More From Less

More From Less
By Andrew McAfee
Scribner, New York, 2019

More From Less is a book about dematerialization


No, it’s not some sort of Star Trek transporter technology. Dematerialization is the phenomenon of producing the same goods from less material and energy. It’s real, it’s important, and Andrew McAfee thinks it can help save the planet.

McAfee is a principal research scientist at MIT.  He’s the co-author, with Erik Brynjolfsson, of The Second Machine Age (review) which I hugely enjoyed and highly recommend, and a business-focused follow-up book, Machine Platform Crowd (review).

To understand dematerialization, consider the humble soda can.  When I was a kid growing up in Canada, soda cans (we called them pop cans) were made of three parts: a rectangular piece of aluminum rolled into a cylinder with a seam joining the edges, plus a top and a bottom that were attached to the cylinder.  Today’s soda cans are quite different.  Grab one out of your fridge and you’ll notice the cylinder and the bottom are all one piece. There’s no seam. Only the top needs to be attached.  And the metal is a lot thinner than it used to be.  Back in the early 1960’s aluminum cans weighed about 85 g, according to data from the book.  By 2011 they weighed just 12.75 g. We now use about 80% less metal – less material — to make a can. 

Now soda can makers haven’t done this out of the goodness of their hearts.  They’ve done it to cut costs.  But using less material is good for the environment too. 

A subtler example: your smartphone.  Obviously, it’s a phone.  But it’s also a watch, a flashlight, a radio, a music player, a tape recorder, a camcorder, a newspaper, a compass, a magnifying glass and a whole pile of other things too.  The smartphone replaces them all.  You don’t need to buy those things anymore.

Finally, using less energy overall, and more renewable energy is yet another kind of dematerialization where material energy sources like coal, oil and gas are replaced by non-material sources like wind and sunlight.

McAfee says dematerialization occurs in four ways: 

  • Slim:  Use less material to make the same goods, like aluminum soda cans.
  • Swap:  Substitute new materials for more expensive or more damaging materials, such as switching from coal and oil to natural gas or renewables for electricity generation. 
  • Optimize:  Make better, more efficient use of the materials you already have so you don’t need to buy more, which explains why you rarely see empty seats on airplanes anymore.
  • Evaporate:  Replace materials with nothing at all, like your smartphone does.

Dematerialization is hugely beneficial both economically and environmentally.

Here’s where it gets interesting:  McAfee argues that the American economy has reached a point where GDP can keep growing without a corresponding increase in the amount of resources we’re consuming.  This is called decoupling

“With the help of innovation and new technologies, economic growth in America and other rich countries – growth in all of the wants and needs that we spend money on – has become decoupled from resource consumption.  This is a recent development and a profound one.”  [p. 109]

Profound indeed!  If dematerialization and decoupling are both happening at the scale McAfee claims, then we don’t need to worry so much about catastrophic Malthusian scenarios where we run out of essential resources.  Even climate change becomes a little less threatening if we’re actually using less material and energy to produce the goods we need and want. 

But are we?

McAfee presents convincing evidence that relative dematerialization is widespread. Making the same item with less material than before, like a soda can, is relative dematerialization. But if demand for soda keeps increasing and we make more and more cans, pretty soon the savings from dematerialization (and from recycling) will be outweighed by all the additional cans.  In absolute terms we’ll still be consuming more aluminum.  Similarly, while your smartphone replaces a knapsack full of other devices, if you buy a new one every year or two are you actually dematerializing in total?

Now zoom out from a single product to an entire economy.  Relative dematerialization occurs when total material and energy consumption is growing more slowly than the economy as a whole.  Absolute dematerialization would occur If material and energy consumption remained flat or better yet declined while the economy kept growing.  Then we would truly be making more from less and growth would truly be decoupled from resource consumption. 

Can we really achieve absolute dematerialization?  Even while population growth and rising demand, especially from developing countries, continue to drive consumption of more and more goods?

McAfee walks us through data showing absolute dematerialization in the US for some important materials like aluminum, copper, steel, gold, crop land, and even energy.  This is critically important: the data shows that total US consumption of these materials has peaked, in some cases as far back as the year 2000 and has been steadily declining.  His startling conclusion is that the US economy is now experiencing absolute dematerialization and so are some European countries.    

Contrary to those who say we need to radically restructure our world to move away from a model based on economic growth, McAfee says we need to encourage growth, particularly in developing countries, to help them get to the stage where their economies also move past “peak stuff” and start to dematerialize. 

“… instead of worrying about the world’s poor becoming richer, we should instead be helping them upgrade economically as much and as quickly as possible.  Not only is it the morally correct thing to do, it’s also the smart move for our planet.”  [p. 237]

His approach is fundamentally market based.  He devotes several chapters of the book to a vigorous defense of markets, capitalism and technology while acknowledging their historical sins and short comings.  If you’ve read Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (review) this will be familiar ground. 

Now McAfee isn’t saying we’re out of the woods, especially on climate change, pollution and endangered species.  Nor is he claiming that dematerialization alone is a panacea for the world’s environmental problems. Responsive government and public awareness also play an important role in dealing with the nasty side-effects — economists call them “negative externalities” – of economic activity.  He advocates measures such as pricing carbon emissions, either through a carbon tax or a cap and trade system. 

McAfee’s main idea in More From Less is that capitalism, technological progress, responsive government and public awareness – what he calls the four horsemen of the optimist – have already brought about absolute dematerialization in the US, and that given time, they can do it globally so that we humans “tread more lightly on the planet.” 

Unsolicited Feedback

The optimist (and the capitalist) in me really wants to believe McAfee is correct, but some alarm bells are going off in my head.    

Just before reading More From Less I read Vaclav Smil’s mammoth book Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities (review). Smil throws cold water on decoupling and absolute dematerialization.

“Decoupling economic growth from energy and material inputs contradicts physical laws:  basic needs for food, shelter, education and employment for the additional billions of people to be added by 2100 will alone demand substantial energy flows and material inputs.  True, those inputs will have lower relative intensities … but the absolute totals will keep rising (with continued population growth) or will moderate but remain substantial.”  [Growth, p. 492]

And he cites a paper by James Ward of the University of South Australia and his associates called Is Decoupling GDP Growth From Environmental Impact Possible?  The paper concludes that,

“… growth in GDP ultimately cannot plausibly be decoupled from growth in material and energy use, demonstrating categorically that GDP growth cannot be sustained indefinitely.”

On the other hand, McAfee cites a couple of papers that support his position on dematerialization (see Related Links below).  So the question of whether absolute dematerialization is possible, let alone whether it can be achieved worldwide, is by no means settled.

Now I’m particularly concerned about climate change.  On that front there are some encouraging signs like this report showing that global electricity generation from coal is set to decline by 3% in 2019, its largest drop ever, and this article talking about the increasingly important role of utility-scale batteries for energy storage. 

But even if we assume for the moment that McAfee is correct and that the world is on track to achieve dematerialization at global scale, it is not clear that we will get there in time to avoid the worst effects of climate change.  In fact, the United Nations 2019 Emissions Gap Report warns that,

“GHG emissions continue to rise, despite scientific warnings and political commitments.”  [Executive Summary, p. iv]

And further,

“There is no sign of GHG emissions peaking in the next few years…” [Executive Summary, p. v]

McAfee recognizes the dangers of climate change and I think he makes some sensible recommendations as well as some controversial ones like using more nuclear power.  But we’re facing a time constraint.  I don’t think we have time to simply let economic development play out at its current pace. I think we’re going to need more aggressive policy measures. And we’ll need international cooperation and leadership to achieve them. I didn’t find that sense of urgency in More From Less and I think that’s a gap in the book.

Still dematerialization is happening.  Whether it is happening fast enough or widely enough may be open for debate, but More From Less is an important book worth reading.  McAfee’s passion for the subject comes through in his engaging, well-paced writing.

I hope Andrew McAfee is right, but I’m not quite convinced. I plan to read more and blog more about this.

Related Links

a16z Podcast: The Environment, Capitalism, Technology
Marc Andreessen and Sonal Chokshi interview Andrew McAfee

The Return of Nature – How Technology Liberates the Environment by Jesse Ausubel
This 2015 paper provided the inspiration for More From Less

Peak Stuff by Chris Goodall
A complimentary paper from 2011 about dematerialization in the UK.

Is Decoupling GDP Growth from Environmental Impact Possible? by James. D. Ward and associates. This paper says “no”.

Posted in Books, Energy, Environment, Science and technology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


Growth:  From Microorganisms to Megacities
By Vaclav Smil
The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2019

People used to think growth was a good thing.  Politicians, economists and business leaders brag about healthy or robust growth in jobs, GDP, and profits.  But that’s changing.  These days, growth is often described as excessive, uncontrollable, and unsustainable. 

In her speech to the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York on September 23, 2019, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg scolded world leaders with these words:

“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.  How dare you!”

Growth’s reputation has become tarnished.

Can the world economy keep growing as it has for the past two hundred years?  Can we transition to a more sustainable form of growth?  How do we enable people in developing regions to enjoy the comforts and consumption that typically come with economic growth?  Can we do any of these things while living within planetary boundaries?

Into this debate, Vaclav Smil drops a 600-page tome, Growth:  From Microorganisms to Megacities.

Vaclav Smil might be the most important scientist you’ve never heard of.  He is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada.  He’s a multidisciplinary scholar with interests in environment, population growth, food, economics and public policy.  But he’s mainly known as one of the world’s foremost thinkers about energy in all its forms, uses and impacts. 

To give you an idea of Smil’s influence, Bill Gates says, “There is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil.” 

Growth is his latest book, his 40th.  From the outset, Smil sets himself a gargantuan task; to examine the nature of growth in living organismsms, human-made artifacts and complex systems.  Literally, growth from microorganisms to megacities. 

He looks at the growth trajectories of individual specimens and whole populations.  He tries to take a long term view, looking back as far as he can within the limits of available high quality data.  In some cases he also makes projections, extrapolating from historical trends, but he is careful to provide a range of possible outcomes.  He is deeply skeptical of anyone predicting revolutionary change on time scales not supported by historical evidence, for example, rapid replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. 

Above all he avoids making rigid prescriptions.  But the takeaway message of his book is clear:

“… before it is too late, we should embark in earnest on the most fundamental existential (and truly revolutionary) task facing modern civilization, that of making any future growth compatible with the long-term preservation of the only biosphere we have.”  [p. xxv]

Growth has six chapters.  In the first, Smil looks at the types of growth, their trajectories and outcomes.  It’s essentially the mathematics of growth. 

Chapter 2 covers the growth of living matter: microorganisms, crops, forests, animals, and humans.

Chapter 3 is about energy – Smil’s special area of expertise – and how it is both the source and object of growth.  It seems like a digression, but it’s key to the remainder of the book.  

In Chapter 4, Smil examines the growth of human-made artifacts.  First, he looks at improvements in their performance characteristics such as the growth over time in the lifting capacities of pullies and cranes.  Second, he traces the adoption of tools and technologies, for example, the spread of smartphones around the world.

Chapter 5 is devoted to studying the historical growth of our most complex structures: human populations, cities and economies. 

Finally, in Chapter 6, Smil tries to forecast what comes after growth.  What happens when growth in an organism, a technology, or an economy stops, plateaus or even collapses? 

Rather than summarize each chapter, I’m going to focus on a few of the topics and themes that I found most interesting.    

Types of Growth

Growth is always measured over some time period be it days or millennia.

There are two main types of growth; linear and exponential, according to Smil.  Linear growth occurs by a constant amount in each unit of time and can be plotted on a graph as a straight line.  The growth of stalagmites on a cave floor over centuries is typically linear.  With exponential growth, the quantity increases at the same rate in every unit of time.  Graphs of exponential growth show a slow gradual rise followed by a rapid upward-sloping “hockey stick” curve.   Human population growth since about 1800 has been roughly exponential. 

Exponential growth is always temporary.  Smil advises us to distrust any forecast that includes an assumption of indefinite exponential growth.

There’s an intermediate form of growth which Smill calls “confined” growth or growth within limits.  A graph of confined growth looks like an S-curve.  (It’s technically called a logistic curve.)  There’s a slow rise at the beginning, a period of temporary exponential growth followed by a leveling off to flat or slow growth again.  Adoption of new technologies follows this pattern.  When smartphones were first introduced, they were expensive and buggy and only technology enthusiasts bought them.  Then they took off, especially after the introduction of the Apple iPhone. Now almost everyone has one.  Further adoption of smartphones will be slower since the market is already saturated in most parts of the world.

Smil shows how this pattern of confined growth following a logistic curve occurs again and again throughout nature and throughout history.  He warns repeatedly not to expect growth rates or growth patterns that are not supported by historical evidence.  Don’t count on a sudden spurt in crop yields for example, when historical data shows linear growth. 

Energy and Growth

Smil says that energy is the foundation for all growth. 

Sunlight is of course the primary source of energy on Earth.  Even fossil fuels are just sunlight stored millennia ago in plant matter.  Every living organism converts sunlight, either directly or indirectly, into the energy it needs to survive and grow.  Smil distinguishes between two types of energy “converters.” 

Primary energy converters convert natural renewable energy flows like sunlight, wind, water, plus fossil fuels, into more useful forms of energy like thermal (heat), kinetic (mechanical e.g. rotational), light and increasingly into electricity.  Examples of primary energy converters include waterwheels, windmills, steam engines, internal combustion engines, photovoltaic cells, and nuclear reactors.   

Secondary energy converters usually take electricity and convert it into mechanical energy (electric motors) or lighting.

The growth of human civilization is essentially the story of us getting better at converting more energy more efficiently into more useful forms. 

Population Growth

Smil traces the growth of human population from the first emergence of homo sapiens about 190,000 years ago to today.  Rapid population growth only began following the adoption of agriculture at various times around the world, starting 11,000 – 12,000 years ago in the Middle East.  Exponential population growth really kicked off after 1850 following the Industrial Revolution. 

Ever since, population growth has been accompanied by dire predictions of famine, most notably by the English scholar Thomas Malthus who predicted that population growth would always exceed our capacity to produce enough food for everyone.

Modern-day Malthusians such as the Club of Rome and Paul R. Ehrlich predicted famines in the 1970’s leading to the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. 

“That was a spectacularly wrong prediction.  Between 1968 and 2017 the world’s population more than doubled (from 3.5 to 7.5 billion) and yet by 2015 the total number of malnourished people had declined to fewer than 800 million or just below 13% of the world population compared to more than 23% a quarter century before …” [p. 315]

In fact, population growth rates peaked between 1962 and 1969 and began to level off in a typical S-curve pattern.  This is because we’ve undergone a “demographic transition” from high birth rates and high death rates with low overall population increases to a new equilibrium with low birth rates and low death rates resulting in low natural increase or even population declines in some places such as Japan and Europe. 

Still, our overall population is growing.  How long will that last?  When will population peak and at what level?  Smil says that long range forecasting is an “inherently uncertain enterprise”.  He cites projections for global population in 2100 that vary from 10 billion to 22 billion.  Perhaps wisely, Smil does not say what he himself thinks the population will be at that time but he does warn:

“Malthus’s basic assumption is unassailable:  the power of population growth is indeed much greater than the capacity to produce adequate subsistence – but that applies only when, as he correctly stated, the population growth is unchecked.”  [p. 317]

Environmental Impacts of Growth

There is no chapter or section of the book specifically dedicated to the environmental impacts of growth, especially climate change, but it is a recurring theme. 

Smil tells us that traditional economies relied on biomasss for energy (burning wood, straw, charcoal, and dung) and on human and animal labor supplemented by small amounts of water and wind power.  We broke out of these energy constraints during the Industrial Revolution through the burning of fossil fuels, starting with coal and later adding petroleum and natural gas.  He notes the irony of escaping the limitations of consuming the products of photosynthesis by consuming “stockpiles” of past photosynthesis. 

These new sources of energy enabled the advances of the past 200 years, but at considerable cost to the environment including deforestation, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, and of greatest concern, climate change. Since 1850, Smil says, we have emitted almost 300 Gt (that’s 300 billion metric tons) of fossil carbon into the air, driving atmospheric concentrations of CO2 from 225 ppm to 415 ppm at the end of 2017.  [p. 448]

We have made some progress though.  The US has reduced CO2 emissions faster than Germany primarily by switching from coal to natural gas for electricity generation, for example.  And we’re making more stuff with less raw materials, a phenomenon known as “dematerialization.”  However,

“… there is no doubt that since 1973 (when the unprecedented period of rapid post-WWII growth ended) the world economy has become impressively more energy efficient and relatively less material-intensive – while continuing population growth, further increases of consumption in affluent countries, and fast economic advances in Asia in general, and in China in particular, have translated into relatively strong absolute global growth in both energy and material requirements.”  [p. 496]

In other words, the tide has not yet turned. 

A Post-Growth World?

Many people believe that in order to stop the most harmful effects of climate change we must fundamentally restructure our societies and especially our economies.  They believe we need to put an end to our obsession with growth, that sustainability and growth are fundamentally incompatible, and that we need to live and work, produce and consume in ways that do not depend on growth.   

Smil looks at this question towards the end of the book.  He’s not very encouraging, mainly because we have so little past experience to go on.

“… no modern society has been taking any thoughtful, effective steps to find its way to deliberately very low or no growth even in settings where a relatively high level of average affluence and obviously excessive levels of consumption and waste are all too evident.”  [p. 498]

Japan is a harbinger. Its population has already begun declining.  Smil predicts Japan will become the first truly geriatric society.  Yet Japan’s economy is still growing slowly.   

Economists are apparently not much help because economic model assume continuous growth supported by technological innovation. And “techno-optimists” believe that dematerialization will enable wealth creation to gradually separate from demand for energy and materials.

Smil is deeply skeptical of any such claims.  He acknowledges progress in relative dematerialization: individual artifacts can be produced with less materials and energy.  But as long as population keeps increasing there will be no absolute dematerialization.  Total demand for energy and materials will keep rising.

He cites research that concludes:

“… growth in GDP ultimately cannot plausibly be decoupled from growth in material and energy use, demonstrating categorically that GDP growth cannot be sustained indefinitely.”  [p. 492]

Smil refers to different economic thinking by economist Kenneth Boulding who suggested we need to move from a “cowboy economy” where unlimited resources can be recklessly exploited towards a “spaceman economy” where the earth is s spaceship with no unlimited resources.   

Of course it is impossible to predict how long we can continue on our present path, or what exactly the outcome will be. 

“Ultimately it comes down to the biosphere’s capacity to support an expanding population consuming at higher rates.”  [p. 502]

But, echoing Greta Thunberg, Smil says,

“Continuous material growth, based on ever greater extraction of the Earth’s inorganic and organic resources and on increased degradation of the biosphere’s finite stocks and services, is impossible.”  [p. 511]

Good life within planetary boundaries is possible, he says, but not without a fundamental restructuring of how we produce and consume.  And we have no time to waste.  Smil concludes the book with:

“I believe that a fundamental departure from the long-established pattern of maximizing growth and promoting material consumption cannot be delayed by another century and that before 2100 modern civilization will have to make major steps towards ensuring the long term habitability of its biosphere.”  [p. 513]

Unsolicited Feedback

Growth was a long and difficult book (leading to a long and difficult review – thanks for sticking with me!).  As you can probably tell from the quotes, Smil’s writing is dry, dense and academic, although he does get a little snarky once in a while. 

Growth is at heart an academic work.  It’s a magnum opus on the subject of growth.  I’m in awe of the breadth of its scope and the depth of its scholarship.  The book is insanely well-researched.  Practically every paragraph in its 513 pages contains one or more academic citations.  The References section runs an additional 100 pages. 

I did not read every word of it.  I skimmed over topics that I was less interested in. 

The overall message of Growth is sobering, especially for a “techno-optimist” like me.  Indefinite exponential growth is impossible.  We cannot predict when or how growth will come to an end, only that it will end if we continue on our present trajectory.  We have few guideposts and very little experience for how to move towards a low- or no-growth civilization.  But we must act quickly to avoid catastrophic degradation of the biosphere. 

These conclusions aren’t new or unique to Smil.  So why did he write such a massive, sprawling book? 

Perhaps Growth’s most important contribution is to shed light on recurring patterns that span the natural and human-made worlds.  It’s an evidence-backed antidote for anyone proposing quick technical fixes or “this-time-it-will-be-different” forecasts.   

But in the end it left me unsatisfied.  Smil draws useful boundaries around how to address the problem of growth but he doesn’t make specific prescriptions or even suggest general approaches that he thinks might work or could be worth trying.  Maybe he feels that’s not his job, or that he would just be speculating.  Still I found this is the most disappointing aspect of the book.

Related Links

Vaclav Smil:  Growth must end — interview with Vaclav Smil in The Guardian

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I just checked my stats page and discovered to my delight that 100 people are following this blog.

Thank you!

I started blogging about 10 years ago. In fact, the original platform was a now-defunct Microsoft product called Spaces. Microsoft got out of blogging and transferred all the Spaces blogs to WordPress and I’ve been here ever since.

I’ve done almost nothing to promote this blog. I don’t post nearly as often as I’d like to, and for sure not often enough to attract a large following, let alone go viral. And most of my posts are quite long.

So to everyone who has chosen to follow Unsolicited Feedback, whether it was years ago or just a few days ago, my sincere thanks!

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Talking to Strangers

Talking to Strangers:  What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know
By Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2019

I’ve read most of Malcolm Gladwell’s books and quite a few of his New Yorker articles.  I love his podcast Revisionist History.  He is a terrific writer and storyteller.  Though he has a tendency to wander off on maddening digressions, the payoff is usually some profound insight or a fascinating connection that makes you see part of the world in a whole new way.

Unfortunately, the payoff is smaller in his latest book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know.

Talking to Strangers

In this book, Gladwell asks two closely related questions:

  • Why can’t we tell when strangers are lying to us?
  • Why is it that meeting someone in person sometimes makes our judgements about them less accurate than not meeting them?

The book starts and ends with the case of Sandra Bland.  Do you remember her?  She was the black woman pulled over by a white policeman named Brian Encinia in Prairie View, Texas for a minor traffic violation in July 2015.  Their interaction became heated, Encinia called for backup and Bland was arrested.  Three days later she committed suicide in her jail cell.

Gladwell uses this case to frame his exploration into why encounters between strangers can be so difficult, dangerous, and sometimes fatal.

He identifies three factors that help answer these questions.

First, humans generally “default to truth:” they operate under the assumption that the people they’re interacting with are telling the truth.  I’ve also heard this called “assuming positive intent.”  Defaulting to truth has incredible personal and societal advantages.  It enables relationship-building, cooperation and collaboration.  In the vast majority of cases, defaulting to truth is the correct assumption.  However, defaulting to truth leaves us vulnerable to that small subset of individuals who are dishonest, like spies, criminals and demagogues.  We are not very good at detecting such people and we often need overwhelming amounts of evidence to convince us of their dishonesty.

Second, we assume “transparency.”

“Transparency is the idea that people’s behavior and demeanor – the way they represent themselves on the outside – provides an authentic and reliable window into the way they feel on the inside.” [p. 152]

It turns out that assuming transparency can lead to serious errors in judgement.  Facial expressions and demeanor vary across cultures.  Even within cultures there are people whose behavior and expressions do not match our expectations.  A witness to a murder does not look as grief stricken or as shocked as we expect, so we interpret this as suspicious rather than allowing for differences in personality.  In other words, we assume we are far better at reading people than we really are.

The assumption of transparency may make sense for most of our interactions.  But if you’re a criminal court judge deciding whether to release a prisoner on bail, or a police officer pulling someone over for a traffic violation, or the leader of one country visiting the leader of another so you can “look them in the eye”, then assuming transparency can be a dangerous delusion.  Sometimes meeting someone in person provides more noise than signal.

Lastly, we fail to account for “coupling.”

“Coupling is the idea that behaviors are linked to very specific circumstances and conditions.”  [p. 273]

Context matters.

“The first set of mistakes we make with strangers – the default to truth and the illusion of transparency – has to do with our inability to make sense of the stranger as an individual.  But on top of those errors we add another, which pushes our problem with strangers into crisis.  We do not understand the importance of the context in which the stranger is operating.”  [p. 282]

So when Brian Encinia pulled Sandra Bland over he did not know that her previous encounters with the police had left her owing over $8000 in outstanding fines, or that she had previously attempted suicide following the loss of a baby, or that she had recently moved to Texas from Illinois hoping to make a new start in life.

For his part, Encinia had been trained to not default to truth, to suspect everyone.  He was expected by his superiors to pull people over for minor traffic violations under a policy of aggressive policing known as “stop and search” even though Prairie View was a low crime area.

“So it was that Brian Encinia ended up in a place he should never have been, stopping someone who should never have been stopped, drawing conclusions that should never have been drawn.  The death of Sandra Bland is what happens when a society does not know how to talk to strangers.”  [p. 342]

Unsolicited Feedback

Talking to Strangers is a quick read despite its 346-page length.  Overall, I found it less satisfying than Gladwell’s previous books.  The arguments do not fit together quite as neatly, and more of the stories than usual seem like distractions, even though they’re well-told.

For example, there’s the Brock Turner case.  He’s the Stanford University student who sexually assaulted a female student at a fraternity party in January 2015. Both were drunk. She was actually unconscious.  He was given a shockingly light sentence.  I’m not arguing with Gladwell’s conclusion that alcohol seriously harms our ability to communicate with each other, including our ability to give consent.  But did he really need an entire 45-page chapter to get there?

More important, I disagree with the premise of his book. I think most of us, most of the time, do just fine talking with strangers.  Yes, we’re imperfect, biased, and over-confident but how often does that actually matter?  The situations Gladwell talks about in the book are extreme edge cases: spies failing to detect enemy agents in their midst, judges misreading violent criminals and allowing them out on bail, cops pulling over innocent people and misinterpreting their behavior.  Hardly any of us have encounters like these, and hardly any of our mistakes have such serious consequences.

These days, we interact with more strangers more often than ever before.  Our cities are becoming more diverse, our work groups often include people from different parts of the world.  We ignore our parents’ dire warnings about the perils of getting into cars with strangers and hop into Ubers and Lyfts without a second thought.  We place ads on Airbnb or Vrbo and invite strangers into our homes.  Some of us even hire them to walk our dogs or babysit our kids.

How is this possible given the dismal picture Gladwell paints about our ability to talk to strangers?  I would argue that we’re actually getting better at talking to strangers.  We’re developing ways to supplement our limited abilities, and to scale up the number of strangers we’re able to evaluate.  We’ve built reputation systems and recommender systems.  Rachel Botsman’s book Who Can You Trust? (book, review) details these new systems of trust.  At work we get training in cultural awareness and implicit bias.  Not everyone, of course – I’m fortunate to be exposed to this due to my job in the tech industry – but it’s becoming more common.

So I think it’s an over-reach to say, “The death of Sandra Bland is what happens when a society does not know how to talk to strangers.”  Rather the death of Sandra Bland is what happens when police officers – people who do have to make consequential judgements about strangers – are improperly trained and are applying inappropriate tactics.  Let’s address specific problems rather than blaming society as a whole.  Let’s get better training for people who frequently talk to and judge strangers, and maybe even for the rest of us who only occasionally do so.

Gladwell does a fine job shedding light on the flaws in how we deal with strangers: defaulting to truth, the fallacy of transparency, and our failure to take context into account.  And there’s no doubt that in certain circumstances these flaws have serious impacts.  I would have appreciated him devoting more of the book to strategies for improving our ability to talk to strangers when and where it matters.

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How To Be An Antiracist

How To Be An Antiracist
By Ibram X. Kendi
One World, New York, 2019

Donald Trump says he’s not racist. In fact, he claims to be the “least racist person that you have ever met.”

In his latest book, How To Be An Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi argues that “not racist” implies some sort of neutrality.  But you cannot be neutral in the fight against racism. There is no middle ground.

“The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’  It is ‘antiracist.’  What’s the difference?  One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist.  One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist.  One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist.  There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’  The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.“ [p. 9]

Kendi is a historian, best-selling author, journalist and speaker.  He is the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington, DC.

How to Be An Antiracist

How To Be An Antiracist examines the history of racism, the ideas and policies that support it, and the often flawed approaches to opposing it.  Kendi’s goal is to get us to clearly recognize racism in society and in ourselves so that we can fight it more successfully.  The book is also partly autobiographical.  He uses stories from his life to illustrate how his own understanding of racism has evolved, and how he too has had to learn how to become antiracist.


The book is built around a set of definitions that frame the problem of racism with mathematical precision, like the steel beams of a skyscraper.  I found these definitions to be powerful and clarifying, easily the most valuable part of the book.  I’m going to quote a few of them here.

Racism: “Racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities.”  [pp. 17-18]

Racial inequity: “Racial inequality is when two or more racial groups are not standing on approximately equal footing.”  [p. 18]

Racist policy: “A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups.  An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups.  By policy I mean written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations and guidelines that govern people.”  [p.18]

Racist ideas: “A racist idea is any idea that suggests that one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.  Racist ideas argue that inferiorities and superiorities of racial groups explain racial inequities in society.”  [p. 20]

Racist: “One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.”  [p.13]

Antiracist: “One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.”  [p.13]

One of the key points Kendi makes in the book is that the words “racist” and “antiracist” are not fixed identities.  They describe our actions and words rather than facets of our character.  He says that most of us, including himself, say and do both racist and antiracist things, and that we switch from racist to antiracist from moment to moment.  So we should not think of the word “racist” as an insult or a slur, but as a descriptive term that helps us correctly identify racism so that we can dismantle it.

The idea of a racial hierarchy is another clarifying concept.  Racist ideas rank people in a false hierarchy of value according to their race, and racist policies produce and perpetuate inequities between racial groups.  You can see this hierarchy embedded in both segregationist and assimilationist policies.  Segregation is based on the idea that one racial group is permanently inferior to another and must be physically separated from the superior group.  Assimilation is the idea that one racial group is inferior to another but that cultural or behavioral improvement programs can elevate members of this group to the “standard” set by the superior group.

Another important theme is that racist ideas and beliefs are a consequence of racist policy, and not the other way around.

“The history of racist ideas is the history of powerful policy-makers erecting racist policies out of self-interest, then producing racist ideas to defend and rationalize the inequitable effects of their policies, …” [p. 230]

Kendi spends several chapters debunking racist ideas that the biology, culture, ethnicity, and behavior of Blacks are somehow deficient or inferior to that of Whites, and that this explains inequitable outcomes like higher poverty, poorer health, shorter lifespans, and higher rates of incarceration among Blacks.

Despite the title, How To Be An Antiracist is not really a step-by-step instruction manual.  But it does set out broad principles and strategies.  Among these, we must treat people as individuals, accept their full humanity, and not define them solely as members of a racial group, nor as representatives of a racial group.

“To be antiracist is to think nothing is behaviorally wrong or right – inferior or superior – with any of the racial groups.  Whenever the antiracist sees individuals behaving positively or negatively, the antiracist sees exactly that: individuals behaving positively or negatively, not representatives of whole races.  To be antiracist is to deracialize behavior, to remove the tattooed stereotypes from every racialized body.  Behavior is something humans do, not races do.”  [p. 105]

Ultimately, he says, “… racial inequity is a problem of bad policy, not bad people.” [p. 231]

Therefore, the most effective way to fight racism, to be an antiracist, is to fight racist policies.  Rather than trying to educate racists to be more tolerant or appealing to their morals or consciences, focus on changing laws and regulations.  The difficulty of course is that racist policies are driven and supported by the self-interest of those who made them, namely powerful Whites.  Successful policy change means making it clear to Whites, either through education or demonstration, that racist policies carry a higher cost than equitable antiracist policies.

For example, Kendi makes the point, which I’ve read elsewhere, that the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s succeeded not just because of the moral leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but also because White elites came to understand that racism in the US was hurting the country’s ability to form alliances with African and Asian countries during the Cold War.

In January 2018, Kendi was diagnosed with metastatic stage 4 colon cancer.   After six months of chemotherapy followed by surgery, he became a cancer survivor.  Kendi ends his book drawing a poignant analogy between his fight against cancer and the fight against racism.  He says we must “saturate the body politic with the chemotherapy or immunotherapy of antiracist policies that shrink the tumors of racial inequities …” [p. 227].

Above all, we must believe we can survive the cancer of racism and believe that transformative change is possible.

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How To Be An Antiracist is one of the few books I’ve read on the subject of racism.  I grew up in a Jewish family and learned about the long history of antisemitism, so I think I’m not completely ignorant about racism.  Still, I’m a white male and I freely admit that I’m only dimly aware of the advantages and privileges that this accident of birth has given me.  One of those privileges is that, frankly, I have not needed to focus much attention on the problem of racism in America.  So with some hesitation, I’d like to offer a few reflections on this book.

One of the objectives of antiracism is that we should see and treat each other as fully human, influenced but not exclusively defined by membership in racial groups.  However, today, right now, we are not on equal footing.  The playing field is not level.  That means policies must be changed in ways that reduce inequities between racial groups.  This in turn invites accusations of reverse discrimination by Whites.  Affirmative action in college admissions is an example.  Kendi would agree that this is discrimination, but would argue that it is acceptable discrimination, at least temporarily, because its purpose is to reduce inequity. Paradoxically, to get to the point where we accept each other as fully human we must first implement policies that establish equity based on race. This is a long journey.

The definitions and the false hierarchy of race that Kendi presents in the book form an equally powerful framework for acting against other forms of bigotry based on gender, sexuality, religion, ability or anything else.  Kendi does address the idea of “intersectionality”, but it’s always under the umbrella of racism.  To use a software term, racism is always the “high-order bit” for Kendi, but it might not be for feminists, LGBTQ activists, etc.   Nonetheless, I imagine the strategy of reducing inequity by changing policy applies to all of them.

I’ll wrap this up by touching on two topics Kendi does not address: demographics and climate change.

Kendi mentions climate change in passing a couple of times, mainly to note that climate change disproportionately affects Blacks since they tend to live in the hotter South, and on poorer quality land.  By Kendi’s definition, refusing to address climate change is a racist policy because it leads to inequitable impacts on Blacks. I don’t know how this is going to play out, but we’re increasingly hearing calls for environmental justice. One trend we’re starting to see is a retreat from coastal areas where government buyouts are cheaper than reconstruction in flood- and storm-ravaged areas.  How to fairly apportion buyout money among, for example, rich Whites with luxury beachfront properties and poor Blacks (and Whites) living in low-lying areas is about to become a hotly debated issue.

Meanwhile the US population is becoming increasingly diverse, according to demographer William H. Frey.  His book, Diversity Explosion (book, review), forecasts that the US will become a minority-majority country shortly after 2040; a majority of the population will come from non-White minority groups.  The White population is declining sharply while Hispanic and Asian groups are growing rapidly. The US Black population is growing too, but at a slower pace. In addition, 16% of new marriages are interracial, and about 3% of the population already identifies as multiracial, according to the 2010 US census.  Today, Whites dominate America both numerically and politically. As they lose numerical dominance, their political dominance will also fade giving non-Whites greater power and influence.  In theory, this should be cause for optimism since growing segments of the US population would benefit from and possibly advocate more equitable antiracist policies.

As I said at the beginning, I think the definitions are the core of this book.  They are precise, powerful and clarifying.

Before reading this book, I would have called myself “not racist”.  Now I know better.  I’m not sure I’m entitled to call myself “antiracist” yet, but as Kendi says, these terms describe ideas, policies and actions rather than identity or character.  I appreciate how his definitions provide an escape route from endless, unproductive, accusatory name-calling.  Instead, they point the way to action.

How To Be An Antiracist took me out of my complacent comfort zone.  It might do the same for you.  That’s why it’s worth reading.

Related Links

“The Heartbeat of Racism is Denial” – Kendi’s January 13, 2018 New York Times opinion essay.

“Ibram X. Kendi’s Latest Book: ‘How To Be An Antiracist’” – NPR interview with Kend.

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Where the Crawdads Sing

Where the Crawdads Sing
By Delia Owens
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 2018

I don’t read much fiction these days, but it’s summertime and the last book I read was about the history of calculus, so I figured I’d try something a little lighter.

This year, on my summer vacation, I read Delia Owens’s novel Where the Crawdads Sing.

Where the Crawdads Sing - Cover

The book, Owens’s first, has been on the bestseller lists almost since the day of its release back in August 2018.  It’s already been picked up by Fox 2000 for a film adaptation.

The Plot

The story begins on October 30, 1969, when two young boys discover the body of Chase Andrews lying in swampy mud outside the small coastal town of Barkley Cove, North Carolina.  Andrews was well-known in the town.  He was a star high school quarterback and the son of one of the town’s wealthiest business owners.

Was his death an accident, or suicide, or murder?

Suspicion quickly falls on Catherine “Kya” Clark, a shy, reclusive young woman who has lived alone for years in a shack on the edge of the nearby marsh.  There isn’t much hard evidence, but Kya is different from the townsfolk.  She’s “the Marsh Girl,” a stranger even though she’s lived alongside them all her life.  She also had a relationship with Andrews a few years earlier, before he got married.

Where the Crawdads Sing isn’t a mystery in the traditional sense.  It tells both the story of Kya’s life starting from about age 6, and the investigation into Chase Andrews’s death and the subsequent murder trial.

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Delia Owens writes beautifully.  Her descriptions of the marshlands where most of the novel takes place are detailed and lush.  She makes you feel both the density of marsh life and the complex interplay of land, water and sky.  Here’s one example early in the book when Kya ventures out in her father’s small motorboat by herself for the first time.

“Ducking beneath the low-hanging limbs of giant trees, she churned slowly through thicket for more than a hundred yards, as easy turtles slid from water-logs.  A floating mat of duckweed colored the water as green as the leafy ceiling, creating an emerald tunnel.  Finally, the trees parted, and she glided into a place of wide sky and reaching grasses, and the sounds of cawing birds.”  [p. 42]

Describing the little town of Barkley Cove, she writes,

“Together the marsh and the sea separated the village from the rest of the world, the only connection being the single-lane highway that limped into town on cracked cement and potholes.” [p. 16]


“Mostly, the village seemed tired of arguing with the elements, and simply sagged.” [p.17]

I liked the structure of the novel too, the way Owens interweaves Kya’s life story with the police investigation into Andrews’s death.  The two threads converge at the murder trial.

The book is well-paced. I never got bored, even though some of the chapters, especially the ones about Kya’s childhood, don’t have much action.  Owens does a great job building suspense through the trial, right up to the moment the jury announces their verdict.  And, no, of course I’m not going to reveal that!

One of the main themes of the novel is abandonment.  Kya is abandoned first by her mother.  Then her siblings slip away and later on her father disappears.  By age 10, she’s living alone at the edge of the marsh, learning how to survive.  Her friend Tate Walker teaches her to read but then abandons her when he goes off to college.  Andrews, her first boyfriend, marries a more conventional girl from the town.  Kya is shunned by the people of Barkley Cove.

Of course the impact of all this is exactly what you’d expect:  Kya has difficulty trusting anyone, or forming attachments.  But she also has difficulty forgiving, or showing much empathy for others.  Living alone, she doesn’t experience the normal flow of people in and out of our lives; school friends moving away, teachers coming and going, siblings growing up and going off to college.  Some of these departures are painful, and, yes, some of them are betrayals.  But most are just everyday life. Kya never has the opportunity to learn this.  Nor does she learn that sometimes we are the ones who move away or go off to college or take a job in another state or another country.

I don’t know how deeply Owens intended to explore the psychological impacts of abandonment, but I think she has cleverly created a character whose development has been stunted by it, and who, as a result isn’t quite fully three-dimensional.

I have one major reservation about Where the Crawdads Sing:  too many points in the story seem implausible.  For example, we’re supposed to believe that Kya survives alone, living at the edge of a marsh almost completely unaided, from the age of 10 into adulthood.  She is forced to become independent, self-sufficient and resourceful.  She also becomes reclusive, skittish when people approach unannounced, and yet somehow manages to escape becoming completely feral.  Now, I’ve read a lot of science fiction over the years and I’m pretty good at suspending disbelief for the sake of a good story, but this is a stretch.

If Kya’s isolated existence was the only dubious part of the novel, that would probably be OK.  But it’s not.

Despite having grown up mostly alone and attending school for just one day, Kya apparently develops a highly sophisticated set of skills.

  • She can speak in an articulate, almost academic fashion about the plant and animal species of the marsh.
  • She knows enough to go to the land registry office and obtain a deed for her property.
  • She is able to develop and execute a complex, tightly orchestrated plan to kill Chase Andrews, including mastering bus and tide schedules and wiping fingerprints.  At least that is what she’s accused of.

Even Chase Andrews’s behavior is puzzling.  We can see he’s a womanizer and a scoundrel, but there’s no indication that he’s violent, until suddenly he is.

Individually, these are minor nits but they formed a set of distractions, like flickering grid lines on the holodeck of the Starship Enterprise, that kept me from becoming completely immersed in the rich and intricate world Owens has created.

Where the Crawdads Sing is extremely well-crafted, but I wasn’t fully captivated by the story.

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Infinite Powers

Infinite Powers
By Steven Strogatz
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2019

Okay, I admit it, even for me this is a geeky book. 

Infinite Powers:  How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe is about the history of calculus and its impact on science, technology, and society. 

infinite Powers book cover

The author, Steven Strogatz, Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University, has done a great job telling both the historical and the mathematical sides of the story (yes, the book has lots of equations) in an way that is interesting and approachable.  He traces the development of calculus, starting with its first inklings in ancient Greece, through its full development by Newton and Leibniz in the late seventeenth century, right up to modern applications in physics, medicine, biology and other fields.   

First of all, what exactly is calculus?  The short answer is that calculus is a branch of mathematics devoted to the study of change, particularly smooth or continuous change.  Differential calculus is used to study rates of change, and integral calculus is focused on the accumulated results of change. 

Calculus developed from studies of curves, motion, and change.  Strogatz says that calculus is concerned with three fundamental problems:

  • Given a curve, find its slope at every point
  • Given a curve’s slope everywhere, find the curve
  • Given a curve, find the area under it

Today, we’re less interested in curves as geometric shapes, as classical geometers were.  We’re more interested in the physical process that gave rise to the curve. 

“In the early seventeenth century, before calculus arrived, [such] curves were viewed as geometrical objects.  They were considered fascinating in their own right.  Mathematicians wanted to quantify their geometrical properties.  Given a curve, they wanted to figure out the slope of its tangent line at each point, the arc length of the curve, the area beneath the curve, and so on.  In the twenty-first century, we are more interested in the function that produced the curve, which models some natural phenomenon or technological process that manifested itself in the curve.  The curve is data but something deeper underlies it.  Today we think of the curve as footprints in the sand, and a clue to the process that made it.  That process – modeled by a function – is what we are interested in, not the traces it left behind.”  [p. 145]

But you could also think of calculus as an approach for thinking about and solving certain kinds of mathematical and scientific problems.  Strogatz calls this approach The Infinity Principle:

“To shed light on any continuous shape, object, motion, process or phenomenon – no matter how wild and complicated it may appear – reimagine it as an infinite series of simpler parts, analyze those, and then add the results back together to make sense of the original whole.” [p. xvi]

It’s simple, right?  For example, to calculate the area of a complicated shape, say the area underneath a parabolic curve, slice up the area into an infinite number of infinitely thin rectangular strips, figure out how to calculate the area of one of the strips, then add up all the strips.  Easy-peasy!

Of course, the tricky part is that the area of one of those infinitely thin strips should be zero.  And adding up a bunch of strips whose area is zero should give you a total area of zero, which doesn’t seem like the right answer.

This dance with infinity is what makes calculus a little mind-bending at first.  It turns out this dance has been going on for a long, long time.

Strogatz traces the development of calculus, and the accompanying challenge of dealing with infinity, starting with Zeno (495 BC – 430 BC) and his paradoxes, and Archimedes (287 BC – 212 BC) and his surprisingly modern methods for determining the circumference of a circle.  Strogatz takes us through the contributions of Kepler and Galileo, Descartes and Fermat, and of course Newton and Leibniz.  This development culminates in the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus which links the area under a curve at any point, to the function that produced that curve to the slope of the curve at that same point.  It’s one of the most powerful mathematical results ever produced.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

But it’s not just dry history.  What makes Infinite Powers so interesting is that in each chapter Strogatz also explores modern problems or technologies that depend on calculus for their solution, or even their existence.  For example, the methods of calculus, cutting up a problem into in infinite number of tiny sub-problems, is used today in CT scanning where x-rays are used to scan tissue in thin slices from many different angles. The results are then reassembled to produce diagnostic images of tumors deep inside the brain.  Or take computer animation where the contours of a human face are built up from millions of tiny polygons. 

But the influence of calculus hasn’t stopped there. Newton used calculus to derive his famous three laws of motion.  But as Strogatz argues, perhaps Newton’s greatest legacy is the idea of a logical universe, one describable by natural laws, expressed in the language of calculus, which apply universally, both on earth and in the heavens.  We take this idea of a universe governed by natural laws for granted today, but in Newton’s time it was shocking and revolutionary.


Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton

This idea in turn influenced Enlightenment thinking about determinism, liberty and human rights.  Strogatz points out that you can even see the influence of Newtonian thinking in the US Declaration of Independence, which contains in its opening paragraph an appeal to Natural Law. 

It really is hard to overstate the impact of calculus on mathematics, science and technology, and Strogatz does a good job conveying his enthusiasm for both the subject and its applications.

I know this isn’t the sort of book that will appeal to everyone, but if you feel like dipping your toe into a popular science book, give Infinite Powers a try.  Even if you skim over the mathematical details and just read for the history, you might be pleasantly surprised.

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