Taking a long view of history, identifying strong underlying trends, trying to understand where current events are taking us and how we might influence the course of change — such is the challenge for an organization like CRN, and for anyone else who hopes to have a meaningful impact over the long term.
One of the trends that must be assessed is globalization…
The notion that we live in a global economy is now a commonplace. Supply chains extend halfway around the planet, and no respectable corporation would dare show its face without at least pretending to have a well-defined global strategy. The funny thing about the global economy, though, is how much of the globe has been left out of it. Four billion people still earn less than four dollars a day, and as far as the global economy is concerned they hardly exist—except, of course, as cheap labor.
A recent commentary in The New Yorker magazine suggests that global consumer capitalism can be seen, however, to have beneficial effects, at least in certain circumstances.
Critics of consumer capitalism like to think that consumers are manipulated and controlled by those who seek to sell them things, but for the most part it’s the other way around: companies must make what consumers want and deliver it at the lowest possible price. In a market economy, the best thing to be—aside from an oil company, perhaps—is a customer.
Consumerism, of course, has its pitfalls and is hardly a cure-all. But if companies started trying to sell things to the poor it would have immediate consequences, chief among them a reduction of the so-called poverty penalty. It’s expensive to be poor. Poor people pay more to eat, buy, and borrow, because they have so few choices and so little bargaining power, especially in the developing world. Moneylenders, purchasing agents, and retail stores typically have local monopolies that allow them to gouge their customers. If more companies reach these customers, prices will fall.
In the near future, when molecular manufacturing reaches the stage of exponential proliferation and has general-purpose application across nearly all segments of society — then the question of how (or whether?) to extend its benefits to the 2/3 of the world’s people who live on less than four dollars a day will confront us.
Better, though, that we consider this challenge now, that we learn what we can from history, consider the strength of underlying trends, and begin putting in place solutions that will avoid the greatest risks of nanotechnology while maximizing the great potential gains for all humanity.