The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet
Publication Year: 2013
We're beset by an array of natural resource and environmental challenges. They pose a tremendous risk to human prosperity, to world peace, and to the planet itself.
Yet, if we act, these problems are addressable. Throughout history we've overcome similar problems, but only when we've focused our energies on innovation. For the most valuable resource we have isn't oil, water, gold, or land - it's our stockpile of useful ideas, and our continually growing capacity to expand them.
In this remarkable book, Ramez Naam charts a course to supercharge innovation - by changing the rules of our economy - that can lead the whole world to greater wealth and human well-being, even as we dodge looming resource crunches and environmental disasters and reduce our impact on the planet.
"Most books about the future are written by blinkered Pollyannas or hand-wringing Cassandras. Ramez Naam--Egypt-born, Illinois-raised, a major contributor to the computer revolution--is neither. Having thought about science, technology and the environment for decades, he has become that rarest of creatures: a clear-eyed optimist. Concise, informed and passionately argued, The Infinite Resource both acknowledges the very real dangers that lie ahead for the human enterprise and the equally real possibility that we might not only survive but thrive." --Charles Mann, New York Times bestselling author of 1491 and 1493
"An amazing book. Throughout history, the most important source of new wealth has been new ideas. Naam shows how we can tap into and steer that force to overcome our current problems and help create a world of abundance." --Peter H. Diamandis, MD, chairman and CEO, X PRIZE Foundation; chairman, Singularity University; and author, Abundance--The Future Is Better Than You Think
Published by: University Press of New England
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Preface: A Tale of Two Planets
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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The opening line of Charles Dickens’s 1859 masterpiece, A Tale of Two Cities applies equally well to our present era. We live in unprecedented wealth and comfort, with capabilities undreamt of in previous ages. We live in a world facing unprecedented global risks—risks to our continued prosperity, to our survival, and to the health ...
Part I: The Best of Times
1. The Rise of Innovation
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In the fall of 2008, three friends and I traveled with our bicycles to Vietnam. We planned to bike down a few hundred miles of the country’s scenic coast. We’d heard that Vietnam was a beautiful place, remarkably friendly to Americans, considering the history between the two countries. The image in our minds was of rice paddies, dirt roads, and of local Vietnamese riding ...
2. The Incredible Present
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The explosion of new ideas in Europe, and later in North America, led to the incredible prosperity of our current age. For centuries, Europe and North America raced ahead of the rest of the world in innovation, and thus in wealth, health, and well-being. That created much of the rift between the countries we now think of as “developed” and those we think of as “developing.” The opening ...
Part II: The Worst of Times
3. Running Out of Steam
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On Christmas Day of 2005 I woke before dawn, dressed quickly, then stepped out of my hut to fall in with a small group hiking through the Guatemalan jungle. Our guide led us along a dirt path cut through two miles of thick brush and densely packed trees, with only our flashlights to illuminate the way. Eventually we reached the base of an enormous stone pyramid, 212 feet ...
4. Peak Everything?
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The notion that the prices of things other than oil could soar isn’t hypothetical. It’s happening as I type these words. In 2008 the world woke up to soaring food prices. For the first time since the oil crisis of the 1970s, basic food prices left their historic lows. By spring of 2008, basic food ingredients (wheat, corn, rice, milk, meat, sugar, and oil) were nearly 80 percent more expensive than ...
5. Greenhouse Earth
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Glacier National Park sits along the northernmost edge of Montana, pressed up against the southern borders of British Columbia and Alberta. Every year two million Americans, Canadians, and tourists from farther abroad visit the park. Soon, though, there may be no glaciers in Glacier Park. In 1850 the region that is now the park was home to 150 active glaciers. In 2004 ...
6. End of the Party?
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We live in the most perilous of times. We have unprecedented wealth, prosperity, and global well-being. Yet we have made unprecedented withdrawals from our planet to get there. Our civilization is under pressure from the threat of running out of easy oil, of running out of the metals and minerals that go into the things we build, of running short of food in the face of a ...
Part III: The Power of Ideas
7. The First Energy Technology
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“The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”1 With those words, biologist Paul Ehrlich opened his 1968 best seller The Population Bomb. Alarmed by ...
8. The Transformer
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Imagine you wake one morning, refreshed from sleep, hungry for a simple but delicious meal of scrambled eggs, toast, and orange juice. But inexplicably, instead of scrambling the eggs, toasting the bread, and juicing the oranges, you find yourself forcing the eggs into the toaster, mashing the bread against the juicer, and attempting to crack oranges into the frying pan. How enjoyable ...
9. The Substitute
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In Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick, Ishmael, the narrator, describes what a visitor might see if he or she descended below the deck of the whaling ship Pequod, to the forecastle where the off-duty crew were sleeping. “For one single moment you would have almost thought you were standing in some illuminated shrine of canonized kings and counsellors. There they lay in their triangular ...
10. The Reducer
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Mount Rainier looms in the distance beyond Seattle. On a clear day, you can see the majestic nearly three-mile-tall volcano, taller than a sky scraper in perspective, its upper slopes clad in a permanent layer of white. With no other mountains around it, it stands proud, tall, and massive in its isolation. The Native Americans of the Northwest called it Tahoma, the mother of ...
11. The Recycler
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“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” So the ancient mariner lamented in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most famous poem. We live on a water world, yet we fear water shortage. Seawater is poison to us. We can’t drink it. We can’t feed it to our livestock. We can’t water our crops with it. Yet this poison is a vast, barely untouched resource. Ninety-seven percent of our planet’s ...
12. The Multiplier
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Driving back toward Seattle one evening from a long trip, I came upon a beautiful sight. I was in northern Oregon, headed north toward the border with Washington, still three hours from home. Washington and Oregon meet at the Columbia River Gorge, an eighty-mile long canyon, in places thousands of feet deep, where the river flows west until it eventually empties out into the ...
Part IV: Unleashing Innovation
13. Investing in Ideas
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What do the Internet, the Green Revolution that boosted crop yields since the 1960s, and the Human Genome Project all have in common? They were all produced, in part or in whole, by government-funded projects. I’ve sung the praises of the market through this book, and will continue to. Markets are incredibly effective, and businesses produce a huge number ...
14. The Flaw in the Market
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“To get rich is glorious.” With these words, Deng Xiaoping, premier of China, leader of the most populous Communist nation on Earth, ushered in the global capitalist era. In 1976, Mao Tse-tung, who’d exiled Deng for his pragmatism and openness to Western economic ideas, died, opening the door for the reformist Deng’s rise to power. Deng returned ...
15. Market Solutions
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The notion of market-based techniques to reduce pollution first picked up momentum in the final months of Ronald Reagan’s last term. In late 1988, after the election that made George H. W. Bush the president-elect, Reagan administration attorney C. Boyden Gray received a call from Environmental Defense Fund president Fred Krupp. Krupp knew that Gray was slated to ...
16. The Unthinkable: Here There be Dragons
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At the eastern edge of Death Valley, where the barren desert crosses from California and into Nevada, lies a testament to the current state of nuclear power in the United States and much of the world. A twenty-five-foot-wide tunnel gapes into the sun, a train track emerging from its mouth. The tunnel bores in a U-shape 5 miles into the heart of Yucca Mountain. Here, until ...
17. The Unthinkable: Climate Engineering
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There are two more backup options for climate change that we should have in our pocket. Neither of them is a sustainable solution, but either might play a vital role in the coming decades of transitioning away from fossil energy. The first is to contain the problem of carbon dioxide, by capturing it from power plants or from the open air, and storing it in some form where it won’t ...
18. Greener Than Green
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I grew up by a cornfield. In the early 1980s, my parents came to the obvious conclusion that the United States was a better place to live and raise a child than Egypt. Immigration law didn’t make it easy to stay. The normal requirement of the law was for us to return home to Egypt after my mother finished her studies. Then, after two years in Egypt, U.S. law would allow us to apply ...
19. The Decoupler
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There’s a story about the invention of chess in ancient India. When the in-ventor of the game, a great sage, showed his invention to the king, the king was extremely pleased. He asked the sage to name his reward. The sage, who was very wise, asked for a seemingly modest gift. Give me one grain of rice for the first square on the board, he asked. Then two for the second. And ...
20. Of Mouths and Minds
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At the Central Drug Research Institute, a team of scientists has developed a drug that has the potential to improve the lives and health of diabetics. The drug shows promise in both controlling blood sugar and insulin levels and in preventing the cholesterol abnormalities that frequently come with diabetes and that can lead to heart disease. Twenty-six million Americans ...
21. Easy Way, Hard Way
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The natural resources of our planet are incredibly abundant. As I’ve tried to show, the amount of energy we could capture, food we could grow, water we could access, and minerals we could use and reuse are all vast. All of them are at least a hundred times greater than our current needs. And in the case of energy—the resource that can increase access to so many other ...
Coda: Living in the Twenty-First Century
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In 2009, a team of demographers and physicians studying aging published a paper showing that if trends in life expectancy continue, more than half of all children born in rich countries since 2000 will live to see the year 2100.1 What will that world look like? I’ve outlined four things in this book that we, as a society, need to do in ....
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This book would not exist without the contributions of a number of people. My agent, Ted Weinstein, helped shape this work heavily at the proposal stage. My editor, Stephen Hull, helped me craft the structure and tone of the book and asked questions that helped me hone my arguments. Ellery Baines, my research assistant, was tireless in tracking down obscure pieces of data ...
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Page Count: 364
Publication Year: 2013