Tag Archives: anthropology

The Future of Almost Everything – Patrick Dixon

Over $5.3 trillion of currencies are traded every day, yet nations like the Philippines, Peru, Poland or the UK hold less than $80bn in reserves to defend against speculators. Enough to last only a few days.

The book is trying to identify future trends, developments that human society might take. Dixon considers that there are six main future trends, conveniently named: Fast, Urban, Tribal, Universal, Radical and Ethical (FUTURE).

Patrick Dixon has a lot of guessing and the arguments he shows are shallow. There are so many statements that some will certainly turn true.

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Guessing the future

Nonetheless, he is intriguing and has a good grasp of what is happening in the world. It makes a good overall read and challenges the reader. However, I did not feel that he bring anything new, all being trends that exist already and are extrapolated into the future.

Patrick Dixon is a professional futurologist, having a company specialized in this niche, with many reputable international clients. He writes often, on various subjects.

The style of reading is very fluid and it follows very neatly the logic of each chapter or trend. It make a good read overall, but not exceptional.

[Feature photo by Kristian Bjornard]

The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century – Ronald Bailey

Back in 1972, the computer modelers for The Limits to Growth calculated 42 years ago that known world copper reserves would be entirely depleted in 36 years, lead in 26 years, mercury in 13 years, natural gas in 38 years, petroleum in 38 years, silver in 16 years, tin in 17 years, tungsten in 40 years, and zinc in 23 years.

The book from Ronald Bailey is a skeptical view of doom prophets, reminding readers how many predictions turned out to be false. Bailey gives several examples, such as the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, agriculture or the  Swedish sperm count, among others.

Books predicting future become old quickly, so it is more constructive to look at books analyzing available data. His book is a well research argument for a libertarian view of the world, putting in place the notion that we live the best lives in the history of human kind. However, the book challenges one’s beliefs and it is difficult to read by an environmentalist.

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Questions on risk aversion

The author argues that never do anything for the first time also known as the precautionary principle will never allow innovations and the society having this as principle evolve (kind of the Chinese society in the 15-19 centuries).

Bailey’s interestingly notices the concept of pathological science, when researchers become blinded by their own moral beliefs.

On climate change, he notes, quoting Dan Kahan and the Yale cultural cognition project, that the debate is chiefly not about science, but about a clash of strongly held values, between mainly Individualist/Hierarchical and Communitarian/Egalitarian set of beliefs, both having different risk aversion. The more educated each person from this division, the more empirical evidence is found consistent with own beliefs, hence a confirmation bias.

On environment protection in general, Bailey’s notices that rich nations protect nature better, for example forest surface re-growing and air quality.

Between Malthusian doomsters and cornucopian optimists, the book tries to strike a balance and the author is conscious about his own potential biases.

Nonetheless, he correctly highlights that the environment discussion is a clash of ideas rather than a scientific debate, both sides having good, solid arguments. Linking with a previous book I just read, Guns, Germs and Steel, which has a liberal view in the US politics sense, environment protection is important: human societies in the Americas, for example, likely killed all large fauna (over 100 kg) crippling their future development. On the other hand, excessive risk aversion and a view of a perfect past (such as a pristine nature) could hinder and eventually destroy a society with this view.

It is a good book that I would recommend reading in balance with Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, so the reader can make its own opinion.

Guns, Germs and Steel – Jared Diamond

Thanks to this availability of suitable wild mammals and plants, early peoples of the Fertile Crescent could quickly assemble a potent and balanced biological package for intensive food production. That package comprised three cereals, as the main carbohydrate sources; four pulses, with 20—25 percent protein, and four domestic animals, as the main protein sources, supplemented by the generous protein content of wheat; and flax as a source of fiber and oil (termed linseed oil: flax seeds are about 40 percent oil). Eventually, thousands of years after the beginnings of animal domestication and food production, the animals also began to be used for milk, wool, plowing, and transport. Thus, the crops and animals of the Fertile Crescent’s first farmers came to meet humanity’s basic economic needs: carbohydrate, protein, fat, clothing, traction, and transport.

Jared Diamond tries to explain why some societies developed better than others. For example, why 168 Spaniards led by Francisco Pizarro  could conquer in 1532 the million-large Inca Empire and not the other way around? Why some societies evolved to guns and others are still hunter-gatherers?

In short, Diamond considers that simple geographical luck, such as proximity to domesticable plants and animals (quite few worldwide) created centers of innovation. Those centers spread, if not stopped by natural obstacles like mountains or seas, their innovations.

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Good book on early human development

The book follows the anthropological theory of cultural materialism, which says that environment shaped societies. It sounds a bit deterministic: no matter what you do, geographical luck determines your progress. For example, the Incas were doomed, mainly because they had no defense against the germs brought by Europeans.

Another lesson from this book is that, no matter the society, sooner or later, best innovations will prevail. For example, in the fragmented Europe, even if some societies refused some innovation for cultural or other reasons, the neighboring societies that adopted the innovation had a technical advantage that would make the laggard society to either adapt or be conquered.

Innovations drive the society forward, the society very existence depending on that, such as it is the case with Native Indians. This is a very strong argument for trade. For example, being constantly exposed to others through trade and competition, makes a society seeing what is best and allows the opportunity to adopt the new. This explains, for example, why competing and trading Europeans managed to surpass the bigger and earlier advanced Chinese. The Chinese closed up to trade and their earlier political integration worked in their detriment, the closing up happening to the entire center of innovation which was China.

To sum up, Jared Diamond considers that Europeans are no smarter than Australian Aborigines, they were just luckier to be closer and with easier access to early centers of human innovation.

On the down side of the book, Jared Diamond talks very little about guns and steel, as advertised on the title, and mostly about germs and farming. The book reads like an anthropology book with some detailed history from early human settlements to Antiquity.

Overall, a book with some very interesting ideas and with a strong call for open societies and humanity as whole.

(Featured image by John Doebley – A possible evolution of corn)