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Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will

The Archdruid continues his wonderful series:

That airy optimism about technologies that haven’t yet gotten off the drawing board is not a useful response to an imminent crisis in the real world. This is a point worth keeping in mind, because airy optimism about technologies that haven’t yet gotten off the drawing board is flying thick and fast just now, especially but not only in the peak oil scene. Mention that industrial society is in deep trouble as a result of its total dependence on rapidly depleting fossil fuels, in particular, and you can count on a flurry of claims that Bussard reactors, or algal biodiesel, or fourth generation fission plants, or whatever the currently popular deus ex machina happens to be, will inevitably show up in time and save the day.

One of the things that has to be grasped to make sense of our predicament is that this isn’t going to happen. Some of the reasons that it’s not going to happen differ from case to case, though all of the examples I’ve just given happen to share the common difficulty of crippling problems with net energy. Any attempt at a large-scale solution at this point in the curve of decline faces another predictable problem, though, which was discussed back in 1973 in The Limits to Growth: once industrial civilization runs up against hard planetary limits, as it now has, the surplus of resources that might have permitted a large-scale solution are already fully committed to meeting existing urgent needs, and can’t be diverted to new projects on any scale without imposing crippling dislocations on an economy and a society that are already under severe strain.

The green wizardry being developed in these posts thus seeks to craft responses to the crisis of our time that don’t ignore the predictable impacts of that crisis. For this reason, we aren’t going to be exploring the sort of imaginative vaporware that fills so many discussions about our energy future these days.

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chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

i know most of us are broke here, but i can't tell you how badly i want to do this, to prepare for the coming energy crunches. i was just reading about how someone reduced their energy bill from 300 to 35$/mo by installing a solar roof. and then there are the tax credits, for all they may not add up to much. still, now is the time. archdruid isn't wrong, and they won't 'save you,' but at the same time NOW is the time to do it, before the price and availability of that technology goes up in response to increased or explosive demand.

cenobite's picture
Submitted by cenobite on

There are technologies available right now to deal with peak oil, they need no more development.

1. (Like CD says above) Solar photovoltaic. Ready now, being installed widely.

2. Conservation. This is the cheapest, easiest, ready to go right now solution. Ask yourself why California (even with high aircon loads) uses much less electricity per capita than the rest of the country. The answer is strong conservation programs.

3. Electric cars. See Nissan Leaf, history of the GM EV1, etc, etc, etc. Ready right now.

4. Wind turbines. Whether with accompanying technology of vanadium-redox batteries (already working, Huxley Hill Wind Farm in Tanzania), other storage, or not, it works, it scales and it's ready to go right now.

We don't need IEC (Bussard) fusion. We have an already working, self-regulating fusion reactor at known safe distance with a lifetime measured in the billions of years.

quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

(Hopefully that won't be literally true at some point.) These eejits don't seem able to grasp the SCALE of the problem. For nukes to replace fossil fuels, you'd have to build about a Gigawatt reactor every single week from here to forever. (Because they only have a 30-40 year life span, and then you start over.)

You'd have to finish one Gigawatt reactor every single week. They take years to build. You'd have to have hundreds under construction at once. Big 0's recent $54 billion in loan guarantees for nine or eighteen or whatever the hell it was of these things isn't even a drop in the bucket. It's a homeopathic quantity.

And the pro-nuke response? "Here's another big, corporate, polluting, non-renewable energy source! It'll solve all the problems of the last big, corporate, polluting, non-renewable energy source!"

quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

And the odds are such that insurance companies won't touch them. The taxpayer gets to do the lion's share of the touching via the Price-Anderson Act. But that's okay because, as we now know, accidents never happen anymore with all these great new technological improvements in safety and such.

cenobite's picture
Submitted by cenobite on

With existing reactor designs, there's a big choke point in the number of reactor vessels we can build a year.

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

well hey, i just can't not comment, now can i? :-)

i'll point out that in the ancient societies you mention, they had... slaves. who made a lot of what they had work, and without which the civilizations would never have reached their technological peaks. just sayin.