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Washington? Just Face Facts!by@ralphbenko
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Washington? Just Face Facts!

by Ralph BenkoNovember 7th, 2023
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Once upon a time, way back in the Cold War, when good old American "liberty and justice for all" was confronting the monstrosity of world communism… left vs right was a useful and maybe compelling way to sort the world.

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by Jeff Garzik and Ralph Benko


Humorist Robert Benchley (in his Vanity Fair book review, a little over a century ago, panning the New York City telephone directory (those young readers who don't know what a telephone directory was hereby are directed here) once wrote:


"There may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not."


Irony aside, Benchley was on to something. That said, our railroad gauge is (and, hence, the dimensions of the Space Shuttle was) determined by the wheel ruts carved into the mud roads of Roman empire war chariots in Britain.


Similarly, our minds often are stuck in archaic patterns. Curable!


The "two classes" that dominate our modern mindset, the rivalry between conservatives and progressives, is growing obsolete.


Once upon a time, way back in the Cold War, when good old American "liberty and justice for all" was confronting the monstrosity of world communism… left vs right was a useful and maybe compelling way to sort the world.


That was then.

This is now.


Now, there are new rules of political warfare that define the presenting challenges. We propose that the most consequential divide is between technophiles, lovers of technology, and technophobes, those fearful of technology.


Technophilia isn't about gizmos. It's about human and planetary welfare.


That said, there's some confusion. Fortunately, here we are to dispel confusion with facts.


There is a prevalent myth in the culture. It holds that the tech-skeptical Hippies are pro-nature, pro-ecology and more environmentally nobler.


This fairy tale's apotheosis is probably Thoreau's Walden.


That prevailing myth also holds that those of us who embrace technology trend negligent toward the environment.


Pastoral romanticism has a deep pedigree, about which the Britannica observes dryly, "Many of the idylls written in its name are far remote from the realities of any life, rustic or urban." Washington Power & Light believes the evidence is irrefutable that more and better tech leads, reliably, to a cleaner, more pristine, environment. As noted at HumanProgress.org,


"The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is a joint project of the Yale Center for Environmental Policy and Law and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University. The index has been a leading resource on accessing environmental protection in individual countries for over 20 years.


"The latest 2020 edition ranks 180 countries based on metrics, such as air quality, ecosystem vitality, environmental health, drinking water, CO2 emissions, etc. However, what stands out about the 2020 edition is its conclusion:


"Good policy results are associated with wealth (GDP per capita), meaning that economic prosperity makes it possible for nations to invest in policies and programs that lead to desirable outcomes. This trend is especially true for issue categories under the umbrella of environmental health, as building the necessary infrastructure to provide clean drinking water and sanitation, reduce ambient air pollution, control hazardous waste, and respond to public health crises yields large returns for human well-being."


So… the true argument isn't one between the noble, ecologically conscious, Hippies and the vile, polluting, scientists and engineers. We both, in fact, tend to hold the environment with great respect.


The real argument is over the best means to achieve both the humanitarian and environmental goods to which both Hippies and Squares aspire. Furthermore, this is no longer (if ever it was) a struggle between the left and the right.


The left offers at least as much thought leadership on using technology to better both the human condition and planetary environment as does the right. As Eric Levitz wrote for New York Magazine's Intelligencer:



"Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias, and other commentators have called for liberalism [meaning leftism] to reorient its priorities in light of its present challenges. They argue that we need a new "supply-side liberalism" or a "liberalism that builds," which would prioritize rapid decarbonization and housing abundance over other goals. In practice, this means scaling back regulatory obstacles to energy development that some environmental groups value and restricting the capacity of localities or self-appointed community representatives to override the will of democratically accountable officials."


The litany of public intellectuals who are techno-optimists is long and eclectic, culminating recently in a compelling presentation of the case for tech in the center-left New York Times. There, per a recent notice by Peter Coy (agreeing, in part, disagreeing in part) of the recent book Superabundance, "An Economic Case Against Environmental Doomsayers":


"As long as there have been doomsayers, there have been their opposites, who are sometimes called cornucopians. Among other predecessors, the authors cited (I'm alphabetizing) Angus Deaton, Peter Diamandis, Gregg Easterbrook, Andrew McAfee, Deirdre McCloskey, Johan Norberg, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Paul Romer, Hans Rosling, Anna Rosling Ronnlund and Michael Shellenberger.


"What makes "Superabundance" more than a reiteration of cornucopian optimism is the tables and charts the authors have put together showing exactly how much better life has gotten because of technological progress and trade."


So, we submit that the authentic argument is one between those who believe that the environment, as well as human welfare, can best (and not so incidentally, in a politically sustainable fashion) be served by technological innovation. Not by making the economic pie of affordable goods and services smaller.


Tech is just a fancy word for tools. Better tools provide, among other things, less pollution. As well documented, among other places, in Superabundance and its associated site HumanProgress.org, we now use far less in the way of natural resources to get our goods, thereby producing far less waste. Thus, more people can afford, and have, devices that provide the necessities, amenities, and even luxuries of modern life.


These provide the middle class of America with a far better standard of living than even royalty enjoyed throughout most of history. And there is no evidence that most people, here and abroad, are willing to surrender these for the privilege of going back to the stone age.


Tech also leads both toward more equitable prosperity -  providing us the means to climb Maslow's hierarchy of needs, rising from the bare necessities for survival, to security, up to sociability, dignity and respect, to self-actualization, higher categories embracing the demand for a cleaner and cleaner environment.


Doubt it? Per the EPA, aggregate pollution emissions of six common pollutants have dropped, in the US, by 71% since 1980 while our GDP grew 182%, the population has grown by 44% and energy consumption has increased by 28%.


Politics is a competitive sport. As such it intrinsically requires an "us" vs. "them." At its hard core, the fight now is between the technophiles ("us") and decels ("them").


In watching, or making, the political and policy news let's have a clear idea of what the fight is really about so we don't fall into Wolfgang Pauli's indictment of a young physicist's paper as "Das is nicht einmal falsch" "not even wrong," meaning so far afield as to be irrelevant. So, what's it all about?


The 200 proof version is now being fought out in obscure corners of the Internet under the exotic names of "effective accelerationism" vs. the "decels," or decelerationists." Effective Acclerationism  -  in jargon “e/acc” -  is defined at Substack:


"This isn't faith or simplistic optimism. At the core of e/acc is a set of conclusions about the world drawn from the physics behind life itself, and the path forward it lays out is as clear as it is compelling. All there is left to do is pitch in and help. All there is left to do is build.


"In more practical terms, e/acc is about how and why we will all flourish in the world we are building right now. In a world of where we are fed a constant stream of reasons to be hopeless, e/acc is a reason to be hopeful in this very moment. That, more than anything else, is why e/acc is the nexus of so much energy, and why I hope you will be excited about it, too."


And for a sharp word for the decels, consider columnist and blogger Noah Smith's admonition, "Don't be a decel."


"Decel" is a derogatory slang word used by the e/acc community. It's short for "decelerationist", meaning someone who wants to slow down technological progress. Most decels probably wouldn't explicitly think of themselves this way, but their attitudes and beliefs end up working in that direction.



"Hopefully the decel trend will wane if and when it becomes apparent that unrest in America has passed its peak. But in the early 2020s, it's still going strong, and it's something we need to remember to push against. Eras of division and unrest are the exact time when it's most important to remind ourselves that over the broad sweep of history, technology is what allows us to live in material comfort, free of disease and other natural threats. It is a force to be harnessed, not fought. And yet progress is never inevitable or automatic; it depends on a favorable institutional context. It depends on government science funding, on private capital, on big business and small business, and very often on public-private partnerships.


"And most of all, it depends on a populace that believes that increasing humanity's power over our world will make tomorrow better than today. The more that hope in our technological future is able to transcend partisan cleavages, online subcultures, and mass ennui, the faster we will move on to the next, better chapter in our history.


"Accelerate."


Washington Power and Light, at base, is here to repudiate dogma. As that notorious precursor to the Tea Party, provocateur Saul Alinsky, wrote in Rules for Radicals,


"I detest and fear dogma. I know that all revolutions must have ideologies to spur them on. That in the heat of conflict these ideologies tend to be smelted into rigid dogmas claiming exclusive possession of the truth, and the keys to paradise, is tragic.


"Dogma is the enemy of human freedom. Dogma must be watched for and apprehended at every turn and twist of the revolutionary movement."


We demand that our policy makers and thought leaders supplant dogma with facts. Instead of dogmatism, we preach empiricism.


Not so long ago it used to be aptly called "the Enlightenment." It's the exaltation of reason. And it works imperfectly but very effectively.


The evidence is overwhelming that to improve the standard of living of people while improving the quality of the environment we must abjure "hopium" -  sentimentality, fantasy and virtue signaling  -  and build policy from those stubborn things called facts.


Facts are the only consistently reliable guide to adopting policies that are proven, in the laboratory of history, to actually work to improve our lot. Science and engineering, not politics, are the proven source, for instance, of reliable, abundant, and environmentally friendly energy with which to uplift both humanity and the world's ecological goodness.


So, we are doing our level best to help the capital lift its mind out of dogma, the metaphysical equivalent of the wheel ruts carved into the mud roads of Roman empire war chariots in Britain. Washington? Just face facts! In the wise words of Noah Smith: "over the broad sweep of history, technology is what allows us to live in material comfort, free of disease and other natural threats. It is a force to be harnessed, not fought."


Accelerate!



About the authors

Jeff Garzik serves as the founder and chairman of the policy institute Washington Power and Light. Before co-founding Bloq, he spent five years as a Bitcoin core developer and ten years at Red Hat. His work with the Linux kernel is now found in every Android phone and data center running Linux today.


Ralph Benko serves as co-founder and general counsel to Washington Power and Light. He is the co-founder and general counsel for F1R3FLY.io and has worked in or with 3 White Houses, two executive branch agencies, and the Congress as well as many political and policy institutes. He is a multi-award-winning writer.