Discussions about technology and progress are often “optimistic” vs. Is formulated in terms of. “Pessimism.” For example, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, John Norberg, Max Roger, and finally Hans Rosling have been called “New Timothy” for focusing on the economic, scientific, and social progress of the last two centuries. Opponents such as David Runisman and Jason Hickley have accused him of being blind to the real problems of the world, such as poverty, and the dangers of nuclear war.

Economic historian Robert Gordon calls himself a “prophet of pessimism.” His book Rise and Fall of American Growth Warned that the days of high economic growth for the United States are over and will not return. Gordon’s opponents include groups he calls “techno-optimists”, such as Andrew McAfee and Eric Bryansssfson, who have predicted an increase in productivity from information technology.

It’s tempting to pick sides. But while it may be rational to be optimistic or pessimistic on a particular question, these terms are very inappropriate which General Intellectual identity optimists may be quick to dismiss or fix technical problems, while self-styled technical pessimists or progress skeptics may also be reluctant to believe in solutions.

In the hope of post-epidemic recovery, we are once again being tug-of-war between the stimulants, highlighting all the diseases that may soon be defeated by new vaccines, and the pessimists, who warn that humanity will never win over evolutionary weapons. Race against germs. But this represents the wrong choice. History provides us with powerful examples of people who were ruthlessly honest in identifying crises but were just as active in finding solutions.


In the late 19th century, William Crooks – a physicist, chemist, and inventor of the Crooks tube (the earliest type of vacuum tube) – was president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. On September 7, 1898, he issued a stern warning using the association’s traditional annual address.

He said there was a huge risk of not eating on the British Isles. His reasoning was simple: the population was growing rapidly, but the amount of land under cultivation could not keep pace. The only way to increase production was to improve crop production. But the limiting factor on yield was the availability of nitrogen fertilizer, and depletion of nitrogen sources, such as the salt salts of the Chilean desert and the Guan deposits of the Peruvian islands. Based on statistics of wheat production and land availability from each major European country and colony, his argument was detailed and comprehensive; He apologized in advance for boring his audience with statistics

He criticized the “guilty waste” of non-renewable nitrogen resources. In the last years of the harvest, those who had enough, he pointed out to those who saw Mao at the time that those years had been unusually fruitful, which had exacerbated the problem. The reward of the recent past was not a guarantee of prosperity in the future.

In a sense, Crooks was a “warner.” His aim was to draw attention to the problem of progress and growth. He tried to open his eyes of satisfaction. He began by saying that “England and all civilized nations are in grave danger,” referring in various ways to the “urgent importance”, “the impending doom,” and the “question of life and death for generations to come.” Is. “Those who call him an alarmist insist that his message is based on” stubborn facts. “

The scoundrel caused a sensation and many critics spoke out against his message. They pointed out that wheat is not the only food, people will moderate its consumption if needed and for wheat that land is used for meat and dairy production, especially as prices can go up. He said he underestimated the opportunities for American farmers to supply food to other countries, by better adapting their methods to the soil and the environment in order to increase production.

Writing in Nature in 1899, an R. Giffen compared Crooks to Thomas Malthus, and to others who predicted a variety of natural resources – such as Edward Suss said gold would run, and William Stanley Javans, who warned. Peak coal. Giffen’s tone is boring as he notes that “a lot of these discussions have been experienced since Malthus’ time.” Each time, he explains, we have been unable to make accurate predictions because the expected limits of growth are too far into the future, or we know too little about its causes.

But Crooks always intended his comments to be “a warning rather than a prophecy.” In the speech, he said:

“He is the chemist who must come to the rescue શે the chemist will postpone the day of famine for so long that we and our sons and grandsons can live without legally inappropriate privacy before we are caught in the grip of real scarcity. For the future. “

Crooks’ plan was to tap the atmosphere into a virtually unlimited source of nitrogen. Plants cannot use atmospheric nitrogen directly; Instead, they use other nitrogenous compounds, made from atmospheric nitrogen by certain bacteria, called fixation. Crooks said the artificial fixation of atmospheric nitrogen was “one of the great discoveries awaiting the ingenuity of chemists,” and he was hopeful that it could happen soon, which “does not question the distant future.”

He devoted a significant portion of his speech to exploring this solution. He pointed out that nitrogen can be burned at a sufficiently high temperature to form nitrate compounds, and this can be done using electricity. He also estimated the practical details, such as the price of nitrates produced in a way that was competitive at market rates, and whether the process could be reached at the industrial level: the new Niagara Falls hydroelectric plant, it would provide alone. All the electricity needed to make the distance he predicted.

The dogs knew that synthetic manure was not a permanent solution, but were satisfied that when the problem reappeared in the distant future, its successors would be able to cope. His alarmism was no philosophical state, but contingent. Once the facts of the situation were changed by the search for the right technique, he was happy to sound the alarm.


Was Crooks right? By 1931, the year he said we could get out of the diet, it was clear that his predictions were not fulfilled. The harvest was increased, but No Because crop yields have greatly improved. Instead, Planting Really increased, to some extent Crooks considered impossible. This is due in part to improvements in mechanization, including gas tractors. Mechanization reduced labor costs, making marginal land profitable. As is often the case, solutions came from an unexpected direction, making the predictions of predictors optimistic and pessimistic.

But if Crooks was not correct in his detailed predictions, he was correct in essence. His two main points were accurate: one, that food in general and yield in particular were problems that would have to be calculated in the next pay generation; Two, the synthetic fertilizer from the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen will be a major aspect in the solution.

Less than two decades after his speech, German chemist Fritz Heber and businessman Carl Bosch developed the process of synthesizing ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen gas. Ammonia is the chemical precursor of synthetic fertilizers, and the Huber-Bosch process is still one of the most important industrial processes today, providing fertilizer for almost half of the world’s food production.

The chemist, after all, Did Come to the rescue.

So was Crooks optimistic or pessimistic? He was pessimistic about the problem – he wasn’t happy. But he was optimistic about finding a solution – he was not a loser.


In the 20th century, fears of overpopulation and food supply were once again raised on their heads. In 1965, world population growth reached an all-time high of 2% per year, enough to double every 35 years; And in the late 1970s, an estimated one-third of people in developing countries were malnourished.

1968 book Population bomb, Opened with a call for surrender by Pa Paul L and E. Ehrlich: “The war to feed all humanity is over. In the 1970s, millions of people would starve to death, no matter what crash program was started. There is nothing to prevent a significant increase in world mortality by this deadline. In 1970, Paul Ehrlich reinforced the defeat, saying that in a few years “further efforts will be in vain” and that “you too can take care of yourself and your friends and enjoy the little time you have left.” Because he saw the situation as depressing, Ehrlich backed a proposal to cut aid to countries like India, which had not done enough to limit population growth.

Luckily for India and the rest of the world, others were not ready to give up. The program, funded by the Rockefeller Institute, developed Norman Borlaug, a high-yielding wheat variety in Mexico that resists fungal disease, uses fertilizer more effectively, and can grow at any latitude. In the 1960s, thanks to new cereals, Mexico transformed itself from an importer to an exporter of wheat and nearly doubled its yields to India and Pakistan, which Ehrlichs saw as inevitable and avoided drought.

Yet, even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize for its achievements, Boralug will never lose sight of the challenge associated with making agriculture more populous, and never considered it a solution for good. In his 1970 Nobel lecture, he described the increase in food production as “still modest in terms of total needs” and pointed out that half the world is malnourished, leaving “no room for complacency.” He warned that “most people still fail to understand the severity and risk of a ‘population monster’.” “And yet,” he continued, “I am optimistic about the future of mankind.” Borlaug believed that the human cause would eventually bring the population under control (and indeed, the global birth rate has been declining ever since).


The risk of adopting an “optimistic” or “pessimistic” mindset is the temptation to take sides on an issue based on a general mood rather than forming an opinion based on the facts of the case. Worry Ptimizer says, “Don’t worry; The pessimist resists, “Accept the trouble.”

We should basically be neither optimistic, nor pessimistic, but solutionist.

We can see this play in the discussion of covid and lockdown, climate change and energy consumption, the promise and crisis of nuclear energy, and economic development and resource consumption in general. As the debate grows, each side digs into this: the “optimistic” question of whether the threat is real; “Pessimists” portray any proposed technical compromise as a false “quick fix” that only allows us to rationalize postponing difficult but inevitable cutbacks. (For the latter example, see the “moral crisis” arguments against geoengineering as a strategy to address climate change.)

In order to accept both the reality of problems and the possibility of getting out of them, we must be fundamentally neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but a solutionist.

The term “solutionism” is commonly used in the form of “technological solutionism” since the 1960s, meaning the belief that every problem can be improved with technology. This is wrong, and so “solutionism” is a mockery. But if we dispel any assumptions about the form of the solver, we can reclaim it by saying that the assumption means there are difficulties. Real, but soluble.

Solutionists seem optimistic because Solutionism is fundamentally positive. He advocates vigorous action against problems, neither retreating nor surrendering. But he’s far from a panglossian, because it’s a fatal, doomsday pessimism, because “all is for the best” optimism. It is the third way to avoid both happiness and defeat, and we should wear this word with pride.

Jason Crawford is the author of The Roots Progress, a website about the history of technology and industry.