Woe is us! Our overpopulated and overheated world is running out
of water, food, and nonrenewable resources, all the while menaced
by natural and bioterror pandemics. As The Limits to
Growth famously predicted 40 years ago, exponential growth in
population, resource depletion, and pollution are leading
inexorably to civilizational collapse. Most readers will be
familiar with this conventional lament of impending doom.
Now comes X Prize guru Peter Diamandis and journalist Steven
Kotler with their new book,
Abundance: Why the Future Will Be Much Better Than You
Think. Are they insane? Everyone knows that things are
getting worse in this worst of all times.
“Humanity is now entering a period of radical transformation in
which technology has the potential to significantly raise the basic
standards of living for every man, woman and child on the planet,”
assert Diamandis and Kotler. “Abundance for all is within our
grasp.” How? The way to beat doomy exponentials is to outrun them
with boomy exponentials. Diamandis and Kotler argue that radical
progress in overcoming scarcity will be driven chiefly by the
transformative application of information and communication
technologies to the world’s hardest problems.
Diamandis and Kotler begin by asking, why do so many of us
despair of the future? They note that natural selection has shaped
our brains to be hyper-vigilant about threats. The result is
negativity bias, that is, a disproprotionate focus on negative
infomation and experiences. Comparatively rare bad news crowds out
the more plentiful good—and we believe the world is going ever
faster straight to hell.
The two abundance visionaries strongly counter that, in fact,
much of humanity has never had it better and that in 25 years
everybody could have the access to the resources and knowledge to
live fulfilling lives. They point out that doomsters only see the
slices of the pie getting smaller; meanwhile, exponential
technological progress is creating more pies for everyone.
Solutions to various scarcities don’t just add up, they
multiply. For example, access to clean water produces positive
feedbacks that address and reduce other scarcities. Supplying clean
water means that far fewer poor children die of waterborne
illnesses, which results in lowered infant mortality rates and thus
leads to lower population growth rates, which enables women to join
the paid labor force and provide more family resources for
educating their less-numerous kids, and so forth.
Diamandis and Kotler liken the spread of the technologies of
abundance to the exponential expansion of mobile phone technology
throughout the world. In 1990, there were 10 million mobile phone
subscribers; today there are more than 5.6 billion. World
population is just over 7 billion. So what other exponential
technologies might secure global abundance in a generation?
They stack the “grand challenges” that stand between now and
reaching global abundance into a three-tiered pyramid. At the base
of their pyramid are the challenges of getting enough clean water,
good food, and shelter to the truly impoverished. The next tier is
supplying abundant energy, ample educational opportunities, and
access to ubiquitous communications and information. Freedom and
health cap their third tier.
Today, a billion people in the bottom tier of the
pyramid lack access to safe drinking water and 2.6 billion to
basic sanitation. Diamandis and Kotler cite promising research on
new nanofilters for cleaning water and smart grid technologies to
dramatically reduce water losses from leaks and cut irrigation
water needs nearly in half. Other researchers are working on
toilets that turn feces into ash and flash evaporate urine.
On food, while the two techno-idealists mistakenly discount the
significant achievements of the Green Revolution based on
misinformation peddled by charlatan activists like Vandana Shiva,
they do properly celebrate the real contribution that biotech crops
have made and will make to boosting farm productivity and reducing
hunger in poor countries. While pointing to the success of
aquaculture in producing protein, they miss the fact that fisheries
being open access commons are the cause of overfishing. They
highlight the progress being made toward growing cultured meat in
Fueling exponential technological progress will be a growing
cadre of do-it-yourself (DIY) innovators. In a highly connected
world, small groups are collaborating to solve problems quickly
that bureaucracy-heavy governments and corporations would take
years to do. They cite the examples of DIY Drones, which developed
autonomous unmanned air vehicles at a fraction of the cost of
military contractors. And DIY biologists are creating a tool-kit of
standard interchangeable biological parts that can be used to
create organisms to clean oil spills or vaccines.
Another positive trend is the increasing integration of the
poorest people into the opportunities afforded them by the global
economy. Entrepreneurs are figuring out that even poor people have
money to spend. For example, Ruf N Tuf jeans are sold as ready to
stitch kits costing a tenth the price of regular jeans (although
already be moving up the quality curve on jeans).
Dematerialization means that more and more functionality is crammed
into less and less material. Consider all the goods and services
now available through the average smart phone: cameras, radios,
TVs, Web browsers, recording studios, GPS, word processors,
flashlights, board and video games, encyclopedias, maps,
translators, and more.
On the next tier of their pyramid stands energy and education.
Today, one and a half billion people are still without access to
electricity. Diamandis and Kotler argue that a future of energy
abundance will result from improved solar power, new battery
technologies, low energy LED lighting, and traveling wave reactors
generate electricity for 50 years while burning nuclear waste as
fuel. Algae might produce liquid transport fuels. Schools will be
leapfrogged by personalized education will be delivered by cheap
laptops connected wirelessly to the Internet.
At the top of their pyramid is health care and freedom.
Diamandis and Kotler point out that the last century has seen huge
increases in life expectancy from 35 years to 67 years around the
globe. They outline a future in which doctors and patients have
access to all the world’s medical information and diagnostics
through lab-on-a-chips connected to their cell phones. They do
suggest that “the rigorous, somewhat calcified, nature of the
first-world health care regulatory process” will result in health
care breakthroughs being made in other parts of the world.
Laboratories will quickly concoct personalized treatments for each
patient; perhaps even using 3-D printers to produce organs for
With regard to freedom, the main flaw of this book is that it is
almost entirely devoid of any consideration of the institutional
requirements that have enabled technological progress they
celebrate to occur, namely, the rule of law, property rights,
market economies, and free speech. Perhaps Diamandis and Kotler
assume that as people around the globe become more prosperous as
the result of technological progress they will demand and achieve
more social and political liberty.