Should we “go against nature”?
Also: Two recent podcast interviews
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Should we “go against nature”?
Should we “go against nature”? Or live in “harmony” with it? There are two senses of “nature.” Teasing them apart clarifies this issue.
“Nature” can mean immutable natural law. We defy this at our peril. If we dump raw sewage where we get our drinking water, we will suffer epidemics. If we expose ourselves to radiation, we will die from cancer. If we fail to irrigate our fields, we will go hungry at the first drought. (These are Kipling’s “gods of the copybook headings.”)
But another sense of “nature” is: whatever exists and whatever happens apart from the agency of humanity. It is the chance arrangement of molecules and their motions, before or separate from the conscious, directed, purposefulness of human beings. A river, pursuing its natural course, whether or not it is navigable, whether or not it causes dangerous flooding. A field, with whatever natural level of fertility it happens to have, and whatever plants happen to be growing in it, whether or not they are edible. Wild animals, whether or not they are good companions, whether or not they attack us, whether or not they destroy our crops or our homes, whether or not they carry disease.
This second sense of “nature” is amoral and indifferent to the needs of life. All living organisms survive through an active process of exploiting the resources of their environment. The only difference between humans and other life forms is that we do it using conceptual intelligence. I’ve been admonished that “we are a part of nature.” Of course, we are—but science, technology, and industry are a part of our nature.
To champion “nature” in this sense is not, strictly speaking, to be for anything. It is not in favor of animals or plants, who face a brutal struggle for survival in nature. It is not in favor of rocks or rivers, which are inanimate and have no needs or desires. It is only against. It is against humanity and human agency—choice and purpose—because it is for whatever humans have not done, have not touched, have not interfered with. If pursued with clarity and consistency, it is nihilistic—as in the case of biologist David Graber, who wrote: “I know social scientists who remind me that people are part of nature, but it isn’t true. Somewhere along the line … we quit the contract and became a cancer. We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth.”
The advocates of “harmony with nature” constantly conflate these two senses, as if every attempt to overcome the randomness of indifferent nature were an attempt to flout some natural law, the supposed “limits to growth.” But it isn’t. We can improve on nature. We have done it in so many ways: fertilizing and irrigating our fields, building canals and levees for our waterways, heating and air-conditioning our homes, sanitizing our water supply. To assume that we can’t continue to solve problems like this is simply defeatism, unsupported by the facts—or it is a cover for anti-humanism.
Bacon had it perfect: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” The paradox there depends on the two senses of “nature.” To put it in less poetic but clearer language: To command the natural environment, we must obey natural law.
This essay inspired by a recent podcast with Arjun Khemani.
Original post: https://rootsofprogress.org/should-we-go-against-nature
Two podcast interviews: Arjun Khemani, Alex LaBossiere
Good conversations recently on a couple of podcasts with young, up-and-coming hosts:
We talk about the need to study progress, tackle the question of whether progress makes humans any happier, optimism and solutionism, and some more.
0:38 Why we need a new philosophy of progress
3:54 “Almost nothing about progress is linear…”
9:56 Why bother making any progress in the first place?
11:56 Should we “go against nature”?
18:01 Does progress make us happy? Are we on an intergenerational hedonic treadmill?
27:52 Optimism and solutionism
35:15 What’s your message for people living a thousand years from now?
Also on Apple, Spotify, and Substack.
“On optimism, progress in technology, drivers of stagnation, and how to think about innovation.” Here’s a teaser, about William Crookes and his “alarmism” about the fertilizer crisis (which I covered in depth in the MIT Tech Review). Listen on the show page or on Apple podcasts.
See all my interviews & talks here.
Links and tweets, 2022-11-01
The Reef Starter Innovation Challenge, to identify startups that could benefit from operations in Low Earth Orbit
AI startup Generally Intelligent has launched and open-sourced their research environment (via @kanjun)
Deep Science Ventures is launching a doctorate to put venture creation at the heart of the PhD (via @isabel_thomp)
Interintellect launches a fellowship/microgrant program (via @TheAnnaGat)
At Story Summit, founders will come together to communicate the futures they see in three immersive days of writing (via @AlexandriaLabs)
Ben Reinhardt seeking help to build a website for his private ARPA project (@Ben_Reinhardt)
The Foresight Institute is hiring an executive assistant (via @allisondman)
Prediction market Metaculus launches a “Forecasting Our World In Data” tournament (via @metaculus)
Progress is driven by impatient optimists by Hannah Ritchie (via @BillGates!)
How to escape scientific stagnation in The Economist, Matt Clancy is quoted (h/t @heidilwilliams_)
Works in Progress special issue on abundance and the technological frontier
A proposed agenda for the “abundance movement” (by @s_r_constantin). See also her follow up list of policy organizations
Why wasn’t the steam engine invented earlier? (by @antonhowes)
Improving the culture and social processes of science (by @michael_nielsen and @kanjun)
For the first time ever, humans changed the motion of a celestial object (via @NASA)
The Long Now republishes my essay “Can Growth Continue?”, based on my 5-minute Ignite talk (via @longnow)
The breast cancer treatment that got funding from the billionaire owner of Revlon (Virginia Postrel)
A NEPA explainer from @elidourado. Related, 3 years and $1.7M to build a single public toilet in SF
Exposure to markets makes people behave more cooperatively and in less self-interested ways (Alex Tabarrok)
22nd cohort Emergent Ventures includes Jackson Oswalt, who achieved nuclear fusion at age 12 (yes, this is a thing)
Vox announced the Future Perfect 50 list of people building a better future. I’m on it (via @voxdotcom and @bryanrwalsh)
Best thinkers/writing on how we can evolve the NRC to help us build more nuclear? (@juliadewahl)
Books that examine the drivers and limits of technological innovation? (@brunoswerneck)
Good histories of how governments figured out how to run stuff? (@F_McCullough)
What should Dwarkesh Patel ask Kenneth Jackson about Robert Moses? (@dwarkesh_sp)
Anybody working on habitation domes? (@Ben_Reinhardt)
Isambard K. Brunel refused to participate in lowest-price bids. (Dominic Cummings approves)
Montessori appreciated progress and knew it should be celebrated
The counterculture “embraced decentralized and appropriate technology to counter large-scale technology”
The stock ticker machine was to the 19th century what social media is to today
How people today take the modern standard of living for granted
Alexis De Tocqueville on social media cancellation (@curiouswavefn)
Tweets & threads
Fuel synthesis as an alternative to batteries for energy storage
Controversy over vaccines is not just about technology, but about technocracy
Eripuit caelo fulmen sceptrumque tyrannis – He seized the lightning from the heavens and the scepter from the tyrants (epigram for Benjamin Franklin)
“Why don’t more tech billionaires try to improve SF city governance?”
Why don’t we paint cooling towers at power plants? (via Virginia Postrel)
We should teach the history of progress in public health as part of a standard curriculum (@stevenbjohnson). I agree
Energy superabundance versus our current path of permanent scarcity (@PatrickJBlum)
Sow complacency, reap a crisis; sow hustle and grit, reap abundance (@elidourado)
It’s been a great year for vaccine discovery (@salonium)
GPT-3 versus Google Search (@dweekly). As I commented, one thing LLMs might be useful for now/soon is as a kind of search engine
BioNTech founders expect a cancer vaccine “before 2030” (@therecount via @jmhorp)
The product culture that ignores fatal flaws (@warren_craddock)
Peer review is a mechanism for political legitimacy, not scientific quality (@calebwatney)
Autocracies promote developments in tech that don’t matter, but dazzle people (@ZachWeiner)
How much old stuff gets dragged along into the first versions of new things (@paulg)
The astronaut as the visual successor to the cowboy, 1959 (@ChasingMoonBk)
The space race vs a Seattle bus/bike lane (@pushtheneedle)
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