What we need to save the world

With Robert Wright

This is the second segment from my recent conversation from Robert Wright, the co-founder of Bloggingheads.tv and the publisher of the Nonzero Newsletter, who is now working on a new book tentatively titled Apocalypse Aversion Project.

Here, I talk about the American dream, which I maintain is alive and well, and about the dangers of turning one’s back on the country; and Bob talks about the necessity of a spiritual transformation for the salvation of the world.

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WRIGHT: This actually emerged in conversation with the aforementioned Nikita Petrov, who helps you with the show, the newsletter, and the Patreon page, when I told him I was going to be having this conversation with you.

It has to do with the importance of positive narratives. I think one thing you don't like about the 1619 narrative is that I think it's your view that nations need positive narratives, America needs a positive narrative.

A question arose in terms of the message you would like to present to, say, young African Americans who are born in poverty or born in the inner city where the set of incentives they face is not healthy. What's the most positive way you would frame what you have to say to them?

I mean, I know there are a series of affirmative exhortations, right? You know, tuck your shirt in, show up for that job interview, quit whining, however you would put it (and if I'm caricaturing your view, feel free to tell me). But you know what I mean: there are a series of exhortations, but how would you put the inspiring narrative?

Yeah, there are exhortations. So at the personal level, what do you need to do? Clean up your act. Stand up straight with your shoulders back, as Jordan Peterson put it. (Laughs.) There's that schtick.

It's a great country. It's a free and it's an open society. It's not a perfect country, but it's a great country, and there's tremendous opportunity here.

I want to tell the story. When Myrdal was writing about the American Negro at mid-twentieth century—this is Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma et cetera—the typical job for a Black woman was domestic servant, the typical job for a Black man was some kind of laborer in industry or on a farm somewhere. I mean, I'm talking about 40% or 50% of the working population in 1940 were doing jobs like that.

There weren't any Black billionaires, or very, very, very few equivalent of that achievement at that time in history.

There were huge swaths of the country where people couldn't vote. They talk about voter suppression now and what they mean is they move the polling place, or they ask someone for an ID. They don't mean what it used to mean when you couldn't actually vote.

You would go into corporate suites, they would be lily-white. You turn on the television, it was lily-white.

This is within my lifetime. These are real things. The fact that we have such a short memory doesn't wipe out what actually has been achieved. 

And I would want to reframe the story.

If Colin Kaepernick is pissed off, as he has every right to be, about a cop shooting a kid who didn't have a weapon somewhere in America, and he wants everybody to know that he's pissed off—this is me talking—don't make the site of your protests the national anthem's acknowledgment. The country is not fundamentally flawed. The country, as history has demonstrated in the last 75 years, has an enormous capacity for institutional and attitudinal transformation. You need the country in order to get anything done that you actually want to get done, whether it's police reform, healthcare, minimum wage, whatever.

You want attention to the poverty in the inner cities and the housing projects? You need the country.

So don't arrogate to yourself this presumption of moral rectitude that has you giving the back of your hand to the citizens whose support you ultimately need in order to engage. 

So… I don't know if I'm responding to you now. What would I tell the kid? I’d tell the kid the reason that you should do what telling you to do—clean up your act, stand up straight with your shoulders back, stay in school, don't get into trouble, et cetera—is because basically the American dream is not a fraud, as Ta-Nehisi Coates would have it. The American dream is real. It's being realized by millions and tens of millions as we speak. We are a beacon to the entire world and you have a birthright citizenship here, an entitlement here. This is your home. This is your country.

Your race is a part of the social reality, but there's a lot of stuff that's a part of the social reality. It does not define you. I can go on with the speech for a long time, but I think you see how it goes. 

One reason I'm interested in the question of how you frame the positive narrative is I have my own hobby horses. As you had known when we started this, I wanted to spend a little time on stuff I'm doing. I have a newsletter, it's called the Nonzero Newsletter. A book I wrote called Nonzero that came out—I'm having trouble grasping the reality of this, but it came out 21 years ago. Did you know William McNeill, the historian? He wrote The Rise of the West. 

I did not know him. 

He was at the University of Chicago, one of the last historians who was allowed to do bigthink, I think. You know, a huge, grand-vision picture of history.

In any case, while I was working on the Nonzero—this was earlier than 2000, when the book came out, and McNeill has since passed away, he was at this point maybe in his eighties—we were talking on the phone, and he said, how old are you? I said, 43. And he said, you're at the height of your powers. (Laughs.) That was about right, I now realize.

In other words, you're not as sharp analytically as you might have been when mathematicians peak in their twenties, but you've acquired this knowledge, maybe a certain amount of wisdom, and yet your analytical game hasn't fallen off a whole lot. Your memory hasn't fallen off. He nailed it.

Anyway, it has been 21 years, at least, since I was at the height of my powers, apparently. That's a digression.

The newsletter I've been putting out for a few years and has built up a fairly large, by my standards, email base, has recently acquired a paid version, which is the location of what I'm calling the Apocalypse Aversion Project.

(Laughs.) And you've got to save the world, huh? 

Well, you earlier laughed about you sounding grandiose, as if you want to save civilization. And at that point, I thought, “He doesn't know grandiose. You want to hear grandiose? I can do grandiose.”

(Laughs.) “Apocalypse Aversion.”

So the logic, just quickly. Nonzero was an account of how we got to globalization. It was a story of humankind that starts like 20,000 years ago or more, when the most complex human social organization was the hunter-gatherer village. It traces the growth in the scope and depth of social complexity to where we are. And it has kind of a game theoretical explanation of it, having to do with the way technology keeps providing new kinds of non-zero-sum opportunities.

I like to think it's not naive or simplistic. There's a big role for zero-sum dynamics in life, and competition has been a big force in the evolution of human society to where we are now, to the level of globalization. 

But the argument was, look, now we’re kind of at the threshold of having a global community. We're not there. We do not have a world full of peacefully interacting and cooperating nations.

And that's a shame, because technology is presenting more and more non-zero-sum problems. Pandemics, climate change, unconstrained arms developments in the realm of biological weapons, weapons in space. And there’s the danger of things like genetic engineering or artificial intelligence evolving in a context of intense international competition among nations. You can just imagine things going awry.

So there's lots of cases for needing more in the way of cooperation, of international governance, international accords. And the argument was, if we don't understand that, if we don't respond wisely to non-zero-sum dynamics, the whole thing could spiral downward rapidly. You can imagine various forms of global chaos.

I'm being a little light-hearted when I refer to it as “the apocalypse”—I guess as lighthearted as you can be about something that grave. But I do think there's a real chance for chaos. 

When I say Apocalypse Aversion Project—I mean, first of all, I'm averse to this version of the apocalypse, but it would also be nice to avert it, to figure out ways for it not to happen.

And I think the challenge goes beyond policy, although policy is a huge part. But I think because of what you and I have been talking about, which is more and more strife between various kinds of tribes—including ideological tribes, including nations—there's a kind of psychological adjustment that we need that is so profound that even a secular person might be willing to call it spiritual, if that makes any sense.

I mean a reexamination of the way you relate to other human beings and a much greater expenditure on behalf of the goal of understanding how the world looks to them. Cognitive empathy, just perspective-taking.

This is my obsession. I'm curious about your reaction to that. And it relates to a lot of things we've been talking about, I think. Including, how do you develop a positive message, how do you get people motivated to work toward a goal that might seem remote and overwhelming and daunting? 

It's a lot to react to off the cuff. I'm heartened to know that you're thinking big.

That that's never been a problem with me, Glenn.

Okay, but you’ve also delivered. It’s been 21 years. So we're still waiting for the next book. I know there's been a book since then. 

Not true! There've been two! Don't sell me short, man. 

I meant about this problem. 

Well, the last book, which was modestly titled Why Buddhism Is True and was a reference strictly to the so-called secular naturalistic part of Buddhism, was about why meditation gives you a clear view of the world, in my opinion. I'll shut up in a second, but that was very much about how one way—not the only way, but one way—of achieving a state of mind that is more conducive to understanding among human beings and solving problems rather than making them worse.

I would even say that the book before that, The Evolution of God, was in a way an extension of Nonzero

The universe begins to take shape here. Why Buddhism Is True.

It seems to me—now I give an economist kind of response—the problem in cooperative game theory, where we can all get together and enjoy a bigger surplus if we cooperate than if we compete with each other, is arranging so that everybody can be assured that, when the surplus is shared or the burdens are borne, they get a good deal out of it. And that can be an insurmountable problem under some circumstances.

So that suggests transformative solutions where the very preferences of the agents are the subject of manipulation rather than contracts or agreements about transfers, but what do we want? 

So for example, with the climate problem. I mean, we can think about it in terms of, well, we have to put less carbon in the atmosphere, the world will not stand it if we don't do that. And then who goes first and who's the one that's going to pay the cost of that becomes a really big deal.

Or we can think about it in terms of, do we all have to fly across the Atlantic twice a year? Does everybody have to have air conditioning at 70 degrees when the temperature outside is 90? Can we live our lives within a hundred-mile radius of where we were born and nevertheless be fulfilled? A different way of living.

If I've got a globe where some countries are very rich and advanced and other countries are, as it were, coming into the modern world and people coming out of villages in the tens and hundreds of millions. Do they all have to have air conditioners? Does everybody have to pave over highways? But I can't ask them to live a way that's different from the way that I'm living.

So it is a much more fundamental challenge to ask us to look within at how it is that we perceive our fulfillment and happiness being attained, and to question and interrogate whether that is a part of the problem, rather than pointing the finger at the guy across the road and saying that he has to use less or whatever.


I can see the ambition, the intellectual ambition. And I see why spiritual might be the right word to put on a program which takes as its focus changing the way we think about what a good life is and how we'll be fulfilled in that life as a way of mitigating the worst downsides from us conflicting with each other. I give climate as an example of that. 

And it’s only one. And I think it's actually one of the few problems of this type that has gotten close to as much attention as it deserves. Even people who think it's not a problem are at least aware of it.

And you're right, the perspective-taking is a challenge here because from the point of view of nations that have been developing and are now on the verge of prosperity—or even, say in the case of China, have attained a fair amount of it—they're like, “Wait a second. When you were in the process of developing, you were just spewing stuff with total disregard. So can we just do that during the stage of our development that's comparable to the stage of development during which you did that?”

It's a very challenging thing, and you're right, collective action is a huge problem.

Trump's an interesting case, because some of the things he said about NATO were right. NATO is a collaborative enterprise. The burden should be borne equally. Ultimately, the United States built it in part to serve American interests, and that should continue to happen.

On the other hand, Trump was, broadly speaking, kind of anti-international governance. I don't think he recognized problems where you do need various kinds of alliance. And I think he just created such an air of antagonism, it was hard to get any work done.

I guess I would like people to become more aware of how their ability to see things from the point of view of the other person is shaped by how that other person or other group is being framed to them.

There’s an under-discussed cognitive bias called attribution error, where it turns out that once you put somebody in the enemy box, it's actually very hard to do a good job of perspective-taking, of understanding how things look from their point of view. And yet it’s important, even with adversaries and enemies, to understand where they're coming from.

I'd like people to be more aware of the way various international actors and groups and nations are framed in the media and so on affects our ability to think about their perspective.

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