India’s citizens want a modern life too

Those of us lucky enough to live in the rich world have grown up with abundant, cheap energy. It is very hard for us to see clearly how much our civilization depends on cheap energy. Our parents might have grown some of our food – but it’s unlikely that our mothers spent five hours a day carrying water and chopping firewood or gathering dung. Our energy surplus allows some of us spend time opining about how India should not build coal power stations but should “leap-frog” to renewable energy sources like wind and solar. The cheap energy that we don’t notice privileges us to worry about preventing Indian fossil fuel development.

The preceding guest post by Michael Shellenberger and Rachel Pritzker is remarkable for telling a complex story in so few words: why India’s climb to an urban, energy-rich life is going to happen rather like we did it. And that we can make a big difference for India’s poor by sharing our know-how to accelerate India’s deployment of shale gas and nuclear fission technologies. Solar and wind are self-promoting technologies – let’s put our focus on the less popular but more effective solutions.

Why energy transitions are the key to environmental progress

This is a guest post by Michael Shellenberger and Rachel Pritzker (This post first appeared on Observer Research Foundation 23 Feb 2016)

At the United Nations climate talks in Paris last fall, US President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised the need to find climate solutions that advance, rather than undermine, India’s development prospects.

But the reality of what both nations are doing on climate change does not live up to the rhetoric. The overwhelming focus of US-Indian government climate efforts is on expanding renewables and increasing energy efficiency. Both have merit, but should be third order, not top, priorities.

The main climate and development focus of all governments should be on accelerating the pace of energy transitions, from wood and dung to fossil fuels and from fossil fuels to nuclear power. To understand why this is, it is important to put energy and environmental progress in their developmental context.

Almost all nations develop following the same pattern. Small farmers become more productive and move from the country to the city to work in factories and offices. Women become newly empowered. Children gain formal education. And couples choose to have fewer children.

As fewer farmers must produce more food for more people, they invest in tractors, fertilizer and other ways to increase productivity.

Over time, all of this urbanisation and industrialisation delivers large environmental benefits. Using liquid petroleum gas, instead of wood for cooking, almost completely eliminates toxic smoke and can save hours a day.

As we move from wood fuel to fossil fuel, our forests can return and become habitat for wildlife. Recently, India was able to protect her Himalayan forests by subsidising the substitution of liquid petroleum gas (LPG) for wood fuel.

Factories and cities create more air pollution at first, but over time become cleaner and greener. Rising societal wealth allows for pollution controls such as catalytic converters and smokestack scrubbers. And dust is reduced by paving roads, improving mining and land use practices and tree-planting.

In the US and Europe, conventional pollutants have been in decline since the early 1970s, and carbon emissions for the last 10 years. Rich nations can afford to move from coal to much cleaner natural gas, which generates a tiny fraction of the pollutants of coal, and half the carbon emissions.

In the US and Europe, major oil and gas discoveries were key to shifting from coal to natural gas and reducing pollution. North Sea natural gas in deep waters reduced Europe’s reliance on coal starting in the 1980s. In the U.S., it was natural gas from shale, a rock formation one mile underground, starting around 2007.

China and India both have significant reserves of natural gas and oil in shale, but lack the workforce, drilling rigs and pipeline infrastructure. Those things will develop over time, the question is at what pace.

Because solar and wind cannot generate power 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, their value to developing nations that need cheap reliable power for their factories and cities is highly limited.

Solar and wind are limited for similar reasons in rich nations as well. As solar and wind become a larger amount of the electrical grid, their value declines, as Germany is discovering. That’s because solar and wind create power when it’s not needed and don’t create power when it is most needed from 5 pm to 9 pm.

The great emphasis put on an energy source that cannot support industrialisation and urbanisation is not a coincidence. Environmentalists in India and the West have since the 1960s promoted the Romantic idea that low-energy consumption, rural subsistence living, and renewable energy are best for people and the environment. The last 50 years shows how wrong this idea is.

Economic growth remains tightly coupled with energy consumption. A recent analysis of 76 countries found that Indians and Chinese earning $50,000 per year consumes the same amount of energy as Americans and Europeans did when earning that same amount.

Where European, US and Indian governments put great emphasis on off-grid solar in rural villages, historically most people gain access to LPG and electricity by moving to cities.

Solar and wind are promoted as energy sources with little negative environmental impact but both have large impacts measured on per unit energy basis. Both require 100 times more land as fossil and nuclear plants. And wind and solar require five times more concrete and steel, respectively, than coal, nuclear and natural gas plants, according to the US Department of Energy.

Given the limits to solar and wind in both rich and poor countries, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require a faster transition to nuclear energy, first fission and then fusion. Where the transition from wood to coal began 500 years ago, the transition from fossil to nuclear energy began just 50 years ago.

India is a special case in that while most countries complete, or almost complete, the transition from biomass (wood and dung) to fossil fuels, India aims to make both energy transitions happen at the same time.

Rich countries have the strongest scientific and technical workforces capable of building and operating nuclear power plants, but ideological opponents of the technology have successfully spread fear of nuclear energy since the 1960s.

Polls show Indians support nuclear energy but the Indian nuclear energy programme is only now recovering after having been isolated from the global community over recusal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

As such, the most important work by Modi and Obama on climate was removing hurdles to greater US-India collaboration on nuclear energy. India could soon start constructing power plants with US and European companies and hopefully one day soon the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans.

The same should be done on natural gas. The US can help India to better access its natural gas reserves, and the Indian government can take advantage of low cost natural gas due to the global oversupply, and potentially start importing large quantities of natural gas from Iran.

Nations around the world, including the US and Europe, show that the transition from wood to fossil fuels takes decades. To the extent there is energy leap-frogging it will mostly be from wood to natural gas and nuclear, not to solar and wind. Renewables should play a role but should not distract nations from the main event of accelerating energy transitions for environmental progresss.

Michael Shellenberger is President of Environmental Progress, an independent research and policy NGO based in California.

Rachel Pritzker is President of Pritizker Innovation Fund, a philanthropic foundation supporting technological innovation for human development and environmental progress.

Hans Rosling: Don’t use news media to understand the world

Ratchel Pritzker introduced me to this Danish TV clip. There is an English description and rough transcript at which publishes “Sweden’s news in English”. 

…When challenged for the source of his facts, Rosling replied:

“Statistics from The International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, nothing controversial.”

“These facts are not up for discussion. I am right, and you are wrong,” he concluded.

That quote has already made it to a line of clothing.I am right and you are wrong  Hans Rosling

The Efficient Revolution, the Malthusian Trap and the Circle of Trust

Dear Reader, I hope you’ve experienced joy today. I have experienced the special joy of discovering a fine mind and writer. For me it’s the joy of wanting to know more about their ideas and their progress on an important project.

My discovery was Finnish author Lauri Muranen, proprietor of The Efficient Revolution. I became aware of Lauri recently when I noticed smart Tweets originating from one @LauriMuranen. That meant we were following some of the same people — an indication that Lauri may be someone I will profit from following — he could be a source of fresh ideas and perspectives.

So, what happened today was Lauri replied to Richard Tol’s citation — a citation of what I took to be another tiresome “peak planet” piece. I got only so far as the Guardian headline, that was enough for me.

Limits to Growth was right. New research shows we’re nearing collapse: Four decades after the book was published, Limit to Growth’s forecasts have been vindicated by new Australian research. Expect the early stages of global collapse to start appearing soon.

Minutes later Lauri tweeted to Richard “I suppose it didn’t occur to the authors that most of the indicators they present paint a rather positive picture”. Hmm… I conclude that I need to go back and actually read that article. Lauri was precisely correct — read the linked piece, you’ll see why I was motivated to go one more step — to see where else Lauri is writing. My good fortune today was that Lauri’s topmost post was The World Overshoot Day, headed by the above Earth Overshoot Days graphic. That “closes the sale”, for now I know I need to read further. Looking for Lauri’s RSS feed, I don’t find it on the homepage, so I open the homepage source to search for the usual RSS/feed keywords. Ah, there it is — so Lauri is added to my Energy Policy feeds, then I go back to reading About The Efficient Revolution.

May I explain why I’ve bothered to write about today’s discovery? That’s because this is a good example of the discovery process by which I grow my “circle of trust”. That’s a terrible name, but it’s what I have for many years called the group of thinkers that get a share of my attention. My attention is just about the most valuable thing I have, so I try to squeeze the most value I can from the scarce minutes of my attention. 

So what happened here is very simple. I follow on Twitter a very clever Dutch energy economist Richard Tol or @RichardTol. I do that because I learn new things from Richard, while he is very careful not to waste my attention. E.g., by tweeting 50 items per day. By sharing those citations with me, Richard curates a part of his world. For me the signal-to-noise ratio of Richard’s transmission is very high, so we have a deal.

All the members of my “circle of trust” are like Richard, in that they are much more clever than I, so devoting some of my attention to their signal rewards me highly for the fragments of time I’m able to spend with them. As you’ve probably surmised, everyone in my “circle of trust” got there via referral by earlier members. After reading some of the new candidate’s work I may decide to give them a probationary membership. They keep the membership so long as they hold up their end: very high-quality and high-signal-to-noise.

I hope you are still with me, because my objective today is to persuade you to follow @LauriMuranen, to read The Efficient Revolution, and hopefully to contribute to Lauri’s project. I think I can “close the sale” if you’ll hang in there to read just a few paragraphs from his About the Efficient Revolution

The efficient revolution is my attempt to write a ‘crowd sourced’ book about the story how humanity has been able to cut its chains of virtual slavery to the finite boundaries of earth. The success has been achieved via circumventing those boundaries with efficiency – by getting more out from less. Moreover there is plenty of evidence suggesting that this will be the way we can escape our current predicament.

Let me explain why this particular story and why crowd sourced.

One often hears that we are on the brink of peak this or verge of that. Be it oil, phosphorus, fresh water, employment or common sense. In effect, we are told that we are overshooting the environment’s capacity to replenish resources on par with our consumption.

While overconsumption does present major challenges, I would argue that this line of thinking constitutes a Malthusian thought trap.

Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus was an English economist, who predicted in his 1798 classic An Essay to the Principle of Population, that England would soon face severe food crisis due to quickly rising population. The idea was that while human population is growing exponentially (1, 2, 4, 8…), food production only grows linearly (1, 2, 3, 4…). The inevitable consequence of such development is that at some point food consumption will exceed food production and hunger will result.

This dilemma is known as a Malthusian trap.

What I call a Malthusian thought trap is the failure to appreciate the dynamics of developed human societies to innovate their way out of such traps, as happened in England in the 1800s and as is happening in the world today. A Malthusian prediction, such as the famous Club of Rome prediction on the depletion of world’s resources, assumes that societies stand idly by as the proverbial house around them is on fire.

This is not the case of course.


The central argument of this book/blog is that human societies have been far better able to escape the traps of finite resources and environmental constraints (amid growing populations) than they get credit for.

Sold? Excellent — you can see how I got hooked:-) Not sold? Well, did you see how Lauri introduces the Comment area of each post?


This makes it completely clear why he terms this project a ‘crowd sourced’ book. I see a resonance there with my SeekerBlog tagline “Many of the things we think are true are not. Together we can fix that.”

How Will We Feed 9 Billion?

Image credit National Geographic, Photographer George Steinmetz

When we think about threats to the environment, we tend to picture cars and smokestacks, not dinner. But the truth is, our need for food poses one of the biggest dangers to the planet.

Agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming, emitting more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined—largely from methane released by cattle and rice farms, nitrous oxide from fertilized fields, and carbon dioxide from the cutting of rain forests to grow crops or raise livestock. Farming is the thirstiest user of our precious water supplies and a major polluter, as runoff from fertilizers and manure disrupts fragile lakes, rivers, and coastal ecosystems across the globe. Agriculture also accelerates the loss of biodiversity. As we’ve cleared areas of grassland and forest for farms, we’ve lost crucial habitat, making agriculture a major driver of wildlife extinction.

National Geographic’s special feature on Feeding 9 Billion is a good resource, especially for their graphics illustrating key aspects of the challenge. Of the agricultural inputs it is water, land use and energy that get most of my attention. Land and energy collide when you consider how you will substitute low-carbon energy sources for electricity, fertilizers, machinery for 9 billion. Study this graphic of Ice-Free Land, then ask yourself how you would solve these challenges?

To scope the problem a good place to learn the scale of what is required read Our High-Energy Planet, a report produced by The Breakthrough Institute:

“Climate change can’t be solved on the backs of the world’s poorest people,” said Daniel Sarewitz, coauthor and director of ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes. “The key to solving for both climate and poverty is helping nations build innovative energy systems that can deliver cheap, clean, and reliable power.”

If you are wondering if there will be any farmland left after fossil fuels are replaced with renewables, a good place to begin is by studying energy expert Vaclav Smil’s Power Density Primer, and Energy Transitions.

On improving agriculture, these earlier posts should be helpful:

Lastly more Vaclav Smil, investigating the materials resources: Will nine billion people exhaust our materials resources?

Are you worried about overpopulation?

A dear friend is very concerned that global overpopulation is making sustainable resource management impossible. A current example is the California drought and water crisis. Because this subject is definitely not intuitive, I thought I would share some resources that I outlined by email:

Regarding your sincere population worries – here are some possibly useful resources. First, the one hour BBC-produced talk by Swedish demographer Hans Rosling is an friendly introduction to  population dynamics BBC “Overpopulated”.

The fact that BBC funded such an expensively-produced mini-documentary reflects the reality that many people continue to accept the 1960s perspective voiced by Paul Erlich and The Club of Rome. This Malthusian view was what I believed through the 1990s. It was only when I had time to study current population research that I realized I was very out of date.

For a more in-depth, but still easy to follow lecture, see mathematical biologist Joel Cohen’s Floating University segment Malthus Miffed. I think it would be difficult to digest Dr. Cohen and still be frightened about runaway long term population growth.

That said, we also know very well how to make population growth a problem again. If we hobble the engine of economic growth – especially the improvement of the incomes of the very poor in Africa and Asia, then we could blow through the 9 Billion U.N. population forecast (plus 2.5 Billion from 2014).

It could happen – consider how badly the 2008 global financial crisis was handled by politicians and central bankers. “Never underestimate a politician”. But even with the below trend growth that we observe in the USA and EU, the Bottom Two Billion is transitioning out of subsistence farming to urban progress. Continuing that progress is essential to the forecasts of better health leading to falling family sizes.

For more well-written background on the subject please read the recent survey article by Stanford’s Martin Lewis: Population Bomb? So Wrong. E.g., did you know that India and America fall into the same (TFR of 2 to 3) fertility bucket? Excerpt:

India’s declining fertility rate, now only slightly higher than that of the United States, is part of a global trend of lower population growth. Yet the media and many educated Americans have entirely missed this major development, instead sticking to erroneous perceptions about inexorable global population growth that continue to fuel panicked rhetoric about everything from environmental degradation and immigration to food and resource scarcity.

In a recent exercise, most of my students believed that India’s total fertility rate (TFR) was twice that of the United States. Many of my colleagues believed the same. In actuality, it is only 2.5, barely above the estimated U.S. rate of 2.1 in 2011, and essentially the replacement level. (A more recent study now pegs U.S. fertility at 1.93.) Still, from a global perspective, India and the United States fall in the same general fertility category, as can be seen in the map below.

Click to embiggen

In today’s world, high fertility rates are increasingly confined to tropical Africa. Birthrates in most so-called Third World countries have dropped precipitously, and some are now well below the replacement rate. Chile (1.85), Brazil (1.81), and Thailand (1.56) now have lower birthrates than France (2.0), Norway (1.95), and Sweden (1.98).

To be sure, moderately elevated fertility is still a problem in several densely populated countries of Asia and Latin America, such as the Philippines (3.1) and Guatemala (3.92).

Click to embiggen

I highly recommend a careful read of the Martin Lewis essay. E.g., the surprising correlation of TV viewing with TFR (is it causation or coincidence?).

So, that’s a summary of the perspective of academics who make a living worrying about population growth. But we also know very well how to make population growth a problem again. One way is to destroy the engine of economic growth – especially the ongoing improvement of the incomes of the very poor in Africa and Asia. If we did that, then we could blow through the U.N. 2050 forecast of 9 to 10B population.

It could happen – consider how badly the 2008 global financial crisis was handled by politicians and central bankers. “Never underestimate a politician”. But even with the below trend growth that we observe in the USA and EU, the Bottom Billion is transitioning out of subsistence farming to urban progress. That progress is essential to the forecasts of better health leading to falling family sizes.

Another way is to allow climate change to develop so much momentum that there are no feasible mitigation or adaption strategies. That is sure to diminish incomes & health in the vulnerable populations. And those are the key drivers of the population turnaround.

Dear reader, if you know of other quality resources please provide the links. And especially please mention any peer-reviewed work that contradicts the consensus view reflected by professors Rosling,  Cohen and Lewis.

Target the planning laws not the one per cent


At Robin Harding (@RobinBHarding) has a very smart essay on the true cause of high real estate prices. This is a wide-spread disease, with familar standout cases such as London and San Francisco. Excerpt (emphasis mine):

About 40 per cent of the stated wealth of the UK – more than £3tn – does not exist. It is a terrible illusion. For the US the figure is about 12.5 per cent of total wealth, or $10tn, and growing fast.

The “assets” in question are what planning or zoning restrictions have added to house prices. They are the ransom that renters and recent buyers must pay to existing homeowners – whose homes the rules protect – for use of an artificially limited stock of housing. So severe have those restrictions become that the value of the ransom runs into the trillions.

Wealth of this kind is far more destructive than the alleged sins of the top 1 per cent. It is wealth created not by improving our living standards but by making them worse; by building too few houses in London and San Francisco, not too many. It is not earned by skill or effort. It is taken directly from the pockets of some – the young, especially those who were born poor – and transferred to others via political regulations on building. This is not wealth, this is plunder.


You might think the rise in house prices reflects a natural scarcity of land. Britain is a small island; San Francisco sits on a narrow peninsula. However, the best available studies suggest that the vast majority of this rise in urban house and land prices reflects not natural scarcity but planning restrictions.

A clever 2005 study by American economists Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko compares the price of an extra square foot of land attached to a house (a slightly bigger back yard, perhaps) with the average price of a square foot of land under a house in the same city. If the problem is a natural shortage of land, the two prices should both be high because it is profitable to build on the back yards until the two prices converge.

That is not what happens, however. In the cities of coastal California, the average price of urban land is 10 times the price of land in a back yard because zoning laws make it impossible to turn one into the other. In Los Angeles, the price of the extra square foot on the garden was $2.60 while the average price of urban land was $30.44. In San Francisco, the back yard land was worth $7.84 per square foot, versus $63.72 on average for the same lot.

The ratio of these two figures – as much as 10 to 1 – suggests only 10 per cent of the value of land in expensive cities is due to its natural scarcity. The rest is planning restrictions.

Paul Cheshire and Christian Hilber at the London School of Economics applied the same trick to British and European offices in 2006, with terrifying results. For the well-heeled West End of London, the cost of planning restrictions was eight times the cost of actually building an office. In Birmingham, it was 2.5 times the cost of building the office. This was not because land in the West Midlands is desperately scarce – just land you are allowed to build on is scarce.

We have many examples of localities that have avoided the housing-tax (Austin, Houston, Dallas). However, I don’t know of any cases where the populace has chosen to tear down the restrictions on building. There are powerful incentives for the present property owners to prefer that prices keep climbing.

Politician are not keen to educate the populace about the full cost of their preference for building restrictions. E.g., the total economic loss caused by preventing workers from moving from relatively low to relatively high productivity areas. We know that a Haitian taxi driver’s productivity improves by roughly 10x if she can move to New York. Same job, but her productivity is automatically so much higher because the value of her service is proportionately higher. The same applies to a software developer moving from Oklahoma to San Francisco.

My Haitian taxi driver case illustrates that building restrictions have costs similar to immigration barriers. Progressives are more likely to recognize the need for immigration reform, whilst vigorously “protecting” their Manhattan or Palo Alto neighborhoods. The terrible costs of these “protections” weigh most heavily on the poorer demographics. Robin closes with this:

These rules have added billions and billions of dollars to the price of housing, money that must be paid to those who already own houses by those who do not. If we want to make society fairer and more equal, just let people build.

Hans Rosling: DON’T PANIC — The Facts About Population

Help us cross the river of myths

Hans Rosling is a Swedish development economist, and for very good reasons, a TED superstar. The captioned one hour documentary was on BBC November 2013. His Gapminder Foundation is a data analysis and presentation goldmine – you can get a self-directed education there.

For the cram course see 200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes

Instead of studying history one year at the university, you can watch this video for less than five minutes.

Joel Cohen: Malthus Miffed: Are People the Problem, the Solution, or Both?

I highly recommend that you inspect Floating University’s Great Big Ideas: An Entire Undergraduate Education While Standing on One Foot. 

In the Fall of 2011 Big Think teamed up with the Jack Parker Corporation to launch The Floating University, an online educational initiative that debuted at Harvard University, Yale University, and Bard College. Seeking to upset the status quo, evolve the structure of higher education, and democratize access to the world’s best thinkers, FU’s inaugural course, Great Big Ideas, became the most requested class at all three schools where it was offered.(…snip…)

There are twelve lectures, each taught by a leader in the field who is also a great teacher. The first lecture of the series is the captioned Malthus Miffed by Joel Cohen, a mathematical biologist and a professor of populations. It is a suitable topic for the first lecture because an understanding of demography is one of the foundations for understanding how the world works, and especially what policies are likely to succeed (e.g., immigration, development, climate).

Prof. Cohen really is a great teacher – a skill achieved by investing a lot of energy in developing the craft, including practice. Even if you don’t think you are interested in demographics I predict you will be glued to your screen for the duration of this lecture. The course package includes Readings and Discussion Questions. 


From subsistence farming to prosperity?

Nairobi 2009

[Image Nairobi 2009 ©Corbis, Nigel Pavitt]

For several years I’ve been writing about the development challenge — what policies are the most effective to help Paul Collier’s “Bottom Billion” escape from poverty to our world of prosperity? There are a number of central ideas which I think of in an interdependent relationship: (Industrial agriculture, urbanization, cities) => (Ideas, innovation, economic growth) => (Women control their own fertility, women’s education, population growth stabilizes). This virtuous pyramid rests on a foundation of affordable, low-carbon energy.

The purpose of this post is to offer recommendations for print, audio and video resources on these topics.

A good place to begin is with iconic ecologist Stewart Brand:  Environmental Heresies at MIT Technology Review “The founder of The Whole Earth Catalog believes the environmental movement will soon reverse its position on four core issues.” Rethinking Green (video, SALT lecture). And his 2010 book Whole Earth Discipline.

For a current and informed view of development challenges and progress, see the 2014 Gates Letter “3 Myths That Block Progress For The Poor”.

Are you concerned that population growth is out of control? Then read the recent essay by Stanford professor Martin Lewis “Population Bomb? So Wrong”. Marian Swain at the Breakthrough Institute looks at the current situation for population growth rates, carbon free energy, food supplies and development in Four Surprising Facts About Population: Why Humans Are Not Fated to Ecological Disaster. I’m reasonably confident that you will have fewer population nightmares after watching Hans Rosling in the BBC documentary “DON’T PANIC — The Facts About Population“.

My current favorite introduction to both climate change and energy policy  is Stanford University nuclear physicist and Nobel laureate Burton Richter’s 2010 book: Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century. It is very accessible to the non-technical reader, and balanced in the presentation of energy policy options. Dr. Richter calls energy-policy winners and losers as he sees them.

For an overview of agricultural reform try Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak’s “Organically Grown and Genetically Engineered: The Food of the Future” [video of their SALT talk], [the book at Amazon]. On agriculture and urbanization, try Why big dams and big ag are good for the poor (transcript of interview with Harvard’s John Briscoe).

Regarding urbanization: ideas come from places where people congregate – in particular cities. Innovation comes from banging ideas against each other. And the central engine of economic growth is innovation – both in the form of new technologies and new institutions (or rules). This is one of the insights that made Paul Romer one of today’s most influential economists. Romer’s “endogenous growth theory” or “new growth theory” is sure to win him a much-deserved Nobel Prize. From Dr. Romer’s Stanford biography:

(…) The contrast between the economics of objects and the economics of ideas is the thread that runs through my work. In graduate school, I wondered why growth rates had been increasing over time. Fresh from cosmology, I was not motivated by policy concerns. It just seemed like an important puzzle. Existing theory suggested that scarcity combined with population growth should be making things worse, but they kept getting better at ever faster rates. New ideas, in the form of new technologies, had to be the answer. Everyone “knew” that. But why do new technologies keep arriving at faster rates? One key insight is that because ideas are nonrival or sharable, interacting with more people turns out to make us all better off. In this sense, ideas are the exact opposite of scarce objects. (See my recent paper with Chad Jones for more.)

For an introduction to Romer’s growth theory I recommend Paul’s chapter “Economic Growth” inThe Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, and the Econtalk interview “Romer on Growth” (if you prefer to read, see the full transcript).

Paul Romer’s current project is Charter Cities, a pragmatic scheme to overcome the development bottleneck of bad rules (for examples of bad rule systems think of Haiti, Zimbabwe, North Korea). I am persuaded that the Charter Cities concept has a chance to evolve into an effective development tool, and continue to find every Romer presentation fascinating. There are two TED Talks so far: Paul Romer’s radical idea: Charter cities (2009) and Paul Romer: The world’s first charter city? (2011 regarding Honduras).

For a 2011 look at cities as idea- and hence prosperity-generators, Harvard’s Ed Glaeser is getting a lot of favorable comment on his 2011 book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Glaeser is the subject of an excellent Freakonomics Radio podcast [MP3], and the London School of Economics lecture of the same title. See also the LSE review of Triumph of the City.

More on cities, ideas and growth: why do cities seem to be able to keep growing while most corporations die? Geoffrey West and colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute have been searching for a common theory which might answer that question. Geoffrey recently gave a thoughtful lecture at the Long Now Foundation (SALT).

Lastly, on the same theme, Steven Johnson’s 2010 book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation is summarized in his TED Talk: Where good ideas come from, and in his recent RSA Animate lecture of the same title. Enjoy!