The Infinite Resource cover artIn this installment of our #EnergyChat series, I talk with Ramez Naam, author of The Infinite Resource: the Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, a new book out from University of New England Press that takes an unflinching look at the central challenges of the 21st century: how to feed and power a world of 9 to 10 billion people living comfortable lives while preserving or restoring our ecological heritage. 

While many approach these challenges and come away daunted, ultimately counseling humanity to “power down,” “live within our limits,” or “prepare for collapse,” Ramez rejects these all-too-common narratives and counsels faith in humanity’s ability to harness the collective power of our ideas. Human ingenuity and innovation, Ramez argues, is the true infinite resource, and the foundation for continued progress on a finite planet.

“Knowledge acts as a multiplier of physical resources,” Ramez writes, “allowing us to extract more value … from the same physical resource. That’s what has driven human history,” he claims, “And the continuation, willful direction, and acceleration of global innovation is our best hope of overcoming peak oil, climate change, and the whole panoply of resource limitations and environmental risks, we face.” 

In the following video interview, I chat with Ramez about the central challenges of the 21st century and why, as daunting as they may seem, humanity just might be up to the task. Below the interview, you'll also find a special excerpt from The Infinite Resource. You can find more about the book, including where to purchase a copy (which I highly recommend!) at RamezNaam.com

Can Innovation Win the Race Against Depletion? 
An Excerpt from The Infinite Resource: the Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, by Ramez Naam (University of New England Press, 2013)

The End of Growth?

We live in the most perilous of times. We have unprecedented wealth, prosperity, and global well being.  Yet we have made unprecedented withdrawals from our planet to get there. Our civilization is under pressure from the threat of running out of easy oil, of running out of the metals and minerals that go into the things we build, of running short of food in the face of a growing population, of running short of water to grow that food. And at the same time our hunt for more resources is placing our forests under threat, is killing off the fish we feed on, and is trapping an ever greater amount of heat in our atmosphere. 

We’re on a precipice. We’ve ascended to these great heights, but one false step, one unexpected burst of wind could send us tumbling down. Worse, it now appears that just continuing to climb in the way we have will eventually take us over the edge and into a long, long fall. 

So is the party over? Must our ascent stop here? Must we, indeed, back away from this precipice and descend our mountain of prosperity to some lower, safer point, where we can sustainably linger?

That is the argument one hears increasingly. Bill McKibben, author of half a dozen environmental books and a leading activist for a low-carbon world, calls economic growth “the one big habit we finally must break.” McKibben refers frequently to the Club of Rome’s 1972 book The Limits to Growth, the best-selling environmental book of all time, which argued that we cannot continue the rate at which we consume resources on this planet. 

Paul Gilding, former head of Greenpeace International, titled his most recent book The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World. He writes, “The earth is full.  In fact our human society and economy is now so large that we have passed the limits of our planet’s capacity to support us and it is overflowing. Our current model of economic growth is driving this system, the one we rely upon for our present and future prosperity, over the cliff.”

Richard Heinberg of the Post-Carbon Institute, author of Peak Everything, named his latest book The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. He opens his book with his thesis: “Economic growth as we have known it is over and done with. The ‘growth’ that we are talking about consists of the overall size of the economy and of the quantities of energy and material goods flowing through it. […] The general trend-line of the economy (measured in terms of production and consumption of real goods) will be level or downward rather than upward from now on.”

In the 1970s, Paul Ehrlich and others introduced the concept of IPAT, or I = P x A x T. The equation stands for Impact (on the environment) equals Population times Affluence times Technology. As population grows, the world has more people consuming resources.  As their affluence grows, the resources used by each person increases, clearly a multiplier. And as technology develops, it enables each person to consume more.   If this equation holds for our current world, it bodes poorly for us.  We are already at an ecological footprint (our impact) of 1.5 planet Earths. Yet our population, already at an all time high, is set to rise by at least another 2 billion people in the next few decades. The average affluence of people around the world is at an all time high, and looks set to soar as billions in China, India, and the rest of the developing world surge towards Western levels of prosperity. Our technology is more powerful than ever, and if anything, appears to be advancing more quickly than ever. All of these, when applied to Ehrlich’s IPAT equation, suggest that our impact on the planet will keep rising, quite possibly faster than ever before, that our ecological footprint will keep rising at the same pace, until we find ways to lower the Population, Affluence, and Technology.  

To put it another way, we’ve already exceeded Earth’s carrying capacity by 50%. If Ehrlich’s IPAT equation is correct, then the changes in population, affluence, and technology that appear to be on their way will propel us to a point where we’re exceeding the carrying capacity of the Earth by 100%, 200%, 300%, or more.

We must hope that Bill McKibben, Paul Gilding, Richard Heinberg, and Paul Ehrlich’s IPAT equation are not right, because if they are, the world is in for a dark and bleak era of poverty, strife, and destruction. 

Indeed, the challenge before us isn’t just one of halting growth – it’s one of reducing the harm that we’re doing.  It’s not enough to freeze the rate at which we’re pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. We need to reduce it by a factor of 4 or 5.  It’s not enough to freeze the rate at which we’re withdrawing water from rivers and fossil water aquifers. We need to cut fresh water withdrawals in half. It’s not enough to freeze the rate at which we’re hunting fish to extinction. We need to turn that around.   

Voluntary Measures 

Can living simply get us there?  It can help, but it’s unlikely to be more than a small part of the pie. Eating less red meat can reduce the amount of land and water needed to provide your food by half. Biking to work, car -pooling, or taking public transportation can reduce your carbon emissions from transportation. Living in a smaller home, with better insulation, with a thermostat that’s set warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter has an even bigger impact on your carbon emissions, as the average American uses more energy on heating and cooling their home than on driving their car, much of it produced by coal plants.

If you cut the size of your home in half, drove your car half as much, lowered the thermostat 2 degrees in winter and raised it 2 degrees in summer, and ate a vegetarian or mostly vegetarian diet, you might cut your energy use, water use, land use, and carbon emissions in half. That’s an excellent step. It’s also not enough. You’d still need to cut your emissions by another factor of 2 to 3 in order to reach the levels that climate scientists think is safe.

And how many Americans or residents of any developed country are willing to take those steps? Three percent of Americans eat a vegetarian diet, a number virtually unchanged in the last 30 years. Meat consumption per capita has risen by a quarter since the 1960s. The fraction of Americans who drive a single occupancy vehicle hasn’t dropped and may be rising. The average weight of cars on the road has increased since the late 1980s by 500 pounds, and the average weight of “light trucks” such as SUVs has increased by 1,000 pounds. Meanwhile, light trucks have gone from being 15% of all autos sold in the 1960s to being more than half in 2010. The average home size has more than doubled since 1950, while the number of people living in the average home has dropped by a quarter. Americans have almost three times the living space per person they did in 1950.

None of those things are inherently bad. They reflect deep, built-in human aspirations. Almost everywhere around the world, at almost every point in human history, as people have been able to afford it, they’ve sought larger homes, more flexibility and freedom in the ability to move from place to place, richer diets, and more comfort and convenience in all ways. These urges seem to be hard wired into us.

Everything we’ve seen tells us that, left to their own devices, the majority of people will use their earnings to buy themselves greater comfort, more living space, greater ease and flexibility in transportation, and a richer diet. If we’re going to reduce our dangerous impact on the planet, the large bulk of that reduction is going to come through other means.

The Rising Poor

Meanwhile, 6 billion people in this world live in the developing world. Those people are growing richer, year by year. Their incomes, on average, are slowly closing the gap with those of people in North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan. They’re hungry for more energy, more and richer food, larger homes, more manufactured goods, and better transportation.

What would an end to growth look like to them?

Paul Gilding writes that the end of growth “…becomes a much larger problem when we consider that billions of people are living desperate lives in appalling poverty and need their personal ‘economy’ to rapidly grow to alleviate their suffering. But there is no room left.”

‘Growth’ is an abstract term. ‘Economy’ is another. But these words mean something. For someone in the developing world, growth means an increased ability to buy food for one’s family. It means being able to afford a better roof over one’s head, better clothing and education for one’s children, more ability to get from one place to another, more access to medicines for when a loved one is sick, a larger buffer to get through hard times, more of the basic conveniences like refrigeration, indoor plumbing and sanitation that the rich world has known, access to heating from any source beyond a wood or peat fire, a shot at clean water that you don’t need to walk a mile to reach.

We may think in the West that an end to growth means trading in SUVs for hybrids, taking the bus or train or bicycle to work from time to time, or perhaps eating less resource-intensive meat. But it’s far more serious. The areas that are driving overall world growth of consumption are China, India, and the rest of Asia. The people who will suffer most in an end-to-growth scenario, let alone a shrinking-the-pie scenario, aren’t the ones in already rich countries. It will be the global poor, who’ve made such tremendous progress in lifting themselves up in the last few decades, who will find their path to comfort and the meeting of basic needs blocked. On a humanitarian basis alone, we have to hope that growth can continue, and do our utmost to find a way make it continue, while simultaneously dropping our depletion of the world by a tremendous degree.

Even if we wanted to block the growth of affluence in the developing world, could we? How do you tell a Chinese engineer that she can’t buy an automobile? How do you tell an Indian computer programmer that he can’t use so much electricity to heat or cool his home? The human drive for added comfort and convenience, added living space and richer diets, greater mobility and greater security, is fundamental. Hundreds of millions or billions of people will want to buy a first car or move into a larger home in the coming decades.  How could we possibly stop them?

And if we somehow could, would it be just? Our wealth in the developed world was created in part by burning tremendous amounts of coal and oil. Can we really turn to up-and-coming countries, still quite poor on a per-person basis, and say “Sorry, there’s no more room. You have to stay poor. You can’t get the riches we have.”  Can we? When those riches are intimately tied to life expectancy, to quality of life, to medical care, to the prosperity needed to buffer against future climate changes that have been caused primarily by emissions from factories in Europe and the US?  

Zero Sum World

This brings us to the third problem, that of the dynamics of a non-growth, zero-sum world. Richard Heinberg highlights this in the beginning of The End of Growth. Some businesses, regions, and nations may keep on growing, he says. “In the final analysis, however, this growth will have been achieved at the expense of other regions, nations, or businesses.  From now on, only relative growth is possible: the global economy is playing a zero-sum game, with an ever-shrinking pot to be divided among the winners.”  

In a zero-sum game, one player’s gain comes from another player’s loss. Politicians, political analysts, and the press often mistake the interplay between nations, businesses, and individuals as zero-sum, but thus far they’ve been wrong. In general the 20th century was one where almost everyone got richer and better off. They did so through far more cooperation than confrontation.  Even competition – which we engage in vigorously – has mostly been about jockeying for relative advantage, when in fact both parties are climbing in absolute wealth.

On the planet as a whole, a rising tide has lifted most boats. Life expectancy has grown for the countries that hold the vast majority of the world’s people. The fraction of the world living in poverty has plummeted. All of this has happened because of the non zero-sum dynamics of the global economy. One person or nation’s gain has often been another person or nation’s gain as well. 

We can see this in the way that nations relate to each other. Worldwide military spending was an enormous $1.5 Trillion in 2008. But worldwide international trade was $16 Trillion, ten times as much, in that same year. And trade, inherently, happens because both parties think they’ll be better off as a result. It’s profoundly positive-sum, an act of win-win cooperation where the total pie is expected to grow.       

A zero-sum world would be different. If there’s no way to increase wealth without taking it from another, the world becomes a much darker, more violent place. Interactions become win-lose. The motivations for trade and cooperation drop. The motivations for warfare rise. If there’s no way for you and your trading partner to both profit from a trade, perhaps you should just take what you want from the partner instead.  

No Alternative to Sustainable Growth

In sum, then, we can’t separate growth from the reduction of poverty and all that entails. Nor can we separate the prospect of growth from large scale peace and prosperity. If growth is over, whether the future is one of decline or just stagnation, billions will suffer. We must hope that growth – sustainable growth – can continue.

If all of these risks have scared you, good. I’m an optimist, and this, as you’ll see, is a fundamentally optimistic book. Yet as I look at the wide range of risks to our continued and growing wellbeing, I can’t help but feel some fear as well.  The problems we’re facing are quite possibly the largest humanity has ever faced.  Addressing them will require ingenuity, hard work, mobilization on a vast scale, and probably some degree of luck. These are tremendous challenges for us to rise up to. Optimism doesn’t mean complacency.

I’ve written in the last few chapters about the dangers humanity faces, but there are also opportunities. The steps we need to take to address the dangers are also the steps that can propel us to levels of wealth, comfort, and health never before seen.

There are two huge future opportunities in front of us.

Abundant Natural Resources

The first is to switch from the small pools of diminishing resources we’ve based the last century of growth on, to dramatically larger, longer lasting, and more evenly distributed resources. The world’s energy supplies are a prime example of this. The sun strikes our planet each year with 10,000 times as much energy as humanity currently uses from all sources combined. Some of that energy heats up air, creating wind we can tap into.  Some of it evaporates water, which comes down as rainfall that powers rivers which can provide useful energy. And the lion’s share of it strikes us as direct sunlight, which we can capture as electricity and as fuels to power our vehicles. As incredible as it seems, the annual inflow of energy from the sun to the Earth is larger than all known reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas.   

Water is no less scarce. Less than half a percent of the world’s water is liquid freshwater. Another two percent are locked up in ice in the polar caps and the world’s glaciers. The vast majority of the world’s water – more than 97% of it - is in our oceans. If we can learn to desalinate ocean water with less energy, it can provide more than enough to meet all of our water needs, with minimal impact on the planet’s water cycle.

The sunlight that strikes today’s farmland could grow ten times as much food, if we were clever enough to capture it. The Earth’s crust contains every mineral resource our society consumes in quantities that could last us tens of thousands of years.  

The natural resources of this planet are vast. What we lack is the skill to efficiently and sustainably tap into them.

Innovation - The Infinite Resource

The other key opportunity for us is to build that skill. Throughout history, the main driver of human affluence has been the creation of new ideas, new inventions, new scientific discoveries, new technologies, and new ways of organizing ourselves to make use of the abundance around us. 

All of that is human knowledge. From how to grow more food to how to cure disease, from how to build new materials, to how to make machines that can move us from place to place, new knowledge has made the biggest changes in our lives. The creation of new and useful knowledge is innovation. It’s a uniquely human capability. It’s one that’s driven history, and it’s one that has the potential to overcome our current challenges and usher in new levels of prosperity.

Knowledge – the output of human innovation – is unique among all other resources. It’s not a physical resource.   It’s an information resource. Where all physical resources are depleted by use, and are divided by sharing, knowledge is different. A wheel may break or wear out, but the idea of the wheel will keep on working. A wheel can only be used in one place and one time, but the design for a wheel can be shared with an infinite number of people, all of whom can benefit from it.  Ideas aren’t zero sum. That means the world isn’t zero sum. One person’s or nation’s gain doesn’t have to be another’s loss. By creating new ideas, we can enrich all of us on the planet, while impoverishing none. Knowledge plays by different rules than physical resources, rules that make it inherently abundant.

And so it is that our stockpile of knowledge is the one natural resource that has grown over time rather than depleting. We may have drained fresh water aquifers or burned the contents of oil fields, but our store of ideas has, through all that time, grown. Knowledge accumulates.

And knowledge increases our wealth. Innovation increases our wealth. Wealth is not inherently tied to physical resources. It’s not inherently tied to the destruction or exhaustion of parts of the planet we care about. We can grow wealth while reducing our negative impacts on the planet.

Throughout the rest of this book I’ll show how, through innovating, we’ve substituted new, more abundant resources for older, scarcer ones. We’ve reduced the amount of any given resource we need to use to accomplish a task, whether it be land, water, energy, or raw materials. We’ve learned to transmute substances that were once considered waste into new and useful resources. And we’ve multiplied our ability to access the incredibly vast resources the planet contains, with less waste, and less damage.  

Winning the Race

Innovation isn’t a panacea. It isn’t guaranteed to come at the rates we need, in the directions we want, or in the areas where we need it most. Whether it does or not depends in large part on the choices we make as a society.

If we rise to the challenge, invest in innovation, embrace the innovations that we produce, and use a light but steady hand to steer the direction of our economy through our laws, we have every chance of solving the problems that face us, and coming out on the other side richer, with less poverty, longer lived, with access to more natural resources than ever before, and a business model for our planet that can provide us growing wealth and prosperity as far into the future as the eye can see.

If we don’t tap into and steer innovation, we’ll find our hand forced.  Depleting natural resources – if we don’t invest in innovation to multiply them – will eventually shrink the pie, until we have no choice to live more humbly, until we see poverty rise and our wealth and freedoms shrink. That’s not the path we want to go down.

We find ourselves in a race. On the one side is depletion of resources that we need. On the other side is our rate of innovation. If depletion wins, we all suffer. If innovation wins, we can both solve the problems depletion has brought and grow the size of the global pie, increasing the wealth of everyone on the planet.

Which will win? Largely that depends on the actions we take and the policies we employ. The future hasn’t been written yet.

I’m an optimist. I believe we’ll prevail; I believe we’ll surmount the problems that face us. I believe we’re smart enough as a society to make the choices that make us richer in the long run rather than poorer. But that won’t happen automatically. It’s up to us to ensure that the right choices get made – smart choices that increase our odds of long term prosperity by accelerating and steering innovation in the directions we need it.

Ultimately the thesis of this book is that innovation can overcome all the challenges that face us, and bring us enormously greater wealth, but only if we make the right choices to embrace and encourage it.

Crisis means both danger and opportunity. Part 1 of this book presents the dangers. Turn the page into Part 2 and I’ll show you how we’ve surmounted the crises of the past, and come out richer in the process. Keep reading into Part 3, and I’ll show the choices we need to make to do so again.

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Like what you're reading? Then purchase a copy of The Infinite Resource today and read the full story! 

Many thanks to Ramez Naam for permission to reprint this lightly edited excerpt from the book. -Jesse Jenkins