In A Theory of Everyone: Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going, Michael Muthukrishna contends that the core issue affecting Western societies is increasing energy scarcity, leading to economic struggles, political disillusionment, and global instability. Though the public policy solutions Muthukrishna proposes – like better immigration systems and start-up cities – are outlined only vaguely, the book offers fresh ideas in an engaging writing style, according to James Sewry.
A Theory of Everyone: Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going. Michael Muthukrishna. Basic Books. London. 2023.
A Theory of Everyone by Michael Muthukrishna, Associate Professor of Economic Psychology at LSE, is a bold and ambitious book. It argues that the underlying cause of the present malaise of western societies is increasing energy scarcity. There is no doubt that the malaise is real. Since the global financial crisis, the UK has struggled to achieve economic and productivity growth; living standards are stagnant; inflation recently reached almost double figures; and the cost of energy spiked. As faith in politics and institutions is eroded, voters are drawn towards populism. Social media polarises us. The global order seems precarious: wars rage in Ukraine and the Middle East. In the words of Muthukrishna, “we can feel in our bones that the world is breaking – that something is wrong”.
The global order seems precarious: wars rage in Ukraine and the Middle East. In the words of Muthukrishna, ‘we can feel in our bones that the world is breaking – that something is wrong’.
The ultimate cause of all these different problems, Muthukrishna argues, is the lack of excess energy. Tapping into the energy contained within fossil fuels has driven society’s development since the Industrial Revolution, precipitating prosperity and increasing standards of living. Until relatively recently, energy seemed abundant. But fossil fuels are running out. The energy return on investment (EROI) that they offer is diminishing. For every single barrel of oil discovered in 1999 one could find at least another 1,000, but by 2010, this number had reduced to five. As Muthukrishna contends, we came to take energy for granted and stopped thinking about it. But as it becomes more expensive and more effort is spent on its extraction, life becomes harder. This matters because, as the availability of excess energy reduces, the “space of the possible”, that is, what humans are collectively able to achieve, shrinks with it. Humanity’s pressing challenge, therefore, is how to arrive at the “next level of abundance that leads to a better life for everyone”. Otherwise, according to Muthukrishna, the future will be bleak, with humanity beset by conflict over dwindling energy and resources.
Tapping into the energy contained within fossil fuels has driven society’s development since the Industrial Revolution, precipitating prosperity and increasing standards of living. Until relatively recently, energy seemed abundant.
To provide an approach to this enormously challenging future, A Theory of Everyone is divided into two parts. The first explains “who we are” and “how we got here”, detailing what the author proposes as the four “laws of life” which underpin human development: energy, innovation, cooperation and evolution. This layout is justified on the grounds that “the forces that shape our thinking, our economies, and our societies have become invisible to us”, and that in order to solve problems, we must first understand them. Part two then considers practical policy solutions that might begin to address our current predicament: “how this comprehensive theory of everyone can lead to practical policy applications.”
What distinguishes us is our capacity for social learning and imitation which has enabled each generation of humans to add to the stock of knowledge which is then acquired and marginally improved upon by each subsequent generation.
Given the scale and ambition of the book, it is perhaps unsurprising that the reader is left feeling disappointed by its suggestions for public policy. Muthukrishna essentially offers the following ideas: better designed immigration, educational and tax systems; start-up cities; programmable politics; the curation of free speech and genuine meritocracy; and improving the internet and social media. Taken by themselves, many of these ideas are sound, and if there were sufficient political will, ought to be implemented as soon as practically possible. There are also many powerful insights within the book that might help shift some common understandings, such as the assumption, which Muthukrishna powerfully counters, that what differentiates us as a species is our innate intelligence and ability to reason. Instead, what distinguishes us is our capacity for social learning and imitation which has enabled each generation of humans to add to the stock of knowledge which is then acquired and marginally improved upon by each subsequent generation. Our intelligence is therefore more the result of this evolving cultural “download” than it is thanks to raw ability.
It is difficult to see how the book’s policy ideas sufficiently match the scale of the challenges the author outlines.
However, some of these practical applications are frustratingly light on detail. For example, his proposals for “start-up cities” and “programme politics” in his chapter on governance in the twenty-first century are both sketched out only vaguely, with little sense of how they might be realised. Where ideas are fleshed out, they are sometimes caveated with qualifiers such as “this approach is one of many and may not even be the best approach”. On occasion the author struggles to move beyond platitudes, as in his very brief discussion of artificial intelligence: “More progress is needed to know the true limits of what machines can achieve and our role in all of this. The tides of progress can only be held back for so long.” It is difficult to see how the book’s policy ideas sufficiently match the scale of the challenges the author outlines.
Muthukrishna does not seem to appreciate, or at least makes no room for, the fact that a number of his fundamental assumptions, such as a belief in the underlying virtue of capitalism and economic growth, might not be universally shared. Others would want to see climate change given more thorough treatment.
These flaws do not mean that the book is without merit. A recognition of the world’s complexity and the author’s commitment to truth and the scientific method means he is robustly unafraid to court controversy. He lauds unfettered free speech, expresses scepticism towards affirmative action, and explores sex-based differences in intelligence, while on immigration he contends that new migrants bring “with them cultural values both desirable and less desirable”. Muthukrishna is arguably right not to shy away from these controversial areas for, as he argues, “we can only arrive at the truth in a diverse environment of different backgrounds, considering all hypotheses and ideas – both those we like and those we don’t.”
Muthukrishna is arguably right not to shy away from […] controversial areas for, as he argues, ‘we can only arrive at the truth in a diverse environment of different backgrounds, considering all hypotheses and ideas’
The book is also written in an engaging and accessible manner, and whilst it might fail to attain the heights it purports to reach, in its fresh thinking it is a welcome addition to the basket of literature that helps contemporary politicians, policymakers, and anyone with an interest in the direction of humanity grapple with the complexity of today’s challenges.
This post gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. The LSE RB blog may receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase through the above Amazon affiliate link. This is entirely independent of the coverage of the book on LSE Review of Books.