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:
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.]
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:
Renewable 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.
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. “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:
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.”
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.
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.
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** (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. 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.