March 14, 2009

On the same topic I watched the nice lection by Dr. Albert A. Bartlett on Arithmetic Population And Energy.   As usually in such cases I like to check what oponents of the theory have to offer.

So what it takes for science and technology to offer continuing improving life for increasing population? There are basically three problems which need to be solved.

Energy This is most critical one as fossil fuels are not only non-renewable but they are also not recycable. Once its  gone its gone.     This is most pressing issue and so solution will have to be found short term.  The good thing the morden technologies already offer a lot – it is just lack of will (supported by cheap oil, coal, gas over last decades).   For  example France gets majority of its electricity needs from Nuclear power.  This is not as clean as many people would like but it is better than Oil or Coal.   There is Wind, Geothermal, Tide, Solar etc energy.   It would be also nice to see Fusion based energy developed getting safer alternative to nuclear power which also can work on much more abundant resources.    Solving Electricity problem is really enough –  the electric powered car or hydrogen based system can be “charged” by this kind of energy.

Resources There is only so much of various chemical elements available, and especially easily extractable.   Even with 100% recycling we get ever decreasing amount per capita.   There are also limited capacity of renewable resources  – forests, food growth etc especially as they get the pressure from the space element.

Space This is most theoretical issue –  with exponential growth we run out of space sooner or later Dr.  Bartlett says  with current rate of population growth we would get 1 person per square meter  for all land surface within 780 years.   This is of course far away but really problems  would happen much earlier considering how much space is really needed per person to produce food air etc, not to mention leisure needs, even with current life standards.

So what is really needed for growth to continue longer ?  Both for Resource and Space constrains we will need to go beyond the earth.   When do you think our technology will be able to get us out there ?   The first space flight was over 50 years ago and if you compare the progress to other parts of life it was not so astonishing. We furthest mandkind got so far is getting human to the moon some 30 years ago.    How likely is it we will be able to harvest resources from planets and asteroids in Solar system within next 50 years?   It does not seems likely to me.

The biggest problem here is energy again – the fossil fuels based space travel makes it too expensive to do any real production in the space so far.    Of course we can learn from science writers and hope there will be some transportation device discovered which would allow to teleport to any space but I do not think there is any foundation for such technology is.

If  Solar system remains rather distance source for  resources (and there is not much comfortable living space it can provide) the other stars which might contain inhabitable planets is even further in the future.  With hundreds of millions of stars in our galaxy and millions of galaxies this would allow to maintain exponential growth for quite a while.

There is however more troubling point – even if population growth stops and resource consumption stops growing we are already quickly running of energy resources and transition is inevitable.  How would it look ? How countries and individuals are prepared for it? The government seems to avoid taking a really serious steps toward solving this problem as call to use less and reduce standard of living would not earn many votes.

Because of this I expect rather troublesome rather than smooth transition with technology advances born in pain and suffering.

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