Blog by Jason Crawford: “Debates about technology and progress are often framed in terms of “optimism” vs. “pessimism.” For instance, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Johan Norberg, Max Roser, and the late Hans Rosling have been called the “New Optimists” for their focus on the economic, scientific, and social progress of the last two centuries. Their opponents, such as David Runciman and Jason Hickel, accuse them of being blind to real problems in the world, such as poverty, and to risks of catastrophe, such as nuclear war.
Economic historian Robert Gordon calls himself “the prophet of pessimism.” His book The Rise and Fall of American Growth warned that the days of high economic growth are over for the United States and will not return. Gordon’s opponents include a group he calls the “techno-optimists,” such as Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, who have predicted a growth spurt in productivity from information technology.
It’s tempting to choose sides. But while it can be rational to be optimistic or pessimistic on any specific question, these terms are too imprecise to be adopted as a general intellectual identity. Those who identify as optimists can be too quick to dismiss or downplay the problems of technology, while self-styled technology pessimists or progress skeptics can be too reluctant to believe in solutions.
As we look forward to the post-pandemic recovery, once again we’re being tugged between the optimists, who highlight all the diseases that may soon be beaten through new vaccines, and the pessimists, who warn that humanity will never win the evolutionary arms race against microbes. But this represents a false choice. History provides us with powerful examples of people who were brutally honest in identifying a crisis but were equally active in seeking solutions.
At the end of the 19th century, William Crookes—physicist, chemist, and inventor of the Crookes tube (an early type of vacuum tube)—was the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. On September 7, 1898, he used the traditional annual address to the association to issue a dire warning.
The British Isles, he said, were at grave risk of running out of food. His reasoning was simple: the population was growing exponentially, but the amount of land under cultivation could not keep pace. The only way to continue to increase production was to improve crop yields. But the limiting factor on yields was the availability of nitrogen fertilizer, and the sources of nitrogen, such as the rock salts of the Chilean desert and the guano deposits of the Peruvian islands, were running out. His argument was detailed and comprehensive, based on figures for wheat production and land availability from every major European country and colony; he apologized in advance for boring his audience with statistics….(More)”.