SEARCH BLOG: ECONOMICS
Econbrowser had an interesting short post last weekend regarding scarcity. Part of that post:
Professor Tom Murphy, my colleague in the Physics Department here at UCSD, relays an interesting conversation between a physicist and an economist on the limits to growth. Here's an excerpt:
Physicist: At that 2.3% growth rate, we would be using energy at a rate corresponding to the total solar input striking Earth in a little over 400 years. We would consume something comparable to the entire sun in 1400 years from now. By 2500 years, we would use energy at the rate of the entire Milky Way galaxy-- 100 billion stars! I think you can see the absurdity of continued energy growth. 2500 years is not that long, from a historical perspective. We know what we were doing 2500 years ago. I think I know what we're not going to be doing 2500 years hence.I commented:
Wow! Thanks for that softball!
[Thomas] Malthus lives!!!
Zero-sum thinking survives!!!!!
What will happen when all of the buggy whip manufacturers are put out of business? There is no future for flat screen TVs because how many can afford $8,000 for a 42" display?
What stands in our way of solving seemingly intractable problems are people who have a fear of innovation. Fear that it will destroy our world in one way or another. Fear that someone will reap large profits even if it benefits others. Fear that their fantasy of Eden might be wrong.
For example... example... the U.S. alone buries a quarter billion TONS of garbage each year while it spends billions of dollars in fuel generating electricity. Innovation says use plasma arc technology to virtually eliminate landfills while generating a surplus of electricity in virtually any location... perfect recycling of everything. That's politically incorrect because of the fear of process pollution... which is significantly less than the pollution of 250 million tons of trash plus the mining of coal or the drilling of natural gas and the burning of those fuels for that same end product... electricity.
Fear... all the way back to Malthus and beyond.Some other took umbridge with my comments:
Energy available thru the combustion of solid waste would replace only 1% or so of our energy use. All of that sort of scavaging energy (methane from manure and sewage, cooking oil, etc) is ultimately just an increase in efficiency and can never produce more enrgy than put into the trash in the first place (probably less than about 5% of total energy consumption). Greater recycling has slightly greater efficiency potential than combustion, but unless we posit perpetual motion, it will neveer be an energy source.I responded:
... with regard to generating electrical energy from plasma arc incineration of waste, it is obvious you interpreted my statements to be toilet waste ["methane from manure and sewage, cooking oil, etc"]. I suggest that you actually read about plasma arc incineration technology.
Here is an example:
I will re-iterate: fear of innovation is the main impediment to energy freedom. That fear takes form in fear of competition, fear of unknown or presumed side-effects, fear of being wrong about your own world view.
For those of you who can't get beyond the notion that the term "solid waste" does not refer to "poop," I will offer another example of fear of innovation... the fears of special interests.
Bruce has, of course, disproven his own case. If Malthus feared innovation (I'm not aware of any evidence that he did), that fear did not prevent innovation. If, as Bruce seems to contend, there is a history if such fear and that fear prevents innovation, then there must still be a buggy whip maker in every town. There is not? Well, then, we have little to fear from the fear of innovation. We may well have reason to think that energy consumption growth will have to slow, though, based on the math here presented.But will it? That is more fear. More Malthusian thinking. Basically, since we cannot imagine now how we can produce such amounts of needed energy, therefore, we will not be able to produce the needed energy.
Most 18th century physicists would have pronounced the amount of electricity produced from nuclear energy "impossible." Malthusian thinking. Our present administration is filled with Malthusians. They cannot see innovation that can solve problems because they cannot understand the scope of innovation. Hence, they fear innovation. They put up regulations against innovation. We must return to organic living off the land, but crammed into tiny apartments in cities.
Their world view of scarcity would be challenged if they embraced innovation... like fracking that increases energy, like plasma arc incineration that reuses energy, like more efficient use of resources other than corn to make our fuels... like computers in your cellphones more powerful than the giant room computers using 10,000 vacuum tubes that used enormous amounts of energy.
They are much more comfortable spreading fear about scarcity. They are much more comfortable being experts about scarcity. They are much more comfortable being in charge of the scarcity they want to implement.
They simply cannot imagine a world 400 years from now where energy is abundant and efficiency is so great that our energy needs are much less to meet our needs than it is now. Better to fear. Better to be impediments to innovation.
Oh, who was Thomas Malthus?
The classical economists who followed in the footsteps of Adam Smith did not enjoy his widespread popularity. Dubbed the "prophets of gloom and doom," they became associated with turning economic thought into a dismal science. Thomas Robert Malthus, in particular, became renown for his pessimistic predictions regarding the future of humanity. His major contribution to economic thought came in the essay "The Principles of Population." Originally, Malthus wrote the piece in response to utopian utilitarians who suggested that population growth constituted an unmitigated blessing. Essentially, Malthus predicted that the demand for food inevitably becomes much greater than the supply of it. This prediction is rooted in the idea that population increases geometrically while foodstuffs grow at an arithmetic rate. Curiously, Malthus offers no explanation as to how he determined these figures. (Encyclopedia of Economic Thought) [source]Just substitute "energy" for "food". Just substitute "Thomas Robert Malthus" for any of the fear-mongers.