Sunday, December 11, 2005

Energy: Fairy Dust for Techno-optimists

Peter Pan knew that anyone could fly after receiving a light sprinkling of fairy dust. And, so he sprinkled three young acquaintances and lured their levitating bodies out a bedroom window for a flight to Neverland.

Today, the world's techno-optimists regale us with tales of a future technological Neverland filled with such miracles as climate engineering (to save us from global warming); vertical farming--something along the lines of farming in a high-rise office building; photographic communications portals between cities--a virtual reality picture phone of sorts; personal fabricators--think the replicator on the Star Trek television series; roving self-powered fish ranches (to make up for the overfishing we've already done); and even Martian terraforming to give us an extra "Earth" when we're ready to throw out the one we live on.

Such stories can truly make us feel as if we could fly without any outside propulsion. But, whatever their merit, these ideas almost never include an explanation of where the energy to accomplish them will come from. The techno-optimists just assume that the necessary energy will show up somehow. It is as if energy were fairy dust to be sprinkled on any energy-devouring scheme we can think of.

Of course, there are techno-optimist schemes for getting all the energy we'd like, too: great solar panels in space, nuclear breeder reactors, clean-coal technology, methane hydrates, biodiesel from soy, to name a few. Some of them might work. The operative word is might.

Often these energy schemes fail to include an adequate explanation of 1) how we will get more energy out of the proposed technologies than we put in, 2) how we will scale them up to meet all our projected needs, 3) how we will deal with the enormous expansion of problems associated with them such as strip mining, nuclear waste or global warming or 4) how long such schemes are likely to sustain us. Perhaps we shouldn't make such a fuss. Peter Pan will find some special fairy dust to solve these problems as well. It's called technological innovation, and like fairy dust, it will arrive at precisely the moment we need it.

The one thing that does not figure into the techno-optimists' future is the possibility that we may have to live simpler, less technological lives. But then, that would require hard choices, clear thinking and careful planning and cooperation. How much easier to fantasize that some technological Peter Pan will arrive and take us to a technological Neverland where the inhabitants never run short of fairy dust--or energy.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

What the public needs to learn is that technology is only a trancient phenomenon in human history. Technology is an energy intensive activity which exist only because of the tremendous energy surplus which the world has enjoyed over the last several decades. When energy becomes scarce and expensive these technological luxuries will become prohibitely expensive and they will thereafter soon disappear.

Of course, it is foolish to worry about the future of technology when there are billions of humans in the present world who suffer from poverty, lack and warfare.

patrick said...

nuclear breeder reactors, clean-coal technology, methane hydrates, biodiesel from soy, to name a few. Some of them might work. The operative word is might."

HUH?!? Breeder reactors hae worked since the 1950s! It's hardly new technology.

The real new thing would be a Lead-Bismith breeder nuclear reactor in the US. Low pressure nuclear reactor that would have wide operating range. Soviet subs used the technlogy, and it has advantages in many areas over sodium breeder reactors which are more complex and hence more expensive.

... but I thought it curious you cast doubt on the existence of a 50-yearold technology.

patrick said...

"What the public needs to learn is that technology is only a trancient phenomenon in human history."

The public doesnt need to learn that because that is utter nonsense.
Technology properly understood has been the steady accumulation of human know how from the dawn of time.
Technology is literally know-how. It is far from transient, it will stay with us.

God willing, it will never go away.

" Technology is an energy intensive activity which exist only because of the tremendous energy surplus which the world has enjoyed over the last several decades."
here are many technologies that either are low-energy consumption or not impacted by energy at all.
Writing was a technology, but it used only human effort until gutenberg's time.


"When energy becomes scarce and expensive these technological luxuries will become prohibitely expensive and they will thereafter soon disappear."

You mean, like books, forks, and muskets?
Energy efficiency keeps improving, so a 40 mpg luxury hybrid is more efficent than a 1970s era car. which one will disappear first, the beat-up car or the luxury?

"Of course, it is foolish to worry about the future of technology when there are billions of humans in the present world who suffer from poverty, lack and warfare."

Another silly statement. technology drive productivity, which creates wealth, which lowers poverty. Direct connects!
We can help get people out of poverty by using new technologies