Issue 04: Holding up the skies

4th June 2021

Some of the clearest thinkers dig into the environmental challenges we face today. Plus, Scott Alexander writes for us on the peculiar link between depression and suicide.


Our magazine is called Works in Progress. Sometimes that means looking at how we can make more progress, sometimes that means projecting progress forwards and guessing what the future is going to be like. And sometimes, that means tracking the progress we have actually made. This issue brings all of those strands together.

Remember the hole in the ozone layer? Only forty years ago, the enormous and growing hole was a massive worry that was set to cause permanent and scarring environmental damage.

Our lead essay in this issue sees Hannah Ritchie, head of research at Our World in Data, explain how scientists discovered the problem and how the world came together to solve it, in her piece How we fixed the ozone layer. This mammoth – but successful – effort is little known but well worth celebrating, and holds lessons for our ongoing effort against climate change.

Inspired by Hannah Ritchie’s piece, we commissioned an illustration of Atlas holding up the skies from Eysteinn Þórðarson, an illustrator from Iceland. He currently works in Reykjavík as an art director, manages the brand and artwork for Austri Brewery. You can find more of his work here.

How have we tackled other environmental challenges? A major problem people face around the world is lead poisoning. After decades of research, there is clear evidence that lead exposure disrupts brain development and even increases crime.

Sue Márquez, data scientist and manager at the Rockefeller Foundation, explains why lead pipes have proved difficult to excavate and replace in the US, and the remaining steps we need to take to Bury the lead once and for all.

Ryan Murphy, an economics professor at Southern Methodist University, explores progress of a completely and utterly different kind. Progress in science, in technology, in agriculture, and in fact in almost everything, is widely accepted, Murphy notes. But, for some reason, we find it difficult to believe that we experience progress in the arts, even though almost everyone mostly consumes films, video games, books and music made recently.

This is a mistake, he argues. In fact, we see similar kinds of progress in film and literature as we do in computer chips and solar panels. Even if you end up disagreeing with his view that the upcoming Casablanca remake will be better than the original, it is almost impossible not to feel the intriguing and contrarian power of his piece This is what peak culture looks like.

Some environmentalists are convinced that climate change will require austerity and reduced living standards from the people of the rich world. Indeed, some seem to think that unless an austere pre-industrial lifestyle is implemented, climate change and global warming cannot, or should not, be solved.

Ted Nordhaus, director of the Breakthrough Institute, resolutely does not take this view. In a wide ranging interview with our editors Nick and Saloni, he dives into the history of the eco-modernist movement and explains how crucial technology is and has been in the fight against climate change.

Not every story is about progress, in either the world or this magazine. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused untold stress, pain, and economic difficulty, alongside massive death and suffering. Unsurprisingly, many many more people have become depressed and unhappy. And yet suicides have not risen.

We had just the right man to investigate this: Scott Alexander, the Slate Star Codex blogger and professional psychiatrist, digs, digs, and digs some more into the data in his essay Why didn’t suicides rise during Covid? He finds some intriguing leads but no clear answers, in a characteristically addictive and fluent exploration of his home turf.

Most of our readers will probably agree that it is pretty nice that we have experienced all the progress we have. After all, the alternative is grinding away at the millstones, as Rachel Laudan explored so beautifully two issues ago. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a bit more – as a treat?

José Luis Ricón, a blogger and book reviewer at Nintil, notes that the scientific system isn’t working as it should. Some of the best scientists are leaving academia, unable to secure funding, and even those who receive funding often wait months applying for and awaiting it.

Though we have heard many solutions to fix science – some of which we have featured in this magazine – Ricón argues that many of these proposals are not under-girded with sufficient scientific evidence. As he argues, We don’t know how to fix science. He makes a powerful case that why we need experiments to answer this vital question, potentially revolutionising the way we practice science.

One of the most headline hungry (not to mention power hungry) technologies in the world today is cryptocurrency. It is clearly not just a short lived gimmick – trillions of dollars are being poured into owning it and naysayers have been, seemingly, proven wrong. Andrea O’Sullivan, director of the Center for Technology and Innovation at the James Madison Institute, explains why this is, in Why Tesla Bought Bitcoin.

New on the blog

There’s a reflexive tendency for policymakers to respond to challenges in science by simply increasing funding. But what if that’s not enough? Caleb Watney and M. Anthony Mills focus on the Endless Frontier Act and argue that we need structural reform to fix the deeper issues in science in their piece, Funding isn’t enough to fix science.

Even more

What have we been up to since the last issue?

We’re always thinking about housing – one of the biggest problems in the developed world. Here’s an excellent article by Sean Keyes, in the exciting new Irish publication The Currency – it explains concisely and convincingly how to get more housing built, building upon a report by Ben and Samuel Hughes. Our editors Sam and Ben debate whether the UK Government’s current housing reform plans will work. Ben says they will, Sam says they won’t.

In March, we held a virtual conference with Oxford Union featuring conversations between some of our favourite thinkers – Rachel Laudan, Tyler Cowen, Patrick Collison, Steven Pinker, Stuart Ritchie and Stian Westlake. We’ll share links and highlights from these fascinating conversations in the coming days.

Our editor Saloni wrote for The New Statesman on the history of pandemics and what the future holds in Where will the next pandemic come from and how can we prevent it? She also joined the team at Our World In Data, doing research on health and human medicine.

Here are a few more things we’ve enjoyed from around the web:

  • How extending patent protection to plants boosted agricultural productivity by rewarding innovation.
  • We’ve come to understand the anti-mask push in February and March 2020 from global health authorities as a “noble lie” to conserve masks for health workers. Lessons from the Crisis shows that this understanding is false.
  • Ed West writes on how the Anglo Saxons built England.
  • Remember the vaunted behavioural economics tome, Thinking Fast, and Slow? It turns out that about half of the findings cited in the book fail to replicate (so far!). Stuart Ritchie argues Kahneman’s new book faces similar problems.
  • Many people believe that the Ottomans banned printing. But did they really? Detective historian Anton Howes investigates the records to find the answer.
  • Advertising is generally seen as annoying waste. Jeff Kaufman explains why it’s not.
  • Alexey Guzey and co reckon they can change science by personalising it and stripping out the bureaucracy. It just might work.

That’s all for now. We hope you enjoy this issue and have a great weekend!

– Saloni, Ben, Sam and Nick