Optimism and Abundance

Let’s kick that “scarcity” perspective for 2017

Yes, I know this is meant to be a space to talk about communication. On the other hand, what element of human interaction does not involve communication? So I’m giving myself wide latitude here today, and I’m going to share with my readers the bounty – the uplifting, optimistic, promising bounty – I have discovered over the past year in two works that nicely bookend a world perspective based on positive expectations.

As usual, let me first admit to bias: I don’t feel comfortable with a “scarcity” perspective. I admit that, when resources are scarce, I am not inclined to circle the wagons and first decide who deserves to have a share in what’s left or who has earned their keep. My inclination is to immediately take a census and determine what everyone needs, and then work with my compatriots to figure out a way to make those resources serve everyone. (Maybe that comes from eight years of work in community health.) So, the whole scarcity idea is a bit foreign to me. Besides, I’m just a positive, can-do person. I do monitor the news, and I hear about predicted shortages, loss and suffering, political infighting about “entitlements,” irresponsible behavior, criminal behavior, reactive and responsive behaviors…

Maybe that’s why Abundance and The Fix are two books that so appeal to me. The former, published in 2012, posits that technology, innovation, the DIY (do it yourself) movement, and cooperation can actually allow humans to solve all the problems that face us as a species: the depletion of resources, overcrowding, lack of basic necessities like food and water, pollution, global warming, etc. The second book, The Fix, recently released, identifies ten pervasive and very real challenges to humanity in a declining world (migration, corruption, tribal rivalries, religious extremism…), and then relates an actual national or metropolitan success story for each one. From Canada to Singapore to Botswana, Brazil and elsewhere, the author demonstrates that each of these huge problems has a solution – a demonstrated, undeniable solution already in evidence.

Together, these two books feed the optimism and “abundance perspective” that feels right to me. I recommend these fascinating works to you. Each one provides a trip around the world and a historical look-back. Each one offers mind-boggling solutions that have already been implemented and have achieved success. What better way to start a new year than with hope based on hard evidence? In case you’re still not convinced, I offer an introduction to two of my favorite reads of 2016, hoping they will become two of your favorite reads in 2017.

Abundance: The Future is Better than you Think, by Diamondis and Kotler, provides exciting examples of the human capacity to solve the world’s problems. In direct counterpoint to the prestigious 1968 report, The Limits to Growth, which insisted just the opposite was true, these authors provide evidence that optimism causes progress. We are, indeed, running out of oil and potable water, and we’re watching species become extinct on a daily basis while the icecap melts and sea levels rise. Attempts to limit population growth haven’t solved the problem, so now we seem to have no option but to work together to turn scarcity into abundance – or turn on each other.

Diamondis and Kotler are convinced that humanity has already established the keys to solving the problems by turning to each other: instant information sharing worldwide; the do-it-yourself efforts of little people with big dreams; the unprecedented shift from hoarding of riches to altruistic philanthropy; the willingness of small, dedicated teams to embrace failure until they achieve success through both specialization and cooperation.

The authors open with a story of scarcity, the discovery of aluminum, a metal never before seen by humans, one that is mined only in the form of bauxite and tediously cleaned and refined to produce that shiny material we know so well and, today, value so little. When first discovered, aluminum was considered superior to both gold and silver, so rare was it and so shiny. Today we know that bauxite is one of the most abundant elements on the earth’s surface, and we place a very low relative value on its product, aluminum. Back in the day of Tiberius, however, the goldsmith who discovered how to mine and refine bauxite into shiny, tantalizing aluminum, was beheaded to prevent his powerful knowledge from challenging that of the emperor. That is the power of scarcity thinking.

From that inauspicious beginning, Diamondis and Kotler show us how individuals and groups are actually discovering how to provide for all humans the things we need to survive, including easily available electricity for cooking to reduce respiratory diseases; the one-laptop-per-child program; “banking” via cell phone; Lab-on-Chip (LOC) technology.

Abundance contrasts pessimism with optimism. To help us see the abundance in the face of our pessimism, the authors refer to Matt Ridley and the terrifying 1980s concept of acid rain. Remember the future it promised? Never happened. Ridley wrote The Rational Optimist about that phenomenon. Optimism, it seems, causes progress. Our ultimate landing on the moon was predicted by the U.S. Air Force in 1953 by plotting historical figures on a graph and projecting the curve into the future. Larry Page has predicted that Google-type information searching will eventually be incorporated in human brains, allowing us to search simply by wondering. Some predict that, very soon, the computer will possess the processing power equal to all the human brains in the world working together simultaneously.

Remember that the human genome was mapped in our lifetime. Now we see the possibility of solving the world’s fuel shortage problems by providing DNA instructions to algae. Thought leaders at Google are developing a global information network some call the central nervous system of the planet. It will allow 340 trillion, trillion, trillion unique addresses. Autonomous vehicles have arrived. IBM is at work on a computer chip that will process 100 times faster than the human brain – and learn! And think of the modern miracle called 3D printing, not imagined 20 years ago.

Through both specialization and cooperation, the authors tell us, the world of humans, for all practical purposes, continually reinvents itself. Each new generation of tools produces the next generation of tools. Distance is almost meaningless today, as evidenced by educational sharing, like Khan Academy, promoting learning without regard for distance. Consider Linux, developed in three short years as an open source system through collaboration around the world. In the face of all this, aren’t abundance and possibility worth embracing?

Now, The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline focuses not on science but on sociology. Tepperman presents ten daunting challenges that have been conquered against all odds. He sets the scene historically, topographically and culturally, and then he introduces the characters (some quite unlikely) who stepped up and faced down what seemed to the world an impossibility.

Tepperman celebrates Canada’s senior Trudeau and his decades of work to make his country, once a bastion of tribalism and ethnic exclusionism, into one of the most open and welcoming countries on earth, a place of true multiculturalism. He relates the amazing story of absolutely fundamental “welfare” in Brazil: handing actual cash to poor families and trusting them to apply it for their own good. And they have, over the years, done just that, for the most part! He explains how some countries, at the moment of their independence from colonialism or protectionism, fall prey to corruption and infighting and neglect of their infrastructure, and then he contrasts that with the experience of Indonesia, Botswana and Rwanda. The latter, for example, accomplished peaceful and lasting reconciliation between the Hutus and the Tutsis even after the Hutus had butchered 75% of the Tutsi tribe!

The reader is uplifted by the story of Indonesia’s victory over almost certain Islamic extremism. The world’s fourth-most-populous nation, made up of an astounding 17,500 individual islands over 3000 miles of ocean, and 90% Muslim, is now one of the world’s “most successful democracies… a safe and stable beacon of open, decent and tolerant rule.” Its citizens, the author explains, practice Islam more openly and devoutly than before they overthrew their military dictator, Suharto, in 1998, but they will not tolerate extremism. Sharia law is less popular in Indonesia, the most Muslim nation in the world, than it is in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq or Pakistan. “Indonesia has come close to effectively eliminating the threat of extremist violence” as its population has grown more religiously conservative and devout. Tepperman credits the country’s first three democratic leaders for this near miracle and demonstrates how they implemented five key principles, over the years, to develop Indonesia, which Time magazine predicted in 1998 “would burn,” into a peaceful, productive, inclusive society.

When Singapore won home rule in 1959, it was known for its “debaucherous embrace of vice and iniquity… scores of opium dens and bawdy houses… turf wars in the streets.” Singapore’s bureaucrats, we are told, “especially its police, were hopeless.” But Singapore, one of the most crowded human spaces on earth, conquered corruption. “In 2014 Transparency International ranked it the least corrupt state in all of Asia and the seventh in the world.” The Fix explains how the miracle was wrought.

And a final example lies in Botswana, arguably the poorest nation on earth when it achieved independence in 1966, now among the richest nations on earth – and rich in all the “right” ways for nearly all its people. It’s the story of a country “parched, landlocked… the most luckless of nations… no natural resources… three times more cows than people.” When it won independence, Botswana had one doctor for every 26,000 people. And then, in the world’s poorest nation, one of the world’s richest diamond deposits was discovered. Did Botswana fall prey to the “resource curse”? Almost. And, for a short time, yes it did. Corruption ruled and the economy cratered. But a ruler emerged (truly against all odds – his story is quite unique), and he helped his country escape the curse.

Today Botswana is the world’s number one diamond producer, holds regular free and fair elections, is home to honest courts and a “boisterous free press.” The country has never fought a war and has never suffered a prolonged recession or a famine. For decades it has boasted one of the world’s fastest growing GDPs, and “most of its citizens have benefited from its boom.” Botswana has some of the lowest corruption scores in its region and an 87% literacy rate! How was it all accomplished? Read The Fix to find out. You’ll also read about South Korea, Mexico, the United States, and New York City in particular.

Can you possibly learn of those odds-defying accomplishments without wanting to read more? Happy 2017, which I hereby declare the year of optimism and abundance!