Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Bill McKibben vs. Steven Pinker: Falter vs. Enlightenment Now

Are we hopelessly screwed? Or is everything totally fine, and in fact, getting better? Two recent books by two prominent thinkers argue for near opposite takes on the current state of the world. Both are fascinating in how they portray our biggest challenges and threats — climate change, war, artificial intelligence, poverty, inequality, and much more. And for me, reading these two books back-to-back — Falter, by Bill McKibben and Enlightment Now by Steven Pinker — was a lesson not in pessimism vs optimism, but rather, an example of how even incredibly smart people can see the world very differently.

Bill McKibben is an environmental activist and the founder of 350.org (and, full disclosure, a personal hero of mine). His new book Falter wonders if the "human game" is coming to an end. Naturally, McKibben, who has spent his life advocating for climate change action — he wrote one of the first books describing the climate change problem, The End of Nature, in 1989 — cites climate change as the biggest threat to humanity. But he also argues that new technologies, namely artificial intelligence and gene-editing, also threaten to either destroy humanity, or just as bad, change fundamentally what it means to be human.

"A writer doesn't owe a reader hope — the only obligation is honesty," McKibben writes in his prologue. But even while he's spelling out our potential doom, McKibben is always an inspiring and engaging writer. Regarding climate change, he lays out the latest evidence and science illustrating how and why we're in trouble. Then he spends a fair amount of time arguing for the reasons we haven't made nearly enough progress on solving this problem. He discusses Ayn Rand and how she's influenced right-wing politicians like Paul Ryan and kingmakers like the Koch brothers. If you subscribe to a philosophy that only your individual happiness matters (philosophically justified selfishness), it's no wonder ethics, morals, and even laws aren't able to force you to back down from your pursuit of that happiness (in this case, read as, wealth). McKibben lays out this case without a hint of the rage he must be feeling. But the readers sure inherits his anger.

McKibben continues with a discussion of the dangers and benefits of artificial intelligence and increased computing power, based on interviews with Ray Kurzweil, the famous futurist and Google's director of engineering. Kurzweil, who some see as a crackpot and other view as a genius, fervently believes that if he can just live until 2030, he can be immortal. That's because advances in computing power and the potential for uploading his brain digitally will allow his consciousness to continue after his body no longer functions. This sounds crazy on the surface, but Kurzweil makes a scarily convincing case. But is a computer consciousness really human? Of course not. But what might be a bigger problem is if artificial intelligence becomes intelligent enough that it doesn't need us inefficient humans anymore, and either makes us its slaves, or wipes us out all together. Is it likely? Not too much so. Is it possible? Yes. And is that terrifying? Absolutely.

Finally, McKibben takes on CRISPR and gene-editing. CRISPR is basically a method for copying and pasting strands of DNA, like in a Word doc. This means we can quite literally change the characteristics of a living thing. So now that it's possible to create "designer babies," should we? McKibben talks about the libertarian argument (again, going back to Rand) that the government should be removed from scientific progress generally, but this specifically. His argument — and I think it lands nicely — is that nothing reduces a human's liberty more than his parents deciding what characteristics he'll be born with before he's even born! As well, gene-editing and designer babies will lead to a massive increase in inequality as it will only be wealthy parents who can afford to pay for designer babies, which in turn will be born with an even larger silver spoon...and the cycle continues.

So while things may look bleak, McKibben offers a recipe for hope, as well — fixing climate change, for one, is an all-hands-on-deck prospect. But we've solved huge problems before and we can solve this one, too. As well, the current political climate won't last forever — these things are cyclical, and Trump and his acolytes represent more an overcorrection than a long-term trend.

Steven Pinker, a Harvard cognitive psychologist, thinks that not only are we fine, we're flourishing. His book, Enlightenment Now, shows how the principles of the Enlightenment, namely science, reason, and humanism, have lead to unprecedented human progress in areas as wide ranging as life expectancy to democracy to wealth. He spends most of the book describing in painstaking detail all these areas of progress, trotting out dozens of charts showing how, for example, fewer women die in childbirth now than in 1750. Not exactly a high bar against which to measure progress, is it? And while, yes, it's great that fewer people die of malaria now and our rivers no longer catch on fire because of pollution, the problem for me is that these macro-trends are somewhat cold and unfeeling. A throwaway line early in the book is telling: He admits that the reduction in the the worldwide poverty rate isn't a comfort to you if you're a person who is still extremely poor. Or a reduction in infant death doesn't help you if you died. Of course, these problems will never get to zero, but the fact that poverty, war, climate change, terrorism, disease, inequality, and so much else still exists to a horrifying degree is evidence that everything isn't all warm and fuzzy.

And but so, after explaining how much progress we've made, Pinker spends the last bit passionately re-defending the Enlightenment values. This to me was the most interesting and fun-to-read part of his long book. Pinker is at his best when showing how certain high-ranking politicians and their followers abandoning these Enlightenment values explain our current dilemmas. Every opinion carries equal weight, no matter how uninformed, for instance. Or, in the case of climate change, the issue is people believing the charismatic authority that it's a Chinese hoax. And then they make that "belief" a status of personal identity, even though science isn't a political issue (facts don't care whether or not you "believe" in them). And so no amount of evidence would permit them to change their minds because that would mean literally changing how they see themselves and how they want the world to see them. 

This won't come as much of a surprise, but I liked Pinker's book far less than McKibben's. Pinker is often callous, glib, condescending, and droolingly dull.  As well, Pinker seems to make the occasional mistake in logic, which is odd for an immensely well-respect cognitive psychologist. For instance, in his section on environmental progress, and how we should continue combatting climate change, he argues that climate change is a technological problem that should be solvable. Fine. But he also then says that solar and wind won't be enough by themselves to solve emissions reductions because the scale isn't available yet and the technology to store electricity isn't ready for prime time. First of all, neither of those are actually true. But secondly, if climate change is a technology problem, isn't it reasonable to assume storage will also improve and solve the problem, not to mention more efficient solar panels producing more electricity (solving his non-existent problem that there's not enough room for enough solar panels).

McKibben actually calls out Pinker a few times. For example, McKibben explains, that in November 2017, 15,000 scientists issued a "stark warning to humanity." And "just like Pinker, they had charts..." Amusing. But McKibben's book certainly shouldn't be confused with a response to Pinker's. It's decidedly its own argument. If you're going to read one, read McKibben. Just because we've made progress doesn't mean we don't still have massive problems, as Pinker would have you believe. When I used to smoke, and people asked me how I can logically justify smoking knowing it was terrible for my health, my standard answer would be "By the time I get cancer, there will be a cure." Can you imagine? What a jerk I was. But that's the tone of Pinker's entire book. Problems aren't that bad because something'll come up. McKibben is much more clear-eyed (not to mention engaging as a writer!) about our issues.


  1. This is great! I'm obsessed with CRISPR (well, my kids are, and I seek out info that I can share with them) and I've never heard of McKibben so this book is going on the TBR. I have heard of Pinker, and your review just reinforces my perception of him. I am kind of interested in the enlightenment angle, because I just finished a long biography of an enlightenment thinker (Diderot), but, don't think I want to slog through his book!

    1. I hope you enjoy McKibben - he's so awesome and inspiring, even when he's a little dreary. I'd heard of Pinker too, but never read him, and so I had no preconceptions of him, but man, he is irritating. :) The enlightenment angle was definitely the best part, but it's not worth the slog to get there.