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Doom-gloomers make us better technologists


The car-friendly guide to fixing human-made greenhouse emissions.

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Doom-gloomers make us better technologists

A book I’ve been reading complains, briefly, about declinism. It reminded me of something written by peak oiler David Goodstein back in 2005: “Civilization as we know it will come to an end sometime in this century unless we can find a way to live without fossil fuels.” I read that book several years before I learned the full implications of declinism. You can sell a lot of books by saying the world is about to end, very soon, especially if you imply that that’s a good thing because humans are inherently bad. As a marketing strategy, declinism could be one of the oldest and most successful book-marketing strategies ever developed. Ever read the Book of Genesis?

Alongside my notes from David Goodstein’s book I wrote: “miserable shit!” He laid out all the bad things about fossil fuels and what would happen if the taps were turned off. And then, he pretty-much left it at that. At the time, I naively believed that a good journalist would get out and discover the best possible solutions and tell his readers all about them. I didn’t realise the whole point was to satisfy demand for books about the end of civilisation.

I didn’t know that during the 1970s engineers had already invented plenty of ways to manufacture renewable crude oil. I can't shrug off doom-glooming the way some people can, by thinking: “something better will come along.” I’ve been a technologist long enough to know that new inventions don’t just drop into your lap. We’ve been watching Star Trek for decades, but no-one has the slightest inkling of how to go faster than light. Crikey, we're only just getting the hang of making cars go faster than sound.

Doomgloomers don’t want to talk about solutions. Why should they? Solving a problem such as climate change would take all the fun out of making people miserable. Worse: It would tank their profitability.

The trouble comes when too many people start taking declinism seriously. Wellington’s had decades of it, which is one reason Wellingtonians pay far too much for parking. The bureaucrats think they’re doing people a favour discouraging them from driving cars. Some people actually believe this. Worse, the rot is creeping into my beloved home town. Lower Hutt is car city. The parking’s rubbish!

DLR solar power towerThis week I worked through an idea inspired by my February poster presentation. My poster shows that solar crude oil in the 22nd century should be more affordable than today's fossil liquid fuels. But I couldn’t escape the feeling that the available cost estimates (which came from Sandia Laboratories) were too pessimistic. Revenue from byproducts might further increase affordability. This wouldn’t make renewable petrol competitive with fossil fuel. But it wouldn't do any harm.

A simple heat budget showed enormous potential: 320 Megajoules for each litre of crude oil. Most of this heat is easily harnessed because it is stored in hot fluids, at temperatures ranging from 200°C to more than 800°C. A solar crude oil facility could produce vast amounts of electricity (from steam turbine generators) and fresh water (by desalinating sea water). How much? I decided to link the proportions to world consumption. Civilisation burns up to four kilowatt-hours (14.4 MJ) of electricity for every litre of crude oil. Generating that much electricity would exploit less than a third of the surplus heat. That leaves far more than enough to distill at least 40 litres of seawater for every litre of crude oil. I suspect it would be economic to pump seawater through a pipeline, several hundred miles from the sea, using surplus energy from crude oil production to drive the pumps. Many solar crude oil factories could pump distilled water into nearby rivers, provided, of course, downstream water consumers are happy to pay to have their river topped up. These figures are intentionally conservative. For example, I picked the most energy-intensive desalination process I could think of.

But that's only the beginning.

Desalination leaves a steady stream of concentrated brine containing a potpourri of elements. Because much of the water has been removed, it will be a valuable source of many useful raw materials.

The key point here is that energy is not a constraint on Western Civilisation. Solar fuel production facilities exploiting less than 0.23% of the sunlight reaching the earth's surface could produce enough crude oil to satisfy current demand, along with all the electricity and water humanity needs. And more.

Hundreds of very successful doom-gloomy books have been written around the basic assumption that Western Civilisation is constrained by the availability of energy resources. Either it’s going to run out, or energy consumption will poison the planet, and/or any combination of the above, with various bells and ribbons according to the reader’s taste in misery.

It’s bullpucky.

But it’s a vital part of our innovation system.

Doom-glooming inspires people to invent solutions. I’ve been very lucky recently to learn about this at first hand. Wellington doom-gloomers halted construction of the Wellington Motorway back in the 1970s. There has been absolutely no progress on pushing the motorway through to the airport since then. In the last few years, they've been writing letters to the editor of the Dominion Post, claiming that motorway development will ruin the climate. I actually sat down with one of them and worked through the possibilities, hoping he’d support the introduction of renewable crude oil. He didn’t. He and his mates kept writing doom-gloomy letters to the editor until I publicly skewered their argument. Another doom-gloomer (a very stubborn car-hater), kept pushing this story until quite recently, though I think my last letter finally shut him down. Writing all those letters turned out to be good practice, explaining science without seeming to explain anything.

I reckon we’re all better off for doom-gloomers, even though they’re full of brown stuff. They focus our minds on what’s important. They help us better understand technology. That’s got to make us better at inventing useful things we can sell to other people.

Kevin Cudby is a Wellington-based Freelance Writer and Technologist who loves writing about cool new technology. Email him to discuss your communication requirements: hello {a}

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