Optimists — you have just cause to feel smug. We truly do live in a beautiful world.
Think about it:
- Yes, there are millions of North Americans living below the poverty line. But of those people, 99% still have access to many creature comforts that the wealthiest people in the 19th Century did not have (electricity, flushing toilets, refrigerators).
- The energy we currently use is heavily polluting and devastating to our environment. But consider: the amount of solar energy hitting the Earth's surface each day is 5,000 times the amount humans use every year.
- Around 1.2 billion people on Earth live on less than $1 a day. But this proportion is half of what it was in the 1950's, and is expected to continue to go down.
You just need to have the right perspective when looking at the world. Yes, there are many problems and issues. But the solutions are out there, well within our grasp.
That is the overriding lesson being taught in Abundance: the future is better than you think, a book by science writer Steven Kotler, and entrepreneur, philanthropist and all-around very smart man, Peter H. Diamandis, being released later this month.
Diamandis, who made his fortune starting-up a dozen space and high-tech companies, is a strong believer in the power of technology — and creative ideas — to change the world for the better. This was the driving idea behind Singularity University — which teaches and discusses the boldest ideas happening in science and technology — as well as the X PRIZE Foundation, which pits innovators against each other to develop radical solutions to major R&D challenges. Both are led by Diamondis, who writes: "We need to be training people on how to change the world. Obviously, technologies are the way to do that."
He estimates that many of the great divides between rich and poor countries — not to mention society's depressingly polluting infrastructure — will be removed in 35 years' time, thanks to advancements being developed today.
The list of such developments outlined in Abundance is overwhelming.
– Solar energy is abundant, we just haven't been able to efficiently capture and store it. Yet. Hundreds of international companies are competing to produce cheaper and more effective photovoltaics — with new breakthroughs announced nearly every day — while liquid metal batteries are being developed that can easily store and share the solar energy captured and share it among households or entire communities.
– All of our water-shortage issues could be easily solved if we were able to use the seawater covering 70% of the Earth's surface. All that stands in the way of our doing this is salt. New filters that work down to the nanometre can easily remove this salt, as well as any bacteria, viruses and toxins. The next steps will be to make the filters cheaper and more energy-efficient.
– Small sensors that can be incorporated into handheld devices like cell phones will be able to carry out medical lab work — allowing people in rural areas, or those without access to lab services, to quickly and easily carry out blood or urine tests. When connected to a massive computer — like IBM's Watson — these cell phones could draw on all medical knowledge in the world to identify any illnesses or viruses, and suggest remedies.
– Sensors on pipes could be used to identify cracks or holes, greatly reducing water losses, or threats from gas leaks. Sensors on household appliances and lights will be able to turn the power off when not in use, saving millions on energy bills.
– Computers and cell phones — as well as communication networks — are becoming cheaper and more ubiquitous, giving people in developing countries unprecedented access to education, banking, job opportunities, and democratic tools.
– Genetic engineering will create food crops that can be grown year-round, without fertilizer, with less water, and with increased vitamin and nutrient content. It could one day also be used to "grow" meat, meaning we will no longer need to raise and slaughter cattle, which will further reduce the amount of plants, water and land required for producing meat.
– "Robo cars" will pilot our vehicles, greatly reducing the number of accidents traditionally attributed to "human-error". This alone will save millions of lives and billions of dollars.
– 3D printers will turn homes into mini R&D, prototyping and manufacturing sites. A product we see online that we like can be quickly "printed up". People will no longer need to travel miles to buy products in stores, or wait days or weeks for deliveries to come in.
I could go on. While many of these sound far-fetched, the point Abundance makes is that these are all within our grasp. Until electrolysis was discovered in 1886, the difficulties of producing aluminum made it one of the rarest metals on Earth. Now, it is thrown away with last week's leftovers. With a little ingenuity, humans can accomplish amazing things.
So, potential aside, what do we actually need to do to get these ideas functioning and widely-adopted?
1. We need to be open. The Linux computer operating system began as an open source project developed by hundreds of volunteer programmers; notes Abundance, "By 2008, the revenue of all servers, desktops, and software packages running on Linux was $35.7 billion." DIY Drones, a project begun by Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson, has seen a team of interested engineers, programmers and developers create a functional, unmanned air vehicle at a cost of around $300 – about one per cent of what the US military spends on its drones.
Give people the information, says Diamandis, and they can create something amazing. "The tools of cooperation have become so powerful that once properly incentivized, it's possible to bring the brightest minds to bear on the hardest problems."
2. We need to be creative. Most education systems in the world put emphasis on the same subjects that were highly-valued in the Industrial Revolution: math and science, with art an afterthought. "In [our] rapidly changing technological culture and…ever-growing information-based economy, creative ideas are the ultimate resource. Yet our current educational system does little to nourish this." With world-changing technological advances being made in people's basements, the best way to promote further developments is to feed the creative impulses of our populations and teach children to think collaboratively and outside-the-box.
3. We need to give. Providing people in developing areas with the money or tools to communicate means they can add their ideas, energy and knowledge to the global picture. Websites such as DonorsChoose.org, Crowdrise, KickStart and Kiva are promoting causes that were previously too small to advertise internationally — such as small businesses that need start-up funding. Growing from the ground-up gives poorer countries and people the best chance to thrive and, in turn, offer support to others.
4. We need to contribute. There are hundreds of competitions — like the X PRIZE or the International Genetically Engineered Machine contest — that are willing to pay big bucks for big ideas. There are thousands of collaborative groups on the internet looking for people to lend their brains to a wide variety of subjects and goals – from programming apps and software, to designing functional transportation and furniture, to DNA coding, to providing business advice. We're all pretty smart in at least one particular topic — why not use that knowledge to help others?
What ideas am I missing? Leave a comment below, and be entered to win a signed copy of Abundance.
ABUNDANCE: The Future Is Better Than You Think is published by Free Press, and will be released February 21, 2012. To pre-order the book, or find out more, visit the website.