A optimist’s view of the future

I listened, yesterday, to a podcast which had a scientist saying we needed to reduce our carbon emissions to 1% or current levels if the rest of the world was to have its standard of living rise to Western levels and at the same time halt global warming.

A somewhat sobering idea.

But I gave it some thought, applied some science fiction and thought about a carbon-free future.

One idea was a nuclear powerplant essentially dedicated to converting sea water to hydrogen and fresh water. Motor vehicles could burn the hydrogen – the only byproduct is water – and the fresh water byproduct of making the hydrogen could be used to grow food, which is going to be increasingly difficult in the future, or so the pessimists believe.

The next was a high-speed electric railroad running from Brisbane to Sydney to Canberra and on to Melbourne, powered again by nuclear powerplants at reasonable intervals along the way. The powerplants would provide power to local communities as well as the rail line, which would provide high-speed carbon free transport.

None of this technology is particularly difficult – the problems are political, driven by Nimbys and Modern Luddites.

One problem is too many people following a bad trend to a disastrous outcome – a likely result when you look at something like the overconsumption of resources and see a trend accelerating: it makes it very easy to predict disaster by simply forecasting increased growth and consumption. But it doesn’t have to be that way: things change in ways people forecasting the future don’t predict, and the changes are manifold.

My industry, magazines, is slowly dying. Paper prices are rising, magazine consumption is being eroded by everything from FaceBook to increased working hours, and the industry is scrambling to find a way to make itself relevant in the future.

I’m not alone in hoping the iPad, and other similar devices, will prove to be a saviour, changing media consumption from the printed page to downloaded bits.

A knock-on effect is the reduction in paper consumed, in fuel burnt transporting the printed pages, in energy used recycling the paper. But scientists don’t, to my knowledge, try to incorporate new technology into their assumptions about the future: indeed, to do so would be saying ‘unknown and unpredictable advances in science and technology will make problem x disappear’.

But changes occur all the time. Nissan is introducing the Leaf, an electric-only car, into the USA. What if sells like proverbial hot cakes? How much would that accelerate the development of competitors, driving down the consumption of fossil fuel?

Apple’s latest iPhone, and the iPad before it, have sold vastly better than Apple or the tech pundits predicted. How many people are planning to read on their new electronic devices rather than books in the future. I know I’ve read a book a week on my iPad since I downloaded the Kindle App, and my sister has bought one for exactly that reason, too.

Geothermal power is a simple technology: if a discovery makes the process more efficient, we could see it powering all sorts of industry. It produces no carbon gases, doesn’t require uranium mining and is, well, pretty boring really. But many of the best ideas are often very simple.

I also believe the planet, and people, will sort themselves out. Richer countries will start to feel the effects of global warming and start to make changes, too late for the rapid conservationists and possibly too late to avoid lots of disasters like reduced biodiversity, increased extreme weather events and rising sea levels, but not so late as to cause the breakdown of modern society. Maybe we we learn to conserve DNA from life going extionct and be able to bring it back in the future: a little Jurassic Park maybe, but who really knows?

Poorer nations are already learning from the West’s past, so instead of relying on coal and oil are looking to nuclear and renewables for their future energy needs.

The scientist at the top of the story can’t know if a middle-class Indian national in 2050 will have a carbon footprint at all. And if that Indian doesn’t, who says the whole world can’t have a lifestyle avoiding poverty without global warming?

The podcast: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/bigideas/stories/2010/2943478.htm

Links: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/03/hacktheplanet-qa/