Thursday, February 16, 2012

Taking the Scare out of Scarcity

Review of Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think, New York: Free Press, 2012.

The human community occupies a planet of finite resources. As population grows, people and nations will necessarily compete with increasing ferocity. Scarcity-driven crises will provoke dramatic oscillations in human welfare, leading almost inevitably to a collapse of civilization.

Got that?

Welcome to the world of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, author of An Essay on the Principle of Population. The core thesis of Malthus’s 1798 masterwork is neatly summarized in a line early in the book: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” 

The logic behind the argument advanced by Malthus was compelling. For over two centuries  An Essay on the Principle of Population has not only been studied, but has been endlessly copied and revived in various forms. Early twentieth century eugenicists employed Malthusian arguments to justify inhuman controls on the reproductive freedoms of other people ... and worse. Malthusian fears came back in a widely read book by Paul and Anne Ehrlich published in 1968 and titled The Population Bomb; the Ehrlich's message was updated as recently as 2010 in a lead essay in Foreign Affairs titled "The New Population Bomb."  Woven throughout this two-centuries old body of work is a single unifying theme: the reproductive power of people is a paramount problem for society as a whole. Beware the future.

So much for the theory of demographic doom. What of the facts?
Well, the facts are fairly straightforward. Human population really started to take off at the end of the eighteenth century, just when Malthus was writing his famed book. That is also when the industrial revolution began. That is also when the institutions of market-based democracy first assumed something like their modern form. And that is also (not coincidentally) where the welfare of human beings surged forward, breaking a pattern of relative stagnation that previously had lasted for millennia. 

In other words, the more populous the planet has become, the better off human being have been. This is a trend that has been ongoing for centuries. (For a summary, see this talk by Hans Rosling. Must watch if you haven't seen it already.)

Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler summarize this very history at the start of their very-soon-to-be-released book, Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think. The title suggests that this book provides a refutation of neo-Malthusian fear mongering. And that is exactly what it does, and more. Fears of scarcity driven crises, the authors argue, have been overwhelmed by the trend of historya trend which leads persuasively toward inclusive prosperity, not demographic doom.

Now, as readers of this blog are aware, I am also the author of a very-soon-to-be-released book about the unparalleled possibilities of today. So, in that particular context, what was my reaction to Abundance? Put simply: psyched. I found Abundance to be a thrilling readboth because of the trends and stories the authors present, but also, selfishly, because this book serves as the perfect companion to my own The Coming Prosperity (and vice versa)

Here's why: The fact that a proposition has held true in the past is no guarantee that it will hold in the future. In order to "connect the dots going forward" (to spin the famous quote by Steve Jobs) you need to understand not just what happened in the past, but how it happened. In The Coming Prosperity I focus on the "how" of entrepreneurship, with some reference to technology; Diamandis and Kotler focus on the "how" of technology, with some reference to entrepreneurship. The complementarity is almost as if by design. Since the need for a new narrative is profound, it is delightful to have such good company in the effort. (Umair Haque's Betterness is also notable in the context, along a different dimension of complementarity, as is Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran's Need, Speed, and Greed.)

Abundance presents a colorful inventory of innovation threads, woven together to form a rich tapestry of opportunity inviting us into the twenty-first century. If the book has a flaw, it is that the tour of the future Diamandis and Kotler offer is so wide-ranging that it is almost dizzying. Abundance itself abounds in agriculture, energy, education, health care, space travel and beyond.

The enthusiasm the authors show for their topic is excusable. Diamandis in particular has been roaming the technological frontier full-time for nearly three decades, notably as the founder of the X PRIZE Foundation and the co-founder and chairman of Singularity University. The first of these organizations has led a veritable explosion of interest in the use of prizes to incent innovation; the second is a fascinating and deeply provocative new entrant in the world of disruption in higher education.

Early on Diamandis makes a critical point that it is important to note: "I am not talking about Trump Towers, Mercedez-Benz, and Gucci. Abundance is not about providing everyone on the planet with a life of luxury--rather it's about providing all with a life of possibility .. a world where everyone's days are spent dreaming and doing, not scrapping and scraping."

If you already believe, as I do, that ours is the most dynamic and promising era in human history, you will greatly enjoy the compendium of technologically-inspired futures that Diamandis and Kotler offer. On the other hand, if you doubt for a moment that Abundance and not scarcity is the organizing principle for the twenty-first century, then you truly owe it to yourself to buy this book. The feast of possibilities that awaits you is one you will savor with each page, and not soon forget.


  1. mystics agree with this shift ... the timeline for deep change is by 2035, just another 23 years, from there on the benefits of a new narrative will play out, resulting in a new race via conscious energetic influence on dna within 2-300 years.

    the next 23 years will be a bit more rock and roll, since the system-wide institutional change needs to be radical and dramatic.

    books like these are more important than any doom and gloom books, which will prove to be fiction and the changes inevitably unfold.



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