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The Meaning of the 21st Century
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Jurgen Reinhoudt reviews The Meaning of the 21st Century, by James Martin.
It takes ambition (at a minimum) to write a book titled The Meaning of the 21st Century. James Martin, a graduate of Oxford who made a fortune in the computer industry, has done an admirable job in this endeavor: after talking with a diverse group of leaders and thinkers such as Hernando de Soto, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Gordon Moore [of Intel fame and Moore’s law], and others, he put his own thoughts on paper, outlining the challenges facing humanity in the next 100 years.
Martin is environmentally conscious, but not ideological. For example, he compliments Friedrich Hayek:
Hayek demonstrated that central planners inevitably have to disregard knowledge that is vitally significant in the real world . . . the faster events change, the harder it is to make central control work.
He also has good words to say about corporations:
Governments may set goals, but corporations get the work done. . . . Some people are vitriolic about corporations. They say that they have become massive, antidemocratic, global and out of control . . . [but] corporations are just about the only human organization capable of achieving the complex and difficult tasks that lie ahead. . . . Government departments are generally noncompetitive and often drift into forms of nonproductive behavior. . . .
Martin’s book combines an apt eye for future political, technological and economic developments with environmental concern, much experience in the field of information technology and an entrepreneur’s passion for technological discoveries.
Martin is very much concerned about climate change but says that there is a natural warming cycle occurring at this moment: “It’s bad luck that his period of natural warming coincides with a time when we are pumping such vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.” Martin’s numerous admonitions regarding carbon dioxide emissions are not necessary–a smaller number would have sufficed to get his concerns across–but the book is not anti-globalist and certainly not anti-capitalist in outlook.
To the contrary, the book celebrates human ingenuity, research, innovation and free enterprise as offering cures to the (environmental) problems that plague us. Free-marketers will not only admire his belief in free enterprise (“Distributed ideas will spread: Vast numbers of young people, especially young entrepreneurs contribute to ideas”) but will also second his criticism of government subsidies to polluting industries.
As one example, Martin mentions the German coal industry: since 1960, the German government has spent more than $200 billion subsidizing it. This year, subsidies will amount to more than $100,000 per German coal mine worker. So extensive are the German subsidies that mine owner Deutsche Steinkohle, “will receive more in government subsidies ($3.3 billion) than it will from selling coal ($2.9 billion).” These subsidies have contributed to extensive environmental damage: in the densely populated Ruhr region where mining has taken place, “the ground level . . . has slowly but irreversibly dropped, by as much as 65 feet in some places.” Cleaning up the environmental mess will cost an additional $7-25 billion, depending on whose estimates you rely on.
Martin notes that governments around the world spend a fortune subsidizing the fishing industry, which he argues contributes to overfishing: scientists estimate that “the number of large predatory fish in the oceans has fallen by 90 percent since the 1950s.” Dwindling stocks of fish have prompted many commercial fishers to adopt voluntary fishing restrictions, out of self-interest, in places like Scotland, to prevent what happened in Canada:
In 1951, the mass of spawning cod had been 1.6 million tons [in the Great Banks]. . . . By 1991, it was only 130,000 tons. . . . Soon the mass of spawning cod fell to only 22,000 tons. Large quantities of juvenile cod, too young to spawn, were being caught. In 1992 . . . it was too late. A codfish doesn’t reach sexual maturity until it is six to seven years old. . . . Not a single generation of juvenile cod had survived to age three, let alone to breeding age. The cod were not coming back. . . . Hundreds of small communities were decimated. . . . The Canadian government had to spend billions of dollars to support them, and 32,000 fishermen were thrown out of work.
To reduce the damage to the world’s oceans, Martin recommends fishing with advanced nets that don’t touch the seabed. To save on water use, Martin recommends practicing agriculture with advanced water pumps that give water specifically to areas that need it (instead of repetitively spraying a whole field: the water savings compensate for the increased costs of the pump system). He also recommends using certain farming techniques and, with care, developing and using appropriate genetically modified trees, plants and seeds. The detail in which he describes these solutions–while never descending into incomprehensible jargon–is impressive and refreshing.
Martin embraces solar and wind energy as alternative sources of energy, but is more enthusiastic about the potential of new nuclear technology for large-scale electricity generation. Pebble-bed reactors are a product of so-called “fourth generation” nuclear technology: pebble-bed reactors shut down automatically by virtue of their design if the temperature gets too hot so there is no risk of a meltdown. Unlike the uranium used by today’s nuclear power plants, the uranium used by pebble-bed reactors is only 9% enriched, making it extremely difficult to divert for nuclear weapon use , reducing proliferation. Unlike the waste produced by today’s nuclear power plants, the waste of pebble bed reactors (small balls with hard silicon-carbide shells) can be easily stored. Pebble-bed reactors are also smaller and far more affordable than conventional reactors, making them useful for developing nations. South Africa is set to export such reactors in just a few years, and China is set to build many of them in its quest to reduce energy dependence.
Martin encourages the West not to wait in taking full advantage of new technologies in energy generation and reduce dependence on coal, oil and gas. Fourth-generation nuclear energy will pave the way towards Martin’s (not unrealistic) dream of “eco-affluence,” where capitalism is propelled to ever greater heights of sustainability and environmental friendliness by innovation and environmentally friendly entrepreneurialism.
He has some tough words for mainstream environmental ideology:
To have a blanket ‘No’ to genetically modified farming in many countries, fourth-generation nuclear power or regenerative medicine is to foreclose options that are vitally important for getting us through [coming challenges.] It would be like saying no to railways in the early days of steam (when some engine boilers blew up.)
Martin also advocates unlocking the power of hidden capital. Noting that the world’s poor often lack adequate private property rights, such as deeds or titles to properties that they own, Martin emphasizes that fortune of “hidden capital” exists there: “Hernando de Soto’s researchers found that 80% of all real estate in Latin America was held outside the law. In Egypt, 92% of city-dwellers and 83% of people in the countryside live in dead-capital homes. The total value of Egypt’s dead capital real estate is about 30 times the value of all shares on the Cairo stock exchange.”
If homeowners in developing countries were to officially own their homes, they could harness this capital and use it as collateral for loans to start a business or make an investment. At present, this is not possible, but, writes Martin, “a Western company . . . might set a goal that the time taken to obtain a title and a deed to a property never exceeds two weeks. . . . Helping [developing countries] re-engineer their systems would be far more beneficial than giving financial aid to the present cesspits.”
Moreover, Martin writes that stifling bureaucracies in developing countries make it very difficult for developing nations to participate in the coming worldwide technological boom:
85% of all new jobs in Latin America and the Caribbean, since 1990 have been created in the extralegal sector. In Zambia, 90% of the workforce is employed illegally. . . . Government procedures that prevent people from participating in the processes of active capital do immense damage. . . . The administrative cesspits of the poor world simply prevent ordinary people from having a decent chance.
Martin wows the reader with predictions of the coming computer revolution, culminating in “the singularity”. IT is Martin’s forte, and the speed of computers and the networks connecting them are set to grow exponentially. With it, the abilities of computers will rise in tandem–by mid-century, computers will be so advanced as to be able to invent new things themselves. They will enhance our standard of living (technologically enhanced brains are likely by mid-century), but to ensure they also enhance our quality of life, care has to be taken to manage the new technology appropriately. Nanotechnology is set to evolve by great leaps, as is medicine assisted by genetic technology. Similarly, rapid advances in highly targeted bio-pharmacology paint the possibility of a “brave new world,” and Martin’s predictions–well-researched and thorough–are certain to offer much food for thought for bio-ethicists. This is just as well: ethicists and policymakers ought to consider the implications of coming exponential technological changes now, to avoid being overtaken by paradigm-shifting discoveries.
In such a wide-ranging book, it is inevitable that there be certain contradictions: in one section, Martin comments that helping developing nations “reengineer their systems would be far more beneficial than giving financial aid to the present cesspits.” Later, he writes that the poorest nations “need enough official development assistance from richer countries to reach out for the lowest rung of the development ladder.” Martin opposes government bureaucracies, but it’s somewhat unclear how many of the environmentally-friendly restrictions could be implemented with a small and nimble government.
These issues do not detract from the general quality of the book, however, given that its purpose is to get readers to think. If anything, the book is thought-provoking, and its lack of anti-Americanism, bitterness and venom, combined with an optimism and a faith in innovation to bring about a better world are refreshing. Martin differs from many other writers who have environmental concern by virtue of his tremendous optimism–his faith in human creativity, human ingenuity, and scientific innovation to make life better for mankind and the earth in general. Martin’s book combines an apt eye for future political, technological and economic developments with environmental concern, much experience in the field of information technology and an entrepreneur’s passion for technological discoveries. Those interested in environmentally-friendly capitalism will particularly enjoy this book. What, in the end, is the meaning of the 21st century? It will be to find the proper ethics and common sense to handle the remarkable technologies coming our way.
Jurgen Reinhoudt is a research assistant at AEI.
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