Speaking in Chicago on Sunday, the broadcaster and author gave delegates an optimistic view on global challenges as the world slowly recovers from recession – although he recognized that there is an ongoing sense of gloom, particularly in Europe.
“The point I am trying to make is not that we haven’t gone through terrible crises, but that we always somehow find a way to recover,” he said.
Zakaria said that there had been many economic papers over the centuries predicting an imminent shortfall in food supply, even in highly developed nations, but often these have failed to take humanity’s capacity for innovation into account. He pointed in particular to the 18th century scholar Robert Malthus’s prediction that Britain’s population growth would outpace its ability to produce food.
“What Malthus didn’t appreciate was that, far from starving, people respond, and Britain ended up exporting food,” he said.
“Part of the reason we miss this kind of thing is that it is very easy to describe a problem but what is impossible to predict is how people will respond…It is much easier to talk about the problem than it is to talk about the human response, which is disaggregated, decentralized and bottom up.”
As an example, he noted that water supply is one of the most pressing areas of concern for supporting a growing population – but we live on a planet that is rich in water, albeit water that is, for the most part, not fit for consumption. However, desalination plants are being set up in many water-poor nations in order to process sea water into drinking water.
“At the moment desalination is about five times the cost of putting a hole in the ground, but the costs are dropping rapidly,” he said – although he added that the problem of water supply was one about which we hadn’t yet thought enough.
Challenges of growth and abundance
“What we have to look for, encourage and harness is the human response to challenges…The thing we have to recognize is that we are going to face enormous challenges but they won’t be the challenges of collapse, decline and decay, but the challenges of growth and abundance.”
We need to take our challenges seriously, he said, but also recognize that they are opportunities as well as challenges.
“If the past is prologue and there is anything we can learn, it is that if we approach these problems in the way we have in the past, we will find solutions.”