Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think

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Simon and Schuster, Feb 21, 2012 - Science - 386 pages
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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. In Abundance, space entrepreneur turned innovation pioneer Peter H. Diamandis and award-winning science writer Steven Kotler document how progress in artificial intelligence, robotics, infinite computing, ubiquitous broadband networks, digital manufacturing, nanomaterials, synthetic biology, and many other exponentially growing technologies will enable us to make greater gains in the next two decades than we have in the previous two hundred years. We will soon have the ability to meet and exceed the basic needs of every man, woman, and child on the planet. Abundance for all is within our grasp. Breaking down human needs by category--water, food, energy, health care, education, freedom--Diamandis and Kotler introduce us to dozens of innovators and industry captains making tremendous strides in each are: Dean Kamen's Slingshot, a technology that can transform polluted water, salt water or even raw sewage into high-quality drinking water for less that once cent a liter; the Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE which promises a low-cost, handheld medical device that allows anyone to diagnose themselves better than a board certified-doctor; Dickson Despommier's "vertical farms," which replaces traditional agriculture with a system that uses 80 percent less land, 90 percent less water, 100 percent fewer pesticides, adn zero transportation costs. The authors also provide a detailed reference section filled with ninety graphs, charts and graphics offering much of the source data underpinning their conclusions. In this antidote to today's pessimism, the authors explore how four emerging forces-exponential technologies, the DIY innovator, the Technophilanthropist, and the Rising Billion--are conspiring to solve our biggest problems. Diamandis and Kotler examine the stunning impact of these forces while establishing hard targets for change; laying out a strategic road map for governments, industry, and entrepreneurs, adn giving us plenty of reason for optimism.
 

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - Tom_Westlake - LibraryThing

I read the new book Bold before reading this one but thought based on how much I enjoyed that one that this one would be just as enjoyable. Unfortunately I was as enthusiastic about this one. It is ... Read full review

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User Review  - DLMorrese - LibraryThing

Humanity is facing challenges, but then it always has. And it has always overcome them. More than that, we (collectively over time) have improved the quality of human existence. We now live longer ... Read full review

Contents

Chapter One Our Grandest Challenge
3
Chapter Two Building the Pyramid
12
Chapter Three Seeing the Forest Through the Trees
27
Chapter Four Its Not as Bad as You Think
38
Chapter Five Ray Kurzweil and the GoFast Button
51
Chapter Six The Singularity Is Nearer
59
Chapter Seven The Tools of Cooperation
77
Chapter Nine Feeding Nine Billion
100
Water and Sanitation
246
Food and Agriculture
251
Health and Health Care
258
Energy
262
Education
270
Democracy
272
Population and Urbanization
273
Information and Communications Technology
280

Chapter Thirteen Energy
155
Chapter Fourteen Education
174
Chapter Seventeen Driving Innovation and Breakthroughs
217
Chapter Eighteen Risk and Failure
227
Next StepJoin the Abundance Hub
241
Philanthropy
287
Dematerialization and Demonetization
289
Exponential Curves
291
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About the author (2012)

Abundance
CHAPTER ONE
OUR GRANDEST CHALLENGE

The Lesson of Aluminum
Gaius Plinius Cecilius Secundus, known as Pliny the Elder, was born in Italy in the year AD 23. He was a naval and army commander in the early Roman Empire, later an author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, best known for his Naturalis Historia, a thirty-seven-volume encyclopedia describing, well, everything there was to describe. His opus includes a book on cosmology, another on farming, a third on magic. It took him four volumes to cover world geography, nine for flora and fauna, and another nine for medicine. In one of his later volumes, Earth, book XXXV, Pliny tells the story of a goldsmith who brought an unusual dinner plate to the court of Emperor Tiberius.

The plate was a stunner, made from a new metal, very light, shiny, almost as bright as silver. The goldsmith claimed he''d extracted it from plain clay, using a secret technique, the formula known only to himself and the gods. Tiberius, though, was a little concerned. The emperor was one of Rome''s great generals, a warmonger who conquered most of what is now Europe and amassed a fortune of gold and silver along the way. He was also a financial expert who knew the value of his treasure would seriously decline if people suddenly had access to a shiny new metal rarer than gold. "Therefore," recounts Pliny, "instead of giving the goldsmith the regard expected, he ordered him to be beheaded."

This shiny new metal was aluminum, and that beheading marked its loss to the world for nearly two millennia. It next reappeared during the early 1800s but was still rare enough to be considered the most valuable metal in the world. Napoléon III himself threw a banquet for the king of Siam where the honored guests were given aluminum utensils, while the others had to make do with gold.

Aluminum''s rarity comes down to chemistry. Technically, behind oxygen and silicon, it''s the third most abundant element in the Earth''s crust, making up 8.3 percent of the weight of the world. Today it''s cheap, ubiquitous, and used with a throwaway mind-set, but--as Napoléon''s banquet demonstrates--this wasn''t always the case. Because of aluminum''s high affinity for oxygen, it never appears in nature as a pure metal. Instead it''s found tightly bound as oxides and silicates in a claylike material called bauxite.

While bauxite is 52 percent aluminum, separating out the pure metal ore was a complex and difficult task. But between 1825 and 1845, Hans Christian Oersted and Frederick Wohler discovered that heating anhydrous aluminum chloride with potassium amalgam and then distilling away the mercury left a residue of pure aluminum. In 1854 Henri Sainte-Claire Deville created the first commercial process for extraction, driving down the price by 90 percent. Yet the metal was still costly and in short supply.

It was the creation of a new breakthrough technology known as electrolysis, discovered independently and almost simultaneously in 1886 by American chemist Charles Martin Hall and Frenchman Paul Héroult, that changed everything. The Hall-Héroult process, as it is now known, uses electricity to liberate aluminum from bauxite. Suddenly everyone on the planet had access to ridiculous amounts of cheap, light, pliable metal.

Save the beheading, there''s nothing too unusual in this story. 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.

To expand on this a bit, let''s take a look at the planned city of Masdar, now under construction by the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company. Located on the edge of Abu Dhabi, out past the oil refinery and the airport, Masdar will soon house 50,000 residents, while another 40,000 work there. They will do so without producing any waste or releasing any carbon. No cars will be allowed within the city''s perimeter and no fossil fuels will be consumed inside its walls. Abu Dhabi is the fourth-largest OPEC producer, with 10 percent of known oil reserves. Fortune magazine once called it the wealthiest city in the world. All of which makes it interesting that they''re willing to spend $20 billion of that wealth building the world''s first post-petroleum city.

In February 2009 I traveled to Abu Dhabi to find out just how interesting. Soon after arriving, I left my hotel, hopped in a cab, and took a ride out to the Masdar construction site. It was a journey back in time. I was staying at the Emirates Palace, which is both one of the most expensive hotels ever built and one of the few places I know of where someone (someone, that is, with a budget much different from mine) can rent a gold-plated suite for $11,500 a night. Until the discovery of oil in 1960, Abu Dhabi had been a community of nomadic herders and pearl divers. As my taxi drove past the "Welcome to the future home of Masdar" sign, I saw evidence of this. I was hoping the world''s first post-petroleum city might look something like a Star Trek set. What I found was a few construction trailers parked in a barren plot of desert.

During my visit, I had the chance to meet Jay Witherspoon, the technical director for the whole project. Witherspoon explained the challenges they were facing and the reasons for those challenges. Masdar, he said, was being built on a conceptual foundation known as One Planet Living (OPL). To understand OPL, Witherspoon explained, I first had to understand three facts. Fact one: Currently humanity uses 30 percent more of our planet''s natural resources than we can replace. Fact two: If everyone on this planet wanted to live with the lifestyle of the average European, we would need three planets'' worth of resources to pull it off. Fact three: If everyone on this planet wished to live like an average North American, then we''d need five planets to pull it off. OPL, then, is a global initiative meant to combat these shortages.

The OPL initiative, created by BioRegional Development and the World Wildlife Fund, is really a set of ten core principles. They stretch from preserving indigenous cultures to the development of cradle-to-cradle sustainable materials, but really they''re all about learning to share. Masdar is one of the most expensive construction projects in history. The entire city is being built for a post-petroleum future where oil shortages and water war are a significant threat. But this is where the lesson of aluminum becomes relevant.

Even in a world without oil, Masdar is still bathed in sunlight. A lot of sunlight. The amount of solar energy that hits our atmosphere has been well established at 174 petawatts (1.740 × 10^17 watts), plus or minus 3.5 percent. Out of this total solar flux, approximately half reaches the Earth''s surface. Since humanity currently consumes about 16 terawatts annually (going by 2008 numbers), there''s over five thousand times more solar energy falling on the planet''s surface than we use in a year. Once again, it''s not an issue of scarcity, it''s an issue of accessibility.

Moreover, as far as water wars are concerned, Masdar sits on the Persian Gulf--which is a mighty aqueous body. The Earth itself is a water planet, covered 70 percent by oceans. But these oceans, like the Persian Gulf, are far too salty for consumption or crop production. In fact, 97.3 percent of all water on this planet is salt water. What if, though, in the same way that electrolysis easily transformed bauxite into aluminum, a new technology could desalinate just a minute fraction of our oceans? How thirsty is Masdar then?

The point is this: When seen through the lens of technology, few resources are truly scarce; they''re mainly inaccessible. Yet the threat of scarcity still dominates our worldview.
The Limits to Growth
Scarcity has been an issue since life first emerged on this planet, but its contemporary incarnation--what many call the "scarcity model"--dates to the late eighteenth century, when British scholar Thomas Robert Malthus realized that while food production expands linearly, population grows exponentially. Because of this, Malthus was certain there was going to come a point in time when we would exceed our capacity to feed ourselves. As he put it, "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man."

In the years since, plenty of thinkers have echoed this concern. By the early 1960s something of a consensus had been reached. In 1966 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out: "Unlike the plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases, which we do not understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess." Two years later, Stanford University biologist Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich sounded an even louder alarm with the

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