Archive for the ‘Things Are Better Than You Think’ Category

The Great Filter as Great Filter

NOTE: This post is just epistemic play. I’m writing this mainly to figure out the shape and scope of this argument, not to rigorously propose it as a serious solution to the Fermi Paradox. I don’t, personally, even think the Great Filter is a good solution to Fermi’s Paradox, as there’s a whole host of better reasons why we haven’t run into our universal neighbors yet.

The most interesting question in modern cosmology whether or not extraterrestrial life exists. Because whether it exists or not, both possibilities are incredible. On the one hand, space is unfathomably vast and, given that we know intelligent life arises with probability greater than 0 on suitably habitable planets, the universe should be teaming with life. On the other hand, despite serious efforts to locate extraterrestrial life, we’ve found no evidence that there’s anyone else out there. Nor do we have any evidence that they’ve popped ’round for a visit.

This is known as the Fermi Paradox. Named after the physicist Enrico Fermi who stated it simply as “Where is everybody?”

There are a few different resolutions to the Fermi Paradox, one of which is known as the Great Filter Hypothesis. This is the theory that, in the development of intelligent civilization, there tends to be one or more events or processes that tend to prevent intelligent species from becoming communicative, space-faring, and/or simply advanced enough to be detected from outside their local space. A number of candidates have been identified for the Great Filter, including the development of nuclear weapons, overpopulation, resource depletion, short time horizons, religion, atheism, post-scarcity, virtual reality, disease, invasion whatever species first actually developed space-faring technology and became intergalactic murder gods jumping from planet to planet pillaging other species, etc. etc.

Let’s add one more to the long list of “bullshit over-rationalized hypotheses for the Great Filter”. What if understanding of the Great Filter is itself the Great Filter? Or, more prosaically, what if an obsession with impending doom tends to grip cultures, pushing them away from the path of technological progress? Longtime readers of this blog will be familiar with my Things Are Better Than You Think series, and know that I definitely see this trend going on in modern Western society. But what if it’s not just us? What if there comes a certain point in the development of civilization when the panicky, risk-averse memes that tend to benefit earlier, more fragile cultures cause advanced civilizations to descend into paranoid paralysis, always looking over the next horizon for the apocalypse?

They notice that they use some resources that aren’t readily replenished and so give in to peak resource panics and place crushing burdens on anyone using those resources. Or they notice that their impact on the environment is deleterious and so they de-industrialize instead of taking the time and energy to make their technologies sustainable. Or they even just notice that there’s a lot of things out there that can destroy a species or a sapient individual and become resigned to their fate and don’t try and stop it. A species-wide memento mori could function just like it does for individuals: as either a call to action or as an excuse to slack off, since we’re all going to die someday anyway.

We see this trend today in Western cultures. The debate over global warming, for instance, has gotten mired down around two poles: N.) It’s real and we’re all fucked. S.) It’s a conspiracy and everything is fine.

But it is real, and we’re probably not fucked. That’s the excluded middle, and it seems to be (to me, at least) the most likely projection based on the evidence. What if in advanced civilizations, the N pole of the apocalypse argument tends to win out, leading to heavy restrictions on growth and progress and an en-mass return to simple, squalid agrarianism?

Or, to use an example that’s no longer as highly charged, what if the first two super-states to create nuclear weapons tend to lock into a stable M.A.D regime of brutally logical brinkmanship. They spend all of their resources developing better measures and countermeasures, until a cold war becomes a static, cold civilization that does nothing but huddle under the threat of nuclear annihilation. All resources that aren’t spent avoiding the apocalypse are spent fearing it.

Of course, as with all candidates for the Great Filter, this one is automatically suspect since it glorifies our species problems by making them universal. Cosmology, like history, is seductive in its false familiarity. Modern America is not early-decline Rome, and Western Civilization is not every intelligent civilization everywhere. But insofar as our experiences universalize, I think there’s a non-zero chance that the fear of an apocalypse could be just as much of a Great Filter as the actual apocalypse itself.



Stolen from Sean Nelson’s tumblr, Take Down Your Art

Things Are Better Than You Think: The World is Getting Better Fed

From Indur Goklany’s The Improving State of the World, pg. 21 in the paperback edition, citations and figures omitted:

Concerns for the world’s ability to feed its burgeoning population have been around at least since Malthus’s Essay on Population 200 years ago. Several 20th century Neo-Malthusians confidently predicted apocalyptic famines in the latter part of that century in developing countries. But today, although the world’s population has never been larger, the average person has never been better fed.

Since 1950, the global population has increased by more than 150 percent and [Per Capita Incomes], as measured by global economic product per capita, by more than 190 percent. Both those factors increase the demand for food. Yet the real price of food commodities has declined 75 percent. Greater agricultural productivity and international trade have made this possible. As a result, …, average daily food supplies per capita … increased 24 percent globally from 1961 to 2002. The increase for developing countries, at 38 percent, was even larger.

Living in the Future, QotD Edition

Mark Steckbeck of Liberal Order, as quoted over at Cafe Hayek:

A couple of weeks ago I was watching a football game on my 46-inch flat panel HD television set with surround sound, all fully remote. I didn’t really need the sound because I was listening to music through my iPhone, with access to over 5,000 songs on my computer’s server on the other side of the house. This was through the Apple Airport Express I had attached to an amp on my stereo speakers in the same room. I have a two other Airport Extremes connected to speakers around the house on which I can play these 5,000 songs from my computer in different rooms. No getting up to turn the record over.

Read the whole thing, as well as the WSJ article it’s in response to.

We hear a lot these days about the collapse of the middle class. I’m happy to report that the vast majority of the hand-wringing over it entirely unwarranted. Not only are goods cheaper on a per-hour-worked basis, but they are of much higher quality. We also have access to goods and technologies that were unthinkable even a few decades ago. And despite some impressively fallacious numbers being bantered around, inflation-adjusted median income is near its all-time highs. Take into account the fact that such incomes are almost always reported at the household level and the fact that households are smaller than they used to be, and the picture gets even better.

Lucid Commentary on Violent Crime Stats

I really like that he focuses on the complexities of social statistics and international comparisons. Excellent, cogent points, well expressed.

And hey, Things Are Better Than You Think: violent crime rates have dropped by half in the US in the past 20 years. In contrast to what the fear mongers in the media and congress would have you believe.

Things Are Better Than You Think: 2013 Will Be the Best Year Yet

I recently got linked to a great post by A Very British Dude. It begins:

It is tempting, writing on New Year’s eve when the West is mired in the fourth year of a persistent slow-down to be pessimistic about the future. But I am not a pessimistic about the future. The reasons are many, but here are a few.

The scourge of war is receding from human experience. Though they are still going on, they involve fewer combatants and kill fewer people. As people get richer, and pass through the dangerous middle-income phase, they have too much to lose by fighting.

Several states in the US have signaled the abandonment of the war on Drugs (well Marijuana at least). Sense is starting to become mainstream in this futile area of Government policy. Former UN secretary Generals, US presidents and heads of state from countries afflicted by the trade in illegal narcotics are starting to advocate a different approach.

The giant emerging economies are creating wealth at a rate unprecedented in human history, by the simple expedient of abandoning the socialist choke-hold on creative economic endeavour. Billions of people who just a few short decades ago were using ox-ploughs and suffering regular famine are now struggling with the problems of plenty: traffic congestion and obesity. Different, smaller problems for people who are vastly better off, enjoying much greater human potential.

Hear hear! Please do read the whole post, but these opening points are excellent ones and bear repeating. The world is more peaceful and more prosperous than it’s ever been. And while liberty has been under threat in some countries, there are hopeful signs that freedom is increasing in some ways. (Cf. also the slow, unsteady, but tangible freeing of Chinese and Indian societies and markets.)

I sincerely wish all of my readers, friends, and relations a safe, happy, and prosperous new year. And no matter how glum things may seem, take heart. Things Are Better Than You Think, and that our species’ future looks to be very bright indeed.

Things Are Better Than You Think: Child Mortality is Plummeting, Part 2

This article’s a couple weeks old, but I didn’t want it to go by without remark. From the BBC:

“The number of children dying before the age of five has fallen significantly over the past 20 years, the UN children’s agency Unicef has said.

Some 6.9 million children died before the age of five last year, compared to 12 million such deaths in 1990. Almost 19,000 under-fives died daily in 2011.”

This trend is closely related to several factors, including wider-spread inoculation against common childhood diseases (despite the efforts of the monstrously irresponsible anti-vax crowd), better access to food and potable water globally, and the stunning reduction in global poverty over the last 30 years. After all, the absolute number of global poor is declining sharply, despite global population increasing. From the World Bank’s February 2012 report on global poverty (PDF):

“The overall percentage of the population of the developing world living below $1.25 a day in 2008 is 22%, slightly more than half its value in 1990, while 52% lived below $1.25 in 1981.”

The three biggest factors in that last trend, in my estimation, are Globalization, Urbanization, and Capitalism. Around the globe people are getting together, sharing information and resources, getting rich, and more kids are living to adulthood because of it.

Things Are Better Than You Think: Matt Ridley on the False Apocalypse

Matt Ridley, writing in Wired, highlights something that I’ve often marveled at:

This is the question posed by the website “super volcanos? pestilence and disease? asteroids? comets? antichrist? global warming? nuclear war?” the site’s authors are impressively open-minded about the cause of the catastrophe that is coming at 11:11 pm on december 21 this year. but they have no doubt it will happen. after all, not only does the Mayan Long Count calendar end that day, but “the sun will be aligned with the center of the Milky Way for the first time in about 26,000 years.”

When the sun rises on December 22, as it surely will, do not expect apologies or even a rethink. No matter how often apocalyptic predictions fail to come true, another one soon arrives. And the prophets of apocalypse always draw a following—from the 100,000 Millerites who took to the hills in 1843, awaiting the end of the world, to the thousands who believed in Harold Camping, the Christian radio broadcaster who forecast the final rapture in both 1994 and 2011.

No matter how often doomsday predictions (both religious and secular) fail to come true, the pessimists and fraudsters never apologize or reconsider their premises. They simply change the timeline, the form the of the destroyer, or both, and forge on ahead as before.

Even on a small scale, the pre-logical pessimism that many people in our society embrace seems almost impossible to shake. We are living a decade after Y2k, forty years after the explosion of the population bomb, seventy years into the age of nuclear weapons. And yet none of our survival, success, or downright prosperity can convince people that things are probably going to be okay.

Life is good and getting better, both domestically and globally. And yes there are social and international challenges to be had and crises to be handled, but that’s the nature of life. None of them are beyond our abilities to solve and mankind has proven to be pretty good and handling such crises in the past.

Admittedly we often solve in round about, ad hoc ways, but that’s because human societies, like human beings themselves, are messy things that will never plan ahead half as well as they improvise in a panic.

So buck up. The world’s not going to end any time soon. Life is getting better, our air and water in the Western world are cleaner than they were forty years ago. The world (despite recent events) is tending to get more peaceful thanks in large part to globalization, global poverty is falling and we’re leading longer, healthier lives.

No matter what the doomsayers might tell you today, tomorrow, or on December 22, 2012.

Things are Better Than you Think: US CO2 Emissions Are Falling

From the Associated Press, via the Washington Post (emphasis mine):

In a surprising turnaround, the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere in the U.S. has fallen dramatically to its lowest level in 20 years, and government officials say the biggest reason is that cheap and plentiful natural gas has led many power plant operators to switch from dirtier-burning coal.

Many of the world’s leading climate scientists didn’t see the drop coming, in large part because it happened as a result of market forces rather than direct government action against carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere.

Things are Better Than you Think: Your Stuff’s Getting Harder to Steal

And as a result, a lot less of it is getting stolen. From BBC News:

According to the British Retail Consortium, last year saw the lowest level of thefts per 100 stores over the last seven years. Customer thefts fell to 2,833 per 100 stores, from 3,490 the previous year.

The number of cars stolen has also dropped every year since coded keys were introduced, making it near impossible to drive a car without a key.

In 2010-11, 106,228 cars were stolen, down from 117,687 the previous year and massively down on the 587,856 a year which were taken 20 years ago.

On this side of the pond, property crime rates are down across the board from their most recent peak, circa 1991:

Property Crime per 100,000 US Residents. Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Graph: Wikipedia user Theanphibian

So rest a little easier; your material life is much safer today than it was just a few years ago.

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.