I just wanted to share one of my latest :)

The age of superabundance

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The competitive forces of the agora have transformed the whole of humanity into one giant problem-solving machine, a global supercomputer of unlimited potential. Paradoxically, the growing population and wealth of this new world is on a path to consuming fewer and fewer of the Earth’s finite resources. Progress, it seems, is beginning to evaporate the material world itself.

 

Malthusian Fallacies

I have talked a bit about Malthusianism in the context of food production. But the basic idea, that we humans could exhaust the Earth’s finite resources is pervasive. There is a long history of well-educated thinkers prophesying resource depletion, claiming that we will imminently run out of food, oil, helium, water…you name it. Malthusians always arrive at the same conclusion; the only way to save ourselves is to reduce our numbers or “degrow.” But as we have seen, the nature of progress is paradoxical. Malthusians forget that while matter and energy are finite in this universe, knowledge is not. Progress has thus far enabled us to overcome the constraints of the material world.

One of the biggest proponents of Malthusianism in the 20th Century was biologist Paul Ehrlich. He famously proclaimed that humanity would face mass famine in the 1970s as the global population outstripped the supply of food. He similarly forecast dire predictions of shortages of essential commodities. His thinking was, and remains, common among biologists who view humans as just another mammal that is beholden to laws of nature. In biology, it is understood that an environment has a maximum “carrying capacity” for a particular species, beyond which their population must fall to maintain the proper ecological balance.

Economists, on the other hand, were less concerned. They understood that pricing signals would drive the “problem solving machine” to innovate and resolve shortages of resources before they became acute. Humans are certainly mammals but our ability to transmit information through communication and cultural evolution, sets us apart from other members of the animal kingdom. We can create knowledge much more quickly than genetics alone would ever allow, the only “carrying capacity” is the ceiling that we set upon ourselves.

In a famous wager, business professor Julian Simon made a bet with Ehrlich in 1980. Because the price of a resource indicates its relative scarcity, if Ehrlich was correct, the price of resources should rapidly climb as the supply was depleted. Simon challenged Ehrlich to choose any commodities he liked alongside a measurement period. If the inflation-adjusted prices rose in that period, Elrich would win the wager. Ehrlich chose chromium, copper, nickel, tungsten, and tin and a date ten years in the future. In 1990, at the end of the measurement period, the price of all five key commodities had fallen in inflation-adjusted prices from 1980. The available supply had risen, not fallen, Ehrlich lost.

This wasn’t a one-off stroke of luck. Between 1980 and 2020, the relative abundance of some 50 commodities that we depend on, from food, energy, metals, and minerals grew. This is because of, not despite, the incredible population and economic growth that also occurred during that time. More people can generate more knowledge, more innovation, and better economies of scale that enable us to use the atoms we have more efficiently. In fact, in what Gale Pooley and Marian L Tupy call “superabundance,” every one percent growth in the human population saw a four percent increase in personal resource abundance of key commodities.

Of course, we are talking relative abundance, not total availability. Surely, a growing population that is also getting wealthier is, in aggregate, consuming more overall? As it turns out, maybe not. There is a mounting body of evidence that beyond a certain level of wealth, progress curtails total resource usage as well. For example, even as the United States’s population and economy grew in the first two decades of the 21st Century, Americans used less gold, copper, steel, aluminum, fertilizer, and paper…etc. The same story is repeating itself in other wealthy countries as well, our need for material goods is rapidly evaporating.

Knowledge and innovation make this possible. Even something seemingly as simple as a soda can has been dramatically improved with innovation. When aluminum cans were introduced in the late 1950s, they required about 85 grams of aluminum metal each. But 50 years later, the same sized can required just 13 grams of aluminum. A single lightweight fiber optic cable can carry many times more information than a heavier copper cable. The smartphone in your pocket has “dematerialized” the alarm clock, calculator, pager, record player, phone, camera, video recorder, calendar, books, radio, flashlight, sticky notes, and many other physical items that you otherwise might have needed.

 

Superabundant Knowledge

Even the very books that store and transmit knowledge are not immune from this magical evaporative power. Books offer an information-dense and efficient means of transmitting highly granular knowledge from one person to many. But the ability to read and the availability of books was once an extreme luxury reserved for an elite few. Few human accomplishments have had a more profound impact on progress than the falling cost of print media, the subsequent explosion of literacy, and the feedback loop this created for progress.

The invention of printing technology is often attributed to the Europeans, but the earliest printed materials known have been found in China, and date back as far back as the first millennium A.D. Moveable type technology, where printing panels were replaced with moveable and reusable individual letters/characters, was also first invented in China around 1000 A.D. The technology came to Europe centuries later, when Johannes Gutenberg, a political exile from Germany living in France, began experimenting with printing around 1440. He returned to Germany several years later, and by 1450, had a printing machine ready for commercial use: The Gutenberg press.

Prior to moveable type technology, the production of books was a labor-intensive process that made them an extreme luxury. Books were written out and copied by hand. Each letter of every word was painstakingly penned by a scribe. A single book of typical length took some 135 days of human labor to create. If we factor inflation, tying this labor to the median wage of an American blue-collar worker in 2020, this equates to a production cost of over $35,000 per book. Obviously, had the cost of producing print media remained unchanged, few would have had the opportunity to become literate and the diffusion of knowledge itself would have remained forever limited.

The printing press dramatically lowered the cost of reproducing books. In doing so, it simultaneously reduced the cost of storing and transmitting knowledge. This didn’t happen immediately, of course. It took time for movable type technology to diffuse into society and for competition between printers to drive prices down. Research shows that, in Europe, the price of books fell an average of 2.4 percent per year in the 100 years after the arrival of the Gutenberg Press. In addition, books were increasingly printed in local vernaculars instead of Latin, increasing their accessibility to laypeople.

The falling cost and greater availability of printed materials raised the utility of literacy. It didn’t take long for some governments to set up education systems for the purpose of expanding literacy, enabling and accelerating the passage of knowledge from one generation to the next. By the end of the 20th Century, illiteracy, once the norm, had been almost completely eradicated in the “developed” world and the “developing” world was not far behind.

 

A Positive Feedback Loop

Literacy gave subsequent generations an inherent advantage over their ancestors. They were able to absorb information from experts directly, bypassing the costly trial and error of those who came before them. The printing press was an invention that spurred the accelerated diffusion of knowledge, in turn, accelerating the invention of the modern world itself. Ultimately, this has led to the emergence of the internet and digital media, which has made books and other “print” materials still even more abundant. In the digital realm, the marginal cost of production and distribution has fallen to near zero. The single biggest cost has become royalties to the authors themselves. This is a dramatic change from just 500 years ago.

Indeed, the cost of reproducing and accessing digital books is so low that the typical smartphone with an internet connecting has access to what would have been tens of billions of dollars’ worth of knowledge. Thanks to progress, education is no longer reserved for the elite. Digital media is available to virtually all, enabling some of the most remote and poorest individuals to benefit from the vast expanse of human knowledge. With only a smartphone or a nearby library, everyone has access to billions of dollars of knowledge, a luxury that our ancestors could have only dreamed of.

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Interesting article! It made me all the more hopeful for the future. 

Thank you! That is the goal!