Editor's Note: The Good Surprise

Not only will the world not end this year, it will bring more progress and technological advance.

By Corey S. Powell|Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Journalists tend to love bad news. you do too, which is why we keep delivering it. Which headline would you pay more attention to: “World May End in 2012” or “World Highly Unlikely to End This Year”?

We do it even though we know that gloom and doom is not the whole story. One odd consequence is that when we look at things as they truly are, the results can seem surprising. For instance, remember all those stories last year about the looming scarcity and skyrocketing prices of rare earth metals? Those elements are crucial for the manufacture of cell phones and many other consumer electronics, so an interruption in the supply seemed potentially disastrous. Except that we are now facing a glut. A new mine in Malaysia, designed to help alleviate the rare earth shortage, had trouble with its financing in light of plummeting prices. Crisis? What crisis?

On the broader scale, we have been hearing about looming shortages of food and resources at least since Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, published in 1968. But when Peter Diamandis—the tech guru behind the X Prize and the recently announced asteroid-mining company Planetary Resources—and award-winning journalist Steven Kotler teamed up to dig through a thick pile of statistics, they saw a starkly different future. For decades or centuries, the trend has been toward more technology, more widely available; more freedom and health for more people; and cheaper goods and services.

The actual process of advance is not always simple or even pretty. Many great innovations, from microwave ovens and radar to the Big Bang theory, grew directly out of military research during World War II. NASA emerged from the aftermath of that horrific conflict as well, and the agency has been fighting desperately for funding ever since the geopolitical tensions that created it abated. Neil deGrasse Tyson argues that a revived NASA—and a revived American innovation—may require a new focus on economic competition.

But competition is human nature. Researchers strive to make discoveries first. Companies fail when others succeed. Countries decline when others rise. When the competition is peaceful, the world as a whole steadily benefits. That is the real 2012 forecast: more competition, more technological advance, and—whether NASA does it or not—more progress in the human exploration of space.

Sorry I couldn’t be more gloomy.


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