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01 / 05
Stuff of Progress, Pt. 5: Chemical Pesticides

Blog Post | Environment & Pollution

Stuff of Progress, Pt. 5: Chemical Pesticides

Pesticides, while not perfect, have been major contributors to our current state of food abundance.

Growing the crops and raising the animals that feed civilization is a ceaseless battle against spoilage induced by pests. Farming produces an unnatural bounty of calories, stored in a single location: a treasure far too tempting for a great many pests. Humans have been battling the causes of crop spoilage and loss for over ten thousand years. However, only in the last few hundred years have agricultural science and technology been able to tip the balance in the struggle against spoilage substantially in human favor. The annals of history are packed with examples of pest-induced crop spoilage and crop loss, often resulting in widespread famine and immiseration.

Between 1845 and 1850, for example, a virulent late blight mold took hold in Ireland’s potato fields, swiftly destroying nearly the entire crop. Hunger was immediate, and without access to a large and varied trade network for foodstuffs and a more varied source of available foods at home, famine set in swiftly. The late blight that ravaged Ireland in the mid-1800s resulted in more than a million fatalities. Between 20 and 25 percent of the population either perished in the famine or immigrated to the United States or other countries. The application of modern fungicides to the fields of Ireland would have entirely prevented the famine. Unfortunately, it would be another hundred years before such fungicides would be invented.

Pesticides are an extremely broad range of chemical compounds, both naturally occurring and synthetic, that humans utilize to control infectious or destructive plants, insects, animals, fungi, bacteria and a wide range of microbes. The advent of experimentation with natural pesticides and herbicides began modestly in 2000 BCE in southern Mesopotamia, with the application of powdered sulphur to vegetable crops. By 1550, a number of naturally derived but highly toxic pesticides were in use across Europe, including arsenic, mercury and lead. These naturally-derived chemical pesticides were used widely until the first laboratory synthesized pesticides were developed, starting in the 1940s.

From the 1950s onward, new and innovative synthetic pesticides were developed and tested with a progressively increased focus on reducing the chemical toxicity, the volume of pesticide required to achieve a given effect and the overall cost to the farmer. All three of these driving performance indicators helped farmers produce more crops, and feed more people and animals at a lower cost — thus leading to less land clearing.

The application of pesticides to agricultural crops has been transformative for farmers and those who buy farmed products alike. Dramatically improved yields have kept the real cost of food significantly lower than would otherwise be possible without the use of pesticides. The modern use of fungicide in the United States, for example, prevents between 50 and 90 percent of crop loss among fruits and vegetables. Globally, responsible usage of modern herbicides, insecticides and fungicides prevents an average annual crop loss of roughly 50 percent. In 2005, global pesticide application helped to prevent a crop loss totaling nearly half a trillion dollars. Along with modern fertilizer and industrial equipment, pesticides have been, and will remain, an integral part of feeding a growing human civilization.

The application of pesticides is not limited to large-scale industrial agriculture, as the use of natural and synthetic pesticides have a role to play in organic farming as well. Far too many people believe that organic food is produced without the use of pesticides. That’s false. Organic farming is heavily reliant on a number of naturally occurring pesticides that are at least as toxic, if used incorrectly, as their synthetic counterparts. Naturally occurring copper sulphate, for example, is used extensively in the organic production of grapes, potatoes, tomatoes, apples, and other fruits and vegetables.

Over the last five decades, researchers have worked diligently to improve the positive characteristics of pesticides, while reducing the negative externalities resulting from their use. However, it is still important to recognize that the use of modern pesticides is not without risk. When used excessively and/or applied incorrectly, pesticides can have an undesired impact on plants, animals and human health.

The good news is that researchers and farmers have continued to work on methods to reduce the amount of pesticides required to protect crops, through more accurate and efficient systems of GPS guided spraying and advanced modes of pest detection. The two allow farmers to fight small and localized pest occurrences before the infection or infestation becomes widespread. In the coming decades, the role of genetically engineered (GE) crops in the reduction of pesticide use will revolutionize agriculture. The incorporation of selected infection and infestation combating genes into key crops has the potential to help many agricultural crops resist pests and diseases, without the application of external pesticide treatment.

Today pesticides remain a very thin, but strong layer of defense against the ravages of nature that would otherwise seek to consume or destroy the crops, feedstocks and animals that feed humanity. Their use has been one of the few truly transformative agricultural technologies that have helped to bring about our current state of food abundance.

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

      Bloomberg | Infrastructure & Transportation

      An Underground Lunch Delivery Train Comes to the Atlanta Suburbs

      “Underground tubes are already the transportation method of choice for essentials like water, sewage, and Wi-Fi. This week, one Georgia city will start sending sandwiches through the pipes, too.

      Peachtree Corners, northeast of Atlanta, is the first test case for an underground last-mile delivery mode, developed by the logistics startup Pipedream Labs. Founded in 2021, the company seeks to solve the problems that plague the terrestrial delivery space: the emissions and congestion from vehicle traffic, the jockeying for curb space, and the costs. About 40% of supply chain logistics expenses are associated with last-mile trips.”

      From Bloomberg.

      Blog Post | Food Prices

      Eight Centuries of Increasing Food Abundance in England: Dairy (Part 2)

      The work required for an average English worker to afford a gallon of milk has fallen from 13 hours to 14 minutes.

      Human progress is often incremental, but many positive trends have become clearly visible over time. One of these trends is the growing abundance of food. This series of articles looks at the affordability of food relative to wages in England between the 13th century and the present.

      For this series, the average nominal hourly wage since 1260 came from the Bank of England’s Millennium of Macroeconomic Data. The UK Office of National Statistics collected nominal prices of milk, cheese, and butter since 1914. The price data for before 1914 is from professor Gregory Clark’s “The Price History of English Agriculture, 1209–1914.”

      Figure 1: A continuous series of dairy product abundance

      An hour’s work buys a lot more than it used to. For much of English history, the purchasing power of the average nominal wage remained relatively constant. There were some fluctuations, such as cheese becoming slightly more abundant in the 1400s. However, the purchasing power of nominal wages increased rapidly during the 20th century.

      Figure 2: A continuous series of dairy product time prices

      As we can see, at its peak, an English worker worked over 13 hours to afford a gallon of milk. That fell to just 14 minutes in 2022 (i.e., less than 2 percent of the previous time price). Next time you hear someone complaining about increasing food prices, think about just how affordable they are compared to the past. Food is much more affordable in terms of the one commodity that is truly scarce: our time.

      Blog Post | Wellbeing

      Is This the Best Time to Be Alive?

      Overwhelming evidence shows that we are richer, healthier, better fed, better educated, and even more humane than ever before.

      Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. It is 1723, and you are invited to dinner in a bucolic New England countryside, unspoiled by the ravages of the Industrial Revolution. There, you encounter a family of English settlers who left the Old World to start a new life in North America. The father, muscles bulging after a vigorous day of work on the farm, sits at the head of the table, reading from the Bible. His beautiful wife, dressed in rustic finery, is putting finishing touches on a pot of hearty stew. The son, a strapping lad of 17, has just returned from an invigorating horse ride, while the daughter, aged 12, is playing with her dolls. Aside from the antiquated gender roles, what’s there not to like?

      As an idealized depiction of pre-industrial life, the setting is easily recognizable to anyone familiar with Romantic writing or films such as Gone with the Wind or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a description of reality, however, it is rubbish; balderdash; nonsense and humbug. More likely than not, the father is in agonizing and chronic pain from decades of hard labor. His wife’s lungs, destroyed by years of indoor pollution, make her cough blood. Soon, she will be dead. The daughter, the family being too poor to afford a dowry, will spend her life as a spinster, shunned by her peers. And the son, having recently visited a prostitute, is suffering from a mysterious ailment that will make him blind in five years and kill him before he is 30.

      For most of human history, life was very difficult for most people. They lacked basic medicines and died relatively young. They had no painkillers, and people with ailments spent much of their lives in agonizing pain. Entire families lived in bug-infested dwellings that offered neither comfort nor privacy. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, yet hunger and famines were common. Transportation was primitive, and most people never traveled beyond their native villages or nearest towns. Ignorance and illiteracy were rife. The “good old days” were, by and large, very bad for the great majority of humankind. Since then, humanity has made enormous progress—especially over the course of the last two centuries.

      How much progress?

      Life expectancy before the modern era, which is to say, the last 200 years or so, was between ages 25 and 30. Today, the global average is 73 years old. It is 78 in the United States and 85 in Hong Kong.

      In the mid-18th century, 40 percent of children died before their 15th birthday in Sweden and 50 percent in Bavaria. That was not unusual. The average child mortality among hunter-gatherers was 49 percent. Today, global child mortality is 4 percent. It is 0.3 percent in the Nordic nations and Japan.

      Most of the people who survived into adulthood lived on the equivalent of $2 per day—a permanent state of penury that lasted from the start of the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago until the 1800s. Today, the global average is $35—adjusted for inflation. Put differently, the average inhabitant of the world is 18 times better off.

      With rising incomes came a massive reduction in absolute poverty, which fell from 90 percent in the early 19th century to 40 percent in 1980 to less than 10 percent today. As scholars from the Brookings Institution put it, “Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history.”

      Along with absolute poverty came hunger. Famines were once common, and the average food consumption in France did not reach 2,000 calories per person per day until the 1820s. Today, the global average is approaching 3,000 calories, and obesity is an increasing problem—even in sub-Saharan Africa.

      Almost 90 percent of people worldwide in 1820 were illiterate. Today, over 90 percent of humanity is literate. As late as 1870, the total length of schooling at all levels of education for people between the ages of 24 and 65 was 0.5 years. Today, it is nine years.

      These are the basics, but don’t forget other conveniences of modern life, such as antibiotics. President Calvin Coolidge’s son died from an infected blister, which he developed while playing tennis at the White House in 1924. Four years later, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Or think of air conditioning, the arrival of which increased productivity and, therefore, standards of living in the American South and ensured that New Yorkers didn’t have to sleep on outside staircases during the summer to keep cool.

      So far, I have chiefly focused only on material improvements. Technological change, which drives material progress forward, is cumulative. But the unprecedented prosperity that most people enjoy today isn’t the most remarkable aspect of modern life. That must be the gradual improvement in our treatment of one another and of the natural world around us—a fact that’s even more remarkable given that human nature is largely unchanging.

      Let’s start with the most obvious. Slavery can be traced back to Sumer, a Middle Eastern civilization that flourished between 4,500 BC and 1,900 BC. Over the succeeding 4,000 years, every civilization at one point or another practiced chattel slavery. Today, it is banned in every country on Earth.

      In ancient Greece and many other cultures, women were the property of men. They were deliberately kept confined and ignorant. And while it is true that the status of women ranged widely throughout history, it was only in 1893 New Zealand that women obtained the right to vote. Today, the only place where women have no vote is the Papal Election at the Vatican.

      A similar story can be told about gays and lesbians. It is a myth that the equality, which gays and lesbians enjoy in the West today, is merely a return to a happy ancient past. The Greeks tolerated (and highly regulated) sexual encounters among men, but lesbianism (women being the property of men) was unacceptable. The same was true about relationships between adult males. In the end, all men were expected to marry and produce children for the military.

      Similarly, it is a mistake to create a dichotomy between males and the rest. Most men in history never had political power. The United States was the first country on Earth where most free men could vote in the early 1800s. Prior to that, men formed the backbone of oppressed peasantry, whose job was to feed the aristocrats and die in their wars.

      Strange though it may sound, given the Russian barbarism in Ukraine and Hamas’s in Israel, data suggests that humans are more peaceful than they used to be. Five hundred years ago, great powers were at war 100 percent of the time. Every springtime, armies moved, invaded the neighbor’s territory, and fought until wintertime. War was the norm. Today, it is peace. In fact, this year marks 70 years since the last war between great powers. No comparable period of peace exists in the historical record.

      Homicides are also down. At the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, some 73 out of every 100,000 Italians could expect to be murdered in their lifetimes. Today, it is less than one. Something similar has happened in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, and many other places on Earth.

      Human sacrifice, cannibalism, eunuchs, harems, dueling, foot-binding, heretic and witch burning, public torture and executions, infanticide, freak shows and laughing at the insane, as Harvard University’s Steven Pinker has documented, are all gone or linger only in the worst of the planet’s backwaters.

      Finally, we are also more mindful of nonhumans. Lowering cats into a fire to make them scream was a popular spectacle in 16th century Paris. Ditto bearbaiting, a blood sport in which a chained bear and one or more dogs were forced to fight. Speaking of dogs, some were used as foot warmers while others were bred to run on a wheel, called a turnspit or dog wheel, to turn the meat in the kitchen. Whaling was also common.

      Overwhelming evidence from across the academic disciplines clearly shows that we are richer, live longer, are better fed, and are better educated. Most of all, evidence shows that we are more humane. My point, therefore, is a simple one: this is the best time to be alive.