The world is mired in one of the most godawful economic turd storms mankind has experienced in recent history. Many are beyond frightened to the point of having become dulled and cynical — average housing prices fell another 50%? Big deal. We unwashed Euros anxiously await the point at which the inevitable fallout will break over our battered but as-yet holding up economies (well, some of them appear to be holding up better than others.) The Americas are gripped by a sensationalist media uproar resulting from a few thousand cases of pig sniffles, while in the U.S. Congress, accusations fly over who cut what pandemic preparedness funds from which budget.
Unemployment is rising worldwide, food prices recently caused riots in many third world cities, and overfishing, deforestation and pollution threaten the viability of large areas of the inhabited world — not that there are many uninhabited areas with the planet’s population nearing 7 billion. Criminal thugs and fanatics control too many governments to count, tribalism and superstition threaten to balkanize significant parts of the developing world, while lobbying-induced protectionism, paranoia over terrorism, ridiculous intellectual property laws, excessive personal entitlement and corporate graft gradually choke off the innovation and trade that could bring humanity up to the level of enlightened prosperity it deserves.
Welcome to 2009. It’s more than 70 years after Buck Rogers, more than 50 years since tailfins on cars, more than 40 years since the moon landing and we haven’t even set foot on Mars yet.
I am not a scientist, but I believe in science. Nor am I an economist, a politician, or a psychic. So where should we be, from an expectant layman’s perspective?
Energy — is there any particular reason why massive swaths of the sahara or other sun-baked arid stretches of land are not yet equipped with enormous solar energy farms? DARPA set a goal of 50% efficiency for photovoltaic cells; to my knowledge, by 2007 prototypes had surpassed 40% energy conversion efficiency. It’s my understanding that conventional wafer solar cells are mainly silicon, i.e. sand. Even when given that other technologies, such as thin-film, are still fairly new, and that solar cell manufacture is still comparatively expensive, I would have imagined that by now we’d be able to develop the technology to the point of economically equipping every rooftop in existence with a solar power plant.
The same goes for tidal plants and windmills (especially vertical axis windmills that are less prone to mechanical breakdown, cheaper, and more resistant to high winds). Supposedly Senator Edward Kennedy threw a monkey wrench in the wheels of a project to place windmills off Nantucket sound. I personally think that propellers are actually very handsome additions to a rolling, wind-blown countryside.
Water — this one makes no sense to the unenlightened. Huge parts of the population are without clean drinking water. Ground water supplies in the developed world are evaporating out of uncounted swimming pools. Fishing grounds are drying up due to agricultural demand. And yet, 9/10 of the world’s surface is covered with water.
Simple ideas like the LifeStraw are a fantastic start, but what about massive-scale desalination? I read once as a child that you could make a simple evaporation water treatment plant (albeit for small amounts) by making a tent of a black plastic tarp over a bucket of contaminated water placed in a sunny spot, and collecting the evaporated water that condensed at the top of the tarp and rolled down the sides. Regardless of whether or not this is practical for large amounts of seawater (isn’t this exactly what sea salt collectors have been doing since the dawn of time, just without bothering to collect the evaporated water?) I find it bizarre that nobody has come up with a cheap, clean method for filtering obscene amounts of ocean water and using it to turn the sahara into a garden.
Food — the technology exists to irrigate deserts (the Israelis have done it, why can’t everyone else?), to stack numerous layers of farmland floors, as with the proposed Rotterdam Deltapark   — whatever happened to that? Google doesn’t seem to have an idea — or to go vertical with farmland in urban buildings in order to reduce transportation costs for food brought to cities.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that by 2030 at the latest, the world food supply will outstrip the population. If it does not do so already. Over the past 40 years, global food production has grown faster than the population. Even given problems like rampant overfishing, logging to create new farmland and grazing areas and the possibility that efficiency increases in food production are a one-shot deal that will slow down as most farmland is brought up to its optimum level, there is a lot that can be done to sustainably grow huge amounts of food through advances like algae feedstocks or protein cloning that already exist in some form or another.
At the same time, the United States, the European Union and Switzerland, Japan and a number of other countries pursue nonsensical agricultural protectionism (subsidies for agrocorporations like Archer Daniels Midland and for inefficient, regionally uneconomic crops and products like California rice or biofuels in the United States, or EU important tariffs on bananas, for example) while dumping subsidized donor crops on hungering third world countries, thus stifling local agriculture that could conceivably support populations in place. Switzerland sits on mountains of unsold dairy products, kept off the market as a price support mechanism. The inefficiencies of it are hair-raising for anyone with even a modest bit of economic sense — think of that the next time you see a politician trawling for the local farm vote.
Transportation — Eletric and hydrogen cars exist, and have done so for a long time; they’re just highly inefficient to build and use. This is a simple question of technological evolution — to create a tiny, hyperperformant battery and components made out of recyclable, sustainable materials (viz. “Pollution“). An argument I had once with my very ecologically conscious father ended with him insisting angrily that “mankind has to change!”, while I attempted to make him understand that, if you build a sexy, fast, cheap, sustainable car, they will change. Where’s that car?
What about long range transportation? Since the trauma of the Hindenburg explosion died down, we’ve been promised airships; what Neal Stevenson’s described as “giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel“. I’m looking up, but no airships. Only loud, polluting, condensation-trail-leaving (that one’s a particular shame for anyone who, like me, likes to look up through a telescope at night) jet airliners. German zeppelins crossed the Atlantic in less than 6 days at a cruising speed of less than 130km/h; currently, it takes 7-8 hours to fly from London to New York, crammed in with other passengers like sardines; if you count the commute to and from the airport, hours spent in waiting lounges, security checks, ticketing lines and other utter wastes of time, this can go up to 12 hours. Surely we ought to be technologically capable of doubling the Hindenburg’s speed, traveling for three days while being able to work, play, sleep, shower, eat well and stretch our legs. The cynic in me is sure that any increase in available space will be used to cram in more steerage passengers rather than for comfort…
High speed trains? I currently commute from Paris to Switzerland at least twice a month. The TGV, in second class, is by no means a paradigm of luxury, but it’s fast and somewhat reasonably priced. German ICEs manage to one-up this with very comfortable seats even in second class, extremely clean interiors, good meals, wireless access, power outlets everywhere, and the convenience and punctuality that comes from taking a train from city center to city center. Considering that the air trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles can take 6 hours when including all the time wasted getting to and from the airplane, where is the high speed rail corridor? Where is the NYC-Chicago monorail?
Pollution — It is possible to create plastics out of hemp and soy. It’s not necessary to burn hydrocarbons to create energy, or to package consumer goods in inorganic, impossible-to-break-down materials that end up in titanic landfills. I’m not advocating any of the “reduce your carbon footprint to a minimum” noise that’s so often thrown at us by fanatics and the media — that is a dead end, leading to us sitting naked under trees, grubbing for nuts and berries, but without impacting mother nature.
Humanity exists and has a footprint, and that’s all right. Technology exists to make biodegradable products, to avoid most of the pollution we face today (viz. “Transportation” and “Energy“), and to generally minimize the crap pumped out of factories, cities, cars and households. Sadly, the trash mountains are still growing. They shouldn’t be. We have easy recycling; the technology to reduce emissions of all sorts to a minimum exists, why isn’t it everywhere? How does smog still exist?
Overpopulation — Malthus was wrong. (viz. “Space Travel” below.) First, the more people you have, and the more they communicate, the more the rise in distributed innovation will grow more rapidly than the population’s needs (I’m channeling Julian Lincoln Simon here.) Second, as a region becomes more prosperous, its birthrate slows down; this is an effect of no longer needing as many children as possible in the hope that some will survive malaria, wolves, militias and starvation in order to be able to support you in your old age. And yet, the third world, particularly Africa, is still ready to explode at the seams. Humanity is closing on 7 billion, with estimates for 2050 reaching 8.9 billion (U.N.) and 9.5 billion (U.S. census bureau.)
Until poor regions of the world gain access to clean drinking water, political stability and a reliable rule of law, free trade, good universal education and functioning food supplies, it’s too much to hope for that they will not churn out hordes of unemployed, hungry, angry youth. Then again, I would have thought that by now the above would not be such a huge stretch to expect.
Space Travel — just getting objects out of Earth’s orbit is an energy-voracious, inefficient task. Where are the giant Gauss coilguns angled up along hillsides near the equator that fling unmanned cargo pods into space? The theory behind using successive magnetic fields to rapidly accelerate objects has existed for a long time. If a bunch of MIT students can build a prototype on a tabletop in 1999, surely someone would have come up with the thought of creating a really big catapult for containers full of tools, parts, party favors, whatever is needed to assemble a permanent outer space presence, to create long-haul spaceships for extraterrestrial exploration and colonization, and to give mankind the tools to exploit the riches of the universe (viz. “Raw Materials” below.) Accelerate magnetically, take them the rest of the way with rocket boosters. Minimal pollution, and one cargo pod after another flies into space like so many ducklings in a row.
Naturally, humans could not withstand the enormous forces of a Gauss cannon. Send them up in a space elevator. What, we don’t have one yet? Why not? Again, the technology exists and the long-term business model is there, so where’s the joy? I suppose sending tourists into space is a first baby step, but don’t we owe it to ourselves to be so much further by now?
Raw Materials — the solar system is littered with asteroids rich in metals and gases. If New Scientist’s flawed logic is to be believed (to name a few examples, the graphic oversimplifies the need for certain compounds in medicine, it does not factor recycling into reduction of new materials required, and it glosses over the fact that many of the elements of their graphic can be obtained from other sources) there ought to be a tremendous incentive to start getting this crap back to earth before our local supplies run out. NASA and the Russians have been calculating re-entry trajectories for years; it ought to be feasible to drop giant mineral gift packages into uninhabited areas for pickup and processing without too much difficulty.
Granted, these are all oversimplifications, probably ignorantly so, but it saddens me that, as a member of a species with so much potential, I still see beggars on the street, tyrants on TV, and no flying cars, no robot cleaning brigades, none of the stuff Popular Science kept promising throughout the last half century.