‘Where’s My Flying Car?’ Is a Legitimate Question
Without energy, even material splendor has sharp limits. Mann notes that visitors to the Palace of Versailles in February 1695 marveled at the furs worn to dinners with the king and the ice that collected on the glassware. It was freezing in Versailles, and no amount of wealth could fix it. A hundred years later, Thomas Jefferson had a vast wine collection and library in Monticello and the forced labor of hundreds of slaves, but his ink still froze in his inkwells come winter.
Today, heating is a solved problem for many. But not for all. There are few inequalities more fundamental than energy inequality. The demographer Hans Rosling had a striking way of framing this. In 2010 he argued that you could group humanity by the energy people had access to. At the time, roughly two billion people had little or no access to electricity and still cook food and heat water by fire. About three billion had access to enough electricity to power electric lights. An additional billion or so had the energy and wealth for labor-saving appliances like washing machines. It’s only the richest billion people who could afford to fly, and they — we — used around half of global energy.
The first reason to want energy abundance is to make energy and the gifts it brings available to all. Rosling put this well, describing how his mother loaded the laundry and then took him to the library, how she used the time she’d once spent cleaning clothes to teach herself English. “This is the magic,” he said. “You load the laundry, and what do you get out of the machine? You get books.” There is no global aid strategy we could pursue that would do nearly as much as making energy radically cheaper, more reliable and more available.
Then there is all we could do if we had the cheap, clean and abundant energy needed to do it. In a paper imagining “energy superabundance,” Austin Vernon and Eli Dourado sketch out some of the near-term possibilities. “Flights that take 15 hours on a 747 could happen in an hour on a point-to-point rocket,” they write. Vertical greenhouses could feed far more people, and desalination, which even now is a major contributor to water supplies in Singapore and Israel, would become affordable for poorer, populous nations that need new water sources most. Directly removing carbon dioxide from the air would become more plausible, giving us a path to reversing climate change over time.
Vernon and Dourado’s definition of superabundance is fairly modest: They define it as every person on Earth having access to about twice the power Icelanders use annually. But what if fusion or other technologies give us energy that becomes functionally limitless? I enjoyed the way Benjamin Reinhardt, a self-proclaimed ergophile, rendered this kind of world, writing in the online journal Works in Progress:
You could wake up in your house on the beautiful coast of an artificial island off the coast of South America. You’re always embarrassed at the cheap synthesized sand whenever guests visit, but people have always needed to sacrifice to afford space for a family. You say goodbye to yours and leave for work. On your commute, you do some work on a new way of making high-temperature superconductors. You’re a total dilettante but the combination of fixed-price for infinite compute and the new trend of inefficient but modular technology has created an inventor out of almost everybody. Soon enough, you reach the bottom of the Singaporean space elevator: Cheap space launches, the low cost of rail-gunning raw material into space and decreased material costs made the whole thing work out economically. Every time you see that impossibly thin cable stretching up, seemingly into nothingness, it boggles your mind — if that’s possible, what else is? You check out the new shipment of longevity drugs, which can only be synthesized in pristine zero-G conditions. Then you scoot off to a last-minute meet-up with friends in Tokyo.
As you all enjoy dinner (made from ingredients grown in the same building and picked five minutes before cooking) a material scientist friend of a friend describes the latest in physics simulations. You bask in yet another serendipitous, in-person interaction, grateful for your cross-continental relationships. While you head home, you poke at your superconductor design a bit more. It’s a long shot, but it might give you the resources to pull yourself out of the bottom 25 percent, so that your kids can lead an even brighter life than you do. Things are good, you think, but they could be better.
The fusion demonstration is a reminder not of what is inevitable but of what is possible. And it is not just fusion. The advance of wind and solar and battery technology remains a near miracle. The possibilities of advanced geothermal and hydrogen are thrilling. Smaller, modular nuclear reactors could make new miracles possible, like cars and planes that don’t need to be refueled or recharged. This is a world progressives, in particular, should want to hasten into existence. Clean, abundant energy is the foundation on which a more equal, just and humane world can be built.
“In 100 or 200 years, everything will look radically different,” Melissa Lott, the director of research at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy, told me. “Folks will look back and be blown away by how we used energy today. They’ll say, ‘Wait, you just burned it?’”