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Energy Scarcity Vs. Technology Singularity

Two very powerful opinions are in play, excitement for the inevitable progress of technology yielding higher living standards vs. those who fear that our current economic prowess and technological excess is predicated on consuming ever increasingly unsustainable amounts of finite “saved solar” energy visa vi carbon-based fuels.  These two perspectives are ascribed to by representatives of the most elite members of academic, business and political societies yet both positions require decisive action of very different sorts.  For those that ascribe to the so called “law of accelerating returns” in technology the most important risk is the evolution of a singular super-intelligent machine capable of and able to inflict harm upon humans as it seeks to gather resources and set about in it’s industry.  On the other hand, if the global economy is based on the assumption of infinite us of finite stored energy resources then we need to begin to invest heavily in disaster preparation and self-sufficiency.  The strongly divergent strategies to mitigate the respective risks involved suggest that without a cohesive perspective among the elite it is unlikely that bold actions will be take in time to prevent disaster.

The issue of global warming as a result of using carbon-based stored energy resources is a different and not less important point.  Both camps would likely argue that it is unwise to drastically increase the earth’s atmospheric temperature because the outcomes are not well understood.  It is possible that global warming would return the planet to a Jurassic climate and result in a global flourish of life.  On the other hand, rising sea levels could completely wipe out large quantities of biodiversity and force the costly and potentially dangerous re-settlement of large coastal cities.

Chris Anderson of Wired magazine makes a compelling point for the power of waste while assuming that resource scarcity and peak oil logic are a relic of a by-gone era.  Here is the most compelling segment:

“…Nature is so wasteful because scatter-shot strategies are the best way to do what mathematicians refer to as fully exploring “the potential space.” Imagine a desert with two pools of water separated by some distance. If you’re a plant growing next to one of those pools, you can follow one of two different reproductive strategies. You can drop seeds near your roots, where there’s a pretty good chance they’ll find water. This is safe but soon leads to crowding. Or you can toss the seeds to the wind and let them float far away. This means that almost all will die, but it’s the only way to find that second pool of water, where life can expand into a new niche, perhaps a richer one. The way to get from what the mathematicians call a local maximum to the global maximum is to explore a lot of fruitless minims along the way. It’s wasteful, in a sense, but it can pay off in the end.

The science fiction writer Cory Doctorow calls this “thinking like a dandelion.” He writes: “The disposition of each—or even most—of the seeds isn’t the important thing, from a dandelion’s point of view. The important thing is that every spring, every crack in every pavement is filled with dandelions. The dandelion doesn’t want to nurse a single precious copy of itself in the hopes that it will leave the nest and carefully navigate its way to the optimum growing environment, there to perpetuate the line. The dandelion just wants to be sure that every single opportunity for reproduction is exploited!”

This is how to embrace waste. Seeds are too cheap to meter. It feels wrong, even alien, to throw so much away, but it’s the right way to take advantage of abundance.”  -Read More

This model of innovation suggests that in the context of looming energy scarcity and habitat destabilization the best strategy is to double down on our investment in technology R&D and a ramping up of our level of “useful waste”.  This in no way suggests that we should stop seeking to reduce the footprint of our building designs or bike to work but it may intale continuing to recycle instead of re-use despite the difference in energy footprint.  New exploration of the solution space requires increased market support in order to fund and justify the effort.

It is easy to come up with hypothetical ways that it could be true that increasing technology development could provide solutions.  For one, the large-scale adoption of fiber-optic high-speed internet will enable better video conferencing and other tela-presence services (including more senses) in the near term.  Very high bandwidth combined with the requisite better computer interfaces may make commuting to work a thing of the past.  In this way, technology can concor scarcity as long as we give it enough time to develop such capabilities.

In conclusion

It is important for us to begin to invest heavily in low-cost ways to make our communities less energy hungry because it will make them more resiliant but also because it will make building the “real solutions” in the form of novel technoloies more cost effective.  A synthesis also suggests that people should increase their use of new products and be willing to buy them despite the near term increases in carbon emissions and economic risks they entail because these new technology products are stepping stones to “real solutions”.

Final Note

If we were able to muster the collective will to spend a great deal of public money to develop a wide range of technologies that could lead to increased quality of life and reduced energy consumption this would reduce the period of time we need to support change while sacrificing near term security.

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