Wednesday, 17 November 2010

GUEST POST: Sustainability Isn’t Sustainable

Guest post by patent specialist Dale Halling

Sustainability is all the rage today.  What do we mean by sustainability?  There are numerous and conflicting definitions of what sustainability means.  However, most sources point to the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), also known as the Brundtland Report.  
    According to the 1987 Brundtland Report, sustainability is:

_Quote_Idiot Meeting the needs of the present generation without
compromising the ability of future generations
to meet their needs.

This definition is not testable and is incredibly vague.  Let’s take the word “sustainable” literally.  A sustainable technology would be one that can be used indefinitely by humans without side effects and without any diminution in its effectiveness.  This definition violates the laws of physics.  Entropy is the second law of thermodynamics and is normally defined as the measure of the disorder of a system or a measure of the energy not available for work.  Entropy was discovered as part of thermodynamics and it explains that a perpetual motion machine is impossible.  Entropy always increases in a closed system.  Sustainability taken literally is an attempt to create a perpetual motion machine.
    Some of the key issues for the sustainability crowd revolve around so called non-renewable resources, such as the use of fossil fuels and the using up of other natural resources.  The way this is often phrased today is Peak Oil, Peak Water, Peak _____ (Pick Your Favorite Resource).  [For more of the same, see Peak Everything: Eight Things We are Running Out of and Why.[2]]
    Peak Oil (natural resource) allegedly occurs when the amount of oil that can be extracted reaches its maximum or the point at which we reach the maximum net energy output from oil.  The alternative definition takes into account that even if we can extract more oil, this is irrelevant if it takes more energy to extract the oil than we receive from the oil. 
    The supposed solution for our “Peak Oil problem” is to develop renewable energy resources.  The Clean Energy website provides the following definition:

_Quote_IdiotRenewable energy is natural energy which does not have a
limited supply.  Renewable energy can be used over and over
again, and will never run out.

    What is “natural” energy?  Either all energy is natural and comes from nature, or only animal muscle power is natural.  The “natural” qualification is complete nonsense – unless they really want us to go back to animal muscle only. 
    Moreover, the “never run out” qualification itself violates entropy.  All energy resources will run out eventually.All energy sources—fossil fuels, solar, hydroelectric, tidal, biomass, hydrothermal, fission, fusion, etc.—are at base solar, or at least stellar.**  And the Sun will not last forever and does not provide unlimited energy.  The concept of renewable energy that “will never run out” and “can be used over and over again” is fatuous nonsense.  It violates the second law of thermodynamics, entropy.
    This concept of “peak resources” is not new.  For instance, the fertilizer crisis of the 19th century.  In 1830 it was discovered that guano was an excellent fertilizer.  Population exploded, as guano was used in Europe, because of the additional food that was produced because of this excellent fertilizer and mechanization.  The best sources of guano began to run out fairly quickly.  People predicted the equivalent of “Peak Guano.”  The question was not whether we would have “Peak Guano,” but Peak Fertilizer?  We did not have a guano problem we had an invention problem.  The Haber-Bosch process was invented in 1909, which allowed fixing nitrogen in air and solved the “Peak Guano” problem.[5]
And therein lies the lesson.
    Reason magazine’s article “Peak Everything?” discusses how logical, scientific projections showed we would run out of lithium, neodymium, and phosphorus.[6] “Peak lithium” was going to limit the batteries necessary for electric cars.  In fact, we would run out of lithium faster than we would run out of oil.  The solution is a new invention that replaces lithium with zinc air batteries.  Note that the solution was not a better way to extract lithium, but to make the supply of lithium irrelevant.  It is a paradigm shift created by a new invention. 
    Peak neodymium is going to limit our ability to build the electric motors of hybrid cars as well as other products.  Interestingly, neodymium magnets were invented to overcome the problem of peak cobalt.  In the area of permanent magnets, it appears that a new induction motor will eliminate the need for permanent magnets. 
    Peak phosphorus is a repeat of Peak Guano.  Peak phosphorous threatens our ability to provide enough fertilizer for our agricultural needs.  One solution, recognises that phosphorous is a product of human urine.  The phosphorous can be recycled using a no-mix toilet.
    The lesson should be obvious:

_Quote Paul Romer has observed, “Every generation has perceived the limits to growth that finite resources and undesirable side effects would pose if no new recipes or ideas were discovered. And every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new recipes and ideas. We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered. The difficulty is the same one we have with compounding: possibilities do not merely add up; they multiply.”[7]

    The computer industry was also beset by predictions of impeding doom when it could no longer achieve Moore’s law of doubling the number of transistors every eighteen months.  Ray Kurzweil has shown that if you restate Moore’s law as computational power, every time a technology reaches its limit to improve computational power a new technology takes over.  Using this he shows that computational power has been growing exponentially since 1900.  The first computational devices were electromechanical.  When this reached their limit, they were replaced with relay devices, then these were replaced with vacuum tubes, then transistors, and then integrated circuits.[8]
Life is a fight against entropy.  The unique way humans overcome entropy is by inventing.  Inventing is the answer to “Peak Anything.”
    Inventions are not subject to diminishing returns or entropy.  Potential inventions grow factorially, which is much faster than diminishing returns from natural resources shrinks.  We do not have a natural resources problem, we have an invention problem. 
    The sustainability crowd are not pushing science, they are pushing a political slogan.  And in the process, by diverting resources from the most promising technologies to the most politically acceptable, they are actually inhibiting new technologies from being developed.

* * * *

** (Hydroelectric energy, for example is the result of the Sun heating the oceans or other large bodies of water.  As the water evaporates and then condenses in the form of rain or snow on land masses it is collected in dams.  The dams converted the gravitation force of the water into electric energy.  Fossil fuels are created by plants converting sunlight into biomass (including animals).  The biomass is trapped underground by sea sediment and the pressure and heat converts the biomass into oil, coal, natural gas, etc.[4] Fission is the process whereby heavy elements, generally Uranium, are split into lighter elements and energy is released.  These heavy elements were created in a star that has long since expired.  Thus, all energy is Solar or at least stellar.)

Dale Halling is an American patent attorney and entrepreneur, and the author of the book The Decline and Fall of the American Entrepreneur: How Little Known Laws are Killing Innovation.
Read his regular thoughts at his
State of Innovation blog. This post, with all its references, originally appeared THere.


  1. Insightful and a great article Dale Haling. There is no surprise here in your reference to entropy and thermodynamics, because you have backgrounds in engineering & physics.

    I don't think that there are that many practicing lawyers today who have had prior trainings in engineering & physics, but I suspect that those who have are mainly patent attorney like you.

    Anyway, 3 years ago, I was paid by an Auckland company to help them write their US patent claims (2 of them). The inventions were theirs (geometrical & lenticular linear optics) but they didn't know how to mathematicise them (formalize them in physics formula derivations). Their patent attorney is based in the US (since they have a small branch there). In my first report (first patent claim), there were more than 30 equations involved in the derivations and I think that in equation #27 I missed a sign (suppose to be both -ve & +ve solutions), where I only had the +ve solution but not the -ve solution.

    The company sent my report which was included in their full claims to their patent attorney and it came back for the first revise in which the lawyer himself had picked up my wrong formula derivations near the end, i.e., equation #27 wasn't complete (a total of more than 32 equations), which means that equation #28, #29, #30, up to the end were all wrong. It caught me by surprised as I went over my report many times before submitting to check (& re-check) that I didn't miss-derived the linear optics models that I was asked to do and here was a lawyer who found out that a few equations at the end of my report were miss-derived. I revised & corrected those wrong formulas and then resubmitted it again.

    I was curious to know why a lawyer would pick up the error that I made as the formulas were heavy. Sure, lawyers wouldn't understand the formulas (or their derivations). The company rep that I was dealing with in Auckland, told me that their US rep informed him that the lawyer has backgrounds in mathematics & physics and that's the reason they hire him or use his services is that he understands technical grounds from foundations/basics to advance. (Hehe, I wouldn't be surprised if that US patent attorney is you).

  2. Dale said...
    The computer industry was also beset by predictions of impeding doom when it could no longer achieve Moore’s law of doubling the number of transistors every eighteen months.... When this reached their limit, they were replaced with relay devices, then these were replaced with vacuum tubes, then transistors, and then integrated circuits.[8]
    ...The unique way humans overcome entropy is by inventing. Inventing is the answer to “Peak Anything.”

    I completely agree here. IC (integrated circuits) is shifting from semiconductors (where severe limitation exists) to opto-electronics & photonics.

    In 2006, I attended a Physics Symposium here at Auckland University, where a leading expert in photonics from Australia, Prof. Ben Eggleton, passed around during his talk, a proto-type photonic chip about 1 square centimetre in size (where no semiconductor material is involved). He said that the future of computing & telecommunication will be heavily moved away from semiconductors (where their limitation is nearing due to physical difficulties in pushing further components miniaturization).

    Here is a picture of what the photonic chip looks like:

    Photonic Chip

    Its animation is here (if you have flash player):

    Photonic Chip - Animation

    Prof Eggleton said that his research group at CUDOS is collaborating with other researchers from around the world (including some from University of Auckland's Photonics Department) to develop the next generation of photonic chip. He said that Intel is one of the big corporations that are funding the project.

    So, its true, that inventions is the answer to eliminating the so called peak everything.

  3. Yes, uniquely, we are inventors. We solve problems and create knowledge. And not just that: we are universal knowledge creators. Nothing is beyond us to know.

  4. The question one must ask here is: why should we sacrifice our present quality of life for the sake of people we don't know, nor have any personal interest in? This is not the same thing as investing in your own quality of life by creating a better world for people you love or will love. Helping people you love makes your life better. That's why you do it.

    On top of this, how can we even predict what kinds of production future generations will engage in? Technology keeps improving. Solar power is considered a "sustainable" source of energy. But why should we stick only to solar power today, when fossil fuels are currently much cheaper, and when we will ultimately replace fossil fuels with something better?

    The sustainability of any particular form of production is of dubious value. Each form of production ultimately becomes obsolete. We shouldn't choose how to produce based on the possibility of doing it forever, because we won't want to do it forever. We'll want to do something better in the future.

    Instead of doing what is sustainable, we should do what is most productive in the context of our current technology and knowledge.

  5. yep the only thing making a peak, is the Greenie's butt whilst their heads are firmly buried in the sand, and their hand is filching coin from your back pocket

  6. Falafulu Fisi

    Thank you for the kind comments. While I have done some work on lenticular displays, I am not that lawyer.

  7. Great timing with this post, just as the 2010 NZI National Sustainable Business Network Awards were anounced in Auckland.
    I particularly love this bit ..
    "The event organisers put in exceptional efforts to host the most sustainable event possible with plenty of secure cycle parks inside the venue, the provision of online business cards, organic food and drinks, and plans to offset transport related emissions on the night with native tree planting."
    God help us!!

  8. That is like cutting butter with more than a hot knife, but by lazer (-erated)

    This guy has also got it !, the driving politics behind the innocent meme using the loaded "Word", that can make you feel guilty as charged, convicted and then ceaselessly fined at the very least.! ! and all the ramifications

    By Tom De Weese,
    "Sustainable development"

    "On our public education system - to prepare our children to live in a sustainable world.

    On our economy - to create partnerships between business and government, making sure business becomes a tool to help implement the policies.

    On the environment - leading to controls on private property and business.

    On health care - the new drive against obesity is leading directly toward controls on what we eat.

    On farming - Sustainable Development policies affect farmers' ability to produce more crops by regulating or banning precious chemicals, biotechnology and genetic engineering in the name of environmental protection.

    On our social and cultural environment - where political correctness is controlling policy hiring practices, immigration policy, multiculturalism, marriage laws, etc.

    On our mobility - with emphasis on carpools and public transportation and away from the freedom of personal transportation.

    And on public safety - where the rule of law and the court system is being challenged by new regulations that affect the right to privacy and unreasonable search and seizures.

    It's important to understand that these leading issues we face today are not just random concerns that find their way into the forefront of political debate. They are all interconnected to the policies of Sustainable Development.

    And you must understand that Sustainable Development is the official policy of the government of the United States of America - and every state, city and small burg in the nation.

    It is completely bi-partisan. It is being equally implemented by Republicans and Democrats. No matter the outcome of any election - the Sustainable Development agenda moves forward unabated."

    and with the insidious start of this back in the 80's and how it has been slowly dripped feed into our lexicon and daily lives.