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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Future Abundance, Pro and Con

Future Abundance, Pro and Con One idea advanced by some futurologists is the idea of a post-scarcity economy. The concept is that technological progress will produce a future in which there is plenty for everybody, and goods and services are perhaps even free or almost free.

This year the idea has been advanced in the book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter H. Diamandis. The idea has also been advanced by the book Radical Abundance by Eric Drexler.

Is this a credible concept, or is merely wishful thinking? Let us look at arguments for future abundance, pro and con.

Energy Abundance, Pro: Our supplies of crude oil may not last for many more decades, but there's a huge amount of other types of oil such as shale oil and tar sands oil, enough to last for centuries. Soon we will be able to start building cars that run on hydrogen, and we have an unlimited supply of hydrogen available (since each water molecule is two thirds hydrogen). There are more and more solar and wind installations, which will provide clean energy indefinitely. There are centuries of coal available. In addition, before long we will develop fusion power, which will give unlimited clean energy.

fustion reactor
Proposed Fusion Power Plant

Energy Abundance, Con: Our future energy situation is grim. We have only decades left of crude oil, and the other types of available oil (such as shale oil and tar sands) are much harder to extract than crude oil. The EROI (Energy Return on Investment) for oil sands and shale oil is only about 5, which is only about 25% or less of the EROI from crude oil. So severe future oil shortages are likely. The “we have centuries of coal” claim has been made for decades, but is not accurate. Recent studies suggest coal production will peak in a few decades, and then sharply decline. In regard to hydrogen vehicles, hydrogen is an efficient way of storing energy produced from other sources, but hydrogen does not by itself provide energy. So a hydrogen vehicle infrastructure can't really be a replacement for our present oil vehicle infrastructure. Solar and wind power are growing rapidly, but still only provide such a small fraction of the world's power that even if their present growth rate continues, we won't have enough renewable energy to make up for fossil fuel shortfalls. As for nuclear fusion, it would solve many problems if we were to figure out how to make it practical. But people have been trying for sixty years to create nuclear fusion reactors, without success, so we shouldn't assume it will be available in our lifetimes.

Metals and Materials Abundance, Pro: Ever more efficient automated technology for mining should mean that we will have enough metals and minerals to meet any needs we may have in the future. More powerful and efficient sensor technology should allow us to find more and more metal deposits. There is a huge untapped potential for undersea mining, which should become feasible once robots are sufficiently advanced. Eventually we will master asteroid mining, and once that gets rolling we will have a basically endless supply of metals and minerals.

Metals and Materials Abundance, Con: Experts estimate that based on current reserves we have only ten to twenty years left of new production of some important metals, including strontium, argon, antimony, gold, zinc, tin, indium, zirconium, lead, cadmium, and barium. The outlook is only slightly better for metals such as mercury, tungsten, copper, thallium, and manganese.  The graph below (and this article) highlight the situation.

 Source: A.M. Diederen, The Oil Drum  (see link above)

Thus from a metal and minerals we have before us a future of scarcity, not abundance. Asteroid mining is no panacea for this problem. There are huge technical difficulties and dangers in asteroid mining, one being that if you divert an asteroid to come near Earth, you run the risk of having it fall it on the planet and killing millions or billions. As for the oceans, they contain huge quantities of metals, but they are dispersed so much it is not practical to do much mining of the oceans. It has been estimated that the seawater in the oceans has enough gold to make everyone a millionaire, but it doesn't do you any good, because it isn't practical to mine that gold.

Food Abundance, Pro: The Green Revolution produced a huge increase in global food production, and this trend will likely continue. Genetic engineering and gene splicing will create new types of super crops that will allow for more abundant crop yields. Ever more efficient robots will make farms super-productive. We may even be able to produce food from its constituent elements by using 3D printers that are optimized for producing food.

Food Abundance, Con: The prospects of being able to feed all the world's growing population are grim. Global warming will lead to an increase in droughts that will hamper food production. Soil depletion is a gigantic little-discussed problem that threatens future food production. Our water resources and aquifers are being strained and stressed in many places, and we probably won't be able to supply adequate irrigation to insure adequate food production. In addition, our food production and food delivery system is largely based on oil (used in transporting and packaging food and producing fertilizers). But Peak Oil will probably cause shortages of oil that will limit food production.

Manufacturing Abundance, Pro: There are three reasons for thinking there will be a great abundance of manufactured goods in the future. The first reason is that robots will become ever more skillful at manufacturing. The second reason is that the average man will be able to manufacture a huge number of things himself, by using ever more powerful 3D printers. The third is that we will discover new nanotechnology manufacturing methods that will be able to assemble products atom by atom and molecule by molecule. Once we develop precise atomic manufacturing as envisioned by Eric Drexler, the door will be opened to a new age of radical abundance.

Manufacturing Abundance, Con: 3D printers are great at printing out little plastic trinkets that people don't really need, but they can't print out things made of metal or wood or stone. So 3D printers won't result in some abundance of goods that will make much of a difference in people's lives. As for atomic manufacturing, the rosy forecasts of visionaries such as Eric Drexler have been disputed by other experts. Nobel Prize winner Richard E. Smalley disputes Drexler's claims, saying that there are physical reasons why we will never be able to create machines that can assemble things atom by atom. Smalley cites a “fat fingers” problem, which is that no matter how small we make tools to assemble matter, our tools will be too large, and we will be like a person trying to stack grains of sand with his fingers. As for industrial robots, some are very good at manufacturing, but they are very expensive, which means they won't allow for a cheap surplus of goods.
So there you have the case for and the case against a super-abundant future. My own opinion is that there is a chance of both a future of abundance and a future of scarcity. So how should the average man behave? The prudent morality is to conserve, and limit consumption.

To give an analogy, imagine you are on a ship traveling across the Pacific, and the ship sinks. You and five others jump into a life boat, on which you have a limited number of supplies. Now in such a case you can be optimistic, and assume that your life boat will be picked by a big ship with lots of food for you. But given the large possibility that you will be facing a grave scarcity of food and water, the only moral way to act is to limit consumption. If your lifeboat had enough food to feed all 5 people for ten days at 1500 calories per day, it would be immoral for you to consume 3000 calories on one of those days, even if you had a hunch that before the tenth day you would be saved by the lucky arrival of a passing ship. Our whole planet is like the lifeboat in this analogy. There is a large chance that we will be suffering great scarcity within a few decades, as well as a significant chance that we will avoid such scarcity through technological wonders (the equivalent of the passing ship that saves the people in the lifeboat). The moral way to act is to conserve and limit consumption, to minimize the pain that will occur to others if the more pessimistic outcome occurs.