Critiques of the ‘futurist’, ‘cornucopian’, abundance literature, by Dale Carrico and Gregor McDonald

“The Future” conjured up by Diamandis and Kotler is less than a mirage, for what it offers as substance is nothing but escapism from the real present, what it offers as solutions are nothing but distractions from problems, what it offers as a championing of the intelligence of exploited, excluded millions is nothing but an insult to their intelligence.”

First a review of a new book on the topic of coming abundance through technology, followed by an analysis which distinguishes two types of abundance movements, one that believes technology ‘creates’ resources and denies their finitude; and one that recognizes resource limitations.

1. Dale Carrico reviews the following book:

* Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think. Peter H. Diamandis. Free Press. 2012.

Dale Carrico:

“Very Serious Futurologist Patrick Tucker begins his discussion of the book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler by complaining that too “many of us have fallen to the urge to surrender, to turn away from the growing needs of a bulging global population, to deny the reality of humanity’s impact on the Earth and the climate, to nurse our collective anxiety with the false comfort of ignorance and isolationism.” He cites as a cause of this a number of impacts of global human population growth which suggests, all things being equal, “energy demand will rise by 60% between 2002 and 2030. The number of people on the brink of starvation is above one-sixth of the total number of people on the planet, or at least one billion people, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It will only get worse as current trends predict that two-thirds of the global population will live in a water-stressed environment by the year 2030, a phenomenon exacerbated by climate change.”

Tucker follows this sobering stock-taking and admonition of those who prefer escapism over actually grappling with the urgent problems at hand by doing what anybody who doesn’t actually follow futurism would regard as flabbergasting: he advocates precisely the escapism he admonished a moment before. Tucker enthuses: “Nine billion people in 2050, all needing food, shelter, clean air, intellectual and physical stimulation, isn’t the big problem we think it is, say Diamandis and Kotler. It’s actually nine billion problems but with nine billion potential solvers. Once you start counting the solutions, the ideas, the assets that we have and those that we are inventing — once you begin counting the new connections that we’re making daily, hourly, and globally — those nine billion problems look pretty paltry.”

Needless to say, even if it were true that the “connections” being made on Facebook and Twitter weren’t mostly one-liners by comedians and sales pitches and pretexts for marketing and surveillance and actually were substantial as absolutely they are not, even if it were true that guru-wannabes and think-tank ego-fluffers and celebrity CEOs weren’t mostly endlessly repackaging stale useless crap and flogging hyperbolic press releases to skim profits from the unwary in the face of crumbling infrastructure and diminishing returns and actually were stunning “idea leaders” as absolutely they are not, even if it were true that real solutions equal to our problems were being proposed and implemented through entrepreneurial innovation and functional accountable public-spirited well-governed civic apparatuses as absolutely they are not, even if all these things were true as absolutely they are not, even then the global problems of climate change, resource descent, exploitation, starvation, pandemics would be the farthest imaginable thing from “look[ing] pretty paltry.” It is hard to express just how appalling, how irresponsible, how cynical that statement is, especially coming as it does on the heels of something like a recognition of the scope and scale of some of the planetary problems that beset us.

When Diamandis and Kotler suavely and cynically propose that nine billion actually needy people living in a stressed finite planet aren’t a problem but “nine billion potential solvers” it is hard not to gasp at the outrageous glibness of their response. Everybody is born with a stomach that renders them vulnerable to starvation, but nobody is born with an education or access to law or influence to change their circumstances just because they are also born with a brain. Like millions and millions and millions of precarious, silenced, exploited, starving, unhealthy human beings on earth right now — every one of whom is “a potential problem solver” in the utterly vacuous and smug sense Diamandis and Kotler deploy to reassure the privileged readers of their books that the catastrophic environmental and socioecomic and demographic realities that beset us won’t actually impinge on their own privileged existences — so too few of the nine billion “potential problem solvers” on their way will have anything like the means to implement solutions to our problems even as they suffer the worst effects of the failure to solve them.

It should be emphasized that Diamandis is the Chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation — which in my view fosters the absurd Randroidal ideological fantasy that prize money and for-profit competition can beat public investment to solve intractable shared problems, so far with the result mostly of attracting huge amounts of attention pretending that brief-duration low-gravity amusement park quality plane rides in low earth orbit constitute a “space program” like NASA was and still is, with profitable space hotels and asteroid mining colonies on the way any minute now, of course, and also pretending that anybody was ever going to buy Elon Musk’s slick Green DeLorean boondoggle, all the while ignoring the indispensable role of government money still enabling everything the least bit substantial to come out of this whole narcissistic Silicon Valley CEO superstar circle-jerk through government contracts and public university educations anyway. Diamandis is also the founder of Singularity University, you know, where Very Serious digital utopians and other assorted futurological nuts fancy they are coding a history-ending Robot God who will solve all of our problems for us (if it doesn’t reduce the world instead to computronium goo, the equally idiotic disasterbatory place their fancy sometimes takes them to instead) through the application of an “artificial super-intelligence” that apart from not existing and never arriving despite interminable predictions by the experts pretty much every year on the year since the 1950s and seems even in principle to lack some fairly obvious and indispensable things that are always present in actually-existing exhibitions of intelligence, like biological brains functioning in living mortal bodies subject to limits imposed by the vantages in which they are situated and expressing themselves in the context of complex and dynamic societies engaged in historical stakeholder struggles.

Tucker enthuses that “[n]o one is in a better position to cast light on these new ideas and solutions than Diamandis,” who is, Tucker proclaims, “a sort of international solutions hunter. His adventures rocketing around the world (and bringing the world to him at the Singularity University campus in Silicon Valley) are detailed wonderfully in this book… Diamandis’s journeys have brought him into contact with an amazing network of idea folks, from Craig Venter to Ray Kurzweil… and other entrepreneurs across the globe.” You will forgive me if I propose that Diamandis’s hob-nobbing with Craig Ventor and Ray Kurzweil and other boutique techno-fixers and entrepreneurial skimmers and scammers and TED squawkers means that almost EVERYONE is in a better position than him to cast light on our actual problems and engage in efforts at education, agitation, and organization to address them. Not to put too fine a point on it, I think Diamandis is just one more self-important bamboozlement peddler smiling his big toothy smile and raking in the dough from failure to failure while the world grows more perilous, precarious, and polluted by the minute.

As I point out in my Futurological Brickbats: “XXIV. It is always magical thinking to declare an outcome need only be profitable for it to be possible.” “LVI. Futurologists keep confusing making bets with having thoughts.” Writes Tucker, “Diamandis and Kotler… got to the future just a few steps before the rest of us.” This is, of course, the deception and self-deception that drives the fraud of futurology through and through. Tucker titles his handwaving review, “An Awesome Adventure to the Future!” (The exclamation point is, I think, implied.) But as I never tire of pointing out (actually, I am tired of it), “The Future” is not a tourist destination. It is not a magical land. There is no there there, it isn’t an Emerald City certain lucky rich white people have seen before the rest of us have, that they can report back on, hold our hand and lead the way to while they endlessly pass the collection plate.

More Futurological Brickbats: “V. Futurity is a register of freedom, “The Future” another prison-house built to confine it. Futurity is the openness in the present arising out of the ineradicable diversity of calculating, contending, and collaborative stakeholders who struggle to make and remake the shared world, peer to peer. Futurity cannot be delineated but only lived, in serial presents attesting always unpredictably to struggle and to expression. “The Future,” to the contrary, brandishing the shackle of its definite article, is always described from a parochial present and is always a funhouse mirror reflecting a parochial present back to itself, amplifying its desires and fears, confirming its prejudices, reassuring its Believers that the Key to History is in their hands.” “XII. To speak of “The Future” is always to indulge in reaction. All futurisms are finally retro-futurisms.”

The Future” conjured up by Diamandis and Kotler is less than a mirage, for what it offers as substance is nothing but escapism from the real present, what it offers as solutions are nothing but distractions from problems, what it offers as a championing of the intelligence of exploited, excluded millions is nothing but an insult to their intelligence.”

2. Gregor Macdonald: Three Crucial Problems with the “More is More” Abundance Movement

“A flowering of new books heralding a new age of abundance have recently appeared, including one from Mr. Diamandis.

However, it is worth noting this cultural theme comes after a decade in which the production rate of many natural resources, from oil to gold to (more recently) copper, did not speed up but instead either slowed or stagnated in the face of quickly rising prices. Crude oil production has been trapped below a ceiling since 2005. Global production of gold actually fell every year of the past decade until the last two years, but it is once again stagnating. Copper production managed to rise the past decade. However, ore grades of copper have been declining for a century, and this is why copper has now repriced at much higher levels, closer to $4.00 per pound. Recent data shows also that the rate of growth of global copper production in the last decade slowed significantly and also stagnated in the past 24 months.

There’s an important distinction to make, therefore, between an abundance movement that simply posits that we’ll have more of everything, at cheaper prices, in the same style as the past, as opposed to an abundance movement that is tethered to reality and realizes that large changes in consumption, values, and lifestyle will be needed to create the next phase of “wealth.”

Authors such as Juliet Schor, who wrote Plentitude, are much more reflective of and respectful of limits, and therefore do not dream of the next phase of mineral mining in outer space. Rather, many “new wealth” thinkers have gravitated instead to a less is more pathway, in which a lot of our previous consumption and time-bankruptcy is finally recognized as waste.

Peter Thiel recently debated George Gilder at ISI (you can open the video at YouTube, here). Thiel made a familiar point, which is that the impact of technological progress has become more narrow. I have treated this issue in previous reports and pointed to some of the data on which this thesis relies, including the stagnation of Total Factor Productivity, for example.

But Thiel goes on to make a second point, which is that belief in rapid, even accelerating technological progress is surely going to cause tremendous mis-allocation of capital. And that’s the first crucial problem I see with the cornucopian abundance movement.

Like a financial system that refuses to accept that tightly coupled structures are risky and that risk itself grows with in tandem with complexity, the cornucopian abundance approach simply won’t take no for an answer. This means that instead of focusing on smaller solutions with more immediate effects, grandiose solutions with long timelines are pursued instead.

The second crucial problem is a failure to consider the limit outlined by Paul Gilding, which is that present growth rates of energy consumption, for example, imply an economy that just about everyone can agree is simply too large for the planet to handle. You simply cannot keep growing the size of the human-created heat engine up to the level of a star. This was articulated beautifully by physicist Tom Murphy in his recent and very widely read post, Exponential Economist Meets Finite Physicist. When problem solvers entirely avoid the subject of limits, it is both appealing and exciting, but eventually it becomes vaguely pathological.

Finally, there are a number of pressing issues already on the planet, which range from the risk created when food production is outsourced by water-starved populations to other continents, to large regions of the world such as Asia attempting to provide increased electrified transport for billions of people. Leap-frog adoption of mobile telecom and the rise of social networks will no doubt serve to get these emerging voices out to a world eager to learn and to help with solutions. But celebrating the success of solutions before they’ve actually arrived — indeed, well before they’ve arrived, is no solution at all.”

4 Comments Critiques of the ‘futurist’, ‘cornucopian’, abundance literature, by Dale Carrico and Gregor McDonald

  1. AvatarDavid de Ugarte

    Probably the most terrible fallacies of our times are:

    1. «abundance equals ever increasing consumption» (neoliberal falacy)
    2. «population will trend to increase until it shocks with resources scarcity» (malthusian falacy)
    3. «because of the world is finite, resources will finish in the short term» (catastrophist falacy)
    4. «growth means more productivity and in consequence more stress for the resources» (ecologist falacy)
    5. «a p2p production mode will confront the same enviromental problems as capitalism does» (centralist falacy)

  2. AvatarTy Burn

    Things that are physically impossible are also economically impossible. Not my words, but I find them a good reminder.

    I do think there is the possibility, though, to realize the 9B “solvers”. Knowledge is our one resource that we don’t consume effectively. It is also the only resource that does not deplete.

    Knowledge gets buried, mis-used, forgotten, lost, misunderstood, and mistaken. When we have a knowledge experience where the average person can have a flow-state experience connecting with the world’s body of knowledge, contribute to connecting and clarifying it, and use it in their own lives, then we will be somewhere.

    When knowledge refinement and application is so compelling an experience that it pulls people away from other online video games, then the homo-sapiens-sapiens-sapiens will be realized and we will have not only self-knowledge, but collective self-knowledge.

  3. AvatarRob Clement

    You only have to take the abundance paradigm a few steps beyond where Diamandis does to watch it crumble under it’s own weight. This is unfortunately something most people won’t do.

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