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Sunday, September 21, 2014

A new Malthusian Trap

      The old world was populated with sustenance farmers, living from harvest to harvest. The new world is populated with sustenance employees, living paycheck to paycheck. We have progressed from being one step ahead of starvation to being two steps ahead of starvation. Modern societies have added safety nets that put us three steps from starvation. This progress didn’t come from the kind hearts of the elite, it was forced onto them by the masses. We have been part of a massive jail break from the Malthusian Trap. Have we truly escaped the Malthusian trap?

      The political economist Robert Malthus made a basic observation that in “every age and in every state” population increases are limited by the means of subsistence. Population will grow until the maximum food resource is completely used, plus, the rate of population growth always exceeds the rate of food growth. This is true of bacteria or humans. This Malthusian Trap, for humans, existed until the dawn of the industrial revolution. Now the income per person could dramatically increase, in the advanced nations anyways, then science produced the “green revolution” which increased food production beyond the basic needs of the world’s population. Scientific discoveries, combined with capitalist greed, had given human society a surplus of food with a surplus of wealth to purchase it. Scientist, economist and politicians all agreed that the Malthusian Trap had been defeated.

      The Industrial Revolution is based on energy. We had learned how to use the energy in hydrocarbons to drive a simple steam engine. The horse was replaced by the iron horse, our available energy increased by magnitudes. Advanced societies needed fewer farmers and more industrial employees, for the young their best future lay in becoming industrial craftsmen. Farming income increased and skilled workmen benefited from the bidding between industrial captains for their labor. All this increased wealth created a mass market for goods, which increased the need for industrial output, which increased the need for skilled craftsmen, a virtuous cycle was created. Cities could not maintain their population due to the mortality rate of communicable disease and hygiene. Again science stepped up, this time medical science, germ theory and sanitation saved civilization and the virtuous cycle first described by Adam Smith in “Wealth of Nations” rolled onward.

      Now we find ourselves in a new Malthusian Trap, this one caused by the waste product from burning hydrocarbons. The earlier cities were deadly because of our uncontrolled filth, now the entire world is becoming deadly because of our uncontrolled filth.

      Science has identified the problem and the solution. The problem? Nature had reached equilibrium by balancing respiration with photosynthesis, life converted carbon and water into sugars and free oxygen, and then life converted the same oxygen and sugars back into carbon and water. We have upset this balance by adding buried carbon in vast quantities to the biosphere. All this extra carbon alters the biosphere’s retention of solar energy and starts additional changes involving methane and water vapor. The solution? Leave the hydrocarbons in the ground, and we need to start with coal.

      Leaving the carbon in the ground, while maintaining an advance industrial society, requires another method of generating industrial quantity electrical power, known as the “base load”. The standard renewable energy sources, wind power, solar power, and geothermal power, cannot deliver the base load. The technology just isn’t up to the task. The only viable technological solution is nuclear power.

      The political supporters of renewable energy do not support nuclear energy. The anti-nuclear crowd is vocal and organized, they have the examples of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima to support their arguments. For some reason they are blind to the scientific advances in nuclear reactor design, their argument is the same as saying that because of the Hindenburg zeppelin disaster we must abandon airplanes. The design of generation IV and future generation V nuclear reactors answer all the horrors of the first and second generation nuclear reactors. A short list of 4th generation reactor benefits:

-          Nuclear waste that remains radioactive for a few centuries instead of millennia

-          100 to 300 times more energy yield from the same amount of nuclear fuel

-          The ability to consume existing nuclear waste in the production of electricity

-          Improved operating safety

      In realistic terms nuclear energy is our best available solution to hydrocarbon usage. We should devote federal research and development funds into nuclear reactor design and implementation. We need to substantially increase our commitment to basic scientific research of nuclear fusion and orbital solar power generation.

      Escape from our new Malthusian Trap requires understanding the problem and then supporting leadership with political courage. Individual involvement can defeat the power and money that is stifling this much needed change. Given the best information the general populace will make the best choice, the wisdom of crowds is valid when based on valid data. I have faith in the average citizen that is living paycheck to paycheck. We are smart enough, and brave enough, to do this.

1 comment:

Shirley said...

This stuff is way over my head, yet I see the value in your thesis. I did read that nuclear power was important, but that Japan disaster ruined it for nuclear. Thanks for the enlightenment and hopefully mankind will someday agree with you.