Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Scariest Thing I've Ever Read

Just in time for Halloween...

Stephen King called The Hot Zone "one of the most horrifying things I've ever read." I would hand that title instead to David Goodstein's Out of Gas (he has also lectured on this topic; you can get RealVideo here). Goodstein's concern is not the possible deaths of millions of people due to Ebola and Marburg. It's not the Bush administration paving over Yosemite. It's not even anthropogenic global warming and a piddling few degrees' increase in average temperatures. He's worried about whether or not we will run out of fossil fuels before we figure out how to live sustainably, and consequently whether civilization as we know it will come to an end.

Goodstein is a physics professor at Caltech. In the book, he heads straight for the basics: we're consuming energy that was stored in the ground long ago. We are consuming it far faster than it replenishes itself. It will run out; what are we to do when it does?

Goodstein covers the well-known Hubbert peak, and suggests that we are now at the world-wide peak of petroleum production, give or take a decade or so. When we hit that peak, we are about half way done with the amount of oil we can successfully extract and use. But that doesn't mean we have another 150 years to go before problems occur; because demand is increasing and production is flat to declining as we pass the peak, serious shortages are likely to begin within a decade or two at most. Such shortages will lead to price instability, and are especially problematic since petroleum is such a flexible, useful material. We use it in plastics, fertilizers, and more, as well as burning the stuff directly, so a shortage has the potential to threaten such fundamental societal requirements as food production.

He discusses where oil comes from, how inefficient it is to use oil shale, how natural gas, coal, and even accessible supplies of fissionable uranium will run out, and relatively soon. Each of those supplies is worth a few decades, given reasonable projections about population growth, energy consumption, and the fraction of the resource that is recoverable at reasonable economic and thermodynamic returns. All told, if we are flexible enough about our fuels, we have maybe until the end of the century. Then what?

Our only choice is fusion. We can either get our energy indirectly, by creating solar cells that ultimately derive the power they deliver from the sun's fusion, or we can figure out how to run fusion here on earth - but we haven't been very successful at that yet.

What to do, what to do?

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