Pinker on decoupling productivity from resources

Recommended book chapter

Language that resonates:

It’s a fallacy to think that people “need resources” in the first place. They need ways of growing food, moving around, lighting their homes, displaying information, and other sources of well-being. They satisfy these needs with ideas: with recipes, formulas, techniques, blueprints, and algorithms for manipulating the physical world to give them what they want.
For the cleaner environment we enjoy today we must thank the arguments, activism, legislation, regulations, treaties, and technological ingenuity of the people who sought to improve it in the past.
Far from licensing complacency, our progress so far at solving this problem emboldens us to strive for more.

In the spirit of striving for more: decoupling productivity from resources enables “more human benefit from less matter and energy.” This is the benefit of density in the city, and in advanced nuclear:

“Nuclear energy represents the ultimate in density. […] It would not just mitigate climate change but furnish manifold other gifts.”


“Enlightenment Now” : Environment

Author: Steven Pinker

EXCERPTS

It’s a fallacy to think that people “need resources” in the first place. They need ways of growing food, moving around, lighting their homes, displaying information, and other sources of well-being. They satisfy these needs with ideas: with recipes, formulas, techniques, blueprints, and algorithms for manipulating the physical world to give them what they want. The human mind, with its recursive combinatorial power, can explore an infinite space of ideas, and is not limited by the quantity of any particular kind of stuff in the ground. When one idea no longer works, another an take its place. This doesn’t defy the laws of probability but obeys them. Why should the laws of nature have allowed exactly one physically possible way of satisfying a human desire, no more and no less?
Like all demonstrations of progress, reports on the improving state of the environment are often met with a combination of anger and illogic. The fact that many measures of environmental quality are improving does not mean that everything is OK, that the environment got better by itself, or that we can just sit back and relax. For the cleaner environment we enjoy today we must thank the arguments, activism, legislation, regulations, treaties, and technological ingenuity of the people who sought to improve it in the past. We’ll need more of each to sustain the progress we’ve made, prevent reversals (particularly under the Trump presidency), and extend it to the wicked problems that still face us, such as the health of the oceans and […] atmospheric greenhouse gases.
How can people live safe, comfortable, and stimulating lives with the least possible pollution and loss of natural habitats? Far from licensing complacency, our progress so far at solving this problem emboldens us to strive for more.
One key is to decouple productivity from resources: to get more human benefit from less matter and energy. This puts a premium on density.
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