Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think

by Alan Hewitt on April 7, 2012

By Dr. Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler
March 7, 2012

Scarcity has been an issue since life first emerged on this planet, but its contemporary incarnation– what many call the “scarcity model”–dates to the late eighteenth century, when British scholar Thomas Robert Malthus realised that while food production expands linearly, population grows exponentially.

Because of this, Malthus was certain there was going to come a point in time when we would exceed our capacity to feed ourselves. As he put it, “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man.”

In the years since, plenty of thinkers have echoed this concern. By the early 1960s something of a consensus had been reached. In 1966 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out: “Unlike the plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases, which we do not understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess.”
Two years later, Stanford University biologist Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich sounded an even louder alarm with the publication of The Population Bomb. But it was the downstream result of a small meeting held in 1968 that really alerted the world to the depth of the crisis.

That year, Scottish scientist Alexander King and Italian industrialist Aurelio Peccei gathered together a multidisciplinary group of top international thinkers at a small villa in Rome. The Club of Rome, as this group was soon known, had come together to discuss the problems of short-term thinking in a long-term world.

In 1972 they published the results of that discussion. The Limits to Growth became an instant classic, selling twelve million copies in thirty languages, and scaring almost everyone who read it.

Using a model developed by the founder of system dynamics, Jay Forrester, the club compared worldwide population growth rates to global resource consumption rates.

The science behind this model is complicated, the message was not. Quite simply: we are running out of resources, and we are running out of time.

It’s been over four decades since that report came out. While many of their more dire predictions have failed to materialise, for the most part, the years haven’t softened the assessment. Today we are still finding proof of its veracity most places we look.

One in four mammals now faces extinction, while 90 percent of the large fish are already gone. Our aquifers are starting to dry up, our soil growing too salty for crop production. We’re running out of oil, running low on uranium. Even phosphorus–one of the principal ingredients in fertilizer–is in short supply.

In the time it takes to read this sentence, one child will die of hunger. By the time you’ve made it through this paragraph, another will be dead from thirst (or from drinking dirty water to quench that thirst).

And this, the experts say, is just the warm-up round. There are now more than seven billion people on the planet. If trends don’t reverse, by 2050, we’ll be closer to ten billion.

Scientists who study the carrying capacity of the Earth–the measure of how many people can live here sustainably–have fluctuated massively in their estimations. Wild-eyed optimists believe it’s close to two billion. Dour pessimists think it might be three hundred million.

But if you agree with even the most uplifting of these predictions–as Dr. Nina Fedoroff, science and technology advisor to the US secretary of state, recently told reporters–only one conclusion can
be drawn:

“We need to decrease the growth rate of the global population; the planet cannot support many more people.” Some things, though, are easier said than done.

The most infamous example of top-down population control was the Nazis’ eugenics program, but there have been a few other nightmares as well. India performed tubal ligations and vasectomies on thousands of people during the middle 1970s. Some were paid for their sacrifice; others were simply forced into the procedure.

The results drove the ruling party out of power and created a controversy that still rages today. China, meanwhile, has spent thirty years under a one-child-per-family policy (while it’s often discussed as a blanket program, this policy actually extends to only about 36 percent of the population). According to the government, the results have been 300 million fewer people.

According to Amnesty International, the results have been an increase in bribery, corruption, suicide rates, abortion rates, forced sterilization procedures, and persistent rumours of infanticide. (A male child is preferable, so rumours hold that newborn girls are being murdered.)

Either way, as our species has sadly discovered, top-down population control is barbaric, both in theory and in practice. This seems to leave only one remaining option. If you can’t shed people, you have to stretch the resources those people use. And stretch them dramatically.

How to do this has been a matter of much debate, but these days the principles of OPL have been put forth as the only viable option. This option bothered me, but not because I wasn’t committed to the idea of greater efficiency. Seriously–use less, gain more–who would be opposed to efficiency?

Rather, the source of my concern was that efficiency was being forwarded as the only option available. But everything I was doing with my life told me there were additional paths worth pursuing.

The organization I run, the X PRIZE Foundation, is a nonprofit dedicated to bringing about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity through the design and operation of large incentive-prize competitions.

One month before traveling to Masdar, I’d chaired our annual “Visioneering” board meeting, where maverick inventors like Dean Kamen and Craig Venter, brilliant technology entrepreneurs such as Larry Page and Elon Musk, and international business giants like Ratan Tata and Anousheh Ansari were debating how to drive radical breakthroughs in energy, life sciences, education, and global development.

These are all people who have created world-changing industries where none had existed before. Most of them accomplished this feat by solving problems that had long been considered
unsolvable.

Taken together, they are a group whose track record showed that one of the better responses to the threat of scarcity is not to try to slice our pie thinner–rather it’s to figure out how to make more pies.

The Possibility of Abundance

Of course, the make-more-pies approach is nothing new, but there are a few key differences this time around. These differences will comprise the bulk of this book, but the short version is that for the first time in history, our capabilities have begun to catch up to our ambitions.

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. Within a generation, we will be able to provide goods and services, once reserved for the wealthy few, to any and all who need them. Or desire them.

Abundance for all is actually within our grasp. In this modern age of cynicism, many of us bridle in the face of such proclamation, but elements of this transformation are already underway.

Over the past twenty years, wireless technologies and the Internet have become ubiquitous, affordable, and available to almost everyone. Africa has skipped a technological generation, by-passing the landlines that stripe our Western skies for the wireless way.

Mobile phone penetration is growing exponentially, from 2 percent in 2000, to 28 percent in 2009, to an expected 70 percent in 2013. Already folks with no education and little to eat have gained access to cellular connectivity unheard of just thirty years ago.

Right now a Masai warrior with a cell phone has better mobile phone capabilities than the president of the United States did twenty-five years ago. And if he’s on a smart phone with access to Google, then he has better access to information than the president did just fifteen years ago.

By the end of 2013, the vast majority of humanity will be caught in this same World Wide Web of instantaneous, low-cost communications and information. In other words, we are now living in a world of information and communication abundance.

In a similar fashion, the advancement of new, transformational technologies–computational systems, networks and sensors, artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, bioinformatics, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, human-machine interfaces, and biomedical engineering–will soon enable the vast majority of humanity to experience what only the affluent have access to today. Even better, these technologies aren’t the only change agents in play.

There are three additional forces at work, each augmented by the power of exponentially growing technologies, each with significant, abundance producing potential.

A Do-It-Yourself (DIY) revolution has been brewing for the past fifty years, but lately it’s begun to bubble over. In today’s world, the purview of backyard tinkerers has extended far beyond custom cars and homebrew computers, and now reaches into once-esoteric fields like genetics and robotics.

What’s more, these days, small groups of motivated DIY-ers can accomplish what was once the sole province of large corporations and governments.

The aerospace giants felt it was impossible, but Burt Rutan flew into space. Craig Venter tied the mighty US government in the race to sequence the human genome. The newfound power of these maverick innovators is the first of our three forces.

The second force is money–a lot of money–being spent in a very particular way. The high-tech revolution created an entirely new breed of wealthy technophilanthropists who are using their fortunes to solve global, abundance-related challenges.

Bill Gates is crusading against malaria; Mark Zuckerberg is working to reinvent education; while Pierre and Pam Omidyar are focused on bringing electricity to the developing world. And this list goes on and on. Taken together, our second driver is a technophilanthropic force unrivaled in history.

Lastly, there are the very poorest of the poor, the so-called bottom billion, who are finally plugging into the global economy and are poised to become what I call “the rising billion.”

The creation of a global transportation network was the initial step down this path, but it’s the combination of the Internet, microfinance, and wireless communication technology that’s transforming the poorest of the poor into an emerging market force.

Acting alone, each of these three forces has enormous potential. But acting together, amplified by exponentially growing technologies, the once unimaginable becomes the now actually possible.

So what is possible?

Imagine a world of nine billion people with clean water, nutritious food, affordable housing, personalised education, top-tier medical care, and nonpolluting, ubiquitous energy. Building this better world is humanity’s grandest challenge. What follows is the story of how we can rise to meet it.

Buy “Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think”

About the Authors

Peter Diamandis
Dr. Peter Diamandis is the Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, which leads the world in designing and launching large incentive prizes to drive radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity. Best known for the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE for private spaceflight and the $10 million Progressive Automotive X PRIZE for 100 mile-per-gallon equivalent cars, the Foundation is now launching prizes in Exploration, Life Sciences, Energy, and Education.

Diamandis is also an international leader in the commercial space arena, having founded and run many of the leading entrepreneurial companies in this sector including Zero Gravity Corporation, the Rocket Racing League and Space Adventures.

As co-Founder & Chairman of the Singularity University, a Silicon Valley based institution partnered with NASA, Google, Autodesk and Nokia, Diamandis counsels the world’s top enterprises on how to utilize exponential technologies and incentivized innovation to dramatically accelerate their business objectives.

Dr. Diamandis attended the MIT where he received his degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering, as well as Harvard Medical School where he received his M.D. Diamandis’ personal motto is: “The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself!”

Steven Kotler
Steven Kotler is a bestselling author and an award-winning journalist. His books include the non-fiction works: Abundance, A Small, Furry Prayer, and West of Jesus, and the novel The Angle Quickest for Flight. His articles have appeared in over 60 publications, including: New York Times Magazine, Wired, Discover, Popular Science, Outside, GQ, and National Geographic. He writes “The Playing Field,” a blog about the science of sport and culture for PsychologyToday.com.

Kotler is also the co-founder and director of research at the Flow Genome Project, an international organization devoted to putting flow state research on a hard science footing, and the co-founder of the New Mexico-based Rancho de Chihuahua dog sanctuary.

He has a BA in English/Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and an MA from the John Hopkins University in Creative Writing.

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