Here’s another batch of notes on three TED Talks (you can see all of them here). The Pinker one is particularly interesting, to me; I’m going to solicit comments from an email list I’m on.
Steven Pinker: A brief history of violence
Pinker lays out a story of humanity that I believe to be true, but has been challenged repeatedly by those I’m close to: A long history of dramatically-declining violence and a commensurate increase in our empathy towards the other. He describes this history at the scale of millennia, centuries, decades, and individual years, calling it a “fractal” decline. He also draws from thinkers over the last hundred years to lay out four explanations for why this decline has occurred:
- Thomas Hobbes: Life in a state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The Hobbesian solution to this problem was the “leviathan state,” a central authority with a monopoly on violent power. The Machiavellian explanation here would give some credit to the rise of central governments for the
- Life is Cheap: When suffering and early death are commonplace, the consequences of violence seem less dramatic to us. As wealth and quality of life increase, so does our value of that life, even if it is of the Other.
- Robert Wright: Nonzero-sum games can often result in parties benefitting when they trade or cooperate rather than enter into violent conflict. Over time, the greater ability of parties to communicate has allowed more and more people to discover these nonzero-sum dynamics in more and more situations.
- Peter Singer: The “expanding circle” of empathy. This, too, has been borne along by increasing wealth, access to communication technologies, and education.
There are holes that one can poke in this description of our history. Pinker’s narrative is very Euro-centric (what happened in China during these centuries? Africa?) It also completely ignores the incidence of sexual violence towards women; It’s hard to say if that how much that has declined over the ages, if it has.
Overall, though, I think Pinker is right. I’d be interested to see any data that contradicts the trend line that he can draw from hunter gatherer times to our own.
Bill Clinton: TED Prize wish: Let’s build and health care system in Rwanda
Clinton discusses the work of his foundation, and how it fits into the larger picture of social inequalities and development work. He stresses the importance of focusing on systems rather than taking on problems piecemeal. The Clinton foundation cut out middlemen in Haiti, cutting per-annum costs of anti-retrovirals from $3500 to $500, and then reduced it further to $190 by helping the pharmaceutical companies change their business models (from “jewelry store” to “grocery market.”) Mentions Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health; they are working with PIH to reproduce that system in Rwanda. In time, they want to develop a health administration system that can be adapted for any number of other countries. An interesting thought on “fund leakage”: On corruption in developing nations, Clinton mentions that he believes that lost opportunities due to health problems are a much greater problem, and they in fact feed corruption.
Juan Enriquez: Why can’t we grow new energy?
Playing on words, Enriquez extends the definition of “bioenergy” to include coal and oil, which of course were originally plant and animal matter, eons ago. He describes the possibility of using biological processes to convert underground oil and coal into gas, thus allowing us to extract the energy content without mining, and thus greatly increasing the reserves we have access too (3x, possibly.) He likens the possible growth of such an industry to the “green revolution” that allowed the productivity of agriculture to boom in the 20th century: think in terms of biology, not chemistry, in order to scale massively.
Of course, this is not a carbon-reduction technique (in fact, it sounds like a perilous way to keep dirty energy costs very low.) Enriquez proposes it only a “bridge” to new tech.
Another, separate idea: stabilizing oil prices by taxing to set a floor on oil prices, giving alternative fuels a floor to work with (and thus be able to invest against.)
As usual, you can see all of the TED talk notes, here.