Lately, I’ve been having this problem where I wake up every morning at 5:30am. My weekday alarm is set to go off at 6:15 and I have no weekend alarm but my circadian rhythms care not. For 2023 one of my goals for myself is not immediately jump on social media as soon as I wake up. There is no real science behind this decision, but I have read a lot of articles in the lead up to this year about resolutions and how changing habits is more important than large, sweeping resolutions. I know I don’t want to spend 7-10 hours a week on social media, which is what my phone’s utility tells me I did for most of 2022. That is a lot of time that I could be doing something else, something i feel like has more value for me.
Something like writing? I don’t know about that yet. I will probably [or never] address the thinking behind taking what amounts to a year’s hiatus from this blog, but I did discover that a) I really, really get things out of writing, b) just writing to myself doesn’t seem to scratch the proper itch [even though that is where most of my writing was last year], c) social media remains the worst place to go with nuanced ideas. Blog it is, I guess?
So when I wake up at 5:30am and don’t want to move too much because it wakes up my light-sleeping and therefore chronically sleep-deprived partner, I have resolved to not go straight to Facebook and Instagram to consume the intellectual equivalent of Doritos, and instead to go read longer form articles and opinion pieces from large print media outlets like The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, The Guardian, etc. These are all media subscriptions [The Guardian is free] that I pay for because last year I decided I would. I decreased my goals for the number of books I read each year [it was 80 now it is 60] and with that extra time [about 320 extra hours of reading time over the year] I would read proper journalism. Two things are true about these print media outlets: 1) they love the definite article, 2) they are predominately behind a paywall. So when you go to share the article on social media because you want to talk to your friends about it they can’t read it since they already used up their free article. Most people [not my mother] know that if you can’t read the article you don’t get to comment on the post. And that means I never get to actually talk about the great shit I am reading these days.
I believe that writers should get paid [she said toiling away over here for fucking free]. I have been reluctant to post the full articles I have paid for so that others can read without paying. I also believe that ideas should move freely around so that they are accessible to those who lack the means to acquire them [it’s why all my book links go to libraries and not Amazon. Libraries: collections of books you already paid for!]. So below is my compromise between what I believe are legitimate paywalls and legitimate sharing of ideas. These media sites give out 2 free articles a month to everyone, I am highly unlikely to share even a portion of those because this blog entry was about 6 hours of my life.
I read about 15 articles in the dark of my bedroom this morning, and I clipped a lot of them into my journal for further reflection, but this one [below] was the one I found the most valuable and personally challenging. So here I share it in its entirety, though many of the links in the original article are not preserved [I went back and added some that I think are really important]. Side-by-side with the article are my running thoughts as I read it. Obviously they are not in complete real-time. I tried to make them make some sense for readers.
I KNOW that this format is not at all accessible for those using screen readers. I do not, at this time, know how to solve that. WordPress doesn’t exactly let me easily highlight passages in the same way that Microsoft Word would let me if I had comments. I don’t love this format, bear with me, I invented it this morning and doubtless someone has made a parallel invention and can direct me to an App that makes this not onerous. It only makes I cannot tell you how to read this even if you are not using a screen reader. Probably read the article and then read my comments on it? The comments are roughly lined up to the second that they pertain to which makes the context largely a matter of format. Because I used columns, it is unreadable in mobile [the main place I read everything] since each column renders one after the other instead of side-by-side. That part is awful. I apologize in advance.
This is one of the first truly good ideas I have had in a long while, so I ran with it. Please do not sue me, Ezra Klein and the New York Times, there is a lot of my own intellectual “property” on this page too. If you like this or think it’s rubbish, please comment. I want feedback because I might do this bonkers/weirdo thing again.
The Dystopia We Fear Is Keeping Us From the Utopia We Deserve
Jan. 8, 2023, 6:00 a.m. ET
By Ezra Klein
In December, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced that they had achieved on Earth what is commonplace within stars: They had fused hydrogen isotopes, releasing more energy in the reaction than was used in the ignition. The announcement came with enough caveats to make it clear that usable nuclear fusion remains, optimistically, decades away. But the fact that nuclear fusion will not change our energy system over the next year doesn’t mean it shouldn’t change our energy ambitions for the coming years.
There are three goals a society can have for its energy usage. One is to use less. That is, arguably, the goal that took hold in the 1970s. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” is the key mantra here, with the much-ignored instruction to reduce coming first for a reason. Today, that ambition persists in the thinking of degrowthers and others who believe humanity courts calamity if we don’t respect our limits and discard fantasies of endless growth.
The second goal is to use what we use now, but better. That is where modern climate policy has moved. The vision of decarbonization — now being pursued through policy, like last year’s Inflation Reduction Act — is to maintain roughly the energy patterns we have but shift to nonpolluting sources like wind and solar. Decarbonization at this speed and scale is so daunting a task that it is hard to look beyond it, to the third possible goal: a world of energy abundance.
In his fascinating, frustrating book “Where Is My Flying Car?” J. Storrs Hall argues that we do not realize how much our diminished energy ambitions have cost us. Across the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the energy humanity could harness grew at about 7 percent annually. Humanity’s compounding energetic force, he writes, powered “the optimism and constant improvement of life in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.”
But starting around 1970, the curve flattened, particularly in rich countries, which began doing more with less. In 1979, for instance, Americans consumed about 10.8 kilowatts per person. In 2019 we consumed about 9.2 kilowatts a person. To a conservationist, this looks like progress, though not nearly enough, as a glance at CO2 emissions will confirm. To Hall, it was a civilizational catastrophe.
His titular flying car stands in for all that we were promised in the mid-20th century but don’t yet have: flying cars, of course, but also lunar bases, nuclear rockets, atomic batteries, nanotechnology, undersea cities, affordable supersonic air travel and so on. Hall harvests these predictions and many more from midcentury sci-fi writers and prognosticators and sorts them according to their cost in energy. What he finds is that the marvels we did manage — the internet, smartphones, teleconferencing, Wikipedia, flat-screen televisions, streaming video and audio content, mRNA vaccines, rapidly advancing artificial intelligence, to name just a few — largely required relatively little energy and the marvels we missed would require masses of it.
But they are possible. We’ve flown plenty of flying car prototypes over the decades. The water crises of the future could be solved by mass desalination. Supersonic air travel is a solved technological problem. Lunar bases lie well within the boundaries of possibility. The path that Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, outlined for nanotechnology — build machines that are capable of building smaller machines that are capable of building smaller machines that are capable of, well, you get it — still seems plausible. What we need is energy — much, much more of it. But Hall thinks we’ve become an “ergophobic” society, which he defines as a society gripped by “the almost inexplicable belief that there is something wrong with using energy.”
Here, Hall’s account drips with contempt for anyone who does not dive out of the way of today’s industrialists. He reaches back to old H.G. Wells stories to find the right metaphor for where our civilization went sideways, finding it in the feckless Eloi, a post-human race that collapsed into the comforts of abundance. The true conflict, he says, is not between the haves and the have-nots but between the doers and the do-nots. “The do-nots favor stagnation and are happy turning our civilization into a collective couch potato,” he writes. And in his view, the do-nots are winning.
“Where Is My Flying Car?” is a work of what I’d call reactionary futurism. It loves the progress technology can bring; it can’t stand the soft, flabby humans who stand in the future’s way. There is nothing inexplicable about why country after country sought energy conservation or why it remains an aim. A partial list would include poisoned rivers and streams, smog-choked cities, the jagged edge of climate change and ongoing mass extinction and the geopolitical costs of being hooked on oil from Saudi Arabia and gas from Russia.
Hall gives all this short shrift, describing climate change as “a hangnail, not a hangman” (for whom, one wants to ask), and focusing on the villainy of lawyers and regulators and hippies. He laments how the advent of nuclear weapons made war so costly that it “short-circuited the evolutionary process,” in which “a society that slid into inefficient cultural or governmental practices was likely to be promptly conquered by the baron next door.”
Hall’s sociopolitical theories are as flimsy as his technical analyses are careful. His book would imply that countries with shallow public sectors would race ahead of their statist peers in innovation and that nations threatened by violent neighbors would be better governed and more technologically advanced than, say, the United States.
Among his central arguments is that government funding and attention paradoxically impedes the technologies it’s meant to help, but — curiously for a book about energy — he has little to say about the astonishing progress in solar, wind and battery power that’s been driven by public policy. He predicts that if solar and wind “prove actually usable on a large scale,” environmentalists would turn on them. “Their objections really have nothing to do with pollution, or radiation, or risk, or global warming,” he writes. “They are about keeping abundant, cheap energy out of the hands of ordinary people.”
But on this branch of the multiverse, most every environmentalist group of note fought to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, which was really the Deploy Solar and Wind Everywhere and Invest in Every Energy Technology We Can Think of Act. And if they had their way, it would have been far bigger and far better funded.
Indeed, the existence of Hall’s book is a challenge to its thesis. “Where Is My Flying Car?” is now distributed by Stripe Press, the publishing offshoot of the digital payment company Stripe, which was started by two Irish immigrants in California. That state is the home of the postmaterialist counterculture that Hall sees as the beating heart of Eloi politics, and there is little fear of a near-term invasion by Mexican forces. Even so, California has housed a remarkable series of technological advances and institutions over the past century, and it continues to do so. The fusion breakthrough, for instance, was made by government scientists working in, yes, Northern California. There is an interplay here that is far more complex than Hall’s theories admit.
But Hall’s book is worth struggling with because he’s right about two big things. First, that the flattening of the energy curve was a moment of civilizational import and one worth revisiting. And second, that many in politics have abandoned any real vision of the long future. Too often, the right sees only the imagined glories of the past, and the left sees only the injustices of the present. The future exists in our politics mainly to give voice to our fears or urgency to our agendas. We’ve lost sight of the world that abundant, clean energy could make possible.
The remarkable burst of prosperity and possibility that has defined the past few hundred years has been a story of energy. “Take any variable of human well-being — longevity, nutrition, income, mortality, overall population — and draw a graph of its value over time,” Charles Mann writes in “The Wizard and the Prophet.” “In almost every case it skitters along at a low level for thousands of years, then rises abruptly in the 18th and 19th centuries, as humans learn to wield the trapped solar power in coal, oil and natural gas.”
Without energy, even material splendor has sharp limits. Mann notes that visitors to the Palace of Versailles in February 1695 marveled at the furs worn to dinners with the king and the ice that collected on the glassware. It was freezing in Versailles, and no amount of wealth could fix it. A hundred years later, Thomas Jefferson had a vast wine collection and library in Monticello and the forced labor of hundreds of slaves, but his ink still froze in his inkwells come winter.
Today, heating is a solved problem for many. But not for all. There are few inequalities more fundamental than energy inequality. The demographer Hans Rosling had a striking way of framing this. In 2010 he argued that you could group humanity by the energy people had access to. At the time, roughly two billion people had little or no access to electricity and still cook food and heat water by fire. About three billion had access to enough electricity to power electric lights. An additional billion or so had the energy and wealth for labor-saving appliances like washing machines. It’s only the richest billion people who could afford to fly, and they — we — used around half of global energy.
The first reason to want energy abundance is to make energy and the gifts it brings available to all. Rosling put this well, describing how his mother loaded the laundry and then took him to the library, how she used the time she’d once spent cleaning clothes to teach herself English. “This is the magic,” he said. “You load the laundry, and what do you get out of the machine? You get books.” There is no global aid strategy we could pursue that would do nearly as much as making energy radically cheaper, more reliable and more available.
Then there is all we could do if we had the cheap, clean and abundant energy needed to do it. In a paper imagining “energy superabundance,” Austin Vernon and Eli Dourado sketch out some of the near-term possibilities. “Flights that take 15 hours on a 747 could happen in an hour on a point-to-point rocket,” they write. Vertical greenhouses could feed far more people, and desalination, which even now is a major contributor to water supplies in Singapore and Israel, would become affordable for poorer, populous nations that need new water sources most. Directly removing carbon dioxide from the air would become more plausible, giving us a path to reversing climate change over time.
Vernon and Dourado’s definition of superabundance is fairly modest: They define it as every person on Earth having access to about twice the power Icelanders use annually. But what if fusion or other technologies give us energy that becomes functionally limitless? I enjoyed the way Benjamin Reinhardt, a self-proclaimed ergophile, rendered this kind of world, writing in the online journal Works in Progress:
You could wake up in your house on the beautiful coast of an artificial island off the coast of South America. You’re always embarrassed at the cheap synthesized sand whenever guests visit, but people have always needed to sacrifice to afford space for a family. You say goodbye to yours and leave for work. On your commute, you do some work on a new way of making high-temperature superconductors. You’re a total dilettante but the combination of fixed-price for infinite compute and the new trend of inefficient but modular technology has created an inventor out of almost everybody. Soon enough, you reach the bottom of the Singaporean space elevator: Cheap space launches, the low cost of rail-gunning raw material into space and decreased material costs made the whole thing work out economically. Every time you see that impossibly thin cable stretching up, seemingly into nothingness, it boggles your mind — if that’s possible, what else is? You check out the new shipment of longevity drugs, which can only be synthesized in pristine zero-G conditions. Then you scoot off to a last-minute meet-up with friends in Tokyo.
As you all enjoy dinner (made from ingredients grown in the same building and picked five minutes before cooking) a material scientist friend of a friend describes the latest in physics simulations. You bask in yet another serendipitous, in-person interaction, grateful for your cross-continental relationships. While you head home, you poke at your superconductor design a bit more. It’s a long shot, but it might give you the resources to pull yourself out of the bottom 25 percent, so that your kids can lead an even brighter life than you do. Things are good, you think, but they could be better.
The fusion demonstration is a reminder not of what is inevitable but of what is possible. And it is not just fusion. The advance of wind and solar and battery technology remains a near miracle. The possibilities of advanced geothermal and hydrogen are thrilling. Smaller, modular nuclear reactors could make new miracles possible, like cars and planes that don’t need to be refueled or recharged. This is a world progressives, in particular, should want to hasten into existence. Clean, abundant energy is the foundation on which a more equal, just and humane world can be built.
“In 100 or 200 years, everything will look radically different,” Melissa Lott, the director of research at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy, told me. “Folks will look back and be blown away by how we used energy today. They’ll say, ‘Wait, you just burned it?’”
My thoughts as I am reading this article
I tend to appreciate Ezra Klein’s point of view. I will read on!
The coverage of the fusion discovery in the media made me so irritated. Not because it isn’t cool but because it was so close to COP27 and it just felt like another immature technology that was being held up to people as better than what we already can achieve through renewables, policy and not being assholes. “Don’t worry folks, nothing has to change! Back to your doom scrolling.”
I like it when someone has reduced social choices like this [sometimes it is even true] because it lets me compare and contrast.
Ah, use less. That is probably me.
Probably I will find that I am a “degrowther” in this scenario. Respect of limits is important.
Ah, some overlap though. It seems to me, and clearly anyone trying to write policy, that we can’t just choose austerity because it doesn’t work.
I was encouraged by the IRA even though I definitely agree it isn’t enough.
World energy abundance?!? Ok, Ezra, well played. Show me where this is going.
It’s not that we couldn’t aspire to more, it’s more like there is a strange cap on our energy ambitions because the way we generate energy is, like, cooking us.
I guess if we could have grown 7% annually, the climate crisis could be much worse. Thanks?
“Humanity’s compounding energetic force,” is a nice turn of phrase, J. Storrs Hall. Too bad about the unintended consequences.
Our household uses an average of 10.2 kWh, daily, [3.78 MWh annual total] I do not know how that converts to kW [panics that all my math is wrong – but it’s not! – I keep it all in kWh]. I did some math, [1.5 kW per person], but that is just our metered electricity usage. We use a lot of other ENERGY that is not on our meter. [Climbs down off ledge]. Still can’t smugly compare myself to the average American [fail].
I have lamented that I do not have a flying car, for purely childish reasons. I also wanted to live on the moon when I was a kid and be able to talk to animals… not all fantasy needs to be reality.
This is an intriguing idea. I LOVE the internet, but it is true that the energy to take a flying car to anywhere you wanted very fast would take soooo much more energy. I don’t know that we didn’t attempt it because of the energy, though. I mean, have you seen us try to pick the Speaker of the House? Maybe our reach just exceeds our grasp.
Possible is not at all like practical. Though what counts as practical is about social values. That is probably more the author’s point.
Need to go read about Feynman saying this, had no idea.
Ah, it seems that this is NOT the author’s point. He really does think that the zeitgeist amounts to a fear of living beyond our means. I can’t say I see much evidence of that [skips the infinite linktree and just gesticulates everywhere]. It is not even a little inexplicable why we decided to use less energy.
Oh good, Ezra is back with some reality checking.
J. Storrs Hall obviously doesn’t understand how much doing it takes just to sustain what we already have. Sure, lots of people appear also to me to be complacent couch potatoes, but there is a lot of doing out there. It just isn’t very organized. And most of the “doers” just want to shoot penises to the moon and enslave the working class.
Reactionary futurism. Great insight. /srs
Ah, so Ezra and I are agreeing here. He is likewise not blind to the infinite linktree. So this is where I need to be equally critical of his argument, if I can be.
Bleak AF. Where’s the lie?
Ok, so then Hall’s argument is we didn’t give the techno-futurists a long enough leash, which is the sort of argument that could be true in an alternate timeline where no one cares about the destruction of individuals because of the possibility of techno-utopia for some.
Yes, the thing to lament about nuclear weapons is definitely the cost /s.
I will admit to loving everything about this paragraph.
I love/hate it when futurists forget about government investment in their favorite stuff because it doesn’t help their argument.
I didn’t realize that as an environmentalist I had to hate the democratization of energy. Sure there is some loathing of humanity, you can tell by how awful recycled toilet paper is, but I don’t think Hall knows any actual environmentalists.
Ezra Klein might be more irritated with Hall than I am.
It’s possible that concern over the destruction of the biosphere could be another motivating factor for innovation, and that having flying cars could have been another one if not for, like, reality.
See, there is government again managing to be helpful.
I’ll ignore the first one.
But the second one resonates. I agree that people/politicians have abandoned a real vision of the future.
I had my church book club read a book about this imagination problem, Future Earth, because it made a case for some solar-core futurism irl. It’s maybe a better focus of “humanity’s compounding energetic force” than getting everyone a flying car.
The value of our technological explosion in modernity cannot be overstated, so probably quoting Charles Mann here is a good call.
Of course prosperity clearly is a double-edged sword and the negative consequences shouldn’t be overlooked just because we like decreasing infant mortality and water-borne diseases.
This entire bit about heating makes me think of a conversation with my late grandfather about how much more energy it takes to heat my house in Montana than it takes to cool his house in Florida.
But Klein’s point is well taken. I love this story of the frozen ink wells.
The tension between marching a few as far as they can get [Whitey’s on the Moon] and ensuring that as many people can have the basic standard of living afforded to us by technologies that currently exist is such an interesting negotiation.
No one who appeals to things like space elevators and moon bases as serious realities thinks about this. Most of us have to be enslaved to create our time’s equivalent of the pyramids [just like lots of people were enslaved to make the actual pyramids].
This story illustrates the real cost of poverty as well [which I think is greater than the real cost of not having flying cars]. If Rosling’s mother had not had the washing machine we might not have his work.
I care more about energy-insecure humans having access to the fruits of an electrified world than I care about pushing the envelope on point-to-point rockets. I don’t trust the people who own the energy and automation to pull others up with them [because that is what their behavior indicates]. Elon Musk and Richard Bronson are not out building desalination plants with their profits. So it’s a disagreement about what powerful technologists would do, or else it’s an assumption on my part that these tools would be concentrated among powerful technologists. That is the assumption I am making.
I do have a hard time believing that fusion technology will be viable fast enough to make a difference, but deciding that is a choice not to go down an avenue of limitless energy. Maybe? Except nothing is limitless since, like, heat death of the universe.
This passage makes me nervous. Like I want to imagine an abundant future – that is buzzwordy and manifesty – but this doesn’t seem like the future I want to be in and I don’t believe it. That makes me feel like my stance about sustainability is fundamentally conservative which, as a personal descriptor, also makes me squirm a bit. Of course even Reinhardt’s imagined narrator is living in the past here. They are embarrassed about the excesses of the sand and what the cost of computing once was, as if they too know that infinite growth is not really a thing. This is a problem with the human imagination: it can invent things that are completely unbalanced with the forces of reality and then stamp its foot like a toddler when some wiser adult says, “no.” And as a creative person I get that that is hard. I likewise want to live in a better future than we have now and I do think it is possible, probably if I wrote it out in a book someone would tell me what a ridiculous optimist I am as well [this happens just in life sometimes].
From a certain perspective, I suppose, if the universe is going to end in heat death anyway why not shoot for the moon? Maybe trying to sustain what we have is not wiser than chasing our wildest dreams.
My inability to really believe in a techno future is likely a product of my experience of current techno-futurists. When we read We Are the Weather, the most moving parts to me were those where Safran Foer’s ancestors couldn’t believe that the Nazis would really exterminate the Jews, so they stayed in Europe and were slaughtered.
For me a large part of trying to live in this time is balancing what could be with what probably will be. I likely don’t have the apparatus to do this because no humans are very good at predicting the future. Folks older than me get all misty about their faith in the youths because older folks get to be dead and find solace in a belief that my grandkids will solve all the problems. But no one really solves all the problems
[End of the side-by-side]
Like an asshole, I am not going to read J. Storrs Hall’s book. I am grateful that Ezra Klein did and very closely. It is over 600 pages long, which is about 18 hours of my reading life that I don’t want to spend being likely re-annoyed by the author. But I thank him for going there because I am going to be thinking about these things for a long time. And that, fellow humans, is why ideas need to be accessible to everyone. Maybe just like energy.
2 thoughts on “Media Break: Sustainable Futurism?”
I really enjoyed this. Thanks for exchanging ideas.