Dealing with Abundance

Dealing with Abundance

You may remember the story of Lord Jim in Joseph Conrad’s classic novel.

Jim is a sea captain whose ferry boat catches fire and seems doomed for the bottom of the sea. He manages to swim ashore and make it back to port – only to see the ferry struggle into port two days later, worse for damages but still afloat and filled with passengers. He is humiliated by his easy capitulation and spends the rest of his life trying to compensate for it.

Doomsayers and predictors of massive resource wars must be feeling somewhat the same these days, if indeed they have any capacity to be candid. Someone mentioned the other day that the year 2015, according to the 1970s classic, The Limits to Growth, was the year that the world was supposed to finally run out of the last drop of oil. Instead, what have we got? Such a superabundance that we hardly know what to do with it. The predictions are now that the current oil glut may last another decade and that we’re going to have to become accustomed to prices below $50 a barrel. This may send the American oil industry into a tailspin and perhaps even threaten the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but we’re going to have to learn to live with an abundance of resources.

The whole premise of the Club of Growth’s Limits to Growth was a bit of a fraud anyway. It was the early days of computer projections and you could convince anybody of just about anything. The team, led by Dennis and Donella Meadows, two MIT scientists, took a variety of factors – population growth, food supply, energy production and environmental pollution – and tried to project them forward into the post-2000 future. The goal was to find some kind of stabilization point, some kind of equilibrium, where the world would not experience an “overshoot and collapse” – a crisis of resource availability and a radical drop in living standards for the whole planet.

The computer couldn’t do it. In every conceivable case something went out of whack – too much resource consumption, not enough food production, too much environmental pollution – and the system went into collapse. And because the computer couldn’t find its way out of the maze, the Meadows team assumed that humanity would be unable to find a way out, either.

But of course this was a classic example of “garbage-in, garbage-out.” The system had no feedback mechanisms. It was unable to respond to concerns about depleting resources or mounting pollution. There was no one around to invent fracking or promote recycling of materials like copper or aluminum. All the lines were fixed on the course set in 1972. It was like giving a car a set of instructions on how to drive from New York to California and telling it not to deviate one iota from the plan. Naturally something would get messed up somewhere and the car would end up mired in a ditch somewhere in western Nebraska.

In fact we’re doing quite well as far as resources are concerned. Nobody talks about “running out of anything” anymore. The one place where doomsayers would argue that we have overshot is in the creation of carbon dioxide byproducts in the atmosphere that are going to lead to global warming.

This is indeed a legitimate concern. One of the most recent pieces of evidence that has emerged is an unusually cold spot in the North Atlantic just below Greenland. While the rest of the world’s oceans seem to be gaining slightly in temperature, this Greenland spot has gotten colder. This is an indication that the Greenland Ice Sheet is indeed melting at very rapid pace and threatening to disrupt ocean currents like the Gulf Stream that determine the climate of northern Europe.

While this is a matter of concern, once again it is not out of the reach of our technology. Glenn Seaborg, one of the pioneers of nuclear energy, used to say that “nuclear power has come along at exactly the right time because we were beginning to reach the limits of fossil fuels.” He was talking both about the problem of supplies and the pollution effects of these technologies but he could have been talking about global warming as well.

By tapping nuclear we are reaching into the very depths of the universe. The fusion processes that take place at the center of stars can only produce elements up to carbon, which has 14 protons. But every once in a great while somewhere in the universe a star explodes into a “supernova.” Under the tremendous force of this explosion, elements all the way up to thorium (90 protons) and uranium (92 protons) are synthesized and the world we live in becomes possible.

But a few of the largest atoms are unstable and slowly break down again. This is what we call “radioactivity.” This release of energy is natural and dispersed across the planet. But if we accumulate these radioactive elements and concentrate them - as we do with other resources – we can tap into this natural release of energy and use it to run our civilization.

Because of its tremendous energy density, nuclear power has the capacity to run a civilization without disfiguring the entire face of the earth with low-density energy collectors such as windmills and solar panels. Windmills in particular are a Medieval technology that can only be improved by making them bigger and more intrusive. The latest windmills from General Electric are 50 stories high and are being heralded as a “game-changer” because they produce 3 megawatts of electricity instead of 1.5 MW apiece. Thus it will only take 500 of these giants to match the nameplate capacity of 1000 regular windmills. (In practice, all windmills only generate 1/3 of their “nameplate” capacity.)

As was true in 1972, the doomsday scenarios only arise when linear projections are made into the future with no consideration for human intervention. The tools to change the future are in our hands. We only have to elect to use them.

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