Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Book Review

Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think
Author: Peter H. Diamandis, Steven Kotler
Published: Free Press, 2012

In the 1960s there was a spate of books about how automation would usher in a world of abundance in which we would all only need to work a 20-hour week and be able to retire at 50. It never happened. The post-war boom came to an end in the 1970s and pessimism set in, with for instance the Club of Rome famously predicting that many non-renewable resources would run out before the turn of the century. That didn't happen either.

Doom and gloom is still the prevalent mood, with some predicting the end of civilisation by the end of the century due to global overwarming. So it's refreshing to read a book that's rather more optimistic. Diamandis and Kotler set out to show that:

"Humanity is now entering a period of radical transformation in which technology has the potential to significantly raise the basic standard 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." (p. 9)

They anticipate that it is achievements and future developments in Artificial Intelligence, nanotechnology, digitalisation and genetic engineering that will enable this. Chapters 8 (Water), 9 (Feeding Nine Billion) and 13 (Energy) provide the details.

Most of the Earth's surface is covered by water so this should not be a problem if an efficient and ecologically-sound way of desalinating it can be found (they say it has), quite apart from developments in water purification permitting the re-use of dirty water. Food production can be increased through genetically-engineered plants, artificial meat (grown from stem cells) and vertical farming (employing hydroponic techniques). The obvious alternative to burning fossil fuels as a source of energy for industry, transport and households is the Sun. Until now a major problem has been how to store electricity. Diamandis and Kotler say this is in the process of being solved. Appropriate biomass can also provide a substitute for mineral oil.

The book's big drawback is that this is supposed to happen under capitalism through the pioneering efforts of DIY inventors and innovators and "technophilanthropists" such as Bill Gates.

There is no theoretical reason why capitalism cannot further "develop" the so-called developing world in the sense of providing more and more people there with some of the amenities (such as clean water and mobile phones) that people in the developed parts of the world have. But this would be able to be done more quickly and more rationally in a socialist world.

Under capitalism, too, the risk is always there that advances in technology will be abused; in fact have been abused and still are being. Drones, for instance, which could be used to transport medicines and spare parts to remote areas of Africa are being used to transport bombs to kill people. And it's only under capitalism that a group of terrorists could use developments in genetic engineering to concoct and use or threaten to use their own biological weapons.

One thing capitalism won't be able to do is to remove profit-seeking as the driving force of economic activity; and so not prevent wars and preparations for war and the enrmous waste of resources this involves, nor economic crises like the present when austerity not abundance is the order of the day.

Diamandis and Kotler fix a date by which abundance and "an end to most of what ails us" will beShow All realised as 2035 (p. 25). That's a year before the UK government is preparing to raise the age of retirement to 67. Given the continuation of capitalism, it's the latter that's the more likely.

Adam Buick

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