RP Siegel

Optimistic New Book on Sustainability Fails to Account for Corruption

I enjoyed reading Ramez Naam’s book, The Infinite Resource: The power of ideas on a finite planet. It’s a provocative read that I would have to call audaciously optimistic, written by a man with a near-evangelical faith in the power of human innovation to solve as many problems as it creates and then some. And he makes a good case for his premise.

In the end, however, Naam errs in skipping over corrupted political and regulatory processes that often stand in the way of effective innovation.

On the positive side, Naam thumbs his nose at “doomsayers,” be it Malthus, Ehrlich or the Club of Rome, who he claims have all been wrong in predicting that our population growth will outstrip our ability to feed ourselves. He brings to mind the Mark Twain comment that “reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Naam says that these forecasters were all wrong because they failed to factor in the power of innovation, which has consistently arisen to avert predicted catastrophes.

Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that we might be better off with 10 billion people on the planet than we are now, provided that we can educate them all. Why? Because, he says, more people means more interaction, more cross-pollination of ideas, and more innovation. Indeed, he says, if we’d only had half as many predecessors as we did, we’d be enjoying fewer fruits of innovation today. (Perhaps, but we’d also have a lot less carbon in the atmosphere and would not be so urgently facing a catastrophic threat to our civilization.)

Lining Up the Doomsayers’ Claims

What does Naam say about these major threats we’re facing: climate change, poverty, hunger, water shortages, epidemics? Look at the facts, he says, lining them up like ducks in a shooting gallery and squeezing the trigger.

Human life expectancy has more than doubled since Malthus’ time. The thousand-fold increase in population over the past 12,000 years has been more than offset by a 10,000-fold increase in agricultural productivity per acre. The number of people living in poverty has fallen by a factor of seven just since 1970. In short, the planet’s carrying capacity, far from being a constant, is continually increasing, thanks to innovation.

On climate change, he does not have his head in the sand. He acknowledges the signals of change: melting glaciers, acidifying oceans, thawing permafrost. “As a planet we’re sitting on a keg of gunpowder and we’re enjoying a smoke,” Naam writes, conceding that “this may well be the largest challenge humanity has ever faced.”

His optimism is not without caveat, either. He writes, almost in small print, that “the thesis of this book is that innovation can overcome all of the challenges that face us and bring us enormously greater wealth, but only if we make the right choices to embrace and encourage it.”

He glosses over the possibility that, as some have suggested, it might already be too late, or that it could be by the time our powers of innovation are given the unrestrained opportunity to do battle with the beast that is, in fact, their own creation.

Naam Makes Environmentalists Think Twice 

To his credit, the author has made me think and reconsider my position. He scores some points. It’s easy to overlook how clever we really are when we set our minds to something. And, like it or not, most of that cleverness has been driven by the profit motive, of which Naam, a former Microsoft executive, is clearly a major cheerleader.

On the other hand, two thoughts kept bugging me throughout the book.

First there is an image of one hand clapping, which, the last time I checked doesn’t make a lot of noise. I want to see these initiatives on the supply side, met by equal initiatives on the demand side that embody the idea, that somewhere along the line we need some kind of restraint, because, regardless of how clever we are, this is a finite planet and there are limits, even if Naam suggests that we might not hit them for another thousand years.

Equilibrium depends on the balance between two opposing forces, or tendencies. To my mind, sustainability implies some kind of equilibrium that does not include unlimited growth, at least not in the way that we think of growth today. Growth of ideas is fine. But once they require materials to take form, you cannot produce them without limit, even if you recycle. I question his premise that Demand + Innovation = Supply on a finite planet.  I look instead to nature and perhaps some earth-based societies as a model for how to successfully live on this planet for extended periods of time.

Naam Skips Over the Question of Abuses

The second qualm, also involves the question of restraint, but this time as applied to the supply side. Naam recognizes the basic flaw in the system, the fact that “externalities” allow companies to damage the commons with impunity. He understands the role that government regulation and spending must play in order to spur the kind of innovation we need and to achieve equilibrium between self-interest driven innovation and the interests of the greater good. But he skips over the question of power and its abuses and how, for example, the role of money has skewed the regulatory process to the point of allowing companies that have cozied up to politicians to regulate their own industries.

This oversight becomes particularly apparent when he fails to understand how this phenomenon informs public resistance to several of the winners he has picked (e.g. nuclear power, GMOs, and geo-engineering) in the race to save our economy from itself. This is despite the fact that each of these is accompanied by a nightmare scenario that could plausibly occur in the absence of sufficient control.

He does not seem to recognize that the fear of these technologies is as much a fear of our government’s lack of ability to regulate and control the powerful interests behind them as it is about the ideas themselves.

A Thought-Provoking Look at Possibilities

Look past the fear mongering, he says, and see what the science has to say. That’s fine except that most of the science is coming from those promoting the technology, who often have powerful political clout, have sometimes taken to bullying and suppressing critical review and skewing the rules to enable them to police themselves.

Perhaps Mr. Naam would serve his own premise better by leaving off at pointing out the vast power of innovation, as he has ably done, without taking the further step of trying to pick winners in the very complex emerging landscape of the future. It might have been more helpful, perhaps, to focus more on the process by which solutions are selected, and how in that process, the audacious, irrepressible power of innovation, so often rooted as it is, in personal self-interest, is balanced with the interests of the whole. (I would recommend, for example, the work of Janine Benyus and Johan Rockstrom as guideposts for incorporating a give-and-take approach with the planet.) This process will take wisdom, integrity, a long-term perspective and a firm resolve to keep the interest of the greater good foremost even when dealing with some of the most powerful interests our civilization has ever produced.

That being said, I congratulate Mr. Naam on a carefully researched and thought-provoking look at the possibilities that lie in store for us.

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on KindleFollow RP Siegel on Twitter.

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