Abundance, Not Scarcity, Can Be the Immediate Future for Humanity

Assume for a moment that regardless of what really happened, or what should happen, Joe Biden occupies the White House on January 20th. What are some of the biggest issues and initiatives that we can expect from his administration? What are the underlying themes and premises that will inform his agenda?

When considering these questions, equally relevant is how much of Biden’s agenda will be Biden’s agenda? Say what you will about Biden’s many flaws, at least he is an amiable glad-hander whose career has been defined mostly by hewing to the political center. But Biden is way past his prime, and when he’s having another “lid” day, his energetic sidekick Kamala Harris—along with her entire Silicon Valley entourage—will be wide awake.

What this California Democrat brings to Washington, D.C. is a culture of almost unbelievable arrogance. Some of it is earned. For at least 40 years, and now more than ever, Silicon Valley has been the global epicenter of high-tech innovation and the principal repository of the trillions in wealth that its innovation has generated.

Wealth. Power. Arrogance. Hubris. This is a dangerous combination when wielded on such a scale, and especially if some of its fundamental premises are wrong. And the biggest, almost horrifyingly wrong premise that informs the culture of Silicon Valley is that we are in what Jerry Brown, in his first stint as governor back in 1976, called “the era of limits.”

It’s paradoxical that such a value might come out of the Silicon Valley, a place that has nurtured inventions that have transformed the world. But Kamala Harris, along with the big tech CEOs, Bay Area Democratic politicians, and almost every venture capitalist on Sand Hill Road, share a hectoring, monolithic worldview that boils down to this: humans are parasites on the earth, especially Americans, and their consumption of everything has to be dramatically reduced.

California is still paying the price for what Jerry Brown did back in the 1970s to enforce his “era of limits”—cancelling the completion of California’s water infrastructure and selling off the right-of-ways the state had acquired to construct additional freeway corridors. But the era of limits has morphed, thanks to climate change alarm and the opportunistic expansionist plans of high-tech firms, into what is becoming a green police state. To enforce limits, to reduce consumption, cities will no longer be allowed to expand out, only up. Water infrastructure will not be expanded, instead water rationing will be enforced using the internet of things. Similar measures will curb energy use and transportation options. This is Kamala Harris’s Brave New World. This is the so-called cleantech revolution

The consequences of getting this wrong are impossible to overstate. The example set by legislation and executive orders in the United States, and the investments made by American corporations inside and outside the United States, are going to greatly influence economic growth around the world. The policies the United States advocates in the UN, and through the many supra-national institutions where Biden and Harris will forcefully reengage, will also greatly influence economic growth around the world.

But the world doesn’t need more solar and wind farms. It needs big infrastructure. Nuclear power. Hydroelectric power. Aqueducts and pumping stations to enable massive interbasin transfers of fresh water. These projects will accelerate economic growth everywhere, and as has been proven without exception over the past few decades, as prosperity increases, population growth slows. The Kamala Harris vision, and the Silicon Valley agenda it represents, will not liberate billions of people from poverty, nor will it save the planet.

Questioning the Era of Limits

With the Silicon Valley’s cleantech revolution about to acquire new momentum in Washington, D.C., and with environmentalist values set to again command unprecedented influence on federal policy, it is more important than ever to have a vigorous national and global dialogue as to what constitutes clean technology, and what constitutes a legitimate continuum of environmentalist values.

How these questions are answered will have a profound impact on the nature and speed of economic growth all over the world, as well as the quality of our lives and the quantity of our individual rights and freedoms. 

There are two fundamental assumptions that govern environmental values today: (1) use of fossil fuel should be phased out as soon as possible, and (2) resource scarcity is an inevitable reality that will not be overcome for generations. To this end, massive reallocations of wealth are being enacted to subsidize alternatives to fossil fuel, and rationing of resource use is becoming policy in the areas of energy, water and land. But what if both of these assumptions are completely wrong?

There is a case to be made that resource abundance, not scarcity, can be the immediate destiny of the human race, and that scientific innovation combined with free markets are the keys to realizing this optimistic scenario. In every fundamental area, energy, water and land, there are promising trends—unfolding with breathtaking speed—that provide humanity with the opportunity to realize global wealth and prosperity within a generation.

Probably the most difficult notion to fathom intuitively is the notion that land will become abundant again. For several important reasons, however, that is precisely what is going to happen. The primary reason for this is that human population growth is finally leveling off. From today’s total of 7.7 billion people, projections now indicate human population will peak at slightly over 9.0 billion around 2050, an increase of only around 20 percent. While this seems like a lot, it is important to remember that in 1970, the world population was only 3.7 billion, meaning the last 40 years has registered a human population increase of 80 percent. We have already seen the dramatic growth in population, and are now in the leveling off phase.

The reason this slowdown and leveling of human population will result in more abundant land is because at the same time as human population growth slows down, human migration to cities continues to accelerate. In 1970 only 1.3 billion people lived in cities, 35 percent of the world’s population. Today 55 percent of the world’s population live in cities, 4.2 billion people. Over the past 40 years the world’s overall population has increased 80 percent, but urban population has increased by 160 percent. Urbanization is accelerating, and is depopulating rural areas faster than projected remaining overall population growth is filling them. Forty years from now, there will be more open land in the world than there is today. And these twin phenomena, urbanization and population stabilization, are completely voluntary, inexorable, and are occurring at rates that are, if anything, underestimated.

If land abundance on planet earth is going to be achieved by a stabilized population living mostly in megacities, how will we build these cities? How will we transform our cities, already swarming with far more people than they were originally designed to hold, into 21st century magnets for humanity, offering economic and cultural opportunities instead of merely a last destination for the destitute? Here is where Malthusian assumptions, combined with a misguided environmentalist ideology that condemns development, have conspired to stifle the building of next-generation infrastructure. The good news is these delays have also allowed us the time to develop better-than-ever technology.

From high-rise agriculture to high-speed rail, from advanced water recycling to ultra-efficient energy conduits and appliances, from cars that are clean, smart and safe, to new roads that convert pavement heat into utility-scale electricity and convey vehicles that drive themselves, hyperlanes for ultra fast cars, passenger drones, cities of the future can be built today—but not if the wealth we need to pour concrete and smelt steel is spent instead on environmentalist lawsuits, and not if the market incentives that animate billions of construction entrepreneurs are squelched because instead we spent most of the money to pay government bureaucrats. Creating abundance is human nature—but only individual liberty, property rights, and free markets will enable this nature to be realized. Governments enforce the rules, but only a free people can play the game.

Abundant water is just around the corner because of several interrelated technological opportunities. The most promising of all is the potential of smart irrigation. Primarily this means using drip irrigation instead of flood irrigation, but this also refers to no-till farming, new crops that consume less water, inter-cropping, and advanced irrigation management, where irrigation timing and volume are precisely coordinated with weather conditions. Smart irrigation techniques could reduce the volume of water required for global agriculture by 40-50 percent.

Other means to create water abundance span the gamut from traditional methods—contour berms to catch and percolate runoff, urban cisterns to harvest rainwater, or where necessary, massive new infrastructure projects to move large volumes of water from water-rich areas to water-poor areas. To save ecosystems and restore fisheries, why not build a canal connecting the massive Ob-Irtysh River to the Aral Basin? Diverting only a small fraction of the Ob-Irtysh’s annual flow would make a decisive contribution to completely restoring the Aral Sea. Why not divert a small percentage of the Ubangi River north to refill Lake Chad?

Finally, water reuse and desalination will guarantee water abundance in urban areas. High-rise agriculture, for example, can use gray water to irrigate hydroponic gardens at a commercial scale, and the transpiration these plants emit within these enclosed spaces can be harvested to yield pristine drinking water. Desalination is no longer a technology reserved for energy-rich nations—it now only takes 2.0 kilowatt-hours to desalinate a cubic meter of seawater. Desalination already provides over 1 percent of the freshwater used worldwide, over 30 billion tons per year, and this total is rising fast. But water reuse is the most promising source of urban water of all—technologies now exist to create essentially a closed loop in urban areas. Water is used for drinking, then treated and piped back to use for irrigation and to refill reservoirs, then after percolating and filtering back into aquifers, is pumped up, treated, and used again for drinking.

Water abundance will enable us to grow all the food we want, using new strains of crops and new agricultural techniques that are enabling another revolution in yields, guaranteeing abundant food. Water abundance will allow us finally to begin refilling our depleted aquifers, restore our vanished lakes, and to never have to wonder whether or not the next war might be fought to quench a nation’s thirst.

To create water abundance, build megacities, create 21st century civil infrastructure, and deploy advanced technologies, we will need wealth and prosperity. More than anything else, however, the enabler of wealth and prosperity is energy production. World energy consumption today is not evenly distributed. But energy consumption equals wealth. Even with extraordinary improvements in energy efficiency—say, twice what we enjoy today—for 9.0 billion people to average only half the per capita energy consumption as the average American consumes, global energy production would have to more than double.

To aggressively curb further development of fossil fuel, instead of promoting it as part of an all-of-the-above energy strategy, is to condemn humanity to misery. Let them strip the forests bare for fuel. Let their industry stagnate. Keep them poor. This is the true impact of demanding only development of renewable energy. Using fossil fuel until leapfrog technologies such as commercial fusion power is available is not just an economic choice. It’s a humanitarian choice, it’s an environmentalist choice, and it’s a moral choice.

The challenge to achieve resource abundance is not impossible; it is within our grasp. Despite heartbreaking examples of lingering poverty all over the planet, the fact is the overall condition of humanity is remarkably better now than it was 40 years ago, 400 years ago, 4,000 years ago. Disease and starvation remain endemic, but by all objective measures, and despite setbacks, they are on the retreat. This is the trend the future holds, if we seize the opportunity. But to achieve this bright future, we must forcefully reexamine these questions: What is clean technology, and what are legitimate environmentalist values?

To create prosperity, for example, given 85 percent of the world’s energy currently comes from fossil fuel, and given there is a staggering abundance of remaining fossil fuel reserves in the form of heavy oil, coal, and natural gas, do we really want to stop using fossil fuel? What if the imperatives of “clean” technology stopped at the point where harmful pollutants were reduced to parts per billion through advanced filtration and efficient burning, instead of having to make that gigantic leap beyond simply eliminating unhealthy emissions to requiring zero emissions of CO2? Given the certain and devastating price humanity will pay in the form of ongoing poverty and escalating tensions over resources—especially if we precipitously abandon developing new sources of fossil fuel—do we really want to stop emitting CO2?

What if solar cycles indeed are all that is causing climate change? What if climate change isn’t anything but normal fluctuations? What if rainforest destruction and aquifer depletion, dried up lakes and misused lands are the reasons for regional climate change? What if we can’t do anything at all about climate change anyway? If you believe the worst scenarios, it is too late—but what if the models are simply wrong? If they’re right, it’s too late, and if they’re wrong, it doesn’t matter. So why on earth would we consign humanity to much higher probabilities of poverty and war, instead of developing clean fossil fuel, at the same time as we systematically develop advanced, alternative sources of energy?

Abundance Is the Solution, Not Scarcity

There are vital environmentalist values that everyone should embrace, such as striving for sustainability, eliminating genuine pollution, and taking reasonable steps to protect species and ecosystems. But without the energy, without the mines, without the steel mills, without the paved roads and poured concrete and power plants and pumping stations and water treatment plants and countless other ecologically disruptive activities, humanity will struggle to realize our destiny of prosperity.

Kamala Harris and the people she’s bringing with her to the White House are going to exert tremendous influence over the doddering Biden. The Silicon Valley mentality they’re bringing with them has a monolithic opinion on issues that strike to the heart of how the United States and the rest of the world will develop over the next few decades. Their wealth and power is matched by their intolerance for dissenting points of view. But if they are allowed to stifle the aspirations of humanity, enforcing rationing, scarcity, micromanagement, technology-driven surveillance, and billions for the bureaucrats and litigators, instead of for the bulldozers and builders, their legacy will be one of destruction and decline.

About Edward Ring

Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness and co-founder in 2013 of the California Policy Center.

Photo: Kelvin Murray/Getty Images

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