The Infinite Resource

“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.”

This is the thesis of a book I just finished and can’t stop thinking about. It’s called The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet by Ramez Naam. As the frequent highlights I made on the Kindle ebook attest (a total of 134!), this book is packed with research that spurs thought-provoking ideas. I thought I’d share some of those ideas here.

This post is a bit long so here are some high-level insights:

  1. The ways we structure our society have a huge impact on how innovative we become.

I initially discovered this book through a gripping sci-fi trilogy called The Nexus Trilogy. Nexus is a fun, fast-paced series that explores the future of human-computer interactions and surfaces some very interesting ideas. After reading the trilogy I did some research on the author and learned he has a deep technical background. Naam has 13 years of leadership at Microsoft and started his own company, “the world’s first company devoted entirely to software tools to accelerate molecular design,” where he holds 19 patents (More). When I saw that Naam had also written a nonfiction book, I knew I had to read it.

The Infinite Resource begins with an overview of how societal structure shapes innovation. Naam looks at China and Europe in the Middle Ages. In the year 1300 China had 100 million people, double the population of Europe, and a sophisticated, highly educated leadership class. Europe in the 1300s was a hodgepodge mess of small warring kingdoms built on a feudal economy.

Looking at both regions, an observer would bet heavily on China’s odds of exploring the world and conquering the Europeans. Yet, when the two cultures clashed in the Opium Wars of the 1800s, the Chinese were defeated time and time again by the Europeans’ vastly superior technologies.

What happened between 1300 and 1800 that allowed Europeans to colonize the globe, while China stayed locked in the past?

As Naam writes, “European culture, unwittingly, accelerated the evolution of ideas. Chinese culture suppressed it… We can, it turns out, make choices about the structure of our societies that affect the pace of innovation.”

In Europe, the lack of a central power structure caused a market economy to emerge. If innovative thinkers could find financial backing for their ideas, they could test, build, and scale their technologies. At the same time, competition produced an efficient marketplace of ideas that rewarded the best innovations, regardless of their origin.

Europe in the 1400s was fractured, with many competing states and rulers.

In China, meanwhile, a strong central monarchy controlled every aspect of society and stifled independent thought. The path to power was through the Imperial Exams, a massive standardized test that took years of memorization and days to complete.

Christopher Columbus and Zheng He are a microcosm of the difference between these two societies. In 1405, ninety years before Columbus set sail, China’s emperor commissioned Admiral Zheng He to explore far-off lands. With 300 ships and 25,000 sailors, he traveled to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and parts of Africa, along with Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Given time, he would almost certainly have sailed to Australia and eventually, the Americas. Yet just fifteen years later, Zheng’s ships were burned and the emperor forbade all further exploration with haijin, a total ban on foreign trade.

The same stifling of innovation that took place in China also occurred in Japan and the Ottoman Empire, with the same results.

Chinese admiral Zheng He explored many new regions before the Emperor banned all foreign trade.

Unlike Zheng He, Christopher Columbus was able to ask many different competing European rulers to fund his explorations. Eventually he received backing from Spain’s monarchs, opening up Europe to the wealth of the New World.

With this historical foundation in place, Naam examines our present situation. Our global explosion in wealth has brought with it a historic rise in consumption, triggering resource depletion, water scarcity, pollution, climate change, and a host of other challenges. The two most pressing challenges, according to Naam, are Peak Oil and climate change.

Peak oil” is the term for the moment when the world’s production of oil can no longer increase. All the easily-tapped oil has been extracted, and each additional barrel gets harder and more expensive to produce. When will we reach peak oil? Estimates vary; original predictions were for the year 1970, the International Energy Agency projects the year 2030, others say it happened in 2007, and still others say it will be long in the future. But regardless of the timeline, oil is a finite resource that cannot be replenished. When oil supply tightens, oil price rises.

Today, oil is intricately tied into the global economy — so much so, that ten of the eleven US recessions after WWII were preceded by a spike in oil prices (Source).

The green line shows crude oil prices while the grey bars show US recessions. Almost every recession was preceded by a spike in oil prices.

While Naam covers climate change in depth, I’ll cover it briefly to avoid repetitiveness. Climate change, driven by carbon dioxide and methane emissions, is a dire risk for our future. From droughts to wildfires to super-storms, a rapidly changing climate will put species at risk and worsen conditions, especially for the world’s poor.

The third section of The Infinite Resource is the most fascinating, powerful, and thought-provoking part of the book. Naam takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of the technologies that are changing our world. This is where I want to focus this essay.

Naam’s thesis is that while physical resources are limited, ideas are limitless. Once a barrel of oil has been burned, it can never be used again. Ideas, on the other hand, can be perpetually used, reused, shared, and altered. At the same time, ideas let us create more value from our finite resources. As he writes,

“Physical resources matter. But the change in our knowledge resources — our science, our technology, our continual generation of new useful ideas — has made far more impact over the course of history. Knowledge acts as a multiplier of physical resources, allowing us to extract more value (whether it be food, steel, living space, health, longevity, or something else) from the same physical resource (land, energy, materials, etc.)”

Agriculture and energy are the two lenses that Naam uses throughout the book to show the interplay between ideas and resources.

In the early 1970s, a series of seminal papers like The Population Bomb, Famine, 1975!, and The Limits to Growth predicted that our rising population and consumption would quickly and irreversibly plunge the world into famine. They had reason to be concerned: the global population in 1965 had soared to 3.3 billion people, versus just 1.6 billion in 1900. At the same time, much of the Earth’s arable land was already being used for farming. If population continued to grow exponentially, how could our food supply possibly keep up?

In fact, precisely the opposite effect happened. Since 1970 our global food supply has outpaced our population growth, growing by a factor of 2.5 while population grew by a factor of two.

One of the most important innovations during this time came from a researcher named Norman Borlaug. He developed a new strain of wheat that produced three times as much yield as conventional wheat, and could be harvested twice a year. Borlaug’s wheat multiplied harvests by a factor of six in the span of twenty years and prevented countless famines around the world, earning him a Nobel Peace Prize.

In fact, throughout human history we’ve gotten better and better at producing food. When humans were hunter-gatherers, it took a staggering 3,000 acres of land to feed one person. Through developing and then improving agriculture over thousands of years, it now takes just 1/3 of an acre to feed each person, a 10,000x improvement in efficiency.

Unlike hunting, which depletes existing resources, farming becomes more efficient the more we do it. It doesn’t take four times the effort and resources to produce four times as much food. The same is true for fishing: while catching fish depletes natural stocks, farmed fish are sustainable and the process gets better over time.

Agriculture today is radically more efficient than in the past. Today’s American farmers use just half as much water, fertilizer, and energy to grow our food as they did in 1948.

Like those 1970s doomsayers, our predictions about the future are often wrong because they assume that limited physical resources (land area, raw materials, time) are the most important factor. In reality, ideas are our limiting factor — our ability to innovate and solve the problems in front of us.

Today, many people are worried about genetically modified (GM) foods. However, these foods haven’t been linked to health issues in decades of reputable studies, and the benefits far outweigh the costs. GM crops allow farmers to be much more efficient and reduce usage of pesticides and fertilizers while increasing yields to feed the world.

The founder of Greenpeace himself wrote about GM foods that “you can’t base your decisions today on some unknown risk that’s never been seen. You have to weigh those unknowns against real issues, against the lives of millions.”

As Naam writes,

Genetically modified foods could achieve many of the goals of organic agriculture. They could reduce the amount of energy we need to use, the emission of greenhouse gasses, the amount of water drained from rivers and aquifers, and the runoffs that enter the water. And they could do this while raising yields, feeding more people, and sparing the world’s forests.

To wrap it up, there’s much room in the world for hope today. We’re making meaningful progress towards important goals in food, energy, wealth, and waste. We can and should make choices and invest in innovation that moves us towards a prosperous, clean, and more egalitarian future.

Check out The Infinite Resource on Amazon.

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