Brave new world: Dystopia keeps us from utopia we deserve

The marvels we did manage — the internet, smartphones, mRNA vaccines, rapidly advancing artificial intelligence, to name just a few — largely required relatively little energy and the marvels we missed would require masses of it
Representative image
Representative image

NEW YORK: In December, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced that they had achieved on Earth what is commonplace within stars: They had fused hydrogen isotopes, releasing more energy in the reaction than was used in the ignition.

The announcement came with enough caveats to make it clear that usable nuclear fusion remains, optimistically, decades away. But the fact that nuclear fusion will not change our energy system over the next year doesn’t mean it shouldn’t change our energy ambitions for the coming years.

There are three goals a society can have for its energy usage. One is to use less. That is, arguably, the goal that took hold in the 1970s. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” is the key mantra here, with the much-ignored instruction to reduce coming first for a reason.

Today, that ambition persists in the thinking of degrowthers and others who believe humanity courts calamity if we don’t respect our limits and discard fantasies of endless growth.

The second goal is to use what we use now, but better. That is where modern climate policy has moved. The vision of decarbonisation — now being pursued through policy, like last year’s Inflation Reduction Act — is to maintain roughly the energy patterns we have but shift to non-polluting sources like wind and solar.

Decarbonisation at this speed and scale is so daunting a task that it is hard to look beyond it, to the third possible goal: a world of energy abundance.

In his fascinating, frustrating book “Where Is My Flying Car?” J. Storrs Hall argues that we do not realise how much our diminished energy ambitions have cost us. Across the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the energy humanity could harness grew at about 7 percent annually. Humanity’s compounding energetic force, he writes, powered “the optimism and constant improvement of life in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.”

But starting around 1970, the curve flattened, particularly in rich countries, which began doing more with less. In 1979, for instance, Americans consumed about 10.8 kilowatts per person. In 2019 we consumed about 9.2 kilowatts a person. To a conservationist, this looks like progress, though not nearly enough, as a glance at CO2 emissions will confirm. To Hall, it was a civilisational catastrophe.

His titular flying car stands in for all that we were promised in the mid-20th century but don’t yet have: flying cars, of course, but also lunar bases, nuclear rockets, atomic batteries, nanotechnology, undersea cities, affordable supersonic air travel and so on.

Hall harvests these predictions and many more from mid-century sci-fi writers and prognosticators and sorts them according to their cost in energy. What he finds is that the marvels we did manage — the internet, smartphones, teleconferencing, Wikipedia, flat-screen televisions, streaming video and audio content, mRNA vaccines, rapidly advancing artificial intelligence, to name just a few — largely required relatively little energy and the marvels we missed would require masses of it.

But they are possible. We’ve flown plenty of flying car prototypes over the decades. The water crises of the future could be solved by mass desalination. Supersonic air travel is a solved technological problem. Lunar bases lie well within the boundaries of possibility.

The path that Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, outlined for nanotechnology — build machines that are capable of building smaller machines that are capable of building smaller machines that are capable of, well, you get it — still seems plausible. What we need is energy — much, much more of it. But Hall thinks we’ve become an “ergophobic” society, which he defines as a society gripped by “the almost inexplicable belief that there is something wrong with using energy.”

Here, Hall’s account drips with contempt for anyone who does not dive out of the way of today’s industrialists. He reaches back to old H.G. Wells stories to find the right metaphor for where our civilisation went sideways, finding it in the feckless Eloi, a post-human race that collapsed into the comforts of abundance.

The true conflict, he says, is not between the haves and the have-nots but between the doers and the donots. “The do-nots favor stagnation and are happy turning our civilisation into a collective couch potato,” he writes. And in his view, the do-nots are winning.

“Where Is My Flying Car?” is a work of what I’d call reactionary futurism. It loves the progress technology can bring; it can’t stand the soft, flabby humans who stand in the future’s way. There is nothing inexplicable about why country after country sought energy conservation or why it remains an aim.

A partial list would include poisoned rivers and streams, smog-choked cities, the jagged edge of climate change and ongoing mass extinction and the geopolitical costs of being hooked on oil from Saudi Arabia and gas from Russia.

Hall gives all this short shrift, describing climate change as “a hangnail, not a hangman” (for whom, one wants to ask), and focusing on the villainy of lawyers and regulators and hippies. He laments how the advent of nuclear weapons made war so costly that it “short-circuited the evolutionary process,” in which “a society that slid into inefficient cultural or governmental practices was likely to be promptly conquered by the baron next door.” Hall’s sociopolitical theories are as flimsy as his technical analyses are careful.

His book would imply that countries with shallow public sectors would race ahead of their statist peers in innovation and that nations threatened by violent neighbors would be better governed and more technologically advanced than, say, the United States.

Among his central arguments is that government funding and attention paradoxically impedes the technologies it’s meant to help, but — curiously for a book about energy — he has little to say about the astonishing progress in solar, wind and battery power that’s been driven by public policy.

He predicts that if solar and wind “prove actually usable on a large scale,” environmentalists would turn on them. “Their objections really have nothing to do with pollution, or radiation, or risk, or global warming,” he writes. “They are about keeping abundant, cheap energy out of the hands of ordinary people.”

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