“ The power of population is indefinitely greater than
the power in the Earth to produce subsistence for man.”
— Thomas Malthus
The news media reminds us almost daily of the dire predictions of thinkers like Thomas Malthus and the limitations of the Earth’s resources.
» One day we hear that global warming is leading to rising seas so that the coastal areas of the United States will soon be underwater.
» The next day we hear we are running out of fresh water and it will replace oil as our most limited resource.
» Then we learn that automation is replacing workers and therefore there will be no jobs.
It’s enough to send us to the local bar or pray for the day marijuana is legalized in Wisconsin so we can take away the pain of knowing the end is near!
But there are voices out there arguing that our ability to innovate solutions to our problems is actually getting better, not worse.
What amazes me is that it actually took a British citizen to argue that we do have reason to be hopeful.
Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, argues in his book “The Rational Optimist” that such pessimism cannot be justifi ed by the actual truth of history.
Consider some of the major innovations that have dramatically changed the outcomes of our daily living and the course of our world.
The wheel: It made the transportation of goods much faster and more efficient, especially when affixed to horsedrawn chariots and carts. Tens of thousands of other inventions require wheels to function, from water wheels that power mills to gears and cogs that allowed even ancient cultures to create complex machines. A huge amount of modern technology still depends on the wheel, like centrifuges used in chemistry and medical research, electric motors and combustion engines, jet engines, power plants and countless others.
Printing press: Gutenberg combined the idea of block printing with a screw press (used for olive oil and wine production). The printing press allowed enormous quantities of information to be recorded and spread throughout the world. Books had previously been items only the extremely rich could afford, but mass production brought the price down tremendously. The diffusion of knowledge it created gave billions of humans the education they needed to create their own inventions in the centuries since.
The light bulb: When all you had was natural light, productivity was limited to daylight hours. Light bulbs changed the world by allowing us to be active at night.
Communications: Transmitting signals wirelessly using electromagnetic waves was a concept worked on by many inventors around the world, but Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla popularized it in the early 20th century. Eventually, sound could be transmitted wirelessly, while engineers gradually perfected the transmission of images. Radio and television were new landmarks in communications because they allowed a single broadcaster to send messages to thousands or millions of recipients as long as they were equipped with receivers.
Refrigeration: We can cool things down by taking advantage of the way substances absorb and unload heat as their pressure points and phases of matter change. The ability to keep food cold for prolonged periods (and even during shipping, once refrigerated trucks were developed) drastically changed the food production industry and the eating habits of people around the world.
Internal combustion engine: The term internal combustion engine usually refers to an engine in which combustion is intermittent. A second class of internal combustion engines use continuous combustion: gas turbines, jet engines and most rocket engines, each of which are internal combustion engines on the same principle as previously described.
Penicillin: It’s one of the most famous discovery stories in history. In 1928, the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming noticed a bacteria-fi lled Petri dish in his laboratory with its lid accidentally ajar. The sample had become contaminated with a mold, and everywhere the mold was, the bacteria were dead. That antibiotic mold turned out to be the fungus Penicillium, and over the next two decades, chemists purified it and developed the drug Penicillin, which fights a huge number of bacterial infections in humanswithout harming the humans themselves.
Contraceptives: They have drastically reduced the average number of offspring per woman in countries where they are used. With fewer mouths to feed, modern families have achieved higher standards of living and can provide better for each child.
The Internet: It really needs no introduction: The global system of interconnected computer networks known as the Internet is used by billions of people worldwide.
The computer: It’s a machine that takes information in, is able to manipulate it in some way, and outputs new information. Computers are able to make complicated mathematical calculations at an incredible rate of speed. Some highperformance military aircraft wouldn’t be to fly without constant computerized adjustments to flight control surfaces. Computers performed the sequencing of the human genome, let us put spacecraft into orbit, control medical testing equipment, and create the complex visual imagery used in films and video games.
So relax, and the next time someone predicts a horrifying world problem I suggest you remind them that American ingenuity and entrepreneurial dynamism has always been the heart and soul of our innovation economy.
We have proven we can use our ability to be creative to solve with innovation the most challenging problems of our time.