The dystopia we fear is keeping us from the utopia we deserve

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In December, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California announced that they had achieved on Earth what is commonplace within stars: They had fused hydrogen isotopes, releasing more energy in the reaction than was used in the ignition. اضافة اعلان

The announcement came with enough caveats to make it clear that usable nuclear fusion remains, optimistically, decades away. But the fact that nuclear fusion will not change our energy system over the next year does not mean it should not change our energy ambitions for the coming years.

There are three goals a society can have for its energy usage. One is to use less. That is, arguably, the goal that took hold in the 1970s. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” is the key mantra here, with the much-ignored instruction to reduce coming first for a reason. Today, that ambition persists in the thinking of degrowthers and others who believe humanity courts calamity if we do not respect our limits and discard fantasies of endless growth.

The second goal is to use what we use now, but better. That is where modern climate policy has moved. The vision of decarbonization — now being pursued through policy, like last year’s Inflation Reduction Act — is to maintain roughly the energy patterns we have but shift to nonpolluting sources like wind and solar. Decarbonization at this speed and scale is so daunting a task that it is hard to look beyond it, to the third possible goal: a world of energy abundance.
“The do-nots favor stagnation and are happy turning our civilization into a collective couch potato.”
In his fascinating, frustrating book “Where Is My Flying Car?” J. Storrs Hall argues that we do not realize how much our diminished energy ambitions have cost us. Across the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, the energy humanity could harness grew about 7 percent annually. Humanity’s compounding energetic force, he writes, powered “the optimism and constant improvement of life in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century”.

But starting around 1970, the curve flattened, particularly in rich countries, which began doing more with less. In 1979, for instance, Americans consumed about 10.8 kilowatts per person. In 2019 we consumed about 9.2 kilowatts a person. To a conservationist, this looks like progress, although not nearly enough, as a glance at carbon dioxide emissions will confirm. To Hall, it was a civilizational catastrophe.

The marvels we missedHis titular flying car stands in for all that we were promised in the mid-20th century but do not yet have: flying cars, of course, but also lunar bases, nuclear rockets, atomic batteries, nanotechnology, undersea cities, affordable supersonic air travel, and so on. Hall harvests these predictions and many more from midcentury sci-fi writers and prognosticators and sorts them according to their cost in energy.

What he finds is that the marvels we did manage — the internet, smartphones, teleconferencing, Wikipedia, flat-screen televisions, streaming video and audio content, mRNA vaccines, rapidly advancing artificial intelligence, to name just a few — largely required relatively little energy and the marvels we missed would require masses of it.

But they are possible. We have flown plenty of flying car prototypes over the decades. The water crises of the future could be solved by mass desalination. Supersonic air travel is a solved technological problem. Lunar bases lie well within the boundaries of possibility. The path that Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, outlined for nanotechnology — build machines that are capable of building smaller machines that are capable of building smaller machines that are capable of, well, you get it — still seems plausible. What we need is energy — much, much more of it. But Hall thinks we have become an “ergophobic” society, which he defines as a society gripped by “the almost inexplicable belief that there is something wrong with using energy”.

Here, Hall’s account drips with contempt for anyone who does not dive out of the way of today’s industrialists. He reaches back to old H.G. Wells stories to find the right metaphor for where our civilization went sideways, finding it in the feckless Eloi, a post-human race that collapsed into the comforts of abundance. The true conflict, he says, is not between the haves and the have-nots but between the doers and the do-nots. “The do-nots favor stagnation and are happy turning our civilization into a collective couch potato,” he writes. And in his view, the do-nots are winning.
The future exists in our politics mainly to give voice to our fears or urgency to our agendas. We have lost sight of the world that abundant, clean energy could make possible.
“Where Is My Flying Car?” is a work of what I would call reactionary futurism. It loves the progress technology can bring; it cannot stand the soft, flabby humans who stand in the future’s way. There is nothing inexplicable about why country after country sought energy conservation or why it remains an aim. A partial list would include poisoned rivers and streams, smog-choked cities, the jagged edge of climate change, and ongoing mass extinction, and the geopolitical costs of being hooked on oil from Saudi Arabia and gas from Russia.

Hall gives all this short shrift, describing climate change as “a hangnail, not a hangman” (for whom, one wants to ask), and focusing on the villainy of lawyers and regulators and hippies. He laments how the advent of nuclear weapons made war so costly that it “short-circuited the evolutionary process”, in which “a society that slid into inefficient cultural or governmental practices was likely to be promptly conquered by the baron next door”.

Where Hall’s theories fall shortHall’s sociopolitical theories are as flimsy as his technical analyses are careful. His book would imply that countries with shallow public sectors would race ahead of their statist peers in innovation and that nations threatened by violent neighbors would be better governed and more technologically advanced than, say, the US.

Among his central arguments is that government funding and attention paradoxically impedes the technologies it is meant to help, but — curiously for a book about energy — he has little to say about the astonishing progress in solar, wind, and battery power that has been driven by public policy. He predicts that if solar and wind “prove actually usable on a large scale”, environmentalists would turn on them. “Their objections really have nothing to do with pollution, or radiation, or risk, or global warming,” he writes. “They are about keeping abundant, cheap energy out of the hands of ordinary people.”

But on this branch of the multiverse, most every environmentalist group of note fought to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, which was really the Deploy Solar and Wind Everywhere and Invest in Every Energy Technology We Can Think of Act. And if they had their way, it would have been far bigger and far better funded.

What he truly got rightYet Hall’s book is worth struggling with because he is right about two big things. First, that the flattening of the energy curve was a moment of civilizational import and one worth revisiting. And second, that many in politics have abandoned any real vision of the long future. Too often, the right sees only the imagined glories of the past, and the left sees only the injustices of the present. The future exists in our politics mainly to give voice to our fears or urgency to our agendas. We have lost sight of the world that abundant, clean energy could make possible.

The remarkable burst of prosperity and possibility that has defined the past few hundred years has been a story of energy. “Take any variable of human well-being — longevity, nutrition, income, mortality, overall population — and draw a graph of its value over time,” Charles Mann writes in “The Wizard and the Prophet”. “In almost every case, it skitters along at a low level for thousands of years, then rises abruptly in the 18th and 19th centuries, as humans learn to wield the trapped solar power in coal, oil, and natural gas.”
The first reason to want energy abundance is to make energy and the gifts it brings available to all.
Without energy, even material splendor has sharp limits. Mann notes that visitors to the Palace of Versailles in February 1695 marveled at the furs worn to dinners with the king and the ice that collected on the glassware. It was freezing in Versailles, and no amount of wealth could fix it. A hundred years later, Thomas Jefferson had a vast wine collection and library in Monticello in Virginia and the forced labor of hundreds of slaves, but his ink still froze in his inkwells come winter.

The economy of energyToday, heating is a solved problem for many. But not for all. There are few inequalities more fundamental than energy inequality. Demographer Hans Rosling had a striking way of framing this. In 2010 he argued that you could group humanity by the energy people had access to. At the time, roughly 2 billion people had little or no access to electricity and still cook food and heat water by fire. About 3 billion had access to enough electricity to power electric lights. An additional billion or so had the energy and wealth for labor-saving appliances like washing machines. It is only the richest billion people who could afford to fly, and they — we — used around half of global energy.

The first reason to want energy abundance is to make energy and the gifts it brings available to all. Rosling put this well, describing how his mother loaded the laundry and then took him to the library, how she used the time she had once spent cleaning clothes to teach herself English. “This is the magic,” he said. “You load the laundry, and what do you get out of the machine? You get books.” There is no global aid strategy we could pursue that would do nearly as much as making energy radically cheaper, more reliable, and more available.

Then there is all we could do if we had the cheap, clean, and abundant energy needed to do it. In a paper imagining “energy superabundance”, Austin Vernon and Eli Dourado sketch out some of the near-term possibilities. “Flights that take 15 hours on a 747 could happen in an hour on a point-to-point rocket,” they write. Vertical greenhouses could feed far more people, and desalination, which even now is a major contributor to water supplies in Singapore and Israel, would become affordable for poorer, populous nations that need new water sources most. Directly removing carbon dioxide from the air would become more plausible, giving us a path to reversing climate change over time.

Vernon and Dourado’s definition of superabundance is fairly modest: They define it as every person on Earth having access to about twice the power Icelanders use annually. But what if fusion or other technologies give us energy that becomes functionally limitless?

“In 100 or 200 years, everything will look radically different,” Melissa Lott, director of research at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy, told me. “Folks will look back and be blown away by how we used energy today. They’ll say, ‘Wait, you just burned it?’”

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