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Reclaiming Our Sci-Fi Future | Podcast Highlights

Blog Post | Human Development

Reclaiming Our Sci-Fi Future | Podcast Highlights

Chelsea Follett interviews James Pethokoukis about how to reignite American optimism and build the sci-fi world we were promised.

Listen to the podcast or read the full transcript here.

Order James Pethokoukis’s new book here.

Tell me about the title of your book, The Conservative Futurist. It’s very counterintuitive. How did you come up with the title? 

It does sound like an oxymoron. Like military intelligence or man bites dog. But I think conservatism and futurism do go together. I view conservatism as preserving the best parts of our inheritance, which I view as liberal democracy and market capitalism. It’s our sacred responsibility to preserve that, work to make it better, and then hand it off to future generations.

That’s what we should be thinking about. Conservative futurism is not nostalgia for the 1950s. It’s about using all these fantastic tools that we’ve developed to build a better world.

So, you’re using conservative in the sense of being classical liberal, pro-innovation, and pro-free market. But there’s another term that you use, which is “up-wing.” Can you tell me a little bit about that? 

It’s a play on left-wing and right-wing, but up-wing could be a Democrat or a Republican. Up-wing is seeing the potential of humanity and then working to achieve it. It’s people who think it’s a big shame that we don’t have nuclear power and that we’re now worried about not having enough energy. Down-wing refers to people who want to go backward, who want a poor world so we don’t use up the earth. I see a lot of that vision, unfortunately, all around.

How did we go from the optimistic vision of the 1960s to Black Mirror and other dystopian science fiction? 

I make the economic case. If you have a slowing economy, it’s tougher to be positive. One reason we had this economic slowdown, which began in the early 1970s, is that we extracted all the big productivity gains from the great inventions of the Industrial Revolution: electrification, factories, the combustion engine, the chemical industry. That was eventually going to happen. But what did not have to happen was our response. We did two things wrong. One, we stopped funding basic science at the level we saw during the space program. And the other is we regulated.

I went into this book not wanting to blame environmentalists because I think there’s a kind of environmentalism that is good. But environmental laws made it very difficult to build things in this country and created this caution about technological progress that has seeped into our culture. Suddenly, we saw all this negativity about the future. The book Limits to Growth came out. You had Silent Spring; you had this confluence of factors that created the notion that it was silly to think that the future would be better. And unfortunately, that’s where we still are today.

Do you see the degrowth mindset that’s very popular today as a direct descendant of 1970s environmentalism? 

We hear the same language and ideas today that we heard 50 years ago. There is an idea stagnation, a certain point of view that froze in about 1972 and has not changed. You can imagine an environmental movement that wants cleaner air, that doesn’t want lead in our gasoline so that we are healthier and happier. But the environmentalism we got said that humans were the problem on the planet. Fears about radiation turned into the anti-nuclear craze. You had people with a problem with capitalism who saw nuclear power as a consumerist conspiracy to strip the planet. These views came together in the Vietnam War, which they saw as a perfect example of US techno-capitalism run amok. They saw it as this mega machine of the military and science and corporate America that was not only ruining this country through war but would eventually ruin the planet. And you see many of those same ideas today with people who don’t like big tech and fear science. That view has just re-manifested in this degrowth movement.

How do we nurture an up-wing culture?

To believe that progress is worth it, people need to believe that they can adapt to change, and that progress will lead to a better world. So that’s what we have to get across. One thing that kept popping into my head when I was writing this book was the “Doomsday Clock,” which was started during the Cold War and was supposed to tell us how close we were to midnight or absolute nuclear destruction. It’s still around today, measuring the risk of everything from AI to pandemics and inequality. I want a Genesis Clock. How close are we to a period of amazing progress? Are we reducing the number of people in extreme poverty? How close are we to creating energy sources that are clean, abundant, and cheap? How close are we to dawn? If we start thinking about possibilities rather than constraints, we could have a very different society, which is more likely to make those achievements happen.

Another great thing I would like to return to is World’s Fairs. World’s Fairs were places where people would go to see new technologies up close. I think of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, which had a 20-minute ride through the world of tomorrow with all the classic stereotypes: undersea cities, space colonies, soaring skyscrapers. People saw what we were trying to build. Fundamentally, economic growth is about change, change for the better, but it’s still change. You have to convince people to tolerate that.

Big, exciting, inspirational projects also play a role, like Apollo. Maybe we should think about trying to build a space elevator. But listen, I work at a think tank. I’m going to talk about policies. And I think, again, a lot of what went wrong is policy-related. For every policy a government does, someone should be asking, “Is this making it easier or harder to innovate?” We also need economic openness. Letting strivers, smart, talented people, come to your country where they can do great things. Great Elon Musk quote: “There’s no better place in the world to make your dreams come true than the United States.” That’s important. But I think what’s more important than policies is thinking about what we want those policies to accomplish. We want connection, the ability for people and their ideas to connect so that we can create an innovative economy and build the world we want.

How hopeful are you that humanity will embrace this up-wing vision? 

I wasn’t hopeful when I started writing the book, but I’m more hopeful now. I see things like this nuclear renaissance. The rejection of nuclear power encapsulates everything that went wrong. But that is changing. They’re building and recommissioning reactors across Europe and even in Japan. It’s hard to do a poll about people’s views of technology, but that’s a great stand-in.

I think about my friends on the left who are talking about the abundance left or supply-side liberalism. I may not agree with their methods, but they are thinking about how to make America more productive. That’s fantastic. And, of course, competition with China. If OpenAI had been a Chinese company rather than an American one, it would have been a Sputnik moment. I think that the fear of losing the AI race is also a tailwind.

Blog Post | Human Development

Turgot and an Early Theory of Progress

Turgot, a French statesman, economist, and early advocate of economic liberalism, was one of the first to ponder how we achieve moral and material progress.

A version of this article was published at Libertarianism.org on 11/14/2023.

Progress through the Ages

Though progress is an essential ingredient of modern life, it is an ideal that has only been acknowledged, discussed, and debated extensively in the last two hundred years. At first, it might seem odd to say large swathes of people did not always think deeply about progress. But this view ignores that the vast majority of our distant ancestors used the same tools in their daily lives that their ancestors, from hundreds of years in the past, had used in their time.

Broadly speaking, the Greeks and Romans viewed civilization like any other living organism; it grows then dies like all living things. The expected historical norm was the cyclical rising and falling of civilizations. Though some, such as the Epicurean philosopher Lucretius, theorized briefly about progress, this was an idiosyncratic line of inquiry at the time. Medieval thinkers viewed their age as a dark period in the shadow of an illustrious past. The word “progress” was alien to the human lexicon for thousands of years.

But this changed dramatically with the Enlightenment, a European intellectual movement characterized, in part, by a new confidence in the power of reason to catalog, observe, and experiment upon our natural environment. An advocate for Enlightenment ideals and ambassador for liberalism in its early days, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, was among the earliest to examine the dynamics of progress. Importantly for classical liberals and libertarians alike, Turgot was the first to establish the connection between freedom and progress. Turgot believed without freedom, human progress would revert to cycles of development and decline.

Turgot’s Life, Education, and Career

Turgot was born in Paris to a distinguished Norman family that had long served the French monarchy as royal officials. Turgot’s father was Michel Michel-​Étienne, a Councillor of the Parliament of Paris and one of the senior administrators in the city of Paris. His mother, Dame Madeleine-​Françoise Martineau, was a renowned intellectual and aristocrat.

Turgot, as the youngest son in his family, was expected to join the church, the usual career path for a younger son in 18th-​century Europe. He began studying at the Sorbonne in 1749, but after a year, he decided he could not become a priest because he refused to conceal his beliefs that were at variance with the teachings of the church. Turgot was suited to being a student; he studied voraciously, reading history, literature, philosophy, and the natural sciences, interests he would maintain until his death.

Sorbonne Lectures: Early Ideas on Progress

While studying at the Sorbonne, Turgot made his intellectual gifts known and was elected by his fellow students to the position of Prieur. This mostly honorary position called for an occasional speech to be delivered publicly. The content of these speeches was inspired by Turgot’s interaction with Bishop Bossuet and his idea of “universal history.” Turgot’s innovation was to give a secularized account of humanity’s universal history. Turgot, like the ancients, accepted that all things live and then die. However, he maintained that humans have a unique capacity for language and memory, allowing them to pass down knowledge that accumulates incrementally over the centuries, leading to ever-​increasing stores of knowledge for the whole of humanity. Though this may seem like a simple idea today, for the time, it was revolutionary, and these speeches established Turgot at a young age as France’s foremost thinker on progress.

One of his speeches now survives as an essay entitled “A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind.” It is debatable whether Turgot is the first person to theorize about progress, but we can say with certainty that Turgot is best known for identifying the relationship between freedom and progress.

Turgot’s “A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind”

Unlike his inspiration, Bishop Bossuet, Turgot articulated a secular account of progress. Turgot does not entirely exile God from the discussion, but he relegates God to being a prime mover rather than a prime intervener in human affairs. For Turgot, progress does not come from divine providence but is a uniquely human phenomenon.

Turgot defined stages of civilizational development, beginning with hunting, then pastoral, and finally agricultural. Two years prior, in 1748, in The Spirit of the LawsMontesquieu had done the same. However, Montesquieu used these stages to illustrate how topography and climate influence human activity. Turgot’s stages are not separated by varying climates but by human developmental differences. Turgot argued human activity and civilization are influenced not only by climate and topography but also by degrees of social development, progress is not a mere descriptive conclusion; in Robert Nisbet’s words, “it is a method, a logic, of inquiry.”

Where Does Progress Come From?

For Turgot, the natural world is an unending cyclical succession of death and life —whereas human civilization shows signs not of constant decay but rather ever more vitality. Humans are unique creatures because of their capacity for language, writing, and memory. Because of these capacities, the knowledge of particular individuals becomes “a common treasure-​house which one generation transmits to another, an inheritance which is always being enlarged by the discoveries of each age.”

All humans have the same potential for progress. However, nature distributes our talents unevenly. Our talents are made practical by a long chain of circumstances. Turgot wrote, “Circumstances either develop these talents or allow them to become buried in obscurity.” But from this infinite variety of circumstances, progress slowly develops unequally at first, but its benefits spread to the whole human species over time.

Humans’ collective capacity for memory means that even amidst war, famine, and disaster, they can preserve and continuously improve their knowledge of the world. Writing prophetically before the economic miracle of liberalism, Turgot says, “Amid all the ignorance, progress is imperceptibly taking place and preparing for the brilliant achievements of later centuries; beneath this soil the feeble roots of a far-​off harvest are already developing.”

Progress Requires Experimentation

Unlike many of his philosophical contemporaries, Turgot greatly admired artisans and mechanics, people who worked with their hands to create new machines. Unlike Rene Descartes, Turgot did not believe the greatness of his century came from a superior set of ideals, attributing it instead to new inventions. Ultimately, Turgot believed we were indebted to artisans rather than philosophers for much of the comforts in our daily lives.

Behind all science lies experimentation. Turgot understood he could not give a complete account of how progress would unfold because a large part of it was down to chance and unique circumstances. He wrote, “Any art cultivated over a period of centuries is bound to fall into the hands of some inventive genius.” Turgot elaborates, “Chances lead to a host of discoveries, and chances multiply with time. A child’s play can reveal the telescope, improve optics, and extend the boundaries of the universe in great and little ways.” This might seem like fanciful thinking, but when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, it was due to a simple mistake that yielded a crucial element of modern medicine, while Edison had to experiment over 1000 times before creating an effective light bulb which thereafter illuminated the entire world. There is no set path for progress to take. That is why we must leave people the maximum freedom to experiment and try new ideas to maximize future progress.

Obstacles to Progress

Turgot feared the main impediments to progress were conventional thinking and concentrated interests that benefited from the status quo. Turgot believed a concentration of power in any area would lead to stagnation and decay in all aspects of life, whether cultural, economic, or political. Inherited ideas, or what John Stuart Mill would later call, “dead dogma,” stop people from appreciating new knowledge. Turgot recommended we follow the facts because, “The greatest genius will not question a theory unless he is driven by facts.”

Turgot’s Laissez Faire Economics

After his time in the Sorbonne, Turgot turned his attention to politics. In 1752, he started climbing the political ladder as a substitut and later a conseiller in the Parliament of Paris. While living in Paris, he frequented salons, gathering places for intellectuals to come together to debate and discuss ideas. While attending, Turgot met the intendant of commerce, Jacques Vincent de Gournay, the man perhaps best known for popularizing the term laissez-​faire economics. In an effort to promote the study of economics, de Gournay gathered a group of young men, including Turgot.

During this time, Turgot became acquainted with physiocrats such as Quesnay, who argued that the state should not regulate commerce to promote economic growth, but leave markets free. Inspired by his mentor de Gournay and his friends like Quesnay, Turgot became one of the foremost advocates of free trade in France, if not the whole of Europe, before the days of Adam Smith.

When de Gournay died in 1759, Turgot wrote a fitting eulogy that summarized de Gournay’s beliefs while expanding Turgot’s own positions on how best to run an economy. The result is a short essay entitled “In Praise of de Gournay,” where Turgot develops his laissez-​faire philosophy.

Establishing the Idea of Economic Liberty

Turgot’s eulogy is the most complete statement of his economic beliefs that survives. Speaking on his mentor’s behalf, Turgot argues that, “The general freedom of buying and selling is therefore the only means of assuring, on the one hand, the seller of a price sufficient to encourage production, and on the other hand, the consumer, of the best merchandise at the lowest price.” Turgot, like de Gournay, believed that if people were left free to make their own decisions, there would not be anarchy like people expected, but instead harmony. Individuals, driven by self-​interest, make their own decisions with the information available to them, and by acting on their own interests, they unwittingly promote the interests of the whole of society.

Many of the regulations governments impose are attempts at stopping fraudulent sales or scams. Turgot wrote that, “To suppose all consumers to be dupes, and all merchants and manufacturers to be cheats, has the effect of authorizing them to be so, and of degrading all the working members of the community.” On top of regulations, the government imposed a long list of different taxes on every kind of labor. Turgot believed a more concise and understandable tax system would help repair France’s then-​failing economy.

Turgot’s thinking on spontaneous order anticipates that of later scholars like F.A. Hayek. Turgot argues that complex systems, such as economies or whole societies, emerge and organize without central planning. The idea of spontaneous order challenges the misconception that only top-​down, state-​run authorities can craft efficient and free societies. Turgot asserts that the doctrine of laissez-​faire “was founded on the complete impossibility of directing, by invariant rules and by continuous inspection a multitude of transactions which by their immensity alone could not be fully known, and which, moreover, are continually dependent on a multitude of ever-​changing circumstances which cannot be managed or even foreseen.” In short, almost 200 years before Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” Turgot was arguing that an individual, group of individuals or even an entire government would never have access to the mountains of information required to “manage” the economy.

Like his mentor, Turgot was for free trade and a government that mostly stayed away from trying to manage the minutiae of the economy. Turgot believed people did not need to be managed; quite the opposite, their productive energies needed to be unleashed upon the world.

Political Career

Though a prominent theoretician on economic and philosophical matters, Turgot was never an academic. Though academically gifted, Turgot wanted more than for his ideas to be discussed in salons; he wanted them to be implemented for the benefit of France. In 1761, Turgot was appointed as the tax collector of Limoges. Turgot eliminated complicated taxes and abolished the despised corvée, a form of unpaid labor demanded in lieu of taxes. Throughout his time in Limoges, Turgot dedicated himself to removing obstacles in the way of the poorest in society earning their daily bread. By 1773, when Turgot left, Limoges was one of France’s more prosperous areas; as a reward for his achievement, he was appointed as Controller General of France by Louis XVI.

With his new position, Turgot had ambitious plans. He aimed to implement several economic reforms, including free trade, reducing the lower classes’ financial burdens, and removing feudal privileges. Turgot’s reforms faced strong opposition from powerful concentrated interest groups among the day’s nobility, clergy, and guilds. Ultimately, Turgot resigned in 1776, never holding a political position again. He spent his final years at his family estate, buried in his studies and correspondence, dying at the age of fifty-​four.

Turgot’s Importance to the History of Liberalism

Though unsuccessful in his reforms, Turgot’s efforts put laissez faire and liberalism on the political map. They were no longer mere theories but practical policies. The writings of Turgot are still valuable because they help remind us of a simple yet fundamental truth: that progress consists not in merely more capital goods but in an ever-​increasing store of cumulative knowledge. His writings also illustrate that progress was a relatively rare phenomenon before the Enlightenment, only experienced in brief glimpses by select pockets of the human population. Despite being a busy and politically engaged figure, Turgot’s ideas nonetheless had a massive impact on the intellectual history of the Western world.

Legacy of Turgot

It is difficult to overstate the impact of Turgot’s ideas and work as a politician. He has garnered many admirers, including the economist Joseph Schumpeter and libertarian thinkers like Murray Rothbard. Turgot’s career in economics was brief but brilliant. Thinkers like Turgot, his mentor Vincent Gournay, and his friend François Quesnay were responsible for France being among the first countries to implement laissez faire economic policy and for integrating liberal ideas into the public consciousness. Without the intellectual and political efforts of people like Turgot, liberalism and economic freedom might have remained obscure ideas relegated to a select group of obscure intellectuals.

Blog Post | Culture & Tolerance

New Years Resolutions of Yore: Vices That Became Virtues

Virtues we strive to embrace were once vices we swore to eschew.

A version of this article was originally published at Pessimists Archive on 12/31/2023.

In centuries past, things considered virtuous today; readingcyclingradio listening and chess playing were deemed unhealthy vices.

Amusingly this means some New Years resolutions set today are inversions of resolutions set in prior centuries. Where we may aspire to read and cycle more in 2023, people in 1923 may well have pledged to do them less.

As a new year beckons we explored secular sins that eventually became virtues:

Reading

As books became cheaper and more abundant, concerns about reading “too much‘’ became a heated public debate – while the religious worried about the bible competing for attention, others worried about “information overload.

Novel reading was thought to inspire women to seek risk and novelty, while inspiring violent criminal acts by children. Other complaints included the prevalence of people staring down at books on public transport:

Where today we feel guilt for playing on our smartphones in the bedroom – after we wake and before we sleep – reading books in bed was once treated as similarly compulsive, incompatible with a good night’s sleep and possibly damaging to your eyes (in a dimly lit room).

Bicycle Riding

Bicycle riding was a newly popular form of transportation in the late 19th century, thanks to the safety bicycle: cheaper and more practical iteration with inflatable tires for a smooth ride. As the bicycle rolled across the world, critics followed, calling it dangerous because it startled horses and unbecoming for women, who had to wear traditionally male attire to ride (bloomers”).

While some physicians argued cycling was healthy others linked it to insanity, deformities of the spine, face and even a cause for appendicitis. One insurance company even refused to insure avid bicycle riders, while one army recruitment office rejected applicants who were avid cyclists because it was assumed they had a weakened “bicycle heart.

Radio

The rise of the radio was a bigger deal than most realize – arguably bigger than television – which was seen as an evolution of radio. Radio’s growth in society was inevitably followed by handwringing and speculation about its possible downsides: dead birds, bad weather, poor grades and sleep deprivation were just some of the unfounded concerns.

Games (Crosswords)

Today word games are widely considered good for our brains, crosswords have survived the transition from print to digital and new word games continue the emerge – like Wordle – which was acquired by The New York Times.

Ironically The New York Times – now famous for its crossword – would refuse to publish the puzzles for many years, deeming them unworthy of a serious publication. Why? Because they were considered unintellectual and associated with distraction, earning bans by at least one professor and a judge.

Games (Chess)

In 1858 Paul Morphy became widely considered the world Chess champion, as a result national interest in the game boomed, leading to Scientific American weighing in on the matter opining: “Chess is a mere amusement of a very inferior character, which robs the mind of valuable time.”

Paul Morphy’s mental health would rapidly decline in the proceeding years, Chess was blamed by some for the deterioration, when other champions met similar fates there was speculation Chess might have a negative impact on players more generally.

Blog Post | Human Development

1,000 Bits of Good News You May Have Missed in 2023

A necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.

Reading the news can leave you depressed and misinformed. It’s partisan, shallow, and, above all, hopelessly negative. As Steven Pinker from Harvard University quipped, “The news is a nonrandom sample of the worst events happening on the planet on a given day.”

So, why does Human Progress feature so many news items? And why did I compile them in this giant list? Here are a few reasons:

  • Negative headlines get more clicks. Promoting positive stories provides a necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.
  • Statistics are vital to a proper understanding of the world, but many find anecdotes more compelling.
  • Many people acknowledge humanity’s progress compared to the past but remain unreasonably pessimistic about the present—not to mention the future. Positive news can help improve their state of mind.
  • We have agency to make the world better. It is appropriate to recognize and be grateful for those who do.

Below is a nonrandom sample (n = ~1000) of positive news we collected this year, separated by topic area. Please scroll, skim, and click. Or—to be even more enlightened—read this blog post and then look through our collection of long-term trends and datasets.

Agriculture

Aquaculture

Farming robots and drones

Food abundance

Genetic modification

Indoor farming

Lab-grown produce

Pollination

Other innovations

Conservation and Biodiversity

Big cats

Birds

Turtles

Whales

Other comebacks

Forests

Reefs

Rivers and lakes

Surveillance and discovery

Rewilding and conservation

De-extinction

Culture and tolerance

Gender equality

General wellbeing

LGBT

Treatment of animals

Energy and natural Resources

Fission

Fusion

Fossil fuels

Other energy

Recycling and resource efficiency

Resource abundance

Environment and pollution

Climate change

Disaster resilience

Air pollution

Water pollution

Growth and development

Education

Economic growth

Housing and urbanization

Labor and employment

Health

Cancer

Disability and assistive technology

Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Diabetes

Heart disease and stroke

Other non-communicable diseases

HIV/AIDS

Malaria

Other communicable diseases

Maternal care

Fertility and birth control

Mental health and addiction

Weight and nutrition

Longevity and mortality 

Surgery and emergency medicine

Measurement and imaging

Health systems

Other innovations

Freedom

    Technology 

    Artificial intelligence

    Communications

    Computing

    Construction and manufacturing

    Drones

    Robotics and automation

    Autonomous vehicles

    Transportation

    Other innovations

    Science

    AI in science

    Biology

    Chemistry and materials

      Physics

      Space

      Violence

      Crime

      War

      Blog Post | Human Development

      Our Editor’s 2023 End of the Year Missive

      Last year turned out to be a busy one for all the members of the Human Progress team. I spent much of the year on the road, promoting Superabundance in the United States and abroad. The book continues to sell well, and, more importantly, the ideas that it contains are getting attention on both the left and right of the political spectrum. I was particularly pleased with a reference to our work in the much-discussed Techno-Optimist Manifesto penned by the U.S. venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. Intellectually, my most satisfying piece of writing was a Wall Street Journal op-ed co-written with the Oxford University physicist David Deutsch. I hope you’ll like it.

      Chelsea Follett published her first book, Centers of Progress: 40 Cities That Changed the World, and spent the last few months of the year promoting it in person, in print, and across the airwaves. Together with George Mason University’s Vincent Geloso, she also published an important paper that measures inequality in global well-being. The main point of the paper is that while many people obsess about global income inequality—which, incidentally, is shrinking—there are other, arguably more important inequalities, such as longevity and infant mortality, which are also declining. Chelsea also conducted many fascinating interviews that we released as Human Progress podcasts. Please check them out.

      Malcolm Cochran continued his excellent work curating our social media and expanding our online presence. He continues to gather the weekly news items that document human progress and delight so many of our readers and followers. He has also taken on the additional responsibility of producing our podcasts. This fall, Malcolm participated in the Roots of Progress fellowship, a program that helps writers interested in human progress launch and accelerate their intellectual careers. As part of the fellowship, Malcolm started his own blog on pro-growth environmentalism. You can learn more about the program and the other fellows here.

      Saul Zimet has given the website a fresh new look. Using Midjourney and other recent AI developments, he is now creating more vivid and eye-catching illustrations of Human Progress blog posts, news, and trends. He has also enhanced the website by publishing audio versions of each article and frequently posting great content from relevant external sources such as the Pessimists Archive. As the quality of available progress data from global research institutions continues to improve, he is also constantly updating the data workspace to make it more useful and informative than ever before.

      On a sadder note, one of our valued team members, Luis Ahumada Abrigo, left us to join the great scholars at the Mercatus Center in Virginia. While Luis will be greatly missed, we continue to think very fondly of him, are grateful for all the work that he has done for Human Progress, and wish him the very best of luck in his future endeavors.