56: Progress, Petroleum, and the Future with Brad Harris

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Hosted by
Will Jarvis

What is the story of the industrial revolution? How has petroleum been important for the development of humanity? Brad produces the podcast Context, and How it Began. https://www.bradharris.com/

William Jarvis 0:05
Hey folks, welcome to narratives. narratives is a podcast exploring the ways in which the world is better than in the past, the ways that is worse in the past towards a better, more definite vision of the future.

Will Jarvis 0:20
I’m your host Jarvis. And I want to thank you for taking the time out of your day to listen to this episode. I hope you enjoy it. You can find show notes, transcripts and videos at narratives podcast.com.

Well, Brad, how are you doing today? Good. Hi. Well,

Unknown Speaker 0:46
Greg, thanks so much for coming on. Before we jump into it, can you give us kind of a brief bio on some of the big things you’re interested in?

Brad Harris 0:55
Sure. Well, thanks for having me on.

So I, I was always interested in the history of lots of different things, history of chemistry, history of economics.

I wrote a senior thesis in college on the history of plastics, why plastic seems to be everywhere. And that kind of pulled me into the history of technology and the history of science. So I leveraged that thesis. And I applied to some different programs in the history of science and technology. And I ended up going to Stanford, where I got my PhD and the history of science and technology. And, you know, while I was there, I studied everything from the scientific revolution to military revolution a little further back during the 1500s, new tactics using gunpowder, and the kind of obsolescence of castles and armor. And then, you know, you kind of have to culminate and pick a lane. And so, I did get back into the history of synthetic materials engineering. So my argument was a little provocative by thinking my dissertation it was oil, save the whales, basically, really use that elevator pitch to just provoke people. But what I meant was, you know, 100 years ago or so, modern, modern society was over exploiting, you know, lots of different natural feedstocks, natural materials, from forests to for to whale oil. And they’re, you know, if you look at the archives of the New York Times, from the 19, teens, and 20s, even back into the 1890s, a lot of the a lot of the headlines relating to those subjects, and those key terms would be, you know, humanity running out of this, or, you know, man is over exploiting that or something, you know, Northern forests set to disappear within a generation. And chemistry kind of came to the rescue. And it’s in a sort of culturally, you know, popular way a lot of people started to talk about the miracle of modern chemistry. And oil refining was coming of age, between the world wars, and right about the time when whales were right on the brink of extinction in the early 20th century. You know, petroleum engineers, were realizing that we could get a lot of the same products from the ground that we were getting from the bodies of Wales. And so this kind of idea germinated and grew into a larger dissertation about these cycles of technology and culture and the stories we tell ourselves about, you know, how good we are, how evil we are, whether or not we’re on the right track, whether or not our material culture is sustainable, how we solve those problems. So since then, you know, since graduating, I’ve branched beyond academia, I’ve tried to run a podcast of my own and explore lots of different topics and history. And conversations like this are always fun.

Will Jarvis 3:54
Excellent. I love that. And I want to pack a ton, I’m thinking the best way to get started. You mentioned oil saved the whales. Could you talk about that a little bit? Was it something where you know, so we discover we can create this introduce horses from you know, pulling stuff out of the ground? It turns out, it’s much more abundance a lot cheaper, and then it just kind of crowds out? Well, oil? Is that kind of what happened? Is it

Brad Harris 4:20
was that the thesis? Well, actually, you know, the demise of whales preceded the rise of petroleum by decades, interest. So in the late 1800s, you know, people like Rockefeller are throwing gasoline away. They’re getting all of this oil out of the ground. They’re realizing that there’s more of it than will probably ever know what to do with. But most of what they get out of the ground they think is just trash just a byproduct. Certainly most of what those early oil pioneers wanted was kerosene. And because the reason they want kerosene is because I saw this growing need in the market for lamp oil. Most of the other products that were coming out of Wales were considered cheaper byproducts like, you could make soap you could make animal feed. You know, Beilein was used for combs and things like that. And brushes. But really the holy grail out of a whale was whale oil. It was a sort of refined oil out of the blubber of whales. And the real target, there was the the whale oil that is located in the head of sperm whales. So that huge dome shaped head contained the mother lode of the most pure, like bright, clean burning oil that these whale oil producers would sell. And that’s what led up, you know, 1000s, if not millions of people’s homes, you know, around the developing world, you know, 150 to 200 years ago. So, these whalers were chasing that product, that’s what made them rich, they were trying along the way to figure out how else they could make use of the rest of the whale body. And they were doing a pretty good job, they were getting more and more sophisticated. creating these sort of floating factories, it wasn’t just the bow or you’d haul on, you know, the deck a bunch of blubber, and you’d store it, they were doing better and better job over the decades, processing this stuff on deck, boiling off, you know, the lighter distillates of the of the blubber, and the oil and everything and storing, you know, Beilein and bone, even for scrimshaw, so they were definitely there, were definitely getting into that differentiation that is now very characteristic of the chemical industry. But they were they were running out of whales. And so you had these amazing journal entries by captain’s first mates and you know, a handful of other people that happen to be literate on a whaling vessel, talking about how they would leave for years, and they would, you know, their grandfathers or their fathers trips, if they were in the industry as well. They’d go out for several months, maybe a year, and they might go as far as the South Atlantic out of Nantucket, or something like that. But these later generations in the second half of the 1800s, were going as far away as the Indian Ocean, even to Antarctica, chasing these diminishing whale populations to the edges of the earth, they might be out for four years, they’d come back, and they were like, you know, in awe of the changes, they saw their kids had, you know, grown up a little bit,

you know, so and so had died while you were gone, Ma, there’s so much to catch you up on and so forth. So there was clearly a, you know, a looming crisis in the supply of whale oil. And that is a huge reason why men like Rockefeller immediately seized on kerosene as the sort of the killer app of this new thing that was known about for hundreds of years. I mean, there’s there’s historical documents, talking about how, you know, Chinese inventors in the Middle Ages, you know, 1000 years ago, they were burning natural gas for lanterns. And so it’s not as though humanity didn’t know about petroleum or fossil fuels. I mean, Britain noticed this black, crumbly outcropping along much of its coastline that they called sea coals. And when they started running out of wood, about 400 years ago, so quite a bit, you know, earlier in that case, they started burning coal, because they realized that they could burn coal. So there’s another early use of fossil fuels. But it you know, in the western modern context, kerosene was the answer to to whales disappearing. What happened was, over time, you have a barrel of oil, which contains the slurry of different molecules. Some of them are huge and heavy, and some of them are very light and very volatile gasoline and then the lighter gases were considered too dangerous and too volatile for any practical use. So rockafeller, just burn those. And then a lot of the other heavier distillates they would dump. So that Tari, black, kind of viscous crud that would come out of the other side of that distillation, the heavier molecules would be just dumped into, you know, big pits or rivers or things like that. And what they really wanted was that middle range of distillates that corresponded to what could burn in a typical oil lamp, what we know as kerosene. Between the world wars, chemistry evolved, kind of, you know, in tandem with a lot of this other industry, and people were always hungry to figure out how not to waste this potentially profitable other set of products. And so they started experimenting chemists. Got involved, you see a fusion of technology with science and Industrial Research. So you have a little bit more of a thoughtful guided exploration of potential versus just a sort of tinkering, trial and error model that a lot of, you know, historians recognize to be more characteristic of the 19th century. So that process really picks up after World War One, in particular, because Western allied navies realized that hauling coal on all these ships were was really limiting their range. And fuel oil was just one of the early experiments that they that they pushed. So by the time you get to World War Two, the entire fleet of the Allies was fuel oil powered rather than coal powered. Anyway, I could go on, as you know, you’ve tapped into something that is as rich of a vein of oil itself.

Will Jarvis 10:51
Oh, that’s great. That’s great. And I’m curious, what was whale oil? And I love Moby Dick. Probably my favorite, definitely my favorite American novel. But I’m curious how caught like was was whale oil. Was that an elite? Good, you know, were we if you were rich, you would burn that. And it was a light source? Or was it, you know, fairly available throughout? You know, the United States?

Brad Harris 11:17
Yeah, well, it depends. So whale oil goes beyond the history of the United States. whaling goes back so far as we can tell at least 1000 years gotcha. Probably the first really, professional whalers came from bask on the gotchas, Allah. I’m not an expert in the history of whaling, I just kind of explored a little bit of it for this dissertation. And right, subsequent reading, but from what I remember, so whaling was, like any kind of hunter gatherer vestige something that very brave human beings have done for centuries. It became an industry centered in Nantucket, in Massachusetts, during the 1700s, and Nantucket, became the whaling center of the world through the 1700s. To the point where in the early to mid 1800s, Nantucket was supplying enough oil that most most towns in, you know, the early United States, the colonies, and then the actual United States would be burning whale oil lamps, if not, in every hajah, you would see it in most municipal buildings, bars. Most aristocrats burn whale oil, it was very, very available and very common, they were shipping it across the ocean back to Europe. This was a major industry, that really, really, I mean, I think at one point, it was either it was certainly in the top three American industries and exports, it was huge. But its success was its you know, was its own demise. Because people realize, wow, this is an incredibly profitable industry, there’s great jobs. And this is one of the defining kind of cultures of the of old school, New England. So generations and generations of families would get into this business and a lot of this sort of seafaring culture of New England, Maine, Massachusetts, at Whole stretch Rhode Island, we’re involved in whaling, and it just became too popular to be sustainable. And that’s why we see this precipitous escalation of whale oil exports, you can look at the number of barrels of whale oil brought to market every year, and it goes up to hundreds of 1000s. Or Well, kind of in the 1830s and 40s. And then it really drops like by the 1850s 60s, certainly, after the Civil War, there’s, there’s very, very few barrels of whale oil bring being brought to market anymore. It’s like all of a sudden, the whales just sort of disappeared, and people realized, well, this business isn’t what it used to be, I don’t want to go on a ship for you know, the better part of half a decade.

Will Jarvis 14:02
Right? Exactly. Not a great trade off. Do you know if there’s any any attempt, and this might not have been possible because of the number of actors involved from in different places? But was there any attempt to kind of govern the comments in the sense of like, you know, the whales there, and they might not have had a sense of this, but I think they would have that, you know, they’re a finite resource. And if you over fished them, you know, there’s, you know, there’s this trade off here, where if you go out and everyone exploits this too much, there’s not going to be any left.

Brad Harris 14:34
So Not that I’m aware of, I’m not aware of any large scale, sort of popular concerns about environmental exploitation and sort of unsustainability until you get into the late 19th century. Gotcha. Generally speaking before that, most nations were just in competition who could get the most the fastest, right. There was a little vestige of mercantilism Even overlapping with, you know, some of the most kind of leading edge economic theories, you know, free market capitalism. But most states were still feeling like, let’s get as much as we can as fast as we can. And certainly on the high seas, there was zero international cooperation. And to this day, you know, it’s very difficult to enforce those kinds of international norms. And there’s always going to be actors, that right, exploit other people’s restraint. But no, I mean, as far as I’m aware, widespread awareness that the Earth had limited capacities to provide any material wood, for animal, you know, products of any kind, that does not crop up until after the Civil War into the second half of the 19th century.

Will Jarvis 15:55
Got it? That’s super interesting. You mentioned, you know, petroleum, fossil fuels. And you’ve studied this a lot. What do lay people kind of not understand perhaps about the history of petroleum and fossil fuels that you think is that’s well known within the field that you think is important?

Brad Harris 16:14
Yeah, that’s an interesting question. So well, first of all the the way that we approach petroleum and the incredible economies of scale and efficiencies of petroleum, that is not new, that is not that does not emerge with the petroleum industry. So what a great example, I think you could find of modern industrial efficiency. Could be in some something like William Cronin ‘s book, nature’s metropolis. So there’s a long chapter in that book about how in the Midwest and Chicago, Chicago was incredibly, just a booming city in the second half of the 1800s, second half of the 19th century and one of its major businesses was hogs and steers, meatpacking and Sinclair’s the jungle is the context. Okay? Absolutely. Absolutely. You would not want to go and wade through the avenue Florian mass. That was the Meatpacking industry in Chicago in the 19/19 century, that would be terrible. So he was right on. But what what these meatpackers realized is they’re investing all this money into this infrastructure to supply a nationalizing like a very, very new, you know, a national market. This, this is at the confluence of refrigerated box cars, you get some of the worst opportunities to ship meat frozen, whereas prior to this, people had to ship hogs live in order to keep them fresh, which, that’s a whole other set of logistics. So the the idea that you could have this opportunity to ship these products all over the country meant that you would want to invest a lot in building up the infrastructure of processing millions, literally millions of pigs and cows. Well, if you’re going to invest all that infrastructure, and you’re gonna hire all these people, and you’re going to have this commercial network that extends into even subsidizing railroads to carry these goods to markets 1000 miles away, you better be making as much money as possible. And one of the things that costs you money in an industry like this is throwing things away, where do you put the carcass of a hog, you know, if you’ve caught rather good pieces, you now have like, whatever it is 50 pounds left of physiology that you can’t do anything with, that’s a cost. And so, you know, this is why in the second half of the 19th of the 19th century, we see this kind of new industrial science that is trying to become a lot more thoughtful, reasonable, rational about efficiency. It’s for the sake of profits. And so what they started doing in these meatpacking plants was dissecting every part of a hog finding out what they could do, from the nose to the tail, from the ears to the hoofs, you know, and so they started making everything they started making. Not just me, you know, not just food, but all kinds of other chemicals, soaps, string, there’s just this litany of incredible, you know, products that they were making a pox and steers hundreds and hundreds of different products. So that ethic persists among some of the most successful industrialists in businesses where you do have to have, you know, you have to bear the burden of large capital costs, to extract to rally and then to process and distribute some basic feedstock, whether it’s the body of a pig, or it’s a barrel of oil. And so in the oil industry, we see the same thing. The petroleum industry, as I discussed earlier, initially really only wanted kerosene. They didn’t know what to do with the rest of the barrel of oil. There’s a lot other there’s a lot of other stuff that gets left behind besides kerosene. You know, one barrel of oil contains dozens of different, you know, kinds of molecules that have these different lengths of molecular chain, which, generally speaking, the smaller the molecule, the more volatile the substance, you’re talking about a gas, like ethylene, for example, the larger the molecule, the heavier it is, you’re talking fuel oils, or coal tar, or something like that. Maybe that’s even so heavy that it becomes solid at room temperature, for example. And so you have this concerted effort to figure out how do we use all of this? How do we monetize all of this not just for the sake of profit, but for the sake of efficiency for the sake of limiting waste? Because, you know, the stereotype is the industrialist, you know, polluting the rivers. And I’m sure that many people didn’t care about doing that. But a lot of people knew that that incurred a cost. Most municipalities would, you know, find different factories if they overstepped on this, and they would get all kinds of complaints, it was a political nightmare to do this, if not a financial nightmare. So there was incentive to figure out what to do to be more efficient. And as it turns out, the stuff that comes out of the ground, the ancient guts of dead animals, you know, lobsters and dinosaurs and other things that we can’t even imagine now ends up to be this amazing witch’s brew of incredibly useful, profitable chemistry. And so what makes the petroleum industry so profitable is that they can make so many things out of a barrel of oil. And they can do that incredibly efficiently. So polyethylene is one of the most common plastics, it’s this alchemy of turning a gas into a solid by polymerizing it and polyethylene turns out to be incredibly light in nert. extremely strong, you can modify its structure to make it flexible or rigid. It can be clear, it can have color, it can be pretty, or it can be utilitarian. And, you know, over time, we’ve learned how to get better and better at engineering, our substance like polyethylene, so that now we have grocery bags that take virtually no energy to produce and distribute, compared to paper. So for example, the answer your question specifically, there’s a huge debate that’s raged for generations about paper versus plastic, or banning class. Right? Right. Okay. I totally understand. And I think that if you live next to the ocean, or river, Ban plastic, because I think plastic bags and plastic waste typically doesn’t go where it’s supposed to in the waste stream, large fraction of a blow away, and they blow into the ocean or the river and where they look just like a jellyfish and sea turtles love to eat plastic, because they think they’re eating a jellyfish. And that’s, that’s tragic. Plastic will blow into the ocean, and it doesn’t break down. And

you know, it’s just it’s a huge problem. But I think elsewhere inland, generally speaking, what matters should be the lifecycle analysis of these materials, and how much energy? In other words, how much global warming, are you contributing, right? If you’re you’re processing and distributing these materials? How many raw materials are you using? How many trees? are you cutting down? How many other chemicals are you using, and paper bags take hundreds of times as much energy to produce as a single plastic bag, paper bags takes many take many more kinds of chemicals, they have to be produced natively. So yeah, a lot of paper bags are recycled paper, but they’re still being originally harvested from forests. Whereas the plastic that you’re getting in a plastic bag is a byproduct. And so it’s literally not going to be you it’s just coming out of that, that feedstock, kind of just riding along with what we primarily want, which is energy, and right using these these other these other, you know, byproducts as things like polyethylene bags or something like that. So it’s really hard to beat oil. It’s really hard. It’s really efficient. And so I think that if people’s motivation is we need to think about sustainability. When we want to protect our environment, we want to mitigate global warming. I think it’s true that fossil fuels are an inherently unsustainable resource, because we will eventually run out, there’s only so much, you know, just that won’t be a sudden drop, it’ll be a curve, it’ll get more and more expensive to go and get more it will be direct for it’ll be harder to extract, it’ll be dirtier so it’ll be cost more to refine. But it still is the case that petroleum products tend to be some of the most efficient things humanity has ever produced, costing the least amount of energy and the least amount of material to produce. Ironically generating some of the lowest greenhouse gases per unit of output, whether that’s per unit of energy or per unit of material. The real problem is that it’s given us a kind of get out of jail free card. So 100 Two years ago, everybody was thinking, wow, our basic way of life, consumer based economic prosperity. That’s the problem with this site to stop oil came along and just made it so cheap and efficient to keep going. Store 100 years later, we have this same problem. It’s like, Yeah, well, oil helped us extend our lease on a very consumer oriented lifestyle, but it didn’t get rid of the original problem. So in my opinion, the fundamental problem is sort of more about how we live, not what we use. And that’s a bigger, that’s a harder issue. I don’t know what to say about that. One.

Will Jarvis 25:37
It’s much more difficult problem to solve. So I’m curious, you know, kind of what I’m hearing, how long do you think we’re stuck with fossil fuels? What it seems like to me, like for certain things, like rockets, like, you know, I don’t see alternatives that would be easy to swap out using fossil fuels for, for that kind of thing. But But, you know, if you think it’s something, we’re gonna end up just using all of it over time. And then you come up with an alternative or something like that.

Brad Harris 26:04
Yeah, that’s, unfortunately, the answer to that is we have enough to fry us all. So there’s plenty of oil and other fossil fuels like coal, and natural gas in the earth, to bake the earth, if we keep going. So the limit is not going to be the, the energy, you know, the resource itself, it’s not going to be that we run out of coal, it’s not gonna be that we run out of oil. There’s so much oil left under the Arctic, there’s so much oil left in the ground all over the world. And technology is getting better at extracting, you know, cheaper sources. So like in Alberta, right now, we’re getting down to around takes about a barrel of oil worth of energy to extract two barrels of oil worth of energy, and oh, wow, tar sands of Alberta, which is terrible. You want that number to be that proportion to be a lot higher, right. You know, you want one barrel of oil worth of extracted energy to create hundreds of barrels of yield and energy if Yeah, ideally. But as long as that proportion favors, you know, profit, then we can keep going. I think that the limit is just going to be our tolerance for disrupting the climate and the environment. And I think that, you know, that’s just going to be a race against time, technologically. I don’t I’m not I’m not a physicist, and I’m not, you know, an engineer. So I don’t know, as well as I’m sure other people who are in the fields of solar power batteries, maybe even cold fusion, what the state of affairs is there. I will say, though, my own pedestrian politics on the matter. I think it’s absolutely insane for our society, not to be all out embracing nuclear.

Will Jarvis 27:48
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. It’s it’s criminal, that that’s, it’s, it’s frowned upon here in the, in the US. All kinds of you know, I don’t know, I just it’s very, I think it’s, it’s, it’s quite visual and vivid and people’s imagination, you know, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. And but, you know, a lot more bad things happen from fossil fuels. They use. Do you think the pathway out of, you know, the climate change problem? Is it technology, like, you know, we’re gonna be able to pull carbon out of the atmosphere? I know, you said, You’re not a physicist and stuff like that. But it seems to me like the policy angle. just seems like it’s just gonna hit up against a brick wall. It only takes one nation to defect. And it just, I don’t know, what do you think about that?

Brad Harris 28:34
Yeah, there’s some game theory here, right. So I don’t really know much more than the average person common sense kind of on that. How is this all gonna play out? politically? I don’t know what I think is technology is going to be very important part of the answer. I think most people just want to live their lives. And they want to live their lives as comfortably, you know, and affordably as possible. I think most people who are just getting by trying to figure out how to finance, you know, their small business are their kids education or their rent, you know, they’re not thinking about what is the energy paradigm that I am using and subsidizing today. They’re just, they’re looking, they’re just being economic actors. And that’s all we can expect of most people. That’s how I am most of the time. But I do think that the rhetoric that we’re gonna destroy the earth in 12 years is reckless data store as a historian, I know that these kinds of sort of sensationalized political rallying cries have occurred time and again, and they usually don’t work very well. And all they tend to do more than anything is ruin people’s credibility and judgment in the public’s faith and authority. What I think is more reasonable is for us to realize that this is a problem. And we obviously need to price in the environmental consequences of our existing industrial paradigm better than we’re doing. But I think that prosperity is a very complicated equation. And if we all go back to horses, wagons and candles, we’re not gonna be able to solve many of the other problems that really matter to us. Right. So it’s a real cost benefit analysis at the end of the day. And I think that that’s missing from the conversation. I think, what I would have wished is 20 years ago, political leaders would have said, Yes, we know that global warming is real. That’s not the question. The question is, what do we want to do about it? And how serious is it? Um, I think that if they had steered the conversation like that, the public would be less divided, and there’d be less inaction. And I think that that’s true on a range of complicated, you know, scientific and political questions.

Will Jarvis 31:16
That makes a lot of sense is that it’s definitely sounds like a much better, better approach than what we’re, we’re trying at the moment. I’m curious, this is a bit of a left turn, but is it your sense, you know, infant mortality is lower. You know, GDP keeps growing, at least in you know, the United States slower than it has been. And, and things seem to be a lot better. And a lot of ways, like, you know, like, you mentioned plastics, I mean, even just something as small as the plastic shopping bags to us, you know, they’re incredibly light that can carry all this, you know, huge amounts of weight compared to their, their, their weight. And all these like technological advances, we have medical advancements, are there things that are you feel that are worse in today’s world than they were in the recent past?

Brad Harris 32:07
Think that’s really hard to tell. I think it’s hard because, you know, every generation, it just is born into its own generations state of affairs, right. And so we don’t know what it was like to have a significant fraction of your community. women die in childbirth, right? We don’t know what it was like to be hungry most of the time. We don’t know what it was like to be bored or just itchy. Most of the time. Yeah, just hot, most of the time or cold, most of the time, just uncomfortable. wearing the same clothes every day that were made of like wool, you know, in the West, just constantly itching. Like, we don’t know what that’s like, because we don’t deal with that. So right. We lack any kind of historical contexts in our own experience. And I think that that makes it very difficult for for us to understand progress. From that being said, I think what I’m starting to believe is that, generally speaking, this sort of one of the master narratives of history is that human beings are very clever, but not necessarily wise. We’re very good. We’re very good at solving specific problems. We’re not necessarily very good at knowing, like, why we learned how, but not necessarily why. And I think that has a lot to do with historical ignorance. I don’t think we do a very good job of teaching history. But I also think it might have a lot more to do with just our nature, you know, we’re very focused on about a 50 year time horizon, our own interests, solving specific problems without regard for what those solutions, then precipitate, you know, in new problems. So yeah, I think that just because we’re curing more illnesses, we’re living longer. And we’re wealthier. That doesn’t mean we’re happier. And I don’t think I mean, we’ve been working on that one for 1000s of years, right?

Will Jarvis 34:20
And maybe, maybe it’s something like where you can only feel the change within your lifetime. And so if there’s little change within your lifetime, you know, you’re like, things really aren’t getting better, or they’re getting better, like very slowly and so it feels like not much at all. But if you went from no air conditioning to air conditioning, you’re like, man, like, I feel much better during the summer in this very real way. That you didn’t.

Brad Harris 34:43
Yeah, yeah. And I think I think your life goes in cycles, history goes in cycles. And I think part of the reason why history goes in cycles is because I think luxury prosperity success. You know, a golden age of anything. Civilization. I actually think the old school interpretations of this might be right. I think that that makes citizens soft. And I think that you start forgetting how real it can get and how fast like people another another point about 100 years ago, or a little bit more of the 1890s or so really just prior to World War One, there’s so many amazing parallels there. But a lot of commentators talked about how we need a war, you know, and I don’t want us to have a war, you know, but there were these Victorian like, the problem of Western civilization as we lack a true enemy, you know, and that kind of thing, right? The the virial, you know, influence of war and all that nonsense. That’s, but it contains some weird wisdom. Like, right now, I think, you know, America, for example, we don’t really have any serious enemies, we’ve been the lone superpower for several, I mean, at least a generation, I don’t know that the Soviet Union never had a GDP any bigger than Texas. So I don’t think that they were ever a huge threat. But we really haven’t lately had any serious enemies. And we’ve had these isolated acts of really horrible and dramatic terrorism, but nothing like Total War. And I think that that matters, I think that without war, for example, or famine, or, you know, Black Death, something like that a catastrophe. Eventually, people forget, you know, eventually society forgets what the standard should be. And I think we have a tendency to start finding enemies or creating them, if they don’t already exist. I think we have a tendency to start spotting enemies, where our, you know, previous generations or ancestors might have thought you guys are nuts. What are you talking about? And I think we could solve this instantly as if aliens came actually. And all of a sudden, everybody on Earth, regardless of what they looked like, would feel like an ally.

Will Jarvis 36:55
Right? Yeah, I really like that. And I’ve often wondered, kind of, like you said, if there’s something where if you don’t have that existential threat, push it down on you. And like that, you know, when when we had the Soviet Union, it’s like, Oh, God, you know, they’re atheist. There’s this atheist superpower, they had come get us people believe that, you know, they were gonna invade and all this stuff. And nuclear war was very, you know, they felt was very probable, and it was probably pretty close at times. But, you know, you sit, you stay up all night, working really hard to try and prevent that. Because, you know, you don’t want your nation to fall apart and all these things. But if you don’t have that external threat, you know, how do you solve some of these collective action problems? I don’t know if it’s possible at all.

Brad Harris 37:38
Yeah, that’s the trick. I mean, Francis Fukuyama had a wonderful dream about the end of history, but he was he was wrong. And the trick is, how do we I mean, I guess we can never reach the end of history. So we just have to figure out, how do we sustain prosperity without decadence? And I don’t just mean physical decadence, I mean, spiritual decadence, educational, decadence, political decadence. It’s really I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not sure that they’re, that that’s even possible. So that’s, that’s what I think is is a major fundamental problem. Right now, in America, at least I’ll comment on my own society. You know, I think that we are, we have it really, really nice historically, I mean, any metric you can look at, practically speaking,

Will Jarvis 38:31
we’re bad or good,

Brad Harris 38:32
objectively better, you know, more people can read, there’s more wealth per capita, women have more opportunities, people are living longer. I mean, I don’t know of a lot of fundamental metrics of like, how you judge whether people are prospering or are suffering that aren’t just better now than they were 50 100 500 years ago. But we don’t seem content with that. And, you know, that’s, that’s, I think, a problem. And I think the Romans probably faced the same issue 2000 years ago.

Will Jarvis 39:05
Right? It’s a real problem, though. You know, how do you get out of that and prevent the, you know, you don’t want to? It’s in like Rome, right? Like, how do you keep things you know, heading up in northeasterly direction

Brad Harris 39:16
and we don’t want a war. We don’t want to resort to that kind of barbarity. You know, we don’t want the mindset of kings, you know, in the 1600s. Feeling like, what we need is to attack France, like we just obviously that’s not right. It’s not viable.

Will Jarvis 39:32
Definitely. So I I’m not sure if you’ve looked at this specifically, but I’d like to ask you so I think you’d have a good perspective on this. You know, human growth throughout the vast majority of our history is like very flat very low levels and then Industrial Revolution happens. And it’s just like this crazy curve upward. What’s your sense on on what happened that, like made that shift possible? Hmm.

Brad Harris 40:00
Well, you know, from an evolutionary perspective, kind of more of a big picture science perspective, all exponential curves look like that. They lie flat until they look vertical. Another way of thinking about this is I think a lot of people have made this quote, I don’t really know who’s responsible, but I like it. And it’s true, especially in technological innovation, and even financial investing. But people tend to overestimate the short term and underestimate the long term. You know, so I think that historians of science and technology, I mean, historians generally have been looking at this for a long time, there’s lots of different ideas about why did progress start to stick and accrue and compound over time? And I think, I mean, I think that for sure, historian, historian like Neil Ferguson, has tried to do Ken done a pretty good job like painting down, like, what were the six killer apps of monitor progress? You know, and, and in his case, I think it’s something like, you know, competition, so that would be sort of the free market, capitalism, science, of course, private property, medicine, a consumer based society consumption, and then work for work ethic. Interesting, you know, and I think that that’s a decent list. I think, within science, what I’m more interested in as a historian of science, you know, officially, I suppose, I think, objectivity, skepticism, and reason are very important. Because most I mean, in some sense, you can think about the history of humanity as just a bunch of stories we tell ourselves, you know, these are just different a different kinds of stories with different morals, different beginning, middle and ends. So what’s the story that we used to tell ourselves? Well, the stories we used to tell ourselves, I mean, at least in the West, had a lot to do with creation, and had a lot to do with salvation, had a lot to do with destiny, either in the fiery bowels of hell, or in the, you know, Christ’s company in heaven. And you’d navigate your way through that story, you know, according to some chapters of, you know, devotion to the church, right. And the story, we tell each other now about how the world works, and what our places within it is very different. For one thing, we assume that there’s a there there, that there’s a real world out there, that we all have some universal access to, and that we can access it through different ways through our senses, or through, you know, experiment, or through trial and error, or through the scientific method. And that read, that objectivity is durable. And it’s a guy, it’s sort of a guardrail of like how human beings can live, and where we are, and where we might be able to get to. I think peer review is just another nuts and bolts kind of piece of that story. Like, we expect our claims to truth, to be verifiable. We don’t just take anybody’s word for it, we expect our procedures, our experiments, our evidence to be, you know, replica replicable. So that, yes, universally accessible, anybody can see what we’ve discovered and build on it. All of that, I think is, is fundamental to the institutions that have enabled progress to stick institutions being, you know, mass education, the patent system, the modern economy, private property. You know, in the United States, I think our Constitution has a big part, you know, in that modern science, you know, the experimental method, the scientific method, these are institutions that provide sort of frameworks for how we write this story of progress and why we expect, you know, a generation from now things to be different and inherent, you know, sort of implicitly better than they are now in terms of material prosperity, at least and knowledge. So, yeah, I it’s a hard question. Well, but I think that that’s where my instincts take me.

Will Jarvis 44:17
I think that makes a lot of sense. And I also think that notion that, you know, it’s multimodal, there’s a lot going on here, and it’s really difficult to unpack, you know, which mattered more which one mattered the most. And it was probably a lot of things that contributed to it.

Brad Harris 44:31
I think so i think so. But yeah, I think that science is the most important part of the answer. Modern science is the most important part of the answer. I’m convinced. There have been very prof very profitable, very materially prosperous societies in the past, yeah. But I think really, what differentiates the modern world is reason and objectivity. Gotcha. And those are the methods of science.

Will Jarvis 44:59
Interesting. So maybe It may tell me from why, but maybe it’s something like in the past, you know, you could become a wealthy society. But you primarily had to do that from taking from somebody else in an efficient manner. And not in creating, like innovation or something like that. So it’s not like you make your crop yields lot better, and then you can feed more people and you can grow that way. Instead of something like, well, you got to go invade and take something else from someone, you get that sensor, or am I awful?

Brad Harris 45:28
No, I think that that’s part of it. I think when it comes to science, though, the power of science I mean, let’s just imagine very prosperous and wealthy societies in the past, like Renaissance Italy, for example. Yeah. Which was completely decimated by the black plague and right 1300s. Now, why, why were they vulnerable to that event, they did not understand the true cause of disease, Raymond’s had never understood the true cause of disease ever. We do now, because of a few centuries of really hard work, primarily using objectivity and reason. You know, we’re designing ways to sort of learn about the world that provide objective, objective and verifiable truths, right. So you can go run an experiment, the same one the past year ran, and you will get the same results. And that’s great. I mean, that opens up the opportunity to learn more and build on that. And then other people get excited, because they can use your truth. And because it’s objective, it’s durable, it lasts. And they can then extend your research for another generation and generation after that. Of course, there’s these post modern critiques of this basic idea, you know, like the idea that Kuhn promulgated of scientific paradigms being mutually irreconcilable. But that’s it. That’s in theory, an interesting way to talk about the history of science and the history of truth. But it’s, it’s not the case. And Kuhn wouldn’t have thought this either that we’re gonna discover that the germ theory is false. Like, we know that my asthma doesn’t cause disease, right? We know that looking at somebody, you know, who looks different than you can’t get you infected, it’s, it’s a germ, it’s, you know, it’s a virus or it’s a bacteria or something like that. So that’s irreversible progress. And that, you know, if the, if the nations or, you know, the city of Florence had any kind of standards of objectivity and reason it’s conceivable given their wealth, right, that they would have meandered their way to find much more objectively advantageous ways of mitigating disease. Right. But they didn’t have that, because the story they were telling themselves was very different and was just completely irrational, unreasonable, totally subjective, very superstitious,

Will Jarvis 48:02
right. Yeah. I really like that. And one of the big questions I have is, have we picked a lot of the low hanging fruit? Or is it your sense that we have a lot more low hanging fruit to pick? So you know, Isaac Newton invented calculus, now a teach, you know, the top half quarter of high school students calculus? Right. So like, in some sense, like, you know that for it’s been pegged? Do you feel like there’s still a lot of low hanging fruit or Science? Or is it just going to continue to get more difficult to make progress?

Brad Harris 48:36
Well, in certain ways, I think we’ve picked a low hanging fruit. So one way to think about this is scale. We’ve solved we’re good at solving problems on a human scale. So we’re really good at making an internal combustion engine, because that’s about the size of a person. Gotcha.

Will Jarvis 48:51
Right, really, we’re

Brad Harris 48:52
really good at, let’s say, looking through a microscope at microscopic biology, because that’s kind of within a sort of, you know, analog scale of human accessibility. Oh, interesting. You know, we’re pretty good at designing big buildings, because we live in them. And it’s like steel and concrete. And, you know, you can see the forces, you know, radiate through the trusses. And right, you know, those are calculations that makes sense, intuitively to human mind that’s evolved to understand this sort of spectrum of scale. That roughly goes from the microscopic to the size of like a planet, let’s say, I don’t know, something like that. Yeah. But we’re not very good at moving beyond the intuitive and moving beyond the normal human scale. So quantum mechanics is very counter intuitive. You know, those advances I think, have been harder. quantum computers seem more elusive. Because of that. I think. You know, the same thing is true when it comes to understand Standing, you know, the cosmos, I think it’s inherently difficult for human beings to wrap our heads around, you know, space time geometry. There’s things like that, that I think may going, you know, beyond the scale of human evolution very difficult. So maybe that’s one of the reasons why Moore’s law is slowing down. You know, because intuitively, we are pretty good at just cramming more transistors onto like, something that’s within a scale of human understanding. But once you get down to a comp quantum computer or something like that, maybe it’s just that much harder, much more difficult. Yeah, I don’t know. But on the other hand, though, I don’t know that science is slowing down. I think that the frontiers are blurry, just because they always are so right. My sense of the the sort of rebuke to this idea that progress is slowing down or something like that is, let’s say, in the 23rd or fourth century, maybe will just be lumped in with the long 20th century. Or maybe they’ll look at the 20th. And the 19th century is much more similar than the 25th 22nd century, you know, the 21st and 20th century were much more dirty, industrial, rudimentary sort of manufacturing based, right. You know, are the 20th and 20 are in the 19th century. But, you know, maybe the 21st century is going to be that phase shift to something that’s much different. And then artificial intelligence just blows it all out of the water.

Will Jarvis 51:30
I love that. Love it. Yeah. I think expanding the perspective a little bit on the problem. That definitely changes. How to think about it. Very cool. Well, Brad, thank you so much for coming on. I’ve learned a ton talking to you tonight. Where can people find your work? And do you have any parting thoughts kind of on your work? And what some of the big things we’ve talked about tonight?

Brad Harris 51:53
Well, thanks. It was really fun to chat with you will. And I appreciate you know, inviting this conversation. I have a website, Brad Harris calm, people can go there and check out some of my work. I have a couple of podcasts with some nice archived. They’re excellent, by the way. Thank you for listening. One of them is how it began. And then one of them is called context. So those are the two places I think I am on Twitter, but I’ve tried to shield myself increasingly from the noises. They’re smart. But occasionally, you know, I’ll post this or I’ll follow that. So if you want to follow me on Twitter, my handle is at Brad Cole Harris. So those are my Those are my little flags online.

Will Jarvis 52:38
Great. Awesome. Well, thanks, Brad. I really appreciate you coming on. And yeah, thank you. All right. Thank you. Well,

thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week with a new episode of narratives.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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