It's not easy being an optimist in 2012. There's just too much to worry about: a global economic downturn, climate change, overpopulation, nuclear proliferation, failing education systems, you name it.
We are bombarded with bad news all the time, and we eagerly eat it up because our brains are gluttons for fear and danger.
As Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler note in their important and captivating new book, Abundance: Why the Future Will Be Much Better Than You Think, our pessimism is generated by a set of neurons located deep in the brain called the amygdala which collectively function as "an early warning system, an organ always on high alert," whose job is basically to prevent us from becoming some large carnivore's lunch.
Our present-day concerns about survival are less immediate, and more probabilistic, the authors argue. As our senses today are assaulted by "a gargantuan avalanche of data," it becomes very difficult to distinguish "the critical from the casual." As a result, "bad news sells because the amygdala is always looking for something to fear."
What's the Big Idea?
If our brains are programmed to make us all nervous wrecks, then life in the 21st century further exacerbates this problem. The media plays to our nervous condition by hyping the bad and drowning out the good news ("If it bleeds, it leads," the adage goes). So it's easy to see why we're stuck in such a cynical rut these days. After all, we are struggling to adapt to a world that is "global and exponential" with the same mental equipment that was designed for a world that was "local and linear."
According to Diamandis and Kotler, the right attitude and mental focus is critical to overcoming the psychological blocks that prevent us from making the case for optimism. As the authors note, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has shown us how "we need to understand the way our brain shapes our beliefs and our beliefs shape our reality." When we are biased toward negative information, for instance, "standing up in today's climate and claiming the world is getting better makes one appear addled."
And yet, Diamandis and Kotler are both unflinching optimists, and the great reward of reading Abundance is the discovery of just how infectious their optimism is. The authors tackle the grand challenges of our time and turn each one on its head. They argue the accelerating rate of technological change will "put an end to what ails us" within 25 years with "noticeable change possible within the next decade." When seen through the lens of technology, their central argument goes, "few resources are truly scarce; they're mainly inaccessible. Yet the threat of scarcity still dominates our worldview."
Diamandis and Kotler colorfully elaborate on this idea here:
History's littered with tales of once rare resources made plentiful by innovation. The reason is pretty straightforward: scarcity is often contextual. Imagine a giant orange tree packed with fruit. If I pluck all the oranges from the lower branches, I am effectively out of accessible fruit. From my limited perspective, oranges are now scarce. But once someone invents a piece of technology called a ladder, I've suddenly got new reach. Problem solved. Technology is a resource liberating mechanism. It can make the once scarce the now abundant.
While the concept of abundance is a genuinely radical vision for the future, the authors are careful to avoid the kind of pie in the sky fantasies that many technological utopians tend to get caught up in. For one thing, Diamandis and Kotler do a good job of providing a practical definition for their idea: "Abundance is not about providing everyone on the planet with a life of luxury," they write, "it's about providing all with a life of possibility."
In other words, human beings ought to spend their days "dreaming and doing, not scrapping and scraping." In that sense, a life of possibility requires "covering the basics and then some." All things considered, we're headed in the right direction. As the authors point out, Americans living below the poverty line are "light-years ahead of the wealthiest Americans from just a century ago." Just consider what the 99 percent have: electricity, indoor plumbing and refrigeration. In other words, these people are living in "luxury and security that their ancestors would have died for."
What's the Significance?
As promising as our current rate of technological progress might seem, many of the global challenges we still face involve "staunching some fairly ridiculous bleeding," as Diamandis and Kotler point out. The needless deaths of millions too often spring from entirely preventable causes such as hunger, pollution and disease. Fortunately, we are in a better position to tackle these problems than ever before, thanks to the exponential growth of technology.
For example, how do we supply U.S. levels of carbon-free energy to everyone in the world and stave off dramatic climate change? Diamandis and Kotler argue that we first most overcome cognitive biases to approach this problem. While solar power is "pollution, carbon and stigma free," many people are skeptical about its potential to scale since it only accounts for 1 percent of our current energy production. As Diamandis and Kotler argue, "that's linear thinking in an exponential world."
Diamandis and Kotler are bullish about solar because sunlight is "ubiquitous and democratic." Moreover, solar's annual 30 percent growth rate "puts us 18 years away from meeting 100 percent of our energy needs." Now we're thinking exponentially, and can start to entertain some wonderfully optimistic scenarios about the future. The authors ask: "What do we do with a squanderable abundance of energy?" Ethernet innovator Bob Metcalfe is one of the many experts sited in Abundance, and here's his idea:
First, why not drop the price of energy by an order of magnitude, driving the planet's economic growth through the roof. Second, we could truly open up the space frontier, using that energy to send millions of people to the moon or Mars. Third, with that amount of energy you can supply every person on the Earth with the American standard of 400 liters of fresh, clean water every day. And fourth, how about using that energy to actually remove C02 from the Earth's atmosphere...we might even solve global warming.
Editor's Note: Abundance is currently available for purchase, and as part of a special promotion you can download the first chapter here, as well as sign up to win some very cool prizes including a zero gravity flight and a free course at Singularity University.
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