that we’ll make it through the end of petroleum without the collapse of civilization.

                But that’s really pretty much our only hope…and I don’t see much reason to be overly optimistic that it’ll come to pass.


              2. Well, I do not see the collapse of civilization being the result of gradually running out to oil. There are economic forces that will dampen the impact. We waste a large percentage of energy as is. Conservation will kick in big time as oil costs rise. Think of conservation during the depression and WWII. Europeans were driving around in Fiats decades ago because gas prices were much higher there than in the U.S.. That conservation effort should buy enough time to get alternatives going.
                If there is a collapse, I’d think it’s more likely to be caused by neglect of global warming triggering huge migrations of desperate people like the Syrian exit to Europe, only much worse. But this is now fully understood by policy analysts (like the pentagon). I don’t think humanity will let that catastrophe happen.
                I think Hillary will be driving a quick enhancement of a new energy policy. Russia, China and India, hopefully, will follow. Europe is already way ahead.

              3. Eh, you obviously don’t remember the ’70s and the oil price shocks. Because that’s exactly the phenomenon we’re facing…only at a far more massive scale. And you really don’t understand the time scales involved.

                What don’t you get?

                If we try to maintain the ~3% growth that defines an healthy economy, we run out completely in a couple decades. Never mind that making that attempt is physically impossible, of course.

                The only way to stretch it out to a “gradually running out of oil” phenomenon is to begin, immediately, a 3% contraction. But, first, how are you supposed to do anything big in the midst of such an unprecedented economic crisis; and, second, how on Earth do you think the economy is supposed to function in the first place without the assumption of perpetual growth?

                Maybe you think petroleum is just one minor aspect of the economy, like, say, pork bellies or a certain variety of lightbulb? But it’s most emphatically not; it’s quite literally the driving force behind the entire economy, inextricably essential to all other facets of industry in a way that nothing else — not even other fossil fuels — even remotely resembles. We could run out of coal and it’d be really really bad news, but we’ve got plenty of other ways of generating electricity. But we don’t have other ways of making plastics, of powering farm equipment, of lubricating machinery, of any of those things — never mind private transportation — without petroleum.

                We can sorta right now run private transportation off something other than petroleum by way of electric vehicles. And, if we’re very lucky, the growth in electric vehicles will ease the demand for petroleum at a rate that lets us keep farming and making things and keeping them running. But that’s literally a case of the DeLorean hitting the wire at 88 MPH at exactly 10:04 PM…when it’s already 3:00 pm…and somebody just dropped a pallet labeled, “car parts” on your doorstep this morning, and you’re still waiting for the courier to arrive with the assembly manual.


              4. But, we managed before the oil era to live quite comfortably without any oil. Now, there will still be some oil left for a very long time. The only restriction is we just shouldn’t burn it. Roads, plastic, grease, fine. Just wind down petroleum fuel.
                As far as the need for growth, I consider that a ridiculous premise for economic planning. We can downsize growth like we can downsize our 3,000 sq. ft. McMansions and downsize our Humvees to electric Mini or motorbike. If you consider the average American family and cut their income and property by half, they can still get along about as well as now. Maybe they will be healthier – more exercise, less empty calories.
                Necessity IS the mother of invention. Technology is ultimately the only way to save civilization. The limits you propose are based on unimaginative thinking.

              5. But, we managed before the oil era to live quite comfortably without any oil.

                Before oil, we had no industry, and most of the population spent their time laboring in the fields doing what oil does today. And we had no plastics, no telecommunications, no automation…no food refrigeration…no just-in-time global supply chains….

                The only restriction is we just shouldn’t burn it.

                “Only.” Yeah, sure.

                So, every single vehicle on the roads today, every tractor on every farm, every boat, every airplane…we should scrap every one of them and replace them with electric versions.

                More realistically, we can hope that, maybe, just maybe, electric passenger vehicles that they’ll become ubiquitous in less time than it’s taken us to transition from standard to automatic transmission.

                As far as the need for growth, I consider that a ridiculous premise for economic planning. We can downsize growth like we can downsize our 3,000 sq. ft. McMansions and downsize our Humvees to electric Mini or motorbike.

                While many have pointed out that eternal growth is not a sustainable economic model, the fact remains that our economy can not even in theory operate without continued growth. Without growth, the entire banking and investment industries go bankrupt. The first casualty is the lending markets; without growth, no more loans. People will see this as no more mortgages to be able to buy homes, no more credit cards; you’d have to pay cash up front if you wanted anything, including a place to live. Businesses would see the same. And, since savings is backed by loans (give the bank your cash and they loan it out to somebody else), everybody’s savings evaporates at the same time.

                It would have been possible to design an economy that didn’t depend so utterly on growth, but that’s not the economy we have.

                Technology is ultimately the only way to save civilization. The limits you propose are based on unimaginative thinking.

                Unfortunately, you’re correct. The problem is that no amount of imaginative thinking can create more oil in the ground, or instantly transform all our existing cars into solar-powered unicorn ponies, or whatever.

                Or, just because only magic can save us does not mean that we will be saved.


              6. “just because only magic can save us does not mean that we will be saved.”
                A year ago I was pretty depressed over the way things were going. But, more recently, I see there is a path to a future better than our past. I remain optimistic.

              7. I agree, there are more signs for optimism today than a year ago. Solar and EVs are doing very impressive growth, actually just barely tracking what we’ll need to avoid the worst.

                But it’s nowhere enough yet for me to actually be optimistic. Hopeful, sure; where there’s life there’s hope.

                If we make it to the end of the decade with solar and EVs continuing substantially on their present explosive growth curves, I’ll consider optimism. But any hiccoughs between now and then likely mean our doom. And we’d not be out of the woods by then, either, of course…but we can certainly seal our fate in that timeframe.


        1. “we’re talking replacing not just domestic electricity but all energy usage”

          These conclusions are about total energy consumption/production, not just electricity.

          One nice feature of the US is that it has a lot of space and some hot places with a lot of sunshine.

          To put it in perspective:

          For North-America and Mexico to be powered on solar panels only, we need space almost the size of Texas. Other renewables like bio or wind require even more space.

          Europe has simply not the space to do everything on renewables. If Europe wanted to do solar-only and could use the Sahara-desert it would be the size of Germany.

          More space efficient options are nuclear and coal. But they have a popularity problem.

          If inhabitants of USA and Canada bring their energy consumption down to European levels, they need only half of the energy.

          1. “More space efficient options are nuclear and coal. But they have a popularity problem.”

            LOL it’s not popularity problem, but safety concerns regarding the former energy source, and the latter is just a terribly dirty 18th century energy tech we are in the process of replacing.

            1. Nuclear has all sorts of gee-whiz Buck Rogers romanticism going for it, and I firmly believe we should have a significant scientific investment in research of both fission and fusion.

              But that research should be the same sort of research as we’re also conducting at CERN: to better understand the Universe, and not with any expectation of commercialization.

              Utility-scale solar is already cheaper than nuclear. Rooftop solar involves more individual capital investment, but you save on all the very significant operations and maintenance and personnel expenses the utilities can’t even theoretically avoid, making rooftop solar cheaper overall for homeowners.

              Proponents for nuclear energy like to crow about how cheap the fuel is…but it’s first of all misleading: mining uranium, protecting it against proliferation concerns, and storing the waste is damned expensive — and bragging that you get deuterium from sea water is as asinine as bragging that you get coal from dirt. And, even all that aside…nuclear fuels are infinitely more expensive than the zero-cost fuel of sunshine. Nuclear apologists then shift to the expense of solar…which, again, is a lie. You can generate all your own electricity with a capital investment of roughly as much as the sticker price for your car — but just try to put a nuclear reactor, or even just a coal-fired turbine in your basement!


          2. For North-America and Mexico to be powered on solar panels only, we need space almost the size of Texas.

            You’re off by orders of magnitude. Many orders of magnitude.

            If you scroll a third of the way down the page here:


            you’ll see a colorful global map with half a dozen small black dots on it. Each dot is about the area of an East Coast state.

            And if we covered only one of those half-dozen dots with 8% efficient photovoltaic panels (and the ones you get at the local home improvement store are over twice as efficient), we’d generate 18 TWe…which is as much as the entire global civilization uses in all forms in all sectors everywhere.

            Or, to properly scale your analogy…we could cover Georgia and power the planet.

            All we really need is residential rooftop solar with today’s off-the-shelf technology. There’s more than enough surface area for generic low-cost technology for America to become a massive energy exporter. And then factor in all the commercial rooftops? All the parking lots that could get covered with solar panels (and coincidentally shade the cars underneath)? All the sidewalks that could get solar panel shades? Just doing all that in the States alone would give everybody on the entire planet more power than in the most lavish Jetsons-style fantasy.

            It really is a matter of priorities. We could have nearly kicked the petroleum habit in the States by now had we spent the money we did on killing brown people overseas instead on building up solar infrastructure and converting the passenger fleet to electric.

            …but that’s not profitable to the parasites who’ve bought our politicians….


            1. Well, if we agree on 1 kWh/d = +-40W, the math is not too complicated.

              Quality solar power in deserts (Sahara) delivers an average power per unit land-area of roughly 15 W/m^2. In Northern-Europe we get around 5 W/m^2 if we are lucky.

              World electricity consumption : 2000 GW
              World power consumption : 15000 GW

              Allowing no space for anything else in such a square, a 1000 km^2 in the Sahara desert will give you roughly these 15000 GW.


              Numbers for the examples I gave you:

              We assume 500 million people (USA + Canada + Mexico) or 1000 million people in Europe + north-Africa.

              Average American energy consumption 250 kWh per person per day. Average European energy consumption 125 kWh per person per day.

              This is total energy consumption without the energy needed for imported stuff people buy (+- 40 kwh per person per day).

              So we need an area 580 Km^2 for 252 kWh per person per day.

              Texas = 695 km^2
              California = 423 km^2
              Germany = 357 km^2

              1. Either your math is very much astray or I’m not following the ball you’re trying to bounce.

                The page I linked to gives you the math. But here’s yet another run at the numbers.

                Solar flux is roughly a kilowatt per square meter at Earth’s orbit.

                The average of American conditions works out to the equivalent of about five hours of direct-overhead per day — that’s including the day / night cycle, fixed orientation, clouds, Seattle averaged with Phoenix averaged with Boston averaged with Los Angeles, everything…a typical American solar panel gets about as much sunlight over a 24-hour period as it would were it in orbit pointed straight at the Sun for five hours.

                Cheap panels are about 15% efficient. Better than that, actually, but we’ll be extra pessimistic just for you.

                So one kilowatt for five hours at 15% efficiency is 750 Wh per day per square meter of panels.

                And, 750 Wh / day is a shade over 30 watts continuous.

                Wikipedia gives about 18 terawatts for total global energy consumption. 18 terawatts / 30 watts is 600,000,000,000 — which is how many square meters we need.

                Big number, right?

                It’s a square under 800 kilometers on a side, under 500 miles on a side…or, as I mentioned in my first reply, about the size of Georgia.

                For the entire planet’s entire energy budget, in all forms.

                Take that 600 billion square meters and divide it by six billion humans (we’re over seven billion, but the math is easier and we’re rounding everything else) and you get 100 square meters per person…which is a bit over a thousand square feet, which is the surface area of a very modest American suburban home.

                As a final check of the numbers…I live in a modest American suburban home with barely more than 100 square meters living area. Less than half my roof is covered in solar panels. I generate half again as much electricity as I use — enough to power an electric vehicle when I finally get one. The typical American indirectly consumes (through agriculture and manufacturing and the like) about as much energy as is directly consumed in electricity and personal transportation; were I to cover my entire roof, I’d offset my entire energy usage, bringing me up to about that 100 square meters. Americans in general use about two or three times as much energy as everybody else…and you’d normally have two or three people living in this home in which I’m a single bachelor.

                It really does all add up, and rooftop solar really is the answer. We could get much of the way with residential rooftops alone, and trivially fill out the rest with commercial rooftops, including warehouses and parking lots and what-not.


              2. Ben your math is correct, 30 W/m^2 is maybe a bit high.

                There is data from real world solar farms:

                Iphana CA:
                123 MW on 14.2 km2 ==> 8.7 W/m2

                “Lack of published performance data caused speculation that the plant is not meeting expectations” (wikipedia)

                From :

                4 Farms in UK 2 farms in Germany have
                power per unit area between 4.0 and 5.3 W/m2.

                In Italy and Spain we get between 3.5 and 10 W/m2

                In the USA with insolation above 160 W/m2,the power per unit area of every ground-based farm is between 4.3 W/m2 and 11.4 W/m2.

  18. “petroleum is what powers our transportation sector, it’s what powers our farm equipment, it’s what fertilizes our crops and protects them from pestilence, it’s what our plastics (and thus all our technological wonders) are made of, and on and on and on.

    And, yes; technically, we still have about as much petroleum in the ground as the total mined to date…but anybody who raises that objection doesn’t understand exponential growth. That simple fact means we have exactly one more doubling period — which, at 3% growth, is a mere quarter century — before every last drop is gone.”

    Ben, do I understand you correctly that you are okay with extracting every last drop of oil from the ground? Are you not worried about the rising temperatures caused by burning fossil fuels?

    1. Ben, do I understand you correctly that you are okay with extracting every last drop of oil from the ground?

      Oh, hell no.

      But my point is that we don’t need to worry about the climactic damage from extracting the remaining oil because we’re not going to. For one, only a fraction of what’s left can be extracted using less energy than would be released from burning it. For another, long before we get to the point of negative energy returned on energy invested, profits fall so low that it becomes economically unrecoverable…and the tar sands and oil shale are right about at that limit.

      Even more to the point…production is going to naturally decline as it becomes more expensive and less profitable. You could, in desperation, pour even more resources into oil extraction in order to maintain the pace…but that only diminishes its profitability even further and hastens the time when the remainder becomes economically infeasible to extract.

      So…we are going to stop pumping oil. And we’re going to be pumping significantly less oil a decade from now and dramatically less oil a quarter century from now. Whether we want to or not.

      If we’re smart, the superficially primary reason we’ll be pumping less oil is because of falling demand because electric vehicles charged from rooftop solar setup are taking off like gangbusters. If we’re not smart, it’ll be skyrocketing oil prices that set off a global financial crisis that makes the Great Depression look like a Sunday afternoon tea-and-crumpets party. And, no matter what, one way or the other the share prices of the oil giants are going to crash once investors realize that the reserves on the books are worthless…and that’s going to make the bursting of the mortgage bubble look like a kid popping bubblegum.

      So, I’m not particularly worried about increasing CO2 levels. We’re coming to the end of the carbon energy era, one way or another; either it’s going to end because we’re going to move on to something better, or it’s going to end because civilization is going to collapse — and whichever of those two scenarios plays out, it’s going to happen on a shorter timeframe than that of most of the worst dangers from CO2 pollution.

      As confirmation…most of the CO2 catastrophe predictions assume either limitless continued exponential extraction of fossil fuels, or, at the very least, continued growth in petroleum extraction. But the former is quite naïve with respect to physics, and the latter equally naïve with respect to economics.

      The only realistic future for petroleum extraction is for us to begin a steady 3% annual decline in production. If we try to hold production steady — or, the gods forbid, continue growth — there’ll be a catastrophic collapse in production. The bubble will burst if we try to keep inflating it. And a catastrophic collapse in production means the end of civilization — no need to worry about CO2 at that point. On the flip side, any non-catastrophic means of easing off of extraction means we’re replacing petroleum with something else…and that something else will be non-carbon (it’ll be solar), and that something else will be even better suited to replacing coal and natural gas and other hydrocarbon fossil fuels.


      1. “So, I’m not particularly worried about increasing CO2 levels. We’re coming to the end of the carbon energy era, one way or another; either it’s going to end because we’re going to move on to something better, or it’s going to end because civilization is going to collapse — and whichever of those two scenarios plays out, it’s going to happen on a shorter timeframe than that of most of the worst dangers from CO2 pollution.”

        That’s what I gathered from your first comment, and I don’t share your view.

        We shouldn’t forget that carbon is not only oil, but other fossil fuels such as coal and gas as well. I therefore wouldn’t say that the carbon era will end because of simple matters of economics and/or dwindling resources. And that we basically need not concern ourselves with CO2 emissions and the possible consequences of those on the earth’s climate and environment. Rather, I’d argue that we should actively work to end the use of CO2 & CH4 emitting fuels as quickly as possible, in order to limit the scale of global warming.

        1. We shouldn’t forget that carbon is not only oil, but other fossil fuels such as coal and gas as well.

          I’m not forgetting that.

          What you’re overlooking is that those fossil fuels are not fungible, and our civilization isn’t built on energy nearly so much as it’s built on petroleum.

          Save for petroleum, all the carbon fossil fuels are, within rounding, used to produce electricity. And electricity is highly fungible. Your cordless drill doesn’t care if the electricity stored in the batteries came from coal or petroleum or natural gas…or nuclear or solar or even unobtanium.

          But, within rounding, 100% of our transportation infrastructure runs not on electricity but on petroleum. And 100% of our agriculture runs on petroleum — and not just the farm equipment which could perhaps be electrified when battery technology gets good enough, but the fertilizers and pesticides which can’t be electrified short of insanely energy-intensive means of refining atmospheric CO2 into hydrocarbon feedstocks. Just as bad, 100% of our plastics are made from petroleum, and it would take the same ridiculously-expensive processes to make them without petroleum. And lubricants are 100% petroleum — and even our streets are paved with petroleum, and, for many, the very roofs over our heads are made from petroleum.

          When we run out of petroleum, all that goes away — transportation, agriculture, plastics, chemicals…all of industry, all of society.

          So, either we solve the petroleum problem or that’s it for civilization, period.

          You might then go on to argue that a solution to the petroleum problem would still leave us with all those other CO2 pollutants…except it won’t. If we could economically use coal as an alternative to petroleum, we’d have done so decades ago. America has massive amounts of coal, and coal is cheap…we are the Saudi Arabia of coal, and no way would we have let Saudi Arabia (and Russia!) dominate world economies with petroleum if we could have stolen their thunder with coal.

          But, here’s the catch…petroleum can be used to make electricity just as well as anything else; it’s just that petroleum can be burned in cars and planes and be made into plastics and fertilizer whereas the other carbon sources can’t — at least, not economically.

          So, when (if!) we solve the petroleum problem, whatever we solve it with (which’ll be solar, if we solve the problem at all) will be at least as well suited to making electricity as it is to replacing petroleum…which means the petroleum replacement really does replace all the other fossil fuels as well.

          As I’ve summarized before: either we solve the petroleum crisis or civilization collapses. Any solution to the petroleum crisis will also replace other fossil fuels, thereby also solving the CO2 crisis. But, if we don’t solve the petroleum problem, we’re all dead, sooner rather than later, so all else is moot.


          1. “What you’re overlooking is that those fossil fuels are not fungible, and our civilization isn’t built on energy nearly so much as it’s built on petroleum.”

            Disagree again.

            Tesla EVs don’t need oil.

            Apple EVs won’t need oil.

            Toyota Fuel Cell cars won’t need oil.

            Hybrid cars will need much less oil.

            “But, within rounding, 100% of our transportation infrastructure runs not on electricity but on petroleum.”

            But that will change, see above. Bye, bye oil.

            It’s only a question of when do we want that change to happen. Before melting sea ice and raising sea levels, increasing acidity of the oceans, the onset of droughts, etc. Or after.

            As for plastics, we would do well to use it less in the future, because “Billions of pounds of plastic can now be found on about 40 percent of the world’s ocean surfaces.”

            And the evidence mounts about the toxicity of plastic.

            Plastics are linked to endocrine disruption.

          2. “What you’re overlooking is that those fossil fuels are not fungible, and our civilization isn’t built on energy nearly so much as it’s built on petroleum.”

            Disagree again.

            Tesla EVs don’t need oil.

            Apple EVs won’t need oil.

            Toyota Hydrogen Fuel Cell cars won’t need oil.

            Hybrid cars will need much less oil.

            “But, within rounding, 100% of our transportation infrastructure runs not on electricity but on petroleum”

            But that’s going to change. Bye, bye oil.

            It’s only a question of when do we want that change to happen. Before melting sea ice, raising sea levels, increasing ocean acidity, the onset of droughts, etc. Or after.

            And as for plastic, we would do well to use it less in the future. Because, “billions of pounds of plastic can now be found on about 40 percent of the world’s ocean surfaces.”

            And the evidence also mounts that plastic may be toxic to us.

            1. Tesla EVs don’t need oil.

              Yes, and they’re wonderful amazing cars.

              So is the Nissan Leaf. My parents have one, and can’t stop talking about it.

              And, maybe, in a couple decades if the most wildly optimistic projections pan out, the majority of new cars in showrooms will be electric.

              The problem is…well, first, cars are but a fraction of the petroleum usage, and then there’ll still be all those non-electric vehicles still on the road.

              Even more fundamental: at a time when we’ll likely be experiencing oil price shocks that make those of the ’70s pale in comparison, what makes you think people will be able to afford to go out and buy a new car? Especially considering that a quarter of working-age Americans already don’t have jobs at all.

              Are you going to buy everybody an electric car?

              Toyota Hydrogen Fuel Cell cars won’t need oil.

              Alas, that’s pure bullshit. Fool cell cars don’t exist today, within rounding, and hydrogen is produced from natural gas. There’s nowhere you can refuel a fool cell, no infrastructure for distribution and sales of hydrogen, and really big technological challenges in building such a network from scratch. In stark contrast, every garage already has a plug you can use to put a day’s worth of driving range back in your EV overnight while you sleep — and you’ll likely not even notice the extra charge on your electric bill. The fool cell can’t even pretend to compete with that.

              But that’s going to change. Bye, bye oil.

              Oil is going away, yes. But it’s going away a lot faster than I think you realize, and much faster than is reasonable for EVs to take up the slack.

              Again: if the economy continues a traditional 3% growth, oil runs out in a quarter century. With or without a transition to electric vehicles. With stagflation, we can stretch that out to maybe 40 years, which is enough time that electric vehicles can keep stretching it out. With 3% contraction, we could probably manage a transition…but “contraction” is the diametric opposite of “build massive amounts of new infrastructure.”

              It’s a lot like rocket science…you need a certain amount of fuel to reach a different orbit. If you don’t have that fuel, you’re not going to reach the orbit…you can burn what fuel you have faster, but you’ll run out. You can burn the fuel slower, but you won’t build the speed you need.

              It’s not as simple as rocket science; the error bars are wider. Maybe we’ve got a bit more oil; maybe people will get excited or otherwise motivated; maybe we’ll stop spending the necessary money on killing brown people.

              …if the DeLorean hits the wire at 88 mph at 10:04 when the lightning strikes the clock tower….


            1. Hydrogen fuel cell cars are already in production.

              Name just one that I can buy today.

              As an added bonus, please list all the places you can fill one. Shouldn’t take you long; there’s only twelve, and only two outside of California.


              1. Ben, you have been constantly talking about growth, growth, growth, and now are mad that the FCVs are a growth technology that needs new infrastructure, that will give people new jobs, etc?

                Our move to oil-free transportation is only a question of when do we want that change to happen; after we have burned every last drop of oil exacerbating climate change, or as soon as possible, and therefore limiting the CO2 emissions.

                CO2 Levels Hit Record High for 30th Year in a Row

              2. Ben, you have been constantly talking about growth, growth, growth, and now are mad that the FCVs are a growth technology that needs new infrastructure, that will give people new jobs, etc?

                Fool cells are a non-existent technology that’s entirely powered by fossil fuels.

                The reason you didn’t name a single fool cell vehicle I can buy — is there aren’t any. And we’re somehow supposed to get from zero fool cell cars today to replacing the fleet with them before we run out of petroleum…just so we can simultaneously run out of natural gas because it’s now being used to make hydrogen for all those fool cells?

                The comparison with electric vehicles couldn’t be more stark. If you’re reading these words, you can, on a whim, decide right now to buy an electric vehicle and, by the end of the day, drive one home. Excellent condition two-year-old Nissan Leafs are available everywhere for under $15,000, and slightly older ones in less good condition for just over $10,000. At every price point up the chain, all the way up to ultimate luxury, you can find a car you can buy today — though, of course, some of the more exotic ones might take a bit longer to deliver.

                And we already have the charging infrastructure! Sure, cross-country road trips are impossible or inconvenient for the bottom rung vehicles…but that same outlet in the garage that you use for your cordless drill…that’ll put a full day’s driving range in any electric vehicle while you sleep. If you really need more, there’re rapid-charging stations all over the place, Tesla has its Supercharger network for the diehard road trip crowd, and you can always top up any of them anywhere with a regular plug.

                When was the last time you put a full tank of gas in your car when it was sitting in your very own garage? How’d you like to never have to go near a gas station ever again?

                Why would it even occur to you to replicate the gas station experience with hydrogen…when you can already, today, just plug in your car when you get home and always start every day with a full “tank”?

                What on Earth do fool cells even hypothetically offer that’s superior to what we already have with electric vehicles?


              3. Again: identify just one fool cell car I can buy today, and just one station where it can be refilled from non-fossil-fuel-produced hydrogen.

                Just one.

                You are aware, are you not, that electric vehicles are already today disproportionately solar powered because of the high correlation between EV ownership and the installation of rooftop solar? When I finally get around to my own EV (I drive very little, so it’s not been much of a priority), it’ll be solar powered because I’ve already got the excess capacity from my own rooftop solar setup. As in, if I got that bug up my ass to drive home a Leaf today, after slapping my credit card on the counter I’d own a solar-powered car.

                Can you even hypothetically describe how I’d do that with a fool cell? Can you identify a single instance, outside of some research facility, where anybody’s actually doing that?

                Just one?


              4. Yeah, yeah. We get it.

                Toyota is pouring more money into promoting fool cells than they are in producing them.

                I’ll offer you a challenge.

                You go to your local Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai dealers and ask to test-drive a fool cell vehicle with the intent to purchase it if you like it.

                I’ll go to my local Nissan, Chevy, and BMW dealers and ask to test-drive an electric vehicle with the intent to purchase it if I like it.

                One of us will get uncomprehending stares; the other will have to fight off the sales person eager to close the deal before. Want to bet who is who?


              5. Do you think there’s no room for two types of electric vehicles on the market, that is battery-powered and fuel-cell powered EVs?

              6. But that’s just it.

                EVs are taking the market by storm. The most-lusted-after luxury sedan and its just-now-selling SUV sibling are both electric. Chevy’s gotten more press with the Volt and now the Bolt than it’s gotten for any of its ICE cars in ages. The i3 is BMW’s most-talked-about new car in years. Kia’s ad for the Soul EV went viral. VW’s answer to their dieselgate fuckup is to go all-in with electrics. Cities that would never host Formula 1 races are hosting Formula E races, and hot rodders know to think long and hard before challenging a Tesla to a drag race.

                Fool cells don’t exist, not in any market, not in any garages, not on any tracks…nowhere but in press releases.

                and they don’t even offer any advantages. And the disadvantages they’ll come with are huge compared to those of electric vehicles.

                Wave a magic wand and make some of Toyota’s latest-and-greatest prototypes appear for sale at competitive prices on the showroom floor this afternoon.

                Unless you’re in California, Georgia, or DC, you have nowhere to fill it up. And, unless you’re in Los Angeles, you can’t drive from one station to another on a full tank. People talk about range anxiety in an EV…you want range anxiety? You want a fool cell.

                But the EV…the EV frees you from filling stations of any kind, forever. No more pumping stuff, no more stuff to leak or spill, no more hoses and gaskets and seals to wear out and need replacement…none of that. As I mentioned, EVs are already disproportionately solar powered thanks to the rooftop installations on the homes of owners, and many especially in the Southwest are primarily nuclear powered — and none are petroleum-powered. But the fool cells are all powered by natural gas, with only hype about hopes for future possibilities. And you’ll never ever in your entire lifetime be able to refill your fool cell at home…but your EV will always greet you in the morning with a full “tank” with nothing more required of you than to plug a cord into the wall — no standing around outside in all kinds of weather on a noisy street corner for several minutes fumbling with grimy industrial equipment whilst huffing fumes and hoping no idiots toss a lit cigarette your way.

                Now, could fool cells have been an option decades ago? Maybe.

                But they weren’t, they aren’t now, and they’re not even projected to be for decades…by which time, if civilization hasn’t collapsed, EVs will be as common a drivetrain option as automatic transmissions are today. And how do you expect to sell somebody a car they still have to take to the filling station, only there’re only two in the entire city by that time if you’re lucky?


              7. Did you not read the article? At least, the sentence that, in part, reads, “Toyota is quite clear; it doesn’t expect anyone to buy one”?

                Did you keep reading, either? “Hydrogen then is hardly practical at the moment. It’s also not all that cheap, costing around the same to fill as a petrol car would.” Electric vehicles are so cheap to charge that most people don’t even notice the increase in their monthly utility bills after getting an EV — but they do of course, notice not blowing a few yuppie food stamps every week at the gas station.

                What you probably didn’t read was the introductory paragraph of the Mirai’s Wikipedia article: “Toyota plans to build 700 vehicles for global sales during 2015.” There’re multiple dealerships less than twenty minutes away from me with more than that many total vehicles on inventory. A total manufacturing run of 700 vehicles isn’t production — not even close. Nissan sells that many Leafs every two weeks. Tesla sells about that many Model Ss every couple months. Chevy is selling Volts at about the same pace as Tesla is selling Model Ss.

                So, again: care to identify a fool cell vehicle that I can actually buy?


              8. With all respect to Tesla Motors, they are simply not able to manufacture large numbers of their battery-powered EVs.

                That’s where Toyota, Hyundai, Nissan, Honda with their fuel-cell powered EVs, and large manufacturing capabilities can step in.

              9. Tesla’s expanding operations faster than any manufacturing company in memory ever has, perhaps in history. Their Gigafactory in Nevada is on schedule to come online in about a year — and, even without it, they’re going toe-to-toe with GM in volume despite Tesla’s nearly-double pricetag.

                But mighty Toyota and its fool cells has managed to ramp up production to a staggering seven hundred cars. For all of 2015. Maybe, if they can meet their production goals. They hope. And even they themselves admit they don’t expect anybody to actually buy them.


              10. “You are aware, are you not, that electric vehicles are already today disproportionately solar powered because of the high correlation between EV ownership and the installation of rooftop solar?”

                Maybe so, but rooftop solar is not available to everyone. And hydrogen fuel-cell powered EVs can be refueled much faster than a battery-powered EV, making this type of car a nice alternative for many people.

              11. And hydrogen fuel-cell powered EVs can be refueled much faster than a battery-powered EV, making this type of car a nice alternative for many people.

                Ha! Pull the other one.

                If you just happen to live in LA, you can maybe hope to refuel your fool cell vehicle (if you’re one of the imaginary few who owns a mythical prototype) in an hour or so, after you fight traffic all the way to the filling station and back again. That’s your fastest fueling option for fool cells.

                An EV takes about ten seconds to recharge. You spend the first five seconds plugging it in when you get home at the end of the day, and the second five seconds unplugging it the next morning before you leave.

                …and you think refueling a fool cell is faster than charging an EV, and driving out of your way in Los Angeles traffic is a “nice alternative”?


              12. BTW, there are already an estimated 1 billion cars in the world, and the number will surely increase in the future with the growing economies of India, China and Africa. Do you think that we will be able to produce, say, 2 billion batteries for battery-powered EVs every 10 years (as that’s their lifespan)?

              13. Do you think that we will be able to produce, say, 2 billion batteries for battery-powered EVs every 10 years (as that’s their lifespan)?

                Ten years is also about the lifespan of the typical ICE engine and its transmission…and its power steering pump, and air conditioner, and power window motors, and all the rest. You see a fair number of 2005 cars on the road…a lot fewer 2000 cars, way fewer 1990s cars, and basically zero 1980s and earlier cars. (I’m especially weird that way, personally…I’m borrowing my parents’s 1955 VW Bug whilst awaiting the completion of the renovation of my year-ago-bought 1964 1/2 Mustang as I try to figure out what to do with my recently rear-ended 1968 VW Westfalia Campmobile — and those’re the only three cars I’ve ever either owned or driven for any substantial period of time.)

                But a ten-year-old EV battery is still going to have more than half the range it did when new (and a ten-year-old Tesla is likely to have at least 80% of its range when new). If that’s not enough for the driving needs of the car’s owner, the battery will still be perfectly suited for sticking in a closet to serve either as an whole-house UPS with ability for some time-of-use arbitrage for those without solar, or as part of an off-grid whole-home battery for those with solar.

                And those batteries too badly abused to be reused can be recycled for their raw materials far cheaper than it is today to mine the materials in the first place.

                None of that is future speculation; it’s the current business-as-usual market.


              14. “An EV takes about ten seconds to recharge. You spend the first five seconds plugging it in when you get home at the end of the day”

                But if you don’t have rooftop solar at home, and/or need to recharge your EV on the road, you must spend half an hour recharging it. In the case of a hydrogen fuel-cell EV it takes only 3 mins.

              15. But if you don’t have rooftop solar at home, and/or need to recharge your EV on the road, you must spend half an hour recharging it.

                More FUD.

                My parents don’t have rooftop solar at home and they’ve yet to have to recharge their Leaf on the road since they bought it this past summer.

                The Chevy Volt has half the all-electric range of the Leaf, and typical owners report going six months or more before needing to stop at a gas station to top off the onboard generator’s tank.


              16. “Did you keep reading, either? “Hydrogen then is hardly practical at the moment.”

                As I said, ‘at the moment’ is the key phrase here.

              17. That’s the first part.

                But the fool cell’s biggest hurdle is making it past “at the moment” and into reality sometime in the vague future.

                Any passenger vehicle is going to need an ubiquitous refilling / recharging infrastructure to be viable. We obviously already have one for gasoline and diesel. And we’ve got an even-more-prevalent one for electric vehicles, as literally every electric outlet is suitable for putting miles back in the battery. Every garage already has the charging infrastructure, and every parking lot already has lighting that can be tapped into for charging. (Not rapid charging…but, if the car’s going to sit there anyway for several hours at least while you sleep or work, what problem if it takes those several hours to top off the battery?)

                But hydrogen has to start from scratch.

                And any hydrogen vehicle is useless (in today’s society…things were different a century ago when horses still dominated the transportation landscape and gas was bought at the hardware store) without a prevalent filling infrastructure. More than a few miles out of your way to the filling station and it becomes a bad joke…

                …and what sort of idiot is going to install, say, 1500 hydrogen stations in a 20 mile square metropolitan area when there aren’t any fool cell vehicles to fill up there, just so people will consider buying fool cell vehicles in the first place?

                And go ahead and grab a magic wand and sprinkle some pixie dust and pretend that the mythical Free Hand waves all that infrastructure into existence…what incentive is there for people to buy a fool cell car over a more familiar one in the first place? Diesel is cheaper per mile than gasoline and pumps are everywhere…but how many diesel passenger vehicles do you actually see on the road? Why should you think that hydrogen is going to be more popular than diesel? What’s the selling point? Altruism?

                People are buying electric vehicles not because of altruism, but because they’re better cars, period. They’re cheaper to operate, they seriously outperform comparable ICE-powered cars, they’re trivial to maintain and operate, they’re unimaginably quiet, there’s no mess, and on and on. The limited daily range is a downside, yes, but not one that actually matters to the people buying — and they are selling, better than hotcakes.

                What’s the fool cell got that’s even better than the electric vehicle that’s going to make people to want it even more than electric?

                …again, ignoring the fact that fool cell vehicles can’t actually be bought today and are expensive piles of scrap anywhere outside of parts of LA and are impractical jokes for most LA residents who might hypothetically be able to consider one….


              18. “Did you keep reading, either? “Hydrogen then is hardly practical at the moment.”

                As I said, ‘at the moment’ is the key phrase here.

                “It’s also not all that cheap, costing around the same to fill as a petrol car would.”

                Doh! New technology is expensive? What a surprise.

              19. So…you’re endorsing expensive, inferior, nonexistent technology over cheaper, superior, at-your-dealer-today technology…why, exactly…?


              20. “My parents don’t have rooftop solar at home and they’ve yet to have to recharge their Leaf on the road since they bought it this past summer.”

                I was, of course, comparing a pure battery-powered EV (such as Tesla) against hydrogen fuel-cell powered EV. And there surely are people who need access to recharging stations, as if there weren’t such a need, Tesla wouldn’t be building those stations! Ha Ha!

              21. The Leaf is a pure battery-powered EV!

                Really, I’m starting to think that you’re completely ignorant of the current state of the automotive industry if you aren’t aware of that fact. If that’s the case, if it wasn’t just a brainfart or a slip o’ th’ mouse…then you’d do yourself a good deal of benefit to actually learn some basics.

                Start here, at the least:


                And Tesla’s Supercharger network is for cross-country road trips, not daily usage. Save for rounding errors, all Tesla owners do their day-to-day charging of their pure-electric vehicles exactly the same way that my parents do their day-to-day charing of their pure-electric vehicle: by plugging the car into a wall socket in the garage. Maybe some Tesla owners will go over a week before plugging it in rather than plugging in every few days the way my parents do, but that’s about it.

                The only functional difference between a Tesla and my parents’s Leaf is that you can use the Tesla for road trips. But even when they still had the ’89 Lincoln Town Car, they didn’t use it for road trips; they would rent a car instead. They haven’t changed their driving habits since getting the Leaf…except for the fact that they never waste any time and money any more at gas stations, of course.


              22. “So…you’re endorsing expensive, inferior, nonexistent technology over cheaper, superior, at-your-dealer-today technology…why, exactly…?”

                I’m actually endorsing battery-powered and fuel-cell powered EVs. They both have their pros and cons.


                As FCVs go, their fast refueling time as well as the fact that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe speak the most to me.

              1. Virtually nobody drives more than 100 miles in a day, with a few notable and irrelevant exceptions. Yes, there’re people like rural real estate agents who’ll do 400 miles in a day without it being anything unusual for them — but they’re exceedingly unusual. And there’re those who live 50 miles or more from work…again, exceedingly unusual. And, of course, there’s the long-distance road trip vacation…which few people do more than once a year at most, and many of those who do such once a year rent a car for the trip anyway.

                So, if we just look at the 80% of people whose entire driving habits are less than 100 miles per day…remind me again why a 400 mile range matters?

                And that’s just looking at the bottom end of the EV market!

                If you want an EV you can use for road trips that has a 500 mile range that can be put back in the car in five minutes…you want a Chevy Volt. It has a 40-mile electric range, plus a range-extending generator and a tank of gasoline. Most Volt owners only actually fill up the tank once or twice a year. But, if you want to do that road trip, you can drive longer than anybody wants to sit in a car without taking a break before it’s time to start to think about looking for a gas station. Then plug the car in at your hotel at your destination, and you’ve got the perfect EV for all the local touristy things.

                And, of course, if you’ve got the budget for a Mercedes or a BMW or similar luxury sedan…well, then you’ve also got the budget for a Tesla. That’ll get you over 250 miles of range, and access to their SuperCharger network which’ll recharge the car in about as much time as the typical mid-trip bathroom break.

                …and, again again…your fool cell doesn’t actually take three minutes to recharge. It takes an infinite amount of time to recharge because it doesn’t exist and there aren’t any charging stations for it anyway. Even in the best-case scenario, with a pre-production prototype in Los Angeles, you’d want to plan on at least an hour to find your way to one of the half-dozen stations scattered around the basin. And this is supposed to compete with the five seconds it takes to plug in an EV at the end of the day and the five seconds to unplug it the next morning? Seriously?


              2. “…and, again again…your fool cell doesn’t actually take three minutes to recharge. It takes an infinite amount of time to recharge because it doesn’t exist and there aren’t any charging stations for it anyway.”

                The question is how extensive an infrastructure the big car makers like Honda, Nissan, Toyota and others will be able to build for their FCVs in 5, 10, 15 years…

                And equally important, if they are going to be able to find a greener source of H2 than natural gas, on which they currently rely.

              3. Is their fueling infrastructure going to make it into every garage and many other parking spaces? Because that’s where the EV charging infrastructure already is.

                In 5, 10, 15 years, quite an awful lot of parking meters are going to be EV charging stations as well, plus a great many parking lot spaces. In most cases, it’s little more than running a few wires off of the street (etc.) lights already there into an outlet.


              4. “And this is supposed to compete with the five seconds it takes to plug in an EV at the end of the day and the five seconds to unplug it the next morning? Seriously?”

                So does it take 5 seconds or an entire night? And btw, aren’t people charging their EVs during nighttime using coal-powered grid more often than not?

              5. People don’t care about the elapsed time on the stopwatch.

                They care about how much time they themselves personally spend in the activity.

                …or do you think baking is such a demanding job because the bakers stare at the loaves the whole time they’re rising…?


  19. I think the debate seemed lopsided Steven Pinker and Matt Riddley had the better argument overall. I’m thinking too that the other side seemed a bit forced and contrived as if they were not fully committed and knew they did not have very strong arguments. Thus, I feel the game was rigged in the sense that it was undertaken to explore and exhibit debate as an art form as much as an expression of deeply held belief on the part of all sides.
    My main takeaway is that I will read the economist mentioned by Pinker – “The climate casino : risk, uncertainty, and economics for a warming world”, by William Nordhaus.

  20. I wonder if Pinker and Ridley would consider the current crop of Republican presidential candidates a talking point in their favor.

  21. There cannot be any doubt about it, Matt Ridley and Steven Pinker were excellent. I had never seen Mr. Ridley, and perhaps the element of surprise, the british eloquence and his delivery, which reminded me of Steven Fry, made his opening statement the best to my ears, though only a noselength before Steven Pinker’s who clearly won the closing one.

    It’s however clear to me that this audience here, myself included, would like their approach best. No worries, I’m not turning into a postmodernist just now, for whom I have no sympathies at all. But we still shouldn’t dismiss the other team too easily, not even Alain De Botton who seemed the weakest. You saw a debate between thinkers vs feelers, between trends vs risks, between facts vs rhetorics, science vs humanities, calculable risks vs black swans, optimism vs pessimism, and between quantitative vs qualitative assessments.

    I was surprised Alain De Botton didn’t bring up fellow swiss Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s “The Physicists”, which would be much more appropriate than Anna Karenina — that was completely unintelligible. I guess he wanted to say that humans, despite progress, have constant levels of happiness (or woes) of sorts. But he missed to establish that stagnation in happiness would be enough for his team.

    I saw the debate rather light spirited, even if the content was serious, for you can argue from the outset that of course better days for humankind lie ahead. Next week will be, in sum, better than the last. The debate was not winnable taken totally seriously, so it must be seen as presenting information in an entertaining way and here the Contra team did well. This was arguably their job. It is also true that, if taken seriously, at some point in the future humankind or earth as we know it will end, and if only when the sun burned out. As such, the debate relied on how you understand the question, where you place priority, or how you set the frame — which is still not postmodernism, as any specific framing and definition will allow better or worse answers. Even the meta-question, “what is good to believe about the matter” can be made complicated: too much polyanna is bad, too much cassandra, likewise. Pinker thus won it with the last sentence, we tend to worry too much, optimism is good.

    I guess we are balancing on an ever sharper knife’s edge, as far as humankind as a whole is concerned, but that blade is pointing upwards as we balance along it. More people will see their lives improved. There are still risks that are global and new, on a similar level as nuclear weapons were before. Genetic manipulation, artificial intelligence and robotics, surveillance from corporations and states, information control and silos, tipping points in climate change or the sixt extinction of species — surprisingly none of that came up. That makes the question of the evening easily answerable, and they won for excellent reasons, but falls short of the many things around it: can we rely on trends? That’s the age old problem of induction.
    I’m an optimist, thinker type (like we are probably all here) and don’t like misanthropes and postmodernists. That won it.

  22. The Cassandra side consists of a minor philosopher and a minor genius which is Pinker’s label for Phil Spector’s identical twin separated at birth. Though Botton abhors his opposition’s stance, I am betting he had to stifle an urge from not crossing the stage to sit with the two nice blokes and get away from The Disagreeable One.

    Ridley may actually be a member of the House of Lords, but Sadwell would fit the stereotype more: a grump dissatisfied that his privilege is being eroded as in the last couple of years the misplaced adoration of his literary output has sharply diminished.

    An adversarial debate may be less bloody than a gladiatorial combat, but its merit is not much more. The non-alarmists who are not exactly unbridled optimists won but it would have been much more gratifying if such a debate was not even needed. But that’s the adorable cousins of the apes for you. 🙂

  23. “Humans are progressing” and “Best days lie ahead” are two completely different propositions, one in no sense implying the other.

    Humans *have been* progressing, but near-future problems ahead with climate change, overpopulation, and religious fundamentalism could overwhelm us and bring that progress to an end.

    1. The problem of religious (mostly Islamic at this point) fundamentalism is a persistent one, but I sometimes get the impression that we aren’t really trying to solve it. After all, we managed to beat the millions of Nazi German soldiers and their Italian and Japanese fascist friends during World War II, and now I’m supposed to believe that a bunch of desert dwelling militants from the so-called Islamic State are a threat that could overwhelm us?

    2. That was one of Gladwell’s points. The kind of risks we face are changing. The past success, therefore, is not an indicator of future success. Although the other side pointed out that we have always thought of ourselves as living at some kind of turning point, but that catastrophe fails to materialize. ISIS, in comparison to past enemies, is actually less of a threat. There is, of course, the Sam Harris scenario, where an Islamic state in full jihad mode obtains nuclear weapons and decides on Armageddon.

    3. If some the very vehicles that have contributed to this progress (fossil fuels and technology) could lead us to our doom (climate change, overpopulation and nuclear war) would anyone be able to look back at the history of human civilization and say,”modern humans were progressing”?

  24. The Con side did not fully develop their strongest claim: for every bit of progress serious problems arise. Whether that’s true or false, they missed an opportunity to dampen their opponent’s optimism.

    Strange debate. Stranger still, there are some who think the Con side was persuasive.


    1. That’s certainly not true for *every bit of progress* as I doubt that, for example, the development of seat belts in cars created any serious problems for humanity.

      That being said, it’s true that it has often been the case in the past we repeatedly failed to realize the negative aspects of new technologies such as the reckless use of fossil fuels, along with several toxic chemicals, etc. But this very knowledge of our past failings has made us *more cautious*, not less, today.

  25. Taking this debate on its own terms (Resolved: humankind’s best days lie ahead), then the PRO side won hands down. However, how could they not? The resolution is trivial. “Ahead” is undefined as to its time horizon. It is absurd to argue that there will a time in the future when things aren’t improved with respect to the various dimensions Pinker highlights.

    What if the debate had been recast into two positions: Humankind’s BEST days lie ahead vs. Humankind’s WORST days lie ahead? I think the answer to that is very possibly BOTH. Read Six Degrees by Mark Lynas, which is an account of the consequences of each 1 °C increase in mean global temperature, based on geological evidence of what the earth’s climate and biosphere were like when such temperatures were reached in the distant past.

  26. The bar seemed to be set very low for the pro side, since if it is granted that the sorts of changes we’ve seen in the last couple of hundred years count as improvement for humankind, then unless the cons can show an imminent collapse in human economy and morals then inevitably our best days are ahead (unless they could show that a nuclear holocaust or similar will happen in a day or two), because they’re coming next week, more than likely, or at least, next decade.

    Instead everyone seemed to envisage some unspecified future time (maybe mid-century?) when in fact, as Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead, so that fact should have been a slam dunk for the cons, if they are only concerned about our ultimate fate! Certainly on the human scale I think Pinker’s marshaling of the data shows a general improvement of the human condition, but I guess de Botton wanted to hint at some deeper malaise of humanity that could not be addressed by material improvement; something similar to the sort of despair people like John Gray think we should have.

    Luckily while I have my dark moments I still tend to the optimistic about our fate (in the next few hundred years), pace climate change and the oil issue, and find Gray and de Botton tiresome. I do wonder if this is a consequence of temperament, though, rather than argument.

  27. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity… in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

    Pinker was the stand-out best speaker. Didn’t impinge one iota on my thorough going Copernican view of humanity. Humanity is of no more consequence to God than are flies; though God is of greater consequence to humans; to theists and atheists alike. The human condition does not inevitably progress to infinity. What goes round comes round. What is unpredictable is unpredictable. Science does not imply any particular future. Faith in science makes me laugh – and I love science. Science is not about human benefit. Science is the opposite of ignorance. No more than that. Man is made of faith Arjuna, as his faith is so is he. I am faithless. I love science just because I hate ignorance. Any other benefits are accidental. As are any deficits. The debate did not dispel ignorance. Debates rarely do.

    One side was sceptical about an inexorable scientific path to a future heaven on earth. The other side was sceptical about an inevitable future human-engineered or accidental cataclysm. The two sides cancelled one another.

    1. “Faith in science makes me laugh – and I love science.”

      Neither Pinker nor Ridley have a faith in science, at least not in the disparaging way you suggest.

      Ridley specifically addressed this in the debate. His “faith” in science is based on evidence that it is working and an understanding of why it works. Specifically:

      – We can identify and measure clear indicators of human progress over long periods of time, long enough to rule out increases in progress as mere blips or product of chance.

      – We know the key role of scientific progress in explaining this trend of improvement over time. For some of these metrics of human progress, science is probably the only reason for the improvement.

      Therefore, if we understand the core scientific reasons behind human progress, we can set expectations of further progress based on our knowledge of current scientific developments and discoveries. If life expectancy is a key metric, we have good reason to believe that this will improve even more. If reduction of infectious disease worldwide is another good indicator of progress, then again, we have very good evidence to believe that further improvement is on the way.

      That is a big part of what Ridley and Pinker are doing, and it has nothing to do with blind faith.

      1. Any fool can see that science represents progress in knowledge. Naturally we try to benefit in whatever ways we can think of from this knowledge. We haven’t had this knowledge very long but it is immensely powerful. I just don’t think human nature is equipped to protect itself from itself. We are ravenous beasts as well as now exceedingly clever and powerful beasts. If human nature had changed for the better then I would be an optimist. Unfortunately it’s only our knowledge about the working of the world that’s fundamentally changed. I have admired Pinker hitherto but he did come across as a little zealous to me. Ridley runs with the libertarian wolves. There’s more than pure reason at work within their little souls, methinks.

      2. We haven’t had science very long but we have utilised it much. Of course. If our nature had changed I might be an optimist. We are very clever and very powerful as a result of science. We have altered the externals but not the internals. Maybe we will be able to do that in a good way before we do what we have always done before only more so – have a jolly good old war.

        I have a foot in both camps – the humanities and the sciences. I know where both sides of the debate are coming from. There’s more going on in the souls of Ridley and Pinker than pure empirical science. They have their driver-values. Sort of shines through them. Without some kind of faith there’s no reason to go on other than the irksomeness of ending it – unless you feel that life is sweet. We know that our personal ending is likely to be miserable to a greater or lesser degree. So we try not to think about it, and it helps to imagine that the lot of humanity will at least get better when we are gone – though that’s a funny kind of solace, really. Science has shown us that there is no grand meaning to our existence. There is no final cause in operation. Look at flies. That’s us that is. Only we like to kill one another rather a lot. And science can help us to do that, as it can help us in so many other ways. The line on the graph is looking good. Hooray!

        Give me a break. Science is beautiful, humanity in the round is not.

  28. It seems to me that there could have been a third side: neutral. I would (though I am slightly on the optimistic side, for the time being) take that side if pressed. For example, perhaps violence has indeed declined, and we certainly have had progress in human rights, etc. But the other stuff mentioned upthread is pressing too, so …

  29. How has de Botton made a name for himself? Maybe being on stage rattled him, but he couldn’t follow simple lines of reasoning (or form them).

  30. Jerry,Thank you for this link — I just finished watching/listening to the debate and wanted to share some of my reactions. Steven Pinker performed as expected with clarity and massive data. The pronouncements by Gladwell and de Botton were troubling with the latter continually speaking over his opponents — especially Pinker — in an attempt to make his points understood because he really had nothing relevant to say.  The moderator disappointingly never stopped this outrageous behavior. de Botton also accused Pinker of moving the debating goal posts when this is was exactly what he was doing. He also tried to make the debate a black and white issue by trying to press the point that scientists were not concerned with the human condition when this what Ridley and Pinker were emphasizing with their data. de Botton’s world view came to the fore near the end when he insisted that the real issues revolved around existential existence and the souls of people. He admitted that his goal was to show that as great as science is (he attempted to convince the audience that he had the utmost respect and support for science), there is “more” and science is not interested in that “more.” He never understood that Pinker and Ridley were using data and “materialism” to show the power and effectiveness of science in dealing with the “more.” He almost slipped into proclaiming that the real issue that is important includes religious belief. There was also cutesy attempts at the beginning of the debate to use ad hominem “jokes” by de Botton and Gladwell to strengthen their case. Ridley had some funny rejoinders to that. Fortunately, the final scoring went in favor of the good guys with the white hats.I’m sure you will find much more to find wrong with the black hats.Terry SandbekBTW – Fortunately I’m on vacation in Hawaii right now so had the time to leisurely listen to this debate.>

    1. Well said. I just watched this fun and interesting debate, and my impressions were much the same as yours.

      Pinker was brilliant and stayed focused. Some of the jabs on both sides were hilarious, but Malcolm and de Botton came across as rude and bombastic.

Leave a Reply