On the Nightstand
Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think
[This is a book review from three years ago, when the world was a difference place. I’d love to provoke some discussion on how ideas, circumstances, and attitudes have adjusted since then. SB SM]
I’m currently reading a book called Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think (Free Press, 2012). Waitaminute … waitaminute … hasn’t Green Living Journal spent the past 27 years publishing practical information for friends of the environment, the gist of which is that we need to adopt new practices of living if we’re to avoid the catastrophes looming from our unbridled, gluttonous consumption of fossil fuels? Aren’t we doomed by the forces of global warming? Is this glass half-empty or half full?
The answer is a definitive “yes!” A glass can be simultaneously half-empty and half-full.
Here’s the premise of Abundance, as provided by the publisher: “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 technophilanthropist, and the rising billion – are conspiring to solve our biggest problems. Abundance establishes hard targets for change and lays out a strategic road map for governments, industry, and entrepreneurs, giving us plenty of reason for optimism.”
Not only is the glass half-full, maintain authors Steven Kotler and Peter H. Diamandis, but it’s being filled by a fire hose that is opened at full force. Based on mind-numbing statistics on the advancements in technology and inspirational accounts of the wondrous accomplishments of so-called disruptors, the human species is headed towards an idyllic cyber-garden where robots will serve our every need and keep us in a state of perpetual euphoria. We’ll live forever in a harmonious global village where we can telecommunicate in multiple languages with like-minded global citizens.
This message is balm on the frayed nerves of those of us who are overwhelmed by the negativity and dire predictions that bombard us hourly by the news media. It is also inspiring to our inner-geek who wants to fervently believe that technology will solve all of our global problems. Yes, things are better today than yesterday. We may be involved in the longest-lasting war in US history, but at a fraction of the death toll of World Wars I & II, not to mention Korea and Vietnam. Yes, even the lowliest citizen in this country likely has access to enough food and fresh water to survive, and with a cell phone and flat-screen television has access to information and knowledge that surpasses what was available to to a President or King a mere half-century ago.
But … there’s always a “but” that signals that the “half-empty” side of the equation is about to be raised. Authors Kotler and Diamandis take a reverse-telescope view of the flattening planet (Thomas Friedman’s phrase). While electricity, cell phone coverage, and improvements in health and sanitation are improving the lot for billions around the globe, for others things are moving in the opposite direction. Turn the telescope around and focus on collapsing fisheries, increased competition for resource, the increasing disparity in wealth, and the despair of the opioid crisis and the picture becomes less rosy. There’s enough focus on these trends in the nightly news, so it’s not needed here.
As civilization hurtles incrementally towards its technological destiny as outlined in Abundance, let’s not forget that we are the same hard-wired animals who emerged from the savannahs of Africa only yesterday in evolutionary terms. Cell phones can’t make you a peanut butter sandwich, let alone provide food security. Solar technology is great, but we’ll all be in trouble if the power grid is crippled in a cyber-attack. The improving lives of the huddled masses is of no relevance to the resident of Houston who has just had 50 inches of rain fall on them in two days.
The flaw of Abundance is that it compares different worlds without distinguishing the importance of relativity. In China, where massive poverty has been relieved by the rapid growth of manufacturing, the statistical indicators are wildly positive. In rust belt America, where the jobs have been shipped overseas for the consolation prize of cheap goods at the Wal-Mart SuperStore, the infrastructure is crumbling, spirits are sagging, and the significant growth stats are related to the sickening epidemic of drug use, things aren’t looking so good. Does the former trend counter the latter? Not if you’re homeless or jobless in Akron, Ohio.
There is the flip side of abundance, the one that says that small is beautiful, that we need to build and strengthen local communities, that food is our medicine and we can’t trust that corporations will act in any self-interests other than their own. This world, too, is better than you think, and it is growing exponentially. It’s a world of better bread, better water, and even better beer. It’s a world environmental stewardship and social equality. This is the world of green living, and there’s no law against owning a cell phone or even a gun. This, too, is a world of abundance.
Despite this quibble Kotler and Diamandis have done us a great service with this book. We don’t live in a perfect world, but in one that is headed in the right direction if we can keep it from falling victim to its own success and excess.
Stephen Morris is editor of Silverback Digest. Originally published in Green Living Journal.