Top critical review
A mixed review
Reviewed in the United States on January 5, 2019
I found Abundance to be at times inspiring and at others frustrating. Many of the new technologies discussed in the book are impressive and could well change our world for the better. A fair bit of the author's optimism is born out with the increased prosperity developed countries have enjoyed over the last century, and improvements in computers, phones, prosthetic limbs and more has been inspirational. In this regard I found the book fascinating.
But I had issues with the book I couldn't ignore, and I felt these lowered its value. One was the lengthy section at the start of the book that states negative outlooks are the result of evolution. It felt like a built in response to critics, where people who disagree with the author don't have valid reasons or concerns. Instead their opinions are the result of biology.
Another big concern was how some technologies listed in the book haven't come to fruition in the years since it was printed. A good example is the water purification system Slingshot. I'd read about this invention in Popular Science many years ago and marveled at how it could change the world. Since then there have been new desalination plants built in arid parts of the world, but using membrane filters, not Slingshot. This wonder technology never reached the open market. Other developments in this book are also not yet available.
This isn't a new phenomenon. I was a freshman in high school in 1990 when I first heard of embryonic stem cells, and how one day they would make the blind see, the crippled walk and cure all manner of diseases. All it would take is 5-10 years and adequate funding. In the year 2000 the story was the same, with hope being 5-10 years out, provided there was funding. 2010 brought the same claims, and today after nearly 30 years the blind do not see, the crippled do not walk, and diseases this wonder cure was supposed to fix remain as bad as they were in 1990. Many new technologies fail to pan out like this, so promising a better future based on today's lab work is speculative.
The author stated we must be more open to risk, and used the X Prize as proof how incentives can bring about leaps in technology. This may be the case, but the author didn't risk anything by making the X Prize. He borrowed other men's reputations to promote it and other men's wealth to fund it. Nor did he help in any of the competing research team's work or funding. The author threw down the gauntlet and waited for good things to happen from other people taking risks with their time, money, reputations, and potentially with their lives.
Near the end of the book is a section on what could go wrong in the rapidly advancing society the author seeks. I respect him for mentioning potential downsides to his vision of the future. I believe, though, that he minimizes some of these risks, especially in regards to biological attacks. He stated viruses can only spread as fast as men can travel, as if it was a limiting factor regarding the spread of disease. Air travel means a man can cross the world in less than a day, bringing with him any disease he carries and spreading it to millions of new hosts. If a bio terror attack occurred in Midway Airport in Chicago and infected passengers in the main terminal with a disease like the 1918 flu, it would spread to every inhabited continent within a day's time, and the 50 million death toll from 1918 could be dwarfed by the resulting loss of life. The author claimed in the same section that we could provide rapid and effective treatment if a pandemic occurred, yet stated a few pages earlier that the bird flu vaccine rushed into service was ineffective. Both statements cannot be true, and when the second one is a fact we must assume the first is blind optimism.
I am an optimist, although I can see why you wouldn't think so by reading this review, but I am not blindly optimistic. There is ample evidence that technology will continue to advance, but there are plenty of cases like embryonic stem cells where money and hard work don't lead to the kind of breakthroughs predicted in this book. I believe we as a people will continue to advance, but some of the claims in this book are no different than people in the 1950s thinking we'd have flying cars in the 1980s.