28 May 2022

OneZero: “By the End of This Century, the Global Population will Start to Shrink”

The great defining event of the 21st century — one of the great defining events in human history — will occur in three decades, give or take, when the global population starts to decline. Once that decline begins, it will never end. We do not face the challenge of a population bomb, so rampant in the popular imagination, but of a population bust — a relentless, generation-after-generation culling of the human herd. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

If you find this news shocking, that’s not surprising. The United Nations forecasts that our population will grow from 7 billion to 11 billion in this century before leveling off after 2100. But an increasing number of demographers around the world believe the UN estimates are far too high.

More likely, they say, the planet’s population will peak at around 9 billion sometime between 2040 and 2060 and then start to decline. By the end of this century, we could be back to where we are right now and steadily growing fewer.

The demographic transition model, which was first developed in 1929, used to contain only four stages. Stage four, the final stage, envisioned a world in which life expectancy was high and the fertility rate was low, around the level needed to sustain the population: 2.1 babies per mother (one per mother, one per father, and an extra 0.1 to account for children who die in infancy and women who die before childbearing age). But as it turned out, there is a fifth stage: one in which life expectancy continues to slowly increase, even as fertility rates continue to decline below the replacement rate, eventually leading to a declining population. Just about the entire developed world is in stage five.

Darrell Bricker & John Ibbitson

Taking a break from the urgent issues of today, here’s a worldwide trend that will certainly reshape our societies in the coming century: the upcoming shift from the population growth we experienced since the dawn of civilization to a stagnating and shrinking population. There were of course numerous dips in various regions in times of famine and plague, but the overall trend was ascending owing to a high birth rate. Modern science and civilization have reversed both fundamentals: better healthcare has decreased child mortality and increased life expectancy, while increased urbanization, education and secularism have reduced previous pressures to have as many children as possible.

27 May 2022

Time: “Inside Volodymyr Zelensky’s World”

The experience illustrated how much Zelensky has changed since we first met three years ago, backstage at his comedy show in Kyiv, when he was still an actor running for President. His sense of humor is still intact. It’s a means of survival, he says. But two months of war have made him harder, quicker to anger, and a lot more comfortable with risk. Russian troops came within minutes of finding him and his family in the first hours of the war, their gunfire once audible inside his office walls. Images of dead civilians haunt him. So do the daily appeals from his troops, hundreds of whom are trapped belowground, running out of food, water, and ammunition.

Friends and allies rushed to Zelensky’s side, sometimes in violation of security protocols. Several brought their families to the compound. If the President were to be killed, the chain of succession in Ukraine calls for the Speaker of parliament to take command. But Ruslan Stefanchuk, who holds that post, drove straight to Bankova Street on the morning of the invasion rather than taking shelter at a distance.

Stefanchuk was among the first to see the President in his office that day. It wasn’t fear on his face, he told me. It was a question: How could this be? For months Zelensky had downplayed warnings from Washington that Russia was about to invade. Now he registered the fact that an all-out war had broken out, but could not yet grasp the totality of what it meant. Maybe these words sound vague or pompous, says Stefanchuk. But we sensed the order of the world collapsing. Soon the Speaker rushed down the street to the parliament and presided over a vote to impose martial law across the country. Zelensky signed the decree that afternoon.

Simon Shuster

As the imminent danger of Russian troops capturing the capital subsided, reporters started getting access to Ukraine’s now-wartime President, Volodymyr Zelensky. I found it a bit ironic how much this article emphasizes his former job as comedian, including ending on this exact note (that is the role he intends to play) – not the most reassuring way to portray a leader during such a consequential conflict.

25 May 2022

The New Yorker: “If God is Dead, Your Time is Everything”

One of the most beautifully succinct expressions of secular faith in our bounded life on earth was provided not long after Christ supposedly conquered death, by Pliny the Elder, who called down a plague on this mad idea that life is renewed by death! Pliny argued that belief in an afterlife removes Nature’s particular boon, the great blessing of death, and merely makes dying more anguished by adding anxiety about the future to the familiar grief of departure. How much easier, he continues, for each person to trust in himself, and for us to assume that death will offer exactly the same freedom from care that we experienced before we were born: oblivion.

Rather than simply replace the realm of necessity with the realm of freedom—which would be impossible anyway, because there is always tedious and burdensome work to be done—we should be able to better “negotiate” the relationship between those realms. Hägglund gives an example of how this might be done when he talks about the way his own work on the book we are reading unites the two realms: writing “This Life” was labor, of course, but it was pursued as an end in itself, as a matter of intellectual inquiry. In a Hägglundian utopia, labor would be part of our freedom. Even drudgery—his example is participating in the garbage removal in our neighborhood on a weekly basis—could be an element of our freedom if we see it as part of a collective understanding that we are acting in order to reduce, in the aggregate, socially necessary labor time and to increase socially available free time. This revolution, he says, will require the revaluation of value (in Nietzsche’s phrase); and he criticizes a number of thinkers on the left, such as Thomas Piketty and Naomi Klein, for wanting to alter capitalism (via redistribution) rather than effectively abolish it (via a deep redefinition of value). Such people, he says, are stating that capitalism is the problem while also stating that capitalism is the solution.

James Wood

I was meaning to share this article for a long time – I read it some three ago, a bit after it was published. It offers a compelling vision of human life and society assuming there’s no such thing as an afterlife – an atheist credo if you like. This participatory society where everyone shares the burden of labor to maximize overall free time strongly reminds me of the anarchist Anarres in The Dispossessed – a fantastic novel which carefully constructs an apparent utopia while subtly pointing out its shortcomings. It also offers a good counterpoint to the concept of Longtermism, which emphasizes the fulfillment of future human beings at the detriment of contemporaries.

24 May 2022

War on the Rocks: “The August War, Ten Years On: A Retrospective on the Russo-Georgian War”

Russia set up Georgia’s leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, into initiating hostilities against its proxy forces in South Ossetia, and then crushed the Georgian military in a brief conventional conflict. Saakashvili walked down that path, despite U.S. warnings, because of his own ambitions. Yet Moscow was also surprised by the timing of the Georgian attack, which somewhat pre-empted Russian plans. NATO’s declaration added a broader geostrategic dimension to a war that was already well on its way to happening given Georgia’s ambitions to retake lost territory, and Russia’s intent to deal Saakashvili a major defeat. Putin was not going to let Saakashvili take the territories back, but after NATO’s declaration at the Bucharest Summit he resolved to teach the West a lesson about Russia’s ability to veto further NATO expansion eastward.

Georgia was no great military power, but for a tiny nation it was well-armed, far beyond anything currently fielded by the Baltic states. Whether or not the Georgian military had the leadership and experience to make good use of this gear is another story. The perpetual dream of such states is to become the Israel of their region. The problem with small states is that they think they can be David, but outside of the Book of Samuel, most of the time David gets crushed by Goliath. By 2008, Saakashvili bragged that Georgia had 33,000 professional service members, 100,000 reservists, the number of tanks had increased by a factor of ten and combat helicopters by a factor of three. Georgia’s build-up was sold as an effort at achieving “NATO standards” and “interoperability”. In reality Georgia’s armed forces kept expanding in size and capability in defiance of NATO recommendations to reduce the force and make it affordable. Most of the heavy equipment Georgia procured was actually Soviet gear, with Ukrainian and Israeli upgrades, not meaningfully interoperable with NATO forces.

Michael Kofman

Interesting retrospective of the Russo-Georgian War, a brief confrontation that many quote now in relation to Putin’s imperialist tendencies and the current invasion of Ukraine – including the David vs. Goliath analogy. The quick Russian victory back then probably contributed to Putin’s boldness and expectation that he will subdue Ukraine similarly fast.

22 May 2022

Engelsberg Ideas: “Thucydides was a Realist”

What does it mean to say Thucydides was a realist? It is to say that he was one of the founders of a pessimistic intellectual tradition that believes the world, like the one he endured, is inherently a cold, harsh, dangerous place in which power and its acquisition is paramount. In this world, interests diverge and clash, and cooperation is bound to be impermanent. There is no reliable authority above the fray. No-one can be certain of others’ intentions, which can change. This makes for a world of ultimate solitude. Ruthless self-help and prudent self-restraint are both imperative. To survive in it, polities must accept and work within its constraints.

Realism at its core is the capacity to look at the world without euphemism. In that spirit, Thucydides is a tonic to wishful thinking, thereby supplying the intellectual tools to resist fanciful expectations. If there is one source of false hope in our time, leading to ill-preparedness and shock, it is the widespread conceit that the ‘twenty first century’ or ‘Europe’, or something in our contemporary condition, should rule out certain bad things happening.

As we too have discovered, ‘hope is an expensive commodity’. Against earlier expectations that a growing China would supplicate itself to US hegemony, it grabs land, coerces and threatens far and wide, and has embarked on a vast naval and nuclear build-up. Against confident earlier claims that his regime ‘must’ go, Gulf states reconcile themselves to Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad’s victory after a civil war of unimaginable terror. And against prophecies that geopolitics is an illusion and that Russia would not dare go further than subversion around the edges, Vladimir Putin has launched his latest aggressive lunge into Ukraine.

Patrick Porter

The Greek historian Thucydides was regularly mentioned in a podcast I frequently listen to, and this short recap of his work – and the increasing geopolitical instability – makes me appreciate his insights more. Scholars started applying his history of the Peloponnesian War to the U.S.-China relations in the twenty-first century, a confrontation emerging as a rising power challenges a ruling one.

IEEE Spectrum: “Their Bionic Eyes are now Obsolete and Unsupported”

Ross Doerr, another Second Sight patient, doesn’t mince words: It is fantastic technology and a lousy company, he says. He received an implant in one eye in 2019 and remembers seeing the shining lights of Christmas trees that holiday season. He was thrilled to learn in early 2020 that he was eligible for software upgrades that could further improve his vision. Yet in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, he heard troubling rumors about the company and called his Second Sight vision-rehab therapist. She said, Well, funny you should call. We all just got laid off, he remembers. She said, By the way, you’re not getting your upgrades.

These three patients, and more than 350 other blind people around the world with Second Sight’s implants in their eyes, find themselves in a world in which the technology that transformed their lives is just another obsolete gadget. One technical hiccup, one broken wire, and they lose their artificial vision, possibly forever. To add injury to insult: A defunct Argus system in the eye could cause medical complications or interfere with procedures such as MRI scans, and it could be painful or expensive to remove.

Abandoning the Argus II technology—and the people who use it—might have made short-term financial sense for Second Sight, but it’s a decision that could come back to bite the merged company if it does decide to commercialize a brain implant, believes Doerr.

Who’s going to swallow their marketing for the Orion? he says. Doerr is glad he has Second Sight’s technology in his retina instead of his brain tissue. If it has to come out, it’s going to be bothersome, he says, [but] nobody is messing with my brain.

Eliza Strickland & Mark Harris

Exciting that technology to partially restore vision to blind people is in development and slowly becoming mainstream. The article exposes quite well the downsides of relying solely on private companies in this field: despite innovating and delivering a product with clear benefits to its customers, the small market size and high costs can make the business side unsustainable. Similar questions apply to other startups, such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink; if at some point in the future Musk loses interest or lacks funding to continue research, what happens to the enthusiasts who might have gotten their skull drilled for one of his implants?

18 May 2022

Salon: “Elon Musk, Twitter and the future: His long-term vision is even weirder than you think”

In brief, the longtermists claim that if humanity can survive the next few centuries and successfully colonize outer space, the number of people who could exist in the future is absolutely enormous. According to the “father of Longtermism”, Nick Bostrom, there could be something like 10^58 human beings in the future, although most of them would be living “happy lives” inside vast computer simulations powered by nanotechnological systems designed to capture all or most of the energy output of stars. (Why Bostrom feels confident that all these people would be “happy” in their simulated lives is not clear. Maybe they would take digital Prozac or something?) Other longtermists, such as Hilary Greaves and Will MacAskill, calculate that there could be 10^45 happy people in computer simulations within our Milky Way galaxy alone. That’s a whole lot of people, and longtermists think you should be very impressed.

So the question is: If you want to do “the most good”, should you focus on helping people who are alive right now or these vast numbers of possible people living in computer simulations in the far future? The answer is, of course, that you should focus on these far-future digital beings.

Phil Torres

In my previous linked article, the author writes at some point that he believes Elon Mask wants to do some flavor of good. And here we have some clues as to what Musk considers ‘good’ for the future of humanity. I would take this with some grain of salt, as we can’t definitely know what his plans and expectations are, but seems plausible considering the kind of projects he’s involved in.