The case for ‘Abundance’

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It’s all about perspective.

I get sucked into negative thinking. I often worry about little things, big things, things both in and out of my control. I read news like a junkie, and, let’s face it, news usually focuses on the worst things in the world. You can be too informed, especially when it comes to things beyond the scope of our own lives.

Like many people, I also typically get a bad case of Winter Grumpies after the holidays. It’s cold, people are sick, and the sun stays out for approximately 47 minutes a day.

This year, just as the glow of Christmas began to dim, I started reading, “Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think,” by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler. It’s been a popular and critical hit since its debut in 2012, so the concept might be obvious to consumers who aren’t pessimistic worrywarts like me. While I may be late to the party, I finished the book with an entirely new perspective on the world.

I’m not one for inspirational gobbledygook, and I don’t remember the last time I bothered making a New Year’s resolution. But “Abundance” inspired me. It inspired me with data and facts, and it offered a glimpse of the future that, for once, didn’t resemble a world like “The Road” or “Mad Max.”

Instead, “Abundance” presents a future where nine billion people have “clean water, nutritious food, affordable housing, personalized education, top-tier medical care and nonpolluting, ubiquitous energy.” Not defined by a world where everyone is living a life of luxury, the concept is “about creating a world of possibility: a world where everyone’s days are spend dreaming and doing, not scrapping and scraping.”

The book doesn’t ignore reality - it dives deep into the numerous challenges of the world at large. But rather than focus on the problems, “Abundance” focuses on the brilliant minds and technology already at work trying to solve these problems.

“Abundance” breaks down a number of exciting advancements in energy, health care, clean resources and technological accessibility, but the book first takes the time to sell the reader on a more positive worldview. On the very first page, “Abundance” presents a glass-mostly-full view of the 20th century without dismissing its challenges.

One paragraph reads,

“The 1918 influenza epidemic killed 50 million people. World War II killed another 60 million. There were tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, floods, even plagues of locust. Despite such unrest, this period also saw infant mortality decrease by 90 percent, maternal mortality by 99 percent, and overall, human lifespan increase by more than 100 percent. At the same time, the cost of food has dropped thirteenfold, the cost of energy twentyfold, and the cost of transportation a hundredfold.”

The contrast is important, because while terrible things happen, and progress can slow or reverse for stretches of time, “Abundance” presents mountains of evidence that suggest humankind has done pretty well for itself, all things considered, and that we’re still on the right path.

The back half of the book is comprised of more than 100 pages of graphs and evidence (complete with notes and source materials) that suggest the path to abundance is already happening. From a reading perspective, charts and graphs are just fun, and the second half serves as an easy comedown from the dense presentation of theory and evidence presented in the first half.

Media madness and negative mindset

If “Abundance” is so obviously happening, then why do so many of us still have such a terrible attitude about the state of the world (or was it just me)? Diamandis and Kotler address this too.

They argue humans have cognitive biases - and for good reason. Humans “rarely have all the facts, and can’t know all possible outcomes” to uncertain and challenging decisions. Therefore the mind utilizes “heuristics, or cognitive shortcuts - time-saving, energy-saving rules of thumb - that allow us to simplify the decision-making process.”

Diamandis and Kotler argue this is perfectly reasonable and an evolutionary survival tactic. It does, however, lead to thinking that can dismiss shoot-for-the-moon idealist theories like “Abundance,” and that research has established a long list of judgmental patterns.

For example, “Confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions - but it 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 our suspicions will be remembered, while conflicting data will not even register.”

Hmm, sounds like pretty much everything surrounding modern American politics.

The mindset is a problem for fixing global problems, especially as the authors also point to research that suggests people often overestimate their own abilities but underestimate others and the world at large.

Feeding into this pessimistic worldview is the oversaturation of media, where fear, bad news, and scary situations tend to garner higher ratings and more page hits. And the more bad news you read, the more you tend to seek out more. I can’t speak for everyone, but that most definitely describes my Internet search history.

Sure, some fears are justified, though “Abundance” points to New York University’s Dr. Marc Siegel and his book, “False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear.” Basically, the argument is the industrialized world has never been safer.If you don’t believe it, “Abundance” has a few helpful charts and graphs that might convince you.

In fact, “Abundance” offers an entire chapter titled, “It’s Not as Bad As You Think,” which argues that history has shown how humans will eventually figure out the right thing to do.

The question it leaves, of course, is whether the solutions can come fast enough. Overpopulation, climate change and limited energy might force humankind into eating Matt Damon poop potatoes on Mars in as little as 50 years. Luckily, this is where “Abundance” gets exciting, especially for science-fiction nerds like me.

How the world will be saved

The driving theme of “Abundance” centers on how technologies are improving at an exponential rate. Things that seem impossible now in terms of energy, medical care, etc. are on the horizon, based on how other technology has been shown to accelerate exponentially. The curve is most apparent in computer tech, as well as the progress scientists have made in understanding DNA and the makeup of human life.

Those advancements are already happening, and the book cites numerous innovators and techno-philanthropists who have committed billions of dollars to making some of these dreams a reality.

It also suggests how accessibility to information will only serve to speed the race to worldwide solutions. The more people with access to education, the Internet and “more facts and outcomes,” the better chance humankind will have in the future.

It’s difficult to pick and choose highlights from the technological advances highlighted in “Abundance,” and I won’t lie and say I understand all the science behind it, but just a few tidbits of inspiring science-soon-to-be-reality presented:

• Medicine - Lab-on-a-Chip technology that allows for accurate, low-cost, easy-to-use, point-of-care diagnostics to people outside traditional medical infrastructure and hospitals. Imagine having full (and accurate) access to information you could only previously get from an overworked and understaffed medical community.

• Nanotechnology - Yes, there are some scary implications here, and the book makes a point to warn about downsides to certain exponential advancement, but nanobots operating at an atomic level can construct virtually anything.

• Water - Highlights of emerging ideas include distillation processes that can recycle its own energy, salt water purification, and “smart grids” utilizing sensors and other monitoring technology that can save massive amounts of water for agriculture and personal use.

• Food - Vertical farming methods that can conserve space and maximize energy and resources. Cultured meat, or development of protein from stem cells (scientists in the Netherlands turned pig cells into pork inside a petri dish). Cultured meat is less vulnerable to bacteria, and the book posits the technology might come to market in as soon as a decade.

• Energy - Solar and wind power growing more abundant and much less expensive every year, as well as advancements in storing that energy; fossil fuel replacements being spearheaded even by Big Oil companies; the tipping of the scale in regards to electric transportation.

It’s all a little overwhelming, honestly, and I haven’t even begun to dig into the source material of these efforts listed in the book notes. Even with all the information thrown at you, “Abundance” is an addictive read. It dreams big, then highlights the people who are trying to execute those dreams.

It will make you wish you had a billion dollars to invest in the future. Or at least, the inspiration and motivation to research more and see how even one person can somehow contribute to the greater cause.

Some things we can’t control. Politics will always be frustrating, and some people with more power and money will always plague the world with greed and bad ideas. One of the big takeaways I had in reading “Abundance” was how there are plenty of smart people, much smarter than me, who care and have the ingenuity, money and resources to make a positive impact on the world. Knowing that makes it easier for me to take my own small steps and search for ways that can contribute. We can do our part, but it doesn’t all have to be on our shoulders.

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