By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Arthur Morey
According to Peter Diamandis’ and Steven Kotler’s vision of the future, an environmental train wreck is not a fait acompli; i.e. the light at the end of the tunnel is not a train. Diamandis and Kotler suggest the light comes from an inexhaustible source of energy. They argue solar power, fission, and bio-fuels are coming to civilization’s rescue.
However, technology comes at a price. In contrast to Diamandis’ and Kotler’s beneficent vision of technology, there is the inherent curse of knowledge; i.e. the curse of human nature. Human nature that is good and bad.
Nuclear fission led to the human and environmental devastation of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Ukraine (Chernobyl). Cellular communication and the internet recruited and organized terrorists for 9/11. Quant’ collateralized assets, constructed with computer algorithms, led to the 2008 world economic crises.
Diamandis and Kotler argue that modern technology keeps humanity in the race; i.e. the race against human extinction. Listening to their book, “Abundance”, a skeptic would add “a race” is a competition; not a guarantee of success.
The race is for humankind’s survival with technology as arbiter, an arbiter that offers thumbs up or down for survival of the fittest. Both authors acknowledge the threat of over population, environmental contamination, and societal discontent. They note that those threats have always accompanied humanity. However, pending doom has historically led to advance in civilization.
Diamandis’ and Kotler’s theory infers that the gap between rich and poor is a red herring. It distracts attention from the fundamental needs of humankind as defined by Abraham Maslow. The primary needs of humankind begin with physiological needs like food and water. Until that basic level of need is met, mass graves are not only likely but inevitable.
The authors suggest Malthusian prediction is false; i.e. population growth will not exceed the agricultural capacity of farmer’ productivity; they believe that, even though undeveloped populations are starving, it is not an issue of agricultural productivity but of conservation and distribution. They offer statistics that show America wastes 40% of what it produces. Hardly a week goes by without a news article about food aid sitting at a port of entry or being confiscated by a ruling minority. The port of entry has no trucks for delivery or the ruling minority chooses to use food aid to increase their power or wealth.
Additionally Diamandis and Kotler note technological improvements in hydroponic agriculture experimentally demonstrate science’s ability to increase production and decrease land degradation.
Diamandis and Kotler argue that feeding the poor is a win, win proposition because meeting the physiological needs of human beings historically reduces the rate of population growth. The need for bigger families is mitigated by improved health and nutrition. They give the example of post industrial nations like Russia, Germany, and Japan that have birth rates below population growth rates.
Additionally, Diamandis and Kotler suggest robotics will save aging populations from becoming drags on the economy. The average life span of humans will increase because of advances in genetics and stem cell research. Diamandis and Kotler argue that the burden of care for the aged will increasingly be borne by robots that will clean houses, cook nutritious dinners, and offer aging centenarians relatively independent lives.
Water contamination is a growing crisis in the world. Diamandis and Kotler suggest that current science offers several methods of water purification that will reverse water shortages throughout the world. They point to the fact that 71% of the earth is water and that ramping up presently known technology will return water shortages to water surpluses.
Farming will become more hydroponic and less polluting. Waste treatment, presently done with communal source treatment will transition to “point of entry” treatment. Rather than flush a toilet into a communal treatment system, the toilet will purify the waste. Urine will be purified at point of entry and used as potable and/or irrigation water. The potential benefit will be particularly evident in undeveloped countries because the capital cost and time of construction is reduced.
The spread of cell phones will advance available information to developing countries that will geometrically widen research and development for innovation. The principle of “knowledge is power” is magnified by a World Wide Web that exposes millions of minds to the needs of the world.
Once fundamental needs of survival are properly addressed, Diamandis and Kotler suggest that alternate energy resources promise a singularity in energy production. Solar, bio fuel, and nuclear energy will reverse the pollution trend of carbon based fuels. They argue that current science removes the risks that once accompanied nuclear energy. Further, they suggest solar energy is solving the issue of storage by refining battery technology and reducing production cost to compete with carbon based fuels. Finally, they note that biofuels will become commercially viable with research and development on widely different resources, ranging from microalgae to plants.
A great deal of Diamandis’ and Kotler’s theory relies on the consequence of computer ubiquity. They believe the twitterverse, Google, and Facebook are educating and mobilizing world populations to reframe life to offer higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There are bumps in the road with the Arab Spring, the repressive government of Iran and, more currently Russia in Ukraine. But, Diamandis and Kotler believe the cry for freedom will prevail; human safety and security will improve, and the feeling of belonging will grow. As these needs are met, Maslow’s theory suggests self-esteem, confidence, and, for some, self-actualization will occur.
Looking at today’s environment, Diamandis’ and Kotler’s optimism seems distant but how wrong was Malthus and Neo-Malthusians like Paul Ehrlich? Technology does build bridges, and sometimes bash brains but history shows humankind continues to forge ahead. Life has never been easy but how much better off are Americans today than they were in 1789? “Abundance” is a hopeful book written by a knowledgeable engineer and physician, and a persuasive essayist.