What about the future?

Scientific American: “What’s the best way to address a politically charged topic such as the future of energy? Remove the politics. “We’re going to skip over the politics,” Robert P. Laughlin, who won a Nobel Prize for physics in 1998, told a rapt audience of young scientists and others at the 60th annual Nobel Laureate Lectures at Lindau. “I’m not interested in now but in the time of your children’s children’s children, six generations into the future and 200 years from now,” when all carbon burning has stopped because it’s been banned or none is left, he said. “Thinking about a problem this way is so simple. Instead of arguing about what to do now, I want to talk about what will happen when there’s no coal.””

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know someone is going to say “But that’s what we have.” “There’s plenty to go ’round.” Blah, blah, blah. Ok, you’re right. We have plenty of fossil fuels, now. It will run out, and if you don’t understand that you’re not facing reality. Sure, we may all be dead when it happens, but it will happen.

Is it just me or is it selfish to not think about the future? I think it’s very selfish. It feels like I’m in the minority.

8 Comments

  1. Well, selfish is the wrong word. The person you quote is engaged in strawman building. Let’s ask instead something useful:

    The US needs X amount of energy now. We get it from a mix of sources, but primarily natural gas, coal, and nuclear

    Explain what sources you intend to replace those with. Don’t talk to me about pixie dust and unicorns – tell me what you want to replace them with.

    And no, saying “we’ll use less power” is not an answer. Put simply, people are not giving up large screen tvs, comfortable homes, always on power (etc, etc).

  2. James,

    It is selfish. What would you call it if you didn’t look out for the needs of your daughter? Neglect? Selfish? Yeah, it is.

    There are a lot of people willing to give up stuff. There are a lot of people that don’t agree with you, and it doesn’t make them wrong. Live the way you want to live, I’m not telling you what to do.

    We’ve done things people said we wouldn’t be able to do. I’m hopeful we’ll find a solution. It may take a century, but I’m hopeful it’ll happen. Hey, it has to happen at some point, because we will run out.

    As you say yourself, don’t tell me about pixie dust and unicorns. That’s right, there’s no magic pill and nobody is going to magically make more coal and oil appear from nowhere. So it will change, we probably won’t be here to see it, but it will happen. In typical American fashion we’ll find a fix when we’re in crisis.

    Sticking your head in the sand is just as bad as believing solar and wind will fix the problem. It’s just on the opposite end of the spectrum.

  3. Rob,

    In the large, people will not give up stuff. That’s reality. We are not going to voluntarily regress our living standards.

    Bear in mind that circa 1450, Europe faced “peak wood”. They didn’t scale back and decide to live with less, and neither will we.

    There is no magic pill, but there’s a ton of natural gas, and hundreds of years worth of coal. We actually use oil mostly for driving, not power – and electric cars are a sad joke for anything beyond hyper-local.

    I’d suggest you read the book “Power Hungry” – there’s a link to it on my site. And, you might try “The Collapse of Complex Societies” as well. The author explains why – in a world with no unexplored spaces – a regression to lower living standards is highly, highly unlikely.

    Just look at the trends in power usage, Rob – they all go up. Add in a growing population, and the you’ll see that reducing the raw (never mind per capita, which is also unlikely) power consumption number is simply not going to happen.

    Driving power usage back to the levels that even Kyoto asked for – given the growth of the population in the US since then – would mean kissing “always on” power goodbye.

    If you think that’s going to happen, I have some oil free land on the gulf coast for you 🙂

  4. James,

    I’m in agreement with you. We will not back off, in fact I can totally see an exponential growth in use by simply looking at our gadget crazed nation. We’re truly addicted to power, and we don’t even know it, it’s just part of our life. 🙂

    I know I need to do some reading on the subject, but even you admit we have a limited supply. “… hundreds of years worth of coal.” Fair enough, but it WILL run out. That’s my point.

    I’m not suggesting you change how you live. That’s your choice, and I’m all for choice, but it will have to be dealt with. Why not start now, if you’re willing, to make some changes? No harm, no foul.

    And I’ll pass on the the oil free land for now, I’m enjoying the California coast.

  5. It’s entirely correct to think about the future, but it’s an open question whether a person of the present time can think sensibly about problems 200 years in the future. It’s a bit like 1890s urban planners worrying about the horse-manure crisis ( http://j.mp/bCo4sg ).

    The way I see it: we could reduce our living standards and guarantee a crummy future for our descendants, or keep our living standards and trust that someone in the future will figure out how to make it all work, thus giving our descendants a shot at decent living standards.

    The linked SciAm article nails the real problem though: energy density. Petroleum is simply a very good fuel. No other non-science fictional alternative comes close (Current battery technology sucks efficiency-wise so electricity isn’t an answer for now.)

    We need to spend much more on energy research, that’s for sure. Manhattan Project-style programs won’t work because there’s no one true way to create sufficient amounts of clean energy. We desperately need people to try lots of different things — perhaps the Silicon Valley VC model is better suited to this.

    PS. There’s an amazing chart over at the Oil Drum: http://www.theoildrum.com/files/world_primary_energy.png … shows how little renewables like wind and solar are currently contributing.

  6. The best way to “deal with it now” is to find power sources that are abundant and scalable. Like natural gas (found reserves keep rising) and nuclear. Solar works on the small scale – things like arrays on building roofs make plenty of sense. But windfarms and large scale solar arrays? Only if you want to chew up tons of land, and then build equivalent amounts of “always on” power gen, since wind and solar are intermittent, and we simply have no storage solution. If we did, my iPhone wouldn’t need so much charging…

  7. James,

    Again, I’m with you on this. I know I’ve been a bit NIMBY about having nuclear in my backyard, but the more I think about it the more I believe in it, and would welcome it.

    Here in California we have abundant sunshine. It would be nice if we could encourage the use of solar on homes, and businesses, through tax credits or some other program. There’s no reason, especially in the San Joaquin Valley where I live, that new homes shouldn’t have a certain percentage of their power provided via solar. It’s one of the easy things we can do to make things better.

    We need to start small. Your list of options is great, and they’re things we know we can do today to easily offset our growing power needs. We won’t use less, but if we do some of these things we can use fewer natural resources.

    It’s a start.

  8. Prasenjeet,

    Hey, thanks for chiming in here. You make a good point about not being able to predict what our future need will look like, but there are some simple things we can do today. Personal use of solar/wind/etc.

    Where I live we get sunshine year round, we have a manufacturing facility outside of Exeter using solar with great success.

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