Nordic Track Book Club Review: The Meaning of the 21st Century

The Meaning of the 21st Century by James Martin is an important book that everyone should consider reading.  It defines the current time in history as the 21C Transition, when we as a species transition into a world of either great achievement or great hardship if we don’t respond to the challenges facing us.  The excerpts below cover the first part of the book where Martin focuses on the planet rather than digging into more technical subjects that follow, but if you’ve enjoyed Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, you’ll enjoy Martin’s book.  They both cover many of the same topics, and while Kurzweil’s approach may be more technical and perhaps a bit naive, Martin’s approach is more comprehensive and rooted in current technological advances.  Martin also covers more social dynamics than Kurzweil did.  There is ample technical depth and a range of topics to satisfy your inner geek.  5 out of 5 stars.  By the way, I just noticed the hardback is for sale new at Amazon for $7.99.


p.4 During the lifetime of today’s teenagers, fresh water will run out in many parts of the world making food production difficult.  Many fish species will be too depleted to replenish themselves.  Global warming will bring hurricanes far more severe than Katrina and will cause natural climate control mechanisms to go wrong.

Sustainability alone is not enough.  We need to be concerned with survivability.  There must be a move away from the untenable course we are on today toward a world where we learn to control the diverse forces being unleashed.

Think of humanity as river rafters heading downstream.  If we head into the canyon we’ll have to cope with a rate of change that becomes much more intense–a white water raft trip with the currents becoming much faster and rougher, a time when technology will accelerate at a phenomenal rate.

p.6 The decades in which we are swept toward the canon bottleneck will be a time when we unlock extraordinary new technology–nanotechology, biotechnology, extreme bandwidth networks, robotic factories, regenerative medicine, and advanced forms of computerized intelligence.  Although much harm can be done to this climate by mid-century, the fuels that cause global warming could be replaced by various forms of clean energy.

The job of the transitional generation is to get humanity through the canyon with as little mayhem as possible in what we hope will be smoother waters beyond.

p.7 There are trends that are foreseeable because they have unstoppable momentum.  Many of these momentum trends have profound consequences and seem either inevitable or very difficult to change.

p.13 An important statement is that the world’s increase in wealth will be very much greater than its increase in population.  This conjunction of momentum trends offers hope that the world will be made a more peaceful place for most of humanity.

In the stronger countries it will be a time of great increase in wealth and a massive increase in what humans can achieve.  In the weaker countries it will be a steadily worsening poverty, with disease, violence and social chaos.  Most are actually destitute nations, or failed nations, not developing nations.

p.17 Some types of interference with the earth’s condition becomes self-amplifying.  In the arctic region, for example, ice normally reflects most of the sun’s heat back into space.  Global warming now causes this ice to melt so that much of it is gone in a few decades.  Then, instead of reflective icy surface there will be dark earth and sea that absorb the sun’s heat and the planet will get even hotter.  That will only make the ice melt faster.

p.20 You should think of the 21st century as setting the stage for future centuries, taking us through a driving test and then establishing a highway code so that we can be reasonably safe with the forces of technology and globalism that we are unleashing.  This is the century when we learn to control what we are doing.  If we survive this formidable century we will have required the wisdom to survive long-term.

p.35 The evidence of over-fishing is indisputable, with catches of far more fish than the oceans can replenish.  It is like a once-wealthy citizen continuing to spend more money than he has and ending up filing for bankruptcy.  If a similar destruction occurred on land there would be an enormous outcry.  Because we cannot see the ocean’s destruction, we say nothing.

p.41 Preserving nature’s resources for future generations is a desirable part of sustainable development.  We are nowhere near sustainability, however.  We are leaving future generations an increasingly depleted planet.

p.44 Corporations in most cases don’t pay for the natural capital they use.  Nor do they figure it into their accounting.  Fishing companies pay the cost of catching fish, but don’t pay for the depletion of fish stocks.  Farmers don’t pay for the water they take from an underground water supply.   When humanity lays waste to a forest, we calculate the value of the timber as an increase in wealth, but don’t account for the damage done to nature’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide.  Corporate balance sheets put zero value on the earth’s resources.

p.49 The term ecological footprint is used to give people an idea of how much they consume of nature’s resources.  A person with a 10-acre footprint uses the equivalent of 10 acres of earth’s resources.  The average American uses 24 acres worth.  The average person in China uses 4 acres, but this number is poised to rise rapidly.

A country is said to have an ecological deficit if the number of acres required to support its lifestyle is greater than the number of acres that exist in that country.

p.74 Eating beef consumes far more precious resources than eating chicken.  And eating chicken consumes more than eating fish.  We may like steak, but a field of cows produces less than a 10th of the nutrients of a field of vegetables.  In modern farming systems, 25 gallons of water are used to produce a pound of wheat, but over 5000 gallons of water are used to produce a pound of beef.

Fish farms using fresh water ponds don’t harm the oceans as some salt water farms do.  Tilapia is a fresh water, plant eating fish that grows and multiplies profusely.  It could become the chicken of fish farming.

p.76 In an increasingly water-short world an extraordinary aspect of hydroponics is how little water it uses.

Many more great excerpts in the remaining 400 pages.



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A long time developer, I was an early adopter of Linux in the mid-90's for a few years until I entered corporate environments and worked with Microsoft technologies like ASP, then .NET. In 2008 I released Sueetie, an Online Community Platform built in .NET. In late 2012 I returned to my Linux roots and locked in on Java development. Much of my work is available on GitHub.