18 November, 2015

Humanity's Best Days Lie Ahead

Published on: 
Munk Debate, Toronto, 6 November 2105
I took part in a Munk debate on 6 November, in which Steven Pinker and I argued that "humanity's best days lie ahead" while Malcolm Gladwell and Alain de Botton argued against us. It was entertaining and we shifted the audience our way a little, although three-quarters were on our side at the start (which is probably not representative of the population as a whole).
Here's the text of my opening statement:
Woody Allen once said: “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
That’s the way pretty well everybody talks about the future. When I was young the future was grim. The population explosion was unstoppable, famine was inevitable, pesticides were giving us cancer, the deserts were advancing, the oil was running out, the rain forests were doomed, acid rain, bird flu, and the hole in the ozone layer were going to make us sick, my sperm count was on the way down, and a nuclear winter would finish us off.
You think I am exaggerating. He’s what a best-selling book  by the economist Robert Heilbroner concluded in the year I left school: "The outlook for man, I believe, is painful, difficult, perhaps desperate, and the hope that can be held out for his future prospects seem to be very slim indeed."
It was only a decade later that it dawned on me that every one of these threats had either been a false alarm or had been greatly exaggerated. The dreadful future was not as bad as the grown-ups had told me. Life just keeps on getting better and better for the vast majority of people.
Human lifespan has been growing at about five hours a day for 50 years.
The greatest measure of misery anybody can think of – child mortality – has gone down by two thirds in that time.
Malaria mortality has fallen by an amazing 60% in 15 years.
Oil spills in the ocean are down by 90% since the 1970s.
An object the size of a slice of bread lets you send letters, have conversations, watch movies, find your way around, take pictures, and tell hundreds of people what you had for breakfast.
And what’s getting worse? Traffic, obesity? Problems of abundance, note. 
Here’s a funny thing. Most improvements are gradual so they don’t make the news. Bad news tends to come suddenly. Falling airliners always make the news; falling child mortality doesn’t.
As Steve says, every year the average person on the planet grows wealthier, healthier, happier, cleverer, cleaner, kinder, freer, safer, more peaceful and more equal.
More equal?
Yes, global inequality is on the way down. Fast. Why? because people in poor countries are getting rich faster than people in rich countries.
Africa is experiencing an astonishing miracle these days, a bit like Asia did a decade ago. Mozambique is 60% richer per capita than it was in 2008. Ethiopia’s economy’s growing at 10% a year.
The world economy has shrunk in only one year since the second world war – in 2009 when it dipped by less than 1% before growing by 5% the next year. If anything the march of prosperity is speeding up.
But my optimism isn’t just based on extrapolating the past. It’s based on WHY these things are happening.
Innovation, driven by the meeting and mating of ideas to produce baby ideas is the fuel that drives them.
And far from running out of fuel, we’re only just getting started. There’s an infinity of ways of recombining ideas to make new ideas.
And we no longer have to rely on North Americans and Europeans to come up with them.
The internet has speeded up the rate at which ideas have sex.
Take vaping. In my country there are now more than 3m people who’ve given up smoking because of e-cigarettes. It’s proving to be the best aid to quitting we’ve ever come up with.
It’s as safe as coffee.
And it was invented in China, by a man named Hon Lik, who combined a bit of chemistry with a bit of electronics.
OK, but isn’t all this progress coming at the expense of the environment? Well no, often the reverse. Many environmental indicators are improving in many countries: more forest, more wildlife, cleaner air, cleaner water.
Even the extinction rate’s down compared with 100 years ago, for the creatures we know about, birds and mammals, thanks to the efforts of conservationists.
And the richer countries are, the more likely their environment’s improving – the biggest environmental problems are in poor countries. 
But what about population? The population growth rate’s halved in my lifetime from 2% to 1% and the birth rate’s plummeting in Africa today. The world population quadrupled in the 20th century but it’s not even going to double in this century, and the UN thinks it will stop growing altogether by the 2080s.
Not because of war, pestilence and famine, as gloomy old Parson Malthus feared, but because of prosperity, education and health.
There’s a simple and beautiful fact about demography. When more children survive, people plan smaller families.
With slowing population growth and expanding farm yields, it’s getting easier and easier to feed the world.
Today it takes 68% less land to grow the same amount of food as 50 years ago. That means more land for nature.
In theory, you can feed the world from a hydroponic farm the size of Ontario and keep the rest as a nature reserve.
And the planet’s getting greener. Satellites have recorded 14% more green vegetation today than 30 years ago, especially in arid areas like the Sahel region of Africa.
But am I like the man who falls out of the skyscraper and as he passes the second floor, shouts “so far so good”? I don’t think so.
You’ll probably hear the phrase “turning point” in this debate. You’ll be told this generation is the one that’s going to be worse off than its parents, that it’s going to die younger, or see sudden deterioration in its environment.
Well, let me tell you about turning points. Every generation thinks it stands at a turning point, that the past is fine but the future’s bleak. As Lord Macaulay put it, “in every age everybody knows that up to his own time, progressive improvement has been taking place; nobody seems to reckon on any improvement in the next generation. We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who say society has reached a turning point – that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us and with just as much apparent reason.”
We filter the past for happy memories and filter the future for gloomy prognoses.
It’s a strange form of narcissism. We have to believe that our generation’s the special one, the one where the turning point comes. And it’s nonsense.
Macaulay again:
“On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”

22 October, 2015

Boyer Lecture 4-Michael Fullilove

Like many Australians I have often thought we should not take ourselves too seriously and be careful not to make fools of ourselves by suggesting we are more important than we really are. In the opening to his fourth lecture Michael Fullilove suggests otherwise:-

It is often said that Australia is a middle power. But there is nothing middling about Australia.

There are two hundred-odd countries in the world. On every important measure except population, we rank in the top ten or twenty.

Our economy is the twelfth largest in the world. Our people are the fifth richest.

Australia is an old democracy and a free society. We are allied to the global leader and located in the most dynamic region in the world.

Our diaspora is one million strong: our own world wide web of ideas and influence.

We have a continent to ourselves. And we are fortunate enough to share it with the oldest continuing culture on earth.

Australia is not a middle power. Australia is a significant power with regional and global interests – and we should act like one.

16 October, 2015

Podcasts/Boyer Lectures/ Michael Fullilove/and Global Warming

In my vain attempts to retain a semblance of fitness I walk a 3.2km repetitive route march around our immediate neighborhood each morning.I occupy the mind listening to podcasts mainly from that left wing Radio National station of the ABC.

A year or more  ago I was listening to what Gerard Henderson says is the only token right wing ABC programme "Counterpoint" hosted by former Senator, Amanda Vanstone. She was interviewing a man I had never heard of, Michael Fullilove, about his recently released book "Rendezvous With Destiny". This book tells the story of the five emissaries Franklin Roosevelt sent to Europe (sequentially)  to report directly back to him on the situation prior to America's entry into the Second World War. He didn't trust US Ambassador Kennedy and had little respect for the US State Department. Amanda was positively effusive about the book and I decided I'd better read it and did so, online.

It is an excellent book. So much so I attended two functions at which Fullilove spoke in promoting the book and bought the hard copy as I wanted to have it in my library.

Tomorrow Fullilove delivers the last of his series of four Boyer Lectures, a series he has dubbed "A Larger Australia". This morning my podcast was his third Boyer lecture. I find myself very much in agreement with what he says with the notable exception of his views on Global Warming, where he seems to have swallowed the beaten up "alarmist" position.

I find it extraordinary that such an intelligent man can do so. It seems very clear to me that the whole thing is based on a false premise, a view held by such notables as Freeman Dyson, Vaclav Klaus, Matt Ridley, Nigel Lawson, Don Aitken and many others. The premise is that human caused emissions of carbon dioxide are causing alarming warming levels that threaten future generations. In true scientific method the hypothesis continues to be tested against actual observations and is clearly failing the test.This, despite some national meteorologist organisations searching for and declaring individual and/or sequential recordings as "record". And in more than one case being caught adjusting historical records so as to ensure a warming trend.

The promoters maintain their position in spite of the fact that virtually all of the computer models on which the hypothesis is based have been demonstrated to be grossly exaggerated compared with actual observations, emissions have been understated yet the most accurate form of temperature measurements (satellite) have shown no significant warming for the last 18 years. The alarmists now use the term "climate change" instead of "global warming" and seem to accept the lack of temperature increases and readily refer to what they term "the pause". The "Climategate" email scandal demonstrated the extent to which some scientists, the recipients  of Government grants, are prepared to go to to ensure support of the hypothesis.

What we are dealing with appears to be more a belief system rather than science. It seems to be very appealing to those of a negative "leftish" mindset, who are  opposed to the progress mankind has made, particularly with the use of cheap energy sources, and are attracted by the thought of an elitist World Government where control rests with a politically correct elite, rather than democracy where power rests with the great "unwashed". Something very undemocratic about that! As Vaclav Klaus has argued, extreme environmentalism is the greatest threat to the free world since the defeat of communism. I am inclined to agree.

23 September, 2015

Brendan O'Neill Nail's It

Lesson for Tony Abbott: think like an elite or quit public life

Whenever a party topples its leader, our first instinct is to go looking for the knife-wielders.
Who plotted this? Who landed the first blow? Who played the Brutus role, siding with the ousters despite being mates with the doomed leader?
We look behind the scenes. We wonder what was said in corridors at the dead of night. We try to piece together how the new factions were formed and the old ones were elbowed aside.
But we mustn’t lose sight of the other key ingredient of all polite, bloodless coups: how they come to be talked about in public; how they get mythologised.
It’s never enough only to look at who said what to whom in a smokeless committee room at midnight. No, to fully understand a party’s removal of its own head we must also look at what is happening in front of the scenes, in public discussion.
A coup has two parts: the hidden skulduggery and the public justifications for such skulduggery. It’s only by considering both that we may arrive at a clear-eyed understanding of what happened, and why. If we do this for the Malcolm Turnbull-Tony Abbott scrap, then something very interesting — and worrying — starts to emerge: a feeling that Abbott was dumped not because he was an ineffective leader but because his world view failed to conform with what political and media insiders consider to be proper and progressive.
There’s more to this than Liberal infighting; it also feels like a chattering-class coup, the exiling of a leader for daring to think things that opinion-shapers consider heretical.
If we look in front of the scenes of the Turnbull-Abbott drama, one consistent message takes shape: a key problem with Abbott was that he was “out of touch” on certain issues, most notably climate change and gay marriage.
This has shaped the coverage of the coup around the world. Virtually every news piece on the drama Down Under prominently tells us that Turnbull supports gay marriage (though he seems keen to stick with Abbott’s idea of having a plebiscite) and that he is “far better” on climate change.
London’s Daily Mail made a list of the battling leaders’ attitude to issues. Turnbull, the Mail said, was a “firm believer in climate change” and a “vocal supporter of gay marriage”, while Abbott “once said ‘climate change is crap’ ” and would not allow a “free vote on same-sex marriage”. The two men’s thinking on the economy and international affairs came much further down the article.
That the Mail referred to Turnbull as a “firm believer” in climate change confirms the pseudo-religiosity swirling around that issue.
In recent years, belief in climate change and support for gay marriage have become chattering-class litmus tests. These are secular gospel truths you must embrace to gain entrance to polite society. Fail to embrace them and you’re a “denier” and a “homophobe”, to be cast out.
The judgment of Turnbull and Abbott via the green-gay gospel was repeated across the media, from CNN to The Sydney Morning Herald. CNN ran a piece headlined “Five things to know about Australia’s new PM”. No 1 was that he had challenged Abbott before. Guess what No 2 and No 3 were? Yep, “He’s strong on climate change” and “He supports same-sex marriage”.
The implicit message of this global obsession with how Turnbull differs from Abbott on those two issues is that he’s someone we can do business with; he has embraced modern, PC orthodoxies.
The mantra of “He supports same-sex marriage” — uttered everywhere — is the new way of saying: “He goes to church every Sunday.” It marks him out as “one of us”, unlike Abbott.
Pink News, Britain’s most widely read gay magazine, went so far as to celebrate the “toppling” of Australia’s “anti-gay marriage leader”. Well, if he doesn’t support gay marriage he doesn’t deserve to run a country, right? Hound the heretic.
Whatever the internal Liberal machinations that led to the ousting of Abbott, the public mythologisation of his removal is revealing and terrifying.
It speaks to the new intolerance, where anyone who refuses to buy into chattering-class orthodoxies can expect ridicule, and maybe even the termination of their careers.
And the small matter that two years ago the Coalition got five million votes with Abbott as their leader, and with his views on climate change and same-sex marriage known? Never mind that. What does democracy matter in comparison with doing what the media and political elites consider to be right?
And so have the parameters of public debate shrunk even further. It isn’t only Abbott who has been given his marching orders. Through this coup we’re all warned that if we hold views that the elite considers foul, or old-fashioned, we’ll be marked “unfit for public life”.

18 September, 2015

The Renewable Energy Dilemma

Renewable energy claims are unsustainable

Renewables also hurt the poor through higher prices

September 9, 2015 by Larry Bell

Whereas “renewable energy” conjures up visions of wind, solar, and tidal power, “clean” energy sources that will last forever to power the world into a “green,” sustainable future, it won’t happen without an Orwellian restructuring of the world’s social and economic fabric as envisioned by the UN’s Commission on Environment and Development more commonly known as the Bruntland Commission.
Chaired in the late 1980s by Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former prime minister of Norway, the commission set about to advance what appeared to be a noble and desirable cause.
Its foundational report, titled Our Common Future, stated: “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable in order to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations.” So far, it seems pretty hard to argue with a goal like that.
Unfortunately, while it would be great if wind and solar power could accomplish this, their potential capacities and reliabilities just aren’t there.
As for tidal power, applications for utility scale power generation are both unproven and doubtful. Ditto for geothermal, which is another geographically and capacity-limited source.
In other words, none of these “renewables” offer anything remotely close to a sustainability panacea . . . either now or likely ever. Nuclear power, breeder reactors in particular, come much nearer to making a real difference, yet never seem to get the same credit.
As Roger Andrews observes in his August 26 Energy Matters: Environment and Policy blog, the Brundtland Commission went on to link sustainable development objectives to eradicating world poverty . . . again something that sounds really good. Its report stated: “Poverty is not only an evil in itself, but sustainable development requires meeting basic needs of all and extending to all the opportunity to fulfill their aspirations for a better life. A world in which poverty is endemic will always be prone to ecological and other catastrophes.”
Sure, let’s all agree that poverty is a truly tragic condition.
The big rub here is that eradicating poverty won’t be accomplished by depriving desperate world populations of access to affordable and reliable energy — those who now depend upon animal dung fuel for heating, cooking, and water purification — people who lack electricity essential for refrigeration to keep perishable food safe or provide periodic lighting.
And that’s exactly what is happening through international lending programs that emphasize costly and anemic “renewables” while denying vital funds needed to develop abundant local fossil fuel resources.
So the Bruntland Commission offered another condition. In order to raise underdeveloped countries out of poverty, “Sustainable global development requires that those who are more affluent adopt lifestyles within the planet’s ecological means — in their use of energy, for example.” In other words, the solution is for rich countries to send money and become subordinate to a U.N.-run world government which will ensure equal distribution of financial and natural resources.
Needless to say, that world government would also decide what common lifestyle levels and ecological means are acceptable.

Such decisions must include social engineering to control optimum population size. As Our Common Future admonishes: “Sustainable development can only be pursued if population size and growth are in harmony with the changing productive potential of the ecosystem.”

Hey, it’s merely a guess, but perhaps limiting access to affordable energy might be a very effective means to accomplish that desired population reduction.
If any of this sounds familiar, you might understand that the Brightland Commission’s sustainable development mantra provided the foundation for the UN’s Agenda 21 program, which calls for reorienting lifestyles away from consumption, encouraging citizens to pursue free time over wealth, resource-sharing through co-ownership, and global wealth redistribution — beginning with ours.
A 1993 UN report, titled Agenda 21: The Earth Summit Strategy to Save Our Planet, proposes “a profound reorientation of all human society, unlike anything the world has ever experienced — a major shift in the priorities of both governments and individuals and an unprecedented redeployment of human and financial resources.”
The report emphasizes that “this shift will demand a concern for the environmental consequences of every human action be integrated into individual and collective decision-making at every level.”
Last year President Obama’s Council on Sustainable Development was organized to develop recommendations for incorporating sustainability into the U.S. federal government. Predictably, grant programs issued through HUD, the EPA, and nearly every other alphabet agency will spread their Kool-Aid policies throughout the nation.
As Tom DeWeese forewarns in a “Reality News Media” blog, while such grants will be represented as voluntary, expect ongoing restrictions on energy use, development, building material, plumbing and electric codes, land use and water controls, public transportation, and light rail subsidies, and pressures for communities to impose politically correct and economically disastrous and socially unsustainable Agenda 21 development plans.
Welcome to life in the ant colony they have in mind.

07 September, 2015

Cheer Up: The True Mother Of Invention Is Optimism

Cheer Up: The True Mother Of Invention Is Optimism
The Sunday Times, 6 September 2015

Luke Johnson

Always remember that throughout history the pioneers have been exalted, while the doomsayers are forgotten.


IT IS easy to fall into a slump at this time of year. Returning to rain, darker evenings and the daily grind after a summer holiday in sunnier climes — there are plenty of excuses to feel gloomy. Such seasonal dips in mood are entirely forgivable. But in the long run, for both your health and wealth, research shows it pays to be an optimist. Positive thinkers live longer and enjoy higher incomes.

In general, despite the pessimism of the media, academics and socialists, things are getting better. Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England gave an excellent speech in February about growth. He discussed the challenges society faces — inequality, short-termism, poor infrastructure, high levels of debt, worsening demographics and so forth — but overall he argued that each generation has been about a third better off than its predecessor — and there are no fundamental reasons why this progression should not continue.

One of my favourite optimists is Matt Ridley, who has written a new book called The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge. He argues that the key ingredient for higher standards of living is innovation, and that this is a bottom-up phenomenon, an emergent property of human nature — and will therefore always be with us.

It covers some of the same territory as Mass Flourishing, by the Nobel prize winner Edmund Phelps. His book suggests that individuals matter much less than overall culture and social values. The subtitle of Phelps’s text is How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge and Change.

His thesis is that most industrial discoveries were not pioneered by a few isolated visionaries. Instead, progress has been driven by huge numbers of citizens empowered to create and sell thousands of incremental improvements — from craftsmen and farmers to traders and factory workers.

Similarly, Ridley argues: “The growth of technology, the sanitation-driven health revolution, the quadrupling of farm yields so that more land could be released for nature — these were largely emergent phenomena. So was the internet, the mobile phone revolution and the rise of Asia.”

In many other aspects of life, the world is improving. According to the Office for National Statistics, Britain’s violent crime rate is less than half what it was in the mid-1990s, while life expectancy in wealthier nations has risen by six years over the past 25.

Steven Pinker argues in The Better Angels of Our Nature that war and homicide have been in decline for thousands of years. The world is a much safer place.
Another new book to lift the spirits is Ronald Bailey’s The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-First Century. He tackles overpopulation, GM food, peak oil, climate change and other apocalyptic visions. He claims that free enterprise and technology can solve mankind’s problems, just as they have in the past. He also attacks the “precautionary principle”, which distorts so much institutional behaviour and leads to fatuous overregulation and organisational timidity.

The forerunner of all these authors was Julian Simon, who wrote The Ultimate Resource in 1981, puncturing myths of scarcity and despair. It remains essential reading.

I have come to the conclusion that the worst almost never happens — the vast majority of dire predictions by negative commentators and supposed experts are simply nonsense.

Mankind developed a capacity to imagine terrible outcomes as an insurance policy so we could avoid threats and disasters. But being constantly in dread of fresh catastrophes is impractical and taints our judgment. Those who expect to be unhappy or ill or a failure are more likely to succumb to their anxieties.

Indeed, the neuroscientist Tali Sharot in her book The Optimism Bias: Why We’re Wired to Look on the Bright Side, shows how people taking irrational risks can benefit humanity as a whole.

Many entrepreneurs I know say they would never have embarked on the slog of building a business from scratch had they known at the beginning how difficult the journey would be. But thank God they did: that is how invention happens, how new machines and drugs come about, how material advances are made.

The world is full of opportunity, and its resources remain abundant. Improvements take place incrementally and rarely form headlines. By contrast, calamities capture our attention but they can also distort our perspective in harmful ways.

Some might say: “Aren’t you worried about the market collapse in China?” Or, indeed, whatever is this month’s big panic.

But the answer is not to dwell on matters over which you have no control, and instead focus on the limitless possibilities that lie ahead, seizing your personal chances as they arise.

Always remember that throughout history the pioneers have been exalted, while the doomsayers are forgotten.

Luke Johnson is chairman of Risk Capital Partners and the Centre for Entrepreneurs.