But the deeper reason is that there’s really no such thing as a natural resource. All resources are artificial. They are a product of technology. And economic growth is ultimately driven, not by material resources, but by ideas.
~ Jason Crawford from https://longnow.org/ideas/02022/10/07/can-economic-growth-continue-over-the-long-term/
A few years ago my thinking shifted. I used to think of something, simply by its existence, as being a “natural resource.” More recently I’ve begun to pay attention to which, and how much, technology has to be added for something to be a resource. Anything in the ground has no special value until someone adds the mining or drilling, the refinement, distribution and so on. That makes it clearer how to evaluate the trade-offs.
It becomes easier to visualize, and realize, that the constraints are not the amount of the natural resource (the raw stuff) but rather that the limits are all the expense, destruction, energy, transformation, and ideas that have to go into making that raw stuff usable. And sometimes, it’s just not the right trade-off to make a something into something useable.
Vannevar Bush—head of military research during WW2, author of “As We May Think” and “Science, the Endless Frontier”—wrote a memoir late in life, Pieces of the Action. It was out of print and hard to obtain for a long time, but Stripe Press has brought it back in a new edition with a foreword from Ben Reinhardt. […] Here are some of my favorite quotes from the original edition:
~ Jason Crawford from, https://rootsofprogress.org/vannevar-bush-memoir-highlights
There’s a sort of incredulous-eyes, slight shaking of the head, expression that I make when I want to emphasize just how amazing I find it to be when I gape into the maw of All Human Knowledge. Sometimes I find something like this which is so blindingly important to so much of the society and culture upon which I find myself standing, that I’m drawn up short. I feel like I’ve heard the name “Vannevar Bush” but I couldn’t have told you a thing about that person. Then I look at the hundreds of unread books, and the hundreds of digital, read-later things I’ve collected, and I smile, because I think I get it.
I smile when I manage to remember that there’s no goal. The point isn’t to accomplish anything in particular (fix something big in the world, follow every thread of interest, learn the question whose answer is 42.) The point isn’t even to enjoy the ride. The point is, how you answer the question life asks you.
But if progress is real and important—how do we judge this? How do we justify that improvements to material living standards are good? That technological and industrial progress represents true progress for humanity?~ Jason Crawford from, https://rootsofprogress.org/progress-humanism-agency
In a few dozen words, this article goes from zero to gloves-off, let’s take about the nature of what is good. Yes, please. Lets discuss this more often. I find, without exception, it’s completely pointless to discuss anything—the climate, energy sources, guns, health, rights… choose your favorite third-rail topic—if myself and the other(s) don’t share the same values.
And I mean the big values of philosophy. When I start thinking about what does human autonomy mean? …what rights and/or responsibilities does consciousness confer? …what is truth? Big yawning questions! …when we don’t agree on that stuff, then no wonder we’re at odds on the other things.
This has been distilled to a motto: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. I am a pessimist or optimist of the intellect according to facts on the ground, but I am ever an optimist of the will.~ Jason Crawford from, https://rootsofprogress.org/descriptive-vs-prescriptive-optimism
Frankly, I’ve never cared for the simple dichotomy of, “are you an optimist, or a pessimist?” There is simply too much complexity—in the world, in the mind—for that level of simplicity to be useful. I’m interested in models, and this article from Crawford spreads out some of the complexity nicely. (It also includes some interesting references.)
The core idea of Pasteur’s Quadrant is that basic and applied research are not opposed, but orthogonal. Instead of a one-dimensional spectrum, with motion towards “basic” taking you further away from “applied”, and vice versa, he proposes a two-dimensional classification, with one axis being “inspired by the quest for fundamental understanding” and the other being “inspired by considerations of use”~ Jason Crawford from, https://rootsofprogress.org/pasteurs-quadrant
I’ve put a bit of thought into research. I’ve certainly considered the two properties of “research for understanding” and “research for application”. But I’ve never thought of them as two dimensions. Click through and check out the simple but illuminating quadrant graph.
And I’m immediately wondering: Can I think of a third dimension upon which to plot research? (Field-of-study comes to mind. Time; The thing being studied, is it something that happens in micro-time like particle physics, or macro-time like geology?) I’m also wondering: what other activities could be plotted in a quadrant? (Writing: insight versus length? Coaching: net change in performance versus time spent training?)
Understanding an entity’s metabolism is fundamental to understanding its role within an ecosystem of competing entities and the selective pressures it is under. An entity with a successful metabolism survives and grows; one that fails in its metabolism is eliminated. Over time, through natural selection, an ecosystem becomes dominated by the entities with successful metabolism. Different entities can have different designs and make different choices, but the laws of nature decide which of them thrive.~ Jason Crawford from, https://rootsofprogress.org/organizational-metabolism-and-the-for-profit-advantage
There’s good and evil, and moral and immoral. There are associations [in the most general sense of the word] of people working in a myriad of structures, trying to achieve many different goals which are good, evil, moral, and immoral. The first thing I had to get straight in my head was that the variety of the association doesn’t tell me anything about the goals, or the morals, of the people. Because it’s those people that matter.
People can use, or abuse, any structure. (Just like they can any tool. A structure of association isn’t magical; It’s a tool.) So what is the difference between “non-profit” and “for-profit”? …which tool is better at enabling people to work towards their goals?
Thus the germ theory, long before it led to medical treatments, drove down mortality rates by revolutionizing sanitation and hygiene.~ Jason Crawford from, https://rootsofprogress.org/draining-the-swamp
No, literally draining the swamp. There are a few reasons to click through on that. The most amazing is simply to scroll through the long article and glance at all the graphs; Graphs of magnificent drops in mortality rates by the 1950s. The 50s and 60s were demonstrably amazing simply for the fact that by then, most people weren’t dying of the same infectious things that have been killing people for millennia.
But the little gem quoted above was something that made me pause. Yes, it’s always fun to chuckle from the privileged perspective of the third millennia of the Common Era: The germ theory.
*giggles* “Theory.” That’s so cute. What made me pause though was the thought about sanitation. I’d always thought of how the germ theory
*giggles* affected medical treatments—washing hands by physicians and surgeons and penicillin and all that good stuff. But the idea that, “hey tiny stuff we can’t see can hurt us… maybe we should, ya know, filter and treat the drinking water?” …it hadn’t occurred to me that that too became a thing we actually started doing because of the germ theory.
The Scientific Revolution began in the 1500s; the Industrial Revolution not until the 1700s. Since industrial progress is in large part technological progress, and technology is in large part applied science, it seems that the Industrial Revolution followed from the Scientific, as a consequence, if not necessarily an inevitable one.~ Jason Crawford from, https://rootsofprogress.org/relationship-of-the-scientific-and-industrial-revolutions
It seems clear to me, (and the article does not disagree,) that the the Scientific Revolution was a necessary precursor to the Industrial. So, “was it necessary?” isn’t a very interesting question.
But the question, “how did it lead to and enable the Industrial revolution?” is a very interesting question. I hadn’t thought about how, specifically, did the one lead to the other. The Scientific Revolution didn’t simply create some sort of encyclopedia of human knowledge, (spread out among all the scientists.) It did that, yes. But it also set things up for the Industrial revolution because suddenly the regular, uneducated people believed the world was knowable and believed that they could tinker, and iterate to improve things.
Which is an interesting point to keep in mind the next time I’m ready to throw my hands up in frustration at some wacky something-or-other.
Stone tools were the first invention, dating back to the beginning of that 2.5-million year period, eventually including simple hand tools such as axes and spears. Maybe a million years later or more, other cavemen learned to control fire, and at some point began cooking their food. They lived in tribes, hunting and foraging together, possibly caring for their weak and infirm, and burying their dead. But other than stone tools, fire, and simple tribal behavior, they had almost nothing else, for most of that 2.5 million years—including at least 100,000 years or more of Homo sapiens existing.~ Jason Crawford from, https://rootsofprogress.org/the-beginning
I often joke that there are three thing I can stare at endlessly: Fire, moving water, and other people working. And I’ve often expressed my theory that it’s the movement of those first two, (the third we’ll leave aside for today,) which is the key to holding my attention. Fire and water both dance semi-predictably; But not so predictably that the movement is easily ignored. There’s always just enough movement to hold my attention.
When I let the idea settle in that we’ve been staring at small fires—fires which literally represented warmth, safety, food and tribal companionship—for about a million years… Actually, a “million” is hard to apprehend. Let’s say, there are 25 years per generation. We’ve been staring at small fires for about 40,000 generations. No wonder I’m staring at this fire. We’ve evolved to be attracted to fire!