Abundant hope

Abundance by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kolter

WHAT caught my attention was the sub-title of the book, "The future is better than you think".

Has anything you have read in the latest books on economics, the accounts of the state of the financial service industry, the business press, and your other reading rest, given you a sense that the future won't be much worse than the present?

It would be fair to say that the commonly accepted view is that those who feel positive about the future, well, don't know what is going on.

There is a difference between wishing and hoping. One may wish to win the lottery despite not having bought a ticket. One may hope to win the lottery only when one owns a ticket.

I am sure we all wish things will get better, but we lack the facts that would give us reason for hope. In their book Abundance, the authors make a very strong, fact-based case for the view that we have reason to be optimistic.

They call on science, engineering, social and economic trends in support of their thesis.

We are clearly going through a rough period economically with so many of our key trading partners in worrying state and others affected by their worries.

Consider this: through the 20th century we witnessed mind-numbing tragedies. A flu epidemic in 1918 killed 50 million people, World War II killed 60 million, and there were tsunamis, hurricanes, earth quakes, floods and even plagues of locusts.

Despite all this we saw infant mortality drop by 90%, maternal mortality drop by 99%, and human lifespan increase by 100%.

The quality of life has improved more in the past century than ever before, and the authors demonstrate that global living standards will continue to improve exponentially.

If your concern is more for your immediate surroundings - what is going on in South Africa and not the whole world - it is worth remembering that we are deeply interconnected.

Research shows that the wealthier, more educated and healthier a nation is, the less violence and civil unrest there is among its population, and the less likely that unrest will spread across borders. What happens elsewhere does affect us.

The authors do not ignore the fact that we are currently consuming 30% more of the planet's natural resources than we replace. They point out if we all lived the lifestyle of the average European we would need three planets worth of resources to pull it off, and five if we all wanted to live like Americans!

How do we get out of this bind? Consider that there is 5 000 times more solar energy falling on the planet's surface than we use in a year. The problem is not an issue of scarcity, rather one of accessibility – how do we get all this energy?

There was a time when a shiny metal, aluminium, was rarer than gold. Technological advances in electrolysis has allowed us to easily transform bauxite into aluminium and far from being rare today, we wrap food in it and then throw it away.

There is no shortage of water on the planet; about 70% of the earth is covered in it - it is just that it is far too salty for drinking or irrigation. What if a new technology could desalinate water cheaply and quickly, just as electrolysis has done for aluminium?

If this sounds farfetched, consider that in one generation we have made goods and services once reserved for the wealthy few available to any and all who need or simply desire them.

A Masai warrior with a cellphone has better mobile capability than the president of the United States had 25 years ago, as well as access to more information via Google if he has a smartphone.

Many factors are contributing to our betterment, not only technology. A do-it-yourself revolution has made it possible for individuals to do what only governments could have done in the past, and small firms with limited resources are making breakthroughs in medicine and the sciences.

Add to this the power of the money being spent in very deliberate ways by individuals. Bill Gates is crusading against malaria, Mark Zuckerman is working to reinvent education, Pierre and Pam Omidyar are focusing on bringing electricity to the developing world. And this is only the beginning of the list, not the end.

What is possible with the electrification of the developing world? A cheap two-burner stove would change much for the estimated 3.5 billion people who cook burning biomass: wood, dung and crop residue.

According to the World Health Organisation's 2002 report 36% of acute upper respiratory infections, 22% of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and 1.5% of preventable cancers are caused by "indoor air pollution" from cooking with biomass. An electric stove would alleviate 4% of the global disease burden.

This is only a tiny fraction of what is possible; consider only the impact of clean water on everything from general health to infant mortality.

So why are we so pessimistic? Diamandis and Kolter dedicate a whole section of their book to this problem and provide many research-based explanations.

One is related to the speed of the primitive part of our brain. At the slightest hint of danger we overreact as a survival mechanism, including interpreting much in our environment with suspicion.

We still have that component in our brains and so we react in the same ways as our ancestor did thousands of years ago. We are living in the safest, healthiest, most comfortable time in human history. These are undeniable facts. Not 100 years ago the world was much more dangerous, unhealthy and uncomfortable than it is now.

In the 1900s London was in grave danger of becoming uninhabitable due to horse excrement in the streets. The problem appeared insoluble as more people came into the city and horses where an essential mode of transport. At the time, who would have thought that pollution of the skies rather than the roads would become the  major issue?

Viewed objectively there is reason not only to wish for a better tomorrow, but adequate grounds to hope for a better future and even to reasonably expect it.

This is a must-read book.    
Readability: Light ---+- Serious
Insights:    High +---- Low
Practical:   High ----+ Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy

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