The main idea of this book is to present a bit of reality to people brainwashed by constant flow of negativism about economy, human industrial activities and their consequences. This reality is that over the last hundred years with technology development humans produce a lot more goods and services with a lot less of raw materials and external pollution of environment. It is also demonstration of futility of CRIB ideas that come down to using less of goods and services to save the world. In addition to some reasonable ideas author moves supports panic of global warming and demands resource allocation by very big government and behavior changes from people to prevent it.
Here author previews the book, explicitly stating his argument: Unlike what people believe, in reality the world and especially USA constantly produce “more with less” raw materials. It was achieved via computerization, by “substituting bits for atoms”. Author believes that this caused by combination of 4 factors: tech progress, capitalism, public awareness, and responsive government. Author also proudly declares that everybody will find something not to like in this book: environmentalist – his claim that industries are not evil, socialists – his support for capitalism, capitalists – his support for big government and taxes. So author calls for open mind and claims position of neutral observer.
Chapter 1: All the Malthusian Millennia
Here author reviews Malthus and Hobbes ideas and even provides quite convincing prove that it did worked like that until recent time: graph with relation of population to salaries:
Here author moves to the bad staff of early modern age: slavery, children labor, colonialism, pollution, and destruction of wild animals such as buffaloes and whales.
Chapter 4: Earth Day and Its Debates
Here author discusses the Earth Day: April 22, 1970 when America celebrated the first Earth Day. Author considers it turning point of Environmental movement. He refers to previous disasters such as explosion on Union Oil rig in California, Cuyahoga rover fire and so on. He also writes about Paul Ehrlich and other doomsayers who predicted unrealistic scaring scenarios, which nevertheless captured imagination of population, especially miseducated youth. Then author moves to proposed remedies that he does not believe in:
- Consume Less
- Impose Limits
- Return to land
Somewhat interestingly author also present ideas of Julian Simon that there is no scaring emergency and the Ultimate Resource are humans, who will eventually find solution to any development problems. Author also discusses bet between Ehrlich and Simon on future availability of raw materials that Simon won hands down. Obviously it did not stop promoters of gloom from continuing promoting gloom and make money in process.
Chapter 5: The Dematerialization Surprise
Here author reviews books and essays that documented dematerialization of American economy, meaning decrease of use of raw materials to produce consumable goods and services. Here are a couple of graphs demonstrating this trend:
Chapter 6: CRIB Notes
In this chapter author revisits of CRIB implementation: Consume less – Recycle – Impose limits – Back to land ideas, reviews how they worked over the last decades, and concludes that they had at best marginal influence on the process of dematerialization. Then he suggests that the causes are presented in the next 3 chapters.
Chapter 7: What Causes Dematerialization? Markets and Marvels
Here author states his believe that four main forces are responsible for dematerialization, and that it’s helpful to think of them as two pairs, with the first reviewed in this chapter being Capitalism and technological progress. Then he proceeds to review a few examples:
- Increase in agriculture that dramatically decreased use of land, fertilizers, and pesticides
- IPhone that substituted a half dozen of different devices from telephone to photo camera, to TV.
- Decrease of use of coal, pushed out by gas
- Computerization of transportation that dramatically decreased need for rolling stock
The key feature here is that people need benefits of final products and services, while raw materials are costs; therefore technology that reduces such costs is implemented enthusiastically.
Chapter 8: Adam Smith Said That: A Few Words about Capitalism
Here author provides kind of critic of critic of capitalism, albeit it is half hearted. He starts it with what he considers valid criticism:
- Capitalism is selfish
- Capitalism is immoral
- Capitalism is unequal
The he presents his critic of what he believes invalid criticism of Capitalism:
- Capitalism is cronyism
- Capitalism is anarchy
- Capitalism is oppression
Author then moves to discussing socialism. He mentions Hayek’s theoretical prove that socialism could not possibly work and then proceeds to discuss real live catastrophic consequences of implementation of socialism, concentrating on relatively benign case of Venezuela. Author even completes this chapter stating that the problem with Capitalism is that there isn’t enough of it.
Chapter 9: What Else Is Needed? People and Policies
Here author goes to critic of capitalism: externalities, such as pollution and stresses his opinion that capitalism needs supervision in form of “responsive government”. He combines it all in image of “Four horsemen of the Optimist: call technological progress, capitalism, responsive government, and public awareness.”
Chapter 10: The Global Gallop of the Four Horsemen
This chapter is quite optimistic presentation of recent developments: outreach of technology to even poorest people, demise of global Socialist system and switch of its key countries USSR and China to market, Global movement for good government, and so on.
Chapter 11: Getting So Much Better
This is discussion of the world’s getting better thanks to some extent to feeling worse. He complains about humans leading other species to extinction, compulsory global warming, and so on, but then presents a bunch of graphs demonstrating that everything is actually getting better like this one:
Chapter 12: Powers of Concentration
Here author moves to discuss urbanization and globalization that connects world into one with mix of positive and negative consequences. He provide 3 scenarios of change:
- There’s strong economic growth. The rich get much richer, but middle class and poor households also do better. Because wealth and income gains are fastest at the top—because the rich get richer faster than the rest do—inequality increases, but all segments of society see growing incomes and wealth. Tech progress exists but is not highly disruptive; people continue to do the same kinds of jobs for the same kinds of companies in the same communities year after year. Important institutions such as the educational system and the courts remain stable and inclusive.
- The elites capture the economy and the political system and turn inclusive institutions into extractive ones. They change the laws, pack the courts, demand bribes, assume control of the largest companies (publicly or behind the scenes), hire security services for themselves and let law and order decay for everyone else, and so on. The economy slows down because it’s so badly managed, and all tech progress has to be imported. The elite get fantastically rich while everyone else suffers and becomes poorer. Wealth and income inequality skyrocket.
- Economic growth is healthy and institutions remain inclusive, but tech progress is extraordinarily powerful—so much so that it disrupts industry after industry. This progress fuels many types of concentration; it allows more crops to be grown on less land, more consumption from fewer natural resources, more output from fewer factories, and more sales and profits from a smaller number of companies. The people at the top of these superstar companies see huge wealth and income gains. Gains for those in the middle, however, slow down considerably. And some segments of the labor force face particularly tough challenges; the factories and farms that used to employ them close, and new ones don’t open. Job opportunities concentrate in cities and in service industries. Wealth and income inequality rise a great deal.
Chapter 13 Stressed Be the Tie That Binds: Disconnection
Here author moves to discuss disconnect that developed between Americans of different persuasions. He starts with James Mattis stating that it is his biggest worry, by far bigger than Iran or North Korea. It follows by discussion of decrease in social capital due to multiple challenges such as deindustrialization and loss of good jobs, opioids, inequality, and widely existing knowledge of staff that is not so. All this creates disconnect between members of society and consequently undermines its stability.
Chapter 14: Looking Ahead: The World Cleanses Itself This Way
After giving way to challenges in previous chapters, author states here his overall optimist based on believe that:
Chapter 15: Interventions: How to Be Good
This is author recommendation to what should be done to reconnect country back. So he goes through main points starting with “statecraft” required to save the world from global warming with taxes. Then he takes on corporations that should drop whatever they are doing and direct resources to saving planet. Finally he does the same for non-profits and citizenry, at the end issuing the list of strong recommendations:
- Reducing pollution. Pollution is not a necessary cost of doing business; it’s a negative externality that causes great harm to people and the environment. However, efforts are now underway in America and other countries to roll back restrictions on pollution to reduce businesses’ costs. The better health is much more important than higher profits.
- Reducing greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases deserve to be called out separately from other forms of pollution because of the long-term harm they can cause across the planet, and because they’re not yet being controlled with regulations, taxes, and the many other tools used for dealing with externalities.
- Promoting nuclear energy. We currently have only one power source that doesn’t emit greenhouse gases and is scalable, safe, reliable, and widely available. We should be working to drive down the cost of nuclear power, and to overcome barriers to adopting it.
- Preserving species and habitats. Even though capitalism is now shrinking its geographic footprint in many countries, it still has a great thirst for attractive pieces of real estate, and for many animals. Conserving land, limiting hunting, and banning trade in products made from threatened species are highly effective interventions.
- Promoting genetically modified organisms. GMOs have been extensively studied and found to be safe. They also have the potential to greatly improve crop yields, reduce pesticide use, and improve nutrition. Yet they are strenuously resisted in many parts of the world. This needs to change.
- Funding basic research. Private businesses spend money on research and development, but they tend not to invest much in areas and ideas that won’t become products anytime soon. This means that governments have an important role to play in supporting more fundamental scientific and technical research as well as research into social phenomena such as disconnection.
- Promoting markets, competition, and work. Capitalism is widely unpopular at present, and socialist ideas are making a comeback. Yet markets, competition, and innovation have brought us previously unimaginable prosperity. As we’ve seen, they’ve also finally enabled us to take less from the earth. So we should not turn away from them now. Instead, we need to focus on finding meaningful opportunities for people at risk of disconnecting from society.
Conclusion: Our Next Planet
In conclusion author laments what humans did to the planet by living and multiplying and expresses hope that his “4 horsemen of optimism” will save whatever has left of it.
MY TAKE ON IT:
From my point of view this book is filled with duality. On one hand author looks at the past with optimism and recognizes that doomsayers where absolutely wrong and technological growth and increase of knowledge led to vast expansion of production combined with decrease in use of raw materials and pollution. This part is convincing, filled with data, and very reasonable. On the other hand author jumps to the same panic mode about global warming that he just criticized about previous fear of resource exhaustion and environment annihilation. This part is not supported by any serious data, filled with the same unjustified fear, and the same demands for government to interfere and save the world. I think that there is no real difference between people who made good living by scaring everybody about population bomb, resource exhaustion, and pollution in process falsifying data and attacking everybody who did not agree, and people who currently doing the same under the flag of global warming. Actually they are either the same people that did it in 1960s and 70s, if they are older, or just the next generation of crooks who look to make good living and obtain power over others by scaring them out of their wits.