Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Peak ALMOST Everything

Last night I stumbled on this article, which is an edited version of the introduction to Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines by Richard Heinberg. It's a very interesting and sobering article, and I was intrigued enough to order the book from Amazon (oh my aching reading stack!). Heinberg has written previously on "peak oil," the idea that as the world runs out of cheap oil (and natural gas), that major changes are in store for human societies across a wide front, because so much of what we take for granted depends on cheap oil. This applies to more than driving our cars and heating our homes - most aspects of industry, agriculture, and transport are impacted, not to mention global politics and war. And it's happening now, or very soon, not hundreds of years in the future.

I haven't read any of Heinberg's books yet, but based on this article, he doesn't seem to be an alarmist. He says there is clear evidence that over the course of this century, we will reach peaks on many things besides oil and gas. A peak is followed by a decline (by definition), though the rate and impact of the decline can vary tremendously. Of course there can be substitutes, and humans have been and are tremendously resourceful in getting around limitations, at least for a while. But he says:
Our starting point, then, is the realization that we are today living at the end of the period of greatest material abundance in human history - an abundance based on temporary sources of cheap energy that made all else possible. Now that the most important of those sources are entering their inevitable sunset phase, we are at the beginning of a period of overall societal contraction.
I'm looking forward to learning more about this from the book, but two thoughts occur to me now. What about solar? And what about space?

I wrote recently about a "grand solar" plan described in a current article in Scientific American. This approach has a lot of promise at least for the US where we have large regions (mainly the southwest) where solar energy "farms" could be very efficient. We are swimming in solar energy if we could only harness it efficiently, and if the coming end of cheap oil and other resources is going to lead to massive social declines and more war and chaos, why isn't solar energy the new Manhattan Project?

And then there is space, where solar energy is abundant and constant (though a ground based solar plan is probably more practical in the short run than solar power satellites), and where there are massive material resources on the moon and in near-Earth asteroids. Certainly the Earth is finite, but the inner solar system has tremendous additional resources, including metals, gases, water, Helium-3, etc. These resources in space will take years to develop, but they could lead to new sources of important and rare materials such as platinum, new energy sources (solar power satellites, helium-3 fusion reactors), and even new places for humans to live (space habitats, Moon and Mars colonies).

Of course these are not short-term solutions. But knowing that we are running out of easily accessible energy and material resources on the Earth, it seems to me that we should be working on this more than we are. We should be expanding our national and international efforts in space technology and development, and working on ways to encourage commercial development and investment in future solutions from space. This may not seem as pressing as many of our current problems (maybe giving every American a few hundred dollars in tax rebates is a good way to spend another $145 billion in borrowed government money and will hold off a recession, or maybe not). But in the long run, I think it's literally a matter of survival.

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