I just finished reading Outliers and a few interesting points stuck with me, one of which was that in days of yore our ancestors (in the west) didn’t work anywhere near as hard as we do. They might spend only a few hours a day at work, and then hang for the rest of the day. It is apparent when we look at our US economy (especially before the crash) that only a small percentage of our productivity is required to meet our essential needs and the rest, maybe 70% or more goes into the acquisition of useless crap. Most recently, with the recession, most of us have pulled back from the accumulation of said crap and the net result has been a near global collapse because, among other reasons, the crap manufacturers, located mostly in Asia, now have nothing to do when not building our junk.
It’s indeed an odd place that we have gotten to where most of the consumption of America was of stuff that no one needs and that the entire manufacturing base of the world is busily at work making for us. It seems, however, that with two exceptions, this wouldn’t by itself be a problem. In fact, one can observe that in the past, huge investments of labor went into equally useless stuff, but often in the form of pyramids and cathedrals instead of large flat screen color TVs.
The problems now are first that we are consuming enormous quantities of carbon based fuels in the manufacturing processes and transportation systems and if global warming predictions are accurate, this behavior is not sustainable without the impending collapse of large portions of the world economy through displacement caused by weather changes or rising seas and worse, the political insurrection that will follow.
Second, in the age of the Internet, jet air travel and nuclear weapons, it becomes more easily possible for unhappy residents of our planet in far off lands to make our collective lives miserable right here in the good ole USA. Thus, it appears that we are at a cusp where we will likely need to decide that a radical shift in our consumer spending is needed so that we can reduce carbon usage and invest instead in the equalization of global comfort, education and prosperity if for no other reason, simply our own safety.
How much would (will) each of us pay to stabilize our world and protect it from political insurrection that is the likely outcome of global warming and global poverty and ignorance? Are we willing to forego a piece or two of electronic junk or possibly a Gucci handbag? We must admit that it has gotten silly. Fifteen thousand dollar shower curtains, multiple homes, thousand dollar handbags and shoes; where will it end?
Obama is right. It’s time for a change; a fundamental change in priorities. Count me in.
On the topic of gasoline, I am in a small way a contrarian. There is a tremendous push for us to replace fossil fuels with batteries, wind, and the like. For at least cars, truck and busses, maybe this will someday occur, but there might be a more direct solution and batteries may never achieve the capacity of a tank of gas. Researchers at UCSD (http://www.technologyreview.com/Energy/18582/) demonstrated that it’s possible to create gasoline from CO2 with a substantial amount of energy. Think about it. You burn the fuel in your car, the CO2 travels through the atmosphere to a plant located in the desert and solar power converts the CO2 back to gasoline which is piped back to the gas station and returned to your car. Not a bad solution. Plug up the wells. There’s plenty of gas in the air already. If one considers that solar power is plentiful and can already be gathered with current technology, it isn’t so farfetched to consider enormous plants in the deserts of the US creating both electricity for our grid (more likely a new grid) and gas for our cars.
Consider the following: The total US consumption of power is in the range of 4TW (teraWatts 10**12). Nevada Solar One which was built for around $250M will generate on the order of 100MW (megaWatts 10**6) in an area of around 300 acres which is around 12M Square Feet or ½ square mile. The math yields a need for 40,000 such plants to totally satisfy our power need, occupying an area of 20,000 square miles or a box around 141 Miles on each side – not really that big… at a cost of 10 Trillion dollars – not much money in comparison to our bail outs of banks and insurance companies.
Of course, it's more complicated than that. The 10 trillion is a capital investment in power generation equipment which generates around 4 teraWatts per year. Our gasoline consumption is way more expensive than our electric consumption per watt and by itself is around 1 trillion per year. Now the 10 trillion doesn't look like a bad investment.