atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#529: Random mumbling about junk

I was thinking a bit about technology.

In his book High Justice Jerry Pournelle discusses an orbital factory being able to make silicon crystals of such purity that ICs made from them had fostered the ability to make pocket-sized calculators with "hundreds of words of memory".

Then I look at my admittedly obsolete Palm IIIvx, with its 8 megabytes of memory, and laugh. 8,192 kilobytes of memory is slightly more than "hundreds of words" unless all the words are really long ones.

The nice thing about using "words" as a measurement of memory is how non-specific it is. What kind of word? In computer parlance a word is 32 bits, ie four bytes. (A double word is 64 bits or eight bytes.) But the book was written in 1974, and I don't know if that jargon had been invented yet.

The book itself is based on the usual Malthusian, Club of Rome dystopian foundation: everything is running out, the population bomb has exploded, and crime and misery are the norm: welcome to Shit City. Lots of SF novels from 1972-1980 were like that.

Back then it seemed obvious that things were only going to get worse as time went on; ignoring the possibility that the human race would enter resource starvation before the decade was out, a lot of people thought that World War III was just around the corner, and it was all going to go up in a puff of radioactive fallout anyway.

There may be an interesting essay in that: might that kind of thinking have led to the kind of morals we see today? The sexual revolution et al? "If it feels good, do it" because tomorrow we die? I don't know.

But of course, Malthus and the Club of Rome were both wrong. First off, doomsayers never take the advance of technology into account. They can't; it's unpredictable. But second, they tend to favor the idea of a static economy--one in which things don't change regardless of influences, or "forcings", if you will. This is the kind of thought which leads people to think that increasing the minimum wage won't have any effect on job creation, among other things.

It is true that a population will expand--and rapidly--to the capacity of its environment, and quite possibly beyond. But humans don't work like mice or cattle or parakeets; humans can choose whether to breed or not, and humans can change the food supply and do other things to effect their environment. Malthus' basic mistake was in assuming that humans would breed like mice rather than like humans.

The Club of Rome didn't--couldn't--take advancing technology into consideration; but apparently they assumed that the supply of raw materials was fixed at whatever maximum they chose, not considering the fact that other supplies of raw materials could be (and, almost inevitably, would be) found.

And, in fact, both were wrong. Malthus' famines failed to appear. The Club of Rome predicted that we'd start running out of stuff in the 1980s, and it's 2007 and things are going strong.

The Club of Rome didn't figure economics into their equations: as resources get harder to exploit, they become more expensive. The more expensive they are, the lower demand for them is. And in any event their predictions were based on mathematical models, and mathematics has no inherent reality. (See also "computer models of global warming".)

In particular I recall seeing an article in a newspaper, sometime in the late 1970s, that we only had "thirty years of oil left". I remember also seeing that we had 400 years of coal left.

Let's assume it was 1979 that I saw that article. That was 28 years ago. Do we only have two years' worth of oil left in the world?

Of course not. If we did, gasoline would cost $50 per gallon (or more) and we'd all be driving golf carts.

Earth does not have infinite resources; that much is true. But the crust of the planet is a minimum of 6 miles thick, up to a typical maximum of 25 miles thick, and a couple of atypical peaks at 37 and 43 miles thick (the Andes and Himilayas, respectively). In all, it's about 1% of the Earth's volume.

Which is a hell of a lot of resources for one puny race.

I'm not talking about oil; it's safest to assume that the supply of oil is finite and that we can exhaust it even at current usage. We should be careful with it. But what about the minerals?

Iron and aluminum are recyclable. Once you've finished the Coke in that aluminum can, you can melt the can and turn it into engine blocks or siding or a billion other useful things. The same goes for iron, and in fact most steel mills want and need scrap iron. The other minerals we mine are also recyclable, with the exception of U-235--and we can always build breeder reactors if we decide to switch to all-nuclear power (which would be wise, IMHO, but that's a point for another time).

The fact that we don't recycle a lot of stuff doesn't mean we can't...and only the fact that recycling is economically inviable most of the time keeps us from doing it. If we are indeed "running out" of critical resources, you can expect the price of those resources to rise to the point that recycling becomes profitable...and then everyone will be doing it.

In Victorian England, rags were routinely recycled--they were about as valuable as aluminum cans are today--because rags were used in the making of paper. Now we make paper from wood pulp and "rag bond" is very expensive, special paper; and for everyday use you can buy recycled paper if that's your bag. These days some people supplement their income by dumpster diving for scrap aluminum, which they then sell to recyclers. Everyone makes a profit on the deal; and none of it would happen if there wasn't money in it.

That's the secret that eludes a lot of people: the profit motive is essential. Never expect people to do things "because it's right". It may make more sense to recycle aluminum than it does to meet your demand solely by mining, but no one is going to waste time on it if it costs them something. But since the recycler can pay $0.30 (say) per pound for scrap aluminum and sell it for (say) $0.35 per pound, it's worth his while to pay others for what they collect, and then bale the stuff for sale to companies which want or need scrap aluminum. As long as scrap aluminum costs less than--or about the same as--"virgin" aluminum, there'll be a market for it and everyone will make money. The instant scrap aluminum costs more than virgin aluminum, though, the deal's off, and no one will want scrap aluminum no matter how environmentally friendly it is to recycle the stuff.

The same is true for all recyclable materials--and nearly everything is recyclable, because atoms don't wear out. Plastic, like metal, can be melted and re-shaped into other materials; the polymer chains can be "cracked" and recombined with catalysts to form other materials if you don't care about costs. Even asphalt could be "mined" for organic chemicals; it's basically tar and gravel, and tar is what's left when you're finished extracting gasoline and diesel and a billion other useful chemicals from crude oil.

So Malthus and the Club of Rome were wrong. We're not running out of everything; we're not even close, because--at least from here--it looks to me as if they assumed that current supply was the total supply.

Malthus' assertions uncritically assumed a logarithmic expansion of humanity: ten people today equals a hundred tomorrow, and that means a ten thousand next week, and a billion the week after.

But as countries industrialize, their birth rates drop--and so most of the population increase in the world is being driven by third world nations. The answer? Help them industrialize; that will lower birth rates everywhere.

The end result of that would be a peak world population somewhere in the eight or nine billion range. That sounds like a lot--nine billion is 150% of the current population--but consider this:

The entire population of the world could live comfortably in Texas. It would mean Texas would be a super-city, but every single person in the world would have plenty of elbow room and there would be no overcrowding. (How one supplies energy, water, food, sewage treatment, etc, is left as an exercise for the student.)

Something like four percent of the United States has been developed. That's everything: houses, factories, hotels, streets, golf courses, highways, skating rinks, parking lots, airports, everything. (US Dept of Agriculture figures, 2000.) (Farm fields are included in "undeveloped" land.)

We're not going to choke, drown, or starve ourselves, folks.

* * *

I'm out of smart words again. More later when the word bag has a chance to refill itself.

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