Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fusion reactors, nano factories and space ships!

- Okay, this will be difficult, especially since I promised a more conciliatory tone than in my last post. But after spending another day listening to middle-of-the-road political sales pitches I have to say this out loud:

First, the climate crisis is but one instantiation of a large class of problems, all related to the global depletion of sources and the simultaneous crowding of sinks. Crucial as it may be to weatherize Swedish homes, this is ultimately about a civilization-wide collision with the biophysical limits of this planet. The challenges ahead are truly staggering when it comes to diet, mobility and overall consumption levels as the rest of the world catches up with our privileged lifestyle.

Second, many of these problems come with long time-scales, our solutions should as well! It is not about sustaining Sweden as we know it until 2040, it is about finding a planetary trajectory which can support a massive increase in global prosperity and do so deep into the future.

Third, if we are to transcend the conflict between environmental protection and economic growth we have to think audaciously and in ways far more radical than what has been done up till now. Take nuclear fusion. It is an example that many find provocative and rightfully so. However, unlike existing nuclear fission, it ultimately promises clean and practically unlimited energy (especially if combined with lunar mining of helium-3), yet we are still those famous thirty years away from commercial viability. Why? Partly because we grossly underestimated the technical difficulties but, more importantly, because we seem to lack the necessary “staying power”. It is a bit like SETI-research; we tuned in on our FM-radios some time during the sixties, briefly scanned for ET and decided that no one was out there. After that, the search for extraterrestrial life (possibly the most important scientific discovery of all time, regardless of the outcome) was lumped together with astrology and other esoteric enterprises. Though the emergence of astrobiology as a legitimate scientific field has recently given some renewed legitimacy to SETI-research as well, few seem to understand that even if nuclear fusion ultimately fails to deliver, the pursuit of high-energy technologies may in itself lead to fascinating new discoveries and open up entirely new sources of energy.

The same goes for the nano-industrial revolution, not to mention the prospects of space colonization. Without such vistas, the transition to sustainability becomes nothing but the confinement of humanity, the suppression of our appetite and the limiting of our horizons.


Yet, did I really expect this kind of thinking to be included in a conference on a Swedish New Green Deal? Of course not. But listening to the politicians and the think-tank crowds, it became obvious that, without such visions, it will be very difficult to create the kind of grand coalition that once made for instance welfare capitalism possible. Instead our political leaders are likely to generate even more spin and engage in further simulative politics, fearing the day when an environmental apocalypse will finally be upon us.

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