Why I’m a proud solutionist

Debates about expertise and progress are sometimes framed by way of “optimism” vs. “pessimism.” For example, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Johan Norberg, Max Roser, and the late Hans Rosling have been known as the “New Optimists” for his or her concentrate on the financial, scientific, and social progress of the final two centuries. Their opponents, comparable to David Runciman and Jason Hickel, accuse them of being blind to actual issues on the planet, comparable to poverty, and to dangers of disaster, comparable to nuclear conflict.

Financial historian Robert Gordon calls himself “the prophet of pessimism.” His e-book The Rise and Fall of American Progress warned that the times of excessive financial development are over for the US and won’t return. Gordon’s opponents embrace a bunch he calls the “techno-optimists,” comparable to Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, who’ve predicted a development spurt in productiveness from data expertise.

It’s tempting to decide on sides. However whereas it may be rational to be optimistic or pessimistic on any particular query, these phrases are too imprecise to be adopted as a normal mental id. Those that establish as optimists might be too fast to dismiss or downplay the issues of expertise, whereas self-styled expertise pessimists or progress skeptics might be too reluctant to imagine in options.

As we sit up for the post-pandemic restoration, as soon as once more we’re being tugged between the optimists, who spotlight all of the illnesses which will quickly be overwhelmed by new vaccines, and the pessimists, who warn that humanity won’t ever win the evolutionary arms race in opposition to microbes. However this represents a false selection. Historical past supplies us with highly effective examples of people that have been brutally trustworthy in figuring out a disaster however have been equally lively in in search of options.


On the finish of the nineteenth century, William Crookes—physicist, chemist, and inventor of the Crookes tube (an early kind of vacuum tube)—was the president of the British Affiliation for the Development of Science. On September 7, 1898, he used the normal annual deal with to the affiliation to challenge a dire warning.

The British Isles, he mentioned, have been at grave danger of working out of meals. His reasoning was easy: the inhabitants was rising exponentially, however the quantity of land below cultivation couldn’t hold tempo. The one technique to proceed to extend manufacturing was to enhance crop yields. However the limiting issue on yields was the supply of nitrogen fertilizer, and the sources of nitrogen, such because the rock salts of the Chilean desert and the guano deposits of the Peruvian islands, have been working out. His argument was detailed and complete, based mostly on figures for wheat manufacturing and land availability from each main European nation and colony; he apologized upfront for boring his viewers with statistics.

He criticized the “culpably extravagant” waste of nonrenewable nitrogen sources. To those that seemed myopically solely at current years of the harvest, which had been fairly ample, he identified that these years had been unusually fruitful, which masked the issue. The bounty of the current previous was no assure of prosperity sooner or later.

In a way, Crookes was an “alarmist.” His function was to attract consideration to an issue attributable to progress and development. He sought to open the eyes of the complacent. He started by saying that “England and all civilized nations stand in lethal peril,” variously referring to “a colossal downside” of “pressing significance,” an “impending disaster,” and “a life-and-death query for generations to come back.” To those that would name him alarmist, he insisted that his message was “based on cussed info.”

Crookes induced a sensation, and plenty of critics spoke in opposition to his message. They identified that wheat wasn’t the one meals, that individuals would average consumption of it if mandatory, and that land for wheat could possibly be taken from what was used for meat and dairy manufacturing, particularly as costs rose. They mentioned that he underestimated the alternatives for American farmers to provide meals to different nations, by higher adapting their strategies to the soil and local weather in order to extend manufacturing.

Writing in Nature in 1899, one R. Giffen in contrast Crookes to Thomas Malthus, and to others who had predicted shortages of assorted pure sources—comparable to Eduard Suess, who had mentioned that gold would run out, and William Stanley Jevons, who warned about Peak Coal. Giffen’s tone is weary as he notes that “there was a lot expertise of those discussions because the time of Malthus.” Each time, he explains, we’ve been unable to make exact forecasts as a result of the anticipated limits to development are too far sooner or later, or we all know too little about their causes.

However Crookes had at all times supposed his remarks to take “the type of a warning fairly than of a prophecy.” Within the speech, he mentioned:

“It’s the chemist who should come to the rescue … Earlier than we’re within the grip of precise dearth the chemist will step in and postpone the day of famine to so distant a interval that we and our sons and grandsons might legitimately dwell with out undue solicitude for the longer term.”

Crookes’s plan was to faucet a just about limitless supply of nitrogen: the ambiance. Crops can’t use atmospheric nitrogen immediately; as a substitute, they use different nitrogen-containing compounds, which in nature are manufactured from atmospheric nitrogen by sure micro organism, a course of known as fixation. Crookes mentioned that the synthetic fixation of atmospheric nitrogen was “one of many nice discoveries awaiting the ingenuity of chemists,” and he was optimistic that it might occur quickly, calling it “a query of the not-far-distant future.”

He devoted a big a part of his speech to exploring this resolution. He identified that nitrogen might be burned at sufficiently excessive temperatures to create nitrate compounds, and that this may be accomplished utilizing electrical energy. He even estimated sensible particulars, comparable to the price of the nitrates produced this manner, which was aggressive at market charges, and whether or not the method could possibly be scaled as much as industrial ranges: the brand new hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls, he concluded, would alone present all of the electrical energy wanted to make up the hole he had forecast.

Crookes knew that artificial fertilizer wasn’t a everlasting resolution, however he was happy that when the issue reappeared within the distant future, his successors would have the ability to take care of it. His alarmism was not a philosophical place, however a contingent one. As soon as the info of the state of affairs have been modified by the invention of appropriate expertise, he was comfortable to name off the alarm.


Was Crookes right? By 1931, the yr he had mentioned we might run out of meals, it was clear that his predictions had not been excellent. The harvest had elevated, however not as a result of crop yields vastly improved. As a substitute, acreage had really elevated, to a level Crookes had thought not possible. This occurred partially due to enhancements in mechanization, together with the gasoline tractor. Mechanization drove down labor prices, which made marginally yielding lands worthwhile. As typically occurs, an answer got here from an surprising path, invalidating the assumptions of forecasters each optimistic and pessimistic.

But when Crookes was not right in his detailed predictions, he was right in essence. His two key factors have been correct: one, that meals normally and yields specifically have been issues that must be reckoned with within the subsequent era or so; two, that artificial fertilizer from the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen could be a key facet of the answer.

Lower than 20 years after his speech, the German chemist Fritz Haber and industrialist Carl Bosch developed a course of to synthesize ammonia out of atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen gasoline. Ammonia is a chemical precursor of artificial fertilizers, and the Haber-Bosch course of remains to be one of the crucial vital industrial processes right this moment, offering fertilizer for nearly half the world’s meals manufacturing.

The chemist, finally, did come to the rescue.

So was Crookes an optimist or a pessimist? He was pessimistic about the issue—he was not complacent. However he was optimistic about discovering an answer—he was no defeatist, both.


Within the twentieth century, fears of overpopulation and meals provide as soon as once more reared their heads. In 1965, the world inhabitants development price reached an all-time excessive of two% per yr, sufficient to double each 35 years; and as late as 1970, it’s estimated, over a 3rd of individuals in growing nations have been undernourished.

The 1968 e-book The Inhabitants Bomb, by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, opened with a name for give up: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. Within the Nineteen Seventies a whole bunch of tens of millions of individuals will starve to dying regardless of any crash applications embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can forestall a considerable enhance on the planet dying price.” In 1970, Paul Ehrlich strengthened the defeatism, saying that in a couple of years “additional efforts will likely be futile” and “it’s possible you’ll as nicely take care of your self and your folks and luxuriate in what little time you could have left.” As a result of they noticed the state of affairs as hopeless, the Ehrlichs supported a proposal to chop off support to nations comparable to India that have been seen as not doing sufficient to restrict inhabitants development.

Thankfully for India and the remainder of the world, others weren’t prepared to surrender. Norman Borlaug, working in Mexico in a program funded by the Rockefeller Institute, developed high-yield forms of wheat that resisted fungal illness, used fertilizer extra effectively, and will develop at any latitude. Within the Sixties, thanks partially to the brand new grains, Mexico reworked itself from an importer to an exporter of wheat and India and Pakistan almost doubled their yields, averting the famine that the Ehrlichs noticed as inevitable.

But even after profitable the Nobel Peace Prize for his accomplishments, Borlaug by no means overpassed the problem concerned in making agriculture sustain with inhabitants, and by no means thought-about it solved for good. In his 1970 Nobel lecture, he known as the will increase in meals manufacturing “nonetheless modest by way of whole wants” and, declaring that half the world is undernourished, mentioned “no room is left for complacency.” He warned that “most individuals nonetheless fail to grasp the magnitude and menace of the ‘Inhabitants Monster.’” “And but,” he continued, “I’m optimistic for the way forward for mankind.” Borlaug was assured that human cause would ultimately convey inhabitants below management (and certainly, the worldwide start price has been declining ever since).


The chance of adopting an “optimistic” or “pessimistic” mindset is the temptation to take sides on a problem relying on a normal temper, fairly than forming an opinion based mostly on the info of the case. “Don’t fear,” says the optimist; “settle for hardship,” counters the pessimist.

We must be basically neither optimists nor pessimists, however solutionists.

We will see this play out in debates over covid and lockdowns, over local weather change and power utilization, over the promise and peril of nuclear energy, and normally over financial development and useful resource consumption. Because the debates escalate, all sides digs in: the “optimists” query whether or not a menace is even actual; the “pessimists” deride any proposed technological resolution as a false “fast repair” that merely permits us to rationalize suspending the troublesome however inevitable cutbacks. (For an instance of the latter, see the “ethical hazard” arguments in opposition to geoengineering as a method to handle local weather change.)

To embrace each the truth of issues and the potential for overcoming them, we must be basically neither optimists nor pessimists, however solutionists.

The time period “solutionism,” often within the type of “technocratic solutionism,” has been used because the Sixties to imply the idea that each downside might be mounted with expertise. That is flawed, and so “solutionism” has been a time period of derision. But when we discard any assumptions in regards to the kind that options should take, we are able to reclaim it to imply merely the idea that issues are actual, however solvable.

Solutionists might appear to be optimists as a result of solutionism is basically optimistic. It advocates vigorously advancing in opposition to issues, neither retreating nor surrendering. However it’s as removed from a Panglossian, “all is for the most effective” optimism as it’s from a fatalistic, doomsday pessimism. It’s a third manner that avoids each complacency and defeatism, and we must always put on the time period with pleasure.

Jason Crawford is the writer of The Roots of Progress, a web site in regards to the historical past of expertise and business.

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