Sunday, March 01, 2009

Apollo 13: A Guilty Pleasure in the Age of Scarcity

I was watching the movie Apollo 13 recently for what was probably the fifth time, consuming it in the manner of a guilty pleasure. I say guilty pleasure because this movie is the paradigmatic technofix movie. And, I have little faith that the mounting challenges of resource depletion and climate change can be addressed by technology alone.

But still I revel in the technical mastery and the astonishing ingenuity of the NASA scientists portrayed in the film who saved a crippled spacecraft and brought its crew safely home. Perhaps, I think to myself, just maybe perhaps, these technofix advocates have a point. Maybe when circumstances get really, really desperate, we will somehow pull off an energy transition while at the same time addressing climate change and a host of other issues in one transformative ingenuity-filled marathon. They did it in Apollo 13, didn't they?

Unfortunately, that is precisely what many people believe. I've been having an exchange with someone who works in the computer industry about the potential supply problems for two key but rare metals used widely in electronics: gallium and indium. He rightly points out that the information we have about the reserves of both are sketchy and that the decline in the production of gallium in the last few years could be due to decreasing demand. It could also be the case, he says, that new technology will make gallium easier to get in the future and the decline will be reversed. (He makes the same argument for oil.)

He insists that indium simply can't be that scarce because--get this--there is indium in billions of electronic devices including cellphones and computer screens, in fact, in nearly everything that has a flat-screen display associated with it.

This is curious logic. It says that because we are using a resource ubiquitously and at an exponentially increasing rate, it must be plentiful. Now, I would conclude that such a situation would, in fact, be likely to result in the very scarcity I fear. Of course, it is always possible that everything will turn out all right with regard to the supply of critical metals and energy. But given the risks and uncertainty, is it wise to bet the future of civilization on the most optimistic assumptions?

I realized later that what this computer professional actually meant was that the corporate and government planners charged with thinking about resource supply issues couldn't possibly have made a colossal blunder which would lead to a catastrophic shortage of key metals in the electronics industry. He presumed, I think, that such an outcome was simply out of the question given the competence and intelligence of the people in his industry.

I think this is really the hardest kind of denial to cut through. If one admits this kind of incompetence is possible, then it implies that we could be hitting limits all over the place which have not been foreseen by corporate and government planners. That would mean a complete readjustment of one's world view and a concentrated dose of fear and uncertainty to boot.

Now, I feel that fear and uncertainty on a regular basis. And, I think that's why I occasionally take refuge in the technofix triumphalism found in such movies as Apollo 13 and in quite a few science fiction ones as well. Wouldn't it be nice to be cruising the galaxy with everything one needs at the touch of a button, or better yet, via voice command? Wouldn't it be nice never to have to even think about how much energy one uses?

Yes, it would be nice...and it is nice for a couple of hours to imagine such a life. But then, that's why such interludes are really a guilty pleasure. None of us who understand the real risks we face can afford more time than that lost in a fantasy that has so thoroughly crippled the thinking of even very intelligent people on the planet and which threatens to condemn us all to an unpleasant future.


Jerry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jerry said...

Your computer friend's logic is exactly the sort by which fresh water consumption has been allowed to go off the chart and which will likely result in significant violence and death.

Or maybe we'll learn how to catch water and mineral filled asteroids just in the nick of time, perhaps even accompanied by an appropriate musical score.

Henry Warwick said...

I deal with similar attitudes. They just can't seem to get it through their heads that "technology is not energy". It's a concept that eludes them.

Or the classic "we'll think of something". It's sad. I try to explain to them that it doesn't matter if "we think of something", and they look at me like I'm some kind of a doomer/crazy person.

We know where all the energy is (fossil fuel, solar, wind, nuclear, tides, hydro) Hydro and wind are (technically) aspects of solar power. Nuclear is a "kind" of fossil fuel, it's just a fossil from a supernova 5 billion years ago. Then there's the "breeder" reactor crowd, and yes, it has possibilities, but it requires massive computer support and the motherboards are made of what? Oh, that's right - oil... And the frames are made of what? Soem weird metal? Which is found in what? Some obscure sands in Florida or rock formations in Khazakhstan or Congo? And how exactly will this rock get dug up? And how will that rock get melted? And how will the metals be separated from the silicon, aluminum, salts, and other crap? That's right, using electrodes, and where will that electricity come from? In Congo?

It's frustrating when people don't see how it's all so tightly connected, and I have to talk to crown men like they're children because the obvious facts of the matter when stated in the language of fact leaves them so unimpressed.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I'v seen it about five times too! "Houston, we have a problem!" "With all due respect Sir, this will be our finest hour." And they were still using slide rules for crying out loud. Now, in 2015 we will glide the spacecraft New Horizons out to where no man has gone before, between Pluto and its satellite Charon for a photo op. Yet none of that magic could have happened then and will not happen in the future without prodigious quantities of plentiful, cheap, and easy energy, primarily oil. "Those were the days my friend, we'd sing and dance...."

Hanley Tucks said...

Actually, I took a different lesson from Apollo 13. Not that with the right technology we can flourish in a push-button world, but that with the application of the work of many people, and the minds and creativity of many more, if there's a crisis we can just scrape through and survive.

After all, the "success" of the Apollo XII crew was not that they landed smoothly on the Moon after a comfortable journey, but that there was a crisis which nearly killed them, but they just managed to survive.

It cost a lot of money and effort to put them in a place where they almost died and managed to do no useful science at all. If that's a "technofix" it's not a very impressive one.

Looking at resource depletion and climate crises, then, we can expect that by extreme effort and creativity we can just manage to survive; not that we can cruise along easily without effort into a push-button world.

When we look at the past, I think it's important to draw the right lessons from it.

John Weiser said...

MSNBC describes the situation with low oil prices and tankers serving as oil storage, as Kurt did in his Feb. 1 post.

Again, I think we need to draw the distinction between peak oil and climate change. One too plausible scenario is that oil peaking will ameliorate climate change and obviate the need for things like Kyoto treaties. Just look at Weisman's book, The World Without Us, and the History and NatGeo channel takeoffs.

My own peak oil blog,
thin by comparison to Kurt's, is:

Rice Farmer said...

Our leaders could not possibly commit such colossal blunders, could they? But in reality, such colossal blunders have been repeated ad nauseam throughout history. And our leaders haven't learned a thing. So, welcome to the latest installment.