Why I am a proud solutionist

Debates about technology and progress are usually framed by “optimism” and “pessimism.”For example, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, John Norberg, Max Rother, and the late Hans Roslin Known as the “new optimist” Because they focus on the economic, scientific, and social progress of the past two centuries.Their opponents such as David Lancyman and Jason Hickel, Accusing them of turning a blind eye to real world problems (such as poverty) and disaster risks (such as nuclear war).

Economic historian Robert Gordon called himself “Pessimistic prophet. “His book The rise and fall of U.S. growth It warned that the days of rapid economic growth in the United States have passed and will not come back. Gordon’s opponents include a group of people he calls “technological optimists,” such as Andrew McAfee and Eric Brinjoelson. Already predicted The productivity brought about by information technology has increased by leaps and bounds.

It’s tempting to choose a side.However, although it is reasonable to be optimistic or pessimistic about any specific issue, these terms are too imprecise to be used as General Intellectual identity. Those who call themselves optimists may quickly ignore or downplay technical problems, while self-proclaimed technical pessimists or progressive skeptics may be too unwilling to believe in solutions.

When we look forward to a post-pandemic recovery, we are again caught between optimists and pessimists. The optimists emphasize that all diseases may be overcome by the new vaccine soon, while the pessimists warn that humans will never The weapon to win evolution races against microbes. But this represents a wrong choice. History provides us with powerful examples. These people are very honest in identifying crises, but they are equally proactive in seeking solutions.

At the end of the 19th century, William Crookes, a physicist, chemist, and inventor of the Crookes tube (an early type of vacuum tube), was the chairman of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. On September 7, 1898, he used the traditional Annual meeting address Issue a serious warning to the association.

He said that the British Isles are facing a serious risk of food shortages. His reason is simple: the population has grown exponentially, but the area of ​​arable land has not kept up. The only way to continue to increase production is to increase crop yields. But the limiting factor in production is the availability of nitrogen fertilizers, and sources of nitrogen, such as rock salt in the Chilean desert and guano deposits on the Peruvian islands, are depleting. His argument is detailed and comprehensive, based on wheat production and land supply data in every major country and colony in Europe; he apologized in advance for making the audience tired of statistics.

He criticized the “guilty luxury” waste of non-renewable nitrogen resources. For those who only look at the recent harvests of recent years, he pointed out that those harvests were exceptionally fruitful, which concealed the problem. The richness of the past does not guarantee future prosperity.

In a sense, Crooks is a “warranter.” His purpose is to draw attention to the problems caused by progress and growth. He tried to open the eyes of the complacent. He first said that “England and all civilized countries are in deadly danger”, differently referring to “a huge problem of “urgent importance”, “imminent disaster” and “a matter of life and death for future generations.” “…” For those who think he is alarmist, he insists that his information is “based on hard facts.”

Crooks caused a sensation, and many critics opposed his message. They pointed out that wheat is not the only food, people will consume it in moderation if necessary, and that wheat land can be taken away from land used for meat and dairy production, especially when prices are rising.They said he underestimated the opportunity U.S. Farmer Supply Give food to other countries through A way to better adapt to them Soil and climate to increase yield.

Write natural 1899, A R. Giffen compared Crooks with Thomas Malthus and others who predicted shortages of various natural resources, such as Edward Seuss, who once said Gold will run out, And William Stanley Jevons Warning peak coalGiffen’s tone was tired, and he pointed out that “there has been a lot of experience in these discussions since the time of Malthus.” He explained that each time we were unable to make accurate predictions because the expected growth limit was too far in the future, or We don’t know much about its reasons.

But Crooks has Always planning His remarks took the form of “warnings rather than prophecies.” In his speech, he said:

“It must be the chemist to save…Before we truly fall into scarcity, the chemist will step in and postpone the day of famine to such a distant period that we and our children and grandchildren can live legally without being overly concerned about the future. “

Crooks’ plan is to use an almost unlimited source of nitrogen: the atmosphere. Plants cannot directly use atmospheric nitrogen; instead, they use other nitrogen-containing compounds, which are essentially produced by certain bacteria from atmospheric nitrogen. This process is called immobilization. Crooks said that the artificial fixation of nitrogen in the atmosphere is “one of the great discoveries waiting for the originality of chemists.” He is optimistic that it will happen soon, calling it “a problem in the near future.”

He spent a large part of his time exploring this solution in his speech. He pointed out that nitrogen can be burned at a high enough temperature to produce nitrate compounds, and this can be achieved with electricity. He even estimated the actual details, such as the cost of nitrate produced in this way, competitive in market prices, and whether the process can be scaled up to an industrial level: he concluded that the new hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls will be separate Provide all the power needed to fill the gap he predicted.

Crooks knew that synthetic fertilizer was not a permanent solution, but he was satisfied that when the problem reappeared in the distant future, his successor would be able to solve it. His alarmism is not a philosophical standpoint, but an accidental standpoint. Once the appropriate technological invention changed the facts of the situation, he happily canceled the alarm.

Is Crooks right? By 1931, the year he said we might run out of food, it was obvious that his prediction was not perfect.The harvest has increased, but Is not Because the yield of crops has been greatly increased. instead, area Actually increased, To some extent Crookes thought it was impossible. Part of the reason for this is improvements in mechanization, including gas tractors. Mechanization reduces labor costs, which makes micro-productive land profitable. As often happens, the solution comes from an unexpected direction, invalidating the assumptions of optimistic and pessimistic forecasters.

But if Crooks’ detailed prediction is incorrect, then he is essentially correct. His two key points are accurate: First, food in general, especially yield, is an issue that must be considered for the next generation; second, synthetic fertilizers that fix atmospheric nitrogen will be a key aspect of the solution.

Less than two decades after his lecture, German chemist Fritz Haber and industrialist Karl Bosch developed a process to synthesize ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen.Ammonia is the chemical precursor of synthetic fertilizers. The Haber-Bosch process is still one of the most important industrial processes today. Almost half of the world’s food production.

Chemists, in the end, Have done Come to the rescue.

So Crooks is an optimist or a pessimist? He is pessimistic about this issue-he is not complacent. But he is optimistic about finding a solution-he is not a defeatist either.

In the 20th century, worries about overpopulation and food supply rose again. In 1965, the world population growth rate reached a record high 2% per year, Enough to double every 35 years; it is estimated that until 1970, More than one-third of people in developing countries are malnourished.

1968 book Population bomb, Paul and Anne Ehrlich opened a call for surrender: “The battle to feed all mankind is over. In the 1970s, despite any crash plans now launched, hundreds of millions of people would still starve to death. At this late hour, nothing can stop the world’s death rate from rising sharply.” In 1970, Paul Ehrlich Strengthen defeatism, Said that in a few more years, “No matter how hard you work, it will not help.” “It’s better to take care of yourself and your friends, and enjoy the little time left.” Because they think the situation is hopeless, Mrs. Supported A proposal to cut off aid to countries such as India that are deemed insufficient to limit population growth.

Fortunately for India and the rest of the world, other countries are not ready to give up. Norman Borlaug worked in Mexico on a project funded by the Rockefeller Institute to develop high-yielding wheat varieties that are resistant to fungal diseases, use fertilizers more efficiently, and can grow at any latitude. In the 1960s, due in part to the emergence of new grains, Mexico changed from a wheat importing country to a wheat exporting country. Production in India and Pakistan almost doubled, avoiding the famine that the Ehrlich family considered inevitable.

However, even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his achievements, Bolog has never forgotten the challenge of keeping agriculture up with population growth, nor has he considered a solution to this problem.in his 1970 Nobel Prize in LiteratureHe said that the increase in food production “is still not large in terms of total demand” and pointed out that half of the world’s people are undernourished and “there is no room for complacency.”He warned, “Most people still cannot understand the scale and threat of’population monsters’.” “However,” he continued, “I am optimistic about the future of mankind.” Borlaug believes that human reason will eventually control the population (actually Above, the global birth rate Has been declining since then).

The risk of adopting an “optimistic” or “pessimistic” mentality is the tendency to favor one side on the issue based on general sentiment, rather than forming opinions based on the facts of the case. “Don’t worry,” the optimist said. “Accept difficulties,” the pessimist retorted.

We should not be optimists at all, nor pessimists, but solutionists.

We can see this in the debate about the new coronavirus and lockdown, climate change and energy use, the prospects and dangers of nuclear power, and overall economic growth and resource consumption. With the escalation of the debate, each side is discussing in depth: “optimists” question whether the threat is real; “pessimists” mock any proposed technical solution as a wrong “quick solution”, it can only let us Rationalization postpones difficult but inevitable cuts. (For an example of the latter, see the “moral hazard” argument against geoengineering as a strategy to combat climate change.)

We must not only accept the reality of the problem, but also consider the possibility of overcoming the problem. Fundamentally speaking, we are neither optimists nor pessimists, but solutionists.

The term “solutionism”, usually in the form of “technocratic solutionism”, has been used Since the 1960s It means believing that every problem can be solved by technology. This is wrong, so “solutionism” has always been a mocking word.But if we abandon any assumptions about the form that the solution must take, we can restore it to the simple belief that the problem is Real, but solvable.

Solutionists may look like optimists, because solutionism is fundamentally positive. It advocates vigorously advancing the problem without giving up. But it is neither a behemoth, nor is it “everything for the best” optimism, nor is it a fatalistic doomsday pessimism. This is the third way to avoid complacency and defeatism, and we should use this word with pride.

Jason Crawford Is the author The root of progress, A website about technology and industrial history.

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