Abundance by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler

We will soon be able to meet and exceed the basic needs of every man, woman, and child on the planet.  Abundance for all is within our grasp.  This bold contrarian view, backed up by exhaustive research, introduces our near-term future where exponentially growing technologies and three other powerful forces are conspiring to better the lives of billions.  An antidote to pessimism by tech entrepreneur turned philanthropist, Peter H. Diamandis and award-winning science writer, Steven Kotler.

Since the dawn of humanity, a privileged few have lived in stark contrast to the hardscrabble majority.  Conventional wisdom says this gap cannot be closed.  But it is closing—fast.  The authors document how four forces—exponential technologies, the DIY innovator, the Techno-philanthropist, and the Rising Billion—are conspiring to solve our biggest problems.  Abundance establishes hard targets for change and lays out a strategic roadmap for governments, industry, and entrepreneurs and gives us plenty of reason for optimism.

My summary of key passages:

Evolution shaped the human brain to be acutely aware of all potential dangers.  Combined with the tendency of the media “only bad news is good news” this has a profound impact on human perception: It literally shuts off our ability to take in good news and may be the biggest stumbling block on the road toward abundance.

In today’s hyperlinked world, solving problems anywhere, solves problems everywhere.

Fact One: Currently, humanity uses 30% more of our planet’s natural resources than we can replace.

Fact Two: If everyone on this planet wanted to live with the lifestyle of the average European, we would need three planets’ worth of resources to pull it off.  If they aspire to the lifestyle of the average North American, then we’d need five planets to pull it off.

Good news: There is over 5,000 times more solar energy falling on the planet’s surface than we use in one year (= 16 Terawatts in 2008) => it’s not an issue of scarcity, but of accessibility.

Technology: Right now, a Masai warrior with a cell phone has better mobile phone capabilities than the president of the US did twenty-five years ago.

Right now, more folks have access to a cell phone than a toilet.  In fact, the Romans had better water quality than half the people alive today.

To live a life of abundance means having the basics covered: Feeding the hungry, providing clean water, ending indoor air pollution, and wiping out malaria, four entirely preventable conditions that kill respectively; seven, three, three, and two people per minute worldwide.

Indoor cooking with biomass in many parts of the world causes 36% of acute upper respiratory infections, 22% of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and 1.5% of all cancers.  Thus, an electric cook-stove relieves 4% of global disease burden.

Two of the greatest abundance assets in history: Specialization and exchange.

Many education systems rely on a pedagogical framework that is seriously outdated.  Most of today’s educational systems are built upon the same learning hierarchy: math and science at the top, humanities in the middle, and art at the bottom.  The reason for this is because these systems were developed in the 19th century, in the midst of the industrial revolution, when that hierarchy provided the best foundation for success.  This is no longer the case.  In a rapidly changing technological culture and an ever-growing information-based economy, creative ideas are the ultimate resource.  Yet our current educational system does little to nourish this resource.

Chapter Three: Seeing the Forest Through the Trees

Heuristics are cognitive shortcuts: time-saving, energy-saving rules of thumb that allow us to simplify the decision-making process.

Confirmation Bias: Can limit our ability to take in new data and change old opinions.  This means that if your opposition to abundance is built around “the hole we’re in is too deep to climb out of” hypothesis, any information that confirms your suspicions will remembered, while conflicting data will not even register.

Negativity Bias: The tendency to give more weight to negative information and experiences than positive ones—sure isn’t helping matters.

While we seriously overestimate ourselves, we significantly underestimate the world at large.

Human beings are designed to be local optimists and global pessimists, and this is an even bigger problem for abundance.

Despite the industrialized world being safer than ever before, we worry more than ever before.  The natural dangers are no longer there, but the response mechanisms are still in place (Amygdala) and now they are turned on much of the time.  We implode, turning our adaptive fear mechanism into a maladaptive panicked response.

Today’s global and exponential world is very different from the one that our brain evolved to comprehend.

Dunbar’s Number: 150 is the upper limit to how many interpersonal relationships our brains can process.

Chapter Four:  It’s not as bad as you think

Kahneman: Loss aversion is the bias with the most impact on abundance.  It’s an unwillingness to change bad habits for fear that the change will leave them in a worse place than before.

Ridley: The best definition of prosperity is simply “saved time”.  The more human beings, diversified as consumers and specialized as producers, and the more they then exchanged, the better off they have been, are, and will be.

Chapter Five: Ray Kurzweil and the Go-Fast Button

Chapter Six: The Singularity is Nearer

Low-cost fuels, high-performing vaccines, and ultra-yield agriculture are just three of the reasons that the exponential growth of biotechnology is critical to creating a world of abundance.

If prosperity is really saved time, then the Internet is a big pot of gold.

Because of the exponential growth rate of technology, this progress will continue at a rate unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before.  What all this means is that if the hole we’re in isn’t even a hole, the gap between rich and poor is not much of a gap, and the current rate of technological progress is moving more than fast enough to meet the challenges we now face, then the three most common criticisms against abundance should trouble us no more.

Chapter Seven: The Tools of Cooperation

If we were to forgo our television addiction for just one year, the world would have over a trillion hours of cognitive surplus to commit to share projects.  Imagine what we could do for this world’s grand challenges with a trillion hours of focused attention.

Every twenty-one minutes, YouTube provides more novel entertainment than Hollywood does in twelve months.

Chapter Eight: Water

Four billion people spending thirty cents a day for their water is a $1.2 billion market every day.  It’s $400 billion a year.  I can’t think of too many markets that size.  And there will always be need for water.

70% of the world’s water is used for agriculture.  One egg requires 135 litres to produce.  There are 100 gallons in a watermelon.  Meat is among our thirstiest commodities, requiring 2,500 gallons per pound.  And the water that goes into a 1,000 pound steer would float a destroyer.

Malthusians often use the word cornucopians to describe people lobbying for abundance.  Cornucopians feel that the rate of technological growth will outpace the rate of population growth and that will solve all our problems.

A smart grid for water could save the USA 30 to 50 percent of its total water use.

Chapter Nine: Feeding Nine Billion

These days, it takes 10 calories of oil to produce 1 calorie of food.

GMO: From 1996 to 2010, there was an 87-fold increase in hectares planted with GMO.  This makes genetically engineered seeds the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture.  Seriously, that horse has already left the barn.

Genetically engineered seeds allow us to be more precise in our search for new traits.  That’s what all this fuss has been about: a radical change in the quality and quantity of information available to us, a move from evolution—by natural selection to evolution—by intelligent direction.

More than a trillion GE-meals have been served and not a single case of GE-induced illness has turned up.

Hydroponics is 70% more efficient than traditional agriculture.  Aeroponics is 70% more efficient than Hydroponics.  Thus, if we use aeroponics for agriculture, we could drop water usage from 70% for agriculture to 6%—quite the savings.

By growing these optimized crops inside of vertical farms—and optimizing our LED lights to the plants’ preferred spectrum—we could save even more energy and push those yields significantly higher.

Besides, for all those crops to achieve optimal health means 10 to 20% of one’s total calories must come from protein.

Chapter Ten: The DIY Innovator

KIVA allows anyone to lend money directly to a small business in the developing world via a peer-to-peer microfinance model.  No interest rate, but its repayment rate is over 98%—meaning that it is not only changing lives, but “Your money is safer in the hands of the world’s poor than in your 401 (k).”

Chapter Eleven: The Technophilanthropists

He is a young, idealistic IPad jet-setter who cares about the world—the whole world—in a whole new way.

Carnegie’s Essay “The Gospel of Wealth” attempts to answer a tricky question: “What is the proper mode of administering wealth after the laws upon which civilization is founded have thrown it into the hands of a few?”

Chapter Twelve: The Rising Billion

The West has spent $2.3 trillion in foreign aid over the past five decades and still has not managed to get twelve-cent medicine to children to prevent half of all malarial deaths.

By 2020, nearly 3 billion people will be added to the Internet’s community.  That’s 3 billion new minds about to join the global brain.

Because green technologies are frequently “disruptive” in character (i.e., they threaten incumbents in existing markets), the Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP) may be the most appropriate socioeconomic segment upon which to focus initial commercialization attention.  If such a strategy is very widely embraced, then the developing economies of the world become the breeding ground for tomorrow’s sustainable industries and companies, with the benefits both economic and environmental ultimately “trickling up” to the wealthy at the top of the pyramid.

True Size of Africa

Today, the fastest growing job category is the “knowledge worker”.  Since knowledge is nonrival, most of the jobs in the future will produce nonrival goods, and this removes another constraint on abundance: it allows the rising billion to earn a living in a way that does not require burning through our ever-diminishing supply of natural resources.

A key aspect of nonrival goods arises when computing the marginal benefit of providing one more unit of the good.  With an ordinary rival good, like a car, the marginal benefit of one more unit (an extra car) is equal to the extra benefit received by the individual who receives that unit (that particular car).  With nonrival goods, however, everyone who uses the goods at all can benefit from an additional unit of it.  If we enlarge a park, for example, everyone who uses the park can benefit.  This means that for nonrival goods, the marginal benefit of providing an extra unit is the sum of the marginal benefits received by each of the individual users.

Chapter Thirteen: Energy

More people die from smoke inhalation than from malaria.  In Africa, they mainly burn bio-mass indoors, the acrid smoke causes serious lung disease and turns kitchens into death traps.

Perhaps Africa’s greatest asset in exploiting this vast potential for renewables lies in the paradoxical fact that it has a complete and total absence of existing energy infrastructure.

The efficiencies of algae-growing are considerable.  When compared to conventional biofuels, corn produces 18 gallons per acre per year, and palm oil about 625 gallons per acre per year.  With these modified algae, the goal is to get 10,000 gallons per acre per year.

Every year, we humans dump nearly 26 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere or about five tons for every person on the planet.

Nuclear Power is still the most sustainable energy source and the only option to bring down that CO2 emission to zero within the next 20 years.  And it’s still the safest energy source:

The 4th generation run on liquid fluoride thorium.  These reactors burn the element thorium, which is four times more plentiful than uranium, and doesn’t create any long-lived nuclear waste in the process.

In 2007, just 6,600 tonnes of thorium could have supplied all of the world’s energy.

Myhrvold founded TerraPower (Bill Gates is major shareholder) to develop the traveling wave reactor (TWR), the world’s most simplified passive fast breeder reactor, running on depleted uranium.  No moving parts, can’t melt down, and can run safely for fifty-plus years, literally without human intervention.  The reactor vessel serves as the unit’s (robust) burial cask.  Essentially, TWRs are “build, bury, and forget power supply” for a region or city, making them ideal for the developing world.

What about renewables?  When critics point out that solar currently accounts for 1% of our energy, that’s linear thinking in an exponential world.  Expanding today’s 1% penetration at an annual growth of 30 percent puts us 18 years away from meeting 100% of our energy needs with solar.

Chapter Fourteen: Education

What we know is that the industrialized model of education, with its emphasis on the rote memorization of facts, is no longer necessary.

So-called advanced math is perhaps the clearest example of the mismatch between what is taught and tested in high school versus what’s needed for college and life.  The overwhelming majority of graduates reported using nothing more than arithmetic, statistics, and probability in their work.

Facts are what Google does best.  But creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and problem solving, that’s a different story.   These skills have been repeatedly stressed by everyone, from corporate executives to education experts, as the fundamentals required by today’s jobs.

Chapter Fifteen: Health Care

Evolution does not usually preserve genes that lengthen lives beyond the amount adults need to care for their young.

Africa has 1.3% of the world’s health workers caring for 25% of the global disease burden.

Zero-Cost Diagnostics with Lab-on-a-Chip enables remote diagnostics and expands the geographical coverage of health care providers.

Predictive, personalized, preventive, and participatory: Soon, every newborn will have his or her genome sequenced and genetic profiles will be part of standard patient care.  If done properly, all these efforts will yield a myriad of useful predictions, changing medicine—from passive and generic—to predictive and personalized.  Each of us will know what disease our genes have in store for us, what to do to prevent their onset, and, should we become ill, which drugs are the most effective for our unique inheritance.

Chapter Sixteen: Freedom

Chapter Seventeen: Driving Innovation and Breakthroughs

Chapter Eighteen: Risk and Failure

Since the road to abundance requires significant innovation, it also requires significant tolerance for risk, for failure, and for ideas that strike most as absolute nonsense.  Revolutionary ideas come from nonsense.  If an idea is truly a breakthrough, then the day before it was discovered it must have been considered crazy or nonsense or both, otherwise it wouldn’t be a breakthrough.

Chapter Nineteen: Which Way Next?

Research data show that one’s emotional satisfaction moves in lockstep with one’s income—as income rises, well-being rises, but only to a point.  Before the average American earns $75,000 a year, there is direct correlation between money and happiness.  Above that number, the correlation disappears.

What about the rest of the planet?  On average across the globe, the point on the chart where well-being and money diverge is roughly $10,000.  That’s how much the average global citizen needs to earn to fulfil his or her basic needs and gain a toehold toward much greater possibility.

Abundance is both a plan and a perspective.  This second bit is key.  One of the more important points made throughout this book is that our perspective shapes our reality.


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