Thursday, November 28, 2013

Would'ya like a serving of hope for Thanksgiving?

Hope is a powerful force. So what I want to bring you for Thanksgiving is hope. Hope that we CAN have cheap, abundant energy. Hope that we CAN have cheap, abundant food – for everyone. We CAN have cheap, abundant clean water – for everyone. Hope that we CAN have cheap, abundant medical care – for everyone. Hope that we CAN provide every living soul on our unique blue planet a decent standard of living worthy of the dignity of being human. And hope that we CAN do all these things while addressing and reversing the widespread environmental damage that the past two centuries of industrialization and mechanization have caused. Hope that we CAN solve global warming.

We are at a history-shattering point of transition, where resources and energy will not be scarce, and will never again be scarce. In the past half century, humanity has developed technological capabilities which are now growing exponentially. The best known example is Moore’s Law: that the number of transistors we can put on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. In a cell phone, one person has at his or her fingertips more computing power than NASA used to put astronauts on the moon forty-four years ago. The only things holding us back are old thinking in the Malthusian mold that denies the possibility of technological solutions; and old ideologies of political economy that prevent us from reforming the financial and monetary systems for the common good and to pay for what we need to do.

Economics today is hopelessly confused by a myriad of definitions for “capital”, “wealth” and even “money”. An economy is simply how a society organizes itself to procure, produce, and distribute the material, non-material, cultural, and spiritual goods and services required to sustain and reproduce human life at ever higher levels of happiness, security, and well-being. All else are really superfluities. Therefore, the major concern of economics should be the nurturing and deployment of the human mentation required to find and transform the natural resources required, and managing the scientific and industrial structures required.

In other words, the development of science and technology.

The progress of human technology can roughly be summarized as moving ever further down 1) a spectrum of energy density and 2) molecular and atomic scale. From the rapidly diffused light and heat of burning wood twigs, we have progressed to concentrate fire in boilers, then in internal combustion engines, and are now mastering the techniques of directing and manipulating single molecules, atoms, and even photons. We can now perform surgery on genes, and arrange individual atoms. These technologies are all breathtakingly recent in the context of known human history.

The implications are enormous. Almost every economics textbook I have seen – and I have acquired quite a few and looked at many, many others for just this reason – begins with some definition or other involving the allocation of scarce resources. People who have suffered through an Econ 101 course know that scarcity is central to mainstream economic thinking. In the best selling textbook on macroeconomics, economist H. Gregory Mankiw writes near the bottom of the first page:
The management of society’s resources is important because resources are scarce. Scarcity means that society has limited resources and therefore cannot produce all the goods and services wish to have. Just as each member of a household cannot get everything he or she wants, each individual in a society cannot attain the highest standard of living to which he or she might aspire.
I will put this as simply as possible: Mankiw’s and all other’s arguments that resources are scarce is a smokescreen that prevents us from seeing how rich oligarchs manipulated national economies. (Mankiw was George W. Bush’s chief economist, and earlier this year wrote a piece entitled “Defending the One Percent” – honest, not joking, that’s Mankiw’s title).

The typical environmentalist belief that the planet’s resources are finite falls right into this trap. What we consider as resources is defined by our ability to access and process them – in other words, our technology. As Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler argue in their book, February 2012 book, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think
When seen through the lens of technology, few resources are truly scarce; they’re mainly inaccessible. Yet the threat of scarcity dominates our worldview.
Thus, the most important economic activity human beings undertake is scientific research. But I am here to tell you that no economics textbook I have seen has ever discussed the overriding importance of scientific and technological development and deployment. They all, therefore, lack a sound foundation for actually assisting the human species in our task of surviving and thriving. Aluminum, for example, is ridiculously abundant. It is, after oxygen and silicon, the third most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, accounting for 8.3 percent of the world’s weight. Yet, until relatively recently in human history, the use of aluminum by humans was far more scarce than the use of gold or silver. It was not until 1886 that the Hall-Heroult process was developed, using electricity to extract aluminum from its ore, bauxite, and aluminum became cheap and plentiful. Diamandis and Kotler argue that
technology is a resource liberating mechanism. It can make the once scarce the now abundant.
But many progressives and liberals object that our world is overpopulated, and the planet simply cannot support a high standard of living for nine billion people. We are already using thirty percent more natural resources than the planet can sustain. Diamandis and Kotler explain example after example of new technologies that will solve this problem. Such as nano-engineered filters for making drinking water from the most heavily polluted sources, to new materials that will allow us to build photovoltaics without semiconductors, reducing the cost of solar energy by not one, but several orders of magnitude.

Just as important – and as hopeful – as these new technologies, is the fact, demonstrated over and over and over again, that as a society becomes more prosperous, more economically secure, and healthier, the birth rate drops dramatically. In fact, the birth rate collapses. We have seen this happen in Britain and the USA in the mid-1800s, in Japan in the late 1800s, in South Korea in the 1960s, in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and India more recently. In a number of advanced industrial countries, such as Italy and Japan, the birth rate is now actually insufficient, and the populations of those countries are shrinking. Diamandis and Kotler write:
John Oldfield, managing director of the WASH Advocacy Initiative, which is dedicated to solving global water challenges, explains it this way: "The best way to control population is through increasing child survival, educating girls, and making knowledge about and availability of birth control ubiquitous. By far the most important of these is increasing child survival. In communities where childhood death rates hover near one-third, most parents opt to significantly overshoot their desired family size. They will have replacement births, insurance births, lottery births — and the population soars. It’s counterintuitive, but eradicating smallpox and vaccine-preventable disease and stopping diarrheal diseases and malaria are the best family planning programs yet devised. More disease, especially affecting the poor, will raise infant and child mortality which, in turn, will raise the birth rate. With fewer childhood deaths, you get lower fertility rates — it’s really that straightforward."
What about water shortages? Only 2.7 percent of the water on the planet is non-salty and usable for human consumption. Right now, one billion people have no clean drinking water, and 2.6 billion people lack access to basic sanitation. Dean Kamen has developed a water distiller that recovers 98 percent of the energy it uses and can produce 250 gallons of sterile water per day. The power source is a Stirling engine that really can burn almost anything, such as rice husks. Others have invented machines that process human wastes and turn them into electric power.

Energy? In sub-Saharan Africa, 70 percent of people live with no access to electricity – yet one square kilometer of land soaks up from the sun the energy equivalent of 1.5 million barrels of oil. Deploy enough photovoltaics, and Africa has a huge surplus of energy it can export to Europe. University of Michigan physicist Stephen Rand discovered a way of creating magnetic fields one hundred million times stronger than what the known, accepted “laws” of physics had previously predicted was possible. The result of this research will hopefully be a way of making photovoltaics without semiconductors, reducing the cost of solar energy by not one, but several orders of magnitude.

Global climate change? Diamandis and Kotler describe the SunShot Initiative by the U.S. Department of Energy
….now funded the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, a $122 million multi-institution project being led by Caltech, Berkeley, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. JCAP's goal is to develop light absorbers, catalysts, molecular linkers, and separation membranes-all the necessary components for faux photosynthesis. "We're designing an artificial photo-synthetic process," says Dr. Harry Atwater, director of the Caltech Center for Sustainable Energy Research and one of the project's lead scientists. "By 'artificial,' I mean there’s no living or organic component in the whole system. We're basically turning sunlight, water, and CO, into storable, transportable fuels — we call 'solar fuels — to address the other two-thirds of our energy consumption needs that normal photovoltaics miss." Not only will these solar fuels be able to power our cars and heat our buildings, Atwater believes that he can increase the efficiency of photo-synthesis tenfold, perhaps a hundredfold-meaning solar fuels could completely replace fossil fuels. "We're approaching a critical tipping point," he says. "It is very likely that, in thirty years, people will be saying to each other, 'Goodness gracious, why did we ever set fire to hydrocarbons to create heat and energy?’ “
And what about the carbon we have already dumped into the atmosphere? Dr. David Keith at the University of Calgary has developed technology that actually removes CO2 from the air. Can the technology be scaled up to actually make a difference and undo the damage already done? With enough cheap energy, it probably can.

Technology is developing so fast, it is hard to keep up. I receive a newsletter on developments in photonics, and here’s a very small sample of recent news: November 23, 2013: Superconducting Detector Measures Single Photons
A new superconducting detector array that can measure the energy of individual photons is seen as a likely successor to CCDs [charge-coupled devices] and other semiconductor-based detectors for the visible and near-infrared regions, which are starting to hit performance limits.
"What we have made is essentially a hyperspectral video camera with no intrinsic noise," said Ben Mazin, assistant professor of physics at UC Santa Barbara, of the array that he and his team developed. "On a pixel-per-pixel basis, it's a quantum leap from semiconductor detectors; it's as big a leap going from film to semiconductors as it is going from semiconductors to these superconductors.
November 14, 2013: Seeing A Photon Without Absorbing It
All current methods of detecting light share a common property: absorption and thus destruction of a photon. It has been a long-standing dream to be able to watch individual photons fly by without absorbing them. A team of scientists in the Quantum Dynamics Division of Prof. Gerhard Rempe at the Max-Planck-Institute of Quantum Optics has now for the first time realized a device which leaves the photon untouched upon detection.

In the experiment, the incoming photon is reflected off an optical resonator containing a single atom prepared in a superposition state. The reflection changes the superposition phase which is then measured to trace the photon. The new method opens up the perspective to dramatically increase the detection efficiency of single light quanta and has important implications for all experiments where photons are used to encode and communicate quantum information. The key elements in the experiment are a single rubidium atom and an optical cavity.
November 13, 2013: Researchers rewrite entire genome, add healthy twist
Scientists from Yale and Harvard have recoded the entire genome of an organism and improved a bacterium's ability to resist viruses, a dramatic demonstration of the potential of rewriting an organism's genetic code.
October 23, 2013: Study Finds Natural Compound Can Be Used For 3-D Printing Of Medical Implants
Researchers from North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Laser Zentrum Hannover have discovered that a naturally-occurring compound can be incorporated into three-dimensional (3-D) printing processes to create medical implants out of non-toxic polymers. The compound is riboflavin, which is better known as vitamin B2....

The researchers in this study focused on a 3-D printing technique called two-photon polymerization, because this technique can be used to create small objects with detailed features – such as scaffolds for tissue engineering, microneedles or other implantable drug-delivery devices.

Two-photon polymerization is a 3-D printing technique for making small-scale solid structures from many types of photoreactive liquid precursors. The liquid precursors contain chemicals that react to light, turning the liquid into a solid polymer. By exposing the liquid precursor to targeted amounts of light, the technique allows users to “print” 3-D objects.
This last reminds me of one of the most exciting developments Kotler and Diamandis discuss: the work of tissue-engineer Anthony Atala at Wake Forest University Medical Center, who led a team that modified a desktop laser printer to print with each pass one layer of stem-cell based specific tissue cells and were able to “print” a mini-kidney in a few hours. They don’t write how long the mini-kidney survived in the lab, but did mention that the organ was secreting a urine-like substance.

We are at a history-shattering point of transition, where resources and energy will not be scarce, and will never again be scarce. A truly golden age of economic prosperity and bounty is closer than most of us realize, but we are quite literally killing ourselves by clinging to ideologies that were hammered out when famine was the norm, cholera swept away millions, and the average human being could expect to live only somewhere between 30 and 40 years. . We will soon be at a point that we can give every person on the planet a decent standard of living. Not the wasteful sol of the contemporary USA, but enough that no person, anywhere, for any reason, need experience hunger or cold or deprivation But, we have rich pricks who have poured billions of dollars into promoting and propagating the idea that poor people deserve the hardships and indignities they suffer.

It already is seen as a “structural problem” that our industrial systems are now so productive and efficient, that they cannot be a source of good, steady, well-paid jobs for tens or millions of people. So we’re supposed to now accept that because of this marvelous advance in human know-how and capability, tens of millions of people who can no longer find a well-paying factory job have to settle for the marginal wages of Wal-Mart or McDonalds? I refer people to thereisnospoon on DailyKos a week ago, The glorious, dystopian future envisioned by our libertarian masters, attacking Tyler Cowen who wrote to welcome a possible future in which 15% of the population “succeeds” and the rest must learn to get by on what they are provided by whatever welfare system society devises.

We are at the point where everything we need can be produced by only 20 to 50% of the population, depending on what country and its stage of industrial / technological development. So, we need to develop an ideology in which “structural unemployment” is not accepted as an excuse for hundreds of millions — billions, really — of people being left in poverty. We need, in fact, an ideology which does not accept poverty under any excuse. We have the means at hand to eliminate poverty and privation. Will we allow some the “freedom to believe” in ideologies that prevent us from doing so? I ask in retort: what right has anyone to “trade” hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars when we have such a bright future to build, if only we summon the will to finance it? There have been a few already who have warned about a future in which the rich are able to use new technologies to genetically perfect themselves and their offspring, while the vast majority of the human race is subjugated by new ideologies that will consequently be developed to justify the rule by a small class of the wealthy bio-engineered to be “genetically superior.”

Which brings me to my criticisms of Diamandis and Kotler. I see three problems with their book. First, they are completely wedded to neo-liberal market solutions, and appear to have no desire to challenge, let alone change, the status quo in the industrialized west which is increasingly under the boot of, as Pope Francis recently said, the new tyranny of capitalism. Any economic system must be run to benefit the general welfare. This was well understood at the time of the American Revolution, but it is now lost knowledge. Did you know that the words “capitalism”, “capitalist” and “capitalistic” do not appear anywhere in The Federalist Papers, let alone the U.S. Constitution? (There is a website where you can search the text of these documents, and I’ve done the searches).

Rather than challenging the rise of the global corporatist state and its inverted totalitarianism of manufactured consent, Diamandis and Kotler promote the charity work done by what they call the technophilanthropists, the info-tech billionaires like Bill Gates, who are funding much of the work of deploying these new technologies in underdeveloped countries, and who are also approaching the charity work they do from a largely neo-liberal market perspective.

Second, Diamandis and Kotler simply do not comprehend how large and ugly are the problems of greed, economic rent, regulatory capture, and the grasping rich. For every technophilanthropist trying to do good, there is probably more than one Jamie Dimon or David / Charles Koch doing no good (i.e., evil, according to the definition by St. Augustine). Diamandis and Kotler simply are not attuned to the fact that a new oligarchy has arisen that is destroying democracy and representative government. As the president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, William Dudley, recently shocked Wall Street in a speech, there is an
important problem evident within some large financial institutions—the apparent lack of respect for law, regulation and the public trust. There is evidence of deep-seated cultural and ethical failures at many large financial institutions.
Finally, Diamandis and Kotler do not understand or simply did not discuss the problem, of who controls the creation and allocation of money and credit. The control of money and credit by a small clique of oligarchs, centered in Wall Street and the City of London, but including other centers such as the futures markets in Chicago, is the major obstacle to making forward progress against these existential problem. Simply put, our financial and monetary systems must be reorganized and reformed to serve the general welfare, instead of private gain.

An article in Scientific American two years ago projected a total cost of moving the world’s economies entirely off of fossil fuels at $100 trillion. There is enough solar energy hitting one square kilometer of desert in Africa to supply all the electricity needed - in all of Europe as well as Africa.

All we need to do is build the new industrial economies to harvest and harness this energy. The only things holding are back are old thinking in the Malthusian mold that denies the possibility of technological solutions; and the problem of paying for what we need to do. And to pay for what we need to do, we simply need to stop the speculators and usurers of Wall Street, the City of London, and the futures pits of Chicago, from misusing some $5 trillion in financing each and every day.

So, what future do you want to build? One in which we spend $100 trillion over the next decade or two to give everybody on the planet freedom from starvation, poverty, and illness? Or one in which financial elites are allowed to play games with $5 trillion every day? Do you want to build a future for which our children, and their children, will thank us, or curse us?

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