Last week’s review of Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet generated a good LinkedIn discussion in The Letter Leader. Paul Born’s comment on Canada’s significant reduction in poverty rates is a great example of the progress documented in Superabundance.
Here are a few quotes of note on key themes I found in the book:
Pessimism Runneth Over in our Stone Age Brains
Pessimism about the future of humanity is of ancient vintage. Most civilizations have conjured up some theory of decline from a perfect original state that underpinned their prevalent belief systems.
Much of the world has changed, especially in the past two centuries or so, but human psychological traits (and our genes) evolve at a slower pace. Surrounded by historically unprecedented plenty and tranquility, our ‘stone-age mind’ consequently keeps on perceiving reality through the prism of a set of negative biases that make us think that the world is in much worse shape than it really is…the ancestral brain that directs our lives today craves its daily fix of fear and anxiety.
…remember all the different ways in which your mind is playing tricks on you. Recognize that you are a member of a species that’s always on the lookout for danger and that your predisposition toward the negative provides a market for purveyors of bad news…
Kill Joys: Beware the News Blues
…the emotional tone of articles in the New York Times between 1945 and 2005 and articles and broadcasts from 130 countries between 1979 and 2010…in spite of all the improvements…both articles and broadcasts have become increasingly gloomy over time.
…there is a basic asymmetry in life between the positive, which is difficult and takes time, and the negative, which is much easier and takes less time — compare the amount of time needed to bring up and socialize an adult person and the amount of time needed to kill him in an accident: the amount of time needed to build a house and to destroy it in a fire, to make an airplane and to crash it, and so on.
History on the Grow: Progress Isn’t Perfect
…progress does not mean that we’ll ever reach a paradisiacal end state where everything will be optimal for everyone everywhere. New problems will arise, and they will have to be solved, however imperfectly, by future generations…the world will never be a perfect place.
…growth is not a cure-all, but lack of growth is a kill-all. Put differently, growth does not solve all human problems, but without growth there can be no plenitude of food, sophisticated health care, excellent sanitation, modern transportation, and a plethora of other conveniences that make modern life so much better and more enjoyable than life in the past.
…people without historical perspective are at a massive disadvantage. Instead of being grateful for all the good things in their lives, they are resentful because of the things that they lack but others have. Acquisition of a historical perspective is not only prudent from a logical standpoint as the best way to measure progress; it is also conducive to happiness.
Energy Savings: Powering Progress with Less
…energy use decreased between 2008 and 2017, even though the U.S. economy expanded by 15 percent over the same period. The U.S. economy, in other words, has reached such a level of efficiency and sophistication that it is possible for it to produce an ever-increasing amount of goods and services while at the same time using ever-fewer resources.
Replacement of many devices with one produces substantial efficiency gains. How substantial? The savings from device convergence on smartphones…for materials use (device weight) and for its associated embodied energy use…can reduce material use by a factor of 300. They can reduce power use by a factor of 100 and standby energy use by a factor of 30.
Infinite Innovation: Unlimited Possibilities
The world is a closed system in the way that a piano is a closed system. The instrument has only 88 notes, but those notes can be played in a nearly infinite variety of ways. The same applies to our planet. The Earth’s atoms may be fixed, but the possible combinations of those atoms are infinite. What matters, then, is not the physical limits of our planet, but human freedom to experiment and reimagine the use of resources that we have.
Given that personal resource abundance increased by 303 percent and the world’s population increased by 75.8 percent, we can say that global resource abundance (i.e., the increase in personal resource abundance multiplied by the increase in the world’s population) rose by 609 percent.
…the period beginning in 1800 the Great Enrichment…inflation-adjusted per capita incomes have risen by 3,000 percent since then. In some ways that’s a conservative estimate.
That Old Time Religion is New Again: Environmental Fundamentalism
To Shellenberger’s (author of Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All) observations, we can add Michael Crichton’s analysis of the parallels between traditional religion and apocalyptic environmentalism, ‘If you look carefully, you see that environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st-century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths. There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace, and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment.’
…extreme environmentalism and its proponents are growing more radical, as befits a new and increasingly popular form of a secular religion.
In this secular religion, God is replaced by nature and the priesthood is replaced by scientists who are tasked with interpreting the natural order of things.