Can Innovation Save the Planet?
Climate Change. Energy. Water. Food. Population.
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.
Our only hope to address these problems is to innovate to grow the global resource pie. In this remarkable book, Ramez Naam charts a course to supercharge innovation – by changing the rules of our economy – that gives us our greatest hope of achieving greater global wealth and human well-being, even as we dodge looming resource crunches and reduce our impact on the planet.
From solar power to desalination, from next generation crops to next generation batteries, from technologies that could scrub carbon from our skies to those that could turn our garbage dumps into piles of valuable resources – solutions are possible: But only if we invest in innovation, and only if we put the right incentives in place around the globe. This book shows the scope of the problems, the landscape of the solutions, and policy changes we need to make to bring those solutions to fruition.
Praise for The Infinite Resource
“This book contains a plan – probably the only plan – to save the world. Ramez Naam is unwilling to minimize the challenges that face us, but equally unwilling to sermonize or catastrophize. The Infinite Resource is an intelligent and responsible analysis, presented in lively prose; it should be required reading for all global thinkers and leaders. “
- Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature.
"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, NYT best selling author of 1491 and 1493
“Brilliant. Ramez Naam shows that innovation is the only force equal to the global challenges that face us, and that we can prosper if we harness it.”
- Ray Kurzweil, bestselling author of The Singularity is Near
“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, Chairman of the X PRIZE and Singularity University, Author of the NYT Best Seller Abundance – The Future is Better Than You Think
"A refreshingly thorough roadmap of solutions to our energy and climate crisis."
- UTNE Reader
Human Ingenuity Can Solve The Planet’s ProblemsYahoo Finance
The Trillion Dollar Climate Change CrisisYahoo Finance,
Science Will Save the Planet (If We Let It), Wired UK, May 2013
Grantham Is Wrong: We're Not Headed For a Disaster of Biblical Proportions, Business Insider, April 2013
Why Polluters Should Pay YOU to Fix Climate Change, FastCoExist, April 2013
The Limits of the Earth: Part 1, Problems, Scientific American Guest Blog, April 2013
The Limits of the Earth: Part 2: Expanding the Limits, Scientific American Guest Blog, April 2013
Smaller, Cheaper, Faster: Does Moore’s Law Apply to Solar Cells?, Scientific American, Guest Blog, March 2011 (Cited by Paul Krugman)
Can We Capture All the World’s Carbon Emissions?, Scientific American Guest Blog, March 2011
The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet
The most valuable resource on earth is not oil, gold, water or land. Instead, our capacity for expanding human knowledge is our greatest resource, and the key to overcoming the very real resource scarcity and enormous environmental challenges we face. Throughout human history we have learned to overcome scarcity and adversity through the application of innovation — the only resource that is expanded, not depleted, the more we use it.
The century ahead is a race between our damaging overconsumption and our growing understanding of ways to capture and utilize abundant natural resources with less impact on the planet. The Infinite Resource is a clear-eyed, visionary, and hopeful argument for progress.
If you want to understand the challenges of climate change, finite fossil fuels, fresh water depletion, feeding the planet, and more – and if you want to understand how to overcome those challenges through innovation – read this book.
Table of Contents
Part 1 – Best of Times, Worst of Times
1 – The Best of Times: The Rise of Innovation
The last 500 years have seen a surge in human innovation, driven by increased ability of ideas to spread from person to person, by increased competition between ideas, and by increased rewards for inventors. Across this period, cultures that held on to rigid top-down structures or which restricted communication – including China, Japan, and the Muslim world – stagnated, while the messy, chaotic, highly competitive world of Europe saw a huge burst in invention.
2 – The Best of Times: The Incredible Present
That explosion of innovation has led to our incredible present. Humans today are the longest lived, healthiest, free-est, best fed, least poor, least likely to be starving, most able to communicate and access information of any time in history. Chapter 2 presents the staggering numbers of how well off we are today in comparison to any previous time in history, while laying out how far we have to go before wealth, health, and freedom are universal.
3 – The Worst of Times: Running Out of Steam
Energy shortages have doomed societies in the past. Today, our most used energy sources are fossil fuels. The most vital of those is oil. And the era of easy oil is drawing to a close.
4 – The Worst of Times: Peak Everything
Energy is not the only resource challenge we have. In the next 40 years the world will need to increase food production by 70% just to keep up with demand. At the same time, fresh water sources are rapidly being depleted, tropical forests continue to be chopped down, almost all fish species that humans hunt in the oceans are overtaxed, and the prices of commodities of all sorts have soared as supply has failed to keep pace with demand.
5 – The Worst of Times: Greenhouse Earth
In 1896, Nobel prize-winner Svante Arrhenius predicted that CO2 emissions would eventually warm the Earth. Now that is happening. Glaciers are melting. The Arctic ice cap is dwindling. Extreme heat, drought, flooding, and fires are becoming more common. And every degree the planet warms increases the risk of the release of even more greenhouse gas. Climate is a challenge that exacerbates all others. It may be the largest test we've ever faced as a species.
6 – End of the Party?
In the face of our environmental and natural resource challenges, a common refrain is that economic growth is the driver of our problems, and that growth must end. Yet the world houses billions who have never had the luxury of easy transportation, of readily available heating and cooling, of even electricity and refrigeration. The world's rising poor badly want the luxuries that westerners take for granted. The only way out of our problem is not to attempt to end growth – but to innovate to grow the pie of resources available and shrink the negative impacts that wealth and prosperity have on the planet.
Part 2: The Power of Ideas
7 – The First Energy Technology
Over the last 10,000 years, humans have continually innovated in harvesting food from the land. While hunter gatherers needed an average of 3,000 acres to feed one person, modern farming uses just 1/3 of one acre to feed one person. We've increased the productivity of the land by a factor of 10,000 – all of it through innovation.
In this light, our planet's carrying capacity isn't a fixed number. It's a factor of population, of consumption, and of how effectively we can produce food and other resources we need. If we can continue to increase the amount of food grown per acre – in sustainable ways – we can meet the needs of a growing and increasingly wealthy population.
8 – The Transformer
Ideas are transformers of matter. They turn dumb, inanimate objects into useful things. The component metals and plastics in an iPhone are worth pennies, but properly put together with the right knowledge, their worth is far vaster. Throughout history we've produced new ideas – new recipes and designs – that have transformed matter into new forms that serve us – steel, plastics, carbon composites, and more on the way. The apparent possibility space of new recipes for matter is far from exhausted – it seems to be growing larger at every step.
9 – The Substitute
We've faced resource scarcities before. In the 19th century, we nearly drove sperm whales into extinction harvesting them for their whale oil. Agriculture in Europe and the United States faced the exhaustion of the guano deposits that provided fertilizer, and then decades later of the saltpeter deposits that replaced them. In World War II, the allies lost the rubber plantations of South East Asia to the Axis powers.
In every case, we've rallied, and innovated to find substitutes for those scarce resources – kerosene for lighting, synthetic fertilizer harvested from the abundant nitrogen in the atmosphere, synthetic rubber made from carbon. Knowledge is the ultimate substitute for finite resources.
10 – The Reducer
Ideas can also reduce resource use. We use 1/10,000th as much land to produce food for one person as we once did. It takes 1/50th as much energy to produce a ton of steel as it did in the 1800s. Refrigerators use 1/4 the energy they did in the 1970s. Jet airliners use 1/3 the fuel per passenger mile that they did in the 1970s. LEDs use 1/500th the amount of energy per unit of light as candles.
Most of those gains have been driven by the market. Yet sometimes, the market fails. It failed to reduce pollution on its own. And so in the 1970s, the US created the EPA, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, creating incentives that bolstered and complemented the market mechanisms already at work. Driven by those regulations, emissions of acid-rain causing sulfur dioxide are down by half since the 1980s, emissions of carbon monoxide are down by half since the 1970s, emissions of lead have dropped to nearly zero, emissions of ozone-destroying CFCs are down to nearly zero.
All of that has happened while the US economy has nearly tripled in size since 1970.
Innovation – new ideas – can reduce both resource use and pollution, when the right incentives exist.
11 – The Recycler
Knowledge can also turn waste or poison back into value. Since 1970, the amount of energy required to desalinate one gallon of water has dropped by nearly a factor of 10. Desalination plants now sell water they produce at 5 gallons per penny. Simultaneously, entrepreneurs and governments are ramping up plans to turn waste into energy, and to mine landfills for the estimated 10-15 year global supplies of gold, steel, aluminum, and rare earth metals that they contain.
We think of our planet as finite. Yet finiteness means that raw materials are seldom destroyed. They're redistributed, from the ores they were mined from to cities, factories, and landfills. With energy and innovation, raw materials can be put back into circulation nearly indefinitely.
12 – The Multiplier
Innovation is also the ultimate multiplier on the resources we can safely and sustainably capture. Of all physical resources, the most useful is energy. And the Earth is bathed in energy. The sun strikes the planet with 10,000 times as much energy as humanity uses from all sources, combined. In one hour, the amount of energy striking the planet from the sun is as large as humanity's total energy use for one year. The challenge is capturing that energy and storing it away.
On that front, the pace of innovation is incredible. Since 1980, the price of solar panels has dropped by a factor of more than 20, and continues to plunge exponential. The price of batteries and energy storage plunged has plunged by a factor of 10 since 1990. If we can continue this pace of innovation – and overcome numerous technical hurdles in the way – we'll have access to plentiful energy – more than enough to provide every person on Earth more energy than a typical American uses today – and at a price that is far lower than we pay now.
Part 3: Unleashing Innovation
While the Earth's natural resources are vast, and while innovation has overcome tremendous problems in the past, our current challenges remain severe. We cannot rest idly by and hope that innovation will solve our problems. Instead, we should act to unleash innovation: by investing in people, by fixing the market failures that distort both innovation and consumption, and by embracing new innovations that could be vital to us, but which we now fear.
13 – Innovation Nation
Americans think of themselves as a nation of innovation. Yet our spending doesn't reflect that. We spend 200 times more on energy consumption than on energy R&D. We spend 60 times more on oil imports alone than we do on clean energy R&D of all sorts.
Americans think of themselves as a highly educated nation, yet our education system lags that of other countries, and is structured more like the top-down world of Middle Ages China than the messy, bottoms-up, highly competitive landscape of Renaissance Europe.
If we want to increase our pace of innovation, we need to invest in the long lead R&D that can pay dividends, and need to reform our educational system to tap into the incredible power of diversity, experimentation, and competition.
14 – The Flaw in the Market
The open market is the operating system for the world. It directs the flow of resources, people, and attention. It has been more successful than any other system in creating wealth and alleviating poverty. Yet it has a massive flaw in dealing with resources that are un-owned, un-priced, and of value to everyone. These are the global commons – our air, our seas, and in some cases our rivers. Because the market treats them as being of zero value, it encourages their degradation. If we want to preserve our planet, we need to reform our market to value the planet.
15 – Market Solutions
How would we fix the market? The key is to place a price on activities that damage the commons. The idea of market based solutions – first enacted by Republicans – has already proven itself successful in reducing acid rain and in halting the damage to the ozone layer. In both case, it's done so at far lower cost than even the advocates of these policies expected.
Pollution taxes – and most importantly, a carbon tax – don't need to be economic drains. They can be revenue neutral: for every dollar raised in a pollution tax, a dollar is taken off the payroll and income tax bills of Americans. In this way, the tax code shifts to tax more of the bad (pollution) and less of the good (income). This is an inherently pro-market approach, that takes advantage of the incredible power of markets, and stops the treatment of our global commons as essentially socialist resources.
16 – The Unthinkable: Here There Be Dragons
To maximize the power of innovation, we need to be willing to embrace innovations that offer us value, even when they tap into our fears. One of those is nuclear power. While solar power and energy storage are on a path to eventually being cheaper than any other energy solution, we are still decades away from that point. Nuclear power is nearly carbon free and can provide overnight 'baseload' power when solar is least effective. Nuclear is perhaps the most hated and feared technology among environmentalists. Yet the numbers show that coal plants kill thousands of times more people than nuclear plants, release more radiation into the environment, and have a more adverse effect on both humanity and the planet.
17 – The Unthinkable: Climate Engineering
Try as we might, we are currently not on path to keep CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere below dangerous levels. It's clear that there is abundant green energy to power our economy, but the long transition period between our current fossil-fuel based economy to one based primarily on solar energy will almost certainly put us into dangerous territory. We'd be irresponsible if we didn't pursue fall-backs and contingency plans for that situation.
The ultimate contingency plan is the engineering of the planet's climate. Climate engineering, today, is more science fiction than science fact. We've seen that volcanic eruptions can lower the planet's temperature. We've calculated that we can extract CO2 from the atmosphere and store it away safely underground. Yet actual research into both approaches has been minimal. Climate engineering is not an excuse to avoid the hard work of switching over to a clean energy, high efficiency economy. But it is a set of tools we'd rather have and not use, than need and not have. To be prudent, we need to invest heavily in R&D in climate engineering today, to be ready to use it if the future situation demands it.
18 – The Unthinkable: Greener Than Green
The greatest environmental impact humans have today is through agriculture. We use 1/3 of the Earth's land area to grow food. Agriculture is the prime driver of deforestation and the prime driver of species loss. At the same time, to feed the planet, we need to increase food production by 70% by 2050. There is no room left to increase the amount of land we use to grow food. We need to make this increase on the land we are currently using. And, at the same time, we'd ideally make our food more nutritious, reduce nitrogen runoff into the oceans, reduce pesticide use, and reduce fossil fuel use.
The key enabling technology to all of these goals may be genetically modified foods. Carefully used, GMOs show the promise to increase nutrition, reduce tillage, reduce nitrogen runoffs, reduce pesticide use and pesticide poisoning, and increase the amount of food grown on the same amount of land. The next generation of GMOs show promise in addressing vitamin A deficiency and iron deficiency, in growing in drought and salt water, in dramatically increasing the yield of common foods, and even in fertilizing themselves from the abundant nitrogen in the atmosphere. And that generation is being developed, in large part, by non-profit foundations and universities, with a promise to give the technology away for free in the developing world. Carefully used, GMOs can be an incredible boon to both human health and the natural world.
19 – The Decoupler
The last chapters of the book turn to the long view. What is economic growth? Is the growth of wealth always tied to the growth of consumption?
No. Since 1970, GDP per person on Earth has roughly doubled. Nutrition has increased. Poverty has decreased. Living space per person has increased. Yet CO2 emissions per capita have remained largely unchanged.
In the developed nations of the North America, Europe, and Japan, a new trend is shaping up. CO2 emissions per capita are declining slightly. Water use per capita is declining rapidly. Deforestation has ended, and forests are growing in both Europe and North American. Pollution levels are markedly down. Knowledge is the ultimate decoupler – it can decouple wealth from consumption and pollution. If we invest in innovation correctly we can have far more wealth, with far less impact on the planet.
20 – Of Mouths and Minds
Are human beings primarily mouths? Or primarily minds? Overpopulation has driven a tremendous host of environmental ills. Yet people have also been the source of all the art and culture we benefit from, and all the inventions that make our lives longer and more comfortable. Evidence shows that people in higher densities – in cities and in more populous nations – innovate more per person. A larger population, surprisingly, may produce innovation at a faster rate than it produces consumption.
Population is not a matter to be taken lightly. It is soaring most rapidly in the poorest countries of the world – and there we should continue to help those nations grow in wealth and education and reduce their population growth rates. But in the rest of the world, where population decline is looming as a possibility, we may very well want to take steps to boost our fertility, to at least maintain the planet's population, so all of us can benefit from the ideas produced by others.
21 – Easy Way, Hard Way
In the end, there are two ways forward through the challenges of the 21st century. If we do not act, we're setting ourselves up for the hard way – a path where increasing environmental damage and resource limits cause problems, and where we're forced into a reactive move. If we act proactively, we're setting ourselves up for the easy way – one where we take steps now to get ahead of the problems that face us, and set ourselves up for even more prosperity in the future, at a lower cost to the planet than ever before.
Chapter 21 closes the book with a call to action, and a list of steps readers can take.
Easy way or hard way, the choice is ours.
Ramez Naam is a Fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. He is a former Microsoft executive and former CEO of Apex Nanotechnologies, a molecular simulation startup. He is the author of More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement (Broadway, 2005) for which he was awarded the 2005 HG Wells Award. He lives in Seattle, WA.