The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet: Ramez Naam
Adapted from The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, a new book by Seattle-based Ramez Naam who is a technologist and a writer. In the book, he writes of innovations that can help us deliver the much needed basics of food, water, and energy to billions. Here is an excerpt from his book:
At the Central Drug Research Institute, a new drug shows promise for treating diabetes. In the US, diabetes is at near epidemic levels. In 2010 it affected 26 million Americans, was the number 7 cause of death for Americans, and did an estimated $200 billion in economic damage.
But the Central Drug Research Institute isn’t in the US. It’s in Lucknow, India. And the scientists conducting the research are Indian as well. A generation ago, that would have seemed inconceivable. But now, tens of millions of Americans may benefit from rising wealth and education in what was recently one of the poorest places on earth.
We tend to think of global development and poverty reduction in moral terms. It is, undoubtedly, a moral good that billions of men, women, and children around the world are rising out of poverty, getting more education, leading richer lives.
Or we think of global development – when it’s sufficiently advanced – in competitive terms. The great rise in wealth of China has many Americans concerned about economic competition that could take their jobs or harm their standard of living, or about geopolitical or even military competition that could lead to worse.
There’s a third perspective, which often goes overlooked: Rising wealth and education across the developing world is good for us. It’s going to lead to a more rapid pace of global innovation, producing scientific breakthroughs and technological advances that will directly improve the lives of those in the rich world today.
Innovation knows no national boundaries.
The most important advances of the last two centuries have leapt across borders and oceans. The printing press was developed in Germany, by Gutenberg, but drew on advances in ink and paper and printing that were all developed in China. Penicillin was discovered by the Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming. The first functioning technique for sterilizing food was produced by a French man, Louis Pasteur. The first practical electric light was produced by an American, Thomas Edison. The first solar photovoltaic cells were created by a trio of Americans working at Bell Labs. Fiber optics were developed by a Chinese scientist, Charles Kao, during his time in England.
The world is anything but zero-sum. New ideas expand the global economic pie. And they do that regardless of where they’re developed.
That’s why, from a purely selfish standpoint, we should welcome and encourage development and education around the world. The human mind is the most valuable resource we have ever encountered in nature. But it must be adequately nourished, both physically and with ideas. If we can encourage the nourishment of billions of minds that currently have too few opportunities to impact the world, we’ll see the global pace of innovation accelerate. And every one of us will benefit from that.