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.