Sunday, February 19, 2006

Energy Arrogance

What’s a more arrogant (or, alternatively, naïve) position: to think that human ingenuity will always find solutions to the problems of energy supply (which I’ll call the “optimistic” position), or that we already know all the potential energy sources we might want to use and that we will be unable to find another one that will supply with the bounty that fossil fuels has provided (the “pessimistic” position)? While it might be an act of hubris to think that human ingenuity will always come through to save us, there is also some arrogance in thinking that we already have such complete information about potential sources of energy that we are unquestionably doomed. If you told someone a thousand years ago that the world was running out of trees, they would no doubt be concerned – “what will we do if there are no trees?! What will we burn for heating and cooking?!” (ignore for a second that trees are a renewable resource). But of course, it wouldn’t have mattered, as much better sources of energy were developed that those people had no idea existed. The position that we can’t find solutions to energy supply problems results from a line of thinking that says historical people didn’t know much about the physical world (which they didn’t), but we do have this knowledge (or do we?).

On the one hand, clearly our technological progress has continued despite numerous fears that we would overshoot our carrying capacity – the optimists have been consistently right about progress continuing on despite dire warnings about starvation and the like from Malthus to Ehrlich. But on the other hand, fossil fuels have provided us with an incredible windfall at discount prices, and are certainly the most energy dense form of fuel we available to us. The problems of moving to hydrogen are real, and even as fuel cells become more efficient and cost-effective, the question of obtaining and distributing hydrogen remains. Nuclear has many inherent problems we are well aware of. Fusion will likely be the long, long term key (the fact that the sun uses it is a pretty good indication that it’s probably the best form of energy going), but we’ve got a long way to go before we harness that technology.

Both sides clearly have some holes in their positions…I’m an optimist, but I recognize the fact that a historical trend may not always continue into the future. Besides, pessimists can be a real drag at parties.


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