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Small Technologies Can Solve the Planet’s Biggest Problems | Podcast Highlights

Blog Post | Science & Technology

Small Technologies Can Solve the Planet’s Biggest Problems | Podcast Highlights

Todd Myers, a director at the Washington Policy Center, joins Chelsea Follett to discuss how technology empowers individuals to protect the environment without the need for top-down government programs.

Listen to the full podcast episode, in which Chelsea Follett interviews Todd Myers, here.
Below is an abridged transcript featuring some highlights from the interview.

What gave you the idea for this book? 

I’ve worked in environmental policy in Washington State for over two decades. During that time, I saw the government’s limitations and how politicians’ incentives were aligned with making themselves look good rather than helping the environment. They often fall for environmental fads that feel good but don’t work. What’s worse, politicians are disincentivized from acknowledging failure, so when their policies don’t work, they just double down. My new book, Time to Think Small, is about the alternative: shifting power from politicians to people.

Why do you believe small technology and private sector initiatives are the future of environmental stewardship? 

When people want to solve an environmental problem, their minds tend to go to the 1970s, to the creation of the EPA and the Clean Air Act. Those might not have been the optimal approaches, but they worked, and at the time, there were few alternatives to government intervention. But things have changed, not only in terms of technology but also the nature of the problems.

Environmental problems today are distributed. Rather than large, single-point sources like big smokestacks, today’s environmental problems come from many little inputs and require distributed solutions. Technologies like smartphones and the internet enable those solutions by breaking down traditional barriers like transaction and information costs. They allow us to coordinate more efficiently and align financial incentives with the environment.

Take Ocean plastic. It’s a big problem, and it comes from all over the world, mostly developing countries. How do you address it? Well, a group called Plastic Bank hired people to collect plastic that could wash into the water. Because most people now have phones, they can geo-locate the plastic, turn it into collection centers, and get paid on their phones. Plastic Bank then sells the plastic to SC Johnson, and it ends up in your Windex bottle. The technology involved is nothing very special, but because the costs of collaboration have fallen so low, they have been able to collect 3.1 billion plastic bottles that would have washed into the ocean and more than 150 million pounds of plastic.

SC Johnson benefits because they get a market advantage. We saw the same thing with tuna. All tuna cans now have the dolphin-safe label because having that label improves your marketing, and in wealthy countries, consumers have the money and the motivation to pay a little extra for the environment.

That’s a great example. Are there any other examples of private sector innovation you’d like to highlight? 

My current favorite is eWATERservices, a program that provides water pumps to rural African villages. Previously, an NGO, the UN, or a government program would install the pump, but when these pumps eventually broke down, they would sit broken for months since there was no incentive to fix them.

To solve this problem, eWATERservices created internet-connected water pumps. Since over 90% of people in developing countries now have a phone, locals could load an account on their phone with some money and use a key fob to access the pump, which measures the water, creating a financial incentive to conserve. When the pump breaks, eWATERservices is notified immediately and sends a worker to fix it. Pumps that sat broken for months are now fixed within a day. And this is not only good for people, but also for the environment. Without a pump, you have to get water from a river and boil it. One of the major drivers of deforestation in Africa is cutting down trees to boil water and cook food. So, if you have access to clean water, you reduce the pressure on the forests.

Why do you write that transparency in the blockchain can make fish better? 

There is a TV show called Portlandia about the crazy things people in Portland do. There’s one sketch where people order chicken at a restaurant and ask, “Is this organic? Is this Oregon organic? Is it Portland organic?” And the waitress comes back with the papers for the chicken, and she says, “Here’s the chicken, here’s how he was raised. And his name is Colin.” It’s a joke, but we can now do that. And we can actually do more than that.

The blockchain is just a fancy name for a transparent ledger. It is hard to falsify, so when you want to know that your chicken was free range and had a nice life, the blockchain is a good way to do that. In the case of fish, you want to make sure that the fish you’re purchasing wasn’t caught where stocks are low, and now you can follow that fish from the minute they bait the hook and see, yes, the fish that I purchased was caught sustainably.

How can technology enhance our connection with nature? 

So, I’m not a botanist. I’m very bad at identifying plants. But now there are technologies that do that. iNaturalist is an app that identifies organisms using your phone camera and an artificial intelligence trained with other pictures people have taken. So, when I take a picture of a plant when I’m hiking, it’ll say, “This is Oregon grape.” It’s incredible. So that has allowed me to connect with nature in a deeper way than just hiking and enjoying its beauty. And this technology is not just a tool to connect to the environment, but it also provides opportunities for conservation. iNaturalist has created a gigantic database of wildlife sightings that has enabled numerous scientific studies.

eBird is another app that identifies birds. Thanks to birders using eBird, there are now millions of recorded bird sightings. In California, The Nature Conservancy wanted to create habitat for migratory seabirds, so they used this data to find the specific parcels of land that migratory seabirds passed through. They asked the landowners, “How much would we have to pay you to flood your fields for these seabirds?” They negotiated a price, flooded their fields, and created the habitat.

The way the Endangered Species Act currently works is if you have good habitat or you have species on your land, the government comes in and says, “You can’t use your land in the way you want.” That means endangered species are a liability. eBird and The Nature Conservancy are turning endangered species into an asset.

Bees are another good example of the market helping protect species. There’s a lot of concern about honeybees dying out, and we do see higher hive mortality than in the past. It used to be about 15% to 20% of hives died each year. Now it can be 40% or 50%.

However, the highest rates of hive mortality are among hobbyists, people like me, who are not that experienced and don’t have much money to spend keeping their bees healthy. The lowest rates of hive mortality, about 20%, very close to typical, are among commercial beekeepers. Why? Because they have a strong financial incentive to keep their hives safe. And in fact, the number of hives in the United States is now close to a 20-year high precisely because commercial beekeepers have the financial incentive to keep their hives safe and to replace them when they die.

What do you mean by democratizing environmentalism? 

Democratizing environmentalism means giving people the information they need to make better decisions for themselves and the environment. When we outsource the environment to politicians, we lose that connection to the environment and to results. In one of the sequels to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there’s a funny example where they found that it was too difficult to make something invisible, but what they could do was make something somebody else’s problem. And by making it somebody else’s problem, it was as good as invisible.

That is what we have done with a lot of environmental issues. We have said that politicians will solve this, so I don’t have to worry about it. By doing that, we’ve made those problems invisible to ourselves without achieving the desired results.

Authors

  • Todd Myers is a member of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council and a former member of the executive team at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. With more than two decades in environmental policy, his experience includes work on a range of environmental issues, including climate policy, forest health, old-growth forests, and salmon recovery.

  • Chelsea Follett is the managing editor of HumanProgress.org, a policy analyst in the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, and author of the book Centers of Progress: 40 Cities That Changed the World (2023).

BBC | Innovation

Formula E Electric Vehicles Could Spark Widespread Innovation

“The batteries in the current generation of Formula E cars deliver up to 350kW of power, and can propel a driver to a maximum top speed of 320km/h (199mph), approaching the top speed of traditional F1 cars. And while the racing series may not have the pedigree – or budget – of F1, it does provide a unique and important testing ground for new battery technology that could benefit the entire EV industry.”

From BBC.

Blog Post | Air Transport

Aeroplanes, Airships and Beta Bias

We cannot understand to what practical use a flying machine that is heavier than air can be put.

Manchester Guardian, 1908

This amusing quote was shared on Twitter by ex-Financial Times assistant editor Brian Groom. Naturally we went looking for the original source and after a little digging, we found it:

Old article from 'The Manchester Guardian' titled 'The Aeroplane and The Airship'
The Manchester Guardian, later renamed The Guardian

Revealed is the quote’s context: a comparison between aeroplanes and airships, prompted by a historic breakthrough: 1 week prior the Wright Brothers publicly proved possible heavier than air flying machines.

Sizing up the aeroplane against then dominant airships was a natural reaction to the breakthrough. Like many others, The Manchester Guardian (later renamed The Guardian) noted the existing limits of this nascent technology and the upsides of the established alternative.

Airships didn’t need a runway to take off or land, were easy to control, could hover mid-air and allowed the transport of many people at an average cruising altitude of 650ft – while the Wright Brothers only achieved 20ft. (The fact Airships were full of highly flammable gas went unmentioned.)

The Manchester Guardian commended the Wright Brother’s impressive “acrobatic” achievement and “great feat of mechanical engineering”, but dismissed the aeroplanes military potential because of early downsides: its low cruising altitude meant “it presented a target that no one who had ever handled a gun could possibly miss.” And its use in reconnaissance was doubted due to its limited capacity to carry passengers and the difficulty of piloting, giving “no opportunity to observe the world below.” The piece would end by commending the English, French and German governments for its focus on airship development.

The US Military officials present at the Wrights public demonstration were more optimistic however – seeing beyond early limits – towards possible improvement, with the Navy signalling intent to begin purchase of the new technology immediately.

Image of military Aeroplanes

Only 6 years later World War I would begin, military Aeroplanes would take to the skies – first for reconnaissance – helping the allied forces prevent the German’s invasion of France, among other things. This new intelligence advantage, saw weaponization soon follow, as each side sought to take out each others reconnaissance crafts.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, France suggested it create a flying corps of 4,500 aeroplanes, the US set a goal of 22,625 – echoing the enthusiasm of its military leaders on first witnessing manned flight. It never managed to fulfil this goal and purchased the majority of its planes from France and the United Kingdom. By the end of the war it would form the Royal Airforce, the first dedicated airforce in the world, one that would play a key roll in World War II.

Beta Bias

On paper – looking at pros and cons – dismissing the aeroplane would have felt fair, convincing and well reasoned in 1908. The problem though: this could apply to many nascent breakthrough technologies when comparing them to established alternatives. It isn’t a fair or useful comparison.

This common error in thinking about technology is certainly a strain of “status quo bias,” but should probably have a name: we’re christening it “beta bias.”

Beta Bias: The inclination to compare an early-stage version of a new technology, typically in its beta or developmental phase, with a more developed and established alternative technology. This comparison often overlooks the growth potential, cost reductions and future improvements of the new technology, leading to an underestimation of its eventual impact and utility.

Every nascent innovation has a more developed predecessor, more familiar and socially acceptable, with clear advantages, and disadvantages that society has rationalized. We’ll be exploring ‘beta bias’ more in our next post.

This article was published at the Pessimists Archive on 2/8/2024.

Blog Post | Health & Medical Care

Formula One Innovates the Speed of Surgery

Surgeries become 4 to 20 times faster.

Summary: A London hospital, drawing inspiration from Formula One pit stops, has dramatically reduced procedure times, processing patients simultaneously in parallel operating theaters. Using this approach, surgeons are now performing an entire week’s worth of operations in a single day, showcasing the potential for innovation to revolutionize medical systems.


The Times reported in December that a London hospital reduced the time to perform a variety of procedures by 75 percent to 95 percent. Its inspiration? Formula One pit stops. Patients are processed in parallel in high-intensity theaters rather than one after another. The article reports that “under the innovative model, two operating theatres run side by side and as soon as one procedure is finished the next patient is already under anaesthetic and ready to be wheeled in.”

According to the article, Kariem El-Boghdadly, the consultant anesthetist who designed the program with his colleague Imran Ahmad, noted, “We delete any downtime. We get rid of any time that the operating theatre does not have a patient in it being operated on.”

Since 1990, Formula One pit stops have gotten five times faster, declining 80 percent from 8.95 seconds to 1.78 seconds. Pit stops are getting 5 percent faster every year on a compound basis.

The Times article noted that:

  • Surgeons at the hospital are “performing an entire week’s operations in a single day.”
  • The time spent sterilizing the operating theater went from 40 minutes to less than 2 minutes.
  • “The surgical team got through 21 operations on 20 patients and finished by lunchtime. Normally they would do six such procedures and be working all day.”
  • Surgeons operated on “three months’ worth of breast cancer patients in five days.”
  • Surgeons performed a week’s worth of robotic-assisted prostatectomies in one day.
  • Surgeons performed 12 knee replacements in a day when normally it was three or four.

Productivity gains range from 300 percent to 1,900 percent. Even socialized medical systems can enjoy dramatic productive gains if people are free to innovate.

This article was published at Gale Winds on 1/4/2024.

Blog Post | Progress Studies

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.

Summary: Progress, though central to modern life, was rarely thought about until the last two centuries. During the Enlightenment, thinkers such as Anne Robert Jacques Turgot connected freedom with progress, emphasizing the unique human capacity for cumulative knowledge. Turgot’s ideas laid some of the groundwork for modern liberalism and economic theory, influencing thinkers and policies long after his time.


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.

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