Considering Our Future

Richard S. (Dick) Stein University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Many decisions today are based on consideration of “here and now”. They consider their effect on our present welfare and on those living in our country and/or immediate vicinity. I ask for a broader view and will present some examples.

Energy: It is evident that there are difficulties with the availability, cost, and environmental impact of our conventional energy sources. Much of the energy in the U.S. comes from burning coal, oil, or natural gas (NG). Supplies of some of these are becoming scarce and increasing efforts are required to find sources and to find better ways for extraction and processing. Furthermore, these, when burned, produce carbon dioxide, CO2, that many believe to be a “greenhouse gas” that significantly contributes to global warming. They predict that its continued emission will lead to temperature increases that lead to undesirable environmental changes.

To contend with these problems, many propose that we cease using fossil fuels and turn to renewable sources that do not emit CO2. One of these, nuclear energy, has its problems concerning whether it is economical, danger of  radiation, consequences of accidents, and lack of an acceptable means of dealing with radioactive waste. Thus, there is opposition to continued operation of present facilities and of construction of new ones. A “No Nuclear Energy” policy is advocated by some.

While I agree that present facilities are undesirable, I have hope that the development of “safe nuclear” may someday be possible. While some possibilities for this have been proposed and are being explored, none have proved feasible so far. However, I am hesitant to make a commitment for the future. We have seen many cases where apparently impossible developments have occurred as a result of unexpected technical advances. Thus, I propose a stance of “No Nuclear Energy Now”. I cannot be sure of the future but we should admit possibilities and continue exploring them.

If we abandon fossil fuels and current nuclear energy now, what are the consequences? While rapid advances are being made, most agree that presently available renewable sources are only capable of furnishing a fraction of current energy use (perhaps 20– 30% in the U.S.).  Predictions suggest that energy needs will grow as a result of technical developments, growth in population, and changes in the “third world”. What are we to do?

An obvious approach is to use less energy. The U.S. is said to be an “energy hog” using much more energy/capita than most of the world.  decreased energy consumption implies changes in lifestyle, but from personal experience, such might not be as great as feared by some. I would guess that a decrease by about 50% would be acceptable to most.

Some propose even more drastic efforts to curtail energy use such as giving up travel, living in smaller houses, eating less and differently,  and moving from a more industrial toward a farming economy. While some changes in these directions may be desirable, I believe there are limits to what we find acceptable. I enjoy the benefits of travel, accomplishing interesting tasks on my computer, and using a snow blower as I did recently) rather than a shovel to clear my driveway (which I find increasingly difficult as I age). I dislike routine tasks requiring  physical effort but not much thinking. I find that technological advances permit me to enjoy more of these pleasures that increase the quality  of my life. I prefer an approach where we carry out sensible conservation in eliminating wasteful tasks, but make efforts to find new ways of replacing them with more effective ones. We must, however, realize that we live in a society having all sorts of people with a variety of skills, interests, and desires, sometimes different from our own. We need to seek ways to complement each other so that we can live together without exploiting each other.

We must learn to use available energy more efficiently. This is already happening with the replacement of incandescent light bulbs that waste  about 90% of their energy as heat with more efficient compact fluorescent and light emitting diodes We are seeing efforts to urge or require better insulation of houses and more energy efficient appliances. Solar panels are enabling home owners to generate their own electricity and car makers are being required to do what was previously claimed to be impossible to increase fuel efficiency of their cars. Hybrids and electric cars are gaining popularity with the realization that the internal combustion engine is a relatively inefficient way to obtain mechanical energy from fuel. Electric power generation and use is more efficient.

There is the realization that thermodynamics limits the  efficiency of electric power production in power plants, where for most, less than 50% of the energy in fuels can be converted to electricity with the rest being liberated as heat, often wasted. The better approach is through cogeneration where this heat is used for purposes such as heating buildings. This requires a size and location of the plant where this is possible. For example, the new power plant at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst uses this heat for university buildings.

It is apparent that such changes in energy use may not be enough. Efforts are needed to grow availability of renewables as rapidly as  possible, but I believe it may take 5 – 10 years to fill the gap. Thus, “bridge means” may be needed to do it. We may need to not completely abandon fossil fuel and nuclear during this period but should phase it out as rapidly as possible with regulation to assure that it be done as safely as possible during this period.

Fracking: The introduction of hydraulic fracturing, “fracking” has made available large resources of NG with a decrease in cost an  increased use. It has resulted in a “fracking boom” with many companies vigorously attempting to acquire profits. It has the promise of providing abundant NG during this bridge period.

Fracking is not without its problems. The burning of the NG it produces is still a source of CO2, albeit less than from the fossil fuels, and most believe this must be minimized or stopped. Also, fracking, as now done, requires use of large amounts of water that must be disposed after use. Chemical additives are added to this water, the nature of which is currently not revealed because of industrial secrecy. There is concern that contamination of drinking and agricultural water may occur, and with improper technology, gases, primarily methane, may be released to the atmosphere and serve as potent greenhouse gases. The number of fracking installations is increasing at a great rate consuming appreciable funds and using much increasingly scarce water, along with payments paid to farmers to acquire leases for their operation that often result in undesirable changes in their lifestyles and useful productivity. It is apparent that this use of funds competes with those that might have been used for renewable energy development. There is also some evidence that fracking activities may affect seismic events.
Thus, there is an environmental impact so restriction and regulation of its use seems essential. It is apparent that fracking is an attractive and profitable technique for those  practicing it so decisions are needed about what constraints should be placed on its growth. Advocates contend that it will make the U.S. energy independent for many years and make the economy more competitive. These advantages need be balanced against its environmental price. My opinion is that we will need it to get through the bridge period, but it should be regarded that it is a temporary effort with a plan for phasing out as soon as renewable energy techniques grow enough to satisfy needs.

Divestment: Some universities, towns, and other organizations have decided that they will divest their investments in fossil-fuel related  companies. Their view is that these companies are promoting fossil fuel burning and sometimes opposing renewable development efforts. By divesting, one is decreasing their ability to do these things. This thinking may be an over simplification in that most of them realize that the days of fossil fuel use are limited and there will eventually be a “crossover” after which use of renewables becomes economical. In view of this, many are conducting studies on renewable so as to be prepared for this event.

Many of these companies are very efficient, well funded, and productive. The industrial development of America owes much to their abilities. Ideally, it would be desirable for them to change their emphasis toward the development of renewables. We need to utilize their talents to help bring about this necessary change. There is some reluctance to do this, considering the current profitability of their fossil fuel activities. Their management must be persuaded to carry out the transformation as rapidly as possible and be thinking more about the future of their companies.

With today’s economic difficulties, many universities are also suffering economic difficulties. Support of public universities has largely decreased as have donations to others. They have become more dependent upon industrial contributions and industry and military financed research programs. There is concern that divestment will lead to a decrease in such support and lower their ability to educate students who may become the leaders who will contribute to our future economy. A problem is whether this possibility may be a worthwhile investment to allow them to maintain their educational effort that could lead to a brighter future. This emphasis on profits is even affecting religious thinking, with the Pope receiving criticism for his views on some industrial practices.

My view is that investment in companies is needed so as to benefit from their abilities that may help with the needed task. The problem is  whether this can be done with “strings attached”, where restrictions were placed on the use of these investments to assure that they are assisting the transformation away from fossil fuels. Mechanisms for doing this are not simple, and there is need for developing means for doing so.

Climate: There is concern by many about the consequences of climate change that may result from the consequences of global warming. As indicated above, climate and energy problems are closely related. Some think that climate changes are inevitable and it is useless to try to affect them. There are those who have suffered from the blizzards and frigid weather this winter who doubt the reality of global warming. There is often little understanding about the difference between climate and weather. They say that matters like the tilt of the Earth’s axis dominate over which we have no control. I disagree as studies have demonstrated the importance of human-related activities like fossil fuel burning, forest clearance, and poor agricultural practices that have major effects. There is strong evidence for this that is widely believed by those who are knowledgeable I believe we have influence over these and should take positive action toward helpful directions. Not doing so is almost certain to lead to difficulties, but constructive actions are likely to help.

Those believing we cannot modify climate often propose accepting the changes and building up defenses like sea walls, dykes, etc. These certainly will help, but I believe that in the long run, these will be overwhelmed by changes. My personal observations come from having lived in the Rockaways on Long Island, NY where there was much devastation during storm, Sandy, despite may years of expensive efforts to secure protection. As there are a limited number of possible measures that we are able to deal with, a major part of out effort should be directed toward prevention.

A deterrent for preventive measures is their cost, but this should be considered along with eventual costs if changes are not avoided or delayed. While present actions may be a present economic burden, these would be paid for by us, and the probable future much greater ones will have to be paid by our descendants. Should we depend on them to pay the bills arising because of our neglect?

Furthermore, the changes will affect the majority of the poorer populations more than ourselves. We can take defensive actions, but many of them cannot. Should they have the burden of paying to maintain our present affluence? I am pleased to have a request for cooperation from a group in India where the consequences of climate change will be much more serious. We must realize that we must be thinking of the world, not just ourselves.

Water: Along with energy, the availability of suitable water for drinking and agriculture is a concern. Droughts in parts of the U.S. are already a problem as is the rapid growth of cities in arid area where the water table continues to lower. The problem is even more serious in parts of the world that depend upon glaciers for their water supply. Glaciers are receding and sometimes disappearing, due in part to the increasing temperatures from global warming. There are shortages of water needed for agriculture for growing food for increasing populations. Energy harvesting techniques like fracking compete with this.

An obvious approach is conservation. Irrigation techniques common in the US of spraying water into the air are wasteful in that up to half the water is lost by evaporation. Drip application directly to plants, as practices in the Near East, is much better. Water delivery to plants using absorbents like biochar helps. There is saving with low flush or no flush (composting) toilets. Recovery and recycling of waste water from both domestic and industrial sources can be aided with with rapidly developing membrane technology. Toilets in Scandinavia often are divided into compartments separating solids from liquids, facilitating recovery. Nutrients obtained from these as well as sewage treatment facilities can serve as agricultural additives to help with the growth of much needed food.

We can avoid contamination of existing fresh water reserves by reducing run-off from industrial and agricultural sources. Excess use of synthetic fertilizers is a big offender. The run-off from fertilizers sometimes results in eutrophication leading to harmful algae growth and harm to fish. The economics can be helped where there is value for the materials recovered from the waste water.

There is plenty of water on the Earth, but most of it is in the oceans where it is contaminated by salt. Desalination is possible, but it requires energy, so it is only feasible where energy is plentiful and the value of water is high. It is currently used on cruise ships, in the Arab states, and in the U.S., in places like Key West. Reverse osmosis requires much less energy than distillation and is increasingly used. It is now also used to recover potable water from liquid sewage on the space station and efforts are beginning in a few cities.

Food: This will be an increasing problem as population increases and sources of arable land decrease as a result of desertification, soil deterioration, and urban growth. Land availability is related to energy needs and the loss of agricultural land for use in growing energy related biofuels is a factor. The “corn for fuel” and demands for palm oil are examples. Farmland is sometimes lost as it is used as locations for petroleum extraction, fracking, and mining, and its usability for food growing is sometimes diminishes by its use for disposal of waste from these and other industrial operations.

There is a need for increasing agricultural efficiency to be able to grow more food on existing land without diminishing soil quality. Means for dealing with contaminated soil are needed so as to bring more land into productive use. New farming techniques such as use of hydroponics and indoor farms in vacant buildings are being explored. Using animals for meat sources is demanding on land and resources so changes in diet and production of synthetic substitutes are being explored. Fish are a major source of nutrition in many places, so more efforts are needed for fishing regulations and for consideration of fish farms.

There have been proposals for hydroponic agriculture, growing things in aqueous solutions rather than soil. This could expand available area, making use of abandoned buildings. Some have proposed doing it indoors. Such would require providing light which might be done by “piping in” sunlight using fiber optics or by energy efficient LED’s. The economics is uncertain, but it is an approach that should be explored.

While food production could be increased by genetic modification, this must be done with care to avoid accompanying detrimental effects.  There is a reaction against genetically modified food (GMO’s) and research and control is needed. My belief is that we should not prohibit GMO’s but use them with care to avoid harm. Many accepted foods today have developed through genetic modification by nature and by plant and animal breeders. However, genetic knowledge has increased at a great rate and has outpaced the knowledge of ability for control. It is evermore apparent that consideration of factors other than profit is needed.

Jobs: Unemployment is a major concern today. This is partly a result of a stagnant economy and partly from the replacement of human efforts by technology such as use of robots. Stimulation of the economy to produce more jobs has been recommended, but this costs money that has become increasingly difficult to obtain. It is a “chicken and egg” situation.

Stimulation produces more jobs that leads to income of workers that then may become customers for their products. However, doing it requires investment and there is uncertainty about whether there is gain.

Also, technology replaces workers, and fewer are needed to produce the products. However, in many cases, such job loss is temporary, and the jobs lost to technology often involve routine and uninteresting tasks, and the technology leads to newer and better jobs, sometimes in greater numbers. The displacement is often temporary, and measures are needed to ease the burdens. One of these is for education and training to allow workers to participate in advanced technologies. I’ll offer a few examples.

When dial telephones were introduced, there was concern that many telephone operators would lose jobs. I do not believe this has had a major impact over the years and it has resulted in better and cheaper telephone service.

When I visited Shanghai about 20 years ago, their subway system was under construction, and the necessary digging was done manually by thousands of workers using shovels. One would not think of this happening today where employment has grown with many more interesting jobs in a developing economy.

Fifty years ago, messages such as this were dictated to secretaries taking shorthand who the typed them. Today, I and most of my colleagues type their own using word processors. Secretaries today must lean to use such  equipment to be employable. I do not believe there is a dearth of jobs for such people but they must learn different skills.

I recently read that there are more workers in solar energy related fields than there are coal miners. Which job would you rather have?

In my younger days, mail was delivered twice a day. It is now reduced to once and Saturday deliveries will probably cease. I just learned that Canada plans to abandon home mail delivery. Of course, this will lead to the loss of postal jobs, but again, I think the loss will be temporary and most will move on to other ones. E-mail makes more sense, and it seems foolish to depend on people to carry the mail when it could be done electronically.

Newspapers are having difficulties and the numbers have declined and many are being consolidated. I am thinking of cancelling some of my own subscriptions. The news I can get on my computer is quicker and better, I can scan several newspapers from major cities before breakfast. I suspect many of the former newspaper reporters will find activity in the electronic news business.

A recent study by a member of the UMass Economics Department (reported in a testimony to the Congress) compared investment in the fossil fuel industries with that in renewable energy, and concluded that the latter produced many more jobs for a given amount of money.

Of course, the profits from these technological advances usually go to those who can afford the technology and the workers do not benefit as much. This leads to the problem of “the rich get richer” leading to a greater class separation. This is an unstable situation and means are needed to find ways to better deal with it.

I do not believe that one can stop technological advances. There were futile attempts by the “Luddites” to do so and there were those protesting the banning of slavery claiming such would be an economic disaster. While it led to some problems, I believe the country is better off for it to have happened.

All of this requires improving education to furnish workers capable of involvement with technology. There is actually a shortage of such and means for enable people to make the transition are needed. I think providing such is one of the best investments possible.

Overview: It is apparent that the world is changing and our welfare is dependent upon our adopting to the changes. The human race has been successful in doing this. A century or two ago people like Malthus predicted that the population would grow faster than the means to support them. This has not happened, even though population grew faster than they predicted. We are facing such problems today and I believe that our future depends upon our ingenuity in finding ways to deal with them, If we don’t and have a “gloom and doom” attitude, I think we will face a downward spiral. We can’t be sure that well succeed, but if we don’t try, we are sure to fail.

It has been pointed out that there were past periods of global warming when CO2 levels were high, but life survived. It should be realized  that it almost didn’t during “the great extinction” when many forms of life disappeared. Fortunately, a few survived and evolved to forms including us. However, the climate then changed slowly and there was a chance that evolution could proceed fast enough for adaptation by newly developed life forms. However today, such changes that then occurred in thousands of years now seem to be occurring in decades, so it is doubtful that evolution can meet the challenge. This means we need to work harder to try to do so.

Our chances of success are limited, so perhaps failure is 80 – 90% probable. It is encouraging that it is not zero, but would be if we don’t try. If my chances of winning the lottery were only 10%, I’d think it worthwhile to play. I don’t because they are much smaller. However, the benefits of winning at the climate game are so much greater and the cost of failure is so great that I urge taking such risks.

I suspect that I may not encounter this downward path during the few remaining years of my life, and my four children may not. I do believe the lives of my six grandchildren and three great grandchildren will be affected. I hope that I will not have to face the question of “Why did you not do something?”

I plead for us to remain optimistic. We face an “uphill battle” but if we don’t try, we are sure to lose. I believe our goals are technically feasible, but the problem is one of political and social will. The challenge is one of encouraging this. We all must join in the educational effort, become politically involved, and support corrective measures. We must oppose the “heads in the sand” mentality that I fear could become literally rather than just figuratively true!