By Ramez Naam
Ideas may be our greatest natural resource, says a computer scientist and futurist. He argues that the world’s most critical challenges—including population growth, peak oil, climate change, and limits to growth—could be met by encouraging innovation. The Best of Times: Unprecedented Prosperity
There are many ways in which we are living in the most wonderful age ever. We can imagine we are heading toward a sort of science-fiction utopia, where we are incredibly rich and incredibly prosperous, and the planet is healthy. But there are other reasons to fear that we’re headed toward a dystopia of sorts.
Meet Ramez Naam at WorldFuture 2013,the annual conference of the World Future Society in Chicago, this July. On the positive side, life expectancy has been rising for the last 150 years, and faster since the early part of the twentieth century in the developing world than it has in the rich world. Along with that has come a massive reduction in poverty. The most fundamental empowerer of humans—education—has also soared, not just in the rich world, but throughout the world. Another great empowerer of humanity is connectivity: Access to information and access to communication both have soared. The number of mobile phones on the planet was effectively zero in the early 1990s, and now it’s in excess of 4 billion. More than three-quarters of humanity, in the span of one generation, have gotten access to connectivity that, as my friend Peter Diamandis likes to say, is greater than any president before 1995 had. A reasonably well-off person in India or in Nigeria has better access to information than Ronald Reagan did during most of his career. With increased connectivity has come an increase in democracy. As people have gotten richer, more educated, more able to access information, and more able to communicate, they have demanded more control over the places where they live. The fraction of nations that are functional democracies is at an all-time high in this world—more than double what it was in the 1970s—with the collapse of the Soviet Union.* Economically, the world is a more equal place than it has been in decades. In the West, and especially in the United States, we hear a lot about growing inequality, but on a global scale, the opposite is true. As billions are rising out of poverty around the world, the global middle classes are catching up with the global rich. In many ways, this is the age of the greatest human prosperity, freedom, and potential that has ever been on the face of this planet. But in other ways, we are facing some of the largest risks ever. The Worst of Times: The Greatest Risks
At its peak, the ancient Mayan city of Tikal was a metropolis, a city of 200,000 people inside of a civilization of about 20 million people. Now, if you walk around any Mayan city, you see mounds of dirt. That’s because these structures were all abandoned by about the mid-900s AD. We know now what happened: The Mayan civilization grew too large. It overpopulated. To feed themselves, they had to convert forest into farmland. They chopped down all of the forest. That, in turn, led to soil erosion. It also worsened drought, because trees, among other things, trap moisture and create a precipitation cycle. When that happened, and was met by some normal (not human-caused) climate change, the Mayans found they didn’t have enough food. They exhausted their primary energy supply, which is food. That in turn led to more violence in their society and ultimately to a complete collapse. The greatest energy source for human civilization today is fossil fuels. Among those, none is more important than oil. In 1956, M. King Hubbert looked at production in individual oil fields and predicted that the United States would see the peak of its oil production in 1970 or so, and then drop. His prediction largely came true: Oil production went up but did peak in the 1970s,...