A More Better Future

A review of Abundance: Why The Future Will Be Much Better Than You Think by X Prize guru Peter Diamandis and journalist Steven Kotler.


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 vats.

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 consumers may 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 transplant.

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.

Nevertheless, the spread of new information technologies is critical for securing and maintaining political freedom and holding governments accountable. Just today, The Washington Post is reporting how the operation of a new website in Kenya, ipaidabribe, is being used to combat pervasive corruption in that country. 

Of course, technologies in the wrong hands can hurt rather than help. Diamandis and Kotler briefly look at the threats of bioterrorism, cybercrime, and technological unemployment. Bioterrorism is best combatted by open and broadly distributed technological capability. Cybercrime has no silver bullet solutions, although software that updates itself and plugs security holes would help. Employment is how we earn the wherewithal needed to survive in a world of scarcity; abundance will enable people to pursue goals other than just survival.

Diamandis and Kotler conclude, "We hope that our contrarian view of the future has provide an antidote to some of today's dark pessimisms. Providing abundance is humanity's grandest challenge—one that together, with intention and action, we can make happen in our lifetime." Abundance makes a pretty persuasive case that the future will be better than many people think. 

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.