2021 in review
2021 was a very big year for me and for this project. As is now my tradition, I’m closing the year with a retrospective. And as per tradition, I’ll start with a review of…
In the past I’ve counted how many books I read each year. That made sense when this was a hobby, and I only read books that were interesting, and I tended to read them all the way through. Now that my research is becoming more directed, the way I read is changing. I am much more likely to dip in and out of books, to stop in the middle, or even to pick out certain chapters. I’m also reading more academic papers (or parts of them). So, here are the books and selected papers I read at least part of (and/or listened to the audiobook of).
My favorite book this year was The Wizard and the Prophet, by Charles Mann (author of 1491). This book contrasts two deeply opposed worldviews, roughly “techno-optimism” (the Wizards) vs. “enviro-pessimism” (the Prophets). The archetype of the Wizard is Norman Borlaug, the agricultural researcher who developed new strains of wheat to improve crop yields in Mexico, India and Pakistan, a development known as the Green Revolution that staved off famine in those areas and may have saved as many as a billion lives. The archetype of the Prophet is William Vogt, author of the influential environmentalist book The Road to Survival (1948), which inspired Rachel Carson and Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich. The book tells the stories of these two men and their worldviews, and then looks at a handful of major issues—such as soil usage, water resources, energy, and climate change—through both lenses. Mann understands both worldviews deeply and is fair to both, giving them each a very clear statement: “Cut back! Cut back! was [Vogt’s] mantra. Otherwise everyone will lose! … Innovate! Innovate! was Borlaug’s cry. Only in that way can everyone win!”
Some major topics I researched this year:
Nuclear power. My favorite book on this topic so far is Why Nuclear Power Has Been a Flop, by Jack Devanney. In brief, Devanney contends that nuclear power ought to be our cheapest source of electricity, but through regulations and bureaucracy it has become too expensive to compete in the energy market. See my review for a full summary. A related book from ~30 years earlier is The Nuclear Energy Option, by Bernard Cohen (I read Chapter 9). For practical engineering details of how modern nuclear reactors work, I enjoyed How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor, by Colin Tucker. A couple of key papers I learned from: “Nuclear Power Learning and Deployment Rates” (Lang 2017); “Historical construction costs of global nuclear power reactors” (Lovering, Yip & Nordhaus 2016); “Nuclear costs: Why do they keep rising?” (MacKerron 1992). I also appreciated reports from The Breakthrough Institute such as How to Make Nuclear Cheap and How to Make Nuclear Innovative. Finally, check out “When America Dreamed of a Nuclear-Powered Cargo Fleet” by Dan Wang for the Flexport blog.
Agriculture. Most of what I’ve learned here I haven’t written up yet, but I gave a summary in an Interintellect talk and it will be a chapter in my book. The most useful reference on this topic has been A History of World Agriculture, by Mazoyer and Roudart (translated from the French). It’s dry, dense, and academic, but a thorough overview. A related book that I read most of last year but which didn’t make 2020 review is A History of Agriculture in Europe and America, by N. S. B. Gras. This is older (1940), and needs to be read in context. Some subtopics I went into:
Agricultural mechanization. I got a lot out of Sowing Modernity, by Peter McClelland, The Grain Harvesters, by Quick & Buchele, and a few biographies of Cyrus McCormick (by Casson and Thwaites). A useful primary source here is The Implements of Agriculture, by J. Allen Ransome (1843). See my essay on the history of the threshing machine for some of what I learned.
Breeding and varieties. I enjoyed Creating Abundance, by Olmstead and Rhode, also academic and in-depth but quite readable. From that book I learned about the story of hybrid corn, which I did a deep dive on via the contemporary histories The Hybrid-Corn Makers and Corn and Its Early Fathers, and a couple of the original papers by George Shull: “The Composition of a Field of Maize” (1908) and “A Pure-Line Method in Corn Breeding” (1909). For a brief overview of the hybrid-corn story, see “90 Years Ago: The Beginning of Hybrid Maize.”
Soil fertility. A dense but fascinating primary source is Organic Chemistry in its Applications to Agriculture and Physiology, by Justus von Liebig (1840): this is the work that summarized and popularized the knowledge of what nutrients plants need to grow and where they come from, pointing the way to chemical fertilizers.
Pest control. I didn’t have time for much research on this, but I enjoyed “The Legacy of Charles Marlatt and Efforts to Limit Plant Pest Invasions.”
Famine. What happens when agriculture fails in a massive way? Famine: A Short History, by Cormac Ó Gráda, is probably the best modern reference; Civilization and Capitalism, by Fernand Braudel, also had a helpful section on famine. Thomas Robert Malthus famously stated that the world would never escape famine if it did not limit population growth; to learn more about what he said and why, I read most of his famous book, An Essay on the Principle of Population. I ended up liking Malthus more than I expected, and I now think that his work is misunderstood and misremembered—I hope to be able to write more about this soon.
Transportation. To begin at the beginning, The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions, by Richard Bulliet, is an in-depth history of different types of wheels, axles, and steering mechanisms, and how they evolved. The Life of George Stephenson, by Samuel Smiles, taught me a lot about the origins of the railroad. The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough, and How We Invented the Airplane, by the Wright brothers themselves, taught me a lot about the origins of flight. See my video with Garry Tan on lessons from the Wright brothers for inventors and founders.
Information. The Coming of the Book, by Febvre and Martin, has a few good opening chapters on printing and Gutenberg (the rest looks interesting as well but I haven’t gotten to it). The Victorian Internet, by Tom Standage, is a history of the telegraph, which indeed has many parallels to the Internet. Incidentally, the predecessor of the electrical telegraph is the optical telegraph, and its cousin the navy flag signaling system, which are some of the clearest examples yet of “ideas behind their time.”
Safety. Safety First, by Mark Aldrich, is a good source on workplace safety. I read the two chapters on factories and turned it into an essay; the other chapters cover railroads and mining. Some historical sources that were useful here were Work-Accidents and the Law, by Crystal Eastman (1910) and “Making Steel and Killing Men”, by William Hard, reprinted in Injured in the Course of Duty (also 1910). On a more modern note, Human Compatible, by Stuart Russell, is on AI safety; the core ideas were presented by Russell in this talk to the unofficial Slate Star Codex meetup (see also the official Slate Star Codex book review).
Finally, a grab bag of other topics:
“The Effect Of Inventions On The People’s Life”, in Scientific American (1896). Even at this early date, people were complaining that progress is taken for granted: “The most marvelous developments are taken as a matter of course—the condition of things fifty years ago is seldom pictured to the mind—and all the material blessings which we now enjoy are used as conveniences of daily life, and no more.”
Catalogs and Counters, by Emmet and Jueck, is the best history I have found of the early days of Sears, Roebuck & Co., covering their origins as a mail-order catalog delivering orders via railroad.
More Work for Mother, by Ruth Schwartz Cowan, is a history of housework and how it was transformed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Cowan says that although the labor productivity of housework was greatly improved by 20th-century appliances and by electricity, gas, and water service, this neither freed the housewife from her traditional role nor reduced the number of hours she had to spend on it—if anything, it reinforced traditional gender roles, at least until the late 20th century.
Progress and Power, by Carl Becker, is based on three lectures delivered at Stanford in 1935. I found it interesting to see how much the idea of progress was being questioned in the aftermath of World War I.
Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air, by David MacKay, is a very good technical summary of what it would actually take to decarbonize an economy, with a quantitative analysis of both energy sources and applications.
“The Sociological Roots of Science”, by Edgar Zilsel (1942). “Science was born when, with the progress of technology, the experimental method eventually overcame the social prejudice against manual labor and was adopted by rationally trained scholars.” See this thread for more quotes.
Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilization, by Donald Braben, is a ruthless takedown of the scientific funding establishment, and in particular the committee-based peer review system for grants. Instead, Braben proposes an alternate model that he implemented inside British Petroleum, which he calls Venture Research. In this model, the grant-maker is an individual, not a committee; grantees are chosen in significant part according to the potential impact of their work; and scientists are given complete freedom to pursue their research as they see fit. Listen to Ben Reinhardt’s interview with Braben.
Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson. This book helped me understand why da Vinci is a famous painter; I was left a bit unclear how he got famous as a wide-ranging “Renaissance man,” given that most of his other accomplishments were unpublished and many of his ideas were no more than notebook sketches. Most interesting to me was a picture of the vibrant intellectual life that existed in Europe in the 15th century, before even the Scientific Revolution.
I wrote 23 articles on the blog and elsewhere this year (including this one), totaling over 47,000 words. That’s ~25% less than last year—which I attribute to the time I’ve spent on the book, the associated salon series, various invited presentations I gave this year, and launching this effort as a new nonprofit (and oh, by the way, becoming a dad).
My most prominent byline was an opinion piece for the MIT Technology Review: “Why I’m a proud solutionist”. In this one I explore the false dichotomy of complacent optimism vs. defeatist pessimism, through the historical example of Sir William Crookes and his dire warnings about “the wheat problem.”
On this site, the most-viewed articles (out of 174k unique visitors) were:
Why has nuclear power been a flop? (over 50k visitors)
And one that didn’t get as many views, but should have:
My most prominent public engagement this year was a talk at UT Austin on nuclear power:
I also did a video collaboration with Garry Tan:
And I did 17 interviews in 2021, including:
I spend too much time on Twitter. Sometimes it pays off. Here are some of my top tweets and threads:
My Twitter following grew about 60% this year, ending 2021 at just over 21k.
If you’ve been following for a little while, you know I’m writing a book, tentatively titled The Story of Industrial Civilization: Towards a New Philosophy of Progress for the Twenty-First Century. So far I have a detailed outline, a rough length estimate, and about 35k words of chapter “sketches” (which, in my process, is something more than an outline but less than a rough draft). In 2022 I expect to finish drafting a book proposal and find an agent (if you’d like to represent me, get in touch).
Staring in April, I’ve been giving a series of monthly talks based on the research for the book. Some of these have been as long as two hours, as I try to summarize everything I’ve learned, one chapter at a time. See all the talks here.
New organization and plans for the new year
I may be burying the lede here, but in 2021 I launched The Roots of Progress as a new nonprofit organization; see the announcement. We quickly met our year-one fundraising goal of $500,000, and have increased our target to a stretch goal of $1,000,000.
The new funds, in addition to supporting everything described above, have allowed me to start building a team. Clara Collier and Aleš Flídr have helped enormously with research assistance; more recently, my chief of staff, Alec Wilson, has been a tremendous help with fundraising, event planning, and many other projects. Ray Girn and Anil Varanasi have provided extremely valuable guidance as board members, and Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison continue to give advice and support. My deep thanks to all of them, and to all of our donors, for being a part of this mission.
The new organization and funding will allow this team to be much more ambitious in 2022. In addition to my work, we are planning community-building efforts, including in-person events and online forums. We will also be able to support other researchers and creatives who are doing progress-related work. Stay tuned for announcements on all of these projects.
Thanks to all of you for reading. I pursue the study and the philosophy of progress out of love for the topic—but if it weren’t for an enthusiastic and growing audience, this would still be a personal side project, not my full-time, long-term focus. You are the core of the progress movement.
Here’s to progress in 2022 and beyond.
Original blog post: https://rootsofprogress.org/2021-in-review