I’ve been called “The World’s Most Pessimistic Man” and “Mr. Worst-Case Scenario.” But I’m actually an optimist when looking at the long-term future.
Yes, we need to face our most immediate difficulties. Our near-term challenges ahead include debt growing at an exponential rate, a growing trend toward authoritarianism combined with mass government surveillance, and most recently, a viral pandemic. Not to mention accelerating climate change.
There are no easy answers to conquering these trends. But solutions do exist. There’s already a widespread movement to write off trillions of dollars of debt, albeit at the expense of creditors. And as the global population becomes more affluent – a trend that accelerated in the 2010s – billions of people will demand political freedom along with their increased economic prosperity. They’ll also demand greater protections against mass surveillance.
We may also have even figured out how to stop the spread of COVID-19 and other disease-causing microbes. And climate change? Well, there are definitely benefits to it you might not have considered.
Let’s begin by acknowledging a key fact: for the first time in human history, “scarcity” is becoming a much less important economic concept. In the digital world, scarcity doesn’t exist. Technology has driven the cost of microchips, storage, bandwidth – and information delivered digitally – to near-zero.
This fact wasn’t easy for me to accept or adapt to. In the 1990s, when the World Wide Web was catching on across the globe, I was horrified to see so many free resources offered. It took me more than a decade to realize that my business could prosper by creating a loyal customer base that would voluntarily engage with us if we were always available, promptly deal with any problems that came up, respond quickly to their concerns, and never betray them.
Increasingly, we’re seeing a transition from scarcity to abundance in the physical world. A casebook example of this trend is 3-D printing. You can now buy a 3-D printed home for less than $5,000 and have it erected in less than a day. An apartment complex can be constructed in a weekend – a skyscraper in less than three weeks.
Buildings are only the tip of the iceberg. You can now 3-D print objects made out of glass, rubber, plastic, or a combination of all three. The technology is even being adapted to create human organs for transplantation. And 3-D printing only uses 10% of the raw materials traditional manufacturing consumes.
In the developing world, hundreds of millions of people still struggle to find enough food to eat and clean water to drink. But traditional agriculture is being upended by technologies that will create all the food we need to sustain ourselves in a factory. The process uses much less energy and water and is more space-efficient than current food production. It will not only greatly reduce the cost of food, but also be far more environmentally sustainable.
Meanwhile, a variety of approaches are converging to conserve, recycle, and extract water from the air using solar power. It’s even possible to convert human feces into drinkable water, while simultaneously using the waste to produce electricity and fertilizer.
These trends have already created a much more prosperous world. In 1820, 94% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today, it’s 7.7%. And by 2018, more than half the world’s population were able to afford a middle-class lifestyle.
Malnutrition is another global problem we’re quickly putting behind us. Seventy-five years ago, a United Nations study concluded that half the world’s population faced chronic hunger. That figure has now fallen to 11%. Infant mortality and deaths attributed to childbirth have fallen by 50% since 1990. In 1950, more than one-quarter of all children still by age 15. That number has dropped to about 4%.
There’s even a silver lining to one of our planet’s most intractable problems – climate change. And while droughts are becoming longer and more extreme worldwide, and tropical storms are becoming more damaging, there’s a flip side to climate change. NASA satellite data shows that over the last 35 years, there’s been a dramatic increase in global plant growth. It’s the equivalent of adding a green continent two-thirds the size of the United States. That’s understandable since plants need carbon dioxide (CO2) – a greenhouse gas blamed for global warming – in order to survive. And atmospheric concentrations of CO2, of course, have rapidly increased in the last two centuries.
Even if greenhouse gas concentrations continue to grow, we’ll have a far greener world to live in. And we’ll be living in that world a lot longer than you might think. Biotechnology promises to significantly boost lifespans in the years ahead. One compound – rapamycin – extends health spans in animals by about 15%. That would be about a 10-year increase in human lifespans. And rapamycin is just one chemical – there are many more compounds being researched that could significantly extend human lives.
Nor is this a new development. Since the early 20th century, life expectancy in the US has risen by an average of about three months each year. In 1900, life expectancy at birth in America was 47 years. In 2017, it was 78.7.
And as we live longer, it won’t necessarily be in failing health. For instance, rapamycin appears to delay or prevent entirely the onset of conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. There are also favorable indications in the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease, among other conditions.
But won’t ever more virulent airborne viruses like COVID-19 overwhelm our biological defenses and kill billions of us? Not necessarily. There’s a technology using ultraviolet (UV) light called far-UVC that’s been developed. Unlike many UV wavelengths, far-UVC light won’t penetrate human skin or eyes but can still kill bacteria and viruses – both on surfaces and in the air.
A device that looks like an airport metal detector is now available that kills any virus or bacteria on your body or clothing as you walk through. Imagine entering a public place – an airport, for instance – and walking through a portal bathed in far-UVC light. Similar devices could be placed in any location where people congregate.
Now, if you’re a card-carrying pessimist, you might be thinking, “So what? The world is ending, and nothing you say or write can convince me otherwise.”
If that’s the case, you might be doomed to die a pessimist. But the rest of the world will continue to progress, constrained only by the limits of human ingenuity.