Just read a sobering article at Asia Times: "Too much for Mother Earth."
It says that China already outconsumes the US on four of the five basic commodities -- grain, meat, coal, oil and steel. If China grows at just 8% per year (currently they're doing 9.5%) then their per capita income will pass the current US value in just over 25 years.
And India, which currently has an economy growing at 7% per year, is projected to pass China's population by 2030.
With efficient technology, the world could easily support 10 or even 20 billion people with a quality of life and quantity of toys comparable to the current US standard of living. We just have to reduce pollution and inefficient use of land, and get more efficient at production of a few basic substances like clean water and protein.
But today's technology is not efficient. Our light bulbs throw away 98% of the electricity as heat. Meat production uses horrendous amounts of grain -- which means land and water and oil and agricultural runoff. There are hundreds of examples like these.
We will need better tools and infrastructure. Not just available, but cheap to produce and easy to install.
We will need farsighted intellectual property laws that allow the rapid rollout of advanced technology to areas that can't (yet) afford to pay premium prices for it.
So we're asking for a technology that's powerful, efficient, and cheap enough to supply solar power, desalinated water, fuel cells, and high-tech agriculture for 10 billion people within 30 years. (Advanced medicine would be nice, too.) It took a century or so to build today's industrial infrastructure. We need a technology that could rebuild it, better, and quickly enough to avoid ecological or political meltdown. Molecular manufacturing could do it. Other technologies might be able to do pieces of it, but at higher cost.
There's another problem. If we manage to develop a powerful and efficient technology, it will be very easy to use it for new and more energy-intensive things. At some point, even with perfectly efficient technology, heat pollution will become a problem of global scope. If we would settle for an excellent standard of living, this would not be a problem for centuries. But if we all try to acquire the latest flying Hummer, or vacation in orbit too often, we could easily outstrip the planet's basic ability to radiate heat to space.
The good news is that advancing technology will also give us the ability to monitor the environment in far more detail, so we will have far clearer and earlier indications when we're doing something that's not sustainable. But we will still need the political will to limit ourselves in some ways -- or else the Gods of the Copybook Headings will return and limit us in ways we won't like at all.
Basic human needs are rapidly becoming easier to satisfy. Already, Americans use about 100 times the energy that their bodies need. As more and cleaner resources come online, only radical selfishness or denial will be sufficient to justify the continued existence of abject poverty in the world.
Advancing technology will give us more abundance, more choices, and more capacity for self-reflection. Let's work toward a world where competition and luxury are tempered by coexistence and ecology, and where deprivation is always accountable and never acceptable.
Editor's Note: This article is the "flip-side" of yesterday's post on Future Challenges. That article listed some new problems advanced technology will bring, while the one above describes new opportunities. Both must be addressed, effectively and responsibly.