Opinion | ‘Where’s My Flying Car?’ Is a Legitimate Question
January 8, 2023
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By Ezra Klein
In December, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced that they had achieved on Earth what is commonplace within stars: They had fused hydrogen isotopes, releasing more energy in the reaction than was used in the ignition. The announcement came with enough caveats to make it clear that usable nuclear fusion remains, optimistically, decades away. But the fact that nuclear fusion will not change our energy system over the next year doesn’t mean it shouldn’t change our energy ambitions for the coming years.
There are three goals a society can have for its energy usage. One is to use less. That is, arguably, the goal that took hold in the 1970s. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” is the key mantra here, with the much-ignored instruction to reduce coming first for a reason. Today, that ambition persists in the thinking of degrowthers and others who believe humanity courts calamity if we don’t respect our limits and discard fantasies of endless growth.
The second goal is to use what we use now, but better. That is where modern climate policy has moved. The vision of decarbonization — now being pursued through policy, like last year’s Inflation Reduction Act — is to maintain roughly the energy patterns we have but shift to nonpolluting sources like wind and solar. Decarbonization at this speed and scale is so daunting a task that it is hard to look beyond it, to the third possible goal: a world of energy abundance.
In his fascinating, frustrating book “Where Is My Flying Car?” J. Storrs Hall argues that we do not realize how much our diminished energy ambitions have cost us. Across the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the energy humanity could harness grew at about 7 percent annually. Humanity’s compounding energetic force, he writes, powered “the optimism and constant improvement of life in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.”
But starting around 1970, the curve flattened, particularly in rich countries, which began doing more with less. In 1979, for instance, Americans consumed about 10.8 kilowatts per person. In 2019 we consumed about 9.2 kilowatts a person. To a conservationist, this looks like progress, though not nearly enough, as a glance at CO2 emissions will confirm. To Hall, it was a civilizational catastrophe.
His titular flying car stands in for all that we were promised in the mid-20th century but don’t yet have: flying cars, of course, but also lunar bases, nuclear rockets, atomic batteries, nanotechnology, undersea cities, affordable supersonic air travel and so on. Hall harvests these predictions and many more from midcentury sci-fi writers and prognosticators and sorts them according to their cost in energy. What he finds is that the marvels we did manage — the internet, smartphones, teleconferencing, Wikipedia, flat-screen televisions, streaming video and audio content, mRNA vaccines, rapidly advancing artificial intelligence, to name just a few — largely required relatively little energy and the marvels we missed would require masses of it.
But they are possible. We’ve flown plenty of flying car prototypes over the decades. The water crises of the future could be solved by mass desalination. Supersonic air travel is a solved technological problem. Lunar bases lie well within the boundaries of possibility. The path that Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, outlined for nanotechnology — build machines that are capable of building smaller machines that are capable of building smaller machines that are capable of, well, you get it — still seems plausible. What we need is energy — much, much more of it. But Hall thinks we’ve become an “ergophobic” society, which he defines as a society gripped by “the almost inexplicable belief that there is something wrong with using energy.”
Here, Hall’s account drips with contempt for anyone who does not dive out of the way of today’s industrialists. He reaches back to old H.G. Wells stories to find the right metaphor for where our civilization went sideways, finding it in the feckless Eloi, a post-human race that collapsed into the comforts of abundance. The true conflict, he says, is not between the haves and the have-nots but between the doers and the do-nots. “The do-nots favor stagnation and are happy turning our civilization into a collective couch potato,” he writes. And in his view, the do-nots are winning.
“Where Is My Flying Car?” is a work of what I’d call reactionary futurism. It loves the progress technology can bring; it can’t stand the soft, flabby humans who stand in the future’s way. There is nothing inexplicable about why country after country sought energy conservation or why it remains an aim. A partial list would include poisoned rivers and streams, smog-choked cities, the jagged edge of climate change and ongoing mass extinction and the geopolitical costs of being hooked on oil from Saudi Arabia and gas from Russia.
Hall gives all this short shrift, describing climate change as “a hangnail, not a hangman” (for whom, one wants to ask), and focusing on the villainy of lawyers and regulators and hippies. He laments how the advent of nuclear weapons made war so costly that it “short-circuited the evolutionary process,” in which “a society that slid into inefficient cultural or governmental practices was likely to be promptly conquered by the baron next door.”
Hall’s sociopolitical theories are as flimsy as his technical analyses are careful. His book would imply that countries with shallow public sectors would race ahead of their statist peers in innovation and that nations threatened by violent neighbors would be better governed and more technologically advanced than, say, the United States.
Among his central arguments is that government funding and attention paradoxically impedes the technologies it’s meant to help, but — curiously for a book about energy — he has little to say about the astonishing progress in solar, wind and battery power that’s been driven by public policy. He predicts that if solar and wind “prove actually usable on a large scale,” environmentalists would turn on them. “Their objections really have nothing to do with pollution, or radiation, or risk, or global warming,” he writes. “They are about keeping abundant, cheap energy out of the hands of ordinary people.”
But on this branch of the multiverse, most every environmentalist group of note fought to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, which was really the Deploy Solar and Wind Everywhere and Invest in Every Energy Technology We Can Think of Act. And if they had their way, it would have been far bigger and far better funded.
Indeed, the existence of Hall’s book is a challenge to its thesis. “Where Is My Flying Car?” is now distributed by Stripe Press, the publishing offshoot of the digital payment company Stripe, which was started by two Irish immigrants in California. That state is the home of the postmaterialist counterculture that Hall sees as the beating heart of Eloi politics, and there is little fear of a near-term invasion by Mexican forces. Even so, California has housed a remarkable series of technological advances and institutions over the past century, and it continues to do so. The fusion breakthrough, for instance, was made by government scientists working in, yes, Northern California. There is an interplay here that is far more complex than Hall’s theories admit.
But Hall’s book is worth struggling with because he’s right about two big things. First, that the flattening of the energy curve was a moment of civilizational import and one worth revisiting. And second, that many in politics have abandoned any real vision of the long future. Too often, the right sees only the imagined glories of the past, and the left sees only the injustices of the present. The future exists in our politics mainly to give voice to our fears or urgency to our agendas. We’ve lost sight of the world that abundant, clean energy could make possible.
The remarkable burst of prosperity and possibility that has defined the past few hundred years has been a story of energy. “Take any variable of human well-being — longevity, nutrition, income, mortality, overall population — and draw a graph of its value over time,” Charles Mann writes in “The Wizard and the Prophet.” “In almost every case it skitters along at a low level for thousands of years, then rises abruptly in the 18th and 19th centuries, as humans learn to wield the trapped solar power in coal, oil and natural gas.”
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?’”
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