Monday, August 20, 2012

Abundance by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler

Peter Diamandis is the CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation and Singularity University, and appears to strongly believe that the future is going to be more abundant than most of us believe. He cites the exponential growth in technology as the primary factor in promoting abundance in the areas of Energy, Education, Health Care and Freedom around the globe. He may very well be right, and he certainly offers some well-researched and thought out points in support of his opinions.

According to the authors,

"Today Americans living below the poverty line have electricity, water, flushing toilets, and a refrigerator; 95 percent have a television; 88 percent have a telephone; 71 percent have a car; and 70 percent even have air hundred years ago men like Henry Ford and Cornelius Vanderbilt were among the richest on the planet, but they enjoyed few of these luxuries."

The challenge is to bring the developing nations' people up to similar living standards, while not destroying the planet in the process. The authors believe that finding a way to feed the hungry, provide the poor with energy, clean water and air, and access to health care, is entirely within our reach. Personally, I think that the biggest stumbling blocks to this may be political, as we've seen with all sorts of "top-down" aid programs from the developed nation. Far too much of the help we've sent merely ends up further lining the pockets of dictators and thugs around the world, and seldom enriches those we mean to help.

An interesting bit of information they relate, that I'd never heard of before is called Dunbar's number. Dunbar is an evolutionary anthropologist who examined historical trends and discovered that people tend to self-organize in groups of 150. Dunbar discovered that while we may have thousands of connections with other people, the upper limit of those with whom we are able to meaningfully interact is 150; that's the maximum amount of interpersonal relationships our our brains can process.

"Gossip, in its earliest forms, contained information that was critical to survival because, in clans of 150, what happened to anyone had a direct impact on everyone. But this backfires today. The reason we care so much about what happens to the likes of Lady Gaga is not because her shenanigans will ever impact our lives; rather because our brain doesn't realize there's a difference between rock stars we know about and relatives we know."

Wow! Do you think that spending all of our time watching reality shows and infotainment on TV keeps us from fully developing our relationships with people who are actually part of our lives?

Diamandis and Kotler spend some time debunking various doom and gloom scenarios that we've all worried about.

"Acid rain was the first sign that the facts were not matching the fanfare. Once considered our planet's most dire environmental threat, acid rain develops because burning fossil fuels releases sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere...In 1982 Canada's minister of the environment, John Roberts, summed up what many were thinking, telling Time magazine, 'Acid rain is one of the most devastating forms of pollution imaginable, an insidious malaria of the biosphere.'...But a few decades passed, and he realized that nothing of the sort was happening...the eco-apocalypse predicted in the 1970s never did arise."

A good measure of how much things in general are improving as technology increases is the amount of time spent acquiring the basic necessities of life, as well as a few more advanced resources.

"A rural peasant woman in Malawi spends 35 percent of her time farming food, 33 percent cooking and cleaning, 17 percent fetching clean drinking water, and 5 percent collecting firewood. This leaves only 10 percent of her day for anything else, including finding gainful employment needed to pull her off of this treadmill. Because of all this (science writer) Ridley feels that the best definition of prosperity is simply 'saved time'."

Today, in developed nations, a half second of work at an average wage will give you one hour of light. With a kerosene lamp near the turn of the century, it would have required 15 minutes work. At the turn of the previous century a tallow candle that provided an hour's light would cost six hours work, and 17 centuries BC an hour's light from a sesame oil lamp, fifty hours. Transportation is another example of saved time. In the 1800s the trip from Boston to Chicago took two weeks and cost a month's wages. Now the same trip can be made in two hours and costs a day's wage.

Even if you think things are bad in the developing world, they have some encouraging statistics. In 1995 India only had 4.5 million middle class households, but by 2009, it had 29.4 million. The number of people living on less than a dollar a day has been cut in half since the 1950s. At that rate of decline in the amount of abject poverty, Ridley projects that "absolute poverty" could hit zero percent by 2035.

If you're of the Malthusian bent, however, you may worry that when people in the developing world become more prosperous, at the rate that they reproduce, they will soon consume all of the world's resources, and we will face another catastrophe. Infant mortality rates are extremely high in the developing world, so people simply have more children. If we improve health care, provide clean water and clean air (hundreds of thousands die from breathing wood smoke used to heat their homes and cook each year), it would seem that they will soon breed out of control. But studies show that when mortality rates decrease, so do the reproduction rates. As people live longer lives, they have smaller families, nearly everywhere studied.

There's some great information, also, in this book about various initiatives, not usually initiated or supported by governments, but by private individuals, to provide clean water, cheap energy, and modern health care to the developing world at an affordable cost.

Also, to some extent, simple greed is making the businesses of the world take notice of what the authors call BoP, or Bottom of the Pyramid, consumers. While the majority of BoP consumers live on less than $2 a day, there are approximately 4 billion of them. That's a pretty significant market. Enterprising companies are finding ways to empower these BoP consumers to produce goods and services, thus bettering their lot in life. A researcher studying this phenomenon writes:

"If we stop thinking of the poor as victims or as a burden and start recognizing them as resilient and creative entrepeneurs and value-conscious cosnumers, a whole new world of opportunity will open up."

Many companies around the world are already finding creative ways to lift these people out of poverty. There are also major efforts under way to provide clean drinking water, cheap and abundant energy, and educational opportunities to areas that have lacked these necessities.

This book is a great read. We hear so little in the media about the good things going on around the world, that it's good to counter the constant negativity with some optimism once in a while.

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