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In The Rational Optimist, I argue that the human technological
and economic take-off derives from the invention of exchange and
specialisation some time before 100,000 years ago. When people
began to trade things, ideas could meet and mate, with the result
that a sort of collective brain could form, far more powerful than
individual brains. Cumulative technology could begin to embody this
Of course, I did not invent this idea. In keeping with the
theory, I merely put together the ideas of others, notably those of
Joe Henrich (collective intelligence), Rob Boyd (cumulative
culture), Paul Romer (combinatorial ideas), Haim Ofek (the
invention of exchange) and many others.
There was also the important thought that came from Adam Powell, Stephen Shennan and Mark Thomas,
namely that temporary `outbreaks' of new technology in Paleolithic
Africa probably have a demographic explanation. That is, when
population density rose, it resulted in a spurt of innovation; when
population density fell, it resulted in technological regress (as
happened in Tasmania when it was isolated). Technology was
sophisticated, in other words, in proportion to the number of
people networked by exchange to sustain and develop it.
I noticed a curious thing recently. The BBC's coverage of the
Gulf oil spill for the last two nights was missing one thing:
A reporter went down in a minisubmarine and looked at a pristine
coral reef. Newsnight interviewed lawyers, fishermen and
But there was no sign of a slick, a slimed pelican or even a tar
ball in their reports.
Through the letterbox drops a begging letter from the head of a
university. Fair enough. The needy beg. The first sentence reads as
Today, the defining struggle in
the world is between relentless growth and the potential for
This is very odd in all sorts of ways.
German language interview just published in Das Magazin, based
in Zurich. It calls me `notorisch zuversichtlichen'.
Includes this picture of the author looking pessmistic because
about to be eaten by sabre-toothed cat, and because he has his head
by the rear end of a monkey.
Whenever somebody gets nostalgic about the past, I get
suspicious. In the eigth century BC, Hesiod was already moaning
about how things aint like they used to be.
The Wall Street Journal has a great article about how nostalgic people get
for the way air travel used to be in the 1950s -- with more leg
room, less hassle and more romance.
Piffle. Compard with today, it was expensive, dangerous and
I have long known that there is nothing remotely `green' about
putting wind farms all over the countryside, with their
eagle-slicing, bat-popping, subsidy-eating, rare-earth-demanding,
steel-rich, intermittent-output characteristics. But until I read
Robert Bryce's superb and sober new book Power Hungry, I had not realised just how
dreadfully bad for the environment nearly all renewable energy
Bryce calculates that one Texas nuclear plant generates about 56
watts per square metre. This compares with 53 for gas turbines, 1.2
for wind, 6.7 for solar or 0.05 for corn ethanol. Sorry, but what
is so green about using 45 times as much land - and ten times as
much steel - to produce the same amount of power? It does not
surprise me that those with vested interest in renewables close
their minds to this, but it genuinely baffles me that other people
don't get it.
I've dealt with bird killing elsewhere, but Bryce contrasts the
prosecution of Exxon for killing 85 birds in uncovered tanks with
the fact that:
I found this on John Hawks's anthropology blog. He's
writing about the sometimes heated debate over whether Homo
floresiensis is a species or a deformity:
What I notice is that when I
write about this, I have to correct a lot of false claims about
what the anti-floresiensis scientists have said. Why do I so rarely
have to correct false claims about what the pro-floresiensis
scientists say? This is a generalization, but I've written enough
about this to have a good impression. The media reports skeptical
arguments very poorly. I think it's a systematic problem with
With the H. floresiensis issue,
the science writers have been abetted by some careless scholars. A
reporter may quote a pro-floresiensis scientist who says his
critics believe something totally nonsensical, and they report that
uncritically. This is another example of the same. I challenge
anybody to find an anti-floresiensis scholar who has written that
"nature moves inexorably towards bigger brains".
Daniel Ben-Ami's new book `Ferraris For All', published by the Policy
Press, is a great read. Ben-Ami's point is to defend the idea of
economic development against the `growth sceptics' who have emerged
in various blue, green and red guises recently.
What he does especially well is to point out how conservative,
how elitist and anti-aspirational, so many of the critics of
economic growth are. In a fascinating chapter he explores the way
in which the Left has abandoned the idea of progress, and turned
Nowadays it has reached the stage
where what passes for radical thinking is typically imbued with
deep social pessimism and hostility to economic growth.
Paradoxically, to the extent that any current is associated with
advocating prosperity, it is often the free market
I have written an op-ed article in The Times today. It's behind
a paywall, but here's my last draft before editing by the
newspaper, together with links.
So long as the cap holds, and
assuming that is the end of it, the Deepwater Horizon spill (up to
600,000 tonnes in total) will now take its place in the oil spill
hall of shame. BP's cavalier incompetence has made this probably the worst oil-spill year since 1979,
the year that saw not only the previous worst rig spill - the Ixtoc
1 platform off Mexico - but also the worst tanker spill, a
collision of two supertankers off Trinidad.
All this, just when things were
going so well in the oil-spill business. The number and collective
size of oil spills (over 7,000 tonnes) has declined in each of the last four decades,
from 25 large spills and over 250,000 tonnes a year in 1970-1979 to
three spills and about 20,000 tonnes a year in 2000-2009: that is a
drop of more than 90%.
My TED talk is now live online.
At TEDGlobal 2010, author Matt
Ridley shows how, throughout history, the engine of human progress
has beenthe meeting and mating of ideas to make new
ideas. It's not important how clever
individuals are, he says; what really matters is how smart the
collective brain is.
Today at TED Global in Oxford, among other great talks, I was
blown away by this graph, shown by David McCandless.
I have just one comment on the Climategate reports and that is
People who ask the world to spend $45 trillion on a project are surely under an
obligation to show their raw data and their workings. If instead,
publish only `adjusted data' rather than raw
Ten reasons I want the Netherlands to win the World Cup
1. More than almost any nation since the Phoenicians, the Dutch
traded rather than plundered their way to prosperity in their
2. They were cheated out of winning (hosting?) the industrial
revolution by invasions and attacks from jealous neighbours,
especially Louis XIV.
I am in today's Sun newspaper. Fully clothed.
WHEN I was growing up in the
1970s we were warned the ice age was returning, the population
explosion was unstoppable and we'd all be poisoned by chemicals in
None of these things
Tim Worstall has a superb rebuke to the idiotic argument that
greedy speculation, rather than greenie politicking, was the real
cause of the high food prices, hunger and food riots of 2008:
In short, futures allow
speculation upon the future: which is why we have them, for
speculation upon the future allows us to sidestep the very things
which we do not desire to happen in that future.
Now, of course, you could design
an alternative method of doing this. The wise, omniscient
and altruistic politicians and bureaucrats could send a
fax to all farmers telling them to plant more. Signs could appear
in every breadshop telling us all to eat our
have written a blog at the Huffington Post called Down with Doom. Here's an extract:
I now see at firsthand how I
avoided hearing any good news when I was young. Where are the
pressure groups that have an interest in telling the good news?
They do not exist. By contrast, the behemoths of bad news, such as
Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WWF, spend hundreds of
millions of dollars a year and doom is their best fund-raiser.
Where is the news media's interest in checking out how pessimists'
predictions panned out before? There is none. By my count, Lester
Brown has now predicted a turning point in the rise of agricultural
yields six times since 1974, and been wrong each time. Paul Ehrlich
has been predicting mass starvation and mass cancer for 40 years.
He still predicts that `the world is coming to a turning
Update: apologies for formatting problems in a previous version
of this blog post.
Last week a study claimed that 97-98
percent of the most published climate scientists agree with the
scientific consensus that man-made climate change is happening.
Well, duh. Of course they would: it's their livelihood. Anyway,
so do I. So do most `sceptics': they just argue about how much and
through what means. You can believe in man-made carbon dioxide
causing man-made climate change but not in net positive feedbacks
so you think the change will be mild, slow, hard to discern among
natural changes and far less likely to cause harm than
carbon-rationing policies: that's still within the range of
possibilities of the IPCC consensus.