Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Free Press, 2012, 432 pp, $11 paperback, $11 hardback. A review by Donald A. Collins.
Instead of hand wringing, this book offers vast, intriguing pathways, solutions which could lead to abundance for all within a relatively short time. But the authors don’t ask whether religions, racial conflicts and cultural differences are going to derail human planetary survival!
Recently, a friend, after patiently listening to my dinner table litany of planetary ills, agreed with my exposition of problems, but not with my dire assurances of totally drastic outcomes.
Having written numerous op ed pieces about the highly reasonable prospects for a global apocalypse inspired by atomic explosions, a climate Armageddon, a Malthusian food crisis, all underpinned by the burgeoning human numbers on our plundered planet, I was refreshed and heartened, but highly skeptical, to hear my friend say that he thought there was a far brighter scenario which has been outlined in a book entitled Abundance, published in 2012.
The book is also now widely available in paperback, with a new introduction in the 2014 paperback edition that readily acknowledges present and possible future planetary woes. Its authors then launch into describing many positive stories about how technology and other new approaches could lead within a few decades to abundance for all humans on the planet.
My friend made sure I got a copy which I have now read with excitement and pleasure.
Jon Gartner, in his excellent 3/30/12 NY Times book review entitled “Plenty to go around” tells us about Diamandis and Kotler:
In Silicon Valley, where the locals tend to be too busy starting companies to wallow in gloom, Peter Diamandis has stood out as one of the more striking optimists. Several years ago, Diamandis founded the X Prize Foundation, which rewards entrepreneurs with cash for achieving difficult goals, like putting a reusable spaceship into flight on a limited budget. More recently he helped start Singularity University, an academic program that convenes several weeks a year in the Valley and educates business leaders about the “disruptive” — i.e., phenomenally innovative — technological changes Diamandis is anticipating.
To be sure, Diamandis is both very bright (he studied molecular biology and aerospace engineering at M.I.T. before getting an M.D. at Harvard) and well informed. Moreover, he’s not the kind of optimist who will merely see the glass as half full. He’ll give you dozens of reasons, some highly technical, why it’s half full. Then he’ll explain that your cognitive biases are tricking you into seeing the glass of water in a negative light, and cart out the research of acclaimed psychologists like Daniel Kahneman to prove his point. Finally he may suggest you stop fretting: new technologies will soon fill the glass up anyway. Indeed, they are likely to overfill it.
The authors postulate that we Americans are living better than ever and that we are better off than ever, but that we are cowed into undue pessimism by a media that continuously stresses the negative stores with the type of 24/7 coverage that CNN and the mass media in general offer that puts us into fears which are overstated and largely un-warranted.
While admitting the serious concerns noted above, the authors argue that the changing technology of resource utilization can bring abundance for people living at every level of society worldwide — not in the distant future, but within decades. Primary in their plan is the urgent need to be sure that bringing the poorest humans on the planet to decent levels of life offers the surest avenue to sustainable peace and prosperity.
In the 2014 paperback edition’s 413 rather small type pages plus an extensive index, the authors draw on the latest thinking and actions of the many bright and wealthy people who have taken up these problems and offer reasonable solutions.
This positive approach begins with the concept of building a pyramid (oops, didn’t Ponzi or Bernie Madoff so scheme?) to achieve the goal of reaching One Planet Living (OPL). OPL’s creator, Jay Witherspoon, began by admitting that “I first had to understand these facts. Fact one: Currently humanity use 30 percent more of our planet’s natural resources than we can replace. Fact two: If everyone on this planet wanted to live with the lifestyle of the average European, we would need three planets worth of resources to pull it off. Fact three: If everyone on this planet wished to live like the average North American, then we’d need five planets to pull it off. OPL, then, is a global initiative meant to combat these shortages.”
Using the example of aluminum, which was in Napoleon’s time considered more precious than gold, the authors point out that now it has become cheap and abundant due to technology — i.e. electrolysis extraction from bauxite. This illustrates their argument for dealing with resource problems under what they dub the OPL initiative.
Take all the issues from climate change to population growth and apply new technology in a world where everyone soon will be able to communicate via our internet connections so all can participate rapidly in the knowledge and the huge advantages of such access, they argue. For example, solar power is already there in vast amounts, awaiting better distribution.
The authors acknowledge the limits to growth and resource depletion which should concern us all and seems seldom to be recognized by world leaders. But they opine that means OPL must be the way out to achieve abundance, but only if we include everyone.
Building such a world pyramid of OPL starts by insuring the basic levels of necessities for all such as clean water, housing, and food.
In addressing the principal focus of my working, namely finding better ways to offer family planning services, the Gates Foundation sees child survival as the most important element in curbing needless population growth. As counterintuitive as many will regard this, surely the fact that half the births of the 20th Century were un-intended, forwards their argument. And of course giving women more education and the ability to have only the number of children they want are obvious and urgent priorities.
Certainly eradicating disease must be a key part of the overall effort, but the huge list of urgent actions presents readers like me with skepticism about the speed and commitment needed to do the above before all is lost to the breakdown of society, the absence of the rule of law and the descent into the Orwellian world of 1984.
The authors thoroughly describe the brilliant ideas from the minds and philanthropies of many super rich people who are committed to implementing these bold ideas. I am heartened by their optimism and glad of their courage.
The book details the several steps needed to construct the OPL pyramid in Chapter Two. In a world where all humans have enough to eat, clean water, and a safe place to live, those conditions build toward the top of the pyramid where the freedom to pursue one’s dreams can be widely available. Certainly to have such a vision is laudable.
Even more, since the authors describe some of the concrete steps taken to toward their OPL plan, those initiatives must be accounted preferable to only sitting around wringing our hands and waiting for impending disasters, about which many of us including this writer have made predictions.
However, as Jon Gartner points out,
“Abundance” is not so much a report on the future as it is an argument for the potentiality of the future. And there is, so to speak, an abundance of problems in such an approach. To his credit, Diamandis acknowledges the magnitude of our global problems; and he hints, in places, at the complexity of overcoming them. Yet many new technological developments are presented here without the ballast of specific scientific, or economic, skepticism. Will we regularly “3-D print” human organs in the near future, just as laser printers now zip out documents? Will a revolutionary new generation of nuclear power plants actually be marketed by 2030?
The authors, keen on extrapolations, often show a casual disregard for what California’s venture capitalists, an equally optimistic bunch, describe respectfully as the “Valley of Death.” This term refers to the difficult, cash-starved terrain a new start-up and its technology must travel through to survive. Usually they fail. In California and elsewhere, it’s never enough to make a breakthrough. The inventor or company must make something that succeeds technologically, economically and culturally on a large scale. Innovation, to put it another way, harmonizes closely with market acceptance and impact. Thus when Diamandis tells us about a water purification technology developed by the inventor Dean Kamen, we’re led to believe it’s an imminent leap forward and are told only later that the technology is still far too expensive for widespread adoption. In this instance, and several others in the book, the take-away is not quite convincing.
More problematic, I think, is the authors’ glorification of small groups over large ones. There’s a curious absence of alarm over climate change in “Abundance,” perhaps because arresting its effects will necessitate not only a huge technological push but also the messy business of changing human behavior, radically altering government policies and brokering international accords. In other words, it doesn’t begin to fit into the authors’ paradigm of a problem that requires a D.I.Y. or techno-philanthropic fix. (Nor does it appear to be a situation in which our glass-half-empty tendencies are leading us to an overly pessimistic view of the consequences. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center indicates that only 38 percent of Americans consider global warming a “very serious” problem.)
My major demur must be, that in reading this paean to abundance and sustain ability, I find very troubling their failure to mention the likely huge drag created by the various religions, cultures and races.
The main question must be what are the chances of getting enough of their vast transition accomplished in time to avoid dire outcomes such as huge human deaths, climate change, pollution, and non renewable natural resource depletion.
The power exhibited by the clash of cultures, races and religions has historically created massive problems which continue today.
Can the services the authors so exhaustively catalogue be delivered in the present environment?
Having been involved in the family planning field since 1965, I have observed the resistance first hand in trying to create readily available contraceptive services in many venues, sadly including the USA, where often, for example, the agents of the powerful monotheistic male dominated religions can dramatically impede progress. Admittedly, substantial progress has been made since Pincus’ Pill in 1960. And with the education of women now possible electronically, such adverse powers might be overcome. It is to be hoped.
Well, Folks, you should read the authors’ imaginative ideas on solving the world’s problems. At this holiday season, you should treat yourself to their optimistic views, which suggest many plausible options. Even if not all are achievable at least they offer concrete pathways that could if adopted rapidly enough keep us from a vast planetary human apocalypse.
From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013
By Donald A. Collins
Publisher: Church and State Press (July 30, 2014)
Professor Paul Ehrlich: Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?
Peter Diamandis – Why The Future Is Better Than You Think
Peter Diamandis: Abundance is our future
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