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Muddling Through

Henry Farrell takes a few wacks at "rightwing technophiles" who think progress, progress, progress will solve all our problems, ecological and otherwise. Jim Henley helpfully explains why people think this way: They seem to have almost always been right in the past. This, I think, is the really interesting issue raised by Collapse and it's unfortunate that Diamond didn't make it more explicit. The striking thing about something like the now-extinct Greenland Norse community is that it didn't die out after fourty years or something. It died out after four hundred years. The United States Constitution, meanwhile, is just a bit more than 200 years old. Industrial society is rather younger than that.

I don't think Diamond's lessons of the past have a great deal to teach us about the specific problems of the present other than that deforestation is a more serious issue than I had understood (fortunately, this is not an out-of-control problem anywhere in the developed world, and it's very clear how developing countries could stop it if they wanted to). What they do teach us to be somewhat cautious in making the inference from "we've always muddled through before" to "we'll always muddle through again." After all, the consequences of a global ecological catastrophe would be very bad and it's worth trying pretty hard to avoid it. As I said in my original Collapse posts, I think the essence of the problem is at the nexus of energy supply and global warming issues. The people who worry about climate change think the world ought to move toward releasing much less carbon into the atmosphere. There does not, however, seem to me to be any realistic way to continue having the sort of global economic growth that could put a significant dent in world poverty that doesn't involve releasing much more carbon into the atmosphere. On top of that, the world does not appear to contain nearly enough easily accessible oil to continue fueling the growing demand of India and China, much less to power India/China style growth in the rest of the developing world unless somehow the US-Europe-Japan axis magically starts not needing oil. All the realistic solutions to the oil problem, however, involve either huge increases in carbon emissions (because your hydrogen cars are getting their electricity from coal) or in nuclear waste storage (because your hydrogen cars are getting their electricity from nuclear plants) neither of which is appealing.

January 31, 2005 | Permalink

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The trouble with the "technology in the future will fix everything crowd" is this: right now, over the last 100 years or more, we have seen amazing growth. Very rapid, sometimes near exponential growth. If there's one thing the physicist in me knows at a gut level, it is that kind of growth is temporary: at some point, our ability to innovate technology will stagnate. To believe anything else is to believe in a perpetual motion machine.

Now, maybe stagnation is a 1,000 years a way. Maybe it is a decade away. But it is foolish to assume, always, that we will solve all problems with "progress."

Posted by: Timothy Klein | Jan 31, 2005 2:33:11 AM

One alternative to oil that can actually replace tens of millions of barrels of oil per day is ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC). The electricity generated by OTEC can be used to produce methanol or ammonia. OTEC-based methanol becomes commercially feasible when long term oil prices are at or above $35 per bbl.

In addition to weaning ourselves off of Persian Gulf oil, we can also substantially lower our carbon emissions.

Posted by: Brad | Jan 31, 2005 2:36:27 AM

Yeah, but nuclear waste is a lot better because it can be stored in places where it shouldn't do any harm.

Fossil fuel and coal pollution is not stored, it is constantly being dispersed in the atmosphere.

I think we get a much better deal here out of switching to as much nuclear power as we can.

Posted by: Adam Herman | Jan 31, 2005 2:50:04 AM

Can we mine uranium forever?

Should we try to burn the methane hydrates before the oceans warm and they evaporate, accelerating global climate change?

Wouldn't it be prudent in any case to tax gasoline at $1/gallon, at least? Sound policy and political suicide. Welcome to the 21st century.

Posted by: bad Jim | Jan 31, 2005 4:50:08 AM

If there's one thing the physicist in me knows at a gut level, it is that kind of growth is temporary: at some point, our ability to innovate technology will stagnate. To believe anything else is to believe in a perpetual motion machine.

Perpetual motion machines don't work because you can't get more energy from something than you put into it. Human growth has no apparent limits because there is no limit to the amount of human intelligence that can be put into innovation.

- Josh

Posted by: Wild Pegasus | Jan 31, 2005 5:14:30 AM

I think nothing inclines me to dismiss as unserious the rantings of the global warming crowd, so much as their essentially uniform rejection of the one, solitary technology which is currently capable of sustaining a global economy without CO2 emissions. You get the impression that they actually welcome global warming as an excuse to scale back the human presence on the planet.

Uranium supplies are good for thousands of years, thorium for hundreds of thousands. Fusion for millions. (Yes, we do have working fusion, we just need to either make the "fuel pellets" smaller, or build some really big power plants.) And most of the nuclear "waste" problem derives from a politically dictated decision to not reprocess fuel rods; Most of the "waste" is actually fuel.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 31, 2005 6:18:03 AM

Brett, I'm a member of the global warming crowd, and I'm in favor of nuclear power (and I'm far from the only one).

Posted by: Walt Pohl | Jan 31, 2005 6:26:13 AM

All the realistic solutions to the oil problem, however, involve either huge increases in carbon emissions (because your hydrogen cars are getting their electricity from coal) or in nuclear waste storage (because your hydrogen cars are getting their electricity from nuclear plants) neither of which is appealing.

This is just not true. Your(our) hydrogen cars can get their electricity from wind requiring neither nuclear waste nor green house gas emissions.

A table of World Wind Generating Capacity from 1980 to 2003 is here

http://www.earth-policy.org/Updates/Update37_data_WorldWind.htm

From 1985 (when it first crossed 1 gigawatt) to 2003 production increased almost 40 fold with growth faster in the later half of the period.

Denmark gets more than 20 percent of its total power from wind.

At the current rate of growth wind generating capacity will overtake nuclear (357 gigawatts) in less than 10 years.

Posted by: Martin Schafer | Jan 31, 2005 6:28:45 AM

Perpetual motion machines don't work because you can't get more energy from something than you put into it. Human growth has no apparent limits because there is no limit to the amount of human intelligence that can be put into innovation.

Hopefully Timothy will check me on this as I venture into physics to respond to Josh/Wild Pegasus.

Perpetual motion machines can't exist because of entropy. In fact, we human beings often get more energy out of something than we put in. When I light a log in my woodstove, I expend very little energy in doing it, and add very little to the log-stove system. As the log burns, the total amount of energy is always conserved, but it is converted into thermal energy which dissipates over a broad area. The energy that is organized in such a way as to be usable for work diminishes, and is replaced by the random motion of atoms spread out over my whole house, and then radiated outside the house - becoming more and more disorganized as the sphere of radiation expands and thernal equilibrium is re-established. Same amount of energy - but less useful to us.

The natural environment is full of such stores of usable energy - wood, coal, petroleum, for example - organized systems provided by nature that are the work of centuries, even millenia, but which in a very short period of recent human history have been rapidly depleted.

It could be that technological innovation will enable us to unlock previously untapped stores of energy for work. But there is no guarantee, since success depends on contingent facts about the natural world. It now seems to require more and more resources and work to make incremental progress in high-energy physics. Physicists of earlier generations could rub glass on silk or fly a kite and make significant progress - now we have to build costly supercolliders.

It is entirely conceivable that we could lose this race. Think of all the human intelligence in the world as a small woodfire burning near an oil tank. It is possible that the fire might burn hot enough and long enough to rupture the tank, liberate the untapped energy it contains, and spread the fire. Or the wood fire might burn out before the tank ruptures. No one can say with confidence whether human intelligence can burn hot enough and long enough to liberate significant, untapped stores of natural energy, or whether we are on a downward cycle of more and more work expended to produce diminishing technological returns.

Human intelligence actually is a more limited resource than your faith-based account would have it. Human brains are finite thought engines that require the expenditure of a substantial amount of energy to be as productive as they have been in the past. Besides their daily fuel needs, required for them to run themselves and reproduce themselves, they are also plugged in to a massive educational and social infrastructure that improves their productivity, has taken centuries to build and requires tremendous resources to maintain. It may become increasingly difficult to improve, and even maintain, that infrastructure if the dreamed-of technological bonanzas don't materialize.

It is at least possible that we are in a losing race - the highly productive human innovation machine could wind down as it converts diminishing, and increasingly expensive, stores of usable energy into less and less productive work. The hoped-for technological innovations might not come before the intellectual and technological infrastructure begins to erode. No one can know for sure.

We might note that one thing that fuels technological innovation - widespread scientific education - seems to be in decline in America as it is under constant social threat from religious yahoos, as the supply of foreign graduate students dwindles, and as economic anxiety continues to push previously comfortable and economically confident American students away from science and into more practical, commercially-oriented forms education.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Jan 31, 2005 8:08:00 AM

Perpetual motion machines don't work because you can't get more energy from something than you put into it. Human growth has no apparent limits because there is no limit to the amount of human intelligence that can be put into innovation.

Hopefully Timothy will check me on this as I venture into physics to respond to Josh/Wild Pegasus.

Perpetual motion machines can't exist because of entropy. In fact, we human beings often get more energy out of something than we put in. When I light a log in my woodstove, I expend very little energy in doing it, and add very little to the log-stove system. As the log burns, the total amount of energy is always conserved, but it is converted into thermal energy which dissipates over a broad area. The energy that is organized in such a way as to be usable for work diminishes, and is replaced by the random motion of atoms spread out over my whole house, and then radiated outside the house - becoming more and more disorganized as the sphere of radiation expands and thernal equilibrium is re-established. Same amount of energy - but less useful to us.

The natural environment is full of such stores of usable energy - wood, coal, petroleum, for example - organized systems provided by nature that are the work of centuries, even millenia, but which in a very short period of recent human history have been rapidly depleted.

It could be that technological innovation will enable us to unlock previously untapped stores of energy for work. But there is no guarantee, since success depends on contingent facts about the natural world. It now seems to require more and more resources and work to make incremental progress in high-energy physics. Physicists of earlier generations could rub glass on silk or fly a kite and make significant progress - now we have to build costly supercolliders.

It is entirely conceivable that we could lose this race. Think of all the human intelligence in the world as a small woodfire burning near an oil tank. It is possible that the fire might burn hot enough and long enough to rupture the tank, liberate the untapped energy it contains, and spread the fire. Or the wood fire might burn out before the tank ruptures. No one can say with confidence whether human intelligence can burn hot enough and long enough to liberate significant, untapped stores of natural energy, or whether we are on a downward cycle of more and more work expended to produce diminishing technological returns.

Human intelligence actually is a more limited resource than your faith-based account would have it. Human brains are finite thought engines that require the expenditure of a substantial amount of energy to be as productive as they have been in the past. Besides their daily fuel needs, required for them to run themselves and reproduce themselves, they are also plugged in to a massive educational and social infrastructure that improves their productivity, has taken centuries to build and requires tremendous resources to maintain. It may become increasingly difficult to improve, and even maintain, that infrastructure if the dreamed-of technological bonanzas don't materialize.

It is at least possible that we are in a losing race - the highly productive human innovation machine could wind down as it converts diminishing, and increasingly expensive, stores of usable energy into less and less productive work. The hoped-for technological innovations might not come before the intellectual and technological infrastructure begins to erode. No one can know for sure.

We might note that one thing that fuels technological innovation - widespread scientific education - seems to be in decline in America as it is under constant social threat from religious yahoos, as the supply of foreign graduate students dwindles, and as economic anxiety continues to push previously comfortable and economically confident American students away from science and into more practical, commercially-oriented forms education.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Jan 31, 2005 8:11:04 AM

Sorry about the double post all.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Jan 31, 2005 8:24:51 AM

The bulk of the nuclear waste isn't spent fuel. The bulk of the nuclear waste is decommissioned power plants.

I tend to agree with Freeman Dyson about nuclear power -- the central problems are that the plants are too large and it takes too much bureaucracy to build one, and we don't accept having a few large accidents while we test new designs. So innovation is very slow.

If we had quick innovation we might get automated reprocessing plants with very low accident rates. We might try things like using some kinds of high-level radioactive waste for damper rods etc. As long as they absorb neutrons and don't emit neutrons, they can be used. If they aren't ideally efficient then make them thicker or whatever. No concern about what they turn into when they absorb neutrons, they're already high-level waste. Maybe they'll turn into something interesting.

But we aren't willing to accept the accidents we'd have while we figured out how to do it. And the fears there might be reasonable. We've never studied the long-term effects of radiation on an animal as long-lived as us. If we get it straight that fission is our only hope then maybe we'll accept the risks and do lots of R&D. But so far we've been arguing about our present inadequate technology instead.

Posted by: J Thomas | Jan 31, 2005 8:44:11 AM

If we were serious about global warming etc, we'd look very carefully for ways to use less energy. Every alternative we use to generate giant amounts of energy has unknown effects on the ecology. Like, what would it do to change the temperature of the ocean depths? Who knows? We've barely started studying the depths.

If we could actually reduce our energy use while keeping up our quality of life, that would be very good. But we mostly haven't tried and we mostly don't think that way. So for example there's a limit to the value of insulation in buildings when you need to keep a reasonable airflow for people to breathe. Bring in too much new air and you have to change its temperature and at some point what you lose through the walls isn't very big in comparison. If we had a cheap way to do HVACR we're be a lot better off.

Moving atoms is expensive, moving signals is cheap. It's natural to think in terms of optimising the transport of things and not so much optimising the transport of data.

And we could reduce our beef production to those fed mostly on grass that hasn't been irrigated. That would save something.

We might be able to go a long way toward reducing costs for heating and transportation and agriculture, but typically it involves compromises that people would prefer not to make. Traditionally we've done better at such compromises during wartime. If you don't like whatever they're doing -- rationing or whatever -- people tell you "There's a war on!" like that's all they need to say.

Posted by: J Thomas | Jan 31, 2005 9:06:04 AM

I'm not a fan of nuclear power as it is practiced in the USA. Interestingly, neither is Wall St, which is why there have been no nuclear plants built here for decades. The French example is more encouraging, but involves a massive government involvement and public investment - basically a socialist planned-economy approach, which doesn't go over well in the US.

Solar photovoltaic is advancing rapidly. The price per peak-watt has dropped by a factor of 7 in the last 20 years (roughly from $25 to $3), and thin-film solar cells (possibly using the same manufacturing technology as LCD screens, which are already produced in volume of about 15 sq km per year) could reduce this further to < $1 within a few more years. At that price, with near-zero running costs, it becomes very competitive with other electricity-generation technologies.

There are also great gains in efficiency coming from smart microprocessor/DSP-controlled electric motors (which account for perhaps 70% of industrial electricity usage), LED lighting, and Puron air-conditioners.

Transport will continue to use fossil fuels, but gasoline/electric hybrids and more efficient engines (lean burn, ceramic piston/engine block) can give much better mileage.

The difficult question is whether these technologies can be made cheap enough quickly enough to meet the requirements of China and India (and other developing countries). It won't do us much good to drive the Prius in Massachusetts if there are a billion 2-cycle engines wasting gas in China.

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Jan 31, 2005 9:17:33 AM

Deforestation is a big problem in China and Brazil, and it's not at all clear that they've been able to do much so far.

Posted by: praktike | Jan 31, 2005 9:43:36 AM

Putting a "dent" in world poverty simply requires using the resources we have in a different way. We already grow enough food to feed everyone handsomely.

As most of the comments illustrate, we're the captives of our own minds. Young people today will be fortunate to see, or even more fortunate to live through, one of the greatest changes in social history.

Eventually the third world is going to have to bypass our form of development. They will probably also face the challenge of ending our planet-destroying ways. Our sunk investment is too huge to let us look at radical alternatives to our present economy with the jaundiced eye it deserves.

It seems intuitively obvious that in some way information will be the 'fuel' for a sustainable economy. For one thing, human intelligence is widely distributed, and our 'thermal efficiency' for the use of this resource is obviously quite low. Advances in computing may in some way resemble the advances in metallurgy and chemistry that have fuelled recent (past 200 years) development, providing new tools and ways of doing things.

The social system that can tap the emerging resources of computing and thinking will seem as magical as teleportation to us writing today. For example, we could put a dent in our dependence on foreign oil today if everyone would just think before they use their car. Carry that a little further and you can skip the whole automobile development cycle, and any country that can do that (resembling, perhaps, the Netherlands) will save a ton of money.

In the same vein, some of our most positive changes would be to create clustered housing on transit lines for pensioners. In just a few years the costs of fuel will make it almost impossible for a pensioner to afford a car. Making it possible for large numbers of them to move to energy-efficient housing in a socially functional setting would have a large effect on our energy balance sheets. Prisons, or subsidized housing- which will be our choice? Which SHOULD be our choice?

The U.S., in fact, already blew one chance to become a major player in the intelligence economy. We could have been the place where half of the post-secondary students in the world got their education. Instead, our applications from abroad are down by a half. Oh well....

It should, at least, be very interesting.....

Posted by: serial catowner | Jan 31, 2005 10:02:32 AM

On the science (or art) of muddling through see:

Lindblom, Charles. 1959. "The Science of Muddling Through." Public Administration Review 19(2): 79-88.

Posted by: Zach | Jan 31, 2005 10:07:20 AM

Even when adjusted for differences in climate, Europeans, with a similar standard of living, consume almost 30% less energy per capita than Americans.

The only reason we are wedded to the burning of fossil fuels is because our infrastructure is built around it. If we had taken the $200 billion we have wasted on the fiasco in Iraq over the last three years, supplemented it with a serious "energy freedom fee" on imported petroleum (say the equivalent of $2 a gallon of gas) we could be well on our way to ending the use of all CO2 producing fuels. As mentioned above, we already have viable technologies available in nuclear, wind, solar, gas-electric hybrids that can serve as gap technologies while even better ones are developed. Fuel cells are viable but simply too expensive and lack production and distribution system for hydrogen. Even if you are forced to use gasoline as your hydrogen source for first generation fuel cell cars you gain an immediate reduction in CO2 emissions because a fuel cell is 80% efficient as opposed to 30% or so for even the most efficient internal combustion engine.

It is not the ability we lack it is just the will.

Posted by: Freder Frederson | Jan 31, 2005 10:31:52 AM

In what world is the U.S. not a major player in the intelligence economy? We may have passed up the opportunity to utterly dominate the post-secondary education market for the entire world, but that's an awfully far cry from not being a major player. Last time I checked, well over half of the recipients of Nobel Prizes in the sciences did their work in the US - this year it's six Americans and two Israelis.

Posted by: Jake McGuire | Jan 31, 2005 10:36:21 AM

We are a major player. The difference would be like in the 30s when Ford and GM mass-produced cars in every country that would let them. Britain and Germany still had car companies, they just weren't important any more. For most of my lifetime we could have sold well over half of the post-secondary education the world could have consumed.

Posted by: serial catowner | Jan 31, 2005 10:48:53 AM

Jared Diamond vs. Michael Crichton science vs. scientology.

Posted by: pedro | Jan 31, 2005 10:58:20 AM

I should say that I'm not a fan of the way we do nuclear power in the US, either. Too driven by politics rather than engineering. This is one area where we're really falling behind.

While I use attitudes towards nuclear power as a diagnostic of how serious somebody is about this global warming, and what their motivations are, (Hey, if it's an emergency, then you should be open-minded about solutions, right?) my real expectation is that we'll rely on fossil fuels until they become uneconomic, by which point we'll have solar developed to take over. Doing this economically, though, probably requires some form of nanotechnology.

I just don't like relying on pulling a rabbit out of my hat, even if I'm reasonably confident he's lurking in there somewhere. Nuclear power already works. And we pretty much know how to build fusion plants, too, if we're willing to build them really big, and power them with bombs. So we don't have to give up a high energy economy to reduce CO2, assuming that does prove necessary. We DO have optionss, though we're not certain of all of them.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 31, 2005 12:02:13 PM

"And we pretty much know how to build fusion plants, too, if we're willing to build them really big, and power them with bombs."

This is not really true. We understand most of the physics of fusion reactions, and we can make fusion reactions happen, but we are not capable of running fusion reactions in a controlled way that gives energy at economically feasible rates. I mean, you can build a tokamak and do D/T fusion, but they're just now getting to the point where they can harness more of the energy than they spent heating the gas to make the plasma. The new experimental ITER reactor in Europe is supposed to have net energy output, but the cost will be still be hundreds or thousands of dollars/kW/h.

If the point you're trying to make is that the main problems with fusion are engineering problems and not basic scientific ones, then I agree. It sounds though, like you're saying the only reason we don't have a bunch of fusion plants is that there is no political will, which is wrong.

Posted by: MattT | Jan 31, 2005 12:22:15 PM

MattT, you seem to have overlooked the word "bomb" in my post. That's one form of fusion we're quite good at, and studies were done many years ago, showing the feasiblity of building powerplants utilizing nuclear bombs as "fuel pellets". The problem being, of course, that the minimum plant size was rather large...

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 31, 2005 12:42:35 PM

Can we mine uranium forever?

Not at all; ISTR seeing some estimates that the ratio of proven Uranium reserves to current consumption rate is on the same order of magnitude as the similar ratio for petroleum.

Radically ramping up the fission component of energy production will cut carbon in the short term, but is no long-term solution.

Posted by: cmdicely | Jan 31, 2005 12:58:53 PM

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