Excerpts from Abundance

« Back to Abundance

Chapter One: The Lesson of Aluminum

Gaius Plinius Cecilius Secundus, known as Pliny the Elder, was born in Italy in the year AD 23. He was a naval and army commander in the early Roman Empire, later an author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, best known for his Naturalis Historia, a thirty-seven-volume encyclopedia describing, well, everything there was to describe. His opus includes a book on cosmology, another on farming, a third on magic. It took him four volumes to cover world geography, nine for flora and fauna, and another nine for medicine. In one of his later volumes, Earth, book XXXV, Pliny tells the story of a goldsmith who brought an unusual dinner plate to the court of Emperor Tiberius.

The plate was a stunner, made from a new metal, very light, shiny, almost as bright as silver. The goldsmith claimed he’d extracted it from plain clay, using a secret technique, the formula known only to himself and the gods. Tiberius, though, was a little concerned. The emperor was one of Rome’s great generals, a warmonger who conquered most of what is now Europe and amassed a fortune of gold and silver along the way. He was also a financial expert who knew the value of his treasure would seriously decline if people suddenly had access to a shiny new metal rarer than gold. “Therefore,” recounts Pliny, “instead of giving the goldsmith the regard expected, he ordered him to be beheaded.”

This shiny new metal was aluminum, and that beheading marked its loss to the world for nearly two millennia. It next reappeared during the early 1800s but was still rare enough to be considered the most valuable metal in the world. Napoléon I himself threw a banquet for the king of Siam where the honored guests were given aluminum utensils, while the others had to make do with gold.

Aluminum’s rarity comes down to chemistry. technically, behind oxy- gen and silicon, it’s the third most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, making up 8.3 percent of the weight of the world. today it’s cheap, ubiquitous, and used with a throwaway mind-set, but—as Napoléon’s banquet demonstrates—this wasn’t always the case. Because of aluminum’s high affinity for oxygen, it never appears in nature as a pure metal. Instead it’s found tightly bound as oxides and silicates in a claylike material called bauxite.

While bauxite is 52 percent aluminum, separating out the pure metal ore was a complex and difficult task. But between 1825 and 1845, Hans Christian Oersted and Frederick Wohler discovered that heating anhydrous aluminum chloride with potassium amalgam and then distilling away the mercury left a residue of pure aluminum. In 1854 Henri Sainte-Claire Deville created the first commercial process for extracting aluminum, driving down the price by 90 percent. Yet the metal was still costly and in short supply.

It was the creation of a new breakthrough technology known as electrolysis, discovered independently and almost simultaneously in 1886 by American chemist Charles Martin Hall and Frenchman Paul Héroult, that changed everything. The Hall-Héroult process, as it is now known, uses electricity to liberate aluminum from bauxite. Suddenly everyone on the planet had access to ridiculous amounts of cheap, light, pliable metal.

Save the beheading, there’s nothing too unusual in this story. History’s littered with tales of once rare resources made plentiful by innovation. The reason is pretty straightforward: scarcity is often contextual. Imagine a giant orange tree packed with fruit. If I pluck all the oranges from the lower branches, I am effectively out of accessible fruit. From my limited perspective, oranges are now scarce. But once someone invents a piece of technology called a ladder, I’ve suddenly got new reach. Problem solved. technology is a resource liberating mechanism. It can make the once scarce the now abundant.

To expand on this a bit, let’s take a look at the planned city of Masdar, now under construction by the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company. Located on the edge of Abu Dhabi, out past the oil refinery and the air- port, Masdar will soon house 50,000 residents, while another 40,000 work there. They will do so without producing any waste or releasing any car- bon. No cars will be allowed within the city’s perimeter and no fossil fuels will be consumed inside its walls. Abu Dhabi is the fourth-largest OPEC producer, with 10 percent of known oil reserves. Fortune magazine once called it the wealthiest city in the world. All of which makes it interesting that they’re willing to spend $20 billion of that wealth building the world’s first post-petroleum city.

In February 2009 I traveled to Abu Dhabi to find out just how interesting. Soon after arriving, I left my hotel, hopped in a cab, and took a ride out to the Masdar construction site. It was a journey back in time. I was staying at the Emirates Palace, which is both one of the most expensive hotels ever built and one of the few places I know of where someone (someone, that is, with a budget much different from mine) can rent a gold-plated suite for $11,500 a night. Until the discovery of oil in 1960, Abu Dhabi had been a community of nomadic herders and pearl divers. As my taxi drove past the “Welcome to the future home of Masdar” sign, I saw evidence of this; I was hoping the world’s first post-petroleum city might look something like a Star Trek set. What I found was a few construction trailers parked in a barren plot of desert.

During my visit, I had the chance to meet Jay Witherspoon, the technical director for the whole project. Witherspoon explained the challenges they were facing and the reasons for those challenges. Masdar, he said, was being built on a conceptual foundation known as one Planet Living (OPL). to understand OPL, Witherspoon explained, I first had to under- stand three facts. Fact one: Currently humanity uses 30 percent more of our planet’s natural resources than we can replace. Fact two: If everyone on this planet wanted to live with the lifestyle of the average European, we would need three planets’ worth of resources to pull it off. Fact three: If everyone on this planet wished to live like an average North American, then we’ll need five planets to pull it off. OPL, then, is a global initiative meant to combat these shortages.

The OPL initiative, developed by BioRegional Development and the World Wildlife Fund, is really a set of ten core principles. They stretch from preserving indigenous cultures to the development of cradle-to-cradle sustainable materials, but really they’re all about learning to share. Masdar is one of the most expensive construction projects in history. The entire city is being built for a postpetroleum future where oil shortages and water war are a significant threat. But this is where the lesson of aluminum becomes relevant.

Even in a world without oil, Masdar is still bathed in sunlight. A lot of sunlight. The amount of solar energy that hits our atmosphere has been well established at 174 petawatts (1.740 × 10^17 watts), plus or minus 3.5 per- cent. out of this total solar flux, approximately half reaches the Earth’s surface. Since humanity currently consumes about 16 terawatts annually (going by 2008 numbers), there’s over five thousand times more solar energy falling on the planet’s surface than we use in a year. once again, it’s not an issue of scarcity, it’s an issue of accessibility.

Moreover, as far as water wars are concerned, Masdar sits on the Persian Gulf—which is a mighty aqueous body. The Earth itself is a water planet, covered 70 percent by oceans. But these oceans, like the Persian Gulf, are far too salty for consumption or crop production. In fact, 97.3 percent of all water on this planet is salt water. What if, though, in the same way that electrolysis easily transformed bauxite into aluminum, a new technology could desalinate just a minute fraction of our oceans? How thirsty is Masdar then?

The point is this: When seen through the lens of technology, few resources are truly scarce; they’re mainly inaccessible. Yet the threat of scarcity still dominates our worldview.

If It Bleeds It Leads

Every second a gargantuan avalanche of data pours in through our senses. To process this deluge, the brain is continuously sifting and sorting information, trying to tease apart the critical from the casual. And since nothing is more critical to the brain than survival, the first filter most of this incoming information encounters is the amygdala.

The amygdala is an ancient, almond-shaped sliver of the temporal lobe responsible for primal emotions like rage, hate, and fear. It’s our early warning system, an organ always on high alert, whose job is to find anything in our environment that could threaten survival. Anxious under normal conditions, once stimulated the amygdala becomes hyper-vigilant. Then our focus tightens and our fight-or-flight response turns on. Heart-rate speeds up, nerves fire faster, eyes dilate for improved vision, the skin cools as blood moves towards our muscles for faster reaction times. Cognitively, our pattern recognition system scours our memories, hunting for similar situations (to help ID the threat) and potential solutions (to help neutralize the threat). But so potent is this response that once turned on it’s almost impossible to shut off and this is a problem in the modern world.

These days we are saturated with information. We have millions of news outlets competing for our mind share. And how do they compete? By vying for the amygdala’s attention. The old newspaper saw—if it bleeds it leads—works because the first stop all incoming information encounters is an organ already primed to look for danger. We’re feeding a fiend. Pick up the Washington Post and compare the number of positive to negative stories. If your experiment goes anything like mine, you’ll find over 90 percent of the articles pessimistic. Quite simply: good news isn’t going to catch our attention. Bad news sells because the amygdala is always looking for something to fear.

But this has an immediate impact on our perception. As Baylor neuroscientist David Eagleman explains, even under mundane circumstances, attention is a limited resource. “Imagine you’re watching a short film with a single actor cooking an omelet. The camera cuts to a different angle as the actor continues cooking. Surely you would notice if the actor changed into a different person, right? Two-thirds of observers don’t.” This happens because attention is a seriously limited resource, and once we’re focused on one thing, we often don’t notice the next. Of course, any fear response only amplifies the effect. What all of this means is that once the amygdala begins hunting bad news, it’s mostly going to find bad news.

Compounding this, our early warning system evolved in an era of immediacy, when threats were of the tiger in the bush variety. Things have changed since. Many of today’s dangers are probabilistic—the economy might nosedive, there could be a terrorist attack—and the amygdala can’t tell the difference. Worse, the system is also designed not to shut off until the potential danger has vanished completely, but probabilistic dangers never vanish completely. Add in an impossible-to-avoid media continuously scaring us in an attempt to capture market share, and you have a brain convinced it’s living in a state of siege—a state that’s especially troubling, as NYU’s Dr. Marc Siegel explains in his book False Alarm, because nothing could be farther from the truth:

Statistically, the industrialized world has never been safer. Many of us are living longer and more uneventfully. Nevertheless, we live in worst-case fear scenarios. Over the past century, we Americans have dramatically reduced our risk in virtually every area of life, resulting in life spans 60 percent longer in 2000 than in 1900. Antibiotics have reduced the likelihood of dying from infections…. Public health measures dictate standards for drinkable water and breathable air. Our garbage is removed quickly. We live in temperature-controlled, disease-controlled lives. And yet, we worry more than ever before. The natural dangers are no longer there, but the response mechanisms are still in place, and now they are turned on much of the time. We implode, turning our adaptive fear mechanism into a maladaptive panicked response.

For abundance, all this carries a triple penalty. First, it’s hard to be optimistic because the brain’s filtering architecture is pessimistic by design. Second, good news is drowned out, because it’s in the media’s best interest to overemphasize the bad. Third, scientists have recently discovered an even bigger cost—it’s not just that these survival instincts make us believe “the hole we’re in too deep to climb out of”, but they also limit our desire to climb out of that hole.

A desire to better the world is partially predicated on empathy and compassion. The good news is that we now know that these pro-social behaviors are hard-wired into the brain. The bad news is that these behaviors are wired into the slower-moving, recently evolved prefrontal cortex. But the amygdala evolved long ago, in an era of immediacy, when reaction time was the critical factor in survival. When there’s a tiger in the bush, there isn’t much time to think, so the brain takes a shortcut: it doesn’t.

In dangerous situations, the amygdala directs information around the prefrontal cortex. This is why you jump backwards when you see a squiggly shape on the ground before you have time to deduce stick not snake. But because of the difference in neuronal processing speeds, once our primitive survival instincts take over, our newer, pro-social instincts stay sidelined. Compassion, empathy, altruism—even indignation—become non-factors. Once the media has us on high alert, for example, the chasm between rich and poor looks too big to bridge because the very emotions that would make us want to close that gap are currently locked out of the system.

« Back to Abundance

Want to learn the secrets to ultimate human performance?


Sign up for Steven Kotler’s newsletter to get the free pdf.