Being Careful What We Wish For

An interview with an old friend who raises chickens, brews beer, grows food, and does all kinds of other cool things in the Remington neighborhood in Baltimore (where I used to call home). He’s a chemist, a free thinker, and a doomer. He insists he’s “certainly not a prepper,” but thinks moving towards sustainability just makes sense–in the present tense.

He asks an important question about “renewable” energy, in the vein of a reversal of what Zimmie wrote in the lyrics of “Love Minus Zero / No Limit”: “She knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all.” Put the other way, in terms of harvesting solar energy, is there no failure like success?

As a scientist, do you have confidence that humans will create technological solutions to our current ecological problems?

Ok. So I’m assuming that by “ecological problems” we really mean energy, since energy is really the only problem.

I think we can solve the problem, but I don’t think we are as close as many people seem to believe. I could write a whole other thing about just this, but silicon solar panels just aren’t going to cut it. What we need are solar panels made out of things that you can just pick up off the ground. Dan Nocera has a good point: they don’t have to be super-efficient, but they do have to be really cheap.

My personal opinion, however, is that it’s an all-or-nothing scenario. I’m not very good with analogies, but it’s like we are speeding towards a brick wall while trying to figure out how to reinforce the front of the car to break through the wall. If we can do it, our species will survive. But for every piece of steel we weld onto the front, the car goes faster and faster (for some reason, it’s necessary for the analogy). The question is can we solve the problem before we hit the wall.

Now assuming we do succeed, what you really should do is take this situation to its logical conclusion and ask yourself if you actually want to live in the world that would likely result from cheap, essentially “unlimited” energy (even though there is no such thing as unlimited energy).

All organisms on the planet increase in population to the limit of what the resources in their environment, namely food and water, will allow. And food is nothing more than solar energy that was captured by a green plant and transformed into a chemical bond, then eaten by another organism, which releases it as energy. So, in theory, if we did achieve “unlimited” cheap energy our population would continue to grow unchecked.

We could sustain this growth because we could make synthetic fabrics for clothing, synthetic materials for building, and synthetic foods for eating. Of course we would need to be able to make everything synthetically because we would eventually take up all of the land and kill off every other species, destroy all the forests, and concrete over all of the farmland.

Eventually we would get to the point were we would be using too much solar energy and the earth would start to cool. So we are right back in the same situation (eventually). AND, in 500 billion or trillion years or something the sun becomes a supernova and swallows the earth anyway, so I guess it doesn’t matter.

You don’t hold out any hope for a willful change of policy, let alone a revolution. Is it Stockholm syndrome or just the sheer logistical challenge of such a thing?

Imagine what would have happened if the movement in this country [Occupy Wall Street] reached anywhere near the level of that in Egypt or Libya. How much restraint do you think our police would show if people were scaling the gates of the White House?

I also doubt we have a situation where the police/military would break rank and think we have to worry about that because for the most part, the population is indoctrinated and pacified beyond reproach.

For example, I was watching TV the other day and there was a commercial for the US Navy. It was all super badass, people jumping out of planes, coming up out of the water with big guns to cool music, etc. There was also a voicetrack of people saying what sounded like some sort of oath. It sounded like the one we are all familiar with, “I…something, something, swear to preserve, protect and defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic”… except, the last part about “against all enemies…” was replaced by “and to obey the orders of those appointed above me.” My jaw dropped! I don’t know if I even have the words to describe what I see happening here. But I do see it plain as day, and I hope you do too.


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