The End of Scarcity

Here is an excerpt from a new book titled Abundance (see bottom). They incorrectly include some footprint figures that have been challenged elsewhere- “Currently humanity uses 30% more of our planet’s natural resources than we can replace”.  The footprint totals have been shown to be exaggerated by over half as they allot over 50% of their calculations to CO2 storage.  The footprint model is not known to be rigorous in its use of numbers and its varied assumptions, but other than these few questions, the authors of this book make some interesting points.

Peter H. Diamandis And Steven Kotler, National Post · Jul. 24, 2012 | Last Updated: Jul. 24, 2012 4:02 AM ET

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 37-volume encyclopedia describing, well, everything there was to describe. 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 honoured 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% 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 clay-like material called bauxite.

While bauxite is 52% aluminum, separating out the pure metal ore was a complex and difficult task.  It was the creation of a new breakthrough technology known as electrolysis, discovered in 1886, that changed everything.  The Hall-Héroult process,  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% 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 $20billion 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.   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% 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 10 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 and water shortages 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 approximately 174 petawatts.  Out of this total solar flux, approximately half reaches the Earth’s surface.  Since humanity currently consumes about 16 terawatts annually, there’s over 5,000 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% by oceans.  But these oceans, like the Persian Gulf, are far too salty for consumption or crop production. In fact, 97.3% 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.

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 18th 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 1968, Stanford University biologist Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich sounded the alarm with the publication of The Population Bomb.  But it was the downstream result of a small meeting held the same year that really alerted the world to the depth of the crisis.  That year, Scottish scientist Alexander King and Italian industrialist Aurelio Peccei gathered together a multidisciplinary group of top international thinkers at a small villa in Rome.  The Club of Rome, as this group was soon known, had come together to discuss the problems of short-term thinking in a long-term world.

In 1972 they published the results of that discussion. The Limits to Growth became an instant classic, selling 12 million copies in 30 languages, and scaring almost everyone who read it. Using a model developed by the founder of system dynamics, Jay Forrester, the club compared worldwide population growth rates to global resource consumption rates.  The science behind this model is complicated, the message was not.  Quite simply: We are running out of resources, and we are running out of time.

It’s been over four decades since that report came out.  While many of their more dire predictions have failed to materialize, for the most part, the years haven’t softened the assessment. Today we are still finding proof of its veracity most places we look.  One in four mammals now faces extinction, while 90% of the large fish are already gone.  Our aquifers are starting to dry up, our soil growing too salty for crop production. We’re running out of oil, running low on uranium.  Even phosphorus – one of the principal ingredients in fertilizer – is in short supply.  In the time it takes to read this sentence, one child will die of hunger.  By the time you’ve made it through this paragraph, another will be dead from thirst (or from drinking dirty water to quench that thirst).

And this, the experts say, is just the warm-up round.

There are now more than seven billion people on the planet.  If trends don’t reverse, by 2050, we’ll be closer to 10 billion. Scientists who study the carrying capacity of the Earth – the measure of how many people can live here sustainably – have fluctuated massively in their estimations.  Wild-eyed optimists believe it’s close to two billion.  Dour pessimists think it might be 300 million. But if you agree with even the most uplifting of these predictions – as Dr. Nina Fedoroff, science and technology advisor to the U.S. secretary of state, recently told reporters – only one conclusion can be drawn:  “We need to decrease the growth rate of the global population; the planet cannot support many more people.”

Some things, though, are easier said than done.

The most infamous example of top-down population control was the Nazis’ eugenics program, but there have been a few other nightmares as well.  India performed tubal ligations and vasectomies on thousands of people during the 1970s.  Some were paid for their sacrifice; others were simply forced into the procedure.  The results drove the ruling party out of power and created a controversy that still rages today.  China, meanwhile, has spent 30 years under a one-child-per-family policy.  According to the government, the results have been 300 million fewer people.  According to Amnesty International, the results have been an increase in bribery, corruption, suicide rates, abortion rates, forced sterilization procedures and persistent rumours of infanticide.  Either way, as our species has sadly discovered, top-down population control is barbaric, both in theory and in practice.

This seems to leave only one remaining option.  If you can’t shed people, you have to stretch the resources those people use; and stretch them dramatically.  How to do this has been a matter of much debate, but these days the principles of OPL have been put forth as the only viable option.  This option bothered me, but not because I wasn’t committed to the idea of greater efficiency.  Seriously – use less, gain more – who would be opposed to efficiency? Rather, the source of my concern was that efficiency was being forwarded as the only option available

Humanity is now entering a period of radical transformation in which technology has the potential to significantly raise the basic standards of living for every man, woman and child on the planet. Within a generation, we will be able to provide goods and services, once reserved for the wealthy few, to any and all who need them, or desire them.  Abundance for all, is actually within our grasp.

From Abundance by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler. Copyright © 2012 by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler. Reprinted with permission from Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster.