Lead provided ancient Romans with an ideal material for plumbing (hence the Latin word for lead, plumbum). Asbestos radically improved fire safety. They also destroyed neurons and lungs, respectively. Our ambitions for better lives inevitably generate consequences, intended and unintended. We should expect the same of our current era.
We’re heading toward an age of abundance, notes Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize and co-founder of Singularity University. Based on an insightful read of the trajectories of exponential technologies, we see evidence of increased abundance as it materializes in fields from energy and transportation to consumer goods and services. As Diamandis asserts in his book, “Abundance is a tale of good news.”
Perhaps too good. We are on paths to abundance, but this is far too narrow a view— even dangerous—to be a successful guide to the future. As I have argued in past articles, the notion of raw, exultant abundance overplays human wisdom and the extent of our control over the complex systems within which we exist. We must risk and experiment, but we should do so with balanced eyes.
Given the expanding, intensifying power of our technologies, I propose a nuanced construct more likely to help us navigate rapid, volatile, technology-enabled change: anthropic abundance.
More And Less: The Case For Anthropic Abundance
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines anthropic as, “relating to human beings or the period of their existence on earth.” Anthropic abundance recognizes our fallibilities and our existential embeddedness in countless overlapping complex systems. (For an insightful exploration of complex interrelated systems as they relate to human thriving, see Kate Raworth’s work.)
The plenty to which Abundance technophiles refer is avowedly human-driven: the application of science and technology to remake the world for our ends. As we enhance access to resources we desire, we meanwhile deplete or destroy those we don’t, or to which we are indifferent.
Later this century, energy will essentially be free. The Sun provides this gift. We just haven’t been very good at harnessing it, either directly or via fusion energy generation.
With widely available free, clean energy, many wonderful things ensue. Clean water and air, increased agricultural production, more widely available computing power. While the renewable energy transition will eventually bless humanity and our planet, new challenges will result. Energy storage will be essential for the proliferation of renewables. Present battery technologies require materials such as lithium and cobalt that pose environmental and security risks.
We’ll discover solutions for these issues. As history portends, we must expect new solutions to generate new challenges.
The Bad With The Good
The current public discourse about technology tends toward extremes: eventual techno-utopia or catastrophic collapse driven by greed and excess. Each perspective feels accurate, yet neither provides the truths we require to thrive long-term. A better view lies between. Anthropic abundance synthesizes both poles to a more effective paradigm.
Eliminating pests enhances agricultural production. Unfortunately, mounting scientific evidence suggests our pursuit of this clear good causes the widespread collapse of honeybee populations— organisms essential for agriculture.
Our solutions to eliminate poverty and extend human life have accompanied an accelerating collapse in species worldwide, known by some as the Sixth Great Extinction. According to an article published by the National Academy of Sciences, “The loss of biological diversity is one of the most severe human-caused global environmental problems.”
Humans often make bad decisions when faced with plenty: consider the rise of obesity and diabetes. More poignantly, technologies from genetic engineering to computational systems offer credible paths to radically extended life spans— even, according to some, immortality.
I recently attended a confab of technology leaders from the US and Europe at which we engaged these issues. A self-described “transhumanist”– and leading European voice for immortality– responded to every question of caution with a hand-waving response, “Humans have always adjusted. We’ll do so again.” Life and death challenges require courage and consideration– not blind faith.
Technology evangelists— many of whom ironically espouse atheism— risk converting their technology faith into a techno religion. Enlightenment thinkers exhibited a similar impulse. In a masterful exploration of Europe’s Eighteenth Century, French historian Paul Hazard admonished, “Even now science was becoming an idol, an object of worship. Science and happiness were coming to be looked upon as one and the same thing, as also, were moral and material progress.” Today, we court similar idolatry.
Toward Prosperity: Courage, Humility, Caution
We don’t seek abundance for its own sake, but rather for prosperity: a widespread, enduring state of well-being and opportunity, a legacy of which we can be proud. Prosperity presents far more complex challenges than can be solved by resource abundance alone: economic, environmental, emotional, social, spiritual.
As science and technology enable ever more instrumental power, we should heed abundance advocates’ calls to bold action, though with wisdom and prudence. In The Question Concerning Technology, Martin Heidegger cautioned, “The will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control.” As our powers advance, both human will and risk intensify.
We live in systems embedded in systems grounded in natural laws which our science can only ever approximate. We must accept we are likely never to master our own condition, all the manifold aspects of this universe— much less what might adhere beyond.
Birth fates us to opaque complexity. As we exert our wills, they return to us— expected and unimagined, wonderful and terrifying. What might be the lead pipes of our future?
Anthropic abundance recognizes the unprecedented opportunity at hand, with an existential caution. We require courageous action to create the futures we desire. We also require humility. Not all is— or ever will be— within our command.
As Socrates quipped, “Life contains but two tragedies. One is not to get your heart’s desire; the other is to get it.”
Thanks to Bryan Campen and Janet Ginsburg for their thoughtful advice regarding this article.