Critique of the Cornucopian Abundance Movement

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Discussion

Gregor Macdonald:

"The 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.


Three Crucial Problems with the “More is More” Abundance Movement

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." (http://www.chrismartenson.com/blog/cornucopians-space-deliver-dangerously-misguided-message/75003)


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