Forget Popular Pessimism: The Future for Humans Is Bright

Published June 11, 2013

Review of Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler (Free Press, 2012), 400 pages, ISBN- 978-1451614213

As the world’s population expands past seven billion people, pessimists paint an ever bleaker picture of a resource-scarce future where the gap between rich and poor grows increasingly large. Arguing that such doom and gloom predictions have no basis in fact, Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler present a bold book, Abundance: The Future Is Better than You Think, making the case for a more optimistic view of future resources and human prosperity.

Human Condition Continues Improving
For all the claims that population growth and resource use are impoverishing people and nations, global poverty has declined more in the past 50 years than in the previous 500, the authors report. The gap between wealthy and poor nations is closing. People are living longer, healthier, and wealthier lives.

The early chapters of Abundance quickly refute the notion life is bad and getting worse. By every measure the opposite is true, the authors note. The poorest of the poor in this nation have luxuries never dreamed of by recent generations. Except for obesity, we are healthier at every level. Imminent technological advances such as decoding DNA promise even more advances in human health and welfare.

The authors also make a refreshing case for expanding human freedom, noting advances in technology and human welfare occur more regularly and forcefully in free societies.

The authors describe major social changes that are improving the human condition. Private citizens are increasingly accomplishing great feats without government intervention. People like Burt Rutan are flying into space. Craig Venter is beating the government in sequencing the human genome. Bill Gates is implementing private sector solutions to societal problems such as malaria. Mark Zuckerberg is reinventing education. Billions of people now have access to information and resources via the Internet.

Technology Improving Lives
Breaking down human needs by category—water, food energy, health care, education, and even freedom—the authors introduce the reader to dozens of innovators and industry captains making tremendous strides in each area.

The authors document how progress in artificial intelligence, robotics, infinite computing, ubiquitous broadband networks, digital manufacturing, nanomaterials, synthetic biology, and many other exponentially growing technologies will enable us to make even greater gains in just the next two decades than we have in the past two centuries.

One of the most enlightening chapters focuses on failure. Thomas Edison failed in his first 1,000 efforts to invent the light bulb, but he viewed those failures as learning 1,000 a light bulb would not work. Failure is a learning experience for all those who achieve significant accomplishments.

Unfortunate Overreach
Senior author Peter Diamandis certainly has the credentials to write Abundance. He has degrees in molecular biology and aerospace engineering from MIT, a medical degree from Harvard, and he launched a dozen space engineering companies. Abundance is riveting and educational. However, one must read it with careful critical intelligence because, as I find with many highly intelligent people, the authors sometimes stretch their pronouncements beyond their boundaries of expertise and make unsound pronouncements.

As one with considerable experience and expertise in matters of planetary climate, world agriculture, and all areas of energy resources, I suggest carefully weighing the authors’ discussion of these subjects. The book is accurate regarding the promise of nuclear power, but it is far too optimistic regarding algae as a potential fuel source. The book accurately documents the advantages of precision agriculture using remote sensing, but it also presents the highly dubious idea that we can ultimately grow most of our food in tall buildings and return much of our farmland to forests.

A final segment of the book provides 50 pages of charts and graphs that tend to support much of the content in the previous chapters. The charts and graphs are informative, but they would be more powerful if inserted in the appropriate chapters and discussions.

In all, this book is a great read; just read it with the proverbial grain of salt.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.