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One of the benefits of the lockdown has been that I’ve been able to catch up on my reading. I’ve just finished a book I started reading a while ago, called “More from Less” by Andrew McAfee, and its insights are apt for the times we live in.
McAfee comes from the school of thinkers known as the New Optimists – a group that includes the likes of Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Bill Gates and Hans Rosling (the last a favourite here at Investec). The New Optimists believe the world is becoming a better place – wealthier, healthier, less violent and more just.
This is admittedly a hard sell right now, when a pandemic threatens to overwhelm the global healthcare system and plunge the world into a deep and damaging recession. Nonetheless, it’s a view worth taking note of as we think about what sort of world we will see after the pandemic is over.
The New Optimists often point to humankind’s propensity to see things as worse than they are. We seem to take for granted or underappreciate advances that make our lives better, focusing our attention on things that go wrong.
“Journalists report plane crashes, not planes that take off,” wrote Steven Pinker in “Do Humankind’s Best Days Lie Ahead?” in 2016. “As long as bad things haven’t vanished from the earth altogether, there will always be enough of them to fill the news. And people will believe, as they have for centuries, that the world is falling apart.”
Yet, as Pinker notes, on most measures, the world is demonstrably a better place, and the statistics prove it:
Life expectancy – in 1900, the average life expectancy at birth was 31. In 2017, it was 72. The World Health Organisation (WHO) notes that it has risen by 5.5 years since 2000.
Health – Covid-19 is a reminder of some of the terrifying diseases that have killed humans in the past. But, as Pinker notes, the emphasis here is “in the past”. Killer diseases like smallpox have been wiped out, thanks in no small part to advances in vaccines. Others like polio, measles and rubella should also soon be eradicated.
Prosperity – In 1800, over 80% of the world lived in extreme poverty. According to the World Bank, today that number is below 10%, with the total number of people in extreme poverty falling by 60% this century alone.
Peace – Pinker notes that the annual death rate from wars has fallen from 300 per 100 000 in World War 2, to 22 in the 1950s, to 9 in the 1970s, 5 in the 1980s, 1.5 in the 1990s and 0.2 in the first 10 years of the millennium. The Syrian Civil War has lifted the number again, but only to the 2000 level.
Freedom – Despite some setbacks in recent years and the fact that the world’s rising superpower China remains an autocracy, more than 60% of the world’s population lives in democratic countries, the highest ever.
Education – Pinker notes that in 1820, 17% of the world’s population had a basic education. That number is now 82%.
Human rights – Again, despite some setbacks, the world has improved considerably when it comes to violence against women, child labour, human trafficking, capital punishment and discrimination against homosexuals. Much work needs to be done on all these fronts, of course.
Gender equity – Globally, women are earning more, getting better education, marrying late and are occupying positions of power more. Again, more work needs to be done, but the progress is clear.
More from less
In “More from Less”, McAfee examines these advances from a different angle. Thanks to technological innovation, he says, we are using progressively less in the way of materials in producing goods and services than we used to.
This is important because there is a finite quantity of physical resources in the world available for us to exploit. We are better off if we can use less physical material in producing the goods and services that we consume – carbon, iron ore, copper and so on.
This “more from less” process manifests in many ways. Firstly, there’s the reduction in the amount of material that goes into physical products. For example, the average aluminium beer can weighed 85g in the 1950s. Today it weighs 13g.
Secondly, we get more output from less input when we use better techniques. By tracking and modelling the movement of trucks and ships, and optimising shipping routes and schedules, logistics firms can reduce the size of the fleets they need.
Through better fertilisers, genetic modification and other improved farming techniques, farmers enjoy higher yields from smaller amounts of land, thus allowing more land to go back to its natural state.
Thirdly, a lot of what were once physical products are now digital – music and movie collections now no longer need to exist in a physical sense (or even be owned) but can be stored on a server somewhere.
It’s good for the environment too
All of this is not just good news for us – it’s good news for the environment too. Fewer trucks on the road and ships on the seas mean lower emissions. So does better design of vehicles – McAfee notes that a modern car emits less pollution travelling at full speed than a stationary car with leaks in 1970.
Less land being farmed is good news for biodiversity and the reduction of greenhouse gases, too. By using less metal and carbon in our products, we can leave more of it in the ground, especially if we recycle what we use more efficiently.
McAfee cites several studies that show many countries have already reached “peak stuff” –Countries like the UK, Germany, Italy and France now consume less in the way of metals, chemicals and other materials than they did a few years ago.
It’s all very well reducing carbon emissions in relative terms, of course, but if the absolute number keeps rising, then we still have a climate change problem on our hands.
However, if the human spirit of innovation and problem solving can be brought to bear on the climate change issue, then we have a chance of not only arresting climate change, but doing so without jeopardising human development.
After the pandemic
Which brings me right back to the present Covid-19 crisis. I don’t have a feel for how long the pandemic will last or how deep or long the recession will be, but I’m confident we’ll learn how to do things even better, in ways that’ll benefit us in years to come.
Lessons learned in how to track the spread of diseases and test individuals will be useful for the next major infectious disease outbreak and may well nip it in the bud before it becomes a global pandemic. Technologies for developing vaccines will improve and there may be more funding allocated to research and development.
Finally, we are already seeing a major social and business experiment taking place. Businesses have had to fast track the roll out of systems that allow people to work from their homes. Just a few years ago, the telecommunication infrastructure would not have allowed this to happen and confinement at home would have been even tougher for firms and individuals.
Thanks to advances in telecommunication technology, I am one of those people who’ve been able to continue to do my job while under lockdown at home, with relatively little disruption to my working day. I’ve also been able to interact online with friends and family.
I suspect that once this is all over, more companies will be happy to see large parts of their workforce plying their trade from home, at least for part of the week. Many companies will use the opportunity to reduce their office space accordingly. Done on a large scale, this will not just benefit firms through lower rental costs, but there will be broader benefits in the form of less road congestion, lower pollution and, in time, less land needing to be allocated to business. More from less indeed.
About the author
Patrick writes and edits content for Investec Wealth & Investment, and Corporate and Institutional Banking, including editing the Daily View, Monthly View, and One Magazine - an online publication for Investec's Wealth clients. Patrick was a financial journalist for many years for publications such as Financial Mail, Finweek, and Business Report. He holds a BA and a PDM (Bus.Admin.) both from Wits University.