Having seen the ways in which our species took its first steps into the era of agriculture and civilization as we know it, we ought now look at how this is related to our current position.
We have a constant fear, it seems, of the lack of gainful wages for all of our citizens. And why not? We have all been in the position of being unable to find employment at one time or another in our lives. Like anything else, our fears are driven by our need to survive. We each know that a failure on our part to secure income may mean the end of one”s life as it has come to be known. Lets think about that for a moment, why do we have this fear?
One political idea likely strikes either fear or joy into the hearts of the reader, socialism. We cannot, by definition, as individuals achieve the type of species wide change required to move us into the next phase of our cultural evolution. Rather than debating the pros or cons of a contemporary political term, it is important to imagine the world that we might be interested in creating. Then simply look for the path likely to lead to the end we wish to enact.
I want to avoid the trap of talking about what socialism means in the context of our current societal structure. Recall that socialism was the way of life when we were hunter gathers and small to medium wandering tribes. To talk about that economy and to draw corollaries in the present which relate to our modern society would be dubious at best, and, I think, would most often be an argument made in bad faith.
What then does it mean to be a society without labor? How might we exist?
First things first, this is not an overnight change. We can envision a future wherein a robot does a task, another robot maintains the first, and in a factory somewhere across the globe more robots build other robots. The shipping is automated, the assembly, the programming. This however, is a far flung future that none of alive today will see. Besides, that picture is an infinite regression of robots repairing robots who repair other robots. For decades and most probably centuries to come, humanity will remain a potent and integral cog in the industrial machine that fuels our technologically powered culture. We should avoid looking at this transition for the moment and, as I said before, look to the future we want to create. Let us design an economy and a society which functions, then we will work to find a path which leads there. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to insist we know where we are going before we set out on the journey.
I fully admit that I have a difficult time imagining the type of labor-less future I’m talking about. I think this is one of the hardest hurdles to clear in the struggle to move away from the status quo. Perhaps we should turn to science fiction to get us started.
One of the most famous examples of a post scarcity society in science fiction is that of Gene Roddenberry”s Star Trek. In which humanity has moved beyond money and wealth by creating a technologically advanced society wherein all of our living needs are provided for. This allows people to pursue anything they like. No questions asked. There are some problems with the Star Trek utopia which are often explored in the series. The main issue being a rebellion to uniformity. The universe often references what amount to planet wide resource and race wars which plagued our species prior to the development of technology that allowed us to leave resource scarcity behind. One way or another humanity collectively discarded its widely varied cultural histories and adopted a 1990”s themed, Holiday Inn decored, jumpsuit loving, western European facade. The idea of entire species boiled down to a simple archetype is perfect for television, but is unrealistic in this universe.
Realistic or not, we can pull some useful goals from that fictional future. The most important being energy production. As a technologically fueled society we are vastly dependent on energy. The moment we cannot produce sufficient energy to run our technology, our current system collapses catastrophically. Almost everyone is aware of this need. Some of us are focused on the control of oil. Some are focused on the use of coal. Some see a future powered by wind and solar energy. In any case, our ability to produce energy must absolutely undergo a vast transformation if we wish to progress.
For a few hundred years we have relied on the dense energy to volume ratio of hydrocarbons as a fuel. A few gallons of purified petroleum contains enough energy to move a few tons of metal and its meat based occupants hundreds of miles. That type of energy density is difficult to rival.
We did for a time realize that nuclear fission was a more energy dense reaction than the oxidation of hydrocarbons. Our somewhat brief foray into fission energy production has slowed due to the use of cheap technology and a deep lack of technological understanding by the public. The continual lack of scientific understanding by the public is a point we will address later, as it is the largest hurdle we must clear to progress in any way.
To the point of energy production we must again look to the future rather than the moment. We always forget to consider the increasing standard of living that our technology provides us. We think in terms of the moment rather than the future. In the 1970’s the energy efficiency movement envisioned the end of pollution with the replacement of just a few incandescent lights. And, in the moment, they were right. Reducing the use of incandescents by replacing them with fluorescent bulbs would have drastically reduced energy consumption in that era. As technology creep continued however, the increased efficiency did less and less to help. No longer do Americans live in small suburban homes with a single television and refrigerator as their greatest source of electricity use. Our home sizes have increased, we now have multiple televisions, power hungry game consoles, we have computers in every room, each family member has a cell phone, each app you use on those phones requires a server somewhere to function. Our power consumption has increased extraordinarily in ways most of us have not considered.
We cannot rely on the fact that renewable energy sources such as wind and solar will be sufficient even in our near future as a species. There will continue to be more and more humans born, there will continue to be more and more humans living in the fashion we are used to in the west, there will be a continual and unpredictable technological creep. We cannot be satisfied with the modest gains made by small steps toward efficiency. We are certainly capable as a species of destroying the delicate environment in which we thrive. Purposefully or through inaction or by wishful thinking, we can make our planet inhospitable to our kind of life. I know that sounds dramatic and reactionary, but it is not an insignificant point to make.
Thus, we need a power source which is both potent as well as renewable. Something which will last through the next millennium with room for our species to grow. With such a source of energy we would be free to invest in power hungry technologies. This energy source must be non damaging to our environment, or we must be able to at least control and use the byproducts.
How do we get to this point then? What source of energy will be our savior? That, I think, is impossible to say with any certainty, however it may be possible to make choices today which lead us in the direction we wish to travel.
In terms of energy density, wind and solar are both phenomenal. The amount of solar radiation hitting the Earth’s surface every day is so great, that it can easily fuel all or our energy needs with massive room for growth. The bottleneck lies in our ability to convert this energy to useful work. Solar panels are continually gaining in their efficiency, but use rare elements and wear out over time. The recycling of the old panels and the reclaiming of the rare elements is dangerous and often produces dangerous byproducts. Solar reflector plants are another more exciting option. Reflecting the incoming light onto a central tower to melt sodium salt for energy storage and transfer to water for steam generation. The current bottleneck is location. Here in southern California we have a stunningly beautiful new plant which is visible, from interstate 15, for what seems like hundreds of miles. During the day it is the brightest object in view. It is so dazzling that it draws the eye and rouses the imagination. I have never passed the Ivanpah solar power facility and been unimpressed. Like the natural allure of a gem, the human eye seems to be dazzled by its brilliance. I cannot understate the impressive nature of the spectacle. Four thousand acres of heliostat mirrors tracking the sun and focusing its light onto a four hundred and fifty foot high tower. It is a beautiful sight. While this is an impressive feat of human ingenuity, the location is vital. Such a solar plant would be useless in my home town on the central coast, a place where fog and overcast dominate the weather forecasts. Perhaps more damning, even the Ivanpah solar plant uses quite a lot of natural gas in its energy production.
Solar is a fluorescent light bulb, it is a quick fix to an energy deficit. It would be possible to vastly alter our energy distribution and consumption patterns to make renewables such as solar and wind work for the next thousand years, but lets assume that we want to create a world that does not rely on rare metals and windmills dotting every roof. Nor do we want to rely on a massive change in our current infrastructure.
We have one frightening and well despised option. Nuclear power.
I know many people insist that nuclear power is non-renewable, and while they are correct to an extent, it is an unfair point to make. By a similar definition, solar is non-renewable as well. The sun will eventually burn out. That does not make it a non-renewable resource in the context of the next ten thousand years.
Lets talk about nuclear power for a while.
This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I grew up in the shadow of the Diablo Canyon thermal reactor, and have first hand experience when it comes to annual meltdown drills. The population is often under-informed for the drills, and it is an interesting sensation when they occur. A bright sunny August day, in the sleepy coastal California county of San Luis Obispo, is cut starkly by the droning wail of air raid sirens so loud that you have to shout to talk to one another. There are stickers everywhere telling people what to do. On the windows of businesses. On public restroom doors. Tune in on your radio to something or other AM or another station FM.
No one can ever remember which station it is.
The sirens blare for three to five minutes and the people calmly try to figure out where to tune their radios. They talk about when the test was last year. It is always this time of year right? Everyone is calm, but the sirens are harsh and designed to induce anxiety. This is how Diablo Canyon would warn us all of an emergency in progress.
Potassium iodide kits are available from the San Luis Obispo Health Department to any household within the emergency planning zone.
This type of preparedness is grim. Like a medical supply warehouse stocking up on child size crutches in the spring to prepare for the summer polio outbreaks. Grim.
Why is it that we are so afraid of nuclear reactors? Are they as deadly as we think? Are they as dangerous? What type of reactors are we even talking about? Are you as a reader even aware that there are different kinds of reactor?
The most famous nuclear disaster is the Chernobyl meltdown, and I really want to talk about that for a moment. I want to point out how dangerous that reactor design was, and how bad the disaster really was.
Imagine that you are the former Soviet Union, and that you are in a very expensive competition with the United States. On both sides, new and impressive technologies are pursued as quickly and as cheaply as possible in order to avoid falling behind.
One of the first things we all did wrong was to us simple and dirty “thermal reactors” on land. I’m sure I don’t have to explain the design of a thermal reactor, we have been using them as our primary source of nuclear power generation worldwide since the 1950’s. The simple water loop design was originally proposed for nuclear powered submarines in the early cold war. The reactor is simple, can be repaired and maintained while in a war zone, and if it breaks or melts down it just sinks to the bottom of the sea. Problem solved since water works great as a neutron moderator. As for fuel, it uses enriched uranium, but requires a high level of enrichment. Once the U235 concentration drops, the reaction is no longer useful for power generation in a thermal reactor. This is fine since a warship can just be refuled. On land, this means highly enriched, but not enriched enough, fuel building up in storage pools.
Depending on who you are, you may or may not be aware that this was not the original type of reactor designed and used for nuclear power generation. The Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR-I) was built outside Arco, Idaho in 1949. The breeder reactor design is very different than the style we have come to know and occasionally fear. Rather than running on enriched uranium, breeder (or fast neutron) reactors generally use plutonium. Likewise, rather than consuming a small portion of enriched fuel and leaving behind “waste,” breeder reactors produce useful nuclear fuels as they work. This means that not only do they avoid the issue of nuclear waste stockpiling, but they can actually burn our existing nuclear waste stockpile as fuel. On December 20th, 1951 EBR-I became the first electricity producing nuclear reactor in the world by illuminating a string of four large round 200watt incandescent light bulbs.
So what’s the catch? Why aren’t we using breeder reactors then?
The short answer is a bit disappointing. Fast neutron reactors are objectively better in their design, and they solve many of the problems which the public has when it comes to fission nuclear power generation, but they are complicated to build and operate. And, as we all know, complicated things are more expensive than simple things.
Now imagine that you are a rich energy mogul and you want to build a nuclear power plant. You are offered a very expensive plant design, or a very cheap plant design. Which does your business acumen tell you to choose? The cheap one, obviously. So, we have loads of thermal reactors which were originally intended to be inefficient, but powerful, plants to silently fuel cold war era nuclear submarines. Only they aren’t in the safe deep ocean waters when they melt down, they are on land.
They are, I am sure, not what the starry eyed nuclear physicists of the 1940’s envisioned for our atom powered future.
Back to Chernobyl.
Let’s now think about the Soviet Union and its desire for a cheap reactor. Do they choose to build a thermal or a breeder reactor? Do they choose to build a containment dome or an open pit reactor with no shielding besides its water pool and graphite moderators? You know what they choose. The powerful but cheap “Reaktor Bolshoy Moshchnosti Kanalnyy” (RBMK) reactor.
Imagine a highschool gymnasium. A big open building with a high roof and a large flat floor. Now imagine that instead of basket ball courts there are pit reactors in the room. These are the same reactors which power all of the American plants, but without the safety and containment. If a meltdown occurs, there is nothing to keep the radioactive steam, particualtes, or anything else inside the gym sized building. Nothing but the walls of the building itself.
As a contrast, the containment domes at the Diablo Canyon power plant are so thick that they estimate it would take two concurrent direct hits from a crashing airplane to damage them enough to breach containment. These are made of something like six foot thick steel reinforced concrete. The building at the Chernobyl power station was not made to contain anything. It was made to protect the reactors and workers from the elements.
So what happened at Chernobyl was fairly predictable given enough time. Reactor One (of four in the building) suffered a partial core meltdown on September 9th, 1982. This led to minor damage, and the reactor was repaired within a few months. The next failure was the one which became infamous.
On April 26, 1986, reactor number four suffered a catastrophic failure. Many of its key safety systems had been disabled by the staff, most of whom were not educated in nuclear physics or engineering. During a test of the turbine and diesel backups, staff caused a meltdown and steam explosion which obliterated reactor four. In the aftermath 31 people died of radiation sickness, the risk of increased cancers in the surrounding area is still not well understood. This is due to the difficulty in assessing which cancers are a result of the fallout and which are simply cancers that would have occurred “naturally” in the population.
So why am I arguing for the use of Nuclear power if it is so dangerous? Recall that the world immediately needs a dense energy source which does not radically disrupt our current infrastructure. This is needed to offset carbon emissions and hopefully reduce the effects of anthropogenic climate change. This is also needed to power our ever expanding technology creep.
As the development of AI continues, more and more of our things will demand electricity. There will be new waves of previously dumb appliances which need electricity as they become smart, and there will be new and unexpected additions to our technological collection. Remember that adding a new smart thermostat to your home may not cost you much personally, but that most of the new power consumption is coming from the backbone of that technology. Somewhere a large power hungry server is running along with mountains of networking equipment, just to run your new thermostat.
Maybe tomorrow you will have a smartwatch which needs power, or a smart pen, or a smart wallet, or a smart credit card. All of these things will use electricity, as will the added weight of their internet backbones.
If we invest our time and resources into safer and cleaner nuclear options like breeder reactors, thorium reactors, and fourth and fifth generation thermal reactors, then we can move away from fossil fuels immediately.
This is our stepping stone to a larger world. Without a surplus of energy, produced in a clean and safe manner, we cannot hope to move forward through the next leap in human civilization. The move to a post-scarcity society will be impossible.
From this point, the AI revolution can fully thrive, and we can focus our efforts on designing a society which better suits our increased free time. Just as we did when we chose to begin farming rather than wandering.
Stay tuned for part three!