Saturday, February 26, 2011

Climate Change Optimism

Faith in Technology

Praying to computer
Futurist, inventor and entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil is sanguine about climate change. Why? Kurzweil believes renewable energy from solar power will supply all our energy needs within 20 years. Advances in solar energy technology occur at a pace like those called for by Moore's Law in computer processing:
Solar energy... is doubling every two years. And it didn't start two years ago, it started 20 years ago. Every two years, we have twice as much solar energy in the world.

Today, solar is still more expensive than fossil fuels, and in most situations it still needs subsidies or special circumstances, but the costs are coming down rapidly -- we are only a few years away from parity. And then it's going to keep coming down, and people will be gravitating towards solar, even if they don't care at all about the environment, because of the economics.
Kurzweil calls this generalization of Moore's Law his Law of Accelerating Returns, and sees its application in the full diversity of human endeavors. I hope Kurzweil is right that climate change will be solved by the relentless acceleration of the fruits of technology. But it all depends on at least one tenuous assumption.

Certainly solar costs have been coming down. Efficiencies have been inching upwards, but at a pace nothing close to Moore's famous doubling of transistor density and its corollary rise in computational power. Enormous amounts of capital and effort continue to be plowed into advancing solar technology, and tantalizing hints of breakthroughs abound (although mostly from the startup companies themselves.) I saw one particularly exciting presentation from one such company just ths month.

Still, as Kurzweil himself writes, "technology has always been a double-edged sword." Technology can be used both creatively and destructively. Nuclear weapons are an obvious technology that dampens optimism, but there have been examples throughout human history. The people of Rapa Nui destroyed themselves, in essence, by the use of the wheel. Technology is an accelerant, but it what it accelerates depends on all too-human decision-making.

Today's consumer culture harnesses technology for often frivolous things and demand for technology continues to accelerate. But technology is not fabricated from thin air, but from energy and a vast number of limited and non-renewable resources. We may have the fossil energy to build the vast solar infrastructure, but will we have the material resources? Rare earth element supply will soon not match demand. Indium, used in some of the latest solar technology, is another element approaching limits. We are entering not just an enforced and tumultuous transition in our energy economy, but also an era of industrial scarcity. Abundant energy (Kurzweil's promise of accelerating returns in solar power) may solve many problems, and we would all be happy should that pan out. But it is unlikely to become some kind of philosopher's stone that can transmute common elements into precious ones, and so metaphorically create the many seeds now necessary for technology's sustained fruiting.

Update: Not sure who "Kurzeil" is; corrected spelling....

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