Planet Gore

In the End, People Are Still the Problem

The New York Times’s Andy Revkin wonders if the worst thing we could do would be to give humans abundant, cheap, clean energy . . .

A solar-powered city, Masdar, is being built in Abu Dhabi. If super-cheap solar power is achieved, will humanity grow too much?
One aim of this blog is to explore efforts to expand the menu of cheap, non-polluting, renewable energy options. That’s a pretty clearcut need given the risks attending the unfettered use of fossil fuels and the reality that 2 billion people today cook on guttering fires using fuelwood or dung harvested mainly by girls who are not going to school as a result.
But I had a dream about energy one fitful night not long ago and it left me a little cold. I pondered what kind of world might result if Nate Lewis at Caltech or Dan Nocera at M.I.T. or Shi Zhengrong at Suntech Power Systems in China had a breakthrough that made solar panels as cheap as paint?
We could synthesize food, even meat, in solar-powered factories. We could render water from the sea or briny aquifers drinkable in endless amounts (as is being done with wind power in sere parts of Australia even now).
And we could, in essence, vastly increase the carrying capacity of the planet. Fossil fuels were a bit part of the growth spurt from 1 billion to nearly 7 billion people in two short centuries. On a finite planet, where would limitless energy, combined with humanity’s infinite aspirations, take us? This leads to a question that’s been touched on here periodically. Does a shift in values and aspirations have to accompany the technological leaps that will assuredly be made in the coming decades? . . .

There is, of course, nothing new to this view:

If you ask me, it’d be a little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we would do with it. We ought to be looking for energy sources that are adequate for our needs, but that won’t give us the excesses of concentrated energy with which we could do mischief to the earth or to each other.

Amory Lovins in The Mother Earth–Plowboy Interview, Nov/Dec 1977, p. 22

Giving society cheap, abundant energy . . . would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.

Paul Ehrlich, “An Ecologist’s Perspective on Nuclear Power,” May/June 1978 issue of Federation of American Scientists Public Issue Report


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