Do Humankind’s Best Days Lie Ahead? – Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Alain de Botton & Malcolm Gladwell

[The opposition, pro-statement] are believers in the victory of knowledge over ignorance. Ignorance, a big scourge of our times, will be resolved through the light of reason … The great promise of the Enlightenment was that if you tell people what the right thing to do is they will do it, that evil is the result of ignorance. It’s not. Idiocy is more stubborn than that.

Alain de Botton

… as a society, we have been engaged not in the reduction of risk but in the reconfiguration of risk. You don’t have to worry about a famine every five years, but you have to worry about a mega-hurricane coming along and wiping out Miami. You don’t have to worry about a guy in Romania stealing your credit card, but you have to worry about North Korea coming in and shutting off the power for two weeks.

Malcolm Gladwell

How to critique a transcription?

Should we watch a recording of the debate first? After? At all? My grandfather enjoys telling me that Shakespeare’s work was written to be heard, viewed, though I have never known him to attend performances; his shelves are stuffed with worn, loved, often quoted copies of the Bard. Is this also true, then, of the drama and reaction of a debate; that there is something to gain, too, from the transcript, even when claiming true spectacle and impact is found in the live moment?

Debate transcriptions burn away the panel’s public speaking abilities and, to a degree, their context as people. Words are isolated, so that we may measure their weight, albeit in hindsight and away from the action, in their own context – like studying historical war strategy. (I have no idea whether this is true, of course, having never participated in war – the image just seems fitting – gun butts for rebuttals.) The debate as transcript becomes an entirely different creature. Once isolated as text, if this is the correct way to think about it – after all, it is now a book! – do we critique the effectiveness of a point made, like we might an essay? Or do we judge the publisher’s presentation of the discussion as the conversation to read on the question at hand?

In the end, I decided to read the introductory speeches from all four speakers, unaffected by anything other than their research into the central question, both one’s own position and the likely position of your opponent, and the effective communication of points to be made. I then chose to watch the rest of the debate online.

The transcription (Transcription Divas, for those interested) douses some of the heat, not to mention the inevitable, sometimes indecipherable layering of speech. This is a clean conversation sequence..

It is too painful to not use my position in the debate, before and after, to make my conclusion – albeit after many questions I intend to explore further. Gladwell and de Botton channel pragmatism through justified pessimism about humanity’s future, while Pinker – with Ridley as little more than a top-up for ‘comedic’ effect, seen particularly on the screen but also in his vague, hollow contributions – seemed to be labouring under the delusion of his / their privilege (the wealthy, comparatively-untroubled folk saying ‘everything is much better than it used to be, and it’ll only get better!’ is grating). Though the audience crowned them ‘winners’ that evening, I couldn’t help but think this book, as a result, gained immeasurable worth as an example of the dangers of humanity: it is not information that prevails, but the dramatism of the speakers, shrouding easily the ignorance clownishness of some (mentioned in de Botton’s quote above, and seen with the current Conservative Party opposing this were either two weak and, in de Botton’s phrasing, brittle to make their sunny attitudes more flexible.


6 / 10 – in my context: (you can watch the debate here by signing up for free.) immensely wealthy, born-into-privilege people arguing that the world is only getting better was always going to grate on me, punctuated by Gladwell’s point: no women were on the panel, and this was 2015. i tried – and i hope didn’t fail – to take personal preferences away here for the sake of critiquing whether the debate was worth putting to paper. haven’t read a transcribed book before; certainly now aim to read more. an idea also came to me: a series of books that asks a question, but doesn’t say who the speakers were on the topic – though, they should be notable in their field – until the end. it gives readers the opportunity to consider their position and side without the prejudices of knowing the people and their contexts.

No One is Too Small to Make a Difference – Greta Thunberg

I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.


Shame is a useful emotion.

When the space around us falls quiet, a private voice notes, firmly, that a mistake has been made. We played a part in that mistake – too much, too little – and, now, correction, redemption, is required.

No One is Too Small to Make a Difference, published by Penguin Books in May, collects eleven of Greta Thunberg’s lionised climate change speeches (including one Facebook post) since September 2018. Her staple sermon opens, matures, as Greta plays with new metaphors and tests them for impact, but it remains grounded in fact: burning fossil fuels must stop, our current political approach does not work, and you – we, all of us – are not acting as though this is the crisis science repeatedly proves it to be.

There is a chance (like there is a minute chance of finding cheese on the moon we may soon be forced to inhabit) that climate change will be solved by Greta’s critics: pondering a fear mongering schoolgirl, nominated for a Nobel peace prize; asking on what basis? someone like Greta (16-years old) claims to speak for future generations; perhaps, Greta recalls, by calling her ‘retarded, a bitch and a terrorist’. Alternatively, we could try the book’s suggested method: demonise and banish the brittle husks of media and political rhetoric, learn about solutions that already exist, embrace the shame of our collective inaction, then collectively demand change. No One is Too Small to Make a Difference covers the shame part. The rest is up to us.


8 / 10 – in my context: i wrote a letter after reading Greta’s book, and posted it (yes, in a postbox) to activists & politicians i believe are sympathetic to the climate change crisis. my rating respects the book as a collection that symbolises the repetitive, rephrasing process of communicating the crisis. i’d had a quiet morning before i read the book and wrote this short critique, then the letter – it kindled a warm contentment i hadn’t felt for some time, so i took advantage. ‘do they hear us?’ we’ll see soon enough. also, while i continue to learn how to critique books properly, i suppose my enjoyment comes from thinking about and finding a book’s place in the world.