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Thursday, December 03, 2009


A year ago I reviewed a lecture by Colin McInnes at the royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow about our possible, if we don't go Luddite, future.The Herald published this on Saturday which is based on the first part of it. Presumably the 2nd half, about space, solar power satellites, orbital settlements & terraforming Mars were a bit too far sighted for the Herald.

Sustainability was defined by the 1987 Brundtland Commission as the ability to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Few would argue with this. However, the response to the need for sustainability has evolved into a modern orthodoxy with three key messages; the release of carbon dioxide due to human activity has been a catastrophe; we need to prioritise energy efficiency over energy production; we need to curtail energy intensive long haul travel. I believe that the thinking behind each of these ideas while well meaning is misguided, ultimately damaging and quite often misanthropic.

The growing availability of low cost energy since the industrial revolution has been an overwhelmingly civilising and liberating influence. By largely mechanising food production, replacing carbohydrate fuelled farm labour with hydrocarbon fuelled machines, most of us have been freed from agriculture to think, innovate, create and improve. A wonderful 1920s advertisement for a new kerosene tractor has a call to “keep the boy in school”, freeing the farmer’s children from manual labour to pursue education in a virtuous circle of enlightenment.

Humans are by their nature ingenious and in the future will continue to find a plethora of new uses for energy which we cannot yet even imagine. More importantly, we need to meet the current energy needs of almost half of humanity who still cook using wood or animal waste with appalling consequences for the health of families.

If our generation chooses to stagnate or reduce its capacity to produce energy then we will certainly compromise the ability of both current and future generations to meet their own needs, whatever they may be.

Our ability to generate energy has improved greatly since the industrial revolution, due to dramatic increases in the energy density of fuels with a transition through wood, coal, oil, gas and nuclear fission. A largely unacknowledged result of this increasing energy density has been a reduction in carbon emission per unit of energy produced and a continual decoupling of energy production from the environment.

Low energy, carbon rich wood from forests was abandoned for easily transportable coal and now energy dense, zero carbon uranium. The overall growth in carbon emission which we now worry about has been the result of these continual improvements in energy density and innovation driven efficiencies leading to greater energy use. This is human progress.

The reason that there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now than in the past is that economies are developing, particularly those of recently impoverished nations such as India and China. The century-long rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is an indicator that poor people are becoming prosperous, and correlates with a rise in a host of other metrics such as life expectancy, health care and literacy.

We will however turn the corner on carbon emissions when decarbonising energy production through improving energy density and growing prosperity finally outpaces energy demand.

This is the same long-term process which enabled air and water quality to be greatly improved in the developed world once clean technologies were devised and our economy could afford the costs of the necessary stringent environmental regulation to ensure their implementation.

Economic growth and technical innovation should not be about crass consumerism, but having the resources and tools to improve the human condition and indeed improve the environment. A retreat to a low-energy 1950s lifestyle will only lock in inefficient modes of production and lead to declining standards of living for our children and ultimately regressive environmental degradation.

If we’re serious about displacing carbon from energy production we would be well advised to accelerate the trend of improving energy density. Large-scale adoption of nuclear energy has allowed France to deliver a carbon emission per unit of electrical energy production less than 20% of the UK while providing some of the cheapest electricity prices in Europe.

More importantly, we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible with nuclear energy. The current generation of once-through reactors turn less than 1% of uranium into useful energy. What’s often classified as nuclear waste is in fact just partly spent fuel with vast quantities of untapped energy. Future generations of so-called fast reactors will burn almost all of their fuel, leaving extremely small volumes of short-lived waste products, while there is enough known thorium to provide essentially limitless energy into the far future. There is certainly no shortage of clean, high-grade energy, only a shortage of ambition in some quarters and a retreat from the idea of human progress through technical innovation.

Turning down the thermostat and putting on a sweater is a miserable and ineffectual response to the energy challenges of the future. While energy conservation is important, we should remember that the efficient use of energy has long been the result of technical innovation and ultimately leads to greater energy use. The Watt steam engine was significantly more efficient than the Newcomen engine, but this increased efficiency and improved utility led to a rise in demand for coal.

Rather than pursuing real growth in clean energy production, the orthodox interpretation of sustainability is leading to a socially regressive policy of enforced abstinence. A principal targets has been the continued popularity of air travel. Since the beginning of large-scale civil aviation in the 1950s, technical innovation has led to a reduction in fuel burn per passenger mile by an impressive 75%.

The effect of these continual efficiency improvements has been to reduce the cost of air travel and so increase and democratise its utilisation. Travel is an invaluable glue that binds together economies, cultures and nation states in a common future.

The way forward is not the stay-at-home policy of socially regressive taxation to suppress demand for travel, but continued technical innovation such as carbon-neutral synthetic fuels for long haul air travel and cheap electricity for ultra-fast short haul rail.

Sustainability has rightly become engrained in our thinking, but its orthodox interpretation risks a stagnating future of contracting material and intellectual horizons.

The truly sustainable course is to meet the needs of future generations by gifting them the intellectual tools of technical innovation to deliver an economically and culturally rich global society of shared prosperity in which human needs are decoupled from nature.

Human progress has of course never been easy, uniform or certain. However, we should be very wary of those advocating a transition to a low-energy, low-ambition society. This is a dangerous idea which will inhibit the undreamt of ambitions of future generations, ultimately harm the natural environment and risk consigning the developing world to the prospect of never-ending poverty.

Coincidentally yesterday the royal Phil had another lecture by Professor Simon Garrod of Glasgow University on how we recognise social clues in faces, body language etc.

This is their website -

Astonishingly it turns out that 70% of US elections were won by the candidate who, in decisions made in 1/5th of a second after seeing, were judged to look more competent! The same applies to CDEOs of companies & that the most profitable companies had the most competent looking CEOs. Since the correlation between actual trustworthyness & competence & our perception of it is far from perfect that last point gave me some problems. This decisionmaking is done in measurable points of the brain corresponding to parts used for hunting by animals.

One thing I found interesting is that professor Garrod said that most of the research in this area has been in the last 10 years because it depends heavily on computer measurement of the brain & very complex statistical analysis. It simply could not have been done without such advanced technology. This strikes me as another example of how technology is progressing ever faster & also that the ability to do such analyses may make it easier for the "soft" sciences (sociology, economics) to develop the rigour expected in physics.

In the Q & A section at the end I suggested that the reason CEOs of the most successful companies look most competent may be not effect & cause but a common cause - that companies with a culture of success are more successful & more likely to choose a successful looking CEO. This in turn implies that an awful lot of companies are run on the basis that so long as the founding family is still there & business is ticking over that is fine. Professor Garrod confirmed that that was his assessment too.

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A very interesting post as ever, I would however take issue with only one point

"I believe that the thinking behind each of these ideas while well meaning is misguided"

For a lot of them, I believe the thinking is genuinely malicious and anti-human, other than that, right on the money as ever.
That is officially Colin's opinion not mine. I suspect it may actually be an opinion the Herald insisted on. Giving the benefit of the doubt will make the mass audience more receptive to his points of fact so such politeness is worthwjhile in that instance.
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