Industrial literacy

post by jasoncrawford · 2020-09-30T16:39:06.520Z · LW · GW · 125 comments

This is a link post for https://rootsofprogress.org/industrial-literacy

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…

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.

125 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2020-10-04T11:39:16.384Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by romeostevensit · 2020-09-30T19:52:27.671Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by MakoYass · 2020-10-14T06:18:00.895Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It'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. 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.

comment by cousin_it · 2020-10-14T10:31:15.138Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There'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.

comment by mr-hire · 2020-10-14T12:19:28.531Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But we do have an obligation to be grateful for such gifts, which may have been the point of the post.

 

Obligation feels like a weird word here.

comment by Mati_Roy (MathieuRoy) · 2020-10-04T03:25:19.919Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

admin note: romeostevensit has passed the Internet test, hence why you can read zir comment (just kidding XD)

comment by swarriner · 2020-09-30T22:09:52.664Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by Davidmanheim · 2020-10-05T09:35:34.758Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by swarriner · 2020-10-05T20:42:26.091Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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 fertile microbiome. Although labour is a factor, consider that under status quo, ranchers own land, and farmers own different land, and that land changing hands once every several years would on its own be an improvement.
  • Most commercial ag operations are extremely conservative with regard to implementing and operational changes, for good reason. Being subject to both global market fluctuations and climate fluctuations is an unenviable business position.

Combine all these things I have seen firsthand, and I do conclude there is a better global maximum out there somewhere. And granted, if I were appointed Ag Czar it would no doubt be a Great Leap Forward-like disaster because I don't have the in-depth knowledge required to overhaul a complex ecological and economic system.

To bring all this back to the original thesis of the post, the precise reason I raised these gripes is because I agree with jasoncrawford that the waterline for industrial literacy is too low and more people should have a basic grasp of how these systems work. But like the Gell-Mann in the apocryphal story about trusting the news, I looked at his list of "things people should know about industry" and thought "Well... I have something to add to that, if people are going to take this post as a starting point for things that are important to know".

comment by Davidmanheim · 2020-10-06T20:45:55.572Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That 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.

comment by dr_s · 2020-10-06T07:38:43.578Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The 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).

comment by eyesack · 2020-10-06T18:04:48.443Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My 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.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2020-10-04T11:26:15.226Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by abramdemski · 2020-10-06T18:07:50.055Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Indeed, 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??

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-10-09T18:32:15.077Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A wood stove works well for heating but did you also used the stove for cooking?

comment by abramdemski · 2020-10-09T18:54:18.035Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, although I expect it would work OK for stove-top cooking (but not for baking).

comment by Emiya (andrea-mulazzani) · 2020-10-03T12:30:49.328Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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 amount of wastes and pollution, and that these processes are 1) actively killing a huge number of people in the present 2) making our society rush face first against a point where it's collapse is becoming a real possibility. 

These extra resources and pollutions aren't even doing much to grant us our modern standard of living, since Usa citizens have a pro-capita carbon footprint that's 3-4 times higher than European citizens, and both countries could keep their living standard with footprints a lot lower.

 

What people living in an industrial civilisation should know, are the detailed side effects of their standard of living, since it's an issue that's a lot more urgent, and currently people are not nearly scared enough. 

I'd love to believe that reasoned debates would be enough to tackle this problem, but if millions of people protesting all over the world weren't enough to even starting to make enough progresses, well, now it's probably the time that average people should start feeling real, urgent alarm, because, even leaving aside the current cost in human deaths, unless we don't hit technological near-omnipotence in the next thirty years things are going to get really ugly for everyone, and I'd really rather not take that bet.

 

Also: the current debate over climate change has the climate denial side using massive amount of misinformation to stall any action. People tried to face that with scientific knowledge and correct information for nearly forty years now. It didn't worked. 

When things started to move toward the environmentalist proposals, climate deniers instead did massive scare tactics to link environmental regulations to themes like socialism, the environmentalist friendly politicians wanting to sink the economy, tax the average citizens, wanting to control private industry and so on.

All the proposals I've seen from the main environmentalist factions all the recent proposals I saw from the groups behind the recent massive mobilisations of last year were instead based on the Ipcc's reports, which the climate denial side promptly called misinformation. I realised I don't usually follow environmentalists groups that are misguided in their objectives or ineffective, so I likely missed several misguided proposals, but the main, complessive effort still seems to be in guiding the political action on just following the IPCC guidelines.

So it seems to me that people not knowing about the benefit of industrialisation have nothing to do with the state of the climate change debate.

 

I'd agree instead with the assessment that having people knowing more about the benefits of medicine would improve that debate, and I am genuinely worried about "fake" environmentalists causes, like anti-GMO crusades and biological agricolture, getting mixed up with real urgent ones, since they steal attention and resources.

I'd also agree that it's extremely important that regulators and politicians would be informed about all the main benefits and issues of a subject they're legiferating on, and of course I'm not saying that we would live better without industrialisation.

But my point is that, at the current moment, people need a lot more correct information about industrialisation's harms than benefits, and that the current processes for media debates and urgency don't allow to do both.

 

 

Note: everything I wrote is based on my work for my master's thesis on the causes of climate change, its consequences and the influences that shaped the political and media debate on climate change and environmental regulation. 

If anyone would like to see my sources or is interested in these themes, I'll be happy to share my sources. 

Amusingly enough, I had started with a hypothesis that I was aware sounded pretty extreme, so I was extra careful into using only the most reliable sources I could for every step of my work, and I still ended up with a thesis even more extreme than what I expected.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-10-03T16:10:15.959Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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).

comment by Emiya (andrea-mulazzani) · 2020-10-03T18:00:14.356Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I 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 mitigate climate change, if no new nuclear power plants are built to increase the number of the current ones or to replace them. Waiting to start the transitions until 2030 rather than 2015 increases costs by 44%.

 

Note: For avoiding the climatic catastrophe it isn't necessary to hit 100% renewables in the near future, I fear it's a common misunderstanding since I had already this exchange with other people. 

We only need to limit our emissions to what the ecosystem can actually absorb. We are still far from the point where relying more on renewable energy sources would start to cause problems, everything past that point is achieved by reducing a lot our energy consumption and cutting down the emissions produced by other sectors.

comment by MikkW (mikkel-wilson) · 2020-10-04T16:35:03.215Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Relying completely on solar and wind means outages

Batteries are a thing that exist

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-10-05T10:58:57.839Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

They 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.

comment by Taymon Beal (taymon-beal) · 2020-10-04T20:02:57.547Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not at the scale that would be required to power the entire grid that way. At least, not yet. This 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.

comment by Davidmanheim · 2020-10-05T09:40:12.636Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This 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.) 

comment by MikkW (mikkel-wilson) · 2020-10-04T22:01:54.898Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, 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

comment by Emiya (andrea-mulazzani) · 2020-10-05T09:42:33.534Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We 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.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-10-09T18:29:29.121Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My initial comment did speak about current technology. 

they will more or less be quickly solved by the free market as renewable energy becomes a larger proportion of energy consumption

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.

comment by Dagon · 2020-09-30T21:51:02.755Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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).  

comment by Dach · 2020-10-04T23:30:00.828Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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).

There's enough matter in our light cone to support each individual existing human for roughly 10^44 years.

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!

comment by TAG · 2020-10-05T11:13:24.780Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's entirely possible to burn through the resources on this planet without getting off this planet . That's a very dicey pinch point

comment by Dach · 2020-10-05T22:48:38.835Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It'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.

comment by CronoDAS · 2020-10-06T18:38:07.367Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Phosphate rock?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_phosphorus

comment by Dach · 2020-10-06T20:35:50.428Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That'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.

comment by TAG · 2020-10-06T10:57:07.003Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The resources required to get off the planet and access other resources are huge .

comment by Dagon · 2020-10-08T16:46:04.835Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

True, 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.

comment by Emiya (andrea-mulazzani) · 2020-10-05T09:35:32.438Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why 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 actually improve the economy, and nobody is saying "let's toss industry and technology out of the window, back to the caves everyone!".

comment by ketil · 2020-10-06T05:24:06.384Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Even ignoring the current deaths due to the large scale desertification that Climate Change is causing,

What 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/)

At the current rate of fishing, all fish species could be practically extinct by 2050

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.

estimates ranging from 100 million to 1 billion climate refugees

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.
 

comment by Emiya (andrea-mulazzani) · 2020-10-06T10:40:34.095Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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_consequences_and_solutions_Gland_Switzerland_IUCN_xxii562pp

again cover the subject of an abrupt drop in marine biomass and it's consequences for food security. The second one specifies how over fishing and climate change are again piling up as problems, exacerbating each other consequences.

 

My specific claim that overfishing would extinguish all fish species by 2050 turned out to not be in my thesis, I mixed up what I heard in a documentary with the statements I was able to prove about risks for a collapse of marine life and risks for food security during my work. 

This is referred as the study which that statement I heard was based on, but it states it's a possibility and there doesn't seem to be much recent research backing this outcome, so I'd update my expectations to the possible outcomes treated in the studies above, which aren't at all less worrying. 

Edit: I forgot to actually paste the link: https://www3.epa.gov/region1/npdes/schillerstation/pdfs/AR-024.pdf

 

For refugees:

https://xpda.com/junkmail/junk219/environmental%20refugees%2014851.pdf this indicates 200 million climate refugees by 2050 as the most common estimate.

https://publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/mecc_outlook.pdf  this was the resource I used from 100 million to 1 billion. 

My statement was from memory and it was incorrect. The most relevant pages for my statement seem to be 38 and 39. IOM states that, in the current literature, predictions of refugees number vary from 25 million to 1 billion because there are a lot of variables. 

However at page 39 says that in the previous 5 years over 165 million people were newly displaced, and that climate and weather disasters were involved in 90% of cases, so my guess is that we can throw the most optimistic estimates out of the window. Most of those cases are related to temporary displacement (page 40), but in the same page it's stated that climate change is expected to shift climate related displacement toward permanent ones.

 

 

For current refugees vs future refugees, usually it's a lot more cost-effective to prevent a problem than to fix it once it happens. 

I strongly feel we should fix the current problem as well, and that the two approaches shouldn't have to compete for the resources we'll allocate. Currently this kind of problems are seeing only the scraps of what we could allocate, and fixing the future problems spares us economic damages that would be way higher even in the short term alone.

 

Also, many of the wars currently causing refugees seem to be partly caused by climate change consequences. 

https://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/id/eprint/134710/1/Mach_2019_accepted_manuscript.pdf 

(here is the published version of the same article, I'm not sure if you have access to this resource though, I have it through my university https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1300-6 )

https://archive.defense.gov/pubs/150724-congressional-report-on-national-implications-of-climate-change.pdf 

Both these studies indicate climate change as one of the causes of recent war, and as likely cause for more armed conflicts in the future.

 

On a side note: I do have to remember to always post the sources of my claims in advance, so at least I can make less of them. This wasn't how I planned to spend a good part of my morning, but it would have been really incorrect to not post the sources for claims I already made.

comment by Dach · 2020-10-05T21:48:07.341Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why do you seem to imply that burning fossil fuels would help at all the odds of the long term human project? 

I don't imply that. For clarification: 

I would waste any number of resources if that was what was best for the long-term prospects of Humanity. In practice, that means that I'm willing to sacrifice really really large amounts of resources that we won't be able to use until after we develop AGI or similar, in exchange for very very small increases to our probability of developing aligned AGI or similar.

Because I think we won't be able to use significant portions of most of the types of resources available on Earth before we develop AGI or similar, I'm willing to completely ignore conservation of those resources. I still care about the side effects of the process of gathering and using those resources, but...

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. 

At the current rate of fishing, all fish species could be practically extinct by 2050

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 depletable species which we'll be better off having alive for the next 100 years.
  • Being careful with our effect on global temperatures and water levels, in order to avoid the costs of relocating large numbers of humans.
  • Being careful with our management of important freshwater reserves, at least until we develop sufficiently economical desalinization plants.

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?

The greatest risks to your survival are, by far, (unless you're a very exceptional person) natural causes and misaligned artificial general intelligence. You shouldn't significantly concern yourself with dealing with weird risk factors such as riots or food shortages unless you've already found that you can't do anything about natural causes and misaligned artificial general intelligence. Spoiler: It seems you can do something about these risk factors.

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 actually improve the economy, and nobody is saying "let's toss industry and technology out of the window, back to the caves everyone!".

Many people are saying things I consider dangerously close to "Let's toss industry and technology out of the window!". Dagon suggested that our current resource expenditure was reckless, and that we should substantially downgrade our resource expenditures. I consider this to be a seriously questionable perspective on the problem.

I'm not arguing against preserving the environment if it would boost the economy for at least the next 100 years, keeping in mind opportunity cost. I want to improve humanity's generalized power to pursue its goals- I'm not attached to any particular short guiding principle for doing this, such as "Protect the Earth!" or "More oil!". I don't have Mad Oil Baron Syndrome.

comment by Emiya (andrea-mulazzani) · 2020-10-06T00:06:04.617Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Understood, 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 people similar to me, but that could kill a lot more in future years in which I'll be alive" then I feel that, even if AI mismanagement takes first place, climate change takes the second, and that it augments considerably the chances of the first.

While riots and food shortages are indeed examples I choose by pure gut level evaluation of "scariness" and are too specific to me to put my money on if I should bet on the causes of my death, I don't feel at all optimistic about the way our society will react to climate change.

Migratory fluxes and violent conflicts a lot smaller than what we'll certainly see were enough to send the European Union dangerously close to falling apart in a bunch of nationalistic states. Change enough our environment, and wide-scale wars and a new wave of totalitarian governments stop to be an unlikely reality, since in times of fear and unrest people are more likely to regard the principles behind them as positive. All these factors seem to reinforce each other as far as I know.

Even by assuming the situation won't go as bad as total warfare and rampant totalitarianism, I would bet on a significant degeneration in the political scenario, moving away from international cooperation and toward nationalism and short term interests considerations only, and I don't really see any reason that a bunch of such states, that are fighting for resources, facing wide scale crisis, scared of what each other will do and have lost most of their ability to cooperate with each other are less likely to botch AI horribly and kill us all.

 

About the suggestions for lowering our resource consumptions since it's currently too high: it's unarguable that we are burning through a ridiculous amount of resources that are producing practically no improvement in our chances of survival or even marginally improving the quality of our life. We could easily keep the same amount of comforts and life expectancy while consuming a lot less resources. 

Our economical system has simply not enough incentives for efficiency, shrinking our resources consumption without sacrificing quality of life and life expectancy is perfectly doable and it's imperative to augment our chances of long term survival.

 

Lastly, given the current trend of society, statements close to "keeping in check mankind consumption of resources and it's impact on the environment it's not a priority" are a lot more dangerous than statements close to "let's toss industry out of the windows and go back to the caves". Clearly going too far in either of those directions would hurt, but going too much in the first direction is a possibility a lot more likely at the present moment, while I don't see any real chance for the second kind of statements to change society toward a pre-technological or pre-industrial site.

The de-growth movement (which, if I remember correctly, it's based on the proven fact that economic growth, after a certain threshold, offers basically no improvement to quality of life, and that first world has long passed that threshold, so we should focus on things that aren't economic growth), also doesn't strike me as a threat to my quality of life or my long term survival comparable to underestimating the impact of environmental damages or of over-consumption of resources before the point when mankind hits a positive singularity. 

I also don't see any real chance of this site moving toward an anti-technological or anti-science trend. Those trends do seem dangerous and likely in the general populace, but for the risks I've stated above I think they should be opposed by informing people on the benefits of technology and science, rather than of the industrial system.

comment by jasoncrawford · 2020-10-05T22:17:19.717Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Many people are saying things I consider dangerously close to "Let's toss industry and technology out of the window!"

Indeed, there is an active “degrowth” movement. cf. Giorgos Kallis: https://greattransition.org/publication/the-degrowth-alternative

comment by TAG · 2020-10-05T11:12:05.261Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's entirely possible to burn through the resources on this planet without getting off this planet . That's a very dicey pinch point

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-10-14T16:43:04.013Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Our job is to make sure that our light cone ends up being used for what we find valuable. That’s our only job.

Why, exactly, is this our only job (or, indeed, our job at all)? Surely it’s possible to value present-day things, people, etc.?

The only important thing and the best thing we can do for [future humanity] is to ensure that they will ever exist at all!

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.

comment by Dach · 2020-10-15T04:56:02.550Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why, exactly, is this our only job (or, indeed, our job at all)? Surely it’s possible to value present-day things, people, etc.?

The 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 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.

"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 discussion to be had on the specific merits of making sure that people exist, but I'm not (currently) interested in having that discussion. My point isn't really related to that- it's that we should be spending most of our effort on planning for the long term future.

Also, in the context of artificial intelligence research, it's an open question as to what the border of "Future Humanity" is. "Existing humans" and "Future Humanity" probably have significant overlap, or so the people at MIRI, DeepMind, OpenAI, FHI, etc. tend to argue- and I agree.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-10-15T06:33:18.212Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Whether 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.

“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?”

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).

“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?

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).

“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.

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.

There’s some more complicated discussion to be had on the specific merits of making sure that people exist, but I’m not (currently) interested in having that discussion. My point isn’t really related to that …

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 to a position on this question.

Also, in the context of artificial intelligence research, it’s an open question as to what the border of “Future Humanity” is.

Quite so—but surely this undermines your thesis, rather than supporting it?

comment by Dach · 2020-10-15T09:45:15.819Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Whether 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.

Eh... We can draw conclusions about the values of individuals based on the ways in which they seem to act in the limit of additional time and information, the origins of humanity (selection for inclusive genetic fitness), by constructing thought experiments to solicit revealed beliefs, etc.

Other agents are allowed to claim that they have more insight than you into certain preferences of yours- they often do. Consider the special cases [LW · GW] in which you can prove that the stated preferences of some humans allow you to siphon infinite money off of them. Also consider the special cases in which someone says something completely incoherent- "I prefer two things to one another under all conditions", or some such. We know that they're wrong. They can refuse to admit they're wrong, but they can't properly do that without giving us all of their money or in some sense putting their fingers in their ears.

These special cases are just special cases. In general, values are highly entangled with concrete physical information. You may say that you want to put your hand on that (unbeknownst to you) searing plate, but we can also know that you're wrong. You don't want to do that, and you'd agree if only you knew that the plate was searing hot.

They are fully within their right to answer in the negative, but they're not allowed to decide that they're correct. There is a correct answer to what they value, and they don't necessarily have perfect insight into that.

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).

You don't need to be able to predict the future with omniscient accuracy to realize that you are in an unusually important position for affecting the future.

If it's not obvious, here we go: You're an above average intelligence person living in the small period directly before Humanity is expected (By top experts- and with good cause) to develop artificial general intelligence. This technology will allow us to break the key scarcities of civilization:

  1. Allowing vastly more efficient conversion of matter into agency through the fabrication of computer hardware. This process will, given the advent of artificial general intelligence, soon far surpass the efficiency with which we can construct Human agency. Humans take a very long time to make, and you must train each individual Human- you can't directly copy Human software, and the indirect copying is very, very slow.
  2. Allowing agents with intelligence vastly above that of the most intelligent humans (whose brains must all fit in a container of relatively limited size) in all strategically relevant regards- speed, quality, modularity, I/O speed, multitasking ability, adaptability, transparency, etc.
  3. Allowing us to build agents able to access a much more direct method of recursively improving their own intelligence by buying or fabricating new hardware and directly improving their own code, triggering an extremely exploitable direct feedback loop.

The initial conditions of the first agent(s) we deploy which possesses these radical and simultaneously new options which will, on account of the overwhelming importance of these limitations on the existing state of affairs, precisely and "solely" determine the future.

This is a pretty popular opinion among the popular rationalist writers- I pass the torch on to them.

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.

I was aware of the difference. The point (Which I directly stated at the end- convenient!) is that "It does make sense to say that you’re doing things 'for' people who don’t exist." If this doesn't directly address your point, the proper response to make would have been "Ok, I think you misunderstood what I was saying." I think that I did misunderstand what you were saying, so disregard.

Aside from that, I still think that saying bringing someone into existence "for" them makes sense. I think you saying the thing doesn't "make sense" is unfairly dismissive and overly argumentative. If someone said that they weren't going to have an abortion "for" their baby, (or, if you disagree with me about the lines of what constitutes a "person") that they were stopping some pain relieving experimental drug that was damaging their fertility "for" their future children, you'd receive all of the information they meant to convey about their motivations. It would definitely make sense. You might disagree with that reasoning, but it's coherent. They have an emotional connection with their as of yet not locally instantiated children.

I personally do happen to disagree with this reasoning for reasons I will explain later- but it does make sense.

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 to a position on this question.

It isn't, and I just told you that it isn't. You should have tried to understand why I was saying that before arguing with me- I'm the person who made the comment in the first place, and I just directly told you that you were misinterpreting me.

My point is: "It's that we should be spending most of our effort on planning for the long term future." See later for an elaboration.

Quite so—but surely this undermines your thesis, rather than supporting it?

No- I'm not actually arguing for the specific act of ensuring that future humans exist. I think that all humans already exist [LW · GW], perhaps in infinite supply, and I thus see (tentatively) zero value in bringing about future humans in and of itself. My first comment was using a rhetorical flair that was intended to convey my general strategy for planning for the future; I'm more interested in solving the AI alignment problem (and otherwise avoiding human extinction/s-risks) than I am about current politically popular long term planning efforts and the problems that they address, such as climate change and conservation efforts.

I think that we should be interested in manipulating the relative ratios (complicated stuff) of future humans, which means that we should still be interested in "ensuring the existence" (read: manipulating the ratios of different types of) of "Future Humanity", a nebulous phrase meant to convey the sort of outcome that I want to see to the value achievement dilemma. Personally, I think that the most promising plan for this is engineering an aligned AGI and supporting it throughout its recursive self improvement process.

Your response was kindof sour, so I'm not going to continue this conversation.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-10-15T10:33:05.087Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I read this comment with interest, and with the intent of responding to your points—it seemed to me that there was much confusion to be resolved here, to the benefit of all. Then I got to your last line.

It is severely rude to post a detailed fisking of an interlocutor’s post/comment, and to then walk away. If you wish to bow out of the discussion, that is your right, but it is both self-indulgent and disrespectful to first get in a last word (much less a last several hundred words).

Strongly downvoted.

comment by Dach · 2020-10-15T10:58:17.021Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You were welcome to write an actual response, and I definitely would have read it. I was merely announcing my advanced intent to not respond in detail to any following comments, and explaining why in brief, conservative terms. This is seemingly strictly better- it gives you new information which you can use to decide whether or not you want to respond. If I was being intentionally mean, I would have allowed you to write a detailed comment and never responded, potentially wasting your time.

If your idea of rudeness is constructed in this (admittedly inconvenient) way, I apologize.

comment by ESRogs · 2020-10-03T19:44:54.899Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ehn.

?

comment by Dagon · 2020-10-03T21:30:27.312Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry - 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.  

comment by Mary Chernyshenko (mary-chernyshenko) · 2020-10-03T09:35:13.747Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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!

comment by Demeter · 2020-10-07T00:35:42.649Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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. 

comment by Edward Swernofsky (edward-swernofsky) · 2020-09-30T21:54:23.348Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by eyesack · 2020-10-06T18:49:47.255Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You 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.

comment by Edward Swernofsky (edward-swernofsky) · 2020-10-06T22:16:23.985Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This 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 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 actually a better deal overall, ignoring regulations.

comment by eyesack · 2020-10-07T15:26:02.110Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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 parents' farm.
      1. First, when the crops are harvested, they're placed in the bed of a semi truck to be hauled to wherever there's storage. For my farm, that's my grandparents' place where there's a pair of elevators for the drying process (complicated) and a few dozen grain bins which range in size from 16 to 80 thousand bushels.
      2. Then, when the market is at its highest, the grain is sold to a coop (a kind of company that buys up grain from farmers and sells it all to someone who can't afford to deal with small-time farmers) or ethanol plant or whatever. Someone will drive that grain to its destination in a semi truck.
      3. A train system that accommodates these two steps would have to connect thousands of farms to hundreds of farm houses to dozens of processing plants. It would have to conform to hundreds of different farming styles. Basically, the concept is inconceivable. The system already in place allows anyone to haul grain anywhere anytime they like, relatively cheaply. Trains only really get efficient when you're travelling a very long distance, and for most areas, that just isn't the case.
  3. Pollution
    1. Nobody notices pollution or smog in small towns. 
      1. I've visited NYC once, and it was awful. It's never like that in rural areas. 
    2. So, you'll have a really tough time convincing anyone to use green vehicles. There's really no incentive. In fact, a rather successful local business takes modern vehicles and removes all of the emission control bits. It makes the car or truck more fuel efficient and more powerful/responsive.
  4. Subsidies
    1. People keep talking about subsidies. I don't think they understand exactly how things work. There are three ways my parents might get money from taxpayers.
      1. We get money for maintaining the terraces on the farms. This is part of a big program to prevent runoff, and it's necessary to keep farms productive.
      2. Sometimes, a farm is converted to natural prairie to support wildlife and butterflies and such. This is called CRP, and you can get a little money for it, but not much.
      3. When the markets are bad and there's no way to make money, we'll get money. Otherwise, you'd suddenly see half of the farmers go out of business and then you'd have no food. This happened especially when the Trump trade deal with China didn't go through, so a lot of the soybean export just stopped happening.
      4. The taxes my parents pay (about half of what they make) is MUCH higher than what they're payed. Farm expenses are tax deductible, but everything else isn't. If my dad makes 500,000 dollars, spends 80% on that on the next year's seed, fertilizer, equipment repairs, and all other expenses, whatever is left over is cut in half. The system is basically made to make sure farmers can't get ahead. Please, stop pretending that farmers are just accepting cash from the government, because most of the time, they work harder than anyone with significant risk.

That got way longer than I meant it to. I hope you get a picture of what life is like in the country. If you'd like to provide city perspective, I have no idea what people actually do for work there (big buildings full of offices? All I know is what's in movies.)

comment by jasoncrawford · 2020-10-07T21:47:00.911Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Re 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.

comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2020-10-07T22:01:19.282Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(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!)

comment by Edward Swernofsky (edward-swernofsky) · 2020-10-09T00:24:45.652Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks 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 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.

comment by jasoncrawford · 2020-09-30T22:31:57.072Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If infant mortality was higher that'd be terrible, but I assume people would have more kids to compensate.

Are you saying it's morally acceptable for children to die, as long as people have more children to replace them?

comment by Edward Swernofsky (edward-swernofsky) · 2020-10-01T00:13:43.180Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, just that the following doesn't make sense if people have more kids as a result:

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

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".

comment by Neel Nanda (neel-nanda-1) · 2020-10-01T11:24:58.387Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I 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.

comment by jasoncrawford · 2020-10-01T17:35:48.759Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The point I was making is just that child mortality (before age 5) used to be ~50%. Edward is admittedly being pedantic.

comment by Dagon · 2020-10-02T19:38:12.946Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

He'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).

comment by jasoncrawford · 2020-10-02T19:55:18.916Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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?

comment by Vaniver · 2020-10-06T05:31:01.469Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

While 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 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.

comment by Dagon · 2020-10-02T21:21:39.034Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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

Not 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.

comment by Richard Korzekwa (Grothor) · 2020-10-02T23:24:09.502Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Losing a child is one of the worst things that can happen to a person, in terms of long-term well-being. See, for example, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352827319302204, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2910450/, and https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10902-015-9624-x

comment by Davidmanheim · 2020-10-05T09:42:20.746Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by jasoncrawford · 2020-10-05T18:12:56.334Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The 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.

comment by Rudi C (rudi-c) · 2020-10-19T01:54:05.336Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not 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?

comment by FCCC · 2020-10-19T04:11:29.024Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do think that an infant is not worth much except their sentimental value to their family.

All 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.

comment by Rudi C (rudi-c) · 2020-10-21T23:27:01.706Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

True, 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.)

comment by FCCC · 2020-10-22T01:07:09.783Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

True, but the value is to them.

Yes, 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.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-10-06T04:13:18.806Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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

comment by rohinmshah · 2020-10-06T17:28:22.169Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In 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:

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.

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.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-10-06T18:23:20.311Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, 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.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-10-08T19:38:48.015Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ok, 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.

comment by jasoncrawford · 2020-10-08T19:50:00.195Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

On 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?

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2020-10-08T21:21:29.738Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by capybaralet · 2020-10-04T08:27:08.134Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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 environmental consequences to our current practice that seem somewhat urgent to address: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haber_process#Economic_and_environmental_aspects

comment by Davidmanheim · 2020-10-05T09:49:46.464Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, 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. 

comment by capybaralet · 2020-10-05T20:17:51.447Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The claim I'm objecting to is:

all soil loses its fertility naturally over time


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. 

comment by swarriner · 2020-10-05T22:28:25.168Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

See 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.

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2020-09-30T18:45:44.785Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2020-09-30T18:47:19.524Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Better: 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.

comment by jasoncrawford · 2020-09-30T19:04:04.470Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like that idea!

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2020-09-30T23:34:23.609Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here's a start at least.

https://ourworldindata.org/pesticides

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2020-10-01T00:08:47.316Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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 1990.

This paper makes it appear that over that time, pesticide use has roughly doubled in terms of sheer tonnage. If pesticides have become roughly twice as safe, and are used roughly twice as much, we seem to be roughly putting the same number of lethal doses of pesticide into our planet every year as we were in 1990.

Of course, maybe less (or more) pesticide gets contained than it used to. Maybe less (or more) breaks down before it can do harm to the environment. Maybe less (or more) actually gets consumed by humans in the produce they eat.

comment by jasoncrawford · 2020-10-01T00:34:25.462Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting, thanks! Would love to see this going all the way back to ~1900…

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2020-10-01T03:55:02.382Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'll get started on that PhD XD

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2020-10-01T04:02:13.124Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But wait! There's more!

World cereal production 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.

comment by eyesack · 2020-10-06T18:20:59.561Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by Jake Heiser (jake-heiser) · 2020-10-14T06:30:28.826Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Contrarily, 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.

comment by Marc G (marc-g-1) · 2020-10-06T05:52:16.720Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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).

comment by lukstafi · 2020-10-04T09:50:43.414Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The fridge / the freezer!

comment by John Smith (john-smith) · 2020-10-06T21:21:21.515Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by McP82 · 2020-09-30T19:01:20.346Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by Simon Kohuch (simon-kohuch) · 2020-09-30T19:39:17.860Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A 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...

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-10-06T15:26:30.085Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Currently, 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.

comment by Jake Heiser (jake-heiser) · 2020-10-14T06:59:23.091Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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??)

comment by seed · 2020-10-14T08:38:38.704Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

They, um, save time? And also heat up the water?

comment by Jake Heiser (jake-heiser) · 2020-10-14T12:40:37.170Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It'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

comment by gwern · 2020-10-14T18:04:30.699Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by FCCC · 2020-10-03T13:16:40.559Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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 not one-person one-vote (e.g. the free market, what you do on your own property, what clothes you wear). We should aim to create more decentralized systems that satisfy good goals (like Pareto efficiency), for instance a prison system that maximizes the total societal contribution of any given set of inmates within the limits of the law [EA · GW] or a retirement savings system that maximizes the long-run returns of retirement savings [EA · GW].

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-10-03T14:23:00.446Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When 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. 

prison system that maximizes the total societal contribution of any given set of inmates within the limits of the law 

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.

comment by FCCC · 2020-10-03T14:37:55.941Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

I 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:

better inmate wellbeing is a consequence of the policy for several reasons: (1) Societal contribution includes the crimes that occur within the prison, so prisons want to prevent their inmates from committing crimes against each other, and (2) societal contribution is probably maximized when former inmates integrate into society, so prisons want to educate inmates and keep them out of harm’s way.

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.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2020-10-04T09:12:53.088Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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".

I'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".

comment by FCCC · 2020-10-04T14:23:49.080Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"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".

That 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.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2020-10-04T15:01:18.843Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well hedonic adaptation 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.

comment by FCCC · 2020-10-05T02:01:43.937Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'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.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2020-10-05T13:27:02.078Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I'm not saying that I would agree with the reasoning, just that one can hold it in a consistent manner.

comment by FCCC · 2020-10-06T04:35:26.154Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I think you're right.

comment by Dokler · 2020-10-06T08:03:40.312Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In 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. 

comment by FCCC · 2020-10-07T03:27:43.835Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I 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.

Any advantage gained by technology is given back in pursuit of more. Faster transport leads to people being more spread out, not better connected.

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 treated as second-class citizens (if they were citizens at all). To make a convincing case, you'd have to pick a specific time and place to live, show that it's representative of "sometime between the end of the ice age and the first agricultural society", and show, at the very least, that's it's not terrible time to live. Without that, you may be idealizing what it was actually like.

comment by Dokler · 2020-10-07T09:14:18.473Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I 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

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2020-10-09T13:53:12.451Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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

But see also Many Origins of Agriculture:

Just as there is no single way to gather and hunt, there are many different ways to cultivate plants and interact with non-human animals. Major forms of agriculture arose independently in at least seven different areas of the world. Each depended on a different mix of plants and non-human animals. Moreover, there are different mixes of horticulture, or small-scale gardening, with other activities, like gathering and hunting. So instead of talking about the origin of agriculture, we need to think about the many origins of agriculture. [...]

Inevitably a change in the mix of plants and animals will have complex effects, which can lead to different forms of social organization. Such changes are not automatic, and they are rarely once-and-for-all.

Putting together the many ways to hunt and gather with many forms of cultivating makes it clear Jared Diamond was playing fast and loose with the evidence when he wrote “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.” Returning to his headline: “With agriculture came the curses of social and sexual inequality, disease, and despotism” (1987:66). Each of those terms is questionable, and some are blatantly untrue. The evidence is sometimes in the very sources Diamond uses. 

Also Romanticizing the Hunter-Gatherer:

... what about egalitarianism? In a 2004 study, Michael Gurven marshals an impressive amount of cross-cultural data and notes that hunters tend to keep more of their kill for themselves and their families than they share with others. While there is undeniably a great deal of sharing across hunter-gatherer societies, common notions of generalized equality are greatly overstated. Even in circumstances where hunters give away more of their meat than they end up receiving from others in return, good hunters tend to be accorded high status, and rewarded with more opportunities to reproduce everywhere the relationship has been studied. When taking into account ‘embodied wealth’ such as hunting returns and reproductive success, and ‘relational wealth’ such as the number of exchange and sharing partners, Alden Smith et al. calculated that hunter-gatherer societies have a ‘moderate’ level of inequality, roughly comparable to that of Denmark. While this is less inequality than most agricultural societies and nation states, it’s not quite the level of egalitarianism many have come to expect from hunter-gatherers.

In the realm of reproductive success, hunter-gatherers are even more unequal than modern industrialized populations, exhibiting what is called “greater reproductive skew,” with males having significantly larger variance in reproductive success than females. Among the Ache of Paraguay, males have over 4 times the variance in reproductive success that females do, which is one of the highest ratios recorded. This means some males end up having lots of children with different women, while a significant number of males end up having none at all. This is reflected in the fact that polygynous marriage is practiced in the majority of hunter-gatherer societies for which there are data. [...]

It is also instructive to compare the homicide rates of hunter-gatherer societies with those of contemporary nation states. In a 2013 paper entitled “From the Peaceful to the Warlike,” anthropologist Robert Kelly provides homicide data for 15 hunter-gatherer societies.

11 of these 15 societies have homicide rates higher than that of the most violent modern nation, and 14 out of the 15 have homicide rates higher than that of the United States in 2016. The one exception, the Batek of Malaysia, have a long history of being violently attacked and enslaved by neighboring groups, and developed a survival tactic of running away and studiously avoiding conflict. Yet even they recount tales of wars in the past, where their shamans would shoot enemies with blowpipes. Interestingly, Ivan Tacey & Diana Riboli have noted that “…the Batek frequently recount their nostalgic memories of British doctors, administrators and army personnel visiting their communities in helicopters to deliver medicines and other supplies,” which conflicts with the idea that hunter-gatherer societies would have no want or need of anything nation states have to offer. From 1920-1955 the !Kung had a homicide rate of 42/100,000 (about 8 times that of the US rate in 2016), however Kelly mentions that, “murders ceased after 1955 due to the presence of an outside police force.”

Many of the recent articles in the popular media on hunter-gatherer societies have failed to represent these societies accurately. The picture you get from reading articles in publications like the New Yorker and the Guardian, or from anthropologists like Douglas Fry and James Suzman, is often quite different from what a deep dive into the ethnographic record reveals. The excessive reliance on a single paper published 50 years ago has contributed to some severe misconceptions about hunter-gatherer ‘affluence,’ and their relative freedom from scarcity and disease. There is a tendency to downplay the benefits of modern medicine, institutions, and infrastructure – as well as the very real costs of not having access to them – in these discussions.  And, despite what some may wish to believe, the hunter-gatherer way of life is not a solution to the social problems found in modern nation states.

comment by FCCC · 2020-10-07T12:08:21.489Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Life expectancy at birth in the pre-agricultural community was about twenty-six years," says Armelagos, "but in the post-agricultural community it was nineteen years...

Neither 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:

Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. 

... [In agricultural societies, elites were healthier]

To people in rich countries like the U.S., it sounds ridiculous to extol the virtues of hunting and gathering. But Americans are an elite...

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.

Women in agricultural societies were sometimes made beasts of burden. In New Guinea farming communities today I often see women staggering under loads of vegetables and firewood while the men walk empty-handed.

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" trade-off.

comment by Dokler · 2020-10-07T18:16:37.652Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Neither 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. 

This 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. 

 

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

 

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" trade-off.

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". 

comment by FCCC · 2020-10-08T00:33:41.788Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This 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. 

I have wondered how that factored into life expectancy. This is a good point.

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. 

Incorrect, that quote is ambiguous about whether they are better off compared to pre-agriculture. However, he also says

Thus with the advent of agriculture the elite became better off, but most people became worse off.

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.

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.

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.

The anthropological evidence (mostly observation of present day hunter-gatherer groups) indicates that hunter-gatherer groups have high levels of gender equality.

That's surprising to me, and shifts me towards that conclusion.

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".

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).

comment by jasoncrawford · 2020-10-08T01:23:12.884Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

“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.

(Also, I don't have time to dig into it now, but I am skeptical of the “15 hours” stat for hunter-gatherers.)

comment by Vaniver · 2020-10-08T22:20:45.770Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, a lot of the increase came from childhood mortality, but life expectancy increased at every age.

Note 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).

comment by Dokler · 2020-10-06T08:18:32.006Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I 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?

comment by Abraham Al-Janabi (abraham-al-janabi) · 2020-10-07T14:28:10.170Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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 has produced the miracle of modern medicine which has saved countless children's lives, but it's also resulted in the abortion of something on the order of 73 million fetuses per year. Compare that to the 140 million that are born worldwide ever year, and you're looking at a 1/3rd of children being culled. Before, nature would do it - now we use poison or insert a tube. Has "progress" really been made? You might say yes because now we get to choose which children live and which children die - it's convenient and does not hurt our feelings as much; whereas before we were at the mercy of God. A child you very much loved and grew attached to could be snatched from you at any time. Now, we kill them before we form attachment bonds. You might call that progress, but someone else might call that sick. Can you really say he's wrong? Furthermore, what kind of a world is that child now born into? A world of broken families and being raised by TV, entertainment and strangers. Before the industrial revolution, that child would be born into a whole tribe that cared about his wellbeing. Has anything in the industrial world replaced love of one's clansmen? I doubt it. And I doubt we fully appreciate the implications this has on one's well-being and mental health. These are just a few examples, and yes, someone can give a counterpoint to each one of these - but my point is that the issue is not clear cut and the tradeoffs and sometimes much greater than we might think.

comment by Jake Heiser (jake-heiser) · 2020-10-14T06:45:24.734Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I 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)