A reply to The golden quarter

Published at aeon.co.

A reply to The golden quarter by Michael Hanlon on Aeon

Michael Hanlon asserts that we have become more risk-averse as a species, even pointing to social protests as an example of progress-seeking risk-taking that’s on waning.

I think Ferguson, the Arab Spring, the Syrian refugees, and Minneapolis this week contradict this. The world may have more people taking life-threatening risks in the name of some progress today than it had total population during the Golden Quarter. And individuals such as Antonio French and Lourdes Ashley Hunter are achieving social progress through personal risks.

In science and technology, though, risk-taking is certainly in decline among the privileged few who will not benefit from progress. There are precious few Elon Musks willing to trade their own wealth for technological progress goals. I doubt this is a new phenomenon. What is different, today, is our dependance on these men of means to make progress-seeking risks. Which brings our search for a cause back to inequality.

Hanlon dismissed inequality as a root cause largely because public R&D spending seems to also have lost efficacy. This can also be seen as an issue of inequality, though – comfortably wealthy nations needn’t engage in risky research. (At least when the risks are easily understood to their citizens. So allowing some voters to die during a drug trial is much more “dangerous” than invading a foreign land with consequences distant and indirect.)

So, yes, taking risks is a necessary condition to progress, and seems to be in decline. The cause of this, I believe, is concentration of wealth and power.