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Fewer, Richer, Greener: Prospects for Humanity in an Age of Abundance

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How the world has become much better and why optimism is abundantly justified Why do so many people fear the future? Is their concern justified, or can we look forward to greater wealth and continued improvement in the way we live? Our world seems to be experiencing stagnant economic growth, climatic deterioration, dwindling natural resources, and an unsustainable level of population growth. The world is doomed, they argue, and there are just too many problems to overcome . But is this really the case? In Fewer, Richer, Greener , author Laurence B. Siegel reveals that the world has improved ―and will continue to improve―in almost every dimension imaginable. This practical yet lighthearted book makes a convincing case for having gratitude for today’s world and optimism about the bountiful world of tomorrow. Life has actually improved tremendously. We live in the safest, most prosperous time in all human history. Whatever the metric―food, health, longevity, education, conflict―it is demonstrably true that right now is the best time to be alive. The recent, dramatic slowing in global population growth continues to spread prosperity from the developed to the developing world. Technology is helping billions of people rise above levels of mere subsistence. This technology of prosperity is cumulative and rapidly improving: we use it to solve problems in ways that would have be unimaginable only a few decades ago. An optimistic antidote for pessimism and fear, this book: Fewer, Richer, Greener: Prospects for Humanity in an Age of Abundance is a must-read for anyone who wishes to regain hope for the present and wants to build a better future.

512 pages, Hardcover

First published November 26, 2019

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Laurence B. Siegel

11 books10 followers

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5 stars
21 (18%)
4 stars
57 (49%)
3 stars
22 (18%)
2 stars
15 (12%)
1 star
1 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 16 of 16 reviews
Profile Image for L.A. Starks.
Author 11 books653 followers
March 31, 2021
This is an excellent and upbeat overview of--well, everything--from a humane economist's point of view, with a foreword by John Mackey, former CEO of Whole Foods. What I especially liked and what readers should note is the reference and deference shown to Deirdre McCloskey and her work on betterment (a word you can sometimes see at Whole Foods). McCloskey's thesis is that the great Enrichment, during which standards of living multiplied far more than ever before, was due to the ability of those with ideas to try out their ideas. Think of the great scientists and engineers starting in the 1800s.
Siegel also points out that renewables take a great deal of infrastructure, which has yet to be built, in contrast with the affordable energy density of current fuels. He sees a future of nuclear + renewables.
His last chapters on dematerialization are quite good--basically doing much more in terms of health and functionality (which is not reflected in measures of GDP) with less (more efficient) energy and fewer materials. The most obvious example is all the devices replaced by the cell phone.
Very accessible and highly recommended to those who want to understand and read practical examples of how economics works.
Profile Image for Justus.
617 reviews73 followers
December 10, 2020
Laurence Siegel is a financial academic who normally writes on topics like actuarial finance and the equity risk premium in publications like The Journal of Portfolio Management or the Retirement Management Journal. I've read several of his papers and like this so when I heard he was writing a book I was curious to check it out.

The goal is summed up in an anecdote early on in the book:

I was having a delicious dinner in Milan with a European business colleague who told me his children “didn’t plan to have any kids because they didn’t want to bring anyone into an overcrowded world that is going to end in an ecological catastrophe.” I almost dropped my pasta in my lap, then recovered to sputter, “They don’t know what they’re talking about.”

He wants to convince us that the population explosion is nearly over, so there will be fewer of us. That the rest of the world is (finally) catching up with the rich West, so we will be richer. And as the world gets richer it will get greener, too, with things like dematerialization playing a role.

I actually largely agree with this take, though Siegel definitely comes a more right-wing markets-fix-everything Bjørn Lomborg is right about climate change and nuclear power is awesome perspective than I personally espouse. But that's not really the reason for the 2-star review.

I just found the book quite uneven and glib. The overriding feeling I got was that Siegel had read a bunch of relatively well-known and popular books and then tried to distill them down to a single book. If you're reasonably well read, you're probably not going to be thrilled to read the 1,000th explanation of Malthus or Hans Rosling or Norman Borlaug or Amartya Sen or the Julian Simon & Paul Erhlich debate. That said, I can certainly see this book being a reasonable "one stop shop" for someone who isn't familiar with those things and needs an antidote to the constant parade of negative news.

Even from that perspective, though, I found the book overly glib at many points. At times that meant he seemed to be drawing conclusions from very weak evidence. At other times it simply meant we got a very superficial take on complicated subjects.

As an example of the former: he talks about the demographic transition and gives us five stages. In the fifth and final stage "the fertility of the very rich" which will result in stable or slowly rising population. But there's nothing in the evidence he presents to show this. He even admits it

Admittedly some of these fertility upticks are from low levels, but they’re still increases.

But there's a world of difference between increases from a low number and increases back up to a self-sustaining or even increasing amount.

As an example of the latter, his superficial takes on complicated subjects, he delves into what it would mean for the entire world culture to be turned upside down as we live in an aging world. It is shallow and unconvincing. Given his background, it is perhaps unsurprising that he devotes nearly all of the space to monetary issues like pensions, medical costs, and working longer. Surely the real issues are more likely to be the social ones that Russ Douthat identifies in The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success. It sounds trivial to say "fashion and music and movies won't change because old people just like to recycle their nostalgia for decades on end" but it is a huge signifier of a completely ossified society. To say nothing of increased nationalism and racism, like we're seeing in aging countries like Romania, Italy, and Japan.

So, overall a decent review of a lot of things. It takes a very casual tone which some may prefer. I think the single best one-line summary of the book is inadvertently given in its own bibliography when he mentions Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress "this magisterial volume covers much of the same territory as Fewer, Richer, Greener but with a much more scholarly tone". When there's already a mega-best seller that covers much of the same territory it is tough to recommend this over Pinker's book.
229 reviews1 follower
April 22, 2020
I have to breakdown my rating of this book:
Fewer and Richer parts are 4 stars - lots of informative and thought-provoking information and graphics
Greener - 1 star - I am a big believer in conservation and work in renewable energy. The content in this section is largely out of date, silly or in the case of nuclear energy woefully simplistic and naive.

This book as an academic book layout with way too many sections, headings, font and point size changes. There is no flow to reading it. - 1.5 stars

I got some good information from it, but it was a chore to read. I give it 3 stars, really 2.5 stars.
Profile Image for Daniel.
622 reviews83 followers
June 28, 2020
A good summary of the future.

1. Fewer: declining birth rate. So less crowded and less use of resources.
2. Richer: economic progress will continue. Things are getting cheaper and better. The agricultural revolution is providing more food for many more people. People will be able to work longer.
3. Greener: richer countries are cleaner. Nuclear energy is clean and causes far fewer deaths. New molten sand technology.

So the future is bright. Probably we will all be Japan. I just find this book not very engaging so 4 stars.
Profile Image for Michal Sventek.
118 reviews3 followers
August 24, 2020
Siegel presents the case of Fewer (people - the population boom coming to a halt as countries and their people grow richer, therefore no infinitely-growing consumption (of goods, energy, etc.)), Richer (countries and their people - through economic development, people no longer need to worry about survival, hunger, etc.) and, finally, Greener (both Fewer and Richer combined means a green growth (as studies show that the richer the people get, the more they care about environmental issues), a decoupling of harm done to the planet from the growth of human welfare, possibly alleviating the damage already done through new technologies, etc.)

He goes much deeper than this, though - just a summary.

Siegel is a rational optimist, he avoids the apocalyptic visions of some, and the poverty-inducing solutions of others. He shows how human ingenuity has helped us until now; why today is arguably the best day to be alive and how all is not as bad as some would have you believe; how the poorest countries are catching up to the rest; how we're abandoning pollution and fossil fuels; etc. etc.

The reason why I only give this one 4/5 instead of a 5 is, that Siegel is quite brief in some areas, and the book is only a launching pad in many ways - though he does provide further reading on the issues discussed within the book.

The length of the book did not allow a deeper dive into the counter-arguments (which Siegel acknowledges and encourages the reader to look deeper and read and learn), though he does write about quite a few of them.

One last thing (concept) that I found interesting was 'Hedonic adaptation' - look it up.

Profile Image for Eric.
856 reviews
January 28, 2021
Fewer, Richer, Greener: Prospects for Humanity in an Age of Abundance by Laurence B. Siegel
I received this book as a gift from my investment advisors. Annually, the offer a short selection of books that they recommend. Without doubt, Fewer, Richer, Greener belongs on the list of anyone who is an energy professional, an educational leader, has an interest in economics, and I could go on and on.

I am not going to try to summarize my views on the book into any kind of coherent rational analysis. Rather, I thought it best to convey particular observations of Siegel from the text. I call it a text as it is written with many, many authoritative citations (the footnotes are endless).

I should also point out up front that Siegel is a self-proclaimed optimist. While he recognizes that there are other authoritative persons who disagree with his viewpoints, frankly, he doesn’t care. He let’s the reader decide what they choose to focus on and believe while taking other findings with some amount of chagrin.

One potentially important aside. Fewer, Richer, Greener was published before the pandemic beginning in March 2020. He does not explicitly recognize or anticipate the potential impact that such an event may have on his prognoses. He mentions “pandemics” in passing in the closing pages as something that while likely to occur will be dealt with by mankind and will not be apocalyptic. In spite of the pandemic event throughout the world, Siegel (including me) believes that mankind is, of course, going to survive it and move on.

Siegel does not expect (nor do I) that everyone will agree with him. But I found nearly all of his viewpoints compelling.

So here goes:

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index demoted the USA from a full democracy to a flawed democracy in 2016. [I don’t know why and don’t know if they will reconsider after the 2020 election. The flaws are still there such as the Electoral College which some people take considerable exception to. I recognize the Electoral College as part of our history and believe that all politicians seeking the office of Presidency must address].

Siegel talks about the remarkable worldwide hemoclysm from 1914 to 1945. [Couldn’t find the word in my dictionary but I expect you can guess what he is talking about. He suggests that we should all look at the world since 1945 and conclude that something of that magnitude should not be expected to re-occur any time soon.]

Instead of teaching people that their “job” is to figure out how to qualify for a handout, the programs of the 1930s taught the unemployed to show up, roughly on time and in the right place, to dress appropriately for the job, and to treat the boss with a modicum of deference and respect - even if the work itself was menial and poorly paid.
His conclusions on the state of education today.

Use technology to bring the best teachers to anyone who wants them.
Combine online lecturing with in-person instruction; high touch.
Keep costs low.
Personalize, but put great effort into finding common ground and building a common culture.
Be innovative; there is no clearly winning model yet.
People have differing abilities, but set your standards high.
Respect the past; there is much to admire in old models of education.
In terms of delivering education, people in other countries who do not speak English are just as important as people in the United States who do.
Teach knowledge, not just how to find it, so that adults will have a common intellectual language and not rely on Google and Wikipedia as “hive minds”. The individual human mind is what you are trying to develop.
Young students cannot be expected to find it (widely scattered expertise). That is what schools, teachers, and librarians should be for: ideally, they’re the guides to the knowledge that is out there.
One problem is that, with the greater prevalence of two-career couples and single parents, schools have been forced into in loco parentis roles that they’re not prepared for and that overwhelm their resources, causing instruction to take a back seat to caregiving and discipline. Some blame can be laid at the feet of parents (both “uninvolved” and “helicopter”), rigid teachers’ unions, and officious administrators; some, on low teacher salaries. Great teachers are worth three times what they are paid; bad ones are worse than worthless and should pay reparations to the kids whose natural curiosity they’ve destroyed.
For a curious and able student, the best part of a university education is stopping by the professor’s office to chat, being invited to his or her home for a discussion of advanced material, or being hired as a research or teaching assistant. It’s hard to do that online. The enrichments of college life – sports, parties, dance classes, road trips – are also hard to replicate online. Is all that really necessary for obtaining an education? No, but well-roundedness is important and I’d hate to see the pursuit of it abandoned in favor of the single-minded delivery of an affordable credential.

The history of the democratization of education – 1. Gutenberg printing press; 2. Spread of public education in America; and 3. the Internet.

Matt Tidley “ideas have sex”. For ideas to have sex [or certainly a lot better sex], you need more than one idea.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) there are 1.9 billion overweight people and 462 million underweight people in the world today.

Siegel discusses his idea for a solution which deals with energy and institutions. The issue of food and famine (which has declined hugely in the past 100 years) is not the amount of food we (the world) can produce but the production and distribution of food and the balancing of nutrients. Balancing of nutrients deals with the need for protein (and some fats, too) in the diets of children in many areas of the world rather than the caloric intake per se. Proteins are especially important in brain development in children.

A Modest Proposal regarding health insurance - Let government insure the "nose" and the "tail" of the beast, by paying for a very basic level of care plus expensive but rare outliers, and leave the remainder to the individual. The individual could choose to be covered by a company plan, individual commercial insurance, self-insurance (such as a health savings plan), no insurance (pay as you incur the charges), or a voluntary association (a church, an alumni association, the Raccoon Lodge, or some other granfalloon; these folks could also help with organizing pensions or retirement savings plans). This arrangement would cost much less and provide better outcomes.

Siegel mentions mission creep. The medicalization of every problem known to man is yet another reason for high healthcare costs, with some benefits but not clearly enough to justify the costs. Once upon a time, plenty of children were unruly, some adults were shy, and bald men wore hats. Now all of these descriptions might be attributed to diseases - entities with names, diagnostic criteria, and an increasing array of therapeutic options ... Medicalization ... refers to the process by which certain events or characteristics of everyday life ... including sexuality, garden-variety unhappiness, childbirth, ageing and dying ... become medical issues, and thus come with the purview of doctors and other health professionals to engage with, study, and treat... The medicalization of these life experiences has brought with it benefits, but at a price. And those costs, which are not just financial, are not always clear. Doctors cannot solve every human problem any more than school teachers can. To try is admirable, but not realistic.

If there is one policy change I’d make that really will reduce poverty in rich countries, it’s to eliminate what I call “the cruelest tax,” the tax on going from nonworking poor (and receiving substantial government benefits) to getting a low-paying job and becoming part of the working almost-poor. You lose valuable benefits so quickly that the marginal tax rate on this admirable step toward self-sufficiency is over 75%. When you get a job, you may lose medical insurance, housing assistance, and cash benefits all at once; food assistance is a little more forgiving.

In the United States, I’d add one more policy change (and I’m going to step on some toes here): eliminate all racial preferences, quotas, and set-asides. They are deeply divisive, arouse mostly unwarranted suspicion about the abilities of those in preferred classes, and usually hurt those whom they’re intended to help. Our Constitution, as repaired in 1865 to 1870, is color-blind; Our institutions should be too.

In this book, we have seen how:
1. The population explosion is coming to an end, affording an opportunity to solve problems that once seemed intractable.
2. The increase in the wealth and well-being of the world is broadening to include traditionally poor societies, which are closing the gap with traditionally rich ones.
3. Richer means greener, as resources and technology become available to solve environmental problems that may be daunting but are almost certainly surmountable.

The challenges we face now are far less immediate: climate change, nuclear proliferation, pandemics. [Again, Fewer, Richer, Greener was published just before COVID-19. But I don’t believe his viewpoints would or should change.]

Let’s not teach our children that apocalyptic thinking is right thinking. It has always been wrong as a forecast, and it will continue to be wrong. We should stop terrifying them into not wanting to be alive. We should, instead, teach them how to identify and solve problems. To an extent unprecedented in the history of life on Earth, we can control our fate. Let us ask our children to respect the past and embrace the future, not with fear, but with courage and the desire to right what might be wrong with it. Remind our children that they are members of the only species that can do any of these things. What a piece of work is man.
Profile Image for Mason Masters.
95 reviews28 followers
April 21, 2020
Basically a summation but very optimistic. Recommend for perspective.
Profile Image for David.
371 reviews4 followers
May 4, 2023
An interesting compilation survey of how well we're doing as a species in three main areas: population trends, prosperity, and environment. Drawing heavily from other's work (e.g. Deirdre McCloskey, Steven Pinker, Stewart Brand, etc.), looked at through the lens of economics. It's an ambitious approach, and serves as a good introduction for readers who are not familiar with the primary sources.

Unfortunately, the book is marred by two serious problems. First, it seems to accept without question that free-market capitalism is the solution to the world's problems, disregarding the widening inequality that results and the fact that this is the system causing many of those problems in the first place. The possibility of alternate systems is barely considered, and not taken seriously when mentioned, with little justification.

The second issue is the low priority placed on the ever worsening climate crisis caused by carbon emissions. He isn't bothered by the increased use of fossil fuels in developing nations as they strive to catch up with the lifestyle of wealthy countries. For instance, rather than invest $1T (a large but relatively moderate amount) to forestall catastrophe in a few decades, the author thinks it would be a better idea to spend the money on current needs and cross our fingers that climate change will magically cease to be a major problem on its own. He blithely ignores the results of the last several IPCC reports, doesn't think that species extinction is a big deal, and isn't concerned about rising sea level, melting ice caps, coastal flooding, desertification, ocean acidification, etc. He scoffs at the notion that renewable energy sources can replace fossil fuels within the next few decades, ignoring recent technical advances in both solar and wind. The one bright spot is pointing out that nuclear (in the form of modern fission reactors) remains a viable option, but glosses over the difference between Gen 2, 3, and 4 reactors, and disregards concerns over safety and nuclear waste.

Overall, he seems to start with the conclusion in mind, then cherrypicks ideas and facts and statistics and pretty graphs to prove the point, rather than a true bottom-up scientific approach that starts with the data and draws conclusions from it.
Profile Image for Al.
1,439 reviews42 followers
February 28, 2020
This is a really useful compendium of contrarian, but realistic, information refuting some of the dire fates predicted by many for the earth and its inhabitants. It's far from Pollyanna, but it does provide a useful set of arguments against the ceaseless bombardment we receive from books and news media trumpeting one or another of the disasters soon to descend upon us. Siegel has divided (I hesitate to say organized) his book into sections, including Population, Prosperity, and Environment/Climate Change (my shorthand for Fewer, Richer Greener). His text is a loose mixture of facts, material taken from other authors, graphs, anecdotes and just plain chat. It takes a while to get used to Siegel's style, but it's probably for the best that he wrote this way because his informality keeps things interesting even when some of the graphs get complicated. Whatever its shortcomings may be, if you're discouraged about the state of the earth and its human population, you owe it to yourself to read this book. I was particularly impressed with the case made for nuclear power; while not brand new, that part alone is worth the price of the book.
418 reviews4 followers
December 9, 2021
Fewer (people, no population explosion that was feared in the '70's, coupled with great improvements in food production).
Richer (with some exception, the poorest Americans are better off than the middle class in third-world countries, and all of the world population is richer than any other time in history)
Greener (without negating the dangers of climate change, we should acknowledge that the US and some other countries have made great strides in protecting, improving our environment, with more work to come).
Some suggestions for how we can continue to become richer and greener and a great reference list at the back.
Well written, enjoyable to read. Recommend.
Profile Image for Henry Barry.
Author 1 book14 followers
April 10, 2020
Pretty solid book. This reminds me why I love economics so much, and puts a lot of things in good perspective. Well written and a pretty quick read. I'd give it five stars, but it didn't entirely blow my mind because I have studied or read a lot of the things mentioned in it before.
February 26, 2021
It is an interesting book. I listened to the book on tape. I found the tone of the writing as delivered by the narrator very annoying, almost arrogant, and I would not recommend the book on tape. Perhaps if I had read the book directly I would have found the writing style less annoying
13 reviews
March 27, 2020
fantastic book, very interesting concepts discussed, and the charts/graphs are easy to follow and put into perspective
11 reviews
April 7, 2020
An inspired view of the progress we’ve made in attacking a Amir problems facing the world and the ultimate future of mankind
302 reviews3 followers
October 6, 2020
A pleasantly optimistic look at where humans stand and where we're headed on the topics of population, work, technology, and the planet. Well cited and includes a list for further reading.
Profile Image for G.H. White.
Author 12 books3 followers
December 13, 2020
Very interesting topics and good writing style. Worthy of your time to read, especially, if you would like something other than "climate change will kill us all."
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