INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2018
ONE OF THE ECONOMIST’S BOOKS OF THE YEAR
“My new favorite book of all time.” –Bill Gates (2018)
A mainstream media darling, Steven Pinker’s substantial work features a stay-the-course theme on the basis that humanity is now rising above its intractable historical problems and is breaking through to a new level of stability and enlightenment. According to the author, humanity is in a position it has never occupied before, one of being in complete control of its destiny.
But the fact of the matter is, we have been in this position before – hundreds of times. Throughout history, advanced civilizations have risen all over the globe and have presented their citizens with incredible advances in learning, culture and technology. At their peaks, these paragons of destiny held the promise of an unlimited future and eternal progress.
But they have all collapsed. Now we are in the batter’s box.
The slightly condensed history of human civilization reads as follows: a small group of humans occupies a land with substantial natural resources during a period of favourable climate. They multiply and create a stable, stratified and growing society with a division of labour which increases their productivity and ability to both learn ever more quickly. Social, medical and technological achievements stack up almost as high as the promises of their leaders for endless prosperity.
Then, the realities of a depleted natural resource base begin to present themselves and climate serves up a little wiggle and the society collapses. Was the final cut war, famine, civil disruption, flood or disease? It really doesn’t matter. Most likely it was a combination of all of the horsemen.
Human population cycles typically run between 300 to 500 years but have been regional in the past. Now, a collapse of one society will certainly have a dramatic effect on the rest of the world and the whole world will likely be experiencing the stresses that caused the initial collapse.
This is where the differences between techno-optimists and their commercial economists subset and biophysical economists arise. The human-centric view focuses on the wonderful marble floors and granite columns of our creations while biophysical economics looks at the foundation of the edifice and finds that we have built on sand in a flood plain.
The book “Enlightenment Now” catalogs the progress we have made but fails to mention the history of population cycles and the current biophysical reality. It also ignores completely the decline of equality
and energy, resource and food resiliency in western societies. Biodiversity? Paving over forests and farmland in the name of commercial progress isn’t the answer.
While Steven Pinker touts our society’s advances in yet another demonstration of the superiority of we, the great apes, the window we have for evolving into a caretaker species is rapidly closing.
We do have a choice. Will it be to soar higher and crash bigger than any past civilization or will it be to live within the sustainable boundaries of the only planet we know of within dozens of lightyears capable of supporting us?