March 27, 2015 4:07 PM
Earth Hour vs. Human Achievement Hour—two irreconcilably opposed events scheduled for the same time: 8:30-9:30 pm EST, Saturday, March 28, 2015. Earth Hour protestors will turn off their lights to express solidarity with the Earth and “raise consciousness” about climate change. Human Achievement Hour partiers will turn on their lights and, in countless individual ways, celebrate the creativity of an energy-rich civilization. I may join some friends at a pub—or just stay home, plug in the Telecaster, crank up the tube amp, and let the good times roll.
The Earth Hour crowd would have you believe that our mostly fossil-fueled civilization is unsustainable. I know of no better antidote to their ideology than energy analyst Alex Epstein’s new book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Epstein presents the big picture Earth Hour types ignore, belittle, or deny. Human beings using carbon dioxide (CO2)-emitting energy did not take a safe climate and make it dangerous. Rather, they took a dangerous climate and made it dramatically safer.
Building on the work of economist Indur Goklany, Epstein examines aggregate mortality and death rates related to extreme weather in the International Disaster Database (EM-DAT) maintained by the Brussels-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED).
He appropriately begins with drought, historically the leading source of climate-related deaths. Drought can decrease the two most essential commodities of human life—water and food.
In the 1920s, drought killed an estimated 472,000 people worldwide. What’s happened since then? Fossil fuel consumption skyrocketed. Carbon dioxide concentrations increased by almost one-third. The world warmed by approximately 0.8C. Deaths related to drought declined by an amazing 99.8 percent even though population in drought-prone areas tripled or quadrupled.
What caused this remarkable improvement in the human condition? Affordable energy, the lion’s share of which comes from fossil fuels, reduces drought risk in manifold ways.
March 27, 2015 3:44 PM
It’s the most wonderful time of year! Human Achievement Hour is once again upon us, giving us reason to pause and consider recent innovations that have or will significantly improve the human condition. I usually like to focus on some development in medicine or environmental tech, but this year I feel compelled to highlight what may be the most significant advancement in the modern economy. What began with eBay—the digital garage sale—has now blossomed into an entire economy and a way of life. You may have heard it called the “sharing economy,” or “collaborative consumption” is actually about efficient resource allocation.
Instead of leaving rooms or homes empty and unused families can make extra money by renting them out to vacationers or business people through Airbnb or VRBO. Instead of paying to leave your car at the airport—you can now have someone pay you to use your car while you’re away. The sharing economy allows just about anyone to instantly turn his or her otherwise underused or unused resources or skills to turn a profit. The result is an economy with highly personalized goods and services that are cheaper, higher quality, and more efficient.
Collaboration allocates resources efficiently: For most people living in a city with public transportation and limited parking, it may not make sense to own a car. However, there are certain times when a car becomes necessary to run certain errands or get to locations not accessible by public transportation. Luckily, services like RelayRides and Getaround connect people who need cars with their neighbors who have cars, but aren’t using them. Spinlister and Liquid offer a similar sharing-service for bikes.
Time is also a resource, and when you’re busy preparing for a party it’s a resource that might be in short supply. Nobody likes to make that third trip to the liquor store for those few bottles they forgot to pick up. Luckily there are platforms like Klink, an alcohol delivery app operating in DC, Ann Arbor, and Central Florida. It allows customers to use their smart phone to shop local liquor stores which then deliver it (without a markup) to their door.
Similarly TaskRabbit allows you to outsource errands to qualified people in your area for an hourly rate. You can use the app to find people to help you move, clean your home, do repairs, and staff your events, among other things. Similarly, Zaarly is a peer-to-peer marketplace for services.
For those hurt by the economic downturn in 2008, services like VRBO and Airbnb provides an opportunity to rent out a room in their home—or the entire house—and to make a little extra money from a resource that would otherwise have remained unused. Customers benefit by getting lower rates, a place with “character,” or a rental in a location where hotels might not be available.
March 26, 2015 7:51 AM
On the eve of the financial crisis of 2007-8, financial systems had grown extremely sophisticated, but were still essentially based on a model of trust. When two people engaged in a transaction, they generally relied on a trusted third party to process the payment. This meant that there was room for fraud at worst and at best a transaction cost to the parties.
The transaction cost arises because there is the possibility of the transaction failing to go through, or, in payments-speak, being “reversed.” A reversed payment can occur because the paying party doesn’t have the money he says he does, or because he is over his credit limit, or because she isn’t who she says she is, among many other examples.
Over the years, third parties have developed extremely sophisticated ways to handle these problems, but they have never been able to eliminate the transaction cost entirely. Bridling at the transaction cost from merchants has led to punitive regulations on the payments industry, such as the Durbin Amendment to Dodd-Frank and the harassment of payment processors called Operation Choke Point. These are extremely unfair given the nature of the problem.
On October 31, 2008, a pseudonymous poster styling himself Satoshi Nakomoto on the Cryptography Mailing List hosted at metzdowd.com released a white paper that summarized the problem and proposed a solution. He or she argued:
The cost of mediation increases transaction costs, limiting the minimum practical transaction size and cutting off the possibility for small casual transactions, and there is a broader cost in the loss of ability to make non-reversible payments for nonreversible services. With the possibility of reversal, the need for trust spreads. Merchants must be wary of their customers, hassling them for more information than they would otherwise need. A certain percentage of fraud is accepted as unavoidable. These costs and payment uncertainties can be avoided in person by using physical currency, but no mechanism exists to make payments over a communications channel without a trusted party.
In one of the most brilliant applications of lateral thinking ever seen, Nakamoto proposed the use of cryptography to solve the problem:
What is needed is an electronic payment system based on cryptographic proof instead of trust, allowing any two willing parties to transact directly with each other without the need for a trusted third party. Transactions that are computationally impractical to reverse would protect sellers from fraud, and routine escrow mechanisms could easily be implemented to protect buyers.
The electronic payment system was dubbed “Bitcoin.” This is unfortunate as this had led people to believe that the point of the system was to create a new currency. It was not. The currency is a means to the end of a payments system that eliminates the transaction cost of third parties. What is more important than the value of an individual bitcoin is the public ledger system known as the blockchain that records every transaction. Being based around distributed computing and cryptography, there is no central authority to control or corrupt it.
March 24, 2015 2:58 PM
The following is a guest post by Chelsea German, Researcher and Managing Editor of HumanProgress.org.
When Homo erectus first learned to control fire a million years ago, humanity gained the ability to light up the night. From fire to electricity to LEDs, lighting technology has advanced unceasingly ever since. Yet every year, the Earth Hour campaign calls on millions of people to forgo this remarkable achievement by turning off their electricity. Earth Hour even discourages the use of smoke-emitting candles, plunging many participants into the same impenetrable darkness that surrounded our ancestors before fire was first harnessed. (Only soy and beeswax candles are deemed acceptable, because they do not emit smoke. It is unclear how many Earth Day participants use such candles and how many go without light altogether.)
Earth Hour justifies itself as a symbolic act to raise humanity’s commitment to reducing its ecological footprint. Instead of engaging in symbolic action, participants might better spend their time by joining the many innovators who are continuously making technology more efficient. To quote bestselling author Matt Ridley, “A car today emits less pollution traveling at full speed than a parked car did from leaks in 1970.” Unsurprisingly, given such rapid advances, worldwide CO2 emissions are decreasing per person.
March 24, 2015 9:14 AM
When Human Achievement Hour rolls around each year, I make sure to do two things. One is to play an electric guitar. The other is to play an acoustic guitar.
Guitars are simple things. Stretch some thin metal wires over a plank of wood, and you’re most of the way there. Electric guitars add a few magnets wrapped in copper wire mounted underneath the strings, called pickups. This deceptively simple invention is one of the pinnacles of human achievement. Music made on guitars has brought unfettered joy to billions of people, most of whom have idea how to play one. Whether you like jazz, punk rock, flamenco, blues, death metal, or classic rock, guitars have enhanced your life. In a way, the guitar is one of the defining objects of modern Western culture.
Regular readers will likely be familiar with CEI’s “I, Pencil” video from a few years ago, inspired by Leonard Read’s famous pamphlet. Nobody can make a pencil on their own. It takes a network of literally millions of people cooperating to make something you can buy in a store for less than a dollar. The network of human cooperation surrounding guitars is arguably even greater.
March 23, 2015 9:29 AM
As the amount of student loans outstanding continues to rise, taxpayers are more on the hook as the Obama administration continues to expand loan repayment programs. As long as President Obama is in office, we are unlikely to see serious reforms that rein in the growing student loan bubble, which has inflated the cost of attending school without a commensurate increase in the value of a degree.
Many observers have compared the student loan bubble to the recent mortgage bubble, which inflated home prices under government lending mandates to borrowers with weaker credit profiles. Similarly, the government lends to student borrowers without differentiating pricing based on their school, major, or likelihood of repayment.
March 29, 2014 8:51 PM
"Better to light one incandescant bulb than curse the darkness"
Tonight is Human Achievement Hour, a time to celebrate human progress and the market institutions that facilitate and protect it. It's also a time to laugh at the regressive ideology that implores us to turn out the lights to honor the Earth. Hence the wonderful acronym for our cheerful occasion: HAH!
Our friends at CFACT nail the contrast between our event and the other team's when they proclaim: "It's always Earth Hour in North Korea."
HAH is an alternative and antidote to Earth Hour, the premise of which is that carbon-based energy is bad for people and the planet. That's about as wrong-headed about the big picture as one can get.
Carbon energy supports all the technological advances that sustain and improve a world of seven billion people who on average live longer, healthier, and with greater access to information than the privileged elites of former ages.
Fossil fuels have been and remain the chief energy source of what Cato Institute scholar Indur Goklany calls a “cycle of progress” in which economic growth, technological change, human capital formation, and freer trade co-evolve and mutually reinforce each other. Progressive civilization is the very context of modern life. It is the most valuable of all public goods. Without carbon energy, humankind would be dramatically smaller, poorer, and sicker.
The fundamental contribution of carbon energy to social progress is reflected in the strong correlation between carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, per capita GDP, and population.
A survey by the National Academy of Engineers identifies 20 engineering achievements that made the greatest improvements in the quality of human life during the 20th century. Number One is electrification. All the others presuppose electrification either for their manufacture, operation, or mass production. Here's the list as presented on About.Com:
Electrification - the vast networks of electricity that power the developed world.
Automobile - revolutionary manufacturing practices made the automobile the world's major mode of transportation by making cars more reliable and affordable to the masses.
Airplane - flying made the world accessible, spurring globalization on a grand scale.
Safe and Abundant Water - preventing the spread of disease, increasing life expectancy.
Electronics - vacuum tubes and, later, transistors that underlie nearly all modern life.
Radio and Television - dramatically changed the way the world received information and entertainment.
Agricultural Mechanization - leading to a vastly larger, safer, less costly food supply.
Computers - the heart of the numerous operations and systems that impact our lives.
Telephone - changing the way the world communicates personally and in business.
Air Conditioning and Refrigeration - beyond convenience, it extends the shelf life of food and medicines, protects electronics, and plays an important role in health care delivery.
Interstate Highways - 44,000 miles of U.S. highway allowing goods distribution and personal access.
Space Exploration - going to outer space vastly expanded humanity's horizons and introduced 60,000 new products on Earth.
Internet - a global communications and information system of unparalleled access.
Imaging Technologies - revolutionized medical diagnostics.
Household Appliances - eliminated strenuous, laborious tasks, especially for women.
Health Technologies - mass production of antibiotics and artificial implants led to vast health improvements.
Petroleum and Gas Technologies - the fuels that energized the 20th century.
Laser and Fiber Optics - applications are wide and varied, including almost simultaneous worldwide communications, non-invasive surgery, and point-of-sale scanners.
Nuclear Technologies - from splitting the atom, we gained a new source of electric power.
High Performance Materials - higher quality, lighter, stronger, and more adaptable.
Note too that those technologies are highly developed and deployed at scale only in societies with access to plentiful, reliable, affordable energy, most of which comes from fossil fuels.
Ah, but our greener friends will say, HAH, as the very name suggests, is "anthropocentric." What about the biosphere? Shouldn't we turn off the lights to show respect for non-human nature?
Nope. As Goklany also explains, by improving the productivity and efficiency of food production, distribution, and storage, fossil fuels not only rescued mankind from a penurious Nature but also rescued Nature from an ever-growing humanity.
March 29, 2014 9:52 AM
Early in the week I wrote about a major breakthrough toward the peaceful use of nuclear fusion. While that type of energy could drastically change human life on earth by providing bountiful clean and safe energy, it is, unfortunately, likely decades away from being commercially viable. Fear not because there are armies of researchers working around the world to find other affordable alternatives to fossil fuels that will help humanity cruise into the future. In this past year, one group of scientists have discovered a way to extract large amounts of hydrogen from plants—a process that would provide plentiful, cheap, and “green” energy, that could hit the market as a way to power vehicles in as little as three years.
March 28, 2014 7:38 AM
You won’t see the glory of human achievement if you abide by the World Wide Fund for Nature's recommendation that you spend an hour in the dark this Saturday night to allegedly "show your commitment to a better future." Rather than take that anti-technology approach, why not leave the lights on and celebrate human achievement, including a new invention that will help even blind people see?
Once only imagined in the 1970s TV series The Six Million Dollar Man or the 1990s Star Trek: The Next Generation, 2013 saw the introduction of real bionic eyes! Created by Second Sight Medical Products Inc., of Sylmar, Calif., the Argus II Retinal Implant involves placing an implant in a person’s eye that connects wirelessly to eye glasses equipped with a tiny camera, which transmits images through the optic nerve to the brain.
The device helps those individuals affected with an eye disorder called retinitis pigmentosa, which strikes first as night blindness and then can degenerate photoreceptor cells eventually causing total blindness. It is not yet designed to help those with glaucoma and some other forms of blindness.
The Food and Drug Administration approved the device in February 2013 for use in the United States, and the first FDA-approved implants began this year. Those in the experimental program testified at FDA pre-approval hearings, expressing great joy about what the device had done for them. One exclaimed: "I don't mind telling you how much -- I mean, how happy that made me, not only to see the silhouette of my son, but to hear that voice coming and saying, 'Yeah, it's me, Dad. I'm here and I love you.'"
March 27, 2014 3:26 PM
We are only three days away from Human Achievement Hour (March 29, 8:30pm to 9:30pm)! What better way to celebrate than with a post from our friends at HumanProgress.org. Stephanie Rugolo, HumanProgress’s managing editor, is spreading the good news about how far humankind has come by discussing some of the recent developments in organ replacement technology. Since this is a perfect example of how technological advancement benefits human life on earth, I wanted to share her insights:
Medical breakthroughs are giving hope to hundreds of thousands of people waiting for organ transplants. There are 120,000 people waiting for organ transplants in the United States alone. By this time tomorrow, twenty to thirty Americans will die because they cannot get a new kidney—not to mention other organs. Compare this man-made shortage to Iran where organ donors may be compensated with cash. In contrast to the United States, there is a donor waiting list in Iran. As long as the industrialized world rejects the Iranian model, we must turn to innovation to resolve the organ shortage crisis. Luckily, scientists are developing technologies that might accomplish just that.