Industrial literacy

by jasoncrawford4 min read30th Sep 2020127 comments

253

Progress StudiesChesterton's Fence
Curated

I’ve said before that understanding where our modern standard of living comes from, at a basic level, is a responsibility of every citizen in an industrial civilization. Let’s call it “industrial literacy.”

Industrial literacy is understanding…

  • That the food you eat is grown using synthetic fertilizers, and that this is needed for agricultural productivity, because all soil loses its fertility naturally over time if it is not deliberately replenished. That before we had modern agriculture, more than half the workforce had to labor on farms, just to feed the other half. That if synthetic fertilizer was suddenly lost, a mass famine would ensue and billions would starve.
  • That those same crops would not be able to feed us if they were not also protected from pests, who will ravage entire fields if given a chance. That whole regions used to see seasons where they would lose large swaths of their produce to swarms of insects, such as boll weevils attacking cotton plants in the American South, or the phylloxera devouring grapes in the vineyards of France. That before synthetic pesticides, farmers were forced to rely on much more toxic substances, such as compounds of arsenic.
  • That before we had electricity and clean natural gas, people burned unrefined solid fuels in their homes—wood, coal, even dung (!)—to cook their food and to keep from freezing in winter. That these primitive fuels, dirty with contaminants, created toxic smoke: indoor air pollution. That indoor air pollution remains a problem today for 40% of the world population, who still rely on pre-industrial fuels.
  • That before twentieth-century appliances, housework was a full-time job, which invariably fell on women. That each household would spend almost 60 hours a week on manual labor: hauling water from the well for drinking and cooking, and then carrying the dirty water outside again; sewing clothes by hand, since store-bought ones were too expensive for most families; laundering clothes in a basin, scrubbing laboriously by hand, then hanging them up to dry; cooking every meal from scratch. That the washing machine, clothes dryer, dishwasher, vacuum cleaner, and microwave are the equivalent of a full-time mechanical servant for every household.
  • That plastics are produced in enormous quantities because, for so many purposes—from food containers to electrical wire coatings to children’s toys—we need a material that is cheap, light, flexible, waterproof, and insulating, and that can easily be made in any shape and color (including transparent!) That before plastic, many of these applications used animal parts, such as ivory tusks, tortoise shells, or whale bone. That in such a world, those products were a luxury for a wealthy elite, instead of a commodity for the masses, and the animals that provided them were hunted to near extinction.
  • That automobiles are a lifeline to people who live in rural areas (almost 20% in the US alone), and who were deeply isolated in the era before the car and the telephone. That in a world without automobiles, we relied on millions of horses, which in New York City around 1900 dumped a hundred thousand gallons of urine and millions of pounds of manure on the streets daily.
  • That half of everyone you know over the age of five is alive today only because of antibiotics, vaccines, and sanitizing chemicals in our water supply. That before these innovations, infant mortality (in the first year of life) was as high as 20%.

When you know these facts of history—which many schools do not teach—you understand what “industrial civilization” is and why it is the benefactor of everyone who is lucky enough to live in it. You understand that the electric generator, the automobile, the chemical plant, the cargo container ship, and the microprocessor are essential to our health and happiness.

This doesn’t require a deep or specialized knowledge. It only requires knowing the basics, the same way every citizen should know the outlines of history and the essentials of how government works.

Industrial literacy means understanding that the components of the global economy are not arbitrary. Each one is there for a reason—often a matter of life and death. The reasons are the immutable facts of what it takes to survive and prosper: the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, and economics that govern our daily existence.

With industrial literacy, you can see the economy as a set of solutions to problems. Then, and only then, are you informed enough to have an opinion on how those solutions might be improved.

A lack of industrial literacy (among other factors) is turning what ought to be economic discussions about how best to improve human health and prosperity into political debates fueled by misinformation and scare tactics. We see this on climate change, plastic recycling, automation and job loss, even vaccines. Without knowing the basics, industrial civilization is one big Chesterton’s Fence to some people: they propose tearing it down, because they don’t see the use of it.

Let’s recognize the value of industrial literacy and commit to improving it—starting with ourselves.

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Hans Rosling:

I was only four years old when I saw my mother load a washing machine for the very first time in her life. 

That was a great day for my mother. My mother and father had been saving money for years to be able to buy that machine, and the first day it was going to be used, even Grandma was invited to see the machine.

And Grandma was even more excited. Throughout her life she had been heating water with firewood, and she had hand washed laundry for seven children. And now she was going to watch electricity do that work.

My mother carefully opened the door, and she loaded the laundry into the machine, like this.

And then, when she closed the door, Grandma said, "No, no, no, no. Let me, let me push the button."

And Grandma pushed the button, and she said, "Oh, fantastic! I want to see this! Give me a chair! Give me a chair! I want to see it," and she sat down in front of the machine, and she watched the entire washing program.

She was mesmerized. To my grandmother, the washing machine was a miracle.

Idea for a short story in which everyone has to take such a literacy test and is restricted to a lifestyle of only having the luxuries they understand.

8MakoYass1yIt's about degrees of understanding, of course, but it should be mentioned that our lives will always be greatly enriched by the bizarre fact that we can use technologies we have no understanding of, and there is no such test. No one knows how a pencil is made [https://ddcolrs.wordpress.com/2015/09/21/why-nobody-knows-how-to-make-a-pencil/] . We float every day over an inscrutable river of magic maintained by a people we've never met. I sometimes wonder if this is the reason advanced ancient technology is such a popular theme in contemporary fantasy media. All of the technology we interact with might as well be a product of some lost civilization, because we know that we will never meet most of the people who know how to make it all, if it breaks we can't fix it, and we know that their tradition is separate from ours and traced back centuries into the history of science and technology that we might never learn. If we did meet them, we know that we wouldn't have time to learn the whole craft from them. They are, in a sense, necessarily absent from our lives. We only see their artifacts. Somehow, their artifacts keep working and abounding without them and that miracle is hard to get used to, so maybe we write stories about it, frame it in the most basally digestible anthropic terms, to help us to process it.
4MondSemmel4moThere's a whole popular genre of stories about someone from our world being transported to another (isekai), and a subset of those stories involves kickstarting (parts of) an industrial civilization via mostly just your own knowledge. Examples include the manga Dr. Stone and the Chinese webnovel Release That Witch. Throne of Magical Arcana does the same with scientific knowledge, in a world where the power to cast magic spells derives from understanding the world. And more broadly, there are tons of stories with the same theme that focus on one smaller body of knowledge, like agriculture or medicine.
3cousin_it1yThere's no obligation to give up gifts we don't understand - otherwise we'd have to give up sleep, and people before the discovery of oxygen would have to give up breathing. But we do have an obligation to be grateful for such gifts, which may have been the point of the post.
5Matt Goldenberg1yObligation feels like a weird word here.
2Mati_Roy1yadmin note: romeostevensit has passed the Internet test, hence why you can read zir comment (just kidding XD)

Agricultural practice is my Gell-Mann pet peeve. While it's true that fertilizer and pest control are currently central to large swaths of the commercial ag industry, this is not necessarily a case of pure necessity so much as local maxima— for many crops we could reduce dependence on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides by integrating livestock, multi-cropping land, etc. Some of them are also ecologically unsustainable as practiced and may eventually need to be replaced.

That said, this doesn't actually detract from the central point; I would very much like to live in a world where those questions are actually engaged with by the general populace as opposed to being defined by like, Whole Foods marketing copy and the US corn lobby.

This isn't critiquing the claim, though. Yes, there are alternatives that are available, but those alternatives - multi-cropping, integrating livestock, etc. are more labor intensive, and will produce less over the short term. And I'm very skeptical that the maximum is only local - have you found evidence that you can use land more efficiently, while keeping labor minimal, and produce more? Because if you did, there's a multi-billion dollar market for doing that. Does that make the alternatives useless, or bad ideas? Not at all, and I agree that changes are likely necessary for long-term stability - unless other technological advances obviate the need for them. But we can't pretend that staying at the maximum isn't effectively necessary.

That's fair, and I'm grumbling less as an ag scientist or policy person than as a layperson born and raised in the ag industry. It is my opinion that the commercial ag industry in my country both contains inadequacies and is a system of no free energy, to borrow from Inadequate Equilibria.

To elaborate, I observe the following facts:

  • Conventional agriculture using fertilizer and pesticide creates negative externalities, notably by polluting runoff and consuming non-renewable resources (fertilizer is made from potash, a reasonably abundant but not infinite mineral which also creates a carbon footprint to mine).
  • Organic agriculture sacrifices considerable output as practiced, and is not actually optimized for minimal environmental impact but rather to maximize appeal to the organic food market, and as such also contains negative externalities which are not currently captured.
  • Almost no commercial agriculture in my area, organic or otherwise, incorporates livestock into land rotation cycles. Although I don't have sources at hand, I am under the impression that evidence suggests that grazing animals provide not just replenishment of macronutrients, but also help to maintain a robust and fe
... (read more)
4Davidmanheim1yThat all makes sense - I'm less certain that there is a reachable global maximum that is a Pareto improvement in terms of inputs over the current system. That is, I expect any improvement to require more of some critical resource - human time, capital investment, or land.
4dr_s1yThe question is probably also one of tradeoffs though - where we exist right now may be a maximum of productivity, not so much of resilience. A single failure today could cascade a series of consequences that would be much deadlier than one in a world that produces less, but more reasonably distributed (and we know that there is food that gets wasted, so it's not like we have literally zero margin here, though of course waste itself can't be eliminated).
4eyesack1yMy dad and uncle can farm 2,000 acres between them because of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides. I would like to see you do the same with integrated livestock and multi-cropping.

A person I shared this article with made the following comments (edited for brevity):

It's true that a lot of people die prematurely due to indoor smoke. This is mainly because they cook on simple hearths that lack chimneys, as pictured [...]

However, there is a good chance a new American kitchen with a gas range is actually worse for indoor air quality that an old-fashioned wood stove, because bizarrely, American building codes don't require range hoods or exhaust fans in the kitchen.

Electric and gas heating have obviously had a massive impact on outdoor air quality, but that's not the argument the author makes for them [...] It's not so much that [old] fuels are dirty, it's that the smoke isn't dumped outdoors.

9abramdemski1yIndeed, as someone who grew up with a wood stove (with a proper chimney), I was pretty confused by this point. Are chimneys rare in developing places?? Were chimneys rare in pre-industrial america??
2ChristianKl1yA wood stove works well for heating but did you also used the stove for cooking?
2abramdemski1yNo, although I expect it would work OK for stove-top cooking (but not for baking).

I'm sorry, but some of the themes in your list are not at all like the others;

For the points related to modern medicine, it's true that people should be a lot more informed about its benefits, and the current attitude of mistrust many have toward it is certainly doing a lot of damage.

I could also agree on the agricolture, since people are being systematically misinformed into thinking that some practices, that actually consume more resources, are better for their health and beneficial to the planet. 

 

But for the other subjects, some people, which seem to be pretty few, wanting to tear down civilisation is nowhere near as much of a problem as a lot of people not knowing or caring enough about the harmful side effects of the industrial system.

No nation is even near the point of starting to discuss proposals like banning plastic for every possible usage, forbidding household appliances or outlawing cars for everyone, and people aren't really adopting these politics for themselves, save for the occasional environmentalist.

What instead it's happening is that people living in the first world are consuming a ridiculous pro-capita amount of resources, producing a terrifying amoun... (read more)

All the proposals I've seen from the main environmentalist factions were instead based on the Ipcc's reports, which the climate denial side promptly called misinformation. 

That's not really true. Most of the public who's interested in the topic ignores the involved in the claims that the IPCC makes. 

The enviromentalist factions also worked to increase carbon emissions by shutting down nuclear power plants that are currently the only technology that can provide 24/7-all-year  electricity for an economical price (relying completely on solar and wind means outages).

8Emiya1yI was referring to the proposals put forward by organised movements and such, I'm aware that the average member of the public or environmentalist supporter isn't very informed on the IPCC reports. (unless you meant something else and I misunderstood the first part of your reply) Most of the opposition toward nuclear power plants came way more than ten years ago, I think? I really haven't seen many environmentalists go out of their way to attack energy sources that aren't fossile related in the recent years. Also, most of the opposition toward nuclear seemed to come from the general populace (at least in Italy, where I live. Here nuclear was banned after Chernobyl, for the general emotive reaction). I do agree that no member of an environmentalist movement could really propose nuclear energy as a provisory replacement to fossil fuels, and that this is because of how people, especially environmentally friendly people, feel about nuclear energy rather than for a cost/benefit analysis, and that this is actually a notable hindrance in containing climate change. But I also think that this unfortunate situation is mostly caused to the terrifying, striking nature of the occasional accidents, than to any process that could be changed by knowing more about the technology's benefits. Thinking about your example, though, made me realise that I were narrow in what I considered as the main environmentalist groups and factions, since I only really followed the proposals of the groups that were behind the massive mobilisations of last year and I didn't really paid attention to groups that seemed ineffective or misguided in their objectives. I should change that part of my reply. I do think that they are the groups with most influence at the moment, and still feel that the lack of awareness about the side effects of industrialisation is the bigger problem. To give some numbers, the IPCC report of 2014 estimates an increased cost of 7%, for the necessary transitions to miti
7MikkW1yBatteries are a thing that exist
3ChristianKl1yThey exist and relying on them increases fragility of the energy system as they can be used for storing energy that's produced at one point of the day and returning that point at another point of the day while at the same time they are too expensive to store energy in reserve for periods of multiple days/weeks/months. Batteries essentially do the opposite of Netflix chaos monkey when it comes to system resilience.
2Taymon Beal1yNot at the scale that would be required to power the entire grid that way. At least, not yet. This [https://www.cell.com/joule/fulltext/S2542-4351(19)30300-9] is of course just one study (h/t Vox via Robert Wiblin) but provides at least a rough picture of the scale of the problem.
7Davidmanheim1yThis is disingenuous, I think. Of course they don't exist at the necessary scale yet, because the market is small. If the market grew, and was profitable, scaling would be possible. Rare earths aren't rare enough to be a real constraint, we'd just need to mine more of them. The only thing needed would be to make more of things we know how to make. (And no, that wouldn't happen, because the new tech being developed would get developed far faster, and used instead.)
0MikkW1ySorry, I didn't mean to imply that there isn't a current practical problem with solar / wind; my reason for my previous post is that I read Christian's statement as implying that it is fundamentally physically impossible to rely on solar without being chronically exposed to outages, which simply isn't true, but it is true that we still need to develop our technology and infrastructure to accommodate the dynamics that exist with solar power To be clear, I am in favour of using nuclear power for precisely this reason, although it also seems that the problems with renewables will be taken care of by the free market fairly quickly as renewables make up a larger proportion of our energy consumption
3Emiya1yWe really don't need to rely completely on solar and wind to avoid the climate change. The estimates of Ipcc includes solutions that also have nuclear phase out, it marginally increases the cost, a two years delay in the energy conversion costs us more. I'm sorry for repeating this, but I feel that my point before was missed; the issues from 100% renewable energy sources are a fake problem. They really have no consequences on these decisions, since it's not what we are required to do in the short term.
2ChristianKl1yMy initial comment did speak about current technology. Free markets don't to be good at producing the kind of batteries you need to have reserve capacity for your once-in-ten years weather event that has two weeks of less sun/wind then you would usually expect.

Viticulturists beat phylloxera by grafting grapes to naturally resistant rootstock taken from American vine species that co-evolved with phylloxera. The phylloxera epidemic actually serves as an example of a case where pesticides are not effective, and the effective solution, now implemented in vineyards all over the world, is both inspired by ecological dynamics and more environmentally sustainable than pesticide use. 

Ehn.  Nobody really understands anything, we're just doing the best we can with various models of different complexity.  Adam Smith's pin factory description in the 18th century has only gotten more representative of the actual complexity in the world and the impossibility of fully understanding all the tradeoffs involved in anything.  Note also that anytime you frame something as "responsibility of every citizen", you're well into the political realm.

You can see the economy as a set of solutions to some problems, but you also need to see it as exacerbation of other problems.  Chesterton's Fence is a good heuristic for tearing down fences, where it's probably OK to let it stand for awhile while you think about it.  It's a crappy way to decide whether you should get off the tracks before you understand the motivation of the railroad company.

I suspect that if people really understood the cost to future people of the contortions we go through to support this many simultaneous humans in this level of luxury, we'd have to admit that we don't actually care about them very much.  I sympathize with those who are saying "go back to the good old days" in terms of cutting the population back to a sustainable level (1850 was about 1.2B, and it's not clear even that was sparse/spartan enough to last more than a few millennia).  

8Dach1yThere's enough matter in our light cone to support each individual existing human for roughly 10^44 years [https://arbital.com/p/cosmic_endowment/]. The problem is not "running out of resources"- there are so many resources it will require cosmic engineering for us to use more of them than entropy, even if we multiply our current population by ten billion. Earth is only one planet- it does not matter how much of earth we use here and now. Our job is to make sure that our light cone ends up being used for what we find valuable. That's our only job. The finite resources available on earth are almost irrelevant to the long term human project, beyond the extent to which those resources help us accomplish our job- I would burn a trillion pacific oceans worth of oil for a .000000000000000001% absolute increase to our probability of succeeding at our job. I sympathize with people who are thinking like this, because it shows that they're at least trying to think about the future. But... Future Humanity doesn't need the petty resources available on earth any more than we need good flint to make hunting spears with. The only important thing and the best thing we can do for them is to ensure that they will ever exist at all!
8TAG1yIt's entirely possible to burn through the resources on this planet without getting off this planet . That's a very dicey pinch point
1Dach1yIt's possible, but very improbable. We have vastly more probable concerns (misaligned AGI, etc.) than resource depletion sufficient to cripple the entire human project. What critical resources is Humanity at serious risk of depleting? Remember that most resources have substitutes- food is food.
3CronoDAS1yPhosphate rock? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_phosphorus [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_phosphorus]
3Dach1yThat's surprisingly close, but I don't think that counts. That page explains that the current dynamics behind phosphate recycling are bad as a result of phosphate being cheap- if phosphate was scarce, recycling (and potentially the location of new phosphate reserves, etc.) would become more economical.
3TAG1yThe resources required to get off the planet and access other resources are huge .
1Dagon1yTrue, and it'll be a long time before off-planet habitations are resilient and self-sufficient enough to survive the anger of the 10B people on the planet which can no longer support them in the way they think they deserve. Getting the exponential growth (of permanent off-world settlements) started as soon as possible is the only way to get there, though.
8Emiya1yWhy do you seem to imply that burning fossil fuels would help at all the odds of the long term human project? Even ignoring the current deaths due to the large scale desertification that Climate Change is causing, it's putting our current society at a very real risk of collapse. Food and water supplies are at risk for the medium term, since we are losing hydrical reserves and cultivations are expected to suffer greatly for the abrupt change in temperature and the increased extreme meteorological events. At the current rate of fishing, all fish species could be practically extinct by 2050, and for the same date the estimates ranging from 100 million to 1 billion climate refugees. Given how badly our societies reacted to numbers of refugees that weren't even close to that scale, I really don't want to see what will happen. Not to say that currently one species out of three of all animals and vegetal is going extinct and could be gone for the same date. That is a scale of damage to the ecosystem that could easily feedback into who knows what. We are causing the sixth mass extinction on our planet. I feel pretty confident some humans will survive and that technological progress could continue past that, eventually. But I feel a lot more confident about humanity reaching the stars in an universe where we manage to not make scorched earth of our first planet before we have a way to do that, and I personally don't want to see my personal odds of survival diminishing because I'll have to deal with riots, food shortages, totalitarian fascist governments or... who know? A dying ecosystem is the kind of thing that could rush us into botching nanotechnology while looking for a way to fix our mess. Lastly, I really don't see how switching out of fossils would in any way harm our chances to develop as a species. Every economical estimate I saw said that the costs would be a lot less than the economic damage from climate change alone, many estimates agree that it would ac
4ketil1yWhat is your source for this? On Wikipedia, there is a distinct lack of references to good quality data, and in the anecdotal evidence (e.g. shrinking of lakes in the Sahel) seem to have other contributing factors than climate change, like increasing irrigation. Elsewhere I find that "[t]he Sahel region is experiencing a phase of population growth unprecedented in any other part of the world". (https://ideas4development.org/en/population-growth-sahel-challenge-generation/) What is your source for this? While some fisheries are poorly managed, many are in much better shape. There is a lack of knowledge about the status of many stocks, and we can't model ecosystems very well, but the uncertainty doesn't mean you can conclude with the most outrageous claim. Again, who is estimating this, and how? Currently we have 70 million refugees from wars and oppression, and probably more fleeing towards better economic prospects (although we don't usually cause them refugees). I propose we spend our resources towards fixing this, rather than towards some hypothetical refugee situation some time in the future. A side benefit is that rich, peaceful nations tend to be the ones that manage their fisheries well, protect biodiversity and their inhabitants don't become refugees even when the occasional natural disaster strikes.

My master thesis treated the impacts of climate change, here are the sources I used for these claims:

 

Desertification: https://spiral.imperial.ac.uk/bitstream/10044/1/76618/2/SRCCL-Full-Report-Compiled-191128.pdf  If you'd rather know precisely where to look for my claims, since it's a 874 pages long report, I'd suggest the Summary for Policy Maker part, from page 5 to 9, Chapter 1.2.1, from page 88 to page 91, and chapter 5 executive summary, pages 439-440. 

The report also states that the way land and water are used for agriculture is part of the problem, it interacts with climate change making both issues worse.

 

https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/3/2019/11/03_SROCC_SPM_FINAL.pdf For this I suggest reading the Summary for Policy Makers B, from page 17 to 28. B7 is the most relevant point for desertification, B8 for fish losing most of it's biomass and putting at risk food security.

These two:

https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/4/2/024007/pdf

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337888219_Impacts_of_ocean_deoxygenation_on_fisheries_In_%27Laffoley_D_Baxter_JM_eds_2019_Ocean_deoxygenation_Everyone%27s_problem_-_Causes_impacts_conseque... (read more)

1Dach1yI don't imply that. For clarification: The oil example isn't meant to be any reflection of my affinity for fossil fuels. My point that "Super long term conservation of resources" isn't a concern. If there are near term non "conservation of resources" reasons why doing something is bad, I'm open to those concerns- we don't need to worry about ensuring that humans 100 years from now have access to fuel sources. For the record, I think nuclear and solar seem to clearly be better energy sources than fossil fuels for most applications. Especially nuclear. I'm also not fighting defense for climate change activists- I don't care about how many species die out, unless those species are useful (short term- next 50 years, 100 years max?) to us. If you want to make sure future humanity has access to Tropical Tree Frog #952, and you're concerned about them going extinct, go grab some genetic samples and preserve them. If the species makes many humans very happy, provides us valuable resources, etc., fine. I'm open to the notion that regulating our fish intake is the responsible move- it seems like a pretty easy sell. It keeps our fishing equipment, boats, and fishermen useful. I'm taking this action because it's better for humanity, not because it's better for the fish or better for the Earth. The Strategy is not to excessively use resources and destroy the environment just because we can, it's to actively and directly use our resources to accomplish our goals, which I have doubts strongly aligns with preserving the environment. Let's list a few ways in which our conservation efforts are bad: * Long term (100+ years) storage of nuclear waste. * Protecting species which aren't really useful to Humanity. * Planning with the idea that we will be indefinitely (Or, for more than 100 years) living in the current technological paradigm, i.e. without artificial general intelligence. And in which they're valid: * Being careful with our harvesting of easily depletabl
3Emiya1yUnderstood, I apologise for misunderstanding your position on fossils fuels. I feel there was a specific attempt from my side to interpret it with that meaning, even if the example used didn't necessarily implied it was something you endorse, and that it was due to a negative gut reaction I had while reading what you wrote. We seem to agree on the general principles that humanity technological level will not stay the same for the next hundred years, and that some level of the changes we are producing on the environment are to be avoided to improve mankind future's condition. I do feel that allowing the actions of humanity to destroy every part of the environment that hasn't been proved useful is an engagement in an extremely reckless form of optimism, though. It's certainly part of the attitude that got us to the point where being careful with our effect on current temperature levels and avoiding to loose most of our water resources has become a pretty difficult global challenge. From what I read on industrial regulations so far, in most nations pollutants functionally have to be proven harmful before it can be considered forbidding their release in the environment, and I'm 100% sure it's at least the current approach in the country most users from this site are. All in all, our species is nowhere near the point to be immune from the feedbacks our environment can throw at us. By our actions, one third of current animal and vegetable species are currently going extinct. That is one huge Chesterton Fence we're tearing down. We simply don't know in how many way such a change on the system we're living in can go wrong for us. I'd agree that the greatest "currently existing risks to my survival" are natural causes. I intend this category as "risks that are actively killing people who are living in similar conditions to my own now". However, if we talk about the main "future risks to my survival", as in "risks that currently are killing a low number of peopl
2jasoncrawford1yIndeed, there is an active “degrowth” movement. cf. Giorgos Kallis: https://greattransition.org/publication/the-degrowth-alternative [https://greattransition.org/publication/the-degrowth-alternative]
4TAG1yIt's entirely possible to burn through the resources on this planet without getting off this planet . That's a very dicey pinch point
1Said Achmiz1yWhy, exactly, is this our only job (or, indeed, our job at all)? Surely it’s possible to value present-day things, people, etc.? Seeing as how future humanity (with capital letters or otherwise) does not, in fact, currently exist, it makes very little sense to say that ensuring their existence is something that we would be doing “for” them.
2Dach1yThe space that you can affect is your light cone, and your goals can be "simplified" to "applying your values over the space that you can affect", therefore your goal is to apply your values over your light cone. It's you're "only job". There is, of course, a specific notion that I intended to evoke by using this rephrasing: the idea that your values apply strongly over humanity's vast future. It's possible to value present-day things, people, and so on- and I do. However... whenever I hear that fact in response to my suggestions that the future is large and it matters more than today, I interpret it as playing defense for their preexisting strategies. Everyone was aware of this before the person said it, and it doesn't address the central point- it's... "There are 4 * 10^20 stars out there. You're in a prime position to make sure they're used for something valuable to you- as in, you're currently experiencing the top 10^-30% most influential hours of human experience because of your early position in human history, etc. Are you going to change your plans and leverage your unique position?" "No, I think I'll spend most of my effort doing the things I was already going to do." Really- Is that your final answer? What position would you need to be in to decide that planning for the long term future is worth most of your effort? "Seeing as how a couple's baby does not yet exist, it makes very little sense to say that saving money for their clothes and crib is something that they would be doing 'for' them." No, wait, that's ridiculous- It does make sense to say that you're doing things "for" people who don't exist. We could rephrase these things in terms of doing them for yourself- "you're only saving for their clothes and crib because you want them to get what they want". But, what are we gaining from this rephrasing? The thing you want is for them to get what they want/need. It seems fair to say that you're doing it for them. There's some more complicated discus
2Said Achmiz1yWhether the future “matters more than today” is not a question of impersonal fact. Things, as you no doubt know, do not ‘matter’ intransitively; they matter to someone. So the question is, does “the future” (however construed) matter to me more than “today” (likewise, however construed) does? Does “the future” matter to my hypothetical friend Alice more than today does, or to her neighbor Bob? Etc. And any of these people are fully within their right to answer in the negative. Note that you’re making a non-trivial claim here. In past discussions, on Less Wrong and in adjacent spaces, it has been pointed out that our ability to predict future consequences of our actions drops off rapidly as our time horizon recedes into the distance. It is not obvious to me that I am in any particularly favorable position to affect the course of the distant future in any but the most general ways (such as contributing to, or helping to avert, human extinction—and even there, many actions I might feasibly take could plausibly affect the likelihood of my desired outcome in either the one direction or the other). I would need to (a) have different values than those I currently have, and (b) gain (implausibly, given my current understanding of the world) the ability to predict the future consequences of my actions with an accuracy vastly greater than that which is currently possible (for me or for anyone else). Sorry, no. There is a categorical difference between bringing a person into existence and affecting a person’s future life, contingent on them being brought into existence. It of course makes sense to speak of doing the latter sort of thing “for” the person-to-be, but such isn’t the case for the former sort of thing. To the contrary: your point hinges on this. You may of course discuss or not discuss what you like, but by avoiding this topic, you avoid one of the critical considerations in your whole edifice of reasoning. Your conclusion is unsupportable without committing t
-6Dach1y
3ESRogs1y?
4Dagon1ySorry - was a reaction to the focus on changing other people's models, and the implication that there is a set of simple models that if only people were a little more {educated,smart,aware,like-me}, this would all be a non-issue.

A general counterargument would be that besides the need for X, there's a need for X containment.

So that can be our second lecture!

Promoted to curated: I think this post is creating a pointer to a good concept, and makes a good case for it's importance. 

9rohinmshah1yIn hope of getting closer to understanding our disagreements on intellectual progress: how does this post make a good case for the importance of industrial literacy? As far as I can tell, it just asserts it: I definitely disagree with the extreme interpretation of these assertions, and it's pretty unclear to me whether a "reasonable" interpretation of these assertions is true or not; the post certainly didn't give any evidence for them.
4habryka1ySorry, I wrote this in a bit of a hurry, and I was actually planning to write a more in-depth curation notice sometime today that goes into a bit more detail. Agree that as written above, I wouldn't stand by that phrasing.
8habryka1yOk, now a more proper notice: I mostly liked this post because it's a pretty decent short reference for a concept that I've wanted a pointer to in the past. I also think it does actually make some case for the concept being important, by highlighting a shared structure between a number of really high magnitude events (all of the ones listed above). It doesn't do so explicitly, but implicitly I expect most readers of this post to come away with a decent model for why this concept might be important. I don't really agree very much with the section of the post that talks about broader societal problems caused by lack of industrial literacy. That kind of broad sociological modeling is usually wrong, and is probably also wrong here. I think the post would be marginally better if it didn't have the second of the two paragraphs you quoted.
4jasoncrawford1yOn a tangent, I'm curious: do you think “broad sociological modeling” is fundamentally misguided? Or is it “usually wrong” just because it's really hard, or subject to bias, or something like that?

I do think it can work, but if it works it looks more like economics, or something like that. Like, we can definitely identify some broad sociological phenomena that allow us to reliably make good predictions, but it's definitely not easy, and there are lots of traps along the way that are full of arguments that are rhetorically compelling, but not actually very useful for figuring out the truth, much more so than in other domains of inquiry.

That the food you eat is grown using synthetic fertilizers, and that this is needed for agricultural productivity, because all soil loses its fertility naturally over time if it is not deliberately replenished.

This claim doesn't make sense.  If it were true, plants would not have survived to the present day.

Steelmanning (which I would say OP doesn't do a good job of...), I'll interpret this as: "we are technologically reliant on synthetic fertilizers to grow enough food to feed the current population".  But in any case, there are harmful environm... (read more)

9Davidmanheim1yNo, the claim as written is true - agriculture will ruin soil over time, which has happened in recent scientific memory in certain places in Africa. And if you look at the biblical description of parts of the middle east, it's clear that desertification had taken a tremendous toll over the past couple thousand years. That's not because of fertilizer usage, it's because agriculture is about extracting food and moving it elsewhere, usually interrupting the cycle of nutrients, which happens organically otherwise. Obviously, natural habitats don't do this in the same way, because the varieties of plants shift over time, fauna is involved, etc.
4capybaralet1yThe claim I'm objecting to is: I guess your interpretation of "naturally" is "when non-sustainably farmed"? ;) My impression is that we know how to keep farmland productive without using fertilizers by rotating crops, letting fields lie fallow sometimes, and involving fauna. Of course, this might be much less efficient than using synthetic fertilizers, so I'm not saying that's what we should be doing.
1swarriner1ySee my comments above for some discussion of this topic. Broadly speaking we do know how to keep farmland productive but there are uncaptured externalities and other inadequacies to be accounted for.

I’d love to see a graph of the LD50 of the most commonly used pesticides by year over time.

5AllAmericanBreakfast1yBetter: the LD50 of pesticides multiplied by the volume of each pesticide used annually. I want to see a plot of how many lethal doses of pesticide are applied to farms per year over time.
5jasoncrawford1yI like that idea!
2AllAmericanBreakfast1yHere's a start at least. https://ourworldindata.org/pesticides

HAZARD WARNING: Horribly rough napkin math follows. Handle with care. Dispose of properly in an approved napkin-math disposal facility.

In 1990, atrazine (LD50 in rats 672 to 3,000 mg/kg) and alachlor (930 mg/kg and 1350 mg/kg) were the two most common pesticides.

In 2008-2012, glyphosate (LD50 5,600 mg/kg) was by far the most common pesticide, with atrazine in a distant second place. From the report, 746 million pounds of pesticide were used on the high end of the range in 2012. Glyphosate was about 38% of that. Atrazine and metolachlor-s (LD50 1200 mg/kg to 2780 mg/kg in rats) were the 2nd and 3rd most common that year, accounting for around 16% of pesticide use.

But let's pretend like the average upper range LD50 of atrazine and alachlor was "average pesticide LD50" for 1990. That would be LD50 of 2175 mg/kg on the high end.

If the "average pesticide LD50" for 2012 was 38% the LD50 of glyphosate plus 62% the LD50 of the average upper range of atrazine and meolachlor-s, that would be an average LD50 of 3919 mg/kg.

That would mean that the "average pesticide LD50" seems to have improved by a factor of 2 over that time. Pesticides seem to have gotten dramatically less dangerous since 19

... (read more)
5jasoncrawford1yInteresting, thanks! Would love to see this going all the way back to ~1900…
9AllAmericanBreakfast1yI'll get started on that PhD XD
6AllAmericanBreakfast1yBut wait! There's more! World cereal production [https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.PRD.CREL.MT] went up 50% over that time (1990-2012), while world population went up 34% over the same time period. So agricultural output growth has been outpacing population growth by a significant amount. And we're getting dramatically more efficient in our pesticide use relative to the amount of agricultural output.

Interesting. I like this post. You've certainly got the right audience for a good reception. Everyone likes to think about how much more they know than anyone else, myself included. It's tough to think about what will actually make the world a better place.

If you took a person and taught them all about modern medicine, agriculture, technology, and everything else except how it's put together, how would they think the world works? What would be different in that person's mind from the way the world is now? 

In other words, what do you notice that you're confused by in the world today?

I think that's where we'll find the lies.

-3Jake Heiser1yContrarily, a vacuum cleaner is just in no way more automatic than a broom unless you design a floor to hold pieces of food and dirt, which people love. Hoping someone comes along to shove me with 5 studies that carpets reduce homicide and tax fraud, but I'm very sorry to say that people still have paid servants, and those cleaners drive the vacuum across the floor's square inches just like you and me, except they receive compensation ;^( Who's to say even the value positive automations benefit workers, who make up the majority? Post-'trickle down economics', everything seems to become more nebulous in developing capitalism.

To many of the commentators here, I suggest a quick read: "Numbers Don't Lie" by Vaclav Smil (in addition to all of hisn other more extensive books on the specific topic of energy).

The fridge / the freezer!

If infant mortality was higher that'd be terrible, but I assume people would have more kids to compensate. Automobiles other than trucks don't help much; they enable rural settlements, but not many live there and they are disproportionally expensive. I bet they'd be a lot less populated w/o all the subsidy. Cars also may not last long with a carbon tax. And cars actively harm cities substantially.

Professionals in these fields don't know some of these either. And why should everyone else? I'd go the other way: Untangle policy from the masses.

6eyesack1yYou don't seem to understand how rural life works and why it's important. You also seem to think that small town lives and rural lives are more expensive than city lives. Please, allow me to clear up some misunderstandings. Small towns aren't places that manufacture food for cities. They're places where people live and thrive, where occasionally you'll see families that farm or raise animals for a job. You seem to think that all the rural area in the world can just be replaced by corporations that send out farmers to live more "efficiently". This doesn't make sense because you can't just make a farmer. You have to be raised on a farm, to understand the difficulties and enjoy them because they're your way of life. You don't see city folk moving out to the country to farm. Ever. You couldn't pay them enough. They've tried to do corporate farming, by the way. It doesn't work. This is because in corporations, people get lazy. They figure out how to take advantage of the system and work as little as possible to get the money they need to live. You need to keep people paid, even when their job isn't currently relevant. It isn't the same with family farms. Farmers work lots of jobs. That means planting, spraying, repairing machinery, harvesting, building things, and so much more. Everything is pretty much DIY because it costs too much to get others to do things. That's why everything is always jerry-rigged and sketchy as heck. It's cheap. From the rural perspective, the city is the wasteful place. It just seems like a black hole of resource use and pollution creation, and for what? I read somewhere that it costs two million dollars to build a public bathroom in New York City. That is absolutely ridiculous. It should cost a hundredth of that, max.
7Edward Swernofsky1yThis is clarifying of rural life. Thank you! I think you make a lot of assumptions of what I believe here. Large family owned farms constitute about half of total farm area. It's not really clear to me what qualifies as "family owned" here: I imagine most still have a number of workers. I'm also not sure if farms are the primary driver of rural economies. They certainly occupy most of the area. Rural areas appear to take the form of vast swaths of nothing but farms surrounding tiny suburb-density towns. I think there's a good chance that without the subsidy and with more direct infrastructure burden, the tiny towns (which seem to be most of the rural population) would significantly shrink in population. That said, I admit (electric? micro?) cars or motorcycles seem like a perfectly reasonable transport system for the remaining rural population. Farmers might need higher clearance for field roads. PRT [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_rapid_transit] would likely work for small towns and inter-town transport, but not for farms, and wouldn't have been possible until recently. If highways are much cheaper with smaller vehicles and without trucks, I imagine rail would be a good alternative for farmers to ship produce. The main point I was making is that rural areas have significantly more road, utility cost, and transport cost per capita. Owning a car is expensive, and unnecessary in many cities. You're not wrong that NYC is a bit insane (and I don't think "a hundredth" is out of the question in many cities), but the added value seems to generally outweigh the increased waste of most cities even today. Pollution can be mitigated with incentives, and I'd be surprised if rural areas don't pollute more per capita. Jerry-rigging everything is a compromise you don't need to make in many cities! I'd argue that that sort of thing is just a market inefficiency, and actually more wasteful. If you wouldn't jerry-rig in a city, it's probably because paying someone is a

Interesting, I appreciate you taking the time to formulate a coherent and respectful response, and I'll do my best to do the same.

  1. Rural Economy
    1. Farmers raise corn and soybeans. Beans mainly go to feed livestock. Corn is split between livestock and making ethanol. Ethanol is sold to fuel cars. So, our main exports are soybeans, meat, and ethanol.
    2. A lot of people have jobs supporting the local population or for local companies. The rest either drive 45 minutes to the nearest city or work at the door factory that's in a nearby town.
      1. We all call it the city, but I guess it's not that big by your standards. Sioux City has 82,000 people. It feels huge to us.
  2. Cars
    1. People in small towns are generally more poor than people in cities (I think, I have no experience with cities), and what people drive is generally what they can afford. I think you'd have a tough time convincing all of the mothers that their minivans can all be replaced with motorcycles and sleek electric vehicles. (also, you need significant clearance for gravel roads)
    2. As for replacing semi trucks with trains, I'm sorry, but that could never work. I'll explain why, don't worry. Here's how corn and beans are moved, at least at my par
... (read more)
9jasoncrawford1yRe 2.2, a historical note: We had trains long before we had trucks, and people solved the last-mile problem with horses. Trains didn't decrease horse usage because they were actually complements, not substitutes. Dependence on horses only decreases with the motor vehicle.
5Ben Pace1y(I just want to say, your comments have been very interesting and detailed in an area I don't know a lot about, thank you very much for writing them!)
3Edward Swernofsky1yThanks again for the perspective! These are good things to note and provide a lot of context. I still wonder what qualifies as "family owned" and whether it's really just farming that brings 60 million to rural life. The median household income in rural America looks to be only a bit lower than urban. Otoh, the rural poverty rate was 16.4 percent in 2017, compared with 12.9 percent for urban areas. Jason Crawford mentions farms worked with trains and horses before trucks. The scenario I mentioned with trains would still use (intermodal?) trucks for the last mile and just replace rural highways. I could believe farming transport demands are too strange for this, but I could also see standardization insignificantly increasing costs. And do people in town often travel to the farms or mostly just to other towns or cities? Pollution isn't just a local issue, and I agree rural areas have no obvious pollution - but a carbon tax (for global warming) would make fuel more expensive, increasing the already significant costs of rural gas transportation. I imagine the biggest subsidy of rural areas is the highways, which are 3/4 of the paved lane-miles in the US. The maintenance of these highways appear to amount [https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2016/hf10.cfm] to ~$3600 per capita annually, with a subsidy of ~$1200. I'd believe that utilities aren't subsidized more than their urban counterparts. If as this implies there really isn't much subsidy, I stand corrected! Thank you, cars. And of course, any other technology (electric, PRT) would still function like the automobile. And AC / climate control is necessary in many states. Now I wonder how rural areas look in other countries wrt population share, infrastructure, economy, and farm finances.
1jasoncrawford1yAre you saying it's morally acceptable for children to die, as long as people have more children to replace them?
8Edward Swernofsky1yNo, just that the following doesn't make sense if people have more kids as a result: I suppose this is fuzzy, but you could also argue no one you know would be alive in such a counterfactual because all their genes and experiences would be different as well. This is pretty much pedantry, but you could've phrased it just as "there's been a huge reduction in childhood death".
0Neel Nanda1yI agree it's a bit more nuanced than it seems at face value - my alternate universe self would likely have different friends because some of my friends would have died in childhood, and this wouldn't matter so much to my alternate self. But to my current self, it's a super big deal if half of the people I currently care about would have died young! And I think that's the point Jason is making.
2jasoncrawford1yThe point I was making is just that child mortality (before age 5) used to be ~50%. Edward is admittedly being pedantic.
2Dagon1yHe's being pedantic, but has an important underlying point - it's not clear what comparison is being made in terms of terminal value for these advances (note: I prefer the current world, but I think that's because I'm focusing on the lucky existing humans, rather than the never-conceived). Human mortality is still 100% overall, and it's not made clear exactly WHY it's better to have a smaller population of under-5 children (comparing the world where 2 children are created per couple, and most live to adulthood, vs 6 being conceived, 2 lost before or during birth and 2 lost before age 5).

That's really not clear to you?

Don't you think it matters to the parents? And, for that matter, to the older siblings? To the child's friends—if they live long enough to make friends?

Do you actually think an infant or young child is just… replaceable?

6Vaniver1yWhile I agree with you that reducing child mortality is one of the big wins of progress, I have a sense that you're reasoning about it the wrong way? Like, I think many (most? Nearly all?) people in the long past did have the view that infants or young children are replaceable, because it was adaptive to their circumstances, and their culture promoted adaptive responses to those circumstances. [Practices like not naming a child for a year are a strategy for the parents to not get too attached, and that makes more sense the less likely it is that a child will last a year.] If they saw the level of attachment our culture encourages parents to have to their infants, they would (rightly!) see it as profligate spending only made possible by our massive wealth and technological know-how. And so in my view, the largest component of the benefit from being in a low infant-mortality world is that parents can afford to treat their children as irreplaceable, which is better for everyone involved. [Like, in the world that's distant to ameliorate the likely pain of child mortality, also the people who survive have their early experience of the world characterized by distance and low parental investment, including nutritional investment.] The longer you expect things to last, the more you can invest in them--and that goes for relationships and friendships as well.
2Dagon1yNot directly, for any given child. But I think potential children are at least partially fungible. Whether it's better to have 3 children who live for decades, or 6 children, three of which only live a few years and 3 who live for decades is a very hard question. I don't know how to value a short life, compared to no life at all. I do think it's an irrelevant distraction (in this context) to compare one short life to a different individual's long life.

Yes, in the modern world, where babies are seen as precious, that is true. It clearly wasn't as big a deal when infant mortality was very high.

0jasoncrawford1yThe fact that we now see babies as precious is not an arbitrary feature of the modern world with no moral valence. It is an accomplishment.
1Rudi C1yNot the OP, but I do think that an infant is not worth much except their sentimental value to their family. A nitpick: "replaceability" is rather different from "worthlessness." Humans are obviously pretty replaceable, as evidenced by us all being replaced in around half a century. The question that is interesting to ask is, how much does a society improve (economically?) when its childhood mortality falls?
1FCCC1yAll meaning is in our heads. That doesn't make that meaning any less real. If someone places a lot of meaning on their infant dying, then the infant had a lot of value. If you want to put a dollar value on it, then you can ask the family how much they would pay to bring their child back to life. I would expect most people would pay a lot.
1Rudi C1yTrue, but the value is to them. (And what they pay to save the infant has a major signaling component. From what I see of my grandparents who lived in a much more traditional era (Iran's modernization is more recent.), they did not value young children that much, and recognized the reality that they could just have another child relatively cheaply.) That value will be discounted heavily in my utility function, as it does not contribute either directly to me or to the core needs of my society. (Kind of reminds me of Malthusianism; Humanity right now could probably live a lot less bullshitty if it had controlled its population more intelligently.)
0FCCC1yYes, and not just in this case. Value is always to some individual: There is no value outside of someone's brain. When we say "value to society", that's shorthand for "the aggregation of the value inside every individual's head". Money measures some of the value inside people's heads: You pay $20 for a shirt, and I can tell that you value the shirt by at least $20. When I go for a walk, I'm not paying anyone, but that doesn't mean the value is $0.

I consider the absence of industrial literacy a big problem. 

A good piece, there are few journo that could write such content. The UK has always had a problem with industry, preferring the arts most times. You could see that with the climate change act 2008, which annihilated heavy industry, exported companies, good jobs and it's CO2 elsewhere. The industrial revolution has had a bad press in the uk but it was the period that eventually liberated people, generated wealth and allowed the growth of the welfare state.

Unfortunately, that's something our modern day luddites don't really understand... Especially the housework part, as it's often people living in comfortable, furnished housing who think this.

Sure, there IS an issue with plastic pollution and the massive reliance of humanity on cars, but abolishing their use to be "like in the good old days" would be catastrophic; instead, we should focus on finding industrial, modern solutions to these problems, like expanding recycling programs and infrastructure, and developing public transportation networks in cities and between villages and towns in the countryside.

2Simon Kohuch1yA thought: if an agent has weak comparative power it makes sense to avoid intellectually investing in such things and to simply assume that the governance regime is either good or bad and then determine whether its good or bad by whether you think things are getting better or worse. This is the simplest decision method, pure black and white and as such represents minimizing intellectual investment. Minimal intellectual investment is rational if you don't have reason to believe it will effect the decision matrix in a meaningful way and you find such intellectual effort unrewarding (negative utility of the work is more than positive utility of exercising limited power). Obviously this goes against the point of LW but since we're talking about educating the plebs...
2ChristianKl1yCurrently, a lot of people see things getting worse. That gets them to reject government mandates such as wearing masks, keeping social distance and not installing tracking apps. It's worthwhile to have enough general understanding to follow the measures even at times where things get worse.

If anyone feels like humoring me, I would actually take a bit of a response as to how washing machines are better than a basket in a river, other than river-rationing-issues (aqueducts? Pipes??)

3seed1yThey, um, save time? And also heat up the water?
1Jake Heiser1yIt's for heating up the water for greases and oil stains, you're absolutely right. I made a joke, but I've been doused in car oil before and I've had plenty of grease on my shirts from old farm machinery maintenance

By coincidence, my hot water heat recently broke. I expected the cold showers to be the worst part, but it was actually the difficulty cleaning dishes: grease, oil, and fat just wouldn't come off the dishes (or the scrubby doodle, for that matter), despite ample application of soap. Since most of my meals involve those things, I eventually resorted to cleaning what could be cleaned with running cold tap water & soap, and setting an electric kettle to boil to do a second pass to try to melt off the remnants.

It did take longer.

That list seems right. I've had discussions with people that the last few decades have been better than any other time and they disagree. And yet, when I asked them whether they would live in the past or now, they said "now". Go figure. I definitely want people to understand their world a bit better. As you say, educating people would reduce the chance of mobs overthrowing good systems. The other thing to notice is that good systems tend to reduce government influence, and thus the influence of uninformed voters. There's large parts of society where it's n... (read more)

3ChristianKl1yWhen it comes to whether the last decades are better then previous times it's worth noting that all of the things in the list happened before the 70's when the Great Stagnation is commonly referred to as starting. I would rather have a prison system that focuses on reducing recivism then one that focused on economically exploiting the prison publication for maximum value creation.
1FCCC1yI wouldn't be supporting something if it exploited inmates. It has nothing to do with exploiting the prison population; it's about how prisons should be funded. Are you proposing we reduce recidivism to zero by executing every inmate? I assume not. You're probably talking about rehabilitation. We should not rehabilitate as much as possible. You shouldn't prevent the theft of a candy bar for a billion dollars. So at what level of funding do you propose we provide for rehabilitation? If it's when the benefits outweigh the cost (which is the only level that actually makes sense) then the linked prison proposal does exactly that. You can mathematically show that it does. If you want to increase inmate wellbeing, by how much? If releasing them all maximized their wellbeing, we still wouldn't release them all. So there's an ideal amount of inmate wellbeing and it's not to maximize it. How can you figure out that value? How can you formally verify that your prison system achieves that value? You can't. So you have to pick a goal that's correlated with inmate wellbeing: The linked prison system should produce better employment outcomes, fewer crimes, less welfare dependency, and better treatment of inmates. If you can design a prison system that produces a better set of consequences, excellent. Let's see it.
2Kaj_Sotala1yI'd note that if you were to ask me this question, the first interpretation of it that pops to my mind is "would you like to be magically transported to the past and live the rest of your life there". In which case it's consistent to say "no" despite thinking that the past was generally better, since all of my skills are adapted to living in the present, I'd lost all of my friends and connections, etc. Alternatively if you mean it as something like "would you prefer that you would have been born in the past", then it's still consistent to say "no", since that person would have grown up to be almost completely different - so answering "I'd prefer the past" would mean something like "I wish I hadn't ever been born and instead the past had one more person who otherwise wouldn't have lived at that time".
3FCCC1yThat is indeed what they meant: "I wouldn't give them up, but if I'd never owned a computer, or had a car, or ... I wouldn't miss them". I do find this reasoning a bit strange. You wouldn't miss them, but you wouldn't have them either. If someone invented one and showed it to you, you'd think it was amazing. But then you wish they never showed it to you? (Addictive things are an exception.) And that's just luxuries. What about "necessities"? If modern medicine didn't exist and one of your kids died when they were young, you wouldn't miss them? If your wife died during childbirth, you wouldn't miss her? Maybe it's uncharitable, but I think of them as saying "I would be worse off, but I wouldn't know it, so I'd be better off". It just seems like a perverse belief about human wellbeing to me.
7Kaj_Sotala1yWell hedonic adaptation [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedonic_treadmill] is a thing; there do seem to be things that work so that * when you first get it, you feel happy * then you get used to it, and return to the previous baseline happiness * but if you lose it, you will keep wishing it back and feel unhappy about having lost it So in the long-term, getting it gave you no net benefit to wellbeing, and arguably even put you in a worse position, since you will now feel worse off if you lose it.
3FCCC1yI'm skeptical of that reasoning because it suggests that the happiest man in the world would be born without limbs and sight and hearing. I do think that people buy a new car and it's the best thing ever, and then it just becomes their car. This happens to some people more than others, and it happens for some goods more than others. For instance, computers with internet access generate novel experiences all the time, which (for me at least) boosts you above baseline perpetually. I think it's a mistake to forego good experiences to make your experience better.
3Kaj_Sotala1yYes, I'm not saying that I would agree with the reasoning, just that one can hold it in a consistent manner.
3FCCC1yYes, I think you're right.
3Dokler1yIn addition to Kaj_Sotala's points about hedonic adaptation, I'd add that many technologies seem on-face to be strictly good, but actually carry significant costs. Additionally, the benefits don't accrue to the individual, but instead towards some vague idea of progress. It is incredible to have the internet to immediately answer any question I have. However, each question I take to the internet instead of a person in my life, it decreases my connection to community. I take a Lyft to the airport instead of asking a friend for a ride. Instead of stopping to ask for directions, I check an app on my phone. While these are certainly convenient and don't seem like much, it seems clear that they are also eroding social bonds. Any advantage gained by technology is given back in pursuit of more. Faster transport leads to people being more spread out, not better connected. Same for technologies like the phone and video chat. More efficient work hasn't led to shorter work days or better lives. It is staggering that individuals today have far less leisure time than those in hunter-gather societies. Plus, it's tough to imagine hunter-gather work being less fulfilling than the average job today. If I had to be reborn as a random human in 2020 or a random human sometime between the end of the ice age and the first agricultural society, I'd easily choose the latter.
3FCCC1yI agree that there are trade-offs between time periods but, for me, those trade-offs favour the present. I did mention addictive innovations as negatives, but they can be handled. For example, I have to type in a long password every time before I can watch a Youtube video, which prevents me from mindlessly entering the website. As for you not asking people for directions, you're also talking to me (in text form, admittedly) probably from the other side of the world. And since we're both on this website, we probably have a lot more in common than we would with a random person off the street. Do people want faster transport? Yes. People then spread out because it's a trade-off they want to make. It means they can retire earlier because they pay lower rental prices, and that's more important than being a neighbour to as many friends as possible. By transitivity, this is an overall increase in wellbeing. It's three steps forward and one step back, not one step forward and two steps back. People can set bad goals that don't make them happy when they achieve them. I think that's what causes some people to want more and more. Because they are rarely actually satisfied. I suspect these people would have the same problem in earlier time periods ("Honey, the neighbours have a bigger grass hut than we do"), except they'd have a greater chance of dying from an infection. If you really want to, and you don't think you're permanently ruined modern technology, you can move to a less-industrialized society. They're still around today. I'd note that the flow of immigration is away from those countries and towards more technologically advanced countries. People of the past had terrible lives. Correct me if I'm wrong, but racial slavery was more common, witch trials were more common, war killed a greater proportion of the population, more people died from starvation or poor hygiene, religious and homosexual persecution was more common, child brides were more common, women were tr
1Dokler1yI definitely would not argue that now is the worst time in human history to be alive. My comment was that while humans existed only as hunter-gathers, the average life satisfaction was likely higher than now. Social bonds were closer, there was significantly more leisure time, and labor was maximally fulfilling. The ills that you highlight all came about following the establishment of agricultural societies and indeed continue to exist to a greater degree now than they did for pre-agricultural humans. I'd recommend checking out this article by Jared Diamond that reviews some of the anthropological evidence supporting this view: https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/the-worst-mistake-in-the-history-of-the-human-race [https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/the-worst-mistake-in-the-history-of-the-human-race]
7Kaj_Sotala1yBut see also Many Origins of Agriculture [https://www.livinganthropologically.com/archaeology/many-origins-of-agriculture/] : Also Romanticizing the Hunter-Gatherer [https://quillette.com/2017/12/16/romanticizing-hunter-gatherer/]:
3FCCC1yNeither of these numbers sound great. Living past 80 sounds a lot better to me. Why did pre-agricultural communities have early deaths compared to us if "the ills that you highlight all came about following the establishment of agricultural societies"? They had to die somehow. Early farmers had health issues because they had a handful of crops and just ate those things. If you just eat corn and potatoes, you'll die early. They didn't have nutritional science. To say poor nutrition is a fundamental problem with farming is just incorrect. So I'll concede agriculture made the average people worse off temporarily, but considering our life expectancy increases, I don't see how you can say that the last few decades are still worse than hunter-gathers. In fact, he says as much: So people in rich countries are better off. Then the question becomes "Will the poor countries stay poor?" If they don't, his whole argument is wrong. (Also the "Everyone's poor, so there's no inequality! Hurray!" argument is a bit strange.) I'll bet that before China's wealth increase, he would have said China would stay poor. Why is he assuming that had those same people stayed hunter-gathers, they would treat their women better? It seems like a completely unwarranted assumption. Some epidemic diseases, I'll concede, have been brought to us by farming, indirectly through increased population and population density, and directly through the farming of animals. You're also neglecting the massive population increases that he discusses. An extra life worth living is a net gain. The associated decreases in average wellbeing haven't held up because of better nutritional science and healthcare so there's not even a "repugnant conclusion [https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/repugnant-conclusion/]" trade-off.
2Dokler1yThis is almost entirely driven by decreases in infant mortality. The article specifically cites the scenario of a mother giving birth while still carrying their last would probably have abandoned that child. Life expectancy for those that reached adulthood was nearly 70, roughly the same as world average now. Also, using "life expectancy" as defined by present society seems biased. Does it really make sense to include infanticide in life expectancy in hunter-gather societies, but not include abortions in modern ones, where it's functionally the same thing? (this is not a moral judgment of either) Ultimately though you are right that humans now do, to some degree, have longer lives than pre-agricultural humans. Evaluating this will come down to a personal choice between quality and quantity. The quote you snip says that the rich in agricultural societies live better than the underclass in those same societies, not better than hunter-gatherer societies. How are you defining "poor" and why is it bad? How can one argue that people who only need to work ~15 hours per week are "poor". That is far richer than most the world today. The absence of gold or iPhones says nothing about the human condition. The anthropological evidence (mostly observation of present day hunter-gatherer groups) indicates that hunter-gatherer groups have high levels of gender equality. Resource accumulation enabled by agriculture leading to gender imbalances is a possible explanation of this pattern. This is a different question entirely, evaluating the world as a whole instead of the average individual experience. It's quite possible that the increase in quantity of life that has arisen is or will become "worth it".
2FCCC1yI have wondered how that factored into life expectancy. This is a good point. Incorrect, that quote is ambiguous about whether they are better off compared to pre-agriculture. However, he also says Which is important to match with his classing of most of the U.S. as "elite". He's explicitly saying that if you live in the U.S. today, you are probably better off. That's why I said his argument rests on the poorer countries staying poor. Poverty is obviously a continuum and relative to the context. But my definition is that poorer people have fewer choices, including what goods they can attain, and including how many hours they work. You can live without all the technology and entertainment today if you want. For that life, 15 hours of work per week can be enough if you have a spouse that does the same. (Minimum wage in Australia is enough for that.) If you're a medium-income earner, you can work half of that. Though, admittedly, if you are a middle-income earner probably can't find a job that lets you work that much. But you can retire earlier having done less "total lifetime work". I imagine pre-agricultural people work well into old age. That's surprising to me, and shifts me towards that conclusion. It's not the original question, but is it relevant: Assuming that people were better off back then, what should we do about it today? The answer: nothing. You've changed my view quite a bit, but I'd still easily prefer to live now (albeit in a rich country).
5jasoncrawford1y“Almost entirely driven by decreases in infant mortality” is exaggerated. Infant mortality was ~20% and childhood mortality (under age 5) was ~50%. Yes, a lot of the increase came from childhood mortality, but life expectancy increased at every age [https://ourworldindata.org/its-not-just-about-child-mortality-life-expectancy-improved-at-all-ages] . (Also, I don't have time to dig into it now, but I am skeptical of the “15 hours” stat for hunter-gatherers.)
2Vaniver1yNote that life expectancy at 50 and the gap between life expectancy at birth and life expectancy at 1 year basically didn't budge from 1850 to 1900, whereas life expectancy at birth jumped by 10 years over the same time range. I do think there are at least two distinct things going on (probably all of which are related to increased wealth and improved medical care).
1Dokler1yI think the best interpretation of the question would be to strip out one's personal experience and consider it a comparison of two societies. Comparing your life specifically with a hypothetical one doesn't seem productive to me. Therefore, I'd ask it as either: What time/place would you choose to be born as a random person? or What time/place would you choose to be born as a median person?

While this was an informative post, I do not think that most people are totally unaware of the main thrust of the argument here. Most people understand we need electricity to live. I think the issue here is that there is not a recognition of the limitations and cons of industrial society. And they are many. While undoubtedly industrial civilization has produced great material benefit, it is debatable whether human beings are actually happier today than they were a century or a millennium ago. 

Let's take one point, for example. Industrial civilization ... (read more)

1Jake Heiser1yI don't want to straw your view of abortion based on this post alone, but abortion certainly happened in more dangerous ways before current chemical abortions in industrial civilization, still does, and your view may or may not change if you yourself were pregnant against your own decision, none of which seems to be considered here. but I do love to talk about how rational economic competition necessarily pits workers in a community against each other into competing for qualification, into a union, which all else has the utmost monetary incentive to eat alive (WV Coal Wars at the least charitable, gradually stemming to equally 'effective' social and legal action)