September 14, 2008

The Abundant World

Via Long Tail, a reminder of an interesting quote from Lewis Strauss, the former head of the Atomic Energy Commission:
It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter; will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history; will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age. This is the forecast of an age of peace.
Lewis Strauss, quoted in the New York Times on September 9, 1955
Hey, they called them the "Nifty Fifties" for a reason!

I'm interested in thinking about this vision of a world in which energy and food are too abundant to care about. In part, it's because I cannot fathom the world we live in transforming to that world without that abundance being distributed inequally -- some parts of the world would benefit from the technologies and economic structures making that abundance possible, and others would not have it. This would surely create sufficient tensions to cause war. Moreover,I think that at some level, Malthus was right -- the human population will always expand to a point beyond that which the available food supply and distribution infrastructure can comfortably accomodate. Not all land is suitable for producing food.

And the second reason I'm interested in this is that I'm convinced that war and conflict would not end, even if the whole world were awash in abundance. Abundance does not guarantee peace. We'd find something else to fight about, and with that much power at our disposal, it could be the most terrible war in human history. The advances in chemistry, metallurgy, internal combustion, and medicine that promised so much wealth, relief from hunger and disease were used in World War I to create the greatest horror yet known on the planet. World War II saw even greater horrors, including massive death camps and the use of nuclear weapons in combat.

Finally, depending on the mechanism used for creating abundant energy, the law of unintended consequences suggests that something bad would result from the use of the technologies that create abundance. History suggests that as with most energy sources, the consequence will be environmental. And there is no form of energy without a fuel source, which will become intensely valuable as the energy production method proliferates. It happened with coal, it happened with oil, it happened with uranium.

Strauss was speaking, in all likelihood, of a world in which fusion power was the source of abundant energy. The likeliest form of fusion power would be the fusion of two hydrogen molecules into helium, releasing heat in the process. The likeliest fuel source for this would be either fresh water or deuterium, which occurs naturally but generally is refined from fresh water through chemical process involving hydrogen sulfide.

So if something like that were to happen, it would probably be in a multiplicity of portable or household-size cold fusion reactors -- every building would have its own power generation plant, and the engineers and users would need to find some way to supply the plant with water (and possibly with hydrogen sulfide) and dispose of its heat.

I'm thinking that the best way to think about such a world would be with science fiction. What I'd like to illustrate is that abundance would not solve all of our problems, and would give us as significant a set of new problems as the problems that abundance would solve. The question I'd like to answer, and I don't know the answer yet, is whether that world would be preferable to the one we have right now. I need to think about the fuel supply -- what I'm thinking about requires an abundance of all available materials, at least for a peaceful, industrialized society. I don't want to explore a world in which hydrogen sulfide is a substitute for oil. Oil is scarce. The point is what happens when energy is abundant. While "abundant" does not mean "free," it does mean "cheap and plentiful."

I've got some ideas already, but you can help out, Readers -- I don't know what the sources are for hydrogen sulfide are, and I can't begin to imagine the effects of an abundance of free oxygen or water (and possibly an abundance of helium) being released into the atmosphere might be.

1 comment:

Jed Rothwell said...

I suggest you have a look at this on-line book, which was recommended by Arthur C. Clarke and many distinguished professors:

"Cold Fusion and the Future"

By the way, land is not needed to produce food, as explained in the book.