The Infinite Resource by Ramez Naam

1681460-inline-infinite-resource-cover-1I won this book on Goodreads first-reads.

The premise of this book is that every single problem we face, from climate change to world hunger to disease to resource scarcity to overpopulation, can be solved through human ingenuity and innovation. He makes a fairly good case that the free market repeatedly rewards innovators that solve or greatly diminish serious Earth-spanning problems. World hunger has been drastically reduced in the past 30-40 years despite farm area and energy consumption barely rising at all, and in many cases decreasing. Technology has vastly increased the yield per acre of land and Naam identifies the root of this as profit motive rather than any moral goodness in the people designing said technology.

The market has holes of course — specifically pollution and destroying the commons. If there is not incentive to not pollute, then people will pollute if it improves the bottom line even while killing the planet / their future. Intelligent government programs and mandates can create incentive to stop pollution without any doomsday economic scenarios that many conservative groups declare when they are proposed. Naam repeatedly returns to the example of the ozone layer — the ozone hole is repairing itself now and CFC usage have basically been reduced to zero in the past 20-30 years. This was largely because of legislation signed by Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr. Another one of Naam’s points is that environmentalism and our response to climate change need not be a political (left) concern and he hammers this home by pointing out that one of the greatest planet-wide threats we’ve ever faced (ozone depletion) was solved in a timely and effective fashion by republican presidents. Partisan polarization is such a negative force that An Inconvenient Truth may have done more harm than good, simply because it was attached to Al Gore.

The ozone topic was startling to think about. I remember being in elementary and middle school and hearing how awful ozone depletion was — how it will take years and years to eliminate CFCs in our appliances/cooling systems and how we’d have to make great sacrifices in using inferior technologies. It would be decades until the ozone hole could begin repair. CFCs have actually been eliminated way before schedule, the ozone hole is repairing itself, and no one even noticed the change. Naam argues the same can be done for climate change, which is actually a lesser threat than ozone destruction, and on a much cheaper and faster scale than many experts predict. So long as we act soon, anyway.

Naam’s optimism is infectious, but he occasionally makes me dubious when he glosses over important topics. When he’s being a cheerleader for capitalism he does address some its sleazy elements. And he is not always convincing. He blames growing income disparity entirely on education. People with degrees do better and even post-economic repression, they are doing better than they did in the past. I think the implication is that higher paying jobs have become more specialized and require more education, though I can’t remember Naam going right out and saying that. His solution is privatized education — essentially using the competition of the open market to improve schools and force them to be better. Yet, is that honestly going to help people living in poorer areas of the country? It seems to me that it’s a no-brainer that the better privatized schools would end up in wealthier, middle class areas by default. And blaming income disparity entirely on education in the first place is much too simple and hard to believe.

He also suggests greatly increasing the incentives for high school students to go into science and technology fields and disincentivizing liberal arts fields. They’d end up with higher paying jobs and maybe be able to pay back their mountainous debt. This is sort of laughable, given the book begins by quoting A Tale of Two Cities and the implication that science/tech is more important is stupid. How about actually treating the root of the problem — horrendous debt accumulation and forcing 17 year olds to make gigantic life-altering and financial decisions —  instead of sticking disingenuous band-aids on top?

He also urges us to look beyond Monsanto and giant corporations when we look at the ultimate good of genetically modified organisms. I think he’s right. There is nothing wrong with genetically modifying seeds (and humans have been doing it for thousands of years anyway…) and it can help people in developing countries immensely . And yes, Monsanto’s patents are running out. But you can’t hand-wave the enormous amount of negative factors thrown into the mix by giant malevolent corporations. Putting Vitamin A in rice? Great! Putting this in the hands of corporate entities and patenting life? Ehhh, need to actually discuss the downsides of the market here too.

All in all it was a pretty good book and I am glad I read it. It’s definitely a mode of thought I have not been introduced to in such detail and it also reminds me I need to read more non-fiction books written in the current year. I am 28 — possibly around a third of my lifetime — and thinking how drastically different the world was in 1985 is sort of shocking. Were there even cellphones yet? How did a supercomputer compare to a modern iPhone? No internet, of course. Like Naam, I’m optimistic and also sort of anxious for what the future holds.

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