Peter Thiel, New Optimism, and the Silent Food Revolution | Nathan Wilson
We live through unpredictable and strange times. Simultaneously, compared to the rest of human history, we are living during relative heaven. Although, human beings are naturally inclined in being negative minded and loss averse, we seem to be doing quite well buy in large (A more complete image into these things, find ‘Nudge’ by Thaler and Sunstein).
Modern Media is a prime example of this, you will almost always hear about how climate change and how various nations are on the verge of collapse, most recently Afghanistan. However, this contrasts with hearing on the news that the world got slightly better today and has done most of the time since the end of World War Two.
I have no intention of going deep into the well tread path that is of the New Optimism movement and the arguments made by its key thinkers. The ‘New Optimism’ movement was best summarised by Canadian Psychologist, Steven Pinker (not that famous Canadian Psychologist, the other one). Pinker has argued, alongside various other individuals that we should not be all doom and gloom and that things are generally getting better.
If we take the Human Development Index, we can see this play out broadly. Literacy, Standard of Living, Child Mortality rates etc all show that things have been getting better. This is most importantly, not just within the Western World but across the developing world too. Yet, we do not truly feel like this speaks to us, well at least for some. The problem with telling people everything is getting better all the time, is that eventually you have to say it to people who suffer every day.
However, during this same time we collectively as species have witnessed some of the fastest and most dramatic changes within technological developments. We have seen tech start-ups, Research and Development Centres and dare I say Universities be productive in these fields.
At the end of the day, it is how we understand our own knowledge and what we do with it that really counts. For Peter Thiel, such ideas have been used to display that we are doing well but that this new optimism can only relate to our ability to understand knowledge and then properly build on it, in a tech start-up way. This has been seen alongside Blake Masters, for whom Peter Thiel worked together on the book ‘Zero to One’. This outlines such ideas behind start-ups and the mentality to use our knowledge to change things for the better.
If we take our current ability to understand knowledge and demonstrate this, we can truly understand events as we both live within them and outside of them. Though massively mocked during his time as Secretary of Defence in the United States, Donald Rumsfield did produce perhaps one of the most interesting points around how we understand and predict events. This being his ‘unknown unknown’s’ speech he delivered to a White House Press Office (for more direct information of the unknown unknown’s, find ‘Johari Window’). Rumsfield’s full quote can be found archived online here.
“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones”.
As such, one can infer multiple parts of information out of this. Firstly, we do not know what we do not know. Secondly, we know the world is getting better (even if we do not feel like it), as the human development index’s shows and thirdly, science developments are making the world a better place.
The reason this all connects, is because the coming scientific developments in the following decades will change everything (This I will call the Silent Food Revolution (SFR)). This combination of the between links both Peter Thiel’s ideas of development, Pinker’s New Optimism with the not so doom and gloom attitude to human development, help display this prominently.
Take for example, this piece of news. You will probably have never heard of it and its placement within the SFR, hence the silent part. This being that by “adding a gene encoding for a protein called FTO to both rice and potato plants increased their yield by 50% in field tests. The plants grew significantly larger, produced longer root systems and were better able to tolerate drought stress. Analysis also showed that the plants had increased their rate of photosynthesis”. What this means for people around the world is that such technological developments will help address the problems of both poverty and food security.
It is also hoped that such a development can be moved onto other types of crops like Okra and Maize. This would overall help relieve several of the world’s major problems, especially those relating to climate change, on a global scale, with a massive fifty per cent reduction of land required to yield similar crop output.
In conclusion, so are things getting better? Yes, we just do not think that they are. This is because we do not know what we do not know, and the future of our technological developments are unknown. It may be prudent to wonder if Thiel and Pinker’s joint combination of ideas will be what truly helps the world in the end. But what does remain obvious is that the scientific developments that come out of this combination, will genuinely help the world, as demonstrated with the rise of the SFR.