*A full executive summary of this book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.
The main argument: Ever since the industrial revolution the developed world (and increasingly the developing world) has enjoyed remarkable economic growth. This economic growth has yielded wealth to a degree previously unimaginable. Indeed, many of us today enjoy conveniences, comforts and opportunities of a kind that have traditionally been unattainable by even the world's wealthiest and most powerful people.
However, we may question just how sustainable all of this economic growth (and the resulting wealth) really is. For the economic growth has been accompanied by environmental depletion and degradation of a kind as unprecedented as the growth itself. And while some of the environmental crises that have come up along the way have been solved by new technologies, others yet remain, and are as daunting as any we have seen. Climate change in particular stands out as one of the greatest challenges we now face. What's worse, many of the earth's resources that we have used to generate the economic growth are dwindling, and face extinction. Indeed, the very resource that has powered the industrial era (and that has also caused many of our deepest environmental woes), fossil fuels, has now nearly peaked.
Looking to the past, we find that we would not be the first civilization to perish at the hands of a resource shortage brought on by overzealous extraction. Indeed, such an event has occurred on several occasions (including amongst the Mayan civilization, and that of the Easter Islanders).
So we find ourselves at a crossroads, unsure of whether our impressive economic growth can continue, and equally unsure of whether our lavish lifestyle lives but on borrowed time (and resources).
For writer Ramez Naam, though, we do have reason to be optimistic, and in his new book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet Naam lays out the reasons for his optimism. To begin with, Naam argues that the natural resources on our planet are far from running out. He assures us that there is enough water and arable land on the earth's surface, minerals in the earth's crust, and energy from the sun to feed the demands of the planet's plateauing population for time out of mind (especially when we reuse and recycle these resources, which is what we are increasingly doing).
The problem, at present, is our relative inefficiency in accessing these resources. Even here, though, Naam argues, there is room for optimism. For our saving grace is our ability to innovate. It is our ability to innovate, Naam maintains, that is responsible for virtually all of our progress and economic growth to this point. It has brought us everything from the first stone tools and the ability to harness fire, to phones that fit in our pockets and allow us to access a world of information and all the world's people. Along the way (and more to the point), our ability to innovate has allowed us to access an ever greater percentage of the earth's resources (while at the same time decreasing the relative amount of resources that each of uses to achieve an increasingly affluent lifestyle).
And the really wonderful thing about our ability to innovate is that, unlike natural resources, it does not shrink over time. Rather, it only expands. This is because innovation is built on ideas, and ideas themselves only grow and multiply. Ideas can even be shared without ever being diluted. Instead, the sharing of ideas often generates even more ideas. The power of ideas--and the innovation that goes along with it--truly is an infinite resource.
Now, wherever there has been an incentive to innovate, innovation has come, and this helps explain why the market economy has been the single biggest spur to innovation ever invented. The market economy harnesses innovation by way of tying useful inventions to economic gain, thus exploiting self-interest for the benefit of all. Up until recently, a relatively small proportion of the world lived under a market economy. Not coincidentally, these were also the most inventive and affluent parts of the world. In the past 40 years, though, an ever increasing portion of the world has switched over to a more market-oriented economy, and this has greatly accelerated both economic growth and the speed of innovation. For Naam, this trend bodes very well for the future.
Now, as powerful as the market system is, Naam does concede that it has one fatal flaw. And this is that it does not put an accurate price on the degradation of communal goods, such as the environment. The end result is that the environment is not cared for as well as it might be (this phenomenon is known as `The Tragedy of the Commons'). Nevertheless, a market economy can be tweaked to ensure that a price is put on environmental degradation. Indeed, this has happened before, and it has helped put an end to several environmental crises (including, recently, both acid rain and the ozone-hole threat).
For Naam, this approach is also the best way to deal with the greatest environmental threat we now face: global warming. Specifically, Naam argues we ought to put a price on carbon dioxide (and return the tax proceeds to the people). This would not only help ensure against global warming, but also hasten the inevitable transition to the use of solar power and clean fuels to meet our energy needs.
With the right approach and policies, Naam argues, we can live in a world of plenty for all (and one that is clean to boot).
This is a brilliant book. The writing is excellent, the logical flow is superb, the supporting evidence is well-chosen and extensive, and the argument is air tight. In a world that is dominated by fear-mongering on the one hand, and blind optimism on the other, Naam is a shining beacon of sober and rational thought. If you are looking for a big-picture view of the challenges we face and how best to meet them, this book is for you. A full executive summary of the book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.