Ever since John F. Kennedy butchered Chinese etymology to make the point, no business consultant or motivational speaker has let anyone forget that times of crisis represent both danger and opportunity. The ongoing pandemic has been a tragedy with over 3 million confirmed deaths. Yet it has also accelerated the development of mRNA technology and its supply chain—technology whose arrival means new treatments on the way for HIV and cancer, among many other ailments. The disease is dangerous, but the cure presents a great opportunity.
It is tempting to make the trite observation with respect to recent progress in mRNA vaccines that necessity is the mother of invention. We needed to rapidly design a highly effective vaccine, and so we undertook the final translational steps to bring mRNA into clinical use. Yet this mere necessity-invention link is deeply inadequate to describe our success. After all, we have needed new treatments for HIV and cancer, which together kill 10 million people per year, for decades. If all that was necessary was necessity, we would have recognized mRNA’s potential earlier and worked much harder to bring it to market.
The reason we have had 3 million confirmed deaths from COVID is that we did not bring mRNA vaccines to market earlier. If we had spent the last decade hustling to get mRNA technology and its associated supply chain online due to its promise for HIV, cancer, and other diseases—as we should have—the pandemic would have been a non-event. Years ago, we could have directed funding at the technology and even proactively eased the approval standards that have now been relaxed through Emergency Use Authorizations. An mRNA vaccine platform would have already been approved in humans, we would have had more experience determining proper dosing, and the supply chain would have already been in place. After sequencing the virus, we could have moved rapidly to quick confirmatory trials and then to manufacturing and distributing the vaccine. It could have been over before summer.
Crises are bound up, then, with complacency. When we have been complacent too long, crises tend to arrive to shock us out of that state, shining a spotlight on obvious societal deficiencies that must now be addressed. Above all, crises themselves are times of non-complacency. The considerations that slow down action during normal times—whether it’s the years of clinical trials, the need for community consultations, layers of red tape, or fake concerns from professional grifter-ethicists—are thrust aside. And as a consequence, crises are times of rapid innovation with long-lasting effects. Necessity plus non-complacency is the mother of invention.
Several observations follow immediately from this view of crisis and complacency.
- That innovation happens faster during a crisis helps resolve a debate over the Great Stagnation. Why has total factor productivity growth slowed down? Is it because we have picked our way through the fruits of the five Great Inventions of the late 19th Century and now there is little left, as Robert Gordon hypothesized? Or is it because we have become more complacent, as Tyler Cowen suggested? The fact that we actually can pull it together and innovate rapidly during times of crisis suggests it’s the latter. It is non-crisis complacency, not the particulars of the technology tree, that holds us back during normal times.
- What we choose to regard as a crisis—and therefore as a time to switch off our usual complacency—is highly subjective. Ten million cancer and HIV deaths per year have come to feel normal. Tens of millions of aging deaths per year are normal. We allow Emergency Use Authorizations for COVID vaccines, but not for other deadly conditions. For anyone dying of any disease whatsoever, their condition is an emergency to them and their loved ones. There are hidden crises all around.
- There is no fundamental reason why we can only be non-complacent when a crisis hits. The laws of physics do not demand it. Perhaps it is not psychologically possible for all of us to live in all respects in crisis mode all the time, but, at the margin, we can indeed be less complacent—more hungry for progress—pretty much all the time. The cost of our usual complacency will always be more human suffering, either because the social deficiencies add up and a crisis hits, or because problems we choose not to regard as a crisis continue to simmer.
Another crisis we innovated our way through was World War II. Not only did we rapidly progress nuclear physics and develop the atomic bomb, we invented radar, found a way to mass-produce penicillin, produced magnetrons that eventually found their way into microwave ovens, made progress on computing, standardized blood plasma transfusions, and invested in jet engines. Life after the war was fundamentally different than life before due to all this rapid progress, enabled by the non-complacency of a wartime footing.
Does it have to be a genuine life and death crisis to shock us out of our complacency? Many cite the Apollo program as an example of rapid innovation enabled by pulling out all the stops. Mariana Mazzucato has suggested that we could replicate the spirit of Apollo in other “moonshot” programs. I wonder if her idea is scalable—how many different moonshots could we pursue at once while retaining their urgency? Part of what made Apollo successful at stimulating non-complacency, aside from its audacity, was its singular nature. It was the moonshot. Are there other moonshot-like projects where we have and would be able to maintain such unity of purpose, even as the number of such projects proliferated?
It’s possible a Marsshot could work. Critics of human space exploration often argue that it’s a waste of money because there are still parts of Earth that are unexplored, uninhabited, or poorly understood. But what could make a Martian settlement program “work” over a period of decades is that being millions of miles away from human civilization would create a survival crisis for the settlers. Innovate or die. Their innovations would find their way back to Earth, and their fruits could more than pay for the cost of settlement.
Climate change might someday be treated as a true crisis, and certainly there are some people who have already become non-complacent about it. The energy technology we continue to develop to address carbon emissions has huge benefits for future growth. We don’t just need clean energy, after all—new, non-polluting energy technologies must be cheaper than fossil fuels if we expect the entire world to adopt them without draconian, top-down measures that are likely impossible. We could have solved the problem long ago—the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission was talking about clean energy “too cheap to meter” all the way back in 1954. But we didn’t then, and to some extent we are still putzing around now, with our leaders making the climate issue one about jobs instead of technological progress. We don’t really view it as a crisis yet, but even so, our progress in energy now could lead to a more abundant future.
Some number of future crises are inevitable, but each one is more likely if our default cultural mode remains complacency. People had warned about a viral pandemic for decades before it happened. Are we doing enough now to prepare for the possibility of extreme solar weather? For a large asteroid or comet headed our way? For military conflict with a peer adversary such as China? The less complacent we are now, the less likely it will be that these possibilities generate huge crises, and the sooner we will reap the fruits of innovation associated with non-complacency.
If the human species ends before we can spread sustainably across several star systems, I think it will be because of complacency. Complacency gives crises extra opportunity to arise, and in non-terminal cases, the non-complacency generated by the crisis is what ultimately resolves it. But what if a big, fast-moving crisis overwhelms our ability to respond, even mustering all our non-complacent energy, in the time afforded? A giant asteroid could strike just before we have the technology to divert it. Then it’s curtains.
I vote for less complacency. Recognizing that to some degree we are combating our natural tendency to settle into routine behaviors, we should systematically locate and dismantle the barriers to progress. We should accept risk, short-term job loss and inequality, changes to neighborhood character, and a ceasefire in the culture war if it means faster technological progress and economic growth. We may never know what future crises are averted with faster progress today, but in this case ignorance is bliss.