[PLUG-TALK] Expansion, growth, the world, and time

Michael M. Moore moore.michael.m at gmail.com
Tue Mar 22 22:42:53 PDT 2011

On 03/21/2011 12:14 AM, Keith Lofstrom wrote:
> On Sun, Mar 20, 2011 at 03:20:51PM -0700, Michael Moore wrote:
>> It seems like this whole discussion has been premised on the notion that
>> we must keep expanding and increasing capacity and output, and it seems
>> like our industry and government act accordingly.  At what point do we
>> question that premise?  At what point do we let ourselves entertain the
>> notion that maybe we can't keep doing things the way we've been doing
>> them -- before or after we build a $4.6 billion bridge over the
>> Columbia, before or after we both replace the Sellwood Bridge *and*
>> build a new light-rail/bike/ped bridge over the Willamette?  At what
>> point does it dawn on us that maybe we can't keep expanding and
>> increasing ad infinitum?
> For some of us, "we" includes our fellow humans in the shanties
> in Mumbai, now getting a few watts, sporadically, a few days
> a week.  Like their fellow humans a generation earlier who
> transformed Hong Kong from shanties to skyscrapers, Indian
> demand for energy is soaring, and They Will Get Energy.

Fine and dandy, but consider this:

"Two weeks ago, the scientific journal PLoS Medicine published a study 
that sought to define the relationship between economic growth and the 
pervasive problem of undernourished Indian children.  In India, 25-50% 
of the deaths of children between 6 months and 5 years old are due to 
inadequate food intake.  This slow, sustained starvation causes stunted 
growth and puts children at greater risk for infection and disease.

"The primary policy tool to combat chronic childhood undernutrition has 
been economic development, but despite two decades of booming growth, 
the average calorie intake in India has actually declined.  Indeed, the 
authors found that there was no link between economic growth and 
childhood undernutrition; stagnant or thriving, the status of a state’s 
economy had no effect on its number of underweight children." [1]

You posit the problem as one of increasing demand, especially in Mumbai 
and elsewhere across the developing world.  My feeling is that the real 
problem is not one of scarce resources unable to meet demand, the 
problem is inadequate management and distribution of existing resources. 
  We know -- we have known for decades -- that our environment is 
capable of producing more than enough food for every human being alive, 
yet people still starve, even in a country like India that has seen so 
much economic growth.  We already have the technology to feed everybody, 
we have the resources, we don't need to invent, develop, expand or code 
anything.  What we lack is the will to make it happen.

I have to wonder what makes you so sure "They Will Get Energy" when they 
can't even get enough food, despite the existence of abundant supplies.

> We, who have the leisure to sit on our butts and think
> about stuff, should be thinking hard about developing more
> clean and cheap tehchnology options for them.  Otherwise,
> they will copy what is cheap and available and proven -
> fossil fuels and hydro dams.
> On a corner of my whiteboard is my goal for the world:
> 10 billion people, 10 kilowatts each, for 1 million years.

Based on current and historical behavior, I would guess it's likelier 
that roughly 1 billion of those people in the U.S. or whatever country 
or region ascends to superpower status in the centuries ahead will soak 
up far more than 10 kilowatts each, leaving whatever is left over for 
the other 9 billion in the rest of the world.  Our (and by that I mean 
human beings) appetites seem far greater than our capacity for (or our 
interest in) devising systems that meet everyone's basic needs.  Despite 
our moms' exhortations to clean our plates because there are starving 
children in Africa, in this country we still throw away enough food 
every day to feed those children for months, to say nothing of the food 
our government pays farmers not to produce.  What makes you think we, or 
someone like us, won't do the same with energy, especially since we are 
already doing that here and now?  As a species, we excel at finding new 
and creative ways to consume.  Throw a new resource our  way, and we'll 
figure out how to let 10%-20% of our numbers enjoy and exploit it with 
abandon, parcelling out dribs and drabs to everyone else, setting 
artificial limits on it when necessary to preserve the illusion of 
scarcity.  Drill a new oil well, and we'll build a new suburb farther 
out so you can buy a bigger house and a bigger SUV equipped with the 
latest gadgets for you to enjoy on your longer commute on the new 
highway we built, while another kid in Mumbai dies from malnutrition, 
while thousands of kids in our own region live in poverty.

I realize I'm being unduly glass-half-emptyish (one book on my reading 
list is Matt Ridley's "The Rational Optimist," which I hope might 
provide some reasons to be less negative), but I'm trying to make the 
point that I don't think regarding the solution as needing to increase 
and expand capacity is going to get the developing world where you want 
it to go.  In and of itself, it's a worthy goal and a noble pursuit.  I 
just haven't seen any indication that until people (like my cousin, for 
example) wake up to the global -- and, for that matter, local -- 
consequences of their choices, it will make the kind of difference you 
think it will make.  So discussions between conservatives and liberals 
or libertarians and environmentalists or amongst Linux users about 
whether nuclear or solar or hydro or geothermal and so on are feasible, 
sufficient, safe, affordable, destructive, dangerous, yada yada yada, 
usually leave me wondering whether anyone is taking a good hard look at 
their own habits.

> Regards continued growth, as much as I care for my fellow
> USAers, they are only 4 percent of the people I want to
> help today, and 3 in a million of all the people who live
> in the next megayear - noise in the long term process.
> "We" desperately need to "expand", but almost all of that
> expansion will happen elsewhere and elsewhen.
> So, as the old cliche goes, think globally, act locally.
> To that add "think eternally".  The world will continue
> to change, that is the only constant.

Here's another old chestnut (translated):  the more things change, the 
more they stay the same.


[1] Subramanyam MA, Kawachi I, Berkman LF, Subramanian SV (2011) Is 
Economic Growth Associated with Reduction in Child Undernutrition in 
India? PLoS Med 8(3): e1000424. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000424

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