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Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper
How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong
By Robert Bryce
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Utilizing on-the-ground reporting from Ottawa to Panama City and Pittsburgh to Bakersfield, Bryce shows how we have, for centuries, been pushing for Smaller Faster solutions to our problems. From the vacuum tube, mass-produced fertilizer, and the printing press to mobile phones, nanotech, and advanced drill rigs, Bryce demonstrates how cutting-edge companies and breakthrough technologies have created a world in which people are living longer, freer, healthier, lives than at any time in human history.
The push toward Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper is happening across multiple sectors. Bryce profiles innovative individuals and companies, from long-established ones like Ford and Intel to upstarts like Aquion Energy and Khan Academy. And he zeroes in on the energy industry, proving that the future belongs to the high power density sources that can provide the enormous quantities of energy the world demands.
The tools we need to save the planet aren’t to be found in the technologies or lifestyles of the past. Nor must we sacrifice prosperity and human progress to ensure our survival. The catastrophists have been wrong since the days of Thomas Malthus. This is the time to embrace the innovators and businesses all over the world who are making things Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper.
MOVING BEYOND “COLLAPSE ANXIETY”
We are besieged by bad news.
Climate change, pollution, famine, water shortages, war and terrorism, the mess at Fukushima, political gridlock, and the ongoing debt problems and economic malaise in Europe and the United States are dominating the headlines. On October 31, 2011, demographers at the United Nations announced that the Earth now hosts some seven billion people, prompting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to declare that “alarm bells are ringing.”1
Those alarm bells are also continually ringing about the danger of pandemics and epidemics. In 2007, the head of the World Health Organization warned that new diseases are “emerging at the historically unprecedented rate of one per year,” and given the ease of international air travel, she went on to say that it would be “extremely naïve and complacent” to assume that the world will not be hit by another disease like AIDS, the Ebola virus, or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).2 In 2013, two new respiratory viruses came to light—including a coronavirus in the Middle East that is similar to a bat virus, and a new strain of bird flu in China, known as H7N9—and the WHO quickly warned health officials to monitor any unusual cases of respiratory problems. Those outbreaks came on the heels of outbreaks of swine flu and a strain known as H1N1.3
Television news inundates us with the latest images of floods in Europe, hurricanes in New York, wildfires in Australia and the American West, earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, and drought in California and Texas. Terrorism, or even the hint of a terrorist attack, always makes the news. The US government continually ranks the risk of terrorism with a color-coded system. In July 2013, the terror-alert chart was yellow, for “Elevated: Significant Risk of Terrorist Attacks.” Terror-alert.com will even send you an e-mail whenever the alert status changes.4 To all of those worries, add in gun violence, train derailments, fertilizer-plant explosions, the never-ending violence in the Middle East and Africa, and it seems like the drumbeat of bad news will never end.
The avalanche of bad news has led many people to experience, or even embrace, what author Gregg Easterbrook calls “collapse anxiety.” Easterbrook defines the condition as a “widespread feeling that the prosperity of the United States and the European Union cannot really be enjoyed because the Western lifestyle may crash owing to economic breakdown, environmental damage, resource exhaustion . . . or some other imposed calamity.”5
Collapse anxiety pervades the rhetoric of many of the world’s most prominent environmentalists as well as some of the biggest environmental groups. They abhor modern energy sources as despoilers of earth’s beauty and natural order and cling to the idea that we humans have inappropriately sought to subdue nature for our own shortsighted, materialistic, and short-term benefit. In their view, we humans have sinned so much against Mother Earth that even the weather has turned against us. Drought, wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes are all increasing in frequency and intensity, we are told, due to climate change caused by the amount of human-produced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And those carbon dioxide emissions are due to the fact that we humans are using too much energy.6 We are driving too much, flying too much, eating too much, making too much unneeded stuff, and using far too much air-conditioning and refrigeration.
The fundamental outlook behind collapse anxiety is one of scarcity and shortage. It’s a view first put forward by the English economist Thomas Malthus, who forecast a dire future in “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” which was published in 1798. Malthus claimed that increasing global population would soon result in starvation for many people as the world would not be able to feed itself.7 Today’s neo-Malthusians, a group that includes John Holdren, President Barack Obama’s top science adviser, advocate radical approaches to forestalling catastrophe, including what they call “de-growth.”8 This worldview is frequently represented in the pages of The Nation, Mother Jones, and other Left-leaning media outlets.9 It can also be seen with depressing regularity on the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times.10 And it is most obvious in the prescriptions put forward by some of the world’s biggest environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. The worldview of the degrowthers was neatly summarized in a 2013 segment of Bill Moyers’s TV show, Moyers & Company. It was called “Saving the Earth from Ourselves.”
The prescriptions put forward by the degrowth crowd are familiar. Nuclear energy is bad. Genetically modified foods are bad. Coal isn’t just bad, it’s awful. Oil is bad. Natural gas—and the process often used to produce it, hydraulic fracturing—is bad. Those things must be replaced by what the degrowth crowd claims are the Earth-friendly ones. Renewable energy, of course, is good. Organic food is good. Locally grown organic food is even better. And if you really care about Mother Earth, then you will give up flying. Less air travel means less jet fuel gets burned and therefore less carbon dioxide is produced.
The mantra of the neo-Malthusians is “peak everything.” In fact, a book carrying that very title, Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, by Richard Heinberg, was published in 2007. In this neo-Malthusian view, there are simply too many of us humans, and we are using too much of everything. We should—as the segment on Moyers’s show put it—be saving the Earth from us. The catastrophists claim that we are running out of essential commodities—food, oil, copper, iron ore. Given our myriad sins against the planet, we are surely going to pay. This dystopian outlook appeals to plenty of people. It seems they cannot be happy unless they are scared out of their minds.
This pessimistic worldview ignores an undeniable truth: more people are living longer, healthier, freer, more peaceful, lives than at any time in human history. Amidst all of the hand wringing over climate change, genetically modified foods, the latest Miley Cyrus video, and other alleged harbingers of our decline as a species, the plain reality is that things are getting better, a lot better, for tens of millions of people all around the world.
Dozens of factors can be cited for the improving conditions of humankind. But the simplest explanation is that innovation is allowing us to do more with less. We are continually making things and processes Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper. Our desire to do more work and exchange more information is making our computers Smaller Faster. From food packaging to running shoes, nearly everything we use is getting Lighter. More precise machinery is making our engines and farms Denser. And always—always—innovators are driving down costs and making goods and services Cheaper.
The innovation that drives the push for Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper is making us richer and that, in turn, is helping us protect the environment. Density is green. And thanks to our ability to wring more energy and more food from smaller pieces of land, we can save wild places and wild things from development.
The trend toward Smaller Faster is not dependent on a single country, company, or technology. Nor is it dependent on ideology. Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper has flourished despite Marxism, Communism, Socialism, Confucianism, and authoritarian dictatorships. It might even survive the Republicans and the Democrats.
The centuries-long trend toward Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper will continue. It may even accelerate in the years ahead thanks to ever-cheaper computing, high-speed Internet connectivity, wireless communications, 3-D printing, and other technologies that are catalyzing yet more innovation.
This book is a celebration of the trend toward Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper. It’s also a rejoinder to the doomsayers, a rebuttal to the catastrophists who insist that disaster lurks just around the corner. Big environmental groups like Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and others raise hundreds of millions of dollars every year by instilling fear and proclaiming that we humans are headed for disaster. Those groups and their many supporters have the right intentions—the desire to preserve nature, wild places, and rare animals—but in many cases, their proposed solutions will only exacerbate the problems they claim to be addressing.
Do we face challenges? Of course. We face a panoply of scary problems ranging from rogue asteroids and climate change to the loss of privacy in our networked age and all-out cyberwar.11 Shortages of freshwater, excessive use of pesticides, destruction of the rain forests, and the problem of declining topsoil only add to the list of worries that can cause collapse anxiety. The bad-news list goes on and on, and the mainstream media adds to that list every day. Bad news sells. If it bleeds, it leads. No politician ever got elected by telling voters that everything is going to be just fine the way it is.
There’s no doubt that we have many problems. But our future doesn’t lie in the past. We cannot solve our problems by forgoing modern energy sources and eschewing modern agriculture for a “simpler life” based on renewable energy and organic food. For millennia, we humans subsisted on the ragged edge of starvation by relying on those sources. If we want to continue bringing people out of poverty, we must embrace innovation, not reject it. We need an ethic that embraces both humanism and environmental protection. We need an ethic that embraces innovation and optimism. In short, we need to embrace the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit that is continually making things Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper.
Examples of that ingenuity abound. The smart phone I carry in my pocket has 16 gigabytes (16 billion bytes) of data-storage capacity. That’s about 250,000 times more capacity than that of the Apollo Guidance Computer onboard Apollo 11, the spaceship that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin used when they landed at the Sea of Tranquility on July 20, 1969, when I was nine years and one day old.12 We are living in a world equipped with physical-science capabilities that stagger the imagination—from nanoparticle medicines that battle cancer to intra-solar-system exploration feats like NASA’s Curiosity Rover, a plutonium-fueled six-wheel-drive robot that’s gallivanting across the surface of Mars with as much ease as if the Red Planet were only a tad more remote than Candelaria, Texas.13 Sequencing the human genome, which can help doctors diagnose and treat illness, has become almost routine as the process has gotten Faster Cheaper. Over the past decade or so, the cost to sequence a human genome has dropped from millions of dollars to less than $10,000.14
The purpose of this book is to put a name to what’s happening, and to illuminate how the extraordinary discoveries and developments transforming everything from computers and cars to medicine and sports are rooted in the push for Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper.
This book provides a lens to examine and make sense of our history and our future. It showcases the innovations, individuals, and companies that are allowing us to do more with less. It lauds the tycoons of the Industrial Age and the twenty- and thirty-something inventors of today who are trying to develop and market The Next Big Smaller-Faster-Lighter-Denser-Cheaper Thing.
Yes, I am optimistic about the future. Absolutely. But I’m no Doctor Pangloss. I’m not claiming that technology will solve all our ills. It won’t, and can’t, force humans to love one another or, heck, even to be polite while standing in a queue. Innovation created penicillin. It also gave us the AK-47. I am leery of what my fellow PublicAffairs author Evgeny Morozov rightly calls “solutionism,” the belief that all of our ills can be solved if only we have the right technology, whether that be smart phones, or algorithms, or big data sets. In his 2013 book, To Save Everything Click Here, Morozov writes that over the last century “virtually every generation has felt like it was on the edge of a technological revolution.”15 And over the past few years, bookstores—remember them?—have been flooded with chock-full-of-optimism tomes, from Dow 30,000 to Infinite Progress.
My bias is not that we are on the edge of a technological revolution—although that may well happen—but rather that we must recognize the countless Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper technologies that have come before us as well as those that lie ahead. Improved medicines are allowing us to live longer. Faster Lighter more powerful, more efficient automobiles and airplanes are allowing us to travel farther, safer, in greater comfort. Cheap, or even free, communications technologies like e-mail and Skype are giving us the ability to communicate with nearly anyone on the planet instantaneously. We humans were born to network, and our increasing ability to network with people who are across town or a dozen time zones away, combined with cheap (or even free) computing power, is fostering countless new technologies.
The Internet is freeing information like never before, freeing men, and even more, women and girls, from the intellectual and societal chains that for centuries have been wielded by the kings, generals, priests, rabbis, and mullahs. The ability of ordinary people to collaborate, to launch new businesses, to invent new medicines, and to provide goods and services of all kinds has never been easier.
Technology is allowing more people to escape the destitution and darkness of poverty so they can live in the incandescent and LED-lit world of modernity. As more people get richer, the competition for land and water, iron ore and petroleum, wheat and soybeans, will continue, just as it always has. This book isn’t a blind celebration of technological advancement. Nor is it one that touts a particular method of innovation or even a particular sector. But it does unashamedly celebrate business and entrepreneurs because they are driving the trend toward Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper.
This book puts a great deal of emphasis on energy and power systems. That focus is purposeful. The energy sector is by far the world’s biggest industry, and every sector of the global economy depends directly or indirectly on it. The availability of cheap, abundant, reliable energy is what separates the wealthy from the poor and fuels economic growth. That growth fosters both human liberty and environmental protection. As we go forward, we will need to make energy Cheaper so that more people can join the modern world. We will need more natural gas and more nuclear energy, more oil and solar energy, and yes, more coal.
In Part I, I’ll look back at some of the examples of our quest for Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper and highlight a few of the historical innovations that have changed our lives, including the printing press, the vacuum tube, and digital communications. I will discuss some of the negative outcomes that have come about from, or are unintended consequences of, our innovations. The section concludes with a look at the arguments being put forward by the catastrophists and discusses the pivotal question: should we continue innovating, or retreat to the past?
Part II is a wide-ranging section that examines the push for Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper in history and in the current day. It looks at the technologies used in the Tour de France as well as those being deployed in education and medicine. It shows how the push for Smaller Faster has motivated industrial giants like Ford and Intel and how those same catalysts are motivating today’s start-ups.
In Part III, I dive into the energy sector. Every year, the people of the planet spend roughly $5 trillion on energy.16 Finding, refining, and delivering the gargantuan quantities of energy needed by the world’s consumers requires an epic effort. I show how the energy sector typifies the push for Smaller Faster, and particularly the effort for Cheaper.
In Part IV, I look forward and offer a few ideas as to how we can continue fostering innovation. I explain why, regardless of your beliefs about climate change, the best no-regrets policy for the future is N2N—natural gas to nuclear. I also explain why the United States will dominate our Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper future.
Now on to Part I, and the project that offers the world’s single biggest example of our desire for Faster Cheaper: the Panama Canal.
The Push for Innovation, Its Consequences, and the Degrowth Agenda
DIGGING A FASTER CHEAPER WAY TO TRAVEL
For more than five centuries, humans have been surveying the Panamanian Isthmus in the relentless pursuit of a Faster Cheaper way to travel the oceans. Long ocean voyages are expensive. Wages must be paid. Meals and freshwater must be supplied to passengers and crew every few hours. And the longer a ship stays at sea, the more likely it is to be damaged or sunk by bad weather.
The Isthmus was the logical place to launch an attempt to cut the distance from the Atlantic to the Pacific. If a canal could be completed, a ship going from New York to San Francisco could avoid going all the way around Cape Horn, a months-long voyage of 13,000 miles. A canal could shorten the trip by 8,000 miles. A voyage from New Orleans to San Francisco via an Isthmian canal could save more than 9,000 miles.1 A canal would mean Faster and Cheaper ocean travel.
The pursuit of Faster Cheaper travel across the Isthmus has been ongoing for the past 130 years. Indeed, the digging continues to this day. During my visit to the Canal Zone in August 2013, I could hear the dynamite blasts being used to deepen and widen the canal. Dredges were actively working in the Culebra Cut, hauling yet more rock out of the narrowest section of the waterway.
In 2014, Panama will celebrate the hundred-year anniversary of the opening of the canal, a celebration scheduled to coincide with the biggest overhaul in the canal’s history: a $5.2 billion widening and deepening project that will allow the world’s biggest container ships to move between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in a matter of hours.
Prior to the expansion, the canal’s locks could handle ships that were a maximum of about 295 meters long (968 feet) and 33 meters wide (109 feet). After the expansion, the locks will be able to handle ships that are 366 meters long (1,200 feet) and 49 meters wide (161 feet). For a global shipping industry increasingly reliant on giant container ships, the results will be profound. Before the expansion, the canal could handle vessels carrying up to 5,000 containers; after the expansion, it will be capable of handling ships carrying up to 13,000 containers (known in the business as TEUs).2 In the ocean-going shipping business, bigger ships usually mean Cheaper.
Building the canal was the moon-shot of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. No other civil engineering or construction project in modern human history can rival it or even come close in terms of scale, quantity of dirt moved, or number of lives lost in the process. At the time the canal was built, it was both the most ambitious, most expensive and, unfortunately, most deadly, engineering feat ever attempted. There is no exact count of the people who died—the vast majority of them felled by disease—during the entire effort to build the Panama Canal. It may have been as high as 28,000.3
The Panama Canal wasn’t the first effort at moving lots of dirt to enable more water-borne commerce. In 1761, the Duke of Bridgewater commissioned the Bridgewater Canal, on which coal from the mines in Worsley could be hauled to the city of Manchester. Over the ensuing decades, Manchester became a manufacturing powerhouse. By 1853, it had more than one hundred cotton mills.4 In 1869, an effort led by French engineers succeeded in connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea with the completion of the Suez Canal.*
Emboldened by his success in the desert on the Suez Canal, an uncomplicated sea-level waterway, a pompous French diplomat named Ferdinand de Lesseps convinced himself and numerous French investors that he could repeat his success in Panama, and that he could do so by building yet another sea-level canal. He was wrong. Spectacularly wrong. The idea of building a sea-level canal in Panama was foolish from the get-go. But it took years of failure and enormous financial losses before de Lesseps and his French backers finally conceded and the Americans took over.
The desire for a Faster Cheaper route through Panama that would allow travelers to easily traverse the continent first arose in the early 1500s, when the Spanish explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa succeeded in crossing the Isthmus on foot.9 By 1811, a German scientist and adventurer named Alexander von Humboldt was declaring that Nicaragua was the best route for a path between the Pacific and the Atlantic. (Nicaragua continues to be discussed as an option for a new canal. In 2013, a Chinese company announced it had been awarded a hundred-year concession that would allow it to build an alternative to the Panama Canal. The project has an estimated cost of $40 billion.)10
In 1882, the company that de Lesseps controlled, the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique de Panama, began excavating the Culebra Cut. (The word “culebra” is Spanish for “snake.”) They optimistically estimated that they would be finished with their excavation by 1885.11 The French effort to build the canal failed for many reasons. Chief among them was de Lesseps’s failure to understand the immensity of the excavation that would be required.
In his landmark book on the building of the canal, The Path Between the Seas, historian David McCullough wrote that the variable geology of the Cut was “fascinating terrain to a geologist, but for the engineer it was an unrelieved nightmare.”12 The earth in the region was a mixture of shales, marls, and clays along with some igneous and volcanic rock. The clays were the most problematic because, as McCullough points out, after a heavy rain, they “became thoroughly saturated, slick, and heavy, with a consistency of soap left overnight in water.”13 Numerous landslides forced the engineers to make the Cut wider than they had planned. That was a problem because the nine-mile-long Cut was being made in the saddle between two big hills. As the Cut was widened, more and more dirt, clay, and rock had to be removed. “The deeper the Cut was dug, the worse the slides were, and so the more the slopes had to be carved back,” explains McCullough. “The more digging done, the more digging there was to do. It was a work of Sisyphus on a scale such as engineers had never before faced.”14
The Cut became known as “Hell’s Gorge” due to the dust, heat, and smoke from the coal-fired steam shovels, and nearly constant noise. The working conditions were made worse by the nearly constant danger of dying on the job. Workers were crushed by equipment or falling rock. Others were killed when dynamite accidentally detonated. From start to finish—and there were plenty of interruptions as the French effort faltered—the excavation of the Cut took thirty-one years until the canal was finally opened to traffic.15
In many ways, the opening of the Panama Canal on August 15, 1914, marks the true beginning of the twentieth century.16 It opened just after the beginning of World War I.17 It opened at about the same time that the internal combustion engine, the automobile, and the airplane were all coming of age—and all of them made transportation Cheaper than ever before. The canal was the first major public works project to utilize electricity on a large scale. The locks were operated by electric motors and switches, all of which were made by an upstart company called General Electric.
Today, a full century after it opened to traffic, the Panama Canal continues to be one of the largest and most astounding feats of human ingenuity on the planet. To transit the canal by boat, or to fly over it in an airplane, is to be awed by the human desire to achieve, to innovate, to go Faster.
The drive toward Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper that the Panama Canal represents is manifest in many other examples throughout human history, and I’ll discuss a few of the most transformative ones in the next chapter. They all have their origins in an innovation engine that has no peer: the human brain.
- On Sale
- May 13, 2014
- Page Count
- 400 pages