The Innovationist vs. the Catastrophists
Written by Alex Epstein
One of the most insightful comedy acts in recent years is Louis CK’s “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy” routine.
If you haven’t watched it yet, take 4 minutes before coming back and learning about a book that could help solve that problem. Here’s an excerpt from the routine:
People come back from flights and they tell you their story and it’s like a horror story…It’s, they act like their flight was like a cattle car in the 40′s in Germany. . . . . They’re like, “it was the worst day of my life. First of all we didn’t board for 20 minutes and then we get on the plane and they made us sit there on the runway for 40 minutes. . . .”
Oh really, what happened next? Did you fly through the air incredibly like a bird? . . .
People say there’s delays on flights. Delays…really? New York to California in 5 hours. That used to take 30 years to do that and a bunch of you would die on the way there. . . . Now you watch a movie…and you’re home.
Everything is amazing and nobody is happy. Except for energy guru Robert Bryce, author of, most recently, Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong, a book brimming with well-founded enthusiasm about the amazing present and the prospects for a more amazing future.
In Smaller Faster (I’ll abbreviate the title this way) Bryce takes on perhaps the two most important causes of “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy.”
One: We are not taught the causes of the amazing things around us–the innovation that creates improvements and solves problems. We can call this innovation underappreciation.
Two: We are taught not to think of our lives as amazing but as unsustainable. We can call this catastrophism.
I am what you might call a Robert Bryce fan-boy.
Example: In 2010, I was so excited for the release of his book Power Hungry: The Myths of Green Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future that, upon learning that my Amazon.com copy would arrive the day after the release date, I immediately called every Barnes and Noble in Orange County until I found one that had the book on release day and made them promise several times over to reserve me a copy.
Knowing Bryce’s previous work (in particular Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of Energy Independence) I knew that the book would be exploding with fascinating energy facts and I knew that it would be super-fun to read–because Robert Bryce clearly loves technology and the innovation and drives it.
Bryce doesn’t just tell you that something is happening–for example, that coal is becoming the fuel of the future while solar and wind remain luxury goods. He tells you why it is happening. For example, in Power Hungry, he explained how technologies with high energy density (the amount of stored energy per unit of mass or volume) and high power density (the rate at which energy can be applied to do work per unit of mass or volume), such as coal, were invariably more efficient than those that didn’t, such as wind and solar. He explained how a modern coal mine works, how a modern power plant works, how a modern electricity grid works–and you can tell he’s fascinated.
In Smaller Faster, Bryce takes his appreciation of innovation and uses it to illuminate the past, present, and future of innovation across the board: in agriculture, energy (of course), mining and drilling, communications, engines, athletics, the evolution of cities, music, and many other areas of life.
One such realm is information technology, where he takes you from the printing press to the vacuum tube to the ever-more-impressive iterations of the digital computer.
But crucially, he doesn’t just tell you that they existed or exist, but how individuals used innovation to bring them into existence and improve them. For example, he tells the story of how John Von Neumann, was driven by a passion to create better, faster computers, the value of which, said Von Neumann,
lies not only in that one might thereby do in 10,000 times less time problems which one is now doing, or say 100 times more of them in 100 times less time— but rather in that one will be able to handle problems which are considered completely unassailable at present.
With Von Neumann and other giants of innovation, Bryce likes to tell fun stories. Von Neumann
pioneered several fields of study in mathematics and was so facile with complex subjects that the nuclear physicist Hans Bethe (who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1967) once said that he “wondered whether a brain like von Neumann’s does not indicate a species superior to that of man.”
Another colleague recalled von Neumann’s photographic memory. “He was able on once reading a book or article to quote it back verbatim . . . On one occasion, I tested his ability by asking him to tell me how A Tale of Two Cities started, whereupon, without any pause, he immediately began to recite the first chapter. We asked him to stop after ten to fifteen minutes.”
Smaller Faster is like this throughout–fascinated by innovation, uninhibitedly admiring of the innovator.
And this, I think, is why Bryce is particularly happy–”We are lucky to be living in extraordinary times”–because he understands and appreciates the people and practices that have gone into producing those times.
The full title of the book Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper, reflects Bryce’s account of crucial forms and facets of innovation. He shows that there are general, powerful trends for the technologies in our lives to become smaller, faster lighter, denser, cheaper.
At the core of these trends is a fundamental trend toward greater human efficiency—creating more value with less effort or, as Bryce puts it, “doing more with less.” And at the core of greater efficiency is human ingenuity.
It is a failure to understand ingenuity, Bryce explains, that makes our culture continually fear doom—because in reality, as Bryce puts it innovation invariably “proves the catastrophists wrong.”
The improvements and innovations are treated by many of our cultural leaders, whom Bryce calls catastrophists, as unsustainable, part of a way of life that must end in a gory collapse. He describes their view this way:
We are driving too much, flying too much, eating too much, making too much unneeded stuff, and using far too much air-conditioning and refrigeration. The fundamental outlook behind collapse anxiety is one of scarcity and shortage.
Given our myriad sins against the planet, we are surely going to pay.
But are we? Or must we?
Bryce, while very upfront about the problems mankind faces, says no:
This dystopian outlook appeals to plenty of people. It seems they cannot be happy unless they are scared out of their minds. This pessimistic worldview ignores an undeniable truth: more people are living longer, healthier, freer, more peaceful, lives than at any time in human history.
Because we are not taught about how innovation really works, it is easy to fall prey to the idea that today’s way of life is going to collapse.
But, as Smaller Lighter points out, time after time throughout history, catastrophism has been wrong. We’ve been “running out of oil” since the inception of oil–yet human ingenuity keeps unlocking new forms of oil (thanks to innovations like fracking). We were supposed to run out of food as population increased–and yet agricultural technology (such as fossil fuel-powered tractors and combines) has meant more people and more food per person.
Why does catastrophism fail? The book’s basic answer is: innovation. Innovation enables human beings to create new forms of value—e.g., computers–but also enables human beings to solve problems that human creations create.
Bryce is anything but evasive about the risks of various technologies, including ways in which technology can be abused. Real problems connected to technology. One particularly scary fact I learned was the sheer number of government requests for citizens’ data. “Each year, according to the Economist, South Korean authorities make more than 37 million requests to see communications data on its citizens. (The country has about 50 million people.)”
But Bryce’s solution is, well, to actually try to solve the problem using innovation and what was once celebrated as a “can-do attitude.”
That might seem like common sense, but it is definitely not common practice.
For example, take what many believe to be the most negative risk or side-effect of fossil fuel use: its impact on climate.
Every technology has risks and side-effects. To decide what to do about the risks and side-effects of fossil fuel use, we must try to quantify them as best we can, try to solve them as best we can, and look at them in the context of the big-picture—taking into account the enormous positives we get from them. Bryce is one of the few who truly does that, actually giving major attention to the positives of fossil fuel energy and, more broadly, on the need for energy: “In my view, the media and pundits are way too focused on climate models and not nearly focused enough on reactor, engine, and fuel cell models.”
Bryce appreciates that few things matter more than cheap, reliable energy. “Everything in our society–in fact, everything that happens inside of us–begins with the transformation of energy. No symphonies can be imagined or played, no planes can take off, no crops can be harvested without some form of energy being transformed into another.”
So to whatever extent (if any) there are negative climate-related impacts of using fossil fuel energy, his solution is to try to solve them using ingenuity, not by not using energy (which is what mandating wind and solar would mean):
[H]umans have been adapting to the climate for millennia. Every sensible “no-regrets” climate policy recognizes the need to prepare for future storms and droughts. We can argue about whether severe weather is caused by carbon dioxide—and whether or not such weather is increasing in frequency or intensity—until the cows come home. The hard reality is that we must make our cities and systems more resilient. Whether those weather events are related to anthropogenic carbon dioxide doesn’t matter. What matters is our preparedness with early-warning systems, flood-control measures, and evacuation plans.
To go back to “everything is amazing and nobody is happy,” there are two ways of looking at the world, given that there will always be a combination of positives and negatives in the world.
One is to focus on maximizing the positives and minimizing the negatives, taking an attitude that is overall positive and enthusiastic for what life can offer. The other is to look for negatives (which one will always be able to find) and define life by them. The truly, objective, big picture approach is to focus on the positive–to recognize that “everything is amazing” (even though of course not everything is) and be happy.
Read more at www.forbes.com