Bill McKibben

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I’m not on Facebook and once I stop doing this blog, I’ll quit the Twitter account associated with it. My last message will be: “I’d rather be reading than tweeting.”

Social media seems to me an unhappiness machine, mostly keeping us in touch with what we sort of know or what we used to know, distracting us from what we could actually intimately know. It’s a way of connecting people, sure, but not the best or truest way. And that downside that doesn’t even consider trolls, neo-Nazis and fake news.

We can’t go back nor should we, really, though there must be some respite. I don’t see any way we avoid being lowered gradually into the Internet of Things, a Platonovian pit, which will take the machines out of our pockets and put us in theirs, but there can be islands of retreat if we continue to utilize more tactile, lo-fi tools.

In Bill McKibben’s New York Review of Books piece on David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog, the critic writes that “the virtues of digital turn out to be the vices as well,” and who could argue? McKibben focuses mostly on the renewed interest in vinyl and paper and Polaroids, which may prove a passing interest or something more lasting, but in one passage he thinks about education, which may be the most important consideration of all when it comes to digitalization. An excerpt:

Nothing has appealed to digital zealots as much as the idea of “transforming” our education systems with all manner of gadgetry. The “ed tech” market swells constantly, as more school systems hand out iPads or virtual-reality goggles; one of the earliest noble causes of the digerati was the One Laptop Per Child global initiative, led by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, a Garibaldi of the Internet age. The OLPC crew raised stupendous amounts of money and created machines that could run on solar power or could be cranked by hand, and they distributed them to poor children around the developing world, but alas, according to Sax, “academic studies demonstrated no gain in academic achievement.” Last year, in fact, the OECD reported that “students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes.”

At the other end of the educational spectrum from African villages, the most prestigious universities on earth have been busy putting courses on the Web and building MOOCs, “massive open online courses.” Sax misses the scattered successes of these ventures, often courses in computer programming or other technical subjects that aren’t otherwise available in much of the developing world. But he’s right that many of these classes have failed to engage the students who sign up, most of whom drop out.

Even those who stay the course “perform worse, and learn less, than [their] peers who are sitting in a school listening to a teacher talking in front of a blackboard.” Why this is so is relatively easy to figure out: technologists think of teaching as a delivery system for information, one that can and should be profitably streamlined. But actual teaching isn’t about information delivery—it’s a relationship. As one Stanford professor who watched the MOOCs expensively tank puts it, “A teacher has a relationship with a group of students. It is those independent relationships that is the basis of learning. Period.”•

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Jeez, Jim Holt is a dream to read. If you’ve never picked up his 2012 philosophical and moving inquiry, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, it’s well worth your time. For awhile it was cheekily listed No. 1 at the Strand in the “Best Books to Read While Drunk” category, but I don’t drink, and I adored it.

In a 2003 Slate article, “My Son, the Robot,” Holt wrote of Bill McKibben’s Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, a cautionary nonfiction tale that warned our siblings soon would be silicon sisters, thanks to the progress of genetic engineering, robotics, and nanotechnology. It was only a matter of time.

Holt was unmoved by the clarion call, believing human existence unlikely to be at an inflection point and thinking the author too dour about tomorrow. While Holt’s certainly right that we’re not going to defeat death anytime soon despite what excitable Transhumanists promise, both McKibben and the techno-optimists probably have time on their side.

An excerpt:

Take McKibben’s chief bogy, genetic engineering—specifically, germline engineering, in which an embryo’s DNA would be manipulated in the hopes of producing a “designer baby” with, say, a higher IQ, a knack for music, and no predisposition to obesity. The best reason to ban it (as the European Community has already done) is the physical risk it poses to individuals—namely, to the children whose genes are altered, with unforeseen and possibly horrendous consequences. The next best reason is the risk it poses to society—exacerbating inequality by creating a “GenRich” class of individuals who are smarter, healthier, and handsomer than the underclass of “Naturals.” McKibben cites these reasons, as did Fukuyama (and many others) before him. However, what really animates both authors is a more philosophical point: that genetic engineering would alter “human nature” (Fukuyama) or take away the “meaning” of life (McKibben). As far as I can tell, the argument from human nature and the argument from meaning are mere terminological variants of each other. And both are woolly, especially when contrasted with the libertarian argument that people should be free to do what they wish as long as other parties aren’t harmed.

Finally, McKibben’s reasoning fitfully betrays a vulgar variety of genetic determinism. He approvingly quotes phrases like “genetically engineered thoughts.” Altering an embryo’s DNA to make your child, say, less prone to violence would turn him into an “automaton.” Giving him “genes expressing proteins to boost his memory, to shape his stature” would leave him with “no more choice about how to live his life than a Hindu born untouchable.” Why isn’t the same true with the randomly assigned genes we now have?

Now to the deeper fallacy. McKibben takes it for granted that we are at an inflection point of history, suspended between the prehistoric and the Promethean. He writes, “we just happen to be alive at the brief and interesting moment when [technological] growth starts to really matter—when it spikes.” Everything is about to change.

The extropian visionaries arrayed against him—people like Ray Kurzweil, Hans Moravec, Marvin Minsky, and Lee Silver—agree. In fact, they think we are on the verge of conquering death (which McKibben thinks would be a terrible thing). And they mean RIGHT NOW. When you die, you should have your brain frozen; then, in a couple of decades, it will get thawed out and nanobots will repair the damage; then you can start augmenting it with silicon chips; finally, your entire mental software, and your consciousness along with it (you hope), will get uploaded into a computer; and—with multiple copies as insurance—you will live forever, or at least until the universe falls apart.•


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In a New York Review Books piece, Bill McKibben lays out the sobering ramifications of the Great Melt, which can be slowed down and perhaps managed to some extent with technological innovation and political will, but which cannot be stopped. An excerpt:

“In mid-May of this year, a pair of papers were published in Science and Geophysical Research Letters that made clear that the great glaciers facing the Amundsen Sea were no longer effectively ‘buttressed.’ It turns out that the geology of the region is bowl-shaped: beneath the glaciers the ground slopes downward, meaning that water can and is flooding underneath them. It is eating away at them from below and freeing them from the points where they were pinned to the ground. This water is warmer, because our oceans are steadily warming. This slow-motion collapse, which will occur over many decades, is ‘unstoppable’ at this point, scientists say; it has ‘passed the point of no return.’

This means that as much as ten feet of sea-level rise is being added to previous predictions. We don’t know how quickly it will come, just that it will. And that won’t be all. A few days after the Antarctic announcement, other scientists found that much of Greenland’s ice sheet shows a similar underlying geology, with warm water able to melt it from underneath. Another study that week showed that soot from huge forest fires, which are more frequent as a result of global warming, is helping to melt the Greenland ice sheet, a remarkably vicious cycle.

In certain ways none of this really comes as news. A leading glaciologist, Jason Box of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS), has calculated that given the paleoclimatic record, our current atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases are probably enough to produce an eventual sixty-nine feet of sea-level rise.2 But it’s one thing to know that the gun is cocked, and another to see the bullet actually traveling; the news from the Antarctic is a turning point. It doesn’t mean we should give up efforts to slow climate change: if anything, as scientists immediately pointed out, it means we should ramp them up enormously, because we can still affect the rate at which this change happens, and hence the level of chaos it produces. Coping over centuries will be easier than coping over decades.”


I’ve posted before about Henry Petroski’s first book, To Engineer Is Human, which I love. It’s the one that made crystal for a non-engineer like myself that building bridges and buildings is not only a matter of science but also of best guesses. All these years after that 1985 volume–and with many books in between–Petroski has published a sequel of sorts, To Forgive Design, which examines, among other things, how the lessons of the past are no match for climate change of today and tomorrow. FromCollapse and Crash,” by Bill McKibben, in the New York Review of Books:

“But what if, in fact, the old war stories are becoming obsolete? The engineer, like the insurance agent, is hampered by the fact that his skill depends on the earth behaving in the future as it has in the past. As Petroski writes,

Since it is future failure that is at issue, the only sure way to test our hypotheses about its nature and magnitude is to look backward at failures that have occurred historically. Indeed, we predict that the probability of occurrence for a certain event, such as a hundred-year storm, is such and such a percentage, because all other things being equal, that has been the actual experience contained in the historical meteorological record.

That record, however, is now shattered. In the course of Petroski’s lifetime, and all of ours, we’ve left behind the Holocene, the ten-thousand-year period of benign climatic stability that marked the rise of human civilization. We’ve raised the global temperature about a degree so far, but a better way of thinking about it is: we’ve amped up the amount of energy trapped in our narrow envelope of atmosphere, and hence every process that feeds off that energy is now accelerating. For instance, this piece of simple physics: warm air holds more water vapor than cold. Already we’ve increased moisture in the atmosphere by about 4 percent on average, thus increasing the danger both of drought, because heat is evaporating more surface water, and of flood, because evaporated water must eventually come down as rain. And those loaded dice are doing great damage. The federal government spent more money last year repairing the damage from extreme weather than it did on education.”

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