Thursday, March 15, 2012

Contemplating Civilization: its rise, fall, rebuilding... and future

nonzero1Go read one of the most important books in the past twenty years, Robert Wright’s Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny: "...you can capture history's basic trajectory by reference to a core pattern: New technologies arise that permit or encourage new, richer forms of non-zero-sum interactions" and "social structures evolve that realize this rich potential -- that convert non-zero-sum situations into positive sums. Thus does social complexity grow in scope and depth."

 Our entire Enlightenment Experiment has been about positive sum games. Open-competitive Economic Markets, Science, Democracy… these are all examples of systems set up to harness competition and produce positive sum results for all.

See my article, The Unlikeliness of a Zero Sum Society.

Alas, there are forces in human nature that always trend toward ruination of such systems. Winners tend not to want to compete as hard, next time, so they use their wealth and power to cheat! It is called oligarchy; the very thing that wrecked markets and democracy and science in all past cultures. Every single last one of them.

Except ours... but not without a struggle in every generation. Today, capitalism isn’t the enemy; it is the #1 victim of an ongoing attempted coup by oligarchs - who are only doing what humans are programmed to do, when tempted by feudal privilege.

 If liberals would only read the "First Liberal" -- Adam Smith -- and realize this, they might drop both the left and right and stand up for the balanced market that emphasizes small business, startups and brash-competitive creativity, instead of monopoly, corporatism, state-paternalism and aristocracy.

Heck, if our ancestors could stand up and save the Enlightenment during their crises… so can we.

Then take a look at Niall Ferguson's new book Civilization: The West and the Rest.  Ferguson appraises some of the reasons that civilizations fail, a topic that Jared Diamond surveyed (with a bit too obsessive a focus only on environmental causes) in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed... and that I take a Big Perspective on, in my next novel, Existence.

In his article, Western Civilization:Decline or Fall?, Ferguson describes how he sees our way out of a "decline of the west:"

"What we need to do is to delete the viruses that have crept into our system: the anti-competitive quasi monopolies that blight everything from banking to public education; the politically correct pseudosciences and soft subjects that deflect good students away from hard science; the lobbyists who subvert the rule of law for the sake of the special interests they represent—to say nothing of our crazily dysfunctional system of health care, our overleveraged personal finances, and our newfound unemployment ethic."

In other words, break free of the hobbling/crippling, oversimplifying metaphors like "left-vs-right" - a curse bequeathed on all thinking, by the French Revolution - and get back to acting like intrepid grownups again.

==Rebuilding Civilization==

Open Source Ecology: Following the DIY "maker" trend, one ad-hoc group is producing open source modular plans to the 50 different industrial machines necessary to build a civilization -- or at least provide a self-sustaining village with basic comforts. The basic fifty include: backhoe, bulldozer, baler, wind turbine, cement mixer, electric motor, steam engine, dairy milker, baker oven, aluminum extractor from clay, and bioplastic extruder, among others. The more complicated ones build upon the simpler ones. In northern Missouri, they have used their compressed brick press and tractor to build a manufacturing facility to construct more models.

The founder, Marchin Jabukowski (TED Senior Fellow) is a Physics Ph.D., who dropped out to work on this project. His orientation is post-scarcity society rather than disaster, but if one were wanting to create a generalized resiliency rather than prepare for specific movie scenario plots, it would be a good place to start. See his TED talk: Open Sourced Blueprints for Civilization.

See the WaterWheel, a stunningly simple innovation that could improve lives in the developing world --  particularly for rural women who may spend hours trekking and carrying water in jugs back to their villages. This is an invention that deserves funding to spread. See the website, Wello.


And now, Open Source Ecology is teaming with WikiSpeed to build an open source, modular, configurable electric car with high fuel efficiency that meets U.S. safety standards.

==Rebuild Everything==

Seems related to a TV series I was pitching for some years, to start with contestants wearing loin cloths in the desert, challenge them to make stone tools, then leather, and eventually smelt metal, etc.  The show?  REBUILD EVERYTHING!  Picture "Survivor" meets "The 1900 House" meets "Junkyard Wars"... then throw in lots of fascinating Discovery Channel riffs... along with a dash of "The Flintstones". Include some tasty inter-tribal rivalry, and add a sensation that viewers are actually learning something of value, becoming a little more capable and knowing about their own culture.

REBUILDEVERYTHINGIn the ultimate challenge, competitive teams race each other, starting from scratch to rebuild civilization! Instead of just surviving, they must chip flint, make spears and arrows and traps, stitch clothing from hides (no animals will be killed directly by the show). Once the Stone Age has been conquered, contestants move on to re-invent pottery, weaving and agriculture -- then mining and smithing copper ore, then bronze, iron and so on. Each next step must be taken by using technologies achieved at the previous level.

Once they succeed at a task, it is assumed that their “civilization” (their team) has that technology from then on. They will be provided any tools they require from that level, in order to attempt the next.

Envision season four ending with them chugging up-river on a built-from scratch steamboat, prospecting for ores to make the first TV....

==Threats to Civilization==

In EXISTENCE I portray the rich buying up small island nations that are doomed by rising tides, then building stilt cities on those nations, who already have legal international sovereignty.  Now see the beginnings: leaders of the Pacific archipelago Kiribati are considering moving the entire population to Fiji, as their islands are threatened by rising ocean levels. When you see stilts rising over there, know that I told you first.

We have overseen the largest wealth re-allocation in history: The US has transferred 7 TRILLION dollars to Middle Eastern nations in exchange for oil.  Ponder that. And the bosom pals of middle-eastern potentates who ran the US for many years, undermining all efforts to get off of the oil teat. 

Now T. Boone Pickens is back touting natural gas... of which North America apparently has a vast supply... as a way to break that habit.  Sure it is still fossil/carbon fuel (though better and cleaner than oil).  But it might serve as our “bridge” in order to both do better and keep some of our money, to invest in the true solution technologies of the future.  Pickens will stand to make big bucks if we go along with his plan.

But at least we’d know what we are buying - a deal that makes sense, unlike the total sellout of our children that happened in the first decade of this century.


==See more articles on Enlightenment Civilization: Looking Forward not Back

63 comments:

Tony Fisk said...

Envision season four ending with them chugging up-river on a built-from scratch steamboat, prospecting for ores to make the first TV....

==Threats to Civilization==


(Interesting juxtaposition there ;-)

ZarPaulus said...

So, Rebuild Everything would be a more extreme version of The Colony?

I mean, they did kill animals on the show (rat farms, an alligator-skin vest in season two) but they had quite a few pre-made tools to scavenge.

Anonymous said...

David, if I may recommend two books to you:

Debt: the First 5000 Years (by David Graeber)

Liquidated (by Karen Ho)

I think you'll find both thought-provoking, whether or not you agree with them.

Paul451 said...

Not enough time to reply properly to the RandyB's I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Torture comments from the last thread.

Some links instead... (split into two because blogger's being dickish....)

Gamestar Mechanic: Computer game authoring for younger kids. Commercial, but free for basic access.

http://gamestarmechanic.com/

TSA is introducing a program to let you bypass the invasive security screenings for a $100 fee. The program previously existed as invitation-only, for first-class and other high value airline customers. And it doesn't make a mockery of whole idea, nosireebob.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303863404577281483630937016.html

Paul451 said...

Take a guided tour of the moon courtesy of LRO data. Sub-5 minutes.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UIKmSQqp8wY

And then see the history of the moon, as each element is added according to age. Sub-3 minutes.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UIKmSQqp8wY

Both via ITWorld, via Slashdot.

Stefan Jones said...

Anything as brainy as "Rebuild Everything" would likely have to be a Not Regular TV production.

Anything on cable or network TV is going to end up as dumbed-down, exploitative, over-dramatized pap.

The WONDERFUL, smart, beautifully produced "Make: TV" show, which mixed inspirational "look what these folks did!" with practical "here's how to do this yourself!" segments, only lasted a season on PBS . . . it didn't get a new sponsor.

So anything like Rebuild Everything would have to be funded by something like Kickstarter, or by someone with deep pockets who wants to be a friend of civilization.

* * *

RE bootstrapping, I bought today three copies of what I think was a failed experiment, The WikiReader (http://thewikireader.com). It's a little battery-powered calculator-sized gadget which stores the entire Wikipedia! (One language.) There's no wireless connection, or even a USB port. If you swap out the included SD card for a 16gb model, you can load the entire Project Gutenberg in addition.

The close-out price for the ones I got was $15.00.

The website hasn't been updated in a while. It has the look of a part-commercial, part aid-project like One Laptop Per Child. As clever an item as it is, I should note that the original price of $99 was about the same as some dirt-cheap Chinese Android tablets with Wifi and color screens.

Thomas said...

"We have overseen the largest wealth re-allocation in history: The US has transferred 7 TRILLION dollars to Middle Eastern nations in exchange for oil. Ponder that. And the bosom pals of middle-eastern potentates who ran the US for many years, undermining all efforts to get off of the oil teat."

Have you really thought about how xenophobic you sound there? USA has bought oil and sold weapons. It has toppled democracies (Mossadeq) and supported dictators. It has invaded and bombed countries in the Middle East, yet in your world view they are running USA.

David Brin said...

Cripes Thomas, (a) In large measure we did it to ourselves by being fightfully shortsighted and immature and (b) ever heard of Occam's razor? The outcomes all benefited one foreign aristocracy... and you can't grok the possibility that they would bend heaven and earth to keep the stuff flowing?

===

Rebuild everything would have a natural sponsor... the iPad like tablet the contestants use to get advice (e.g. on stone-chipping) from the "gods" (experts.)

TheMadLibrarian said...

Despite the 'Torture me for money' aspect of many of those reality TV shows, I'd like to think that I could do surprisingly well if I was selected for 'Civilization'. Librarians by default are storehouses of many bits of arcane knowledge. OTOH, they might not want a contestant who is capable of finding edible plants, trapping and dressing a rabbit, building a loom, or making a kiln, just for the LULZ of watching pretty people get grubby and argue.

TheMadLibrarian

fastro eatelp: guaranteed to produce indigestion

Thomas said...

David, while it is true that US foreign policy have benefited a bunch of dictators around the world that does not mean that those dictators have been running USA. Look at Noriega, while he benefited USA he got his regular paycheck. Once he stopped being useful he was overthrown. Same with Saddam Hussein.

You talk about Occam's razor, but isn't it simpler then to assume that US oil companies and their owners had influence than that a medium sized theocracy had it? Consider the National City Lines conspiracy to close down streetcars and promote private cars, it was run by General Motors not by some shady Arab dictator.

The oil producers don't have to run any conspiracies to sell a product the world is screaming for. They do play a part in ruining climate negotiations, but the big consumers are the major players.

Paul451 said...

Thomas,
"that does not mean that those dictators have been running USA."

I'm wondering if you misunderstood David's comment...

"And the bosom pals of middle-eastern potentates who ran the US for many years, undermining all efforts to get off of the oil teat."

That's "pals of middle-eastern potentates" who ran the US, not the "middle-eastern potentates" themselves. Ie, Bush Sr. & Bush Jr. And the flock of neo-cons who cluster around the Bush family.

Thomas said...

Paul, it's possible you are right, but phrases like "The US has transferred 7 TRILLION dollars to Middle Eastern nations in exchange for oil" or "The outcomes all benefited one foreign aristocracy" suggest that the Saudi rulers are in charge and Bush their puppet.

Rachel S said...

Great read!! Love reading your blog! Keep posting good stuff like this.

Robert said...

Moving to science for the moment (before I vanish once more to avoid the Sophomoric Season of politics) here's an article about research into a biplane design that may negate sonic booms. If this works (and they're moving to three-dimensional models next) then this would allow supersonic and hypersonic transport aircraft that can fly overland without disturbing people below.

While this would be the deathknell for high speed rail, the end result would be a fleet of aircraft that can travel across the country in just a couple of hours instead of much of the day. It would likely also reduce the number of airline jets required as airliners would have jets in the air for less time, allowing them to transport more customers.

Rob H.

Tacitus2 said...

Occam's razor is sharp, and cuts indiscriminately. You could argue that the current reluctance of the Administration to go forward with Keystone reflects a reluctance to damage the finances of certain sandy and warm nations on the other side of the world.

Information on who exactly is lobbying so hard against Keystone is not easy to find. You could settle for the obvious, that energy companies tend to fund Republicans over Democrats about 2:1. But no good conspiracy buff would settle for that easy to access info! And there have been those pesky allegations that the House of Saud has been in particular funding Canadian environmental groups opposed to oil sand development...*

Contrarily and Conspiratorially yours

Tacitus

*oooh, and the Soros funded Tides Foundation has kicked in to help too!

Carl M. said...

So, are you now subscribing to the McCain slogan of "Drill here, drill now??"

Using natural gas to back up wind turbines does absolutely nothing to solve our dependency on Middle East oil. In fact it is negative, as we could instead use the natural gas to make methanol or some such.

To end OPEC dependency we have an array of fairly old technology options. I leave it as an exercise to the reader which are acceptable:

1.Develop synthetic fuels a la Carter. (would require subsidy or number 2)

2. Slap a humongo tariff on OPEC oil and let the market find a solution (conservation or alternative fuels, or...)

3. Open up Alaska and outer continental shelf for exploration.

4. Allow the Keystone pipeline to go through.

5. Develop miniature portable nuclear power plants so we could use nuclear heat to extract oil from tar sands and shale. (Revive the Air Force's nuclear bomber engine, for example.)

The "conspiracy" to stop Keystone is Bill McKibben fighting global warming one source at a time. This is public knowledge.

Anonymous said...

When I was a pre-teen, I watched "Star Trek" and saw this dazzling future, though they hinted that Earth had a period of turmoil starting in the late 20th century. In 1973, I saw a telelvision movie, "Genesis II', that depicted a post-apocalyptic society rising up that was founded on science and reason. As an eleven year old, I loved it; this was a society I wanted to live in. Keep in mind I was raised in a family that had deep rural roots in the South, and we were damn near penniless. I figured that society would collapse before I entered my twenties, and perhaps I would be on hand to help rebuild. This was pretty heady stuff, especially considering I had health problems and the reality was that if collapse had occurred, my outcome would not have been so pleasant.
It was when I started reading science fiction that the apocalypse suddenly didn't appear so pleasant.
Being a child of the Space Age and an early member of Generation X (some say it started in 1962; just under the wire), I saw all this potential, all these great things that were being discussed. Even those gawd awful wardrobes many of the more hip wore in the 70's hinted at The Future, tacky though they were.
For me, civilization began to collapse in 1980.
It was like we've been rolling backwards since. True, there have been some great things (the Internet, for instance). But Big Ideas? Gone. Even many of the Medium Sized Ideas. They might be coming back, but damn; three decades squandered.
Just my opinion.

-Robert L (the Other Robert)

Owhorn Toaddi - forgotten Harry Potter character, custodian's assistant at Hogwarts.

guthrie said...

Humph, so Ferguson is continuing his rampage of wrongness? The best and brightest were sucked into the finance industry and management positions, not science and engineering. They were lured by the promise of large salaries compared to those available in normal science jobs. He also ignores the effects of outsourcing on employment prospects, i.e. there's no point doing a science degree if there are no jobs.

It seem to have escaped him that intelligent people might like to do social sciences because they are actually quite hard, or else they really like the topics in the first place.

Also which crazily disfunctional healthcare system? The one in the USA is the only one which springs to mind.

Frankly, our good hosts next novel will probably be more relevant and accurate than anything written by Ferguson. And more entertaining.

David Brin said...

Thomas, that mid sized theocracy sent nearly all the 911 terrorists, dispatched by a 2nd cousin of the royals. Our President who said he was partly raised by "uncle Bandar" then arranged for every rich citizen of that country to be flown out of the US in luxury and away from possible FBI questioning, on the day that Americans could not fly. Every policy that might have led to reduction of our dependence was actively sabotaged. And another prince co-runs Fox. Jesus. Consider the possibility that with trillions at stake, they have motive, means and opportunity.

Rob H Supersonic will make sense, if it ever does, transoceanic. If it is efficient. It will never ever ever replace high speed rail. Especially maglev.

Keystone "conspiracy"? Feh! shift it away from the Ogalala Aquifer and find half the objectors vanish. The "conspiracy" is pur hokum.

Tacitus2 said...

'The "conspiracy" is pur hokum.'

A point I have made about your conspiracy theories with regularity!

Tacitus

LarryHart said...

Carl M:

To end OPEC dependency we have an array of fairly old technology options. I leave it as an exercise to the reader which are acceptable:

...
4. Allow the Keystone pipeline to go through.


In what manner would that help anything?

Trans-Canada ALREADY has pipelines to U.S. refineries. Here in Chicago, we use gasoline refined from TransCanada oil.

Your beloved Keystone Pipeline's stated purpose is to pipe their oil directly to refineries on the Gulf coast for easy EXPORT. Which is great for TransCanada, but doesn't do much to help the U.S.A.

According to both Paul Krugman and Thom Hartmann, domestic oil production is at an all-time high, while domestic consumption has dropped at the same time. If the drill-baby-drill arguments were valid, that increased North American drilling would cause prices to lower, then we should be seeing dropping gas prices RIGHT NOW. Instead, they're approaching record high.

You can argue that the price spike is the result of other causes, but you can't argue that AND simultaneously argue that the Keystone Pipeline would cause prices to drop.

Going off on my own tangent now: The Republicans state on day-1 of the Obama presidency that their strategy will be to block his efforts at economic recovery to hurt his re-election chances in 2012. According to polls, this strategy is largely a successful one, and may work. I'm astounded! Voters are really willing to punish the president for insufficient action by replacing him with the party who BLOCKED meaningful action?

Now again, the oil companies are mad that the president opposed the Keystone pipeline, and they promised "political consequences." Sure enough, gas prices are rising despite the law (now "suggestion") of supply and demand. And it's working! Voters are willing to punish the president for high gas prices, by electing someone more palatable to the ones raising those prices.

How is this not like if our response to Pearl Harbor had been "See what happens because Roosevelt foolishly opposes the Axis powers? If we were on THEIR side instead, then bad things wouldn't happen to us!" That response is exactly how the right-wingers PARODIED liberals as advocating after 9/11, but it's exactly how they want and expect us to respond to Republicans.

infanttyrone said...

LarryHart...

Voters are really willing to punish the president for insufficient action by replacing him with the party who BLOCKED meaningful action?

Voters are willing to punish the president for high gas prices, by electing someone more palatable to the ones raising those prices.


Reminds me of Mort Sahl's observation about the old House Committee on Un-American Activities: "Every time the Russians throw an American in jail, the Committee throws an American in jail to get even." :=)

David Brin said...

Tacitus said: "A point I have made about your conspiracy theories with regularity!"

Sure and fair enough. Except for one thing.

My conspiracies are possibilities that (1) have no refutable implausibility and (2) are UNDER-discussed. The fact that nobody is willing to even consider the "it's deliberate" explanation for the decline and fall of Pax Americana is weird to a degree that seems psychotic.

On the other hand, The Keystone COnspiracy is vastly OVER-discussed, compared to its plausibility next to the simple explanation that people are genuinely concerned for the Ogalalla Aquifer... plus the fact that the Keystone consortium won't even consider using already existing pipeline rights ofway.

Hypnos said...

There is one much simpler reason, that does not involve any conspiracy, for America's inability to give up foreign oil.

Giving up oil is hard. Giving up oil is giving up things. Cars. Big houses. Air conditioning. Giving up oil equates to voluntary poverty. There was a moment in American history when that possibility was entertained, when the idea of living within the limits that the natural world imposes to growth was entertained. It was the '70s, the counterculture movement, the hippies communes.

What they found out was that it was hard.

And so they chose Reagan and denial of limits. Which worked fine with some arrangements - dumping the manufacturing class and killing the Midwest, creating the financial monster that recently came to a head against its own limits, abandoning Bretton Woods and so forth.

Now the limits are back with an extra push from China's astounding growth, and this time around they won't go away, despite fantasies on shale oil, oil shales, tar sands and ANWR (or nuclear). And they will all be exploited and whatever wilderness remains destroyed, make no mistake. Witness current exploration in the Arctic as it opens up thanks to Global Warming. Imagine an oil spill you can't plug for 6 months because it's winter and it's constantly dark, minus 40 and frozen.

As for Keystone, there is one simple reason why it won't go ahead and that's because Texas oilmen won't give up the nice fat profits they get from the price differential between WTI and Brent. The only thing that Keystone would achieve would be raising the price of gasoline for American consumers currently being supplied from Cushing and Canada directly (that's you LarryHart).

Not that it would make a difference to anything. Oil has been on a production plateau since 2004. The increases in reported numbers are all from the "all liquids" category, which includes all kind of stuff that aren't oil and don't have the same energy content as oi (and some, such as corn ethanol, actually take more energy to produce than they return when burnt).

The decline of industrial civilization will be an ugly thing to watch, and nowhere more so than in the United States, if the current political climate is any indication of the future.

What's sad is that it doesn't have to be like this. Energy decline is inevitable but we could have a prosperous way down. Perhaps what we need is less engineers and more philosophers. We don't lack technological ingenuity, we lack the wisdom to use it properly.

Ian said...

David:In his article, Western Civilization:Decline or Fall?, Ferguson describes how he sees our way out of a "decline of the west:"

"What we need to do is to delete the viruses that have crept into our system: the anti-competitive quasi monopolies that blight everything from banking to public education; the politically correct pseudosciences and soft subjects that deflect good students away from hard science; the lobbyists who subvert the rule of law for the sake of the special interests they represent—to say nothing of our crazily dysfunctional system of health care, our overleveraged personal finances, and our newfound unemployment ethic."

I was unaware that "western civlization" was a synonym for the United states.

Ian said...

"Open Source Ecology: Following the DIY "maker" trend, one ad-hoc group is producing open source modular plans to the 50 different industrial machines necessary to build a civilization -- or at least provide a self-sustaining village with basic comforts. The basic fifty include: backhoe, bulldozer, baler, wind turbine, cement mixer, electric motor, steam engine, dairy milker, baker oven, aluminum extractor from clay, and bioplastic extruder, among others. The more complicated ones build upon the simpler ones. In northern Missouri, they have used their compressed brick press and tractor to build a manufacturing facility to construct more models."

1. Most of the agricultural machinery in that set woudl be totally useless to people anywhere except temperate North America or Europe.

Where's the rice planter, for example?

I'm also struck by the idea that a milking machine is essential but that a pasteurizer isn't.

A dozen metal buckets, some bails, a storage tank and a basic pasteruizer would be a much more practical alternative - and would probably prevent the otherwise almost inevitable epidemic of brucellosis or TB.

2. A desk-top machine for making Aluminium.

Yeah, I'll believe it when they have a working prototype.

I'm also curious what they're going to do with their Aluminium in the absence of a smelter or a rolling mill.

3. I would have thought an autoclave for sterlizing medical isntruments and some capacity to culture organisms and manufacture hyodermics for vaccinations amd injections.

Ian said...

C"ripes Thomas, (a) In large measure we did it to ourselves by being fightfully shortsighted and immature and (b) ever heard of Occam's razor? The outcomes all benefited one foreign aristocracy... and you can't grok the possibility that they would bend heaven and earth to keep the stuff flowing?"

Yeah, somehow I think the Iranian, Iraqi and Libyan royal families woudl see things soemwhat differently.

The US supports middle eastern dictatorships when it's expedient and that support does not guarantee their survival.

Ian said...

"Occam's razor is sharp, and cuts indiscriminately. You could argue that the current reluctance of the Administration to go forward with Keystone reflects a reluctance to damage the finances of certain sandy and warm nations on the other side of the world.'

How are Saudi interests beenfited by Canadian oil being sold to Japan and China rather than to the US?

Especially since China and Japan are both currently much lsrger consumers of Saudi oil than the US.

Ian said...

"1.Develop synthetic fuels a la Carter. (would require subsidy or number 2)

2. Slap a humongo tariff on OPEC oil and let the market find a solution (conservation or alternative fuels, or...)

3. Open up Alaska and outer continental shelf for exploration.

4. Allow the Keystone pipeline to go through.

5. Develop miniature portable nuclear power plants so we could use nuclear heat to extract oil from tar sands and shale. (Revive the Air Force's nuclear bomber engine, for example.)"

How about USE LESS OIL?

BCRion said...

Ian,

"How about USE LESS OIL?"

What is a pragmatic plan to actually make that happen here in the real world? Telling people what they ought do (or not do in the case) will not work, at least not without heavy-handed coercion. There needs to be a viable, and cost-effective alternative first.

Robert said...

The Economist had a series of articles concerning nuclear power recently (I wrote abstracts for the articles for my job at Ebsco). In it, there is a very apt quote by someone in the U.S. nuclear industry concerning the effect Fukushima had on future nuclear power in the U.S.

He said "It wasn't Fukushima that killed nuclear power. It was natural gas." The reason? It costs a boatload of money to build a nuclear power plant and there are numerous costs involved. The electricity is quite expensive when all these externalities are put together. Natural gas power plants can be built for a fraction of the cost and almost no government regulation compared to nuclear.

The only nuclear power plants being built in the U.S. are in areas where there are power monopolies. When competition exists and costs can't be directly forced on the customer before the power plant even is built, nuclear power cannot compete.

In essence, it's not the environmental movement or anything like that preventing nuclear power from coming about. It's capitalism.

Rob H.

Tacitus2 said...

David you are right...and wrong. Your Unified Conspiracy Theory does not get sufficient play in the world as a whole. But within the confines of Contrary Brin it has been considered at length.

Regards the Keystone pipeline it is unfortunate that it has become a political flash point. Much nonsense is being spoken.

The number of jobs created will not be huge, and from experience I can tell you that pipeline jobs move along with the project creating a brief "boom" in each area, then vanishing except for a few maint. workers and pumping stations. Good jobs, sure, local cash infusions, sure. But not the foundation of prosperity.

And if not the Oglalla aquifer it would probably be something else. Move it a couple hundred miles and you would find something. Sandhill cranes would be my bet.

I agree with using less oil. I really agree with using less oil from places that hate our guts.

More access to domestic (US/Canada) oil would give the sheiks less ability to twist our arms with embargo threats. Even if the current plans are for export oil is a mutable commodity. If Canadian oil goes to China it makes for less Chinese bidding on Mexican/Nigerian/? oil. And wouldn't it be nice to be the ones with the hand on the spigot, cautioning the Chinese if necessary in the future?

But I am also ok with leaving some in the ground for generations to come. (Just being Conservative) So long as those who oppose this particular project do not oppose ALL oil extraction. I think the advances that have opened up new sources have the potential to buy us some critical time as new technologies evolve.

Being in the market for wheels of late (don't ask) I test drove a Chevy Volt. Not ready for prime time. Ended up using the insurance check to buy domestic, 32mpg. No gadgets. Used. Very used.

Tacitus

BCRion said...

Robert,

"In essence, it's not the environmental movement or anything like that preventing nuclear power from coming about. It's capitalism."

Yes and no; the real story is more complex, of course. Much of the expense drives from very high capital costs from high interest rates. The rates are high because of high regulatory uncertainties in getting any of these built. See the Shoreham experience for reasons why lenders are uneasy about issuing loans. Can't say I blame them when any nuclear project can be halted by either courts or the whims of whoever is on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at the time. Natural gas has no equivalent body, despite the fact that the energy source has killed more people from explosions in the US than nuclear has from radiation (zero).

Also, the regulations in the US are all geared toward large, pressurized water reactors. The cost for licensing a new design is largely the responsibility of the requestor of the license and are a flat rate independent of expected power productivity. This stifles much innovation, because any attempt to make a smaller and cheaper reactor would face the same (probably greater because the NRC would need to take the time to acquire new skills!) licensing costs as a 1000+ MW unit. I would not call this capitalism, but a failure of US energy policy.

The other big thing that distorts the picture is that coal and natural gas do not have to pay the costs of their externalities. If they had to dispose of all of their waste products to the same standards, nuclear would come out ahead by far. Even an appropriate carbon tax would change the equation. Now, you may call the failure to address externalities as a failure of capitalism, and you would be right, but it is the situation we have.

rewinn said...

Using less oil has become more practical for my family because the roof on the house we bought last year was in such bad shape that we could install solar cells only after reroofing.

That's good news becuase now the credit union will finance the roof on the same loan as the cells! The CU isn't being charitable of course; the reason they don't normally finance roofs is the difficulty of repossession, whereas the solar units are relatively easy to move and resell should there be a default on the loan. So the upshot is that the CU has a secured loan that pays them well, and we will be generating most of our own electricity (here in cloudy Seattle!) and occasionally feeding a bit into the grid.

I had thought that the incentives and so forth were simply social engineering, and perhaps there is some of that, but what I have come to realize is that I am effectively capitalizing peak-load generating capacity for Seattle City Light! Electricity usage peaks (during the week) roughly the same time as peak solar energy production (10am-2pm) so my units are not competing against the cheap baseload generators, but against the expensive stuff that kicks in when everyone's running their work computers etc. City Light *could* invest in more capacity but instead *I* and other homeowners are taking the risk and borrowing the capital. My investment breaks even in 14 years (which may not sound fast, but remember, I'm not investing any labor time into this!), and after that it's pure profit. (And I needed the roof anyway so the actual payback is much faster.)

Yay micro-capitalism!

Ian said...

"Ian,

"How about USE LESS OIL?"

What is a pragmatic plan to actually make that happen here in the real world? Telling people what they ought do (or not do in the case) will not work, at least not without heavy-handed coercion. There needs to be a viable, and cost-effective alternative first."

Well, let's see, average US fuel economy plateauded for abotu 20 years before falling in the last few years in response to higher fuel prices.

That's because American consumers responded to more fuel efficient motors by buying larger and larger cars and trucks.

Legislating to require higher CAFE standards and raising fuel taxes would reverse that trend.

And is certinaly no more, and arguably less, coercive than mandating use of biofuels or banning oilimports from OPEC countries.

(An aside: Americans really should familiarize themselves with where their oil imports come from. hint: most of it doesn;t coem from the middle East.)

Ian said...

"Giving up oil is hard. Giving up oil is giving up things. Cars. Big houses. Air conditioning. Giving up oil equates to voluntary poverty."

Funny, virtually every otyhetr developed country consuems less oil per capita than the Unted States without plunging into poverty - including countries such as Australia with lower population densities.

http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/ene_oil_con_percap-energy-oil-consumption-per-capita

Ian said...

"Yes and no; the real story is more complex, of course. Much of the expense drives from very high capital costs from high interest rates. The rates are high because of high regulatory uncertainties in getting any of these built. See the Shoreham experience for reasons why lenders are uneasy about issuing loans. Can't say I blame them when any nuclear project can be halted by either courts or the whims of whoever is on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at the time. Natural gas has no equivalent body, despite the fact that the energy source has killed more people from explosions in the US than nuclear has from radiation (zero)."

Nulear energy is losing marekt share all over te worldm even in the countries that are still buildign reactors.

And no-one on the planet can build a fullscale pwoer reactor from scratch in less than 8-10 years.

I fail to see how any of that's the responsiblity of the NRC or the US environemntal movement.

Jane Shevtsov said...

As much as I love science (I'm about to finish a Ph.D. in ecology), I think the social sciences are more important right now than the natural ones. We have much of the technology we need to solve our environmental problems, but it's not being used anywhere near as much as it should. We know infinite growth (as opposed to qualitative development) is impossible in a finite system, but our economic system is predicated on it. Basic science literacy is important, as is curiosity, but I think the most important things a student can study right now are economics, sociology and psychology. Or, if they have a bent for the visual, study urban planning or architecture!

Jane Shevtsov said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Brin said...

Jane you are welcome here! We have a lively and interesting community. One of the smartest on the web.

As one who "channeled" the great psychohistorian Hari Seldon, I can say that I would love to see the social sciences get better. Perhaps they will.

Rewinn, we are taking bids on both roof photovoltaic and pool solar right now. The deals for "prepaid lease" seem very good. The company takes the capital depreciation and the federal credit and uses both to drive down the total. At the end of 20 years will they come and take the cells away? I doubt it.

Ian said...

Apologies for all the typoes in my last few posts.

A quick question for the nuclear enthusiasts, I know a couple of people here have asserted that the only thing holding back fast breeder reactors is opposition from green groups and the technology is all set to roll.

So why aren't the Russians, French, Indians, Chinese or Koreans usign the technology?

Craig Comments said...

Your comment about transfer of wealth is great. Just saw a piece on the PBS "Making Sense" section about a new novel on stock trading. With the computers now the average time a stock is held today is 22 seconds. It's a different world.

BCRion said...

Ian,

"So why aren't the Russians, French, Indians, Chinese or Koreans usign the technology?"

Partially because light-water reactors work well enough. While I do think the technologies are viable, there is still a lot of hard-earned operating experience to be gained with them. It took a couple decades before we really understood how to operate the LWR.

But really to the bigger picture about all nuclear technology, the people who build reactors are multi-national companies, not nation states these days. No major global economy really assesses the externality cost of carbon emissions, but still requires management of radioactive waste (a good thing!). Since companies do not bare any of the cost for their emissions in every major market, it is cheaper to sell fossil fuels.

When it comes to licensing, the US NRC is the de facto regulator of the world. Equivalent bodies are largely patterned off the US agency, and this is mostly a good thing in terms of safety. The people in the industry state that the US NRC is the "gold standard" in regulation, and any design not having a license from them would be seriously challenged. That said, China might be a bit more flexible (for better or worse), and that is why Bill Gate's people are looking to build there first.

The real problem I see is a lack of diversity in the nuclear enterprise. Much like evolution, a lack of diversity means a difficulty in adaptation. Everything is so homogenous now, and new ideas beyond incremental changes are either discouraged or considered "pie in the sky" -- at least my impression when I attend those meetings. For any number of reasons, there is no political will to change that. As a result, there is no economic incentive to do that privately either: all companies (save AREVA, which is having its own problems right now) that deal in nuclear have larger fossil fuel interests, and they're not going to sabotage those considering they work quite well.

FlavorDav said...

You don't like--or, at any rate, respect--the humanities and/or the social sciences, Mr. Brin? Where do you think people like Ferguson and Wright come from? It's tempting to attempt, at least, to read your endorsement of Ferguson's comments as distantly related to the interdisciplinary rivalries/jeaousies/resentments which one might suspect lurk behind Gregory Benford's delusons of Faulknerhood (SF vs. "real," capital-L "Litrachure"),not to mnetion perhaps Ferguson's own semingly unintetonal self-deprecton(where does HE thinkpeople like him come from?), but ...

David Brin said...

Flavorday you misconstrue. I spend a lot of my time immersed in "social science" stuff. In a sense, the thought experiments of science fiction might be considered laboratory Sco-Sci work.

But come on. Scoial science has yet to even have its Newton, let alone Darwin of Einstein. It is still where physical science was in the days of alchemy, collecting correlations and some interesting relationships... but all-too easily diverted down paths of group-think, platitudes and vagueness.

I have published papers in psychological and anthropological journals. I was managing editor of the journal of the laboratory for human cognition at UCSD. I have spent time in that world. We know a lot! But we do not know how to test and organize what we know and use it in systematic ways.

SF said...

Your TV show idea would get real interesting when new groups start to develop religions and drugs. The drugs would be pretty straightforward, alcohol is alcohol, but the potential religions could be really unique.

Tony Fisk said...

the Darwin of Einstein

Now *there's* a typo-inspired thought!

Carbon tax viabilities vs oil/coal (if i recall BZE stats)
Gas $30-40/tonne (benefit is dubious)
Solar $60-70?
Wind $80-100
Nuclear $200

Just installed a solar hot water system for $5000. Rough est. for 4kw panels was about 15000. May wait for a reliable income before revisiting that. Useful to know what could be done though.

Otherwise, it's amazing how far you can go on a bicycle!

Hypnos said...

Current nuclear overnight costs - which are already way too high to compete with much of anything - do not include the cost of decommissioning, because it is discounted away (at 10%/year).

I'm not sure how the UK calculated the costs of the decommissioning of its nascent nuclear fleet in 1952. If it had discounted it as it is doing now with the new build, such costs would have been equivalent to zero.

Current estimates place them at upwards of £100billion, and that's assuming they find a workable disposal strategy, which so far they haven't.

We are burdening the future with hundreds of tons of poison that neither we nor they will have any idea what to do with.

No new nuclear power plant should go ahead until the waste problem has been solved - with current technology, not with pipe dreams that haven't been viable for the past 50 years and probably never will.

Jumper said...

With stock held 22 seconds, what is a company supposed to do to work in concordance with the shareholder's interests? There may be no answer to that question...

I wonder if one can make gasoline with coal and methane? That is, competitively. I suspect so. I think the oxygen crack (the old "water gas") is wasteful, so a direct, catalytic process would be needed.

I often ponder why Harley Davidson has not entered the mini-car business. They have the parts and supply chains. And I wonder if a standard Harley could be fitted with a catalytic converter that would A. not burn the bejeezus out of one's leg and B. still enable the bike to get good mileage while retaining decent power. It would be pretty much a theoretical experiment given the need to abandon CO2 producers.

Also I have been tracking down what exactly the (Pickens cheerled) proposals for "natural gas" vehicles are, and find they mean basically propane (some butane is mixed in, apparently, in hot weather.) A bit more carbon than I had hoped for.

Prakash said...

Hi David,

I think the best way to get more explanations from the humanities is to increase the data points - to have a large number of self selected communities try out various ways of living. Somewhat mentioned in your essay on seasteading.

BCRion said...

Hypnos,

Not sure how the UK works, but here in the US, there is a fund paid for by the utilities to pay for decommissioning costs. It is currently sitting idle in the US treasury, because the US government has decided that it, not the utilities, will be responsible for spent nuclear fuel. Either way, it is a paid for cost in the US.

Let's shift a little bit to fossil fuel emissions. The environmental and health impacts of releasing various toxins (sulfur dioxides, mercury, etc.), only partially mitigated, into the atmosphere are well documented. The incremental environmental damage from atmospheric carbon alone is going to be catastrophic and well into the many trillions of USD. This number pales in comparison with any cost or hypothetical damage spent nuclear fuel could do, being a compact solid in vastly lower mass per unit energy than fossil emissions.

That said, with your stated position on nuclear, how do you rationalize any fossil fuel burning if we do not contain and safely dispose of all of our emissions?

Tacitus2 said...

Contemplating the fall of civilizations....

New trailer for Prometheus out today. Having been burned so many times by noble franchises screwing up on prequels/sequels and reboots I am pretty jaded.

But other than the apparent presence of a Plucky Gal Archeologist stock figure I gotta say.....looks very, very creepy.

Which is what you want.

Aliens is still the only movie that every had me scared in the opening credits!

Tacitus

David Brin said...

Hypnos, the byproducts you call "waste" may be "golden treasure" to future generations. We should open Ycca Mountain and store it there like in bank vaults.

BCRion said...

The buildup of spent nuclear fuel is like mildew in your bathroom, unpleasant and a long term problem. Unmitigated carbon emissions are like a grease fire in your kitchen. If we don't address carbon emissions within the next few decades, the house (our planet) will burn down. Spent nuclear fuel management needs to be dealt with, but we've got a very, very long time before it is a serious issue relative to the rest of the problems we have. All things being equal, we should not push the buck on, but we have far more serious problems right now. If generating more spent nuclear fuel is what it takes to avert imminent disaster, I'm all for it.

As Dr. Brin said, the stuff really is a treasure containing at about 50-100 times more energy than we had got from it. Right now, our access to cheap uranium (and thorium) removes the motivation to chemically separate the stuff -- it's not a pipe dream, as you claim. It's far more economical today to dig new uranium out of the ground and store the old stuff. When the supply curve changes, we'll be set for a very long time.

As far as no solution, I beg to differ. Carlsbad, New Mexico (a nice place if you've never been) in the US currently handles defense nuclear waste (WIPP), and is pushing very hard to be able to take care of the US commercial spent nuclear fuel as well. Right now, WIPP is hurting no one or the environment, but it is providing good jobs for a lot of people. When we chemically separate the stuff, we will have a place to put the remaining fission products -- the actual waste, which stabilize on the order of decades or centuries, as opposed to the useful actinide fuel, which requires tens of thousands of years to stabilize.

LarryHart said...

Tacitus2:

Aliens is still the only movie that every had me scared in the opening credits!


Not exactly the same subject, but the original "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was the only movie that ever had me literally on the edge of my seat with excitement from start to finish. I never before knew that watching a movie could require that much energy. And the experience has never been repeated since, more's the pity.

Tony Fisk said...

And in the the background, the infrastructure chugs on...

Synroc was first developed to store radioactive waste about thirty years ago. I note it is still being refined and tailored for various needs (Plutonium being the latest addition)

My Masters thesis provided a small contribution: using X-ray fluorescence to show that Cesium was retained in the structure.

Aliens: it was that eerie music blowing past extraterrestrial rock formations.

(Alien 3 I didn't actually mind... as a stand-alone movie.)

matthew said...

Alien 3 gets a thumbs-down for killing Newt off screen. Unforgivable.

There are problems with WIPP (improperly mapped aquifer, anyone) but you won't hear of the problems from the residents of Carlsbad, NM. As a graduate of Carlsbad High School I can guarantee that scientific curiosity is not valued in the area. But BC is right, Carlsbad is a nice place to live. And the residents really do want nuke waste. I always thought,"What the heck. Ship it to them." It's not like anyone would miss Artesia or Hobbs, either. Hopefully Texas will drain the Artesian aquifer before the waste migrates into it. On second thought, nuclear waste in the water would improve the quality of water in the Odessa-Perriman basin. Worst-tasting water in the US. ;P
Seriously, nuke is the only path forward that doesn't bake the planet within a hundred years. And C carlsbad wants to be the waste repository. Ship it, my friends. Ship it.

David Brin said...

Matthew, Aliens3 was probably the worst betrayal of faith with the viewer in the history of cinema. For about 25 years, the 3rd movie in EVERY series always betrayed the wonderful 2nd movie in the series. Trek, Star Wars, Aliens, Terminator, you name it. A curse.

But Aliens3 deserves a special place in hell. I proposed Aliens 4 should have started with Ripley waking up! Because A3 is exactly the sort of nightmare she would have had.

Paul451 said...

Jumper,
"With stock held 22 seconds, what is a company supposed to do to work in concordance with the shareholder's interests? There may be no answer to that question..."

Micro-trading preys on slight variations in price, so if most "shareholders" are micro-trading algorhythms, then what's in their interest is extreme price volatility with no connection to the underlying value or performance of the company

"I often ponder why Harley Davidson has not entered the mini-car business."

In spite of appearances, motorcycle engines are not that efficient. They are optimised for power. Especially status symbols like Hogs.

Paul451 said...

Hypnos,
Re:No nukes
"We are burdening the future with hundreds of tons of poison that neither we nor they will have any idea what to do with."

Of course all other forms of power generation produce much larger amounts of waste, and cost vastly more lives. (Even solar panels cost more lives of installers per-kWH than nuclear power.)

My problem with nuclear power is the industry itself, (and its advocates.) They seem to do such stupid things, then blink in surprise when it bites them in the ass.

For example, locally (Australia) the conservative party was in power for over a decade, during which their well-known climate-deniers floated the idea of nuclear power for Australia as a wedge issue against the greens whenever climate-change got political traction. But they never did anything to prepare Australia for the requirements of building a dozen reactors across the country; training a new generation of nuclear researchers, physicists, engineers, etc, funding scholarships with top foreign nuclear research institutions, etc. Even when a decision was forced onto them, replacing an existing open-pool research reactor, they chose the least option they could, to outsource design, construction and initial operation to an Argentinian company. (Similarly, in debates, they would invoke the theoretical safety of next-gen pebble-bed reactors, the waste-burning of next-next-gen Thorium reactors, then invoke the price of the cheapest third gen PWRs). How would anyone in Australia ever trust any nuclear advocate?

(Likewise, the whole, global industry playing games with nuclear weapons developers, sanction busting, dual-use enrichment technology, then playing hurt-innocent when greens equate nuclear power and nuclear weapons proliferation. And Sweden's the only nation I've ever seen treat nuclear waste properly, without creating a sense they were doing the minimum necessary to pretend they were doing enough.)

(Similar story with GM food industry.)

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

For about 25 years, the 3rd movie in EVERY series always betrayed the wonderful 2nd movie in the series. Trek, Star Wars, Aliens, Terminator, you name it.


The definitive example (and perhaps the first one) was Superman III.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like your idea about oligarchy. According to a new book by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson entitled "Why Nations Fail," they argue "the wealth of a country is most closely correlated with the degree to which the average person shares in the overall growth of its economy."

"In parts of modern sub-Saharan Africa, as was true in medieval Europe or the antebellum South, the people who work the fields lack any incentive to improve their yield because any surplus is taken by the wealthy elite. This mind-set changes only when farmers are given strong property rights and discover that they can profit from extra production. In 1978, China began allowing farmers to benefit from any surplus they produced. The decision, most economists agree, helped spark the country’s astounding growth."

See http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/magazine/why-countries-go-bust.html?_r=2&ref=magazine

I think you can add this to your successful predictions log. :)

David Brin said...

onward!