Michael Muthukrishna: Energy crisis and the role of nuclear

Michael Muthukrishna: Energy crisis and the role of nuclear

Do we need nuclear energy to solve our energy crisis? Michael Muthukrishna shares his insights.

Michael is an associate professor of economic psychology at the London School of Economics, and the author of the book "A Theory of Everyone: Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going".

We discuss:

  • Human cooperation and coordination at various scales, and the role that energy plays in enabling this

  • The importance of energy for enabling innovation and improved human welfare

  • The application of evolutionary psychology in economics

  • Our energy and environmental crises

  • Nuclear energy - past present and future

  • Green technologies

  • Climate change

… and other topics

Watch on YouTube. Listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or any other podcast platform. Read the full transcript here. Follow me on LinkedIn or Twitter/X for episodes and infrequent social commentary.

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Episode links


Timestamps for audio episode

00:00 Episode intro

01:00 Energy and nuclear power - reflections

08:00 How do cultural differences impact how we work together?

23:30 Why is human coordination and cooperation so difficult

33:50 Why do we need energy abundance to enable cooperation?

46:05 What is the most efficient energy source?

1:00:00 Why is energy becoming scarce?

1:06:45 Nuclear - why might this be our best bet?

1:11:40 Sustainability - should we pull the brakes?

1:23:16 Major challenge for the 21st century

1:27:50 Book recommendations

Introduction - The Future of Nuclear

From a first principles perspective it’s hard to imagine anything more important to our collective flourishing than energy. Energy is a necessary input into everything we do. Considered as a raw material, it could be argued that it’s the only raw material involved in every production process.

This places us in a challenging position, because global energy consumption is growing at a rate far higher than our ability to supply it affordably, at least without wrecking havoc on the environment. Many arguments have been put forward as potential solutions to this challenge.

On the demand side of the equation, one commonly heard argument is that our energy crisis is largely a problem of excess consumption, and that the best solution lies in reducing global energy usage. There is certainly a kernel of truth in this line of thought, because per person energy consumption has been creeping upwards over the past several decades, and it’s quite clear that a lot of our energy usage is for things we don’t really need.

However, the consumption argument has several major flaws. For one thing it neglects that the increasing per person consumption has been largely driven by developing nations coming online, especially in Asia, and for these countries improved energy availability is one of the most important levers for improving life outcomes. There are also the issues of global population growth, and the practical question of how one could even implement meaningful reduction in energy consumption at scale, to make no mention of many negative knock-on effects of doing so.

Arguments on the supply side of the equation are much more promising, and here there are many people talking about specific energy sources like solar and wind, and technologies like hydrogen fuel cells.

And one such technology that has been coming back into public attention in recent years is nuclear energy.

We’re currently operating in a paradigm in which around half of American adults view nuclear energy as a bad thing, and are opposed to ramping up nuclear energy production. And this sentiment is shared in much of the Western world. To many people, the idea of increasing nuclear energy production conjures up imagery of nuclear meltdowns, vats of radioactive waste, and escalating risk of nuclear warfare. People associate nuclear energy with the meltdowns in Chernobyl and Fukushima, or the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and have deeply held intuitions that nuclear energy is dangerous and environmentally destructive.

On the other side of the fence there is a growing number of people who think it’s been crystal clear for a very long time that nuclear energy must play a role in our energy future. Key among these people are many physicists, economists, and energy scientists. And when one considers the numbers, it’s not difficult to see why these people hold this view.

From an economic perspective, the energy return on investment for nuclear energy dwarfs any other scalable energy source we have at present. A modern nuclear power plant produces an energy return on investment of up to 75x. That means for every unit of energy we put into it, we get back 75 times that amount in usable energy. No other modern energy source comes close. Solar, for example, currently sits at about 4x.

From an environmental perspective there are also very compelling arguments in favour of nuclear energy. Nuclear power plants produce significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions per unit energy produced than other sources. And while nuclear energy plants do produce nuclear waste materials, this happens in incredibly small volumes and in a very contained and controlled way. There is very good reason to believe that the environmental impact of nuclear energy pales in comparison to the large amount of environmental damage generated by pumping fossil fuel waste into the atmosphere. For example, the average American consumes roughly 1 gigawatt hour of energy through the course of a lifetime. If entirely fuelled by nuclear energy, this would result in a total volume of nuclear waste production that’s smaller than the size of a can of coke, and this waste would be well contained within that can. Compare this current average CO2 emissions from electricity production globally, where we would expect closer to 500 tonnes of carbon dioxide produced for this amount of energy.

There’s also the question of safety. Despite what many people believe, the death toll related to nuclear energy is incredibly low compared with alternative sources, and this includes any deaths associated with nuclear accidents, which are very rare.

I’ll include a few insightful links from our World in Data in the show notes, which covers these facts.

If all this is true it begs the question as to why the world isn’t racing towards accelerated adoption of nuclear energy. And the reasons here are complex with many factors at work.

There are geopolitical concerns relating to the possible proliferation of nuclear weapons should more countries gain access to sufficient volumes of nuclear source materials, although I should mention that even here there are good arguments in favour of more nuclear energy. It’s argued that ramping up nuclear energy will actually aid disarmament efforts, because some of the most readily available sources of nuclear fuel is in existing nuclear weapons. So ramping up nuclear energy production would be a motivation for dismantling these weapons.

Even so, there are remaining economic challenges relating to high upfront costs and long timelines for new nuclear facilities, and the inability to shut down nuclear power plants at short notice.

All this to say that the question of whether we should have a nuclear renaissance is not a straightforward one.

My current view on this topic is that nuclear energy should play an important role in addressing our energy crisis, and I think it will likely be a critical part of our energy future for at least several centuries to come. We absolutely do need to take the problems associated with nuclear energy seriously, but I think these problems are solvable, and the cost-benefit and risk-reward calculus strongly suggest that the world will be a better place if we shift more of our energy production to nuclear sources.

Slowly but surely the political tides do seem to be turning in this direction, and I expect that we’ll be talking about nuclear energy a lot more over the coming decade.

And my guest today agrees, and makes a compelling case for this future in his book. I think it’s a very good book, and worth reading if these topics pique your interest.

Whatever your position on this topic, if you find this conversation valuable then please share it with others who might as well. We do need to turn up the volume of public discourse on this topic. 

Thank you for reading Paradigm. This post is public so feel free to share it.



This transcript is AI-generated and may contain errors. It will be corrected and annotated with links and citations over time.

[00:07:59] Matt Geleta: Michael, let's set the stage by talking about life as a global citizen. Um, I share your very uncommon experience of having lived in more countries and cities and towns than I could care to name. And, um, I mean, for me, this has been deeply formative to my worldview. It's, um, it's really had a profound impact on how I think about the world and my place in it.

Um, how has this history of yours shaped your, your worldview?

[00:08:26] Michael Muthukrishna: Yeah, so, I mean, the way I sometimes explain it to my students is, like, if you, if you speak a single language, like, let's say English, then you don't really think about the structure of the words you're saying, right? You just speak. Um, but if you, if you learn even one other language, and especially one that's a little bit more linguistically different, then you start to see the kind of structure of language, you realize that word order can be different, what you have to say is different, uh, nouns can have genders, you know, things that you might, might not have occurred to you before.

I think it's similar if you, you know, if you. are exposed to different cultures, especially at kind of a formative age, let's say before 15 or uh, you know, before 25, then you, you start to see the structure of culture. Like you start to realize that a lot of the things that you take for granted because it's just the water you swim in, things you assume are right and wrong or values and goals, what's important, what's not, um, these things vary around the world.

And, and, and it's a lot deeper than people People really assume, uh, at a very fundamental level, and we now have data even down to like perception, uh, you know, susceptibility to visual illusions, um, you know, categories of smell, all of these different things vary around the world in fundamental ways. And, you know.

One of the cases that I've tried to make is that a lot of failed foreign policy, a lot of failed, uh, immigration policies, uh, a lot of failed, you know, trans, uh, national cooperative enterprises fail because of these assumptions that people make that everyone around the world is roughly like them. They just kind of dress differently.

They speak different languages and eat different foods. And it's not true. It's not true. You know, um, we now know that what makes humans so different to other animals is that instead of kind of genetically speciating, when we encountered new environment, we almost kind of culturally speciated. We, we ended up with very different psychology, very different norms and beliefs and behaviors in different places, in different places around the world.

so I'll, I'll give you a few examples of this. Um, at a, at a kind of normative level, uh, you know, people are aware that in some parts of the world, um, family. Is more important than other parts of the world.

So this is sometimes called interdependence or collectivism versus independence, right? Um, any decision that you make is affected by all of the other people around. You can't decide your career. You can't sometimes even decide your partner without, you know, uh, uh, the, the support of your family. Um, but things run, things run even deeper than that, right?

So there are obligations around that, which lead to, for example, nepotism, um, because, you know, if you have obligations toward family, that, those obligations might not disappear just because you're a minister now, right? Um, some things are about, like, what is valuable, like, is it, uh, does it, does it matter that you're consistent?

across different people, or can you be a different person to everyone you deal with? Does it matter that you follow rules, uh, that you abide by the law, uh, or is it more flexible, you know, that other things are, are priority? And then you get down to very, very low level psychology. So we have some really new data, uh, using the Koffer illusion, you know, your, your listeners can, can look it up.

Um, and to Westerners, you know, uh, You see rectangles in the Koffer illusion, but when we run that same illusion in, in field sites where people are not exposed to a carpentered world with sharp edges that are really not found in nature, they only see circles and Westerners have a hard time seeing those circles.

Actually, they, you know, they have to stop and some people never see it at all. Whereas, you know, it's the opposite in these societies where people literally can't see the rectangles or if they do, they see them second. Right? So what that means is that. Okay. All the way down to very low level processing and all the way up to what is right and wrong, values and beliefs, who are the relationships that matter, how do I make decisions, how do I think about the world, varies considerably all around the world.

And understanding, documenting those differences, understanding why they exist, where they come from, how they're transmitted, how they persist, and how they change, is critical to developing a better model of humans and human behavior and human societies.

[00:12:37] Matt Geleta: Yeah, I mean, so some of those examples you just gave of, you know, even at the level of perception, there are, there are differences. Um, a couple of weeks ago I spoke with Neil Seth, who I'm not sure if you're familiar with his work, but, um, we went through several of these and we actually tested live, um, some of these, you know, the, the, the famous, uh, gold and, and white versus blue and black dress.

And, and yeah, and then several of those, it's absolutely fascinating. But one thing that it immediately brings to, to the forefront to the question is if we are perceiving the world differently, experiencing the world differently, if our cultural software is different, how is it then that we can cooperate and coordinate effectively?

And I mean, something that struck me really deeply living in so many different countries, um, and, and, you know, reading your work as well, it's just how wide the gap can be between these different ways of seeing the world. Um, so just tell me about the different levels of coordination you've experienced in, um, You know, in this background of yours?


[00:13:31] Michael Muthukrishna: Yeah. So, I mean, uh, in my work, I refer to this as the paradox of diversity, which is that, um, you know, diversity we now know is, is fuel for innovation and creativity because simply seeing the world in different ways, um, gives you new ideas, right? And you don't, you know, people can, even if you haven't spent a childhood, you know, across three different continents, um, you, you know, this from working in a different company, you know, they do things differently there.

And I can see that now that I'm at this new company and I can see what I liked and what I didn't like, or, you know, living in a different city, you know, I can, I was, or I went to a different restaurant, you know, In the book, I tell the story of, um, the origin of Hawaiian pizza. Uh, you know, I think it's like Australia's number one pizza, if I'm not mistaken, you know, which I also

[00:14:15] Matt Geleta: be surprised here.

[00:14:16] Michael Muthukrishna: Um, you know, and it's this guy, you know, Sam, uh, Panopoulos, uh, who is a Greek immigrant in Canada. Um, who has some experience with a Chinese food restaurant, and, you know, he sees, he gets these, uh, these, this brand of pineapple called Hawaiian pineapple, and he starts putting pineapple on pizza because of kind of the sweet and sour in American Chinese, um, and he, and he creates something brand new.

So that's the good side of diversity. It creates this kind of, um, this fuel for recombination that leads to creativity and innovation. But the flip side of that is exactly what you're describing, which is that if we can't communicate and coordinate and get on the same page about certain things, then it's very difficult for us to work together.

So some of those things are, are really low hanging fruit. So language, right? Like, if we don't speak the same language, it would be very difficult for us to have this conversation. It would be very difficult for any ideas to flow between us, and it would be very difficult for us to communicate. And coordinate the other things a little bit more subtle.

So, um, in a workplace, am I expected to be on time or are we coordinated such that everybody knows that, you know, if the meeting starts at, you know, at three or the party starts at three, no one's going to turn up at three, you know, and everybody knows that it's actually 30 minutes, five minutes later, 30 minutes later, and even an hour later or later.

You know, um, and then there's other more subtle things. You know, can I, uh, work with people from other parts of the world? Can I work with people from different religions? Can I work with, uh, the, the opposite sex? Um, all of those things are important to coordination. And if you can't do that, you've got.

You've got a real problem. Um, there's different solutions to this, right? So one is, um, what I call optimal assimilation. So it is assimilating along the lines that are required for coordination and not worrying about the other stuff. So I'll give you, you know, Australia actually does this, uh, quite intentionally.

So in the book, I talk about, um, refugees before they arrive in, um, I should, I should preface this by saying, you know, Australia, uh, has a lot of history with, with refugees in terms of like, you know, people languishing in offshore detention centers for a very long time. And I think, uh, all Australians should be advocating, not necessarily like, let's just let everyone in, but we should be processing people a lot more quickly.

Um, but nonetheless, once people. Arrive, you know, my, I tell a story that, you know, comes from my, um, my wife used to work in refugee resettlement. So before people arrive, uh, refugees go through what's called the, uh, Australian Cultural Orientation Program, OSCO. It's a five day program that it's like a crash course in being an Aussie.

You know, it's like, uh, Aussie 101 and it's, it's things like, well, you know, like which side of the road do you drive on? And, you know, how do you work with banks and post offices and so on? It's, uh, how do you get groceries? Um, uh, what, what, what support will be available to you once you arrive, but also kind of cultural norms.

So what is acceptable and unacceptable ways of behaving with people? What are the laws of the country? And so on. It's really like, here's a quick integration. And then once you arrive, at least, you know, back, uh, when, when, when Steph used to work in this area, a lot of support was given to refugees in helping them bridge that gap that they were arriving, you know, and some of it was cultural, some of it's just that they've been through horrendous circumstances, and that can be very difficult to, to to bridge alone.

So how did they do it? Well, you know, it was things like, um, introducing them to other migrants from the same or, or similar cultural backgrounds, uh, showing them, you know, as cooking lessons, like, uh, they would bring people in and say, you know, here's how we can cook something close to our, our cuisine, um, using some of the ingredients that are available here, or perhaps where we could find some of the more difficult to find, uh, uh, you know, so Ethiopian refugees, where do I find teff flour, uh, to make injera?

Um, or what would be similar if I, if I wasn't able to access that, you know, that kind of thing. But implicitly there was also a kind of like, these are non negotiable. So, you know, I tell this story, um, you know, which happened where, um, there was a, there was a gentleman who came in and, uh, he came from a culture where he wasn't supposed to talk to women or he found it uncomfortable to talk to women.

So he came in and he said, uh, you know, I'd like some help. Um, and they said, that's fine. You know, this is the person who can help you. And he said, I'd like to, I'd like to speak to a man. And they said, well, there's, there's no, there's no men available here. Uh, so you're going to have to speak to this woman in any way, like this is how it is here, right?

You have to be able to, to talk to the opposite sex. And so he just sat there for hours waiting for a man to arrive. And no one turned up, so he just left. And then, you know, the next day he comes back, and he's like, I'd like to talk to a man, he sits there for hours, uh, no man turns up, so he goes away. He comes back again, and finally he accepts the help of a female volunteer.

And I think that's a, that's, in some ways, it's a, it's a uniquely Australian approach to immigration, where you say, look, you know, there are non negotiables in this country, the rule of law, Uh, you know, freedom of, uh, of religion, uh, treating people with respect, a fair go, you know, all of that kind of stuff.

And there really are non negotiables. Whereas I think in other countries that I've lived in, in the Western world, that would be a, an offensive story. And it's like, of course, you need to, you need to respect this person's cultural background. We're going to have to find a man to support it. It's like, no, actually that's corrosive.

That's divisive to a society. It allows for segregation and allows you to maintain some of the cultural practices that aren't so good rather than some of the ones that are wonderful. Because, you know, I think one of the Um, underutilized aspects of a multicultural society is in fact judging one another in the pursuit of discovering what's good and what we can borrow and learn from one another to create a, uh, you know, a, a better, more harmonious society together.

So that's one solution, but it's not the only one. You know, there's many, um, Another solution is found in, uh, in, in, in, in, in countries that have a long run history of migration, like the United States, where things are just made more explicit. Australia is a little bit like this too, because it, you know, it's had a somewhat of a long history.

So, you know, Americans are known for the, you know, like clear displays of emotion, you know, like the broad smiles. Uh, you know, I had a student once say to me, uh, Americans are the only people on earth who label emotions, you know, like if something is funny, they'll say, That's funny. You know, the rest of the world just laughs.

Whereas like, you know, that's funny, you know, that, that makes me sad. Uh, that's wonderful. You know, it's, it's a very, it's so explicit that you start to put a label on it. Right. Um, and that makes a lot of sense. So if you, if you have this, you know, like a few hundred years of living with other people who may not even speak your language, you have to bridge that gap.

And one of the ways is that one thing that we do have that's universal are emotions. And so, although different cultures have different norms about what, when it is to display an emotion. If you're in Japan, for example, you don't have overt displays because you don't need to. Any other Japanese person, because of that shared culture, knows how you feel from the context alone.

Whereas if you are an outsider, you're probably making faux pas constantly. You just don't know it. Um, in America, you can't afford that, so what, what happens is, you know, you've got someone who's, who's Greek, and you've got someone who's Venezuelan, they're living next to each other, and suddenly they have to bridge that gap, and so you want to clearly display, I'm upset about that, I'm happy about that, I'm angry, I'm sad, and so does the other person, and so this leads to a more explicit culture.

And then, you know, sorry, I'm telling a lot of stories, but, you know, um, you know, in, in Russia, right, so McDonald's, after the fall of the Soviet Union, McDonald's decides to set up shop there, and, uh, so, you know, McDonald's is a very, you know, it's a quintessential American company, one might say. Um, and of course they wanted it to be a very American experience.

And so they had to train their Russian workers to smile. And the workers were like, absolutely not. Like, you don't understand in Russia, the people who smile when something's not funny are crazy people. And, you know, when people come in as customers, they're going to think we're crazy because we're just smiling at them for no reason.

They're like, no, no, no, no, no. This is important. You have to, you know, you have to give them the all American smile. And so eventually they convinced them and they, but then they also had to kind of train their customers. It's like, listen, people are going to smile at you. They're not crazy. They're just, you know, they're just, they're trying to be, uh, trying to give you that American experience.

And so customers and, you know, and employees finally accepted that if you're smiling and there's no joke, you might be crazy or it might be American. Great. Um, but that doesn't necessarily translate outside that context. So in a business context, when you're working cross nationally, you have to go, okay, well, these are the norms that we're going to work with right now.

I know they're not the norms that we have at home. I know they know the norms of us, but these are the norms of, of working with one another. And people have attempted to kind of map some of these, you know, there's this book by, uh, I think it's Aaron Mayer, uh, the culture map, you know, there are all these, um, attempts to identify what some of these, these barriers are.

Uh, when it comes to international trade or international coordination. But you know, when the Olympics came around in Russia, they again had to run smile training camps because they didn't want people to be left with the impression that, you know, customer service is bad there. Um, a lot of this is jovial, but my point is that a good immigration policy, good foreign policy, uh, good policies when it comes to, uh, international coordination, international trade, business, whatever, requires us to take very seriously that humans around the world literally see the world differently.

Have very different priorities, very different norms, and finding ways to bridge that by either being more explicit, uh, finding kind of optimal assimilation, or, or many of the other models that I talk about in the book, are essential to good outcomes for everybody. For migrants, for both parties in the deal, for, you know, for locals and so on.

And a lot of that's missing because people are not exposed to other people who think to the, and see the world so differently.

[00:23:42] Matt Geleta: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, in some ways like it's, um, you know, if you have to think about what are the elements that are needed for coordination, cooperation, I mean, being able to communicate effectively and having the right conventions in place, I think it makes sense that that should be an essential part. But there is also this deeper aspect to coordination and cooperation which relates down to, you know, what are the things that individuals and groups and organizations are actually solving for and are those aligned in the same way so that, you know, there's communication but then there is also...

the objectives and the goals. And there is a sense in which the ability for us to coordinate and cooperate is, is, is a little bit puzzling. Um, and you, you mentioned this somewhat in your book. Um, what is it that you think makes cooperation across different scales of, of humans so puzzling? What, why is this not an obvious thing that we should be able to do?

[00:24:37] Michael Muthukrishna: Yeah, so, you know, in the book I refer to this as the law of cooperation, right? So, just to give readers, uh, listeners, sorry, a little bit of history to this, you know, we... The scale and the speed at which human cooperation has, has, has gone up has been astonishing, right? Like 12, 000 years ago, both yours and my ancestors and everyone on Earth were living as hunter gatherers, you know, spread across the globe.

And we were coordinating in groups like bands. of related individuals at the scale of extended family really, right? Bands eventually became villages of mostly related individuals. We were then, you know, cooperate, we were in cities by around 6, 000 years ago, 10, 000 years ago, let's say agriculture begins.

Um, we then, you know, once you have cities, you have people coming in from different parts of the world. And so now it's like core communication and coordination, the level of people, you know, of at least, you know, based on reputation, you wouldn't go to a Since the Industrial Revolution, we now live in, you know, since the age of mass migration, we now live in Large societies of anonymous strangers, where, you know, you can go down to a grocery store, you don't, you don't know people who live right next door to you, you know, you don't know their names, you don't know their family, this is really unusual, and it's, you know, we, you and I, uh, you know, I guess we, we, we, we, we do come from similar places, but had we not, we still could have met in a room together, and you take that for granted, and so do I, but that's, it's, it's, it's unusual from a cross species perspective, like two strange chimps in a room means two dead or maimed chimps.

Right? Uh, it's, it's strange from a, a historical perspective. Like a few hundred years ago, uh, you know, we have different ancestries. Uh, this might have been a dangerous encounter. You know, you would have to discover why, why are we together in this room? And even geographically, like Australia's fine, Afghanistan, maybe not so safe to, for strangers to meet one another.

[00:26:25] Matt Geleta: Yeah. Hehe.

[00:26:29] Michael Muthukrishna: kind of cut across the math is to go, okay, The scale at which we optimally, maximally could cooperate is the scale at which the per unit payoff. So that's, let's say, per person if we're talking about humans, but actually it applies all the way down to a cell, right?

Like, multicellular organisms work when the per cell reward, the return, And the per individual reward or return is higher than it would be at a particular group size, than it would be in a larger or a smaller group. So think about it as, you know, if you're starting a project, uh, you're trying to write an academic paper, or you're trying to start a business.

If you could start that business all by yourself, write that Nobel Prize winning, you know, academic paper all by yourself, you would. You'd get all the rewards, you'd keep all the equity, it would be wonderful. But instead you have to work with other people, you have to hire employees, maybe partners, bring on, you know, investors.

Thank you. And you bring on enough people such that you have a good chance at cracking a good size of the market and the rewards of that market per individual are higher than it would be taking a salary job, being in a smaller group, tapping a different market in a high group, and so on. That's the optimal scale of cooperation.

And what I argue in the book is that that optimal scale. has risen on the back of our ability to control energy. So the first shift was fire. You know, fire was a way to externalize, uh, uh, processing of food. So instead of like a gorilla sitting there chewing leaves all day, uh, we were able to shrink our guts, weaken our jaws, and grow our brains because we could cook food and make all of those calories more bioavailable.

The next major energy revolution was agriculture. So, as with fire, we were hunter gatherers, we were reasonably successful hunter gatherers, as I said, we'd spread across the world. But agriculture was a solar technology where instead of hunting and gathering, we were harvesting and grinding, concentrating the energy of the sun into growing a surplus of food that allowed us to grow our populations.

It actually made us unhealthier, but it also allowed us to support animals, which gave us a lot of illness. Now, those groups, as I said, were less healthy than the smaller hunter gatherer groups around them. But because of their sheer size and numbers, they pushed those hunter gatherer groups to the margins, right, where they still live today.

So deserts, thick forests, you know, places that weren't suitable for agriculture. And then eventually, that was an era of abundance initially, but then abundance turns to scarcity as the carrying capacity, which in biology is how many people can a particular ecology support. As the population reaches that carrying capacity, now you, you reenter an era of scarcity and, uh, you begin fighting with other agriculturalist groups around you.

You know, these are the wars of Eurasia and so on in Europe. This continues. We're back in this Malthusian world where your loss is my gain. We're trying to take land from one another to support our families, to support our groups until we hit the industrial revolution. Where we find, under the ground, a bunch of stored sunlight.

So, uh, heat turned to black rock that we call coal, and, you know, algae and zooplankton turn to oil and natural gas, is, you know, so photosynthesis turns that into chemical form. And that chemical form gets compressed over millions of years into little, into nature's batteries, if you like. And so we start burning that with new technologies that enable us to launch the, uh, you know, launch that energy capacity way up and increase our, our, the, the, the payoff for cooperating.

So this is really, you know, this is the story of colonialization, by the way. So, you know, a tiny backwater of Eurasia, uh, Britain has cheap and available coal, and the right technologies, and the right insights, because it's part of the Eurasian collective brain, to empower its ability and create the largest empire the world has ever seen, to the point where you and I are speaking across the, you know, across the oceans in English.

And so what you have is a, you know, it incentivizes people to create things like the, uh, uh, uh, East India Trading Company, for example, right? Like these companies that, that, that work together at a much higher scale to capture the resources of a, of a less energy dense, less cooperative group. And we see that pattern, by the way, you know, even today, so, um, there are places that are very energy rich, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the people are not cooperating at a sufficiently high scale to capture that resource, and so instead what happens is a cooperative multinational, Shell, BP, whatever, uh, along, you know, backed by maybe, uh, more cooperative countries come in, work with a smaller group of elite who they cooperate with to access that resource at the expense of a population that cannot you know, engage in sufficient collective action.

And so that's the other side of cooperation. So even though we might be incentivized, like maximally incentivized to reach a higher scale, we are often trapped in lower scales because they're, they're, they're self sustaining equilibria. So in my work on corruption, Um, if you look at the places that are highest in nepotism, they are the places where people rely on friends and family, particularly family, right?

So if you're in a place where the state cannot provision for you, like it can't support you, then you have no choice but to rely on your friends and family to get by. And that means that when you reach government, you're still supporting friends and family. So it's just, you know, it's this, it's a self fulfilling loop, right?

Um, whereas, you know, places like Australia, the land of mates, right, are high in cronyism. you know, Paul, uh, um, um, Paul Froeners and Cameron Murray have this book called Game of Mates, uh, where they track this, you know, the, the, the revolving doors of, they name names, it's a very brave book, actually, uh, you know, or I think Rigged is the new name of the book, um, you know, where, where, where, People move from government to the boards of companies that they help support, and you get this kind of, uh, this, these links, these cooperative networks of mates, really, right?

So cronyism is higher, and that's, you know, it's undermining, actually, superannuations and real estate and a whole bunch of stuff in Australia, and I don't think many people are aware of it. But the point, though, is that, you know, you get these smaller scales that can undermine these higher scales, and the whole thing is a bit dynamic, but at the very least, now that we have fossil fuels, the maximal scale has gone way, way, way up. And I don't know if this is your next question, but that has changed, right? The, the whole point of the book is that that has changed because the scale of cooperation, um, the, the returns from nature's batteries. So it took millions of years to charge those batteries and in a matter of centuries, we've burned them down.

And so, you know, if you look at, for example, some, even something as simple as, um, oil discovery rates. In 1919, one barrel of oil found another thousand. By 1950, one barrel of oil found another hundred. And by 2010, one barrel of oil found another five. So if you buy my argument, it means that the maximum scale is falling, and people are sensitive to the delta, they're sensitive to that change.

And so they begin to cooperate at a slower scale, so you get the rise of the right wing, you get fractionalization in society, you get ethnic conflict, you get more corruption. All of these things are incentivized because the maximum scale has, you know, has dropped down. And that's the world we find ourselves in, and re entering an era of abundance is the answer.


[00:33:48] Matt Geleta: want to get to that very, very soon because, um, yeah, I do buy your, your argument on the importance of, of energy and the energy ceiling. And, uh, certainly there is even a chart that I, that I want to look at, which is, um, I mean, it's a bunch of trend lines from the year minus 1000 BCE until today.

And something very interesting happens at the industrial revolution, but maybe before getting that, just looking a bit abstract at the nature of. Cooperation across those different scales, assuming there is energy abundance, assuming, you know, take that, um, variable off of the table, it still feels to me that at different scales, let's say, the level of the individual, the level of the family, um, the level of organizations, there are still a bunch of different incentive mechanisms that are working within those levels, and it feels very strange to me to just say, okay, well, if there was energy abundance, all of those incentives would be nicely aligned so that countries could cooperate with one another.

Um, and, and, you know, so I'm not sure about that. So maybe we can talk about the, um, mechanisms for cooperation within these different scales. And I mean, I'm very interested in, in the, in the case of whether there is some sort of idealized synthesis across the scales that could make the levels work together.

[00:35:00] Michael Muthukrishna: Yeah, that's right. So it's not the case. It's simply because you have, you know, the potential. You will therefore get cooperation at a higher scale. You know, I gave you examples of failures of that. So. It's, you know, we have a model where we show that actually once you reach a higher scale, it's easy to get to the next scale because you need only a few more people to get there.

And if the, you know, hunter gatherers have been walking on fossil fuels for, for as long as humans have been around, that doesn't mean they could access it because, I mean, they didn't have the technology. But even if they did have the technology, if you gave them industrial technology, they didn't have the sufficient levels of cooperation to be able to use that technology to, you can move from an agricultural society to an industrial society.

So actually, you know, The point of this book, and I call it, you know, they're laws, but they're laws in the sense of kind of lenses. This applies all the way down to single cells, right? So, initially, all you had was the energy of the sun heating the earth, and you had, uh, volcanic heat. And you had, you know, which is part, partly radioactive and partly just from, uh, the early, the beginnings of the Earth.

And you had maybe gravitational energy, uh, of the Moon, which was, uh, closer to the Earth at the time, making larger tides, sloshing the ocean back and forth. That's it. That's the energy that you really have available to you. And with that, you know, somehow you had abiogenesis. You had the beginning of non life, turning into life.

And you're moving it at less than plant pace, because you don't even have proper photosynthesis. It wasn't using oxygen yet. Yeah. Eventually you get photosynthesis, you have what's called the great oxygenation event, where, um, you know, you learn to use oxygen as part of the photosynthetic process. You pump out a bunch of, uh, of O2, of oxygen, and, um, this eventually kills all of the life that, you know, oxygen, remember, is corrosive, right?

It's what creates rust and turns bananas brown and, uh, um,

[00:36:42] Matt Geleta: be

[00:36:43] Michael Muthukrishna: And it allows you to light a fire, so it's highly corrosive. But eventually, you know, uh, uh, evolution allows it. So what, what is happening is that evolution is looking in this space of cooperation to find that maximal level. Now, once you have, uh, prokaryotic cells, right, these little simple cells, single cells, Cells of related individuals, so multicellular life, can emerge and begin to outcompete those single cells working together.

Eventually you get eukaryotic life, so this very unusual event happens where one cell eats another, and rather than just digest it for its constituent parts, it allows it to survive within it and produce ATP. This is the beginning of mitochondria and ATP. And so then you can now store that energy and use it as needed.

This is, by the way, the same challenge you have with, uh, with current things like solar technologies or wind, right? You can use it when it's there. But when it's not there, you can't store it. So until ATP arrives on the scene, or chemical sugar batteries, you can only use the energy when the sun is there, or the volcanic heat is there.

And when it's not there, especially the sun, you can't. But once you have sugar, stored energy, you can use it as needed. But on the other side, once you have stored energy, it incentivizes other... organisms to evolve that don't even care about photosynthesis. They're like, you know what, I'm not going to like move at plant pace using the energy of the sun to create sugars.

I'm going to eat your sugars. And so what happens is that, you know, you get life eating other life. And eventually this turns into kind of multicellular life and complex multicellular life. So cells of related individuals, uh, but differentiated working together and you. Right? And I, and all animals, are an ecosystem.

Like, we are not, we are, not only are we differentiated, in that you have different kinds of cells all working together, but you also have an entire microbiome of completely different DNA that's required to survive. And you use that to try to out compete other individuals in your society, and together as a group, we try to out compete other groups, right?

Now, if you don't have enough resources to provision your ecosystem, you don't have enough energy, then lower scales will dominate. So you get sick, viruses and bacteria dominate. Uh, when one of your cells decides to go rogue and say, forget Matt, I'm going to grow, you know, I'm going to grow just for me. We call that a tumor.

We call that cancer. It's a lower scale undermining a higher scale, right? So everything I've been talking about is that the realm of what's called inclusive fitness or kin selection, which is that, uh, Genes that can identify and, and, and, and favor copies of themselves will spread at the expense of genes that either can't identify or do not favor copies of themselves.

And this explains cooperation at the level of family across life, across the animal kingdom. A lion comes in. It will kill the cubs of the previous lion that was there because it's replacing it, but it won't kill its own cubs. Uh, if people cooperate with anyone, it's going to be family. Now, you, we go further, right, through direct reciprocity, and other animals do this too.

You scratch my back, I scratch yours, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. In those groups, those villages, uh, I knew who everyone was, or in your workplaces, you know who everyone is. Uh, Even if you don't like everyone, you're going to work with them because you're going to see them again. And, you know, you help each other, you, you know, maybe undermine each other.

You do things in this kind of reciprocal fashion and it gets you to the level of cooperation where you have to know each other and regularly interact. But we do, we go higher than that. So once you got to cities, uh, it wasn't just like people we know directly, it's the people we know of. What's called indirect reciprocity, or reputation.

So, you know, maybe I don't know who Matt is, but, you know, I ask around these days, I can Google and I'm going, Oh, you know, he seems like a good guy. Uh, I can, I can work with him on something. Reputation. Now, reputation has limits because the information has to be reliable. You know, maybe you faked all the, you know, the Google stuff, or maybe you, you've got friends who are telling people, but they're all part of the same ring of criminals or something of con men, right?

So it relies on it. And it hits a limit, you know, and, and actually, uh, the exception is in the rule, you know, so, um, we have empowered reputation using that same mechanism, uh, with modern technology. So when you and I were kids, your parents probably said, Hey, don't get in a car with a stranger. Uh, don't go to a stranger's house.

I do it all the time. I get in Ubers, I, you know, stay in Airbnbs. And the reason is because instead of trusting the Uber driver or trusting the Airbnb owner, I trust, there is a securitization of trust where I trust Uber or I trust Airbnb and they manage the reputation. But that was, you know, wasn't there in the ancient world, of course.

So reputation gets you quite far. We think the religion played a role in transitioning us from reputation to institutional systems. So let me just quickly say, So. Most of the cooperation, the highest level of cooperation we see today is institutional based, so it's not that I go after people who steal my stuff, it's that I pay taxes to a well functioning government and the government and the police force and the judiciary do the punishing.

On my behalf. Now there's a, there's a, there's a scientific question how you went from a reputational based system to an, uh, to an institutional system. We think, uh, institutionalized religion did that. So, uh, if you are, you know, two, uh, two people, you know, wearing hijabs or, you know, having a cross and, and you know that that group maintains those symbols, um, then you might be slightly more likely to trust each other, even if you don't know of each other.

Right? And the, the religion serves as a kind of institution. Eventually, once you have well functioning institutions, religion tends to disappear. Okay. So that's, that, those are the different scales. Now, those scales, so we, you know, in 2005, Science Magazine said, the puzzle of how we cooperate is a big puzzle, it's a top 25 puzzle for the coming quarter century, and we identified these mechanisms, and we thought, okay, we've identified the mechanisms, cooperation solved.

So, one of my contributions to the literature says, hang on, hang on, hang on. Wait a minute, folks, stop. If we have all these mechanisms, they didn't disappear, and that means they all exist at the same time. So how is it some, like, if I can choose between cooperating with my family and cooperating with at the level of a nation, why does the nation sometimes win, and why do the, in many places around the world, institutions fail?

And we call that corruption. So, you know, we call that corruption because what you, when we, when I refer to nepotism, I'm talking about Family undermining institutions. When I talk about cronyism, I'm talking about direct or indirect reciprocity. Undermining, let's say, meritocracies. You know, a manager giving a job to a friend of a friend.

A government, uh, a minister giving a, uh, a favor to, uh, their brother. So these lower scales can undermine these higher scales. So then, it goes back to your question, Matt. Like, how do you get alignment? So you get alignment when, you know, there is actually an incentive. to cooperate at a higher scale, and you suppress the lower scales in some way, or you align them.

So, what is good for my family, like working hard, playing by the rules, is also good for society. Or, you know, my, uh, my collaborator, my collaborator and former, uh, advisor, Joe Henrich, uh, along with, uh, Jonathan Schultz, uh, uh, Duman Rudd, and, uh, Jonathan Beaucamp, have this paper where they argue that the Catholic Church in Europe bans cousin marriage.

And cousin marriage, by the way, is found all around the world for most of history, right? Even today in, you know, a lot of places in the Middle East, uh, people marry their cousins, about 40 to 50, 40 to 60 percent of people marry their cousins, right? And, and so what happens is if you're marrying your cousins, you allow cooperation in the scale of kin to ramp up.

So your uncle isn't just your, your mother or your, uh, father's brother. He's also related to you by multiple lines. You get these family webs that, that grow. And those undermine states. They are the basis for tribalism. And so what happens in Europe is that the Catholic Church comes along and bans cousin marriage, along with other changes, uh, to European marriage practices.

And this creates the very unusual and historic beanpole. Right? Where you have kids, mom and dad, their moms and dads, grandparents and uncles and aunts, but they're not all, like, connected to each other because people aren't marrying their cousins. And this means that cooperation on the scale of kin is undermined.

You've undermined that level. And this is a common lesson. So if you look in the, uh, in the research on, uh, anti corruption measures, They all work, the ones that are successful all work this way. They undermine lower scale. So, the revolving door, so in Australia, for example, you know, I mentioned the revolving door.

When you have a cooling off period, or you prevent people from being in the same position for too long, or whatever, you are undermining direct and indirect reciprocity. So, you know, if you have to wait, like if you say, okay, once you are in government, you can't work for a board, or you can't work for a lobbying firm, or whatever, for five years.

No one, people don't typically want to wait five years to get their return. You know, or if you make it longer, if people do wait, you know, 10 years, people don't want to do that, right? And so you've undermined that lower scale and you've, you've helped the higher scale succeed. So we do have a framework of cooperation that allows us to tackle problems like corruption and see them in new light, in a new light.

And that's the whole point of a theory of everyone. It's like a periodic table. We don't have all the elements. There's lots of work to be done. We're at the early stages, but we do know that elements exist, that they form a pattern, and we can begin to use them to stop doing alchemy and do some chemistry.

[00:46:05] Matt Geleta: Yeah, yeah, nice. Um, you, when you talked about sort of aligning either incentives or, um, suppressing lower levels of, um, of, cooperation in favor of the higher level ones. What came to mind there was sort of a classic game theory framing of, of cooperation, a theoretical consideration, which is, you know, positive sum games, zero sum games, negative sum games, where, and everyone will be familiar with this, you know, positive sum is win win, zero sum is I win, you lose, or you lose, I win, like a bet or something.

And, uh, then obviously negative sum, we both lose, like war or something like that. Um, and as you, as you put forward the argument for the importance of energy in your book. Um, I thought through these, um, game theoretic considerations and it really did come to light for me just how important the energy availability is for enabling cooperation at all these various scales.

So, let's maybe then turn to the, um, the question of, uh, energy and energy availability. Um, you mentioned that. Energy, you know, energy availability is maybe not as abundant as one might think. And, uh, I think this was, this was very surprising to me when thinking about one particular measure that you put forward, which is the idea of the return on energy investment.

Um, so could you please just briefly run me through that measure? And then I have a bunch of follow up questions on energy scarcity, energy availability.

[00:47:31] Michael Muthukrishna: Yeah, so, so the, the measure that I'm, um, that I'm referring to is pioneered by, uh, uh, the energy scientist Charles Hall. Um, and it is basically, it's a measure of excess energy. So it's how much energy you get back for how much you put in. So really what you want is point of view, so, what you want is a very small energy sector, it's about 5 percent of the economy, and you want it to be nice and small because what that means is that, Everything else that energy enables is much, much larger because energy is a great multiplier, you know, uh, Winston Churchill has this, uh, you know, as this quote where he says the amount of work that a man can do in a day, um, with the power of coal, he can do like a month's worth of work in a day, you know, or a week's worth of kind of remember the, what, you know, what he came up with.

But, and then with nuclear, of course you can multiply that even more, you know, think about like you're building an Ikea bookshelf, doing it with like a hand screw or like a power screwdriver energy. You can do it much faster, you know, think about like, You want to travel somewhere, are you going to walk?

Okay, well, walking is converting calories to movement. It's very slow. You can use a more energy efficient animal, like a horse, and you can get a bit further, or more energy. You can focus just on efficiency with a bicycle, you can go further. Um, but if you can have access to a car, by burning fossil fuels, um, or an airplane, or any other, you can traverse the globe in a matter of hours, right?

Whereas that would have taken months before. Right? So energy is this great multiplier on, on effort, on human ingenuity. And the ability to use energy is a function of, uh, EROI, which is, you know, this, uh, energy return on investment. How much energy it takes to get some amount of energy back, to proc to find the oil, to process it, to convert it into something useful, as well as the technologies you have to use energy efficiently. all of, you know, all of economics and a lot of, you know, these energy sciences kind of emerged after the Industrial Revolution, where the energy ceiling was so high for so long you didn't even need to think about it. You could focus on expanding, and I call this the space of the possible, expanding that space of the possible just by focusing on efficiency.

So, economists talk about how to more efficiently allocate scarce resources, engineers think about how to more, you know, come up with more efficient ways to heat a home, or, uh, you know, build a better computer, uh, whatever. Any of these things are efficiency gains, and they also expand the space of the possible.

But at the end of the day, there's a limit to efficiency, right? A certain number of joules or watts is required to heat a home. There's a minimum amount that's needed. And so, actually, productivity gains, you know, these efficiency gains have been slowing down. And in the meantime, the thing we forgot about That energy ceiling caused by the energy return on investment has been falling on us.

Now we are still in, we are, we, I'm not pessimistic about this, but because A, we still have a lot of energy abundance, you know, it, what we're, what we're noticing right now is not that we're in this kind of world of scarcity again, it's that we're noticing a delta, we're noticing a decrease, sometimes artificial, you know, so I point to 1970, uh, 1973, the early 1970s when the, when OPEC was formed, interestingly enough, as a result of the, uh, the Arab Israeli war.

Uh, and the Arab nations got together and, uh, shot up the price of oil. And every, in the last 50 years, every major recession was preceded by a rapid increase in the price of oil. And what happens when oil goes up is that it just slows down economic growth because energy is, it's different to every other resource, like, uh, water, for example, you know, like water is important as well for humanity, but if you have energy, you can get water, you can pull it out of the air.

You know, you could, you could desalinate oceans. You can get water, but if you have water, you can't get energy necessarily, right? It's the great fungi, you know, non fungible multiplier that you can use for everything. So, when the price of oil goes up, industry goes down. You know, it costs more to do all the things.

You might not take that flight. You might not meet that person. You might slow down what you produce. The cost of doing business goes, and so then productivity slows down. Everything slows down. the economy slows down. Now, when you re reach, when you reach, you know, we, we, the peak oil concerns of the time were delayed, um, because we discovered more oil, like offshore, for example, and the fracking revolution, you know, it's delayed this, but prior to that, there was this, like, decrease in productivity.

You know, in absolute terms, so you get the space of the possible, the energy ceiling abundance floor, uh, and the efficiency floor, the energy ceiling is kind of coming down on us. And so the important thing is to reach the next level of abundance while we still have the capacity to do so, because once you get too low, it's hard to governor society that is highly fractured where it's no longer positive.

I'm going all over the place, but, um, when you're in a society that is on the same page. You're Denmark. You pick the best person because you already agree, you know, uh, a social welfare state is the way to go. Let's find the person who's going to, um, implement it best. But if you're a fractured society, like let's say the United States, um, it's hard, you can't do that because the other person is so different.

You're so fractured. That you have to put your person in power, because if you put the other, it's not the best person, your person. Because your person is going to have, and this is also the story of tribalism, right? You put your person because they're going to favor your group. And so what we find is that as energy tries to decrease, that scale of cooperation collapses, the cracks, that all, the fractures that always exist in a society.

begin to come apart. And it's harder to govern that society. And when it's harder to govern, the time horizon of what you care about, so it's hard to say, look, look, we're all the same page. We're all the same people. We need to bet on nuclear and it's going to pay itself off in a decade, be like a decade.

The election cycle is in a decade. I don't know what the world looks like in a decade. No, like just find me more oil or coal or, you know, natural gas, right? You end up with these smaller bets. Now, if you look at the, uh, If you look at game theoretic models, we often set it up as a dilemma. Like, we create zero sum situations because that's what's interesting.

But in reality, we're playing multiple different overlapping games, and what we want is to find the games that are more positive sum. I just want to emphasize this point a little bit more, and then I'll, you know, tell you a little bit more about the energy technologies. So, um, in the book I use the example of, you know, you could be driving around a car park or waiting for a bus, whatever you'd like, but think of, like, the rate of buses as kind of the economic growth rate as a function of energy.

Right? So the buses are coming every five minutes. It's not the case that there aren't fractures in society. Like, people are pissed off that there's inequality. You know, some people have special passes that always get them to the front of the line. And people are pissed off that, you know, some groups, you know, lobbyist groups, uh, unions, uh, ethnicities, whatever, they're letting other people in front of the line in front of them.

They're pissed off. Like, what the hell? What's happening here? But it doesn't matter because another bus is coming in five minutes. At the end of the day, you're going to get your place. You know, right now in California, people talk about the fact that illegal immigrants have an easier time getting into the Californian system, uh, and getting into university places.

And that's okay as long as you can also get a university place. But if the rate of buses slows down because, you know, energy return on investment has fallen, the energy sector has grown, it's now one an hour, one a day. All of those fractures that always exist is crack into something much more. Mumbling and grumbling becomes something a little bit more violent and, and, and, and, and conflict based.

So that's kind of where we are today. And if you look at the energy return on investment numbers for most technologies, there are only a few that can kind of get us out of this, right? Um, if you have hydropower, hydro is amazing. It's dependent on the gradient and the size of the river, but the

[00:55:09] Matt Geleta: I'll actually show, for those watching, I'll show the graph here, because it is, it is absolutely, uh, it's, uh, yeah, it's, it's fascinating. Um, so that graph that you got in your book, imagine that showing up on the screen.

[00:55:20] Michael Muthukrishna: Yeah. So hydro, you know, so by the way, this is I'm not like my favorite genre of comments of the book by the way is people guessing at what I'm saying or guessing at my politics and It's like you read the book, you know, I'm not I'm not, you know, I'm not anti like renewables or something I'm just saying that like some renewables a bit hydro fantastic Wind, not so great.

It takes a long time to pay off. It's unreliable. You know, uh, solar is not bad. It's hard to say, right? So right now, the price of solar has been dropping. Solar relies on the fusion reactor in the sky. And I think as a long term bet, you know, like one day, if we ever got to like a Dyson sphere, uh, or a Dyson anything, you know, this idea that we capture a large percentage of the, of our, of our sun's energy and redirect that, that, that could be amazing.

Right. But you've got a battery challenge. We don't have those nature's batteries, those, you know, yeah. The batteries that allow us to fly a jumbo jet on electric power, right? Maybe hydrogen, right? Like maybe, uh, you can, you can store it in hydrogen in some form, and that could be a story maybe, but right now the battery probably exists.

So solar isn't, isn't ideal. Um, The real, the real advance is, you know, is nuclear, and I think we would not be in the current world if, if the nuclear age was, had not been stillborn, due to fears of an earlier generation of just the awesome power that nuclear represents. Nuclear fission, just standard old nuclear technology, today is nothing like the 1950s technologies that we were afraid of, right?

You can't judge nuclear safety, or our ability to, to manage the waste, and so on, like, based on the 1950s. It's like saying, well, you know, if you look at, Uh, safety of cars or safety of airplanes in the 1950s, you wouldn't fly, you know, you wouldn't, uh, you wouldn't drive your car, but we have, you know, ABS brakes.

We have, uh, uh, airbags. We have all of these technologies that make cars much more safe today. We have all these technologies where planes very rarely go down. Same thing with nuclear, right? Waste is actually very small, we've contained it, we've held it on site for ages, they're, you know, you put it in a hole in the ground that doesn't move for millions of years, there's ways to deal with it.

Uh, and there's not a lot of it because of the, the massive density, right? Uh, I, I visited a nuclear power plant, I stood next to, you know, these, once they're in like a car, in the, in the concrete cases. It's completely safe, you know, um, so nuclear fission is, uh, would be, would be, is, is, is a fantastic move forward.

There are, there are new technologies on the horizon that are, uh, like new, like small modular reactors to the size of a football field or two, as well as micro reactors, which are the size of a large car or a shipping container. Um, this allows you to modularize it, right? So you don't have to build this like massive power plant because.

It takes a long time and a lot of money to build these power plants. Um, and so they can take, you know, once you build it, by the way, energy wise, they pay themselves off very quickly just because of the massive energy return on investment on nuclear, right? Uh, but the, you know, and we have spent fuel reactors and so on, but, uh, these modules, they're not old, they're not new technologies, by the way, nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers.

That's what they're using. They're using a modular reactor. So that that would be kind of the next step that will get us back on track. I think of that era of abundance, but. Ultimately, you know, were, were we to crack fusion, maybe thanks to the new AI revolution, maybe the fact that we now have an ecosystem and a lot of private and public investment in fusion, if we were to crack that, and I rely on people like Vaclav Schmil, who say, look, if we're going to get there, it's no earlier than the mid, mid centuries of 2050, um, we would be the first generation of a galactic civilization because there's nothing, it, hydrogen is the most abundant, Um, you know, even tritium, you know, tritium is rare, but it's produced by some of these nuclear reactors.

Hydrogen is the most abundant fuel in the universe, and the return, it's, it's, it's how our sun creates energy, right? By, uh, combining hydrogen into helium. Um, It's just so massive that the next step is like antimatter collisions, but like, that's like, you know, we don't even need to think about that. Or maybe, you know, vacuum energy or black holes or something, you know, like when nuclear fusion would be a game changer.

Like we, we would look to our descendants as even more primitive than, you know, we look at the Middle Ages or something like that. But the key, you know, behind this is not like a, you know, like a technological utopia or something. It's like, as I say in the book, the difference between utopia. And an actually better world is a, is an acceptance of constraints and path dependence, like utopians want to be like, let's start from scratch.

We wipe everything down and we build this new, amazing world. We are not good at designing that, you know, we are the product of, of, of, of thousands of years of cultural evolution, hundreds of years of little changes. You can't just wipe it. What you have to do is say, how do I get to a better world from where I am today?

And from here, there are technologies on the horizon. There are little changes we can make to society that will lead to a better world, which is part two of the book.

[01:00:04] Matt Geleta: Yeah, yeah, no, definitely. I want to explore that more and definitely get a bit more into the topic of nuclear energy, because I definitely share your view that on first principles basis, it feels like it has to play a substantial role in our energy future. But, um, but before we do, there's a little bit of a sort of a seeming paradox in, in all of this.

And I'm sure people will be thinking about this, you know, we've talked about massive improvements in our technologies, including nuclear technologies, but in all of these energy technologies, and At the same time, we've talked about a declining return on energy or energy return on investment. And to me, these, these ideas feel like very in conflict.

We would assume that as technology gets better, we are better able to access energy and transform it more efficiently. And on that basis. you would very much expect that the energy return investment should be something that's monotonically increasing. Um, yet you've, you've stated that for the past century, it's been, it's been declining and that feels very surprising.

So maybe before getting into the technologies, let's explore that a little bit. For what reason is our, um, is our energy return investment declining?

[01:01:13] Michael Muthukrishna: Yeah, so it, you know, there's lots of moving parts and you're right, you know, like if you have better technologies, like you can use it more. So when we first discovered fossil fuels, uh, we literally kept the kerosene and we burned everything else off. It's like horrifying. Right. It's horrifying because we didn't know how to use it.

We didn't know that you could make plastics and Vaseline and medicines and, you know, obviously like jet fuel and car fuel and, you know, all of these different things with that. So initially, all thanks to those technologies, I don't have the numbers, but the energy return on investment was probably increasing because you get more energy out of that same block of.

Oil, let's say, or coal or whatever, thanks to this, but at some point, like, there's a limit, as I said, to your efficiency, your ability to use that, and then other factors come into play, which is the availability of that, of that, of that energy, of that, that source, right? And so initially sweet and available crude, uh, was, was, was sweet and available, you know, it was, it was available everywhere.

Not everywhere, but you know, it was, it was widely available. It was easy to access. It was literally just pouring out of the ground. You, you know, people, people very quickly became very, very wealthy just because it was pouring out of their ground, but eventually that runs out and you have to go after the more difficult to access sources, right?

Uh, you have to start fracking the, you know, you got to go after the oil that's offshore, uh, maybe the tar sands, you know, like these other more difficult to access places. And so then you need to expend more energy. to process that, you know, less, uh, refined, less available source. And so you're paying more energy in to get the same amount of energy back.

So energy declines, but this is only for fossil fuels, right? Like, uh, right now, if you look at the numbers, it's in single digits for solar, but as solar, you know, has gotten cheaper and we get better at it, those numbers might actually increase, right? In that phase, but then eventually it might. Level off.

It's going to be dependent on things like, uh, the price of copper or other other necessary materials to build those panels. And there's an awful lot because of the density of solar. You need a lot of space in order to, uh, to meet current energy needs, right? So, you know, I think it's a back of the envelope calculations that other people have made, which is like to meet the electricity current electricity requirements.

In the United States, uh, would require all of the surface area of all the roads in the States. That's a lot of, that's a lot of panels, right? And, and, and incidentally, it's not just the panels, it's also transmission. So you have to be able to transmit that, uh, and, and, and, and change, you know, change where it's going to be located.

It's only good if you're like, by the way, I have no idea why, why solar isn't more utilized in Australia. Like you've got plentiful sunshine, you know?

[01:03:56] Matt Geleta: Yeah, it's, um, I think that the main reason is the capacity, the ability of the energy grid basically to, to, um, yeah, it's a starter problem. Yeah, you've got to, you've got to fix up the energy grid, it's expensive and that's basically it.

[01:04:09] Michael Muthukrishna: Interesting. Yeah. So, you know, so you get, you know, so my, my mother lives in Queensland, you know, uh, Australia sunshine state, 300 days of beautiful sunshine. She has panels on her house, but it took, still took her by the way, uh, a few years to pay that off in the sense, like for it to pay it off in terms of energy and money.

Um, so you do have a startup cost and This, this, this speaks to another point, which is that you want to pay that startup cost when energy is still cheap and available, because otherwise

to, to pay that startup cost means taking energy away. If you think of energy as fundamentally underlying all economic productivity, goods and services, right, uh, through efficiency or through actual availability, this is what underlies it. It's the battery that powers our society. It doesn't matter how fancy your technology is if you can't charge it.

So. If you've got, you have to reallocate some of that away from schools and hospitals and food and all, you know, and vacations toward building the energy grid. And so, in the meantime, what that leads to is inflation, right? It leads to, uh, less energy available for, for all of the things that we do in life.

So there is that, that initial startup cost. Now, eventually it might level off, but you want to do it when you can still afford to do it. Because as energy becomes more, uh, difficult to access and that, that return drops, um, everything just becomes a lot more. you know, it becomes more challenging. So it was easier to build.

reactors in the mid 20th century because we had such high energy availability. You know, I saw some numbers where like you could catch like a helicopter ride cheaply, you know, in, in, in California because it was just so, you know, energy was so available. Now it's harder. Not only is the regulatory environment more difficult, uh, but it's costly to do.

Now that we know for a fact that technologically we can do it because China has over 200 reactors, uh, uh, you know, being, uh, Uh, you know, uh, being developed, which means China is going to enter the nuclear age all by itself. Korea is good at building them. You know, they built some for themselves as well as in the Middle East, on time, on budget, which the Western world seems to struggle with.

Uh, here in the UK, there's a move toward nuclear. Uh, in the case that I try to make for this country is look, we built You built the largest empire the world had ever seen on the back of cheap and available coal. You need, you then, you know, were rescued by the North Sea oil. You're going to want to do it again, but you're going to have to, you're going to have to be at the forefront of the nuclear revolution.

Anyway, story is basically that EROI for, uh, for nuclear is probably going to go up. Solar is probably going to go up. It's what is falling is, is the EROI for fossil fuels because of the availability and the ease of access.

[01:06:47] Matt Geleta: Yeah, let's, um, let's dig further into nuclear because, you know, looking at this chart in the book and I'll flash it up again here, um, just to state some numbers, I mean, energy return on investment for. nuclear as it stands today. Uh, there's a factor of 75. So basically for every joule you put in, you get 75 joules of energy out.

For solar, it's actually right at the bottom of this current chart at 2. And fossil fuels, where do they sit, so coal is somewhere at 30. Just looking at this chart, you would immediately think, okay, nuclear has to play a role. Um, but you have also said, you know, you have to look at, um, the, you have to consider what this looks like over time.

And, and, you know, you said by the same token, this chart could, could immediately, uh, It could suggest that solar does not play a role, but as you've said, energy return investment is likely to increase over time for solar. I think people worry with nuclear, the sort of opposite problem for nuclear, that, um, yes it's great now, but it's taking maybe a short termist view.

And investing in a bunch of nuclear now in a hundred years time, two hundred years time might not have been the right decision. And that's not how you want to be set up. Um, for all the reasons that we know about everything from, um, the fact that nuclear waste is produced and sits around for ages, um, to the fact that it can't be turned off.

Um, and so how, how do you see the role of, what is the optimal role of nuclear at this moment for, um, addressing the energy crisis?

[01:08:14] Michael Muthukrishna: Yeah, I mean, I think you want, you want some nuclear as a kind of, uh, baseline backup because it is reliable. And by the way, there are, there are different designs, right? As a, you know, as a, uh, as a colleague in the nuclear industry would put it, um, all of the reactors that have, that have blown up Three Mile Island, Fukushima and so on.

You can, they're almost like giant kettles, you know. Um, they're very different to some of the newer designs where the, you know, the reaction and, um, uh, and where the power generation is happening are very, very, very much separated. Uh, and, and you can, you know, slow down.

[01:08:48] Matt Geleta: Mhm.

[01:08:49] Michael Muthukrishna: with the spent fuel reactors, you know, effectively stop the reaction the thorium reactors, you can, you can stop these reactions.

Um, so there, there is a place for nuclear, but you're, but I think the bigger point that you're making is that, um, look, the technology keeps growing and this is a massive upfront investment. Right? Um, and how easy is it to convert to a newer technology once it comes along? Those old reactors that we built like decades and decades ago are still going strong in places like the United States and France.

Right? They are still producing. The newer technologies are, are producing, uh, at a higher EROI, more safely, uh, and cheaper. So I think, Even now, it's worth building some, but the way around that, I think, is the small modular reactors and micro reactors where you don't build these, like, big plants that are also, like, potentially, um, so, by the way, the issues with nuclear, from my perspective, are less about, like, the waste, um, or, or these kind of safety concerns and more around, um, proliferation, like, okay, what are you going to do for, do you want Yemen to build one?

You know, do you want, you know, Zimbabwe to build one? Like, is that okay? Like, we got to share nuclear technology there? Um, as well as targets for, for, for, for, uh, for conflict. Like we came awfully close in Ukraine, right? With, uh, with, with, with, with missiles flying around, like. That's, that's, that's my concern.

So the way around that is, is, is to go small. So the small modular reactors at the moment, they're not as efficient as the bigger reactors, but that's like, you know, it's, it's, it's ongoing technological. Then what you can do is you can just bury it. So when you build a building deep under the ground, you have your modular reactor that powers that That block, that area, that sector, right?

It's deep under the ground. It's cut off from everything else. You've got, you know, the same way that I said, a little bit of concrete is enough. You've got lots and lots of ground protecting you. You have to think about things like groundwater and so on, but you can have these, uh, hidden away if you like, and lots of them so that none of them is a particularly, uh, as a particular threat.

And because, as I said, the fuel it's like, you know, a thousand times as it or 16, 000, if it's enriched, uh, as energy efficient, you don't need a lot of it. Like a ton of coal is literally like a thumb worth of enriched uranium. Um, so what I would say is. I don't want to speak on behalf of the nuclear industry.

I don't want to speak on behalf of nuclear scientists, but as a society, we ought to be thinking about this and looking at those technologies and looking at the people who work in this area and say, we, you know, like, you're obviously nuclear scientists, you're the solar industry, you're wind, whatever, you've all got your incentives, but we as a society need to make a decision.

First, we need to recognize the importance of energy to everything that humans do. The second, we need to like decide between these technologies and decide what is our energy portfolio going to look like? So I think, you know, Solar is going to play a part. I'm less of a fan of wind, as I said, uh, nuclear is going to play a part, and in the meantime, you know, maybe some of the natural gas will kind of get us through this period.

[01:11:48] Matt Geleta: Yeah, how do you think about the, um, the tension between, um, I mean, there, there was a large movement, large group of people that are more focused on the sustainability angle. Um, and so not so much thinking about the energy crisis and how to produce energy effectively, but more about. Are we doing this in a sustainable way?

And actually I think frankly a lot of people are thinking about reduction in energy usage for example, as a big lever here. And when I think about that in light of the argument you put forward about the energy ceiling and how we sort of need a certain level of abundance in order to cooperate effectively.

It feels like there's a big tension between those two things, between sustainability, moderation of use, um, and on the other hand, having abundance, which, which enables more effective cooperation. How do you think about this, um, well, is there a tension? And, and if so, how do you think about it?

[01:12:43] Michael Muthukrishna: Yeah, uh, I mean, first off, I, I think it was a real mistake that, um, nuclear, now it is, but nuclear wasn't folded into that kind of sustainable, uh, story. Uh, and a kind of green revolution. I think people now recognize that it ought to play a part. It isn't, uh, it isn't the same as burning up millions of years worth of stored carbon and pumping it back into the atmosphere.

Um, it's not the same at all.

I should tell, you know, let me, let me, let me tell a little story. So I, um, uh, you know, I, I spent my teenage years in Queensland, in Brisbane, and I went to university at the University of Queensland. Um, I was very interested in kind of big questions. So I, you know, I. I was like, maybe I should do physics or philosophy or theology or human behavior, and I did a dual degree with engineering, um, because, you know, I also like to manage risk, uh, you know, and I felt like I should probably get a career that's like portable because I like to travel and I like to move around, um, and.

Initially, I was applying cognitive design to, to engineering in terms of smart home technologies and safety critical systems. Um, but I, it was, I think it was around 2007. I tell the story, you know, I, I watched Al Gore's documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and I, it really got me. I was like, oh man, this is, this is a serious threat.

Climate change is coming. This is a problem for my generation. This is a problem for me, my children, you know, you know, my early twenties. Um, but I started to read like the IPCC reports. I started to read, you know, the Pentagon. So I was like, you know, okay, fine. IPCC, like, I believe it, but the Pentagon, you know, if it's military, they're probably much more practical.

So I was reading the Pentagon reports. I was like, what is the world going to look like? Under climate change, and it seemed to me that like Gore and everyone else was right about the problem, but the solution in terms of mitigation didn't make a whole lot of sense because already, if you looked at like I knew from engineering, if you look at the efficiency, we are way more efficient than we've ever been.

Right? Like, you know, the whole idea of, like, turn off the lights to save the planet, like, that makes no sense anymore. Because LEDs are so efficient, they're approaching 100 percent efficiency. Leave them on all day, all night, it's not gonna make a damn difference compared to even one flight anywhere, you know?

Um... Like all of our technologies have become more efficient, and that's not really the problem, and we also live in a world where, so if your theory of change, like if your theory of how we make a better world requires a change either in human nature or fundamental tool. evolutionary principles that apply across the animal kingdom, then you're going to require a level of coercion.

It's like communism, right? It's, it's, you know, um, E. O. Wilson, the entomologist, uh, you know, he works on, uh, on, on ants and bees and things like that. And, you know, he said, uh, communism is a great idea, just the wrong species. Works great for ants. You know, like you're, you're, if you want to say like, look, you know, everybody just contributes what they can and everyone gets it.

Like, that's not how people work because we are in a status competition with one another. So in a world where every country Is competing with every other country and every company is competing with every other company and every person wants a little bit more than their neighbors. If you want to try to change that, how, how do you plan to change that?

And if you cannot change it or the coercion required is not necessarily. A level of coercion that is good for society by any metric. Then you're gonna, you, you, you need a, you need a better model to think about, well, what does the future look like? So the first thing that occurred to me is like, we are going to enter a climate changed world.

This is the early 2000s, right? And that means we need to think about how do we deal with the problems of a climate changed world? So I'm reading these reports and I'm like, okay, well, one of the problems is, some of these things are just a pure engineering problem, carbon capture, whatever. They're engineering problems, maybe I can work on that, but there's lots of people working there.

The area that I saw ignored was. was the human side of it. What do you do when you have And massive amounts of, you know, massive displacement because a million Bangladeshis are underwater or an area that was previously fertile is now experiencing drought because there are climate winners and there are climate losers.

This is one of the really inconvenient truths is that some places get better. Actually, Canada is going to get more, more usable area of milder temperatures, whereas the Middle East is going to get drier. Uh, and there's going to be floods in other areas. South Pacific is going under water. What are you going to do with millions of people streaming to your borders?

You can't ignore them. The first version of this that we saw was the Syrian migration crisis, right? So I don't know if people know, but in Syria, uh, the crops failed, and so a lot of rural, uh, people moved into urban areas, and the infrastructure couldn't cope with that. There weren't enough jobs. There weren't enough, uh, you know, places and anything.

And so people... We're unhappy. And when you have that kind of zero sum environment, then people eventually start to protest and protest turned violent. And the state cracked down. Now you're getting into specific geopolitics, but the state cracked down and you have millions of refugees streaming into Europe.

And this interacts with a lot of the things I talk about in the book. You know, so you have Germany going, uh, wir schaffen das, you know, we can do it, with a naivety about what that really represents. Now, I'm not saying, you know, you have to deal with this, but it's like. If you have all of these guests turn up at your home, you need to have enough groceries.

You need to invest in the infrastructure. You need to think about the cultural challenges. Because that decision will, has changed and will change Europe for decades to come. So, how do we, how do we step out of this? Well, we have one choice. It's like you, somehow you're going to do this degrowth thing.

You're going to convince everyone to have less. You're going to enter this kind of era of scarcity poverty. But the moment you trigger zero sum situations, you trigger a situation where Everybody's taking from a limited pie and your win is my loss and my win is your loss. And so we are no longer, capitalism and that competition between countries and, and, and, and companies and people has led to massive reductions in poverty.

And a better world by any metric, as far as we can see in terms of child survival rates, lifespans, health, um, uh, anything you might care about, we live in this, you know, kind of better world. Overall, but then we have like these periods, right? Of like, of, of recession and depression and, uh, and things not being so great.

So the argument that I make is rather than try to reenter a world of scarcity or degrowth or whatever, what you want to do is to reenter an era of abundance. Because when you have energy abundance, you can choose how you use that abundance. The cleanest countries. Not the ones that use the most energy, those are the West, but the ones that look after their environment and try to engage in conservation are often the wealthiest countries, who don't have to worry about feeding their citizens or having enough hospitals, and so, like Australia, they can invest in rejuvenating the Great Barrier Reef or, uh, you know, protecting, uh, areas of land as forest and not cutting it down.

If you are in an, if you're, if you're, if you're scarce and you have lots of people, then you have to make hard decisions like cutting down parts of the rainforest in order to farm more land. So, so what I argue is that rather than kind of sustainability and stagnation, what you want is sustainable growth, where you push, you push the next level of abundance and you use that abundance to solve the many challenges that climate change and the period in which we grew thanks to fossil fuels have created.

So you use this new clean era of solar or nuclear or, you know, whatever mix you've got to fix some of the problems, but you re enter growth and hopefully, you know, uh, start to think about resources beyond the planet.

[01:20:12] Matt Geleta: interesting that you mentioned Australia, there is a case example because I think this points to something that um, a lot of people would put forward as a bit of an objection to the sustainability framing you put forward. So I think it is true that, you know, Australia has abundance locally and invests in sustainability measures and we do have, you know, relatively clean environment and so on.

A lot of people would say that that is because, uh, our. You know, it is at the expense of, of other places, you know, production happens elsewhere and emissions happen elsewhere and we are actually, in effect, um, just shielding ourselves from, from those, um, implications and, um, and so potentially the whole growth at all costs or, or maybe growth at many costs picture is not as rosy as one might say.

[01:20:59] Michael Muthukrishna: so just to be clear, I'm not advocating growth at all costs. Um, I'm advocating a kind of sustainable growth that, you know, does recognize the real costs, but considers how you can pay with, pay for it, not by becoming poorer

or cutting, you know, Uh, you know, uh, metrics, but actually becoming wealthier and using those resources to deal with some of the problems, right?

Um, and you're right

that, you know, some of the, some of

the ways that, uh, many developed

countries, uh, look better is by outsourcing the, the dirty stuff, uh, away, right? To, to other, other poor countries. but I think

the, you know, the, the,

the way to, the way to kind

of thread that needle. is that when that happens, you know, when, when a lot of things get outsourced, those countries begin to grow. And what we want to be able to do is to help those countries and encourage or maybe even incentivize them to, uh, to grow in a cleaner way.

And as they also reach levels of new wealth, they also want to try to clean up their environment. And then the problem shifts away a little bit, right? So look at China. You know, where a lot of, um, the dirtiest aspects of growth took place, but now, or at least, you know, up until recently, China was a lot wealthier and, and as a result of that wealth, they were able to use it to, um, start to clean up their environment.

And the thing about China is, you know, if they decide something, they're like, it's going to be green here. We're going to wipe out all of the cars here. We're going to do this. You know, they're able to do that at a, at a, in a way that democracies or liberal democracies just can't do. Um, but there's the pattern that you see is again, it's kind of like, they want to, people want to live in a world that is cleaner.

They want to live in a world that is nice. And once you have the wealth to do that, you do. So I see that more as a problem of inequality than as a fundamental problem of growth, if that makes sense. another way to say it is like you enjoy a relatively higher quality of life at a lower

energy cost because you allow these other countries to pollute and do things in a, in a, in a more difficult, but if you have more energy abundance, you can have that same quality

of life at a similar price because the energy is doing the work for you and

you're encouraging other countries to do it more cleanly.

So it's not a problem of growth, it's not a problem of sustainable

growth, it's not a problem of abundance, it's a problem of, inequality.

[01:23:16] Matt Geleta: Yeah, and, and that might actually lead nicely to the next point because, um, one of the, one of the statements that you've made in your book is that the 21st century might be the most important in human history, and I think there are many things that feed into that. Inequality is certainly one of them.

But I would love to hear your thoughts on, on that statement. Um, you know, we've, we've been around for a relatively short amount of time, hopefully, uh, in, in the scale of, of how long the future is. And, uh, I'm hoping that there are many more centuries to come. Um, and there have definitely been many important centuries in the past and, and there will be in the future.

What makes the 21st century such a pivotal

century in your view?

[01:23:56] Michael Muthukrishna: Yeah, so the reason I say that is because we are on the cusp or we, we have to deal with this energy transition and these, and the energy transition is happening at the same time as a kind of, um, uh, I would say a second industrial revolution. And I'll say, and I'll say what I mean by that in a second. So, um, There were these moments, you know, as I said, the discovery of fire, the discovery of agriculture, the industrial revolution, the first industrial revolution that are truly transformative, right?

And getting it right has implications for our species for centuries to come. And each time that happened, it was kind of a bigger shift, right? Fire was a big shift, but it took a long time. We were hunter gatherers for a very long time, reliant on really fire and a few sparse kind of tools. Right? And agriculture was a big shift.

And then we were agriculturalists for a very long time. Then, you know, we relied on a few, a few sparse mechanical tools. And the industrial revolution, we, I would argue that there has not been like a fourth industrial revolution or a third industrial revolution. We are living in the shadow of the first industrial revolution, which was truly an energy revolution and an efficiency revolution.

And we're still in the shadow of that now, before the industrial revolution was the enlightenment powered by ideas flowing across the continent in Eurasia, uh, through pamphlets and arguments and coffee shops, uh, among people. And this was kind of laying the ground, if you like, for that industrial revolution, it gave us the technology, the human capacities, and so on.

And they do eventually lead to formal,

uh, Uh, compulsory education, where a

lot of that knowledge was, was downloaded into most of the population, raising the average and so on. So right now we're going

through what I argue is the second enlightenment.

That's what the internet and social media and now AI really are.

It's a

second enlightenment that is

raising the average of more

people. It's swapping

ideas through the things that make you angry online And empowering this kind of innovation. But what we're waiting for is the true second

Industrial Revolution, which is an energy

revolution that then, you know, shoots the human rocket to that

next level.

And that is going to happen, or not happen, in the 21st century, depending on the decisions that we make. And so that's why I consider it to be, you know, and I'm not alone in this, you know, but consider it to be the most important century in human history because it's, it's, it's at a much, much larger scale.

It's at a much higher, like if we crack fusion, for example, like so we could, we could, you know, delay this thing a little bit with with vision for a lot longer. But if we crack fusion on, we would be the first generation of a galactic civilization that has profound implications for our species, right?

Once we're mining asteroids. Or we have colonies on other planets. It's impossible, like it sounds like sci fi until it happens, right? Like AI sounds like sci fi until it happens. A pandemic sounds like sci fi until it happens. Uh, it's a little bit like that. So, so because of the Second Enlightenment and the swapping of ideas, the growing inequality and the challenges that we face around climate change, uh, and the, and the The critical decisions we ought to make because of, to do with our energy abundance or, or energy scarce future.

That is why the century is the most important. And in the book, you know, I, I don't want to read it to you, but there's a, there's a section where, you know, I say, look, there are two futures ahead of us. One is this era of what you might call sustainability, but really scarcity, a Malthusian trap of, you know, things going down and down and down as we lose our ability to cooperate at that higher scale, where we are fighting with one another more and more.

becoming more and more difficult to govern. And we reenter that world before the industrial

revolution. That's one future. And the other future is one where we have opportunities for more people. We increase the size of our collective brain. We spark a

creative explosion. We develop new means of governance for the 21st century.

We crack that energy ceiling

and enter the new era of abundance that makes life better

for more people. Makes life even better for, for

more people around the world. That's the choice we face in the 21st century.

[01:27:52] Matt Geleta: Yeah, well, it's a, it's a, um, it's definitely an invitation to have a look at the book. And then I must say that, you know, every so often a book comes along that really addresses so many topics across the spectrum. And this is one of them. It's, um, it really does do a lot. So, I mean, I was like, congrats on, on, on this book and getting it out there.

And it's definitely a very interesting and worthwhile read. And on the topic of books, as we bring it to a wrap, one of the favorite questions from my listeners is on the topic of book recommendations. Um, and in this case, I'll, I'll put it to you, um, which, which books have most influenced you on your journey?

[01:28:27] Michael Muthukrishna: So, uh, I do have some books that, you know, I would recommend in this sphere. There's a long further readings list in, in, in my book. Uh, so books that deal with, uh, the history, um, you know, uh, ancient human migrations, David Reich's, you know, who we are and how we got here. Uh, Books like The Silk Road by Peter Frankopan, which is like a fantastic kind of really big picture history of the world.

There are excellent books on the new science of cultural evolution and dual inheritance theory, which I call a theory of everyone. You know, Joe Hendricks, The Secret of Our Success and The Weirdest People in the World. Kevin Leyland's Darwin's Unfinished Symphony. Rob Boyd's A Different Kind of Animal.

Leslie Newsom and Pete Richardson's A Story of Us. Lots of stuff there, you know. Pinker's work on kind of the decline and violence, uh, Better Angels of Our Nature, for example, uh, Enlightenment Now. Um, there's, I mean, there's excellent books in all of these spheres. What this book is really doing is putting, bringing all of those pieces together under a, um, A common framework, right?

And, and, and I would say people who enjoy Yuval Harari's Sapiens, uh, which I think of, my book is, like, maybe Yuval's maybe better on the history, I'm obviously better on the evolution stuff. It's complementary, I suppose, but it also plugs some of the gaps that I saw in, in Yuval's book. Um. Guns, germs, and steel, why nations fail, you know, this, this book is, is in that sphere, although I should say, you know, in the book, I make fun of, I've, I've caught a books that I consider to be the one thing that explains everything, uh, Toti books, you know, like I love that genre, they're so fun, but at the end of the day, the authors know, I know everyone knows one thing does not explain everything.

Energy isn't, energy is one piece of this puzzle. It's an important piece, but you have to think about the way the causal arrows feed back on each other, go in multiple directions. You need a framework for thinking about how energy, and efficiency, and cooperation, and evolution work in concert, in the devil's details, how they manifest in people's everyday lives.

And that's what I deal with in the book. But let me answer your original question, which is, you know, what were the books that influenced me growing up? Uh, I read a lot of sci fi. Uh, you know, I loved, uh, Uh, you know, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, uh, I was a big fan, probably my favorite sci fi author was Arthur C.

Clarke, um, I loved, you know, 2001 A Space Odyssey, uh, Childhood's End, uh, you know, Rama, and I, I think sci fi is unique in, in, in, in genres in that it forces you to think about the world, especially like hard sci fi, like sci fi grounded in real science, you think about the world not as it is, but how it could be.

If you relax some assumptions you project into the future and then you think about it in a real world. What would that world look like for humans and especially for children? I encourage you all to get your children to read more sci fi because I think it, it opens people's minds. There's one book. I want to, you know, I want to highlight that.

Had a profound impact on me, which was, uh, it's an obscure book by a very, if you look him up, he's a very strange person, uh, Arthur Koestler, uh, he wrote this book called the Sleepwalkers, I think 1989 or something. So I was, you know, I was a teenager when I read it. Um, so it's, you know, the, the subtitle of the book is like, you know, man's, uh, changing place in the universe or changing understanding.

And it traces our understanding of cosmology from like Mesopotamia to the present day. And. Yeah.

[01:31:44] Matt Geleta: I

[01:31:54] Michael Muthukrishna: a better understanding of the world, and often what it holds people back, are assumptions that they make about the world, the things that they think they already know.

You know, I see a lot of comments online, you know, where people are like, Oh, he's trying to say this, he's trying to say that. And look, if you already have the answer, you already know how the world works, then okay, that's fine. You know, like, find something that confirms or denies. But you'll see in this book, there's some things you'll agree with, some things you don't, but it hopefully gets you to think.

And so he argues, like, the things you take for granted. The things you just assume, of course that's correct, are the things that hold you back. So in, in, uh, in cosmology, we assumed, look, it's obvious, the earth is flat, look around you, man. You know, and it's clear that the sun is tracing the sky from east to west.

It's obvious. It was obvious to people, because literally that's what their eyes showed them. But when you let go of that assumption, you say, actually, look, The Earth is, is, is rotating around the Sun, and it's rotating in an ellipse, and it is one of many planets rotating, and in fact, what our Sun is one of many stars, you know, rotating around a, uh, supermassive black hole in the Milky Way, and one of many galaxies in

the universe.

When you let go of that

assumption, that simple assumption, you get a better model.

of the solar system. You know, Einstein, right? Like, uh,

the major shift

for Einstein was time. Time feels like, what is time? Time is just what we all experience. It's the same

for everyone, everywhere. But when you let go of that, you know, you relax that assumption in your equations, you get a better model.

of space time, and you get a better model of the

universe. And it's an important model that

lets you build technology. So our GPS systems have to account for the

fact that time is flowing at a different rate,

high up above the

Earth, away from our gravitational well, compared to what it is down to Earth.

And if you don't account for that difference, your, your GPS is going to be wildly inaccurate. But it seems like such an obvious assumption that why, you know, why would you, why would you let it

go? And in... That, that, that, that way of thinking about it caused me throughout my career to say what are the things that I just assume, take for granted, that everybody's taking for granted, that is right in front of us, that other people are missing,

and when you let go of that, you can make these kind of breakthroughs, and I think the breakthrough, and it's not me who came up with this, but the breakthrough that allowed us to develop a better model of humans to be able to even boldly and, even remotely claim that we are on the cusp of a theory of everyone, is that human intelligence is governed by evolving software, and human society is not the result of geniuses or innovators per se.

It's a collective process, and there is a thing called humanity that's kind of emerging, and it's making decisions. And we're beginning to understand how that collective brain is making decisions. And we're beginning to understand how that software is evolving. And we're beginning to realize we're not all that bright at an individual level, but we, there is an illusion of explanatory depth that makes us think we are.

And if that all sounds crazy to you, and, and runs against your assumptions, I would say that's a good thing. You know, it's like, The fact that the, the earth is rotating around the sun and not vice

versa. It's like the fact that time isn't flowing the same for everyone. Have a look at the book,

see what you think, map it against your own life and see if it offers a better model that can account for more phenomena and, and turn chaos and, and confusion into something that's a little bit more understandable that allows you to make predictions that are a bit better.

Anyway, Arthur, Arthur Kosler, uh, the sleep Walkers, I don't know if you know if it's still relevant, but

certainly it. influenced me as a teenager.

[01:35:19] Matt Geleta: Yeah, no, beautiful. I mean, all of that pertains very much to the namesake of this podcast, Paradigm, which is recognizing the paradigms that we operate in and sometimes stepping out of them. So I could not have come up with a better conclusion to the conversation myself. Um, Michael, thank you so much for making the time to speak to me.

It's been a pleasure.

[01:35:37] Michael Muthukrishna: I appreciate it, Matt. Can't wait to listen to the episode.

Conversations with the world's deepest thinkers in philosophy, science, and technology. A global top 10% podcast by Matt Geleta.