The Roots of Progress

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…

Reading

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:

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 Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie was interesting for all the reasons you’d expect and for several that you wouldn’t; see my excerpts and takeaways.

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.

Fifty Years Hence”, by Winston Churchill (yes, that Winston Churchill), a work of futurism from 1931. See my highlights.

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.

Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia, by Olga Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia, is an ethnography of Russian peasants around the turn of the last century. I wrote up my highlights and reactions here.

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.

Writing

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:

And one that didn’t get as many views, but should have:

Speaking

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:

See all my talks and interview here.

Social media

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.

Book

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.

Thank you

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.

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