Thursday, January 12, 2012

Growth and Foolish Optimism

Housekeeping:  You may have noticed the title change.  I just discovered that, far from being uniquely my own genius idea, "Science Fiction and Fact" is in fact the title of a speculative fiction magazine.   They were around first, so I figured I'd cede any claim on the phrase to them, with apologies for any inadvertent trademark infringement.

Now business.  I can't seem to write anything on my own anymore: this is a great link that is well worth reading on the subject of growth and energy security.  No matter what your particular ideology is about how the future will evolve in the face of climate change and dwindling supplies of fossil fuels, it is worth questioning how much your belief comes from pure optimism rather than an actual confrontation of the facts in front of us.

I admit, of the ideologies described, I have pretty much always fallen into number 4:  We're nearing peak oil, and things may be tough for a while, but we'll eventually get back on track and start growing again once we perfect our use of solar energy and other renewable sources.

It has been important to remind myself that faith in renewable energy to save us all is potentially just as shortsighted as not worrying about it too much and hoping it'll all just turn out okay, because our inability to store the energy generated from renewables in quantities large enough to provide the power we need when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing is still a huge technological limitation. While there are the environmentalists and their studies that tell you we have the solar and wind resources out there to completely power our society, we still can't come to depend solely on those resources until we can use that energy whenever societal needs demand it, and, more fundamentally, we really can't even grasp how much energy a world that is growing in human numbers and in per capita energy use is going to need in the future.

I sure don't think that means we shouldn't try:  I've been guilty of sunny optimism about solar power (no pun intended!), and I still fundamentally believe that we can come up with the technological break-throughs that we need. The best way to do that is to start working on it already, deploying the technology to the extent that we can today, so that at least we'll be learning by doing and trying how large a part of the "solution" to our energy and climate woes these technologies can hope to be.

However, I'm not sure how a world with 9 billion people and growing fits into any of my belief that it'll all turn out okay and our science and technology will save us.  I can't comprehend the number 9 billion--not in relationship to human mouths to feed and human souls to nourish, so like most people, I pretty much just don't.  But the fact of our numbers really does demand attention, because even if we can suppose that human ingenuity has no limit, the ecosystem which supports humanity very well does, and the systems which provide clean water and adequate food, not to mention the energy that powers our society, are in important ways still based on finite resources and processes with minimum time-frames.  It certainly is not a given that we can stretch these resources and shorten these time-frames with our engineering, indefinitely.  Sustainability is the very core of what we strive for, in processes and ways of living, but maybe it's all a pipe dream when there are 9 billion mouths to feed and no ethical way to stop that number from continuing to climb.

I don't know how to address all of those challenges so I hope that smarter people than I can figure it out and in the mean time I'll plod away at my little corner of what I think will help us in the future in all it's narrow-minded glory.  That's what I observe most everybody else doing who has contemplated the challenges that a populated industrial world faces, even if we're not quite satisfied with doing that. 

No comments:

Post a Comment