Andrew McAfee: Why Capitalism & Technology Will Save the Planet
If one question has driven mankind’s quest for innovation, it very well might be this: How can we get more from less?
For most of our time on this planet, the answer was simple: We couldn’t. As my guest Andrew McAfee points out, for just about all of human history – particularly the Industrial Era – our prosperity has been tightly coupled to our ability to take resources from the earth. We got more from more.
That tradeoff yielded incredible positive contributions in nearly every field: Technology, industry, medicine. But there’s one glaring area – one of those “aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play” areas – where the trade wasn’t so incredibly positive. Of course, that’s the environment.
As global industry rode the combination of human’s infinite ingenuity and Mother Nature’s finite resources – we all reaped the benefits. But we also saw the costs: Exponential global warming. Perhaps it’s not an exact straight line, but the connection is clear to all but a few climate deniers.
Luckily, we know the solutions: Consume less; Recycle; Impose limits; Live more closely to the land.
Or do we? What if, instead, these central truths of environmentalism haven’t been the force behind whatever improvements we’ve made and, more importantly, aren’t the drivers that will solve the existential task at hand: Saving the planet?
Instead, as McAfee argues in his new book, the answer is dematerialization – we’re getting more output while using fewer resources. We’re getting, as his title suggests: “More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources – and What Happens Next.”
McAfee argues that the two most important forces responsible for the change are capitalism and technological progress, the exact two forces “that came together to cause the massive increases in resource use of the Industrial Era.” Combined with two other key attributes – public awareness and responsive government – we can and do “tread ever more lightly on our planet.”
Some background: Put simply, Andrew McAfee studies how digital technologies are changing the world. He is Co-Founder and Co-Director of “The MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy” and a Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management. One of his previous books, with MIT colleague and sometime co-author Erik Brynjolfsson was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal top ten bestseller; his books in total have been translated into more than 15 languages; and he and Brynjolfsson are the only people named to both the Thinkers50 list of the world’s top management thinkers and the Politico 50 group of people transforming American politics.
McAfee knows his prescription to save the planet is controversial. He knows it will frustrate – if not outrage – most of his friends… assuming they’re still willing to call him friend. But as us non-academics say about people like McAfee: He’s done the math. He’s researched the data. And like it or not, he’s ready for the conversation.
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