Book Review: The Infinite Resource by Ramez Naam (2013)
The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet is IEET Fellow Ramez Naam’s case for a market-driven solution that will simultaneously preserve the current economic order and avert all resource shortages and existential threats, allowing the global population to reach 10 billion and live the lifestyle of middle class US citizens. Why this is the one ideal outcome is never quite explained, but Naam makes it very clear that he knows how it might be achieved.
The main claim of Naam’s book cannot be disputed. Innovation and the sum of our knowledge are our greatest resources. For the evidence that we can survive our resource shortages and population growth, we need look no further than our past ability to overcome similar challenges (p. vii, viii). In the full Darwinian sense, ideas “evolve” and the diversity of ideas has allowed civilization to overcome numerous technological problems (p. 6-9). Gutenberg’s printing press was more important than any new fuel source or food source, as it “accelerated the spread of ideas” (p. 9). This is undeniable, and it can be added that the internet is a similarly decisive technology for democratization and the accelerated spread of ideas beyond the constraints of intellectual property laws and censorship.
Naam sees intellectual property as very important to the spread of ideas, rather than an encumbrance. Patents “accelerated the creation of new ideas” (p. 12). This would have been an unchallengeable claim at a time when lone artisans were the creators and necessary owners of their techniques and inventions. However, patents are presently only a cynical legal route for the top form of protectionism used by states and companies to prevent others from legitimately obtaining the needed knowledge and techniques to advance technologies further by adding them to their own. It is clear that the goal of endless profits would be unavailable if patenting was not available, but competition and innovation would be accelerated by the constant circulation of ideas.
Worthy of consideration is Naam’s evidence that peak oil may be a real concern down the road (p. 40-42). We should be concerned because ever greater extraction technology and exploration methods are failing to raise oil production decisively (p. 42). Among Naam’s evidence is the fact that the International Energy Agency in 2010 said that 2020 is the date at which oil reserves will peak (p. 47). For those unsure why to be afraid of oil shortages, it must be told that the entire global economy revolves around oil. When the supply dries up, there can be expected to be shortages of basic necessities of life, starvation, unemployment and rising violence (p. 48-49).
Global warming is thoughtfully considered (p. 61-87), and Naam wisely notes that the solution cannot be Luddite approaches or “sustainability” inducing austerity by deliberately reducing our resources to a trickle. Instead, Naam posits that “innovation can overcome all the challenges that face us and bring us enormously greater wealth” (p. 88-99). Of note is Naam’s resolution to the disagreement in the Kyoto Protocol between the US and China over who should reduce carbon emissions first. Naam’s resolution is that developed countries should not dictate the consumption of natural resources in developing countries, as the developed countries such as the US bear most of the responsibility for the pollution (p. 92, 93, 214). Naam sees creating costs for carbon emissions and taxing pollution as “market solutions” to pollution, which make it more profitable not to pollute (p. 199-205). Naam is confident that market economics offers plenty of other solutions to pollution and overconsumption of natural resources (212-213).
Naam is an optimist, and his reasons for being an optimist are robust. For example, predicted famines have repeatedly been averted by agricultural innovations (p. 103-118). No matter how menacing the looming disasters seem to be, the human mind seems to always have room to deal with them. As Naam argues, “the most valuable resource we have isn’t energy or minerals or land. It’s our ever-increasing store of ways to put those physical things together in new and more inventive forms that give us greater and greater value” (p. 118). Perhaps of greater significance is Naam’s observation:
[quote]The accumulated knowledge of materials, computing, electromagnetism, product design, and all of the rest we’ve learned over the last several centuries converts a few ounces of raw materials worth mere pennies into a device with more computing power than the entire planet possessed fifty years ago[/quote] (p. 122)
What is being said is accurate, but it neglects one very important detail about wealth. Microcomputers might democratize certain abilities, but the facilities making microcomputer parts are still extremely expensive and few, just like the facilities constructing authoritative possessions in the times of medieval kings. That is the real bridge to cross in terms of the “power of ideas”. What should really be tested is the ability of man to miniaturize truly productive capabilities, rather than common appliances that produce sounds and images. 3D printers with the ability to print microcomputer parts and ultimately print more 3D printers would authentically redistribute power, and then we could talk about common people using assets once reserved for kings.
One has to agree with the idea that the market is a key to innovation because demand causes efficiency (p. 142-143). At least demand causes productive efficiency. Whether it causes efficient products to be forthcoming is another matter. One might make the case that the development of products is stretched as progressively better models are introduced incrementally with the intent to extract maximum profits rather than to truly create a useful product. My own view is that the market is about maximizing profit, rather than providing efficient goods. It is likely that a truly efficient person or group would be efficient without the possibility of profit, whereas they would only introduce their efficiency in increments in a system prioritizing profit. As such, shortsightedness and outright incompetence may be just as encouraged in market systems as intelligence and innovation.
Depletion of resources is a matter concerning energy only, according to Naam. The earth’s raw materials are too vast to be depleted, and would not be used up even if current levels of mining continued for millions of years (p. 155-156). Wind and solar energy know no limits, and only our lack of skill in capturing and preserving energy accounts for why we cannot make better use of this limitless energy (p. 158-164). The top concern should be making better use of energy, in Naam’s view, because “where access to energy spreads, education, wealth, and a reduction of poverty follow” (p. 174). Although he mainly argues simply for wind and solar power (p. 174- 178), he also encourages the use of single-celled organisms to produce fuels without the need for extraction and refining (p. 170-172).
Naam gives a potent defense of GM technology. Notably, he states, “if the computing revolution is any guide, then the future will be one of more riotous diversity, with thousands of genetically modified food strains available for planting and eating, many of them originating from small startup companies and many of the rest from academic labs and nonprofit organizations” (p. 260). To this, I would add that a disregard for intellectual property and the failure of any effort to stop pirates will also be unstoppable. Unwittingly, Naam himself justifies this when he writes (Italics mine), “in the long term, it doesn’t matter where an innovation comes from. The best of them will spread. What matters most is that we encourage more innovation, period.”
Naam also encourages environmentalists to abandon their suspicions towards GM technology, writing “genetic technologies may someday be viewed as one of the most environmentally friendly innovations of all time” (261-262). To avert something like the failure of the Norse settlers in Greenland, “sometimes, new technology, even though it looks different or frightening, is exactly what we need to embrace in order to survive and thrive” (p. 264). Parts of the book caution us not to let our prejudicial fears about some energy sources block their experimentation and application. For example, coal is a deadlier source of energy than nuclear fuel, and we should not be distracted by “spectacular accidents” like Chernobyl or Fukushima while nuclear energy is cleaner and has more potential than coal (p. 224-227, 234-236).
Information and communication are a lot more accessible across the world now (p. 26-27) thanks to the internet and mobile devices. However, when Naam cites this and modern conveniences like chocolate and other luxuries to suggest poverty and inequality are not grave anymore, he is advocating an inconsiderate position by misconstruing information. That the poor man of the Twenty-First Century has more gadgets and Mars bars than Henry VIII possessed is irrelevant. Poverty is still at an appalling level and the income gap between Westerners and the inhabitants of the Third World is more than twice as bad it was when Truman announced the US would help other nations “develop”. With the same logic as Naam, someone could say a slave or a gladiator in ancient Rome was better off than a free man of the same era. Millions of people live in slums or without homes, and their very lives are a torment of the system celebrated by Naam, a testament to the failure of that system. Dismissively insisting the world’s margins live in luxury relative to the slaves and serfs of preceding eras, due to some trickle-down effect, is an attempt at apologetics and does not belong in a book supposedly examining the prospects of abundance.
Among other absurd notions sustained by Naam is the claim that rampant free market capitalism has done more to reduce poverty than any other system (p. 192), an idea that could only be derived from nationalistic cherry-picked statistics glorifying his own country’s policies and with no consideration for the world as a combined social system. Another myth promoted by Naam is the notion that capitalism is actually a new innovation that was born by defeating Soviet “socialism” (p. 196), rather than the 500 year old division of labor that came into effect after feudalism.
Perhaps most fallacious is the case that capitalism cannot be replaced because it “organizes human labor in such a way that they produce more value than they did under any previous system” (p. 195). This point is true, but irrelevant because capitalism has been the only system on Earth for 500 years and could not possibly be compared with any system other than feudalism, which was also better at organizing human labor than its preceding system. Naam’s argument is thus no more cogent than arguments justifying slavery or aristocracy in their time.
While many focuses of Naam’s book are very agreeable, it is unfortunate that he insists “fixing the flaws in the market” (p. 221) is a necessary part to any solution to overconsumption of resources. This aspect of the book, which exposes its true colors as red, white and blue in the conclusion (p. 303-308), is a pointless self-indulgent exercise by someone who obviously feels a need to mend nationalistic narratives about the US ideology and place in the world while the US faces the uncertain future. If this is Naam’s priority, it is little wonder that he works towards the entire world population living US lifestyles in futuristic cities to fatten themselves on a more than sufficient supply of entertainment and excess food. It is difficult to explain how bizarre this objective is to a non-American. Nevertheless, I prefer to end by saying I profoundly share Naam’s hope that “The human mind is the ultimate source of all wealth. We stand poised on the brink of the largest ever explosion of human mental power, a second Renaissance, more transformative, more far-reaching, and more inclusive than the first.”
Let us certainly hope we can access this potential, whether we are motivated by a greedy search for profit or more nobly by our curiosity.
It’s impossible for a lot of people to understand how and why capitalism has been the greatest force for freedom and prosperity in the history of the known universe until you understand what a free market truly is. Please do not blame capitalism for the corporate fascist federal banking monopoly that exists in the US. We haven’t had a free market in a long time (1913).
Thanks for taking the time to read and review the book. I appreciate that you agreed with its assessment that we have substantial challenges, that technological innovation could play a significant role in addressing those challenges, and that the developed nations bear the brunt of the responsibility for the problems we face, and thus need to show leadership.
I do want to set the record straight on a couple points, particularly regarding market economics, fixing the flaws in the market (particularly the tragedy of the commons, especially as that relates to dumping carbon into the atmosphere), and global wealth and poverty.
The assertion of the book isn’t that market economics are the best possible economics that we will ever see. Merely that they’re the best we’ve found so far.
And here the book doesn’t differentiate between the market economics of, say, Sweden vs. those of the United States. This is not an endorsement of laissez faire capitalism or of tearing down sensible regulation. Rather, it’s an observation that systems where incentives exist that reward work and innovation, where products and services are forced to compete with one another on their merits, and where consumers make independent choices on where to allocate their funds tend to out-innovate those where top-down decisions are made.
Someday, perhaps, we’ll do much better, but that’s the system we have today.
That is discussed in the book specifically as a lead up to talking about one of (though far from the only) big problems with market economics, which is the problem of ‘externalities’ or the ‘tragedy of the commons’ – how do we deal with issues like pollution, where one person or business’s actions can damage resources that don’t have owners or prices? And here the book comes down very much on the side of protecting those common resources, and advocates – as do most economists – doing so by placing a price on pollution, and specifically on carbon emissions.
As to the assertions on poverty – I think you may have misconstrued some of what the book says slightly. It does not state that the global poor live in luxury. Rather it states that it’s likely that the *reader* (and specifically most residents of the developed world, along with a small but growing fraction of the developing world) lives with a great many conveniences and capabilities that the rich of a century ago did not have. And that, if current rates of progress continue, at some point in the *future* a majority of even of those in the developing world will be in the same situation.
To wit: 5 billion people alive today, 4 billion of them in developing world countries, have mobile phones.
In terms of inequality, on a global basis, income disparities have been shrinking since at least 1970, roughly the same time period over which the rate of extreme poverty around the globe has been sharply cut: http://www.voxeu.org/article/parametric-estimations-world-distribution-income
And the evidence is indeed that the spread of market economics was the largest driver of poverty reduction the world has ever seen. Between 1970 and 2010, more than 2 billion people came out of poverty. Those poverty reductions occurred in China, India, Latin America, and more recently in Sub-Saharan Africa. And in the first three in particular, they can be seen to track quite closely to Deng Xiopang’s market-oriented reforms in China in the late 1970s, the market-oriented economic reforms of 1991 and on in India, and the gradual embrace of market economies and institutions in Latin America in the 1980s.
Again, I make no claim that market economies are the final and best form of economics possible. (Presumably we’ll continue to innovate in economics as well!) Nor do I differentiate here between those market-based economies that have more robust social safety nets (e.g., Sweden) and those that have far less (e.g., Australia). In truth, the difference between those sorts of economies is quite small compared to the difference between any of them and the economy of the former USSR or pre-Deng Xiopang China.
In any case, all of the discussion of market economics in the book is really in the service of asking what the best approach in the current global system is to:
1) Discourage dumping carbon into the global commons that is our atmosphere. [And, by analogy, deal with other environmental problems which are tragedies of the commons.]
2) Encourage accelerated innovation of technologies that can help address climate change and those other environmental and natural resource challenges.
I remain open to other possibilities, and as you’ll note, discuss several of them in the book.
Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment on it.
Thank you. I really value your response and take into consideration what you have posted here. Infinite Resource is one of several influential futurist books I am reviewing at h+, with Diamandis’ book Abundance being the next one. Because I mainly agree with your ideas, consider my response to your book as primarily positive (★★★★☆) – in spite of my criticisms of some points you make, you have successfully influenced my ideas and forced me to re-evaluate where I stand on certain issues. That means I recognize you as a worthy influence.
Thanks so much, Harry.
Inovation and accumulating knowledge may be our greatest Virtue, but apathy, poor work ethic, fear-based policy, and lack of human grit are the Vices which may undo this. I believe that all Naam’s outcomes are possible and praiseworthy, we need only overcome the future naive dreams of those many that thought our world would have a 20-hr work week with a 40-yr retirement, be a splendorous wildlife park, and that peace, harmony, and middle-class would be easy. It will instead be laborous sacrifices, but noble sacrifices such as working hard to the technological benefit and enrichment of all society. It will also need a reduction in those things we may at this time hold sacred. And that technology is the one great faith that will actually provide reward for its devotion. Vice vs virtue as it has always been, and will always ever be.