Book Summary: “The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet” by Ramez Naam

Title: The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet
Author: Ramez Naam
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

Naam examines the trade-off between material progress and protecting the environment.

Key Take-aways

  • It is possible to accelerate material progress while reducing our negative impacts on the planet.
  • Progress comes from ideas, which are not zero-sum, so they do not hurt the planet.
  • We are currently in a race between the accelerating rate of innovation and the depletion of natural resources.
  • Previous predictions of ecological doom have been dramatically wrong because they did not take into account innovation.
  • Scarcity of a natural resources gives incentive to innovate substitutes.

Important Quotes from Book

This is a story about these two conflicting realities of our present day. The core argument of this book is that the force that’s propelled us to our present well-being is also the most powerful resource we have to tackle our future  challenges: innovation. If we tap into and direct that force correctly, we have  the very real potential to lift global wealth and well-being while reducing our  impact on the planet and even reversing the damage we’ve done. If we fail to  tap into that force, we flirt with the very real prospect of disaster.

Exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence. I’m claiming in this book that it’s possible for humanity to live in higher numbers than today, in far  greater wealth, comfort, and prosperity, with far less destructive impact on the  planet than we have today. I’m claiming that raw energy, materials, and the  other resources we need to survive are plentiful on Earth and limited primarily  by our understanding of how to collect, harness, and efficiently use them. I’m  claiming that in the midst of this abundance of matter and energy the most  valuable resource we have and that we have ever had is the sum of our human  knowledge—our comprehension of how the universe around us functions and  how to manipulate it to our ends. I’m claiming that if we act quickly enough  and decisively enough, we can have our cake and eat it too—a healthy thriving  planet, and a human civilization of ever-growing wealth. 

To back those claims up, I’ll show how new ideas have overcome physical resource limitations again and again in the past.

For most of history, innovation has kept pace with population. New technologies made it possible to support more people, but didn’t raise the wealth  of the average person. Royalty and a few rich aristocrats and merchants saw  their well-being rise, but for most of humanity, things were little better than  they had been for tens of thousands of years.

The Renaissance that swept through Europe from the fourteenth through  seventeenth centuries changed all that. The world went through the most  spectacular explosion of innovation it had ever seen. The inventions, discoveries,  and political and philosophical writings of that era gave birth to  the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the Enlightenment.  The use of electricity, the germ theory of disease, the discovery of the laws of  chemistry and physics, the development of the steam engine, and thousands  of other innovations that touch our lives every day all owe their existence  to discoveries and thinking from this period. The Renaissance began a long  and continuous surge of wealth unlike any seen before, and extending up  until this day. 

This, then, is the core of a Darwinian evolutionary view of innovation.  Ideas are copied from person to person and place to place. New variety is  generated when humans accidentally mutate ideas, when they intentionally  experiment with changes to those ideas, and when ideas meet ideas and give  birth to new generations through idea sex. And then, ultimately, natural  selection comes into play, weeding out ideas that are utterly forgettable,  and selecting for those ideas that lodge in the mind and that tend to spread from person to person.

The invention most symbolic of the Renaissance, Johannes Gutenberg’s moveable  type printing press, captured no additional energy, grew no additional  crops, and cured no diseases. But it did something more important—it accelerated  the spread of ideas. It intensified the web of connections between  minds. In so doing, it amped up the Darwinian process of idea evolution,  accelerated the process of innovation.

While the printing press accelerated the rate at which ideas could spread, meet, and recombine, Europeans also produced two cultural innovations— two new institutions—that would further fuel innovation.

The first of these was the beginning of market economics, which would  reward the producers of new ideas, thus encouraging more ideas to be created.  The other was the invention of the scientific method, which would  more rigorously test ideas to determine which were true and which were  not.

The other brilliant new cultural innovation was that of the scientific  method. Francis Bacon, in 1620, proposed the idea that any scientific theory  must be testable by experiments, that those experiments should be reproducible  by other scientists, and that experiments could disprove theories. Today  that idea is so basic to our understanding of science that it’s hard to imagine  a time before it. Yet Bacon’s notion was revolutionary at the time. It ushered  in an age of empirical science. It provided another effective selection method  for Darwinian evolution of ideas.

Our future depends on maintaining and  increasing our rates of innovation.  Among those historians who don’t chalk up the different rates of scientific  and technological knowledge development in China and Europe to simple  historical accident, there are two primary answers given. The first is that  the success of China’s large empires actually hindered the development of  new ideas… As opposed to medieval Europe, where local  manorial lords made many decisions, and where the highest authority was  divided over as many as forty kingdoms, China maintained a strong imperial  bureaucracy and strong imperial control over aspects of life throughout the  Middle Ages and the European Renaissance and Industrial Revolution.  Europe’s fragmented nature meant that the continent was a hotbed of competition.  Nations and city-states competed incessantly for dominance… That competition further sharpened the process of Darwinian natural selection among ideas.

Second, the emperor and the bureaucracy around him were able to heavily influence public thought and stifle dissent in a way that no single European monarch could.

Ancient China was, in other words, a tremendously top-down culture and empire created.

The explosion of new ideas in Europe, and later in North America, led to the  incredible prosperity of our current age. For centuries, Europe and North  America raced ahead of the rest of the world in innovation, and thus in wealth,  health, and well-being. That created much of the rift between the countries we  now think of as “developed” and those we think of as “developing.” The opening  of China, Japan, and much of the rest of the world in the nineteenth century  started the process of erasing those differences and allowing the developing  world to catch up with the rich nations.

Historians have debated for some time the question of “who’s the wealthiest man to ever live?”… The strongest case may be for the Roman Marcus Licinius Crassus.

In terms of the conveniences of life, in terms of the comfort of our homes, the ease with which we travel from place to place, communicate with others  near or far, find and enjoy music or books or films or any other entertainment,  in terms of our health, the age we can expect to live to, and the medicine we  have available to help us when we’re injured or become ill—in all these ways  we are tremendously more wealthy than Marcus Licinius Crassus, who may  well have been the richest man ever to live.

We live lives more comfortable, more convenient, and more secure in the likelihood of health than Genghis Khan, than the Medici popes and queens, than Mir Osman Ali Khan.

There are two huge future opportunities in front of us.

The first is to switch from the small pools of diminishing resources we’ve based the last century of growth on to dramatically larger, longer-lasting, and more evenly distributed resources.

The other key opportunity for us is to build that skill. Throughout history, the main driver of human affluence has been the creation of new ideas, new inventions, new scientific discoveries, new technologies, and new ways of organizing ourselves to make use of the abundance around us.

All of that is human knowledge.

Knowledge—the output of human innovation—is unique among all other resources. It’s not a physical resource. It’s an information resource.

Ideas aren’t zero-sum. That means the world isn’t  zero-sum. One person or nation’s gain doesn’t have to be another’s loss. By  creating new ideas, we can enrich all of us on the planet, while impoverishing  none. Knowledge plays by different rules than physical resources, rules that  make it inherently abundant.

And so it is that our stockpile of knowledge is the one natural resource that has grown over time rather than depleting.

We can grow wealth while reducing our negative impacts on the planet.

We find ourselves in a race. On one side is the depletion of resources that  we need. On the other side is our rate of innovation. If depletion wins, we  all suffer. If innovation wins, we can both solve the problems depletion has  brought and grow the size of the global pie, increasing the wealth of everyone  on the planet. Which will win? Largely that depends on the actions we take  and the policies we employ. The future hasn’t been written yet.

Ultimately the thesis of this book is that 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. 

Only information works this way. Everything else in nature is diluted or  depleted by increased use. A piece of food does not become more valuable if  shared by a hundred people—it just gets divided among them. A bow itself  can only be used by one hunter at a time, and eventually it will break. But  the design for a bow can be used again and again. It’s software, not hardware.

Knowledge, information, is fundamentally different from physical resources.

The more people who make use of a piece of knowledge, the more  total impact it has on the world. It not only adds more value to everything it  touches, it does so a potentially infinite number of times.  The key turning point in human evolution was our ability to tap into this non-rival, non-zero-sum resource.

Agriculture is an amazing example of the power of ideas to multiply our resources. In the span of 10,000 years we’ve multiplied the amount of food energy we can extract from an acre of land by a factor of 10,000.

What’s the value of the raw materials in your phone? How does it compare to the overall value of the phone?..  the raw materials would be worth at most a few cents.* The value isn’t in the raw materials then.

The value is in the design, in the recipe, in the knowledge that transforms  incredibly tiny quantities of generally plentiful raw materials into a device  that can connect you instantly to others nearly anywhere on the planet, that  can access a sizable fraction of the world’s data, that can capture, store, and  replay images, sounds, and videos, and much more.

The knowledge embedded in your iPhone is a combination of multiple threads of knowledge going back at least two centuries and arguably farther.

In fact, no matter how much money you had, it would have been impossible to have the iPhone’s capabilities with you in your pocket twenty years ago.

This is one of the key ways in which knowledge differs from material  resources. Where material resources may be used up (or, more frequently,  disposed of or converted into less useful forms), knowledge simply accumulates.  And the more knowledge there is available in the world, the greater  the possibility there is for new and valuable combinations of that knowledge  that can be manifest in novel and useful forms.

Everywhere we look, when resources are scarce or prices high, innovators flock to the task of finding a substitute.

The combined global brain  of humanity, mediated by the institutions of science and the market, and by  our ever-increasing ability to communicate with one another, is more than  just Darwinian. It doesn’t just randomly combine ideas to get new ones and  select for those that are useful. It anticipates problems and directs resources  to solving them.

The learning curve is gradual reduction in the price of any manufactured  good that comes through making more of it. As more of something is created,  producers learn various ways of making it more cheaply. They find ways  to save steps in the manufacturing process. They find ways to use less raw  material or less energy. They reduce duplication of effort. Workers get more  skilled and more efficient at what they do.

In every area, over time, new ideas are tried. Many fail. A few succeed. Those successes accumulate, and become our ever-increasing body of knowledge of how to build things and do things faster, better, more efficiently, and more cheaply than ever before.

The law of supply states that, in general, the more demand there is for a product or service, the more of it businesses will produce. The learning curve states that the more of a product or service produced, the cheaper and easier to make it will become.

Demand drives prices down.

Energy sources and raw materials behave very differently. When we burn up oil or coal, they’re lost to us. But as far as raw materials go, very little is truly lost.

The metals, glass, plastic, minerals, and so on that we throw away don’t cease to exist. They’re just moved from one place to another.

The total amounts of all minerals in the Earth’s crust is astounding. At  current rates of extraction, it would take fourteen million years to deplete the  Earth’s crust of iron, two million to deplete it of phosphorous, one million  to deplete it of copper, four million to deplete it of tin, and billions of years  to deplete it of titanium. The limiting factors in mining are innovation and  energy, not raw materials.

The natural resources of our planet are incredibly abundant. As I’ve tried to  show, the amount of energy we could capture, food we could grow, water  we could access, and minerals we could use and reuse are all vast. All of  them are at least a hundred times greater than our current needs. And in  the case of energy—the resource that can increase access to so many other  resources—the amount available is thousands of times greater than what we  currently take advantage of.

Innovation is the ultimate source of our wealth. New ideas have multiplied  the resources we have access to; have reduced the amount of land, energy,  and raw materials we need to accomplish any task; have created substitutes  for every resource we’ve been in danger of exhausting in the last 500 years;  have grown our ability to recycle waste into things of value; and have, in  recent years, begun to decouple our economic growth from our levels of  consumption and environmental damage. 

Even as our store of new ideas is expanding, our population is leveling off—  if not on its way to a long-term decline—and consumption in the rich countries  appears to have leveled off as well. Not only are the material resources of  the planet vast, but on current trajectory it looks like our consumption will  reach a plateau far below what the planet is capable of offering, even as our  rates of poverty shrink, our health improves, and our wealth grows.

The market is the most effective system of encouraging innovation and hard  work that we’ve ever seen. It’s a brilliant tool for aligning personal self-interest  with the interests of others. But it has that fatal flaw in how it deals with the  commons, how it deals with damage and costs that are externalized to others.  Fixing that flaw would complete the market-economics revolution that has  swept the planet. It would make preserving and improving the environment  a self-interest of businesses and individuals everywhere. It would make the  market a tool for protecting and improving our shared environment, rather  than one that tends to damage them.

I’ve outlined four things in this book that we, as a society, need to do in order to thrive through the twenty-first century:

1. Fix our markets to properly account for the value of the commons.

2. Invest in R&D to fund long-range innovation.

3. Embrace the technologies that stand poised to improve our lives while bettering our planet, even when they seem alien.

4. Empower each of the billions of minds on this planet, to turn them into assets that can produce new ideas that benefit all of us.

We’re now on the verge of a world with nine billion literate people, nearly  1,000 times more brainpower than those ten million who spurred the Renaissance,  wired to one another through much faster, more powerful communication  tools, with better scientific instruments and methods, and, we may  hope, a market that is even more effective in valuing the things that matter  on this planet… Between now and 2100, worldwide, the number of  men and women who can effectively contribute new innovations will triple, at the very least, and the interconnectivity between each of them, their peers,  and the world’s stockpiles of knowledge will grow by far more. This is the  largest surge in total brainpower humanity has ever seen. The human mind is the ultimate source of all wealth.

Related Books

If you would like to learn more about material progress, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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