This page contains Chapter 5 from
Sustainable Superabundance: A universal transhumanist manifesto for the 2020s and beyond
Note: The text of this chapter of the Manifesto is draft and is presently undergoing regular revision.
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5. Abundant energy
The foundation for all human activity is energy. Without energy, nothing can be accomplished.
As human activity has grown in scale, we have utilised increasing amounts of energy, in ways that some would describe as bold and ingenious, but others would say is reckless.
We have converted vast forests into firewood. We have unearthed and burned immense quantities of peat, coal, gas, and oil. The resulting light, heat – and air conditioning – have provided ample illumination and kept citizens at comfortable temperatures. Our factories have been enabled to manufacture countless goods, and our vehicles to crisscross all over the earth. However, side-products of all this activity have been accumulating in unsustainable ways. Greenhouse gas emissions have been amassing in the atmosphere, and now pose a number of potential drastic threats to human flourishing.
To solve these threats, do we need to cut back on human activities? Should we adopt low-energy lifestyles?
The transhumanist answer is that there is no need to slam on the brakes. However, significant steering is overdue. We need to transition to a different trajectory. Urgently.
Indeed, as this chapter explores, an abundance of clean energy awaits us, ready to power productive, exuberant lifestyles. That’s provided we have the strength of purpose to quickly switch away from our present near-addiction to unclean energy.
Anticipating climate chaos
The future is arriving faster than used to be expected. Likewise, climate change could be arriving faster than used to be expected.
In both cases, a dangerous heritage of complacency needs to be overcome – the complacency that says nothing much will actually change any time soon, so it’s OK for the time being to continue with “business as usual”.
In both cases, we need to shake off the complacency. We ought instead to heed the advice of Amara’s Law: whilst we should beware overestimating the effect of a technology in the short term, we should also beware underestimating the longer-term impacts that can ensue once the adoption of the technology has reached its stride. A period of gradual build-up can tip over into a period of turbulent disruption. A period of apparent calm can morph seemingly overnight into a period of chaos.
In both cases – the case of general future disruption, and the specific case of climate disruption – it is compound effects that prove hardest to anticipate and hardest to manage. Complications arise from self-reinforcing feedback cycles, from crossover effects, and from the destabilisation of previous patterns.
In both cases, the possibility of acceleration in the pace of change increases the urgency for society to exert wiser, firmer control over aspects of collective human behaviour.
In the specific case of climate change, the possible acceleration of extreme weather events increases the urgency for society to navigate away from patterns of living that result in dangerous levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
This is no mere future forecast. Parts of that future have already arrived. Long-lasting heatwaves are breaking records around the world. Rainfall is absent for weeks on end. The resulting wildfires that spread swiftly over tinder dry landscapes prefigure larger catastrophes to come. The people near Athens in Greece who jumped into the Aegean sea to escape rapidly engulfing conflagration were the lucky ones. Others were left stranded with no route to safety, and perished while huddled together in a last embrace. There was no “business as usual” awaiting them.
The periods of unanticipated droughts in some parts of the world are accompanied by periods of unexpectedly heavy downpours of rain elsewhere. Warmer oceans not only expand in volume and threaten coastal erosion, but also stir up larger scale hurricanes. In the wake of greater storms, infrastructure weakens, dams rupture, avalanches of mud cascade downhill, and whole villages are washed away.
That’s not all. Distortions to prevailing atmospheric currents such as the Jet Stream can bring unprecedented cold as well as unprecedented heat. Whilst the average global temperature is on an upward trajectory, regions of countries can plunge to record lows. In populations unprepared for the havoc of lengthy blizzards, bitter chaos ensues.
People in numerous countries, seeing the effects of severe weather on local crops, and anticipating worse to come, are setting out as climate refugees on arduous journeys towards lands which seem more fertile. These waves of migrants are stacking up waves of conflict and resentment. The US Department of Defense warns of climate change as acting as a set of “threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence”. Trouble will beget further trouble.
Taking climate seriously
Although the direction of travel is clear, it remains uncertain exactly how quickly increased greenhouse gases could trigger deeply damaging climate change.
The basic physics is well understood. It’s been known for more than a century how greenhouse gases can trap more of the sun’s energy and raise average global temperatures. But the dynamic heat circulation mechanisms within the earth’s overall climate systems are fiendishly complicated. Different experts make different forecasts about future impacts, and express different levels of confidence about these predictions.
Emphatically, this level of uncertainty is no reason to relax. As a matter of prudence, scenarios in which drastic changes could take place within just a few decades need to be taken seriously.
These runaway scenarios feature adverse positive feedback cycles, the destabilisation of long-established current patterns in oceans or the atmosphere, and increased chaos from extreme weather events. For example, hotter temperatures reduce the amount of ice cover, which reduces the amount of sunlight reflected back into space, which, in turn, further increases the temperature. And long-buried methane gases which are being exposed by the melting of Siberian tundra, may quickly add to the quantity of airborne greenhouse gases, ratcheting temperature gains even further – in turn melting more tundra and causing even more long-buried methane gases to be released.
This threat goes beyond the possibility of mere linear changes in temperature. Increased heat could spark a comparatively sudden phase change in the earth’s climate, pushing up the global average temperature by several degrees in less than a decade.
Similar changes have taken place in the past. Around 11,500 years ago, in a transition known as “the end of the Younger Dryas”, temperatures rose by 10°C within a single decade. This abrupt jump in temperature has become known from study of ice cores extracted from Greenland, and has been verified from data from lake sediments elsewhere in Europe. Much further back in geological history, an episode some 251 million years ago, at the end of the Permian era, has become known as “the great dying”, since 95% of all marine species and 70% of all terrestrial vertebrate species suffered extinction at that time. As such, this considerably exceeds the extinctions experienced by dinosaurs and others 65 million years ago. Although not the only contender as an explanation, a front-running theory for the cause of this “great dying” calamity is a sudden increase of temperature, of around 6°C.
Smaller calamities could prove disastrous in their own way, via the “threat multiplier” mechanisms. Social unrest that can (just about) be contained at the present time, may become completely unmanageable in the context of greater damage being inflicted regularly by adverse weather on agriculture, transport, and other key aspects of daily life. It is said that every society is only four square meals away from revolution and anarchy. That’s not a theory we should be in any hurry to test.
With the prospect of a range of calamities ahead of us, “business as usual” cannot continue.
Technology is not enough
The good news is that a number of technologies to systematically reduce the threat of damaging climate change are on the point of being developed and applied. The price of energy from wind, wave, and solar has been dropping steadily, decade after decade. New designs can improve capacity as well as drive down costs even further. After all, more than enough energy reaches the earth from the sun in just a few hours, to meet the needs of entire human population for a whole year. In principle, all that’s needed is to accelerate improvements in the harvesting, storage, and transmission of energy from renewable sources.
The bad news, however, is that the pace of implementing improvements is currently far too slow. Metaphorical mountains still need to be climbed. It’s not just that the generation of electricity needs to swap over from carbon-based to clean mechanisms. We also need widespread reforms of other economic activities that are responsible for more than fifty percent of greenhouse gas emissions – activities such as farming, transport, and the manufacture of steel and cement. Another complication is the shortage of the raw materials needed in increasing quantities in the construction of ever larger numbers of solar panels, wind turbines, and other generators of clean energy.
Accordingly, political action to accelerate the transition is needed as a matter of high priority. This action includes significant subsidies for next generation green technologies – including next generation systems for energy storage and energy transmission, as well as mechanisms such as “artificial photosynthesis” to create fuels from sunlight. It also includes the reduction of subsidies (direct or indirect) for activities that increase greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, this action also includes the imposition of taxes on such activities – taxes that scale up over time, in order to increase the incentives favouring cleaner modes of operation.
Such actions will face trenchant opposition from the companies and organisations who are heavily invested in the status quo. This opposition cannot be overcome by friendly rational persuasion alone. Other sorts of forces will need to be applied in parallel – including economic forces, legislative forces, and a transformed public zeitgeist.
Steering short-term financials
One reason why fossil fuels continue to be used so widely is because of the short-term economic benefits that accrue to powerful corporations from the development and usage of these fuels. Many jobs are said to depend on these corporations continuing on their present trajectories. And many pension funds are heavily invested in the share price of these corporations.
Accordingly, many people are predisposed to latch onto any viewpoint they hear that minimises the need for disrupting the main activities of these corporations.
An example of such a viewpoint is that there is uncertainty over climate science. Another example is the idea that future technological solutions will be able to be introduced, in due course, to mitigate the results of climate change. What these viewpoints have in common is the basic claim that, whilst climate change is a matter of some concern, it doesn’t require any urgent policy changes. Any major policy changes can be delayed to a future occasion, by which time new technologies will be more advanced. As it happens, such a delay will be convenient for the managers whose short-term bonus payments depends on the fossil fuel companies continuing along “business as usual”.
The fundamental problem with these viewpoints is that new technologies can take a long time to reach sufficient maturity. What’s more, the core research needed in order for these technologies to be developed will take place only if it receives strong funding – funding that is presently lacking.
What can cause the owners and managers of fossil fuel corporations to rethink their priorities?
One consideration is if a precedent is established of companies being sued for damage that can be attributed, as a matter of probability, to their operation. This is similar to the court cases in which tobacco companies were sued for increasing the chances of cancer among smokers. Insurance and reinsurance companies may be very interested in this potential way of recouping the growing expenses they incur due to extreme weather events. Fossil fuel companies would need to start setting aside very significant sums of money in anticipation of such court cases.
Consider also a potential decline in market demand for fossil fuels, caused by a hike in the price of such energy due to carbon taxes (and drops in the price of energy from alternative sources).
Finally, another consideration is that the share prices of fossil fuel corporations may soon start to plummet, in what is known as the bursting of the carbon asset bubble. This will happen when investors increasingly reach the conclusion that, because of potential future legislation or the imposition of significant carbon taxes, many of the assets on the books of these corporations will prove to be unsellable. Much of the oil reserves will end up having to stay in the ground. As investors anticipate this outcome, they will start to sell their shares in companies dependent on fossil fuel energy production.
Alongside these “stick” approaches to changing the operations of energy companies, “carrot” approaches are critically important too too. This includes incentives for energy corporations to grow units dedicated to quicker transition to greener sources, and compensation paid from funds raised by carbon taxes to former employees as they are made redundant.
A battle of ideas
There’s another factor leading many people to oppose any policy actions regarding climate change. This factor is the ideology of anti-centralism – the ideology which harbours deep suspicion of any attempts at centralised control over market forces.
Their reasoning runs as follows. Any action against climate change will need to be global in scope. After all, the fossil fuel industry operates transnationally, and could circumvent any carbon taxes levied in just a single country. However, any mechanism of global coordination would put too much power into the hands of a single political organisation. Sooner or later, any such organisation would impose legislation that stymies innovation and freedom. Any such organisation would grant itself more and more authority. As such, any benefits arising from it would be more than offset by the tyranny of centralised control. Too much local sovereignty would be lost. That’s too large a price to pay.
In summary, these thinkers fear the risk of global autocratic government much more than the fear the risk of accelerated climate chaos.
People who embrace this anti-centralist view are predisposed – like the managers and owners of the fossil fuel companies – to find and champion arguments as to why there is no urgency to tackle climate change. They eagerly spread such arguments, even without being sure if they are valid. What matters in their mind is that the arguments sow doubt on the case for centralised control of global society.
In response, transhumanists should accept that there are, indeed, potential dangers in centralised control. History shows many cases of leadership cabals that started off serving wider interests, but whose focus narrowed over time to their own self-preservation.
However, there’s no inevitability of a slippery slope from international agreements to a centralised international autocracy. Transhumanists can point to the possibility for international agreements to be developed and adopted, without losing multi-level democratic control over the matter.
Rather than predicting that international agreements are bound to fail – or that they can only work if backed up by some kind of centralised police force – transhumanists should emphasise that more nuanced mechanisms are possible.
Consider international agreements on matters such as air traffic control, aircraft safety, wireless spectrum allocation, emissions of ozone-depleting CFCs (as governed by the Montreal Protocol), and action in the face of disease epidemics (as coordinated by the WHO). Consider also the operations of bodies that coordinate world sports competitions.
What ensures that such global agreements can be developed and then observed (rather than ignored) is the force of international public opinion, expressing itself through local political structures.
In other words, instead of the ideology of anti-centralism – and instead of its polar opposite, which can be called “autocratic centralism” – transhumanists can envision the practice of superdemocracy being meaningfully extended from the national to the international level.
As the merits of the concept of superdemocracy become better appreciated, the passion that many people currently feel for their ideology of anti-centralism will diminish. They will increasingly appreciate that centralisation of powers has no need to be an “all or nothing” decision. Their fear will diminish of unwarranted loss of local sovereignty. Their hostility will decline towards the idea of negotiating treaties with international scope – treaties that will ensure companies pay substantial but fair taxes on greenhouse gas emissions. And their willingness will grow to look rationally and objectively at proposals for serious action to prevent climate disruption.
Another factor that has delayed positive action against climate change over recent decades – a factor in addition to the short-term financial incentives of fossil fuel corporations, and the ideology of anti-centralism – is the habit of politicians to adopt “greenwash”.
This occurs when politicians appear to talk tough about taking action on climate change, but then make little real progress. Rather than confront the forces of inertia that support the status quo, they perform a kind of green theatre, hoping to gain some electoral benefit as a result. In many cases, their actual intentions probably never amounted to much.
Transhumanists look forward to greater publicity being given to all divergences between the claims and the actual performance of politicians. Politicians – and likewise for any other leaders in society – need to be held accountable to higher standards of integrity. Mechanisms of better collective intelligence will highlight such discrepancies. In the face of improved transparency, society’s leaders will be more likely to move beyond the surface statements of greenwash towards deeper policy reform and substantive investment in next generation green technologies.
A role for nuclear energy
Different experts evidently disagree whether adoption of non-nuclear renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, and wave, will be sufficient to reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently quickly to avoid major climate chaos. In view of this uncertainty, it’s worth keeping an open mind towards the potential of nuclear energy.
Among other considerations, nuclear energy avoids the problems of irregularity in supply experienced by solar plants, which depend on the sun shining, and wind turbines, which depend on the wind blowing. Nuclear power plants can run 24 hours a day, every day of the year, regardless of the weather.
On the other hand, nuclear power plants have acquired a bad public reputation in the wake of major problems at Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island. There are also fears about crossovers from nuclear energy technology to nuclear weapons technologies. It is important to assess these risks calmly.
As in many other areas of technology, the most significant improvements in nuclear power production will involve jumps between different generations of underlying technology – moving, for example, from water-cooled systems to gas-cooled systems and molten-salt reactors. Next generation solutions have the potential for significantly greater safety and lower costs. Designs involving modular construction should have faster deployment times, as the modules can be built in a factory, rather than at the reactor site.
Other ongoing innovations within the nuclear industry are addressing the problems of nuclear waste (for example, by burning it) and possible crossovers to nuclear weapons (by destroying the chemical isotopes that would be used in nuclear bombs). Critically, there seem to be good solutions at hand to the risk of reactor meltdown. Molten salts, unlike water, have no risk of evaporating under greater heat; as the salts become hotter, they expand, and force radioactive elements further apart, automatically slowing down the reaction. In consequence, there is no longer any need for large, expensive containment domes, which reduces the overall cost of the reactor.
Fission systems involving the element thorium, instead of uranium, also seem to have much to commend.
Bearing all these possibilities in mind, the risks of inaction – that is, avoiding progress with nuclear energy – probably significantly exceed the risks of careful positive action.
Next generation solutions, however, typically require long, patient investment, to turn concepts from theory and prototypes into large-scale deployment. Some advocates of solar and wind energy see any investment in these new nuclear power solutions as a distraction – as a poor use of scarce public funding. It’s a controversial question.
When evaluating funding choices, it’s important to keep emotional biases under check. One such bias, already mentioned, is concern about reactor meltdowns – a concern which has been unduly heightened due to sensationalist reporting of previous meltdowns, and which has little direct relevance when new technological designs are used.
Another bias goes back to the period of time, in the 1950s and 60s, in which proponents of solar and wind power believed that public funding of nuclear power plants was starving their own projects of an appropriate level of funding. Hostility between some advocates of solar and wind, and advocates of nuclear, remains in place to this day. Whereas a certain level of intellectual combat helps provide better insight, too much of a conflict hinders clear thinking.
An area of particular controversy involves, not nuclear fission, but nuclear fusion. Fusion has enormous potential. To give a comparison, whereas the US economy uses each day the energy from several supertankers full of oil, less than one thousandth of a single supertanker containing fuel for nuclear fusion – namely isotopes of hydrogen – would provide enough energy to run the US economy for an entire year. However, nuclear power projects have suffered repeated delays. These delays are due not only to formidable engineering problems, but also to issues of large-scale international coordination. This is an example where greater skills in collaboration are highly applicable. It’s also an area where nimbleness of thought is important, given the number of unorthodox nuclear fusion research projects that are seeking additional funding.
In summary, the best way to make rapid progress towards a sustainable abundance of clean energy involves careful, dispassionate analysis of controversial options. By the nature of research projects, it’s not possible to anticipate in advance what the full impact of various funding provision might be. Progress could go better than expected – or, indeed, worse than expected. Adoption of fast-improving artificial intelligence in the design of new systems could result in surprising breakthroughs. Accordingly, we need to be ready to update our opinions.
A role for geoengineering
As a fallback option, in case the switch to clean energy sources proves to be taking too long, some technologists are investigating geoengineering solutions such as spraying particles into the atmosphere or oceans with a view to increasing the reflection of sunlight and thereby reducing global temperatures.
By their nature, geoengineering solutions risk triggering cascading side-effects of their own. It’s also possible that the results of such interventions will be far from uniform: some parts of the earth may be cooled, whilst others experience greater extremes of weather than at present. That’s in line with observations after “natural geoengineering” effects such as recent major volcanic eruptions, like the 1992 explosion of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines.
Geoengineering solutions also risk a rapid resurgence of global warming if, for whatever reason, they are turned off or malfunction.
In other words, there are significant questions over the effectiveness of geoengineering. It is nevertheless appropriate to keep an open mind, and to continue exploring variants of such solutions, in case accelerating climate change proves too hard to address by any other means.
However, the first line of defence should be on the rapid transfer away from the types of energy usage (and other industrial practice) that give rise to greenhouse gas emissions. The second line of defence is to improve systems to extract greenhouse gases from the atmosphere – systems such as Carbon Capture and Storage, or the introduction of “artificial trees” (which may be more effective than real trees at absorbing carbon dioxide).
Solutions that perturb the climate in different ways, such as the mass distribution of particles in the oceans or atmosphere, should form part of a third line of defence, with particular focus on gaining more certainty about the safe introduction of such solutions.
Beyond the profit motive
Climate change due to greenhouse gases is only one of a number of potential environmental catastrophes that are on the point of being accelerated by unsustainable human practices.
Others include ocean acidification, excess accumulation of nitrogen and phosphorous due to the methods of large-scale agriculture, erosion of topsoil, depletion of freshwater resources, and loss of biodiversity.
In each case, the pattern is the same. Methods are known that would replace present unsustainable practices with sustainable ones. By following these methods, life would be plentiful for all, without detracting in any way from the potential for ongoing flourishing in the longer term. However, the transition from unsustainable to sustainable practices requires overcoming very significant inertia in existing systems. In some cases, what’s also required is vigorous research and development, to turn ideas for new solutions into practical realities. Unfortunately, in the absence of short-term business cases, this research and development fails to receive the investment it requires.
In each case, the solution follows the same principles. Society as a whole needs to agree on prioritising research and development of various solutions. Society as a whole needs to agree on penalties and taxes that should be applied to increasingly discourage the unsustainable practices. And society as a whole needs to provide a social safety net to assist those peoples whose livelihoods are adversely impacted by these changes.
Left to its own devices, the free market is unlikely to reach the same conclusions. Instead, because it fails to assign proper values to various externalities, the market will produce harmful results. Accordingly, these are cases when society as a whole needs to constrain and steer the operation of the free market. In other words, transhumanist politics needs to exert itself.
To explore one particularly important example, the next chapter of this Manifesto considers the question of the future of agriculture – the sustainable creation of sufficient food and drink for everyone on the planet, even as the population rises significantly above its present level.