You’re lucky to be reading this. According to a horde of pessimistic prognosticators, a whole lot of us ought to be dead by now. English economist Thomas Malthus predicted the threat of mass starvation without stringent population controls back in the 18th century; Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich said the same in the 1960s. Brilliant men, both of them. Yet they somehow got it wrong. Humans haven’t just survived; there are more of us than ever — roughly 7 billion. And most of us live far healthier, safer, more comfortable lives than any previous generation.
So what went wrong — or, rather, right? Why is the human race in much better shape than it was 200, 100, or 50 years ago? Robert Bryce reminds us of the answers in his sprightly new book and promises that even better times lie ahead.
A fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, Bryce delights in mocking the pessimists OF THE PAST AND THE PRESENT, WITH THEIR ANXIETIES OVER THE PROSPECTS OF ENVIRONMENTAL COLLAPSE AND RESOURCE DEPLETION, and deploys plenty of hard data to support his sunny view of the future. The reason for his confidence is summed up in his title. For the past two centuries, people have produced the necessities of life in far greater abundance and much higher quality because we’ve gotten so good at making things smaller, faster, lighter, denser, and cheaper.
The “denser” bit might seem obscure, but it’s a crucial ingredient in Bryce’s formula. The Industrial Revolution, and all the marvels that have followed from it, were made possible by “dense” energy sources that deliver a lot of power relative to their weight. For thousands of years, humans relied on energy generated by animals and slaves and just barely got by. But then we learned to burn coal, oil, and gas, and to capture the heat from shattered uranium atoms. These are dense fuels, packing huge amounts of energy per pound. By mastering them, humans became the planet’s first wealthy species, capable of producing more than enough for our needs.
This is a familiar concept to Bryce fans. He covered the same terrain in his bracing 2010 book, “Power Hungry.” But this time around, Bryce describes how the dense energy powering our factories and laboratories has enabled humans to upgrade pretty much everything we touch. Our farms produce massively more crops per acre, fending off those dreaded Malthusian famines. Efficient oil-fueled jet engines quickly and cheaply shuttle millions around the world each day. Ever-faster ever-smaller computers are now so small and light we tote them in our shirts and embed them in our washing machines and microwave ovens.
And the hits will just keep on coming. Bryce shows how digital currencies like Bitcoin could sharply cut the cost of global trade; cheaper, safer batteries may someday power cellular networks in developing countries; and handheld medical testing gear could soon provide life-saving diagnoses in seconds.
Bryce concedes that the same dense power that enables our smaller, faster, lighter, cheaper technology might be destabilizing the planet’s climate. He’s a nature-loving beekeeper whose Austin, Texas, home is coated in solar panels. But Bryce savages the notion that wind and solar power could ever produce enough electricity to sustain an industrial civilization. Instead, Bryce sets forth an “N2N” strategy, in which natural gas would become the fossil fuel of choice, to be eventually supplanted by smaller, safer nuclear power plants.
Those who keep current on technology trends, or who’ve read widely on modern industrial history, won’t find any surprises in this book. And fans of Bryce’s “Power Hungry” will get that “been there, read that” feeling at page 170. But for the casually curious reader hankering for a dose of optimism, Bryce’s new book is an enlightening stroll down the sunny side of the street.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.