Russ Roberts

Laughlin on the Future of Carbon and Climate

EconTalk Episode with Robert Laughlin
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Robert Laughlin of Stanford University and the 1998 co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about energy use and the future of the earth's climate. Drawing on his forthcoming book on energy, Laughlin predicts that we will continue to use cars and planes and electricity long after coal and petroleum are exhausted and speculates as to how that might play out in the future. The conversation concludes with discussions of other concerns of Laughlin's--the outlawing via legislation and taboo of certain forms of knowledge, and the practice of reductionism rather than emergence in the physical sciences.

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0:36Intro. [Recording date: July 27, 2010.] Recently wrote article in the American Scholar called "What the Earth Knows." Cover of the issue had a more provocative title: "The Earth Doesn't Care If You Drive a Hybrid." Could be dispiriting to some, encouraging to others. What was your argument? The scales of the earth are so long, that all it cares about is whether you burn up all the coal and oil. It doesn't care if you take 200 years to do it or 300 years to do it. If you are concerned about the earth instead of yourself you would have to bring your carbon consumption down to 0 on the scale of people. Whether that's likely to happen is another conversation. Should we worry about climate change? Obviously you should worry about it some. It's one of the many things you have to worry about, like keeping your job, whether your kids are okay. The rather provocative title and subtitle of the piece were imposed by the editors of the Scholar, who saw an opportunity and took it. The original title was "Geologic Time," a chapter excerpt from forthcoming book, When Coal is Gone. The premise of this book is that you go in your mind to a time about 200 years from now or so, when nobody burns carbon out of the ground any more, either because they banned it or because it's all gone. Or it's inaccessible economically? Same thing--it's too costly. It's functionally exhausted. Then you ask: What happened? Are there still soccer moms? Do people still drive cars? Airplanes? Do the lights turn on? Is there enough food to eat? Very concrete engineering questions. Interestingly, when I lay the whole premise out in front of students, they usually come down on the conservative side, even those who are very concerned about climate. Ask: Will people drive cars? They say sure. I ask Why? They beat around the bush for a while: It's because you need them. You need to transport food. About the fifth or sixth person gets it: Because people want them! If you go anywhere in the third world and have a conversation with a taxi driver, it's always the same conversation: What he cares about is cheap gas; doesn't get paid enough. Don't need to go to the third world for that. Then start down the road: If you are going to have cars, how are you going to power them? Talk about the technical means. What's likely to be the pricing of these technical means? The ones that are technically trained get it right away: hydrocarbons, which we burned today have the greatest energy density possible of all fuels. Things that have carbon in them. Will people fly airplanes? Usually people say yes for the same reasons. Well, how are you going to make the airplanes fly? Battery. Batteries are pretty heavy. Oh--you can't have airplanes unless you have hydrocarbon fuels. You could in theory do it with hydrogen, but it's highly dangerous, noxious fuel. Quantum-mechanically, we know the energy content of those fuels is optimal. There will never be anything that beats them. Additional factor: for all the bad rap that carbon has, it's the only industrial pollutant that isn't poisonous. Plants need it to grow. You can easily figure, working backwards from the problem, that we will never go into a post-carbon era. Even when all the coal and oil are gone, human beings will still use carbon-based fuels, even if they have to make them. Excellent starting point for working backwards toward the climate problem, because one of the shibboleths is knocked out: that carbon is bad.
7:10Come back to the future in a minute. Lay out the arguments in the American Scholar about the role of geologic time in helping you think about this and why you are more sanguine about the consequences than most people are. Why a thousand years of excessive carbon in the air is nothing to be deeply worried about--that's the way you frame it in the article. Isn't exactly--that's the rather conservative spin that the editor put on the title. First piece of the answer is the earth is extraordinarily old. The amount of rain that typically falls in NYC is about a meter; the amount of rain that's fallen since the industrial revolution began is about 200 meters--the size of Hoover Dam. The amount of rain that's fallen since the time of Moses is enough to fill up all the oceans. The amount of rain that's fallen since the ice age ended is enough to fill up all the oceans four times. Since the dinosaurs died, enough to fill up the oceans 20,000 times, or the earth once. You know because you experience rain how long it takes to get a square meter of rain--about the size of a dog. Talking about filling up all the oceans 20,000 times--that's a long time. Based on radio-dating the earth, the earth is a good fraction of the age of the universe old. The time scale of people is irrelevant to the earth itself. If you are going to think scientifically about the problem, you must separate the issues of the earth from the issues of people. Different time scales. Care a lot if we don't have food in one generation--on my plate. Other side of the Grand Canyon. But that's an issue for me, not the earth. All of the events of carbon will play out in about two centuries from now. That is a flash of geologic time. Less than a millisecond. The earth will go on. Human species is part of the earth. Civilization is not going to stop, then, either. It's going to go on in some form. Might not be a nice transition to this long-term situation. Can predict there will be people around for a lot longer than the crisis itself. The future spreading out before us is vastly longer. True the earth will still be here; neat seeing all the lights from space, very blue. Earth might persist, worry about what will happen on the earth. Let's make clear we've digressed to the issue of climate. Not in my book. Want to defer to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). I do not want to get into a conflict with those guys. I want to be a problem solver. The life won't all be gone. That's just nonsense. When you have these grand questions, hard to do at first. Actually not difficult. The lever arm of what people are doing to the earth now is much smaller than what has happened to the earth in the past for reasons we don't know. We're talking about maybe raising the sea level by maybe a meter. There is no evidence, yet, for any elevation of the sea levels, but let's say for the sake of discussion the sea levels go up by a meter. 20,000 years ago, the sea level was 130 meters lower than it is today. The reason is that all that water was locked up in ice over Scandinavia and Canada. Measurements with carbon 14 in the muds and ocean that tell you exactly how much water was locked up in the ice caps--beautiful experiments, checked those numbers. But 100 times bigger than what we are contemplating. Something happened that caused these Pleistocene ice cycles. Nobody knows what that is, but it was a gigantic climate effect. If you go farther back, middle of the Jurassic was a very warm period, earth kind of jungly. Life at the poles as well as at the equator. Record is much deeper, so errors of interpreting larger. But Pleistocene clearer. Why did that happen? Nobody knows. Sun got dimmer? What you do know is something happened that people didn't cause--there weren't enough people on earth. At the beginning of the Pleistocene, no people at all.
16:24Bottom line: earth has had a lot of climate swings; life of various kinds; fairly resilient system overall. The plants that won and didn't become extinct, crow and say great system. Meteor ten kilometers wide hits the earth can make life tough for the larger creatures; unpleasant. Life by its nature is adaptable. Could people adapt to this warming? You don't know until it happens; but humans are the most adaptable form of life on earth. They live in the poles, with the penguins, on the great plains. They live in Chicago! Philadelphia. L.A. People are very adaptable, so the good money says humans will do pretty well. Other species might have a tougher time of it. They've done it before, numerous times. Oregon in the Oligocene, a little after the dinosaurs died--eastern Oregon was wet. Know because we find all these redwood debris. But then the Cascade ranges came up and made a rain shadow and those plants are no more. So what did those plants do? The ones that were growing in that area died; the ones growing in other areas didn't. The way plants migrate is the ones in the bad place die and the ones in the new place don't. Other species might have a tough time of it. Zoologists--worry about enumerating life on earth, loss of diversity. Hard to measure but highly believable that human population is doing a number on the species count of the earth. My own guess is that's true and if we are going to worry about anything, that's it. Biodiversity due to population pressure and habitat? Well, there's a lot of things you do. People are worried about the Amazon jungle going. Why? Because they are farming it. Cutting down trees just like the Europeans did when they came to America. The trees are gone, using insecticides, building homesteads; not so good for jaguars and parrots. That is an issue of geologic time. Worry about the arc of the earth. Amount of heating due to carbon profligacy much less severe than speciation problem. Losing species is forever.
21:11A lot of folks are a lot more worried about the impact of whatever number of degrees it is on the adaptability of species and the biodiversity issue. Why do you think that is? Your saying they're inflexible, small amount of variation forecasted relative to the historic record. Most people don't feel that way. Very concerned about it. What do you think their argument is? It's a powerful metaphor. The integrity of the earth is at least in part a religious principle. Certainly built into Western religions. Eastern religions more complicated, but appears to be built into those, too. Leaving your campsite the way you found it strikes chords in people that have nothing to do with logic or science. Deeply in us. Not wrong either. When I go camping, that's what I do; and when I die I want my ashes to go in the ocean where they'll do some good, so I don't clutter up the ground with a lot of myths. People are not really talking about the science of the earth; talking about the metaphor of not harming things. Very understandable. The reality is that humans harm things. Our mere presence harms things. Life is a balance between the harm you do on the one hand, and the need to do a little bit of harm to live. Absolutist position not completely correct. One end of a spectrum. Tradeoffs. The easiest way is to not go camping. But I like to go camping, so I do; I use a little resources and I put it back. As best you can. The boundary condition of the fact of fossil fuel use is that it's a historic accident. Comes to us from Europe. First of all it's an accident that it's in the ground in the first place. But it's an accident that our present-day prosperity is built upon it. Cannot wave a magic wand and stop using the resources without causing mass damage, either through starvation or just plain war. Serious stuff. Like you bought a car and then you discover it needs new pistons. Expensive job, when you get done the car will run just the same as before, so you put it off. But you can't put it off forever because then it won't work any more. So then you have to go and fix it. Kind of like Medicare. Today, working pretty well. Medicine has some profound problems with it. Want the next guy to deal with it. Since it's so fundamental, the retooling will be very unpleasant. Economic instability while it happens. Have to worry about managing that. Let's suppose for the sake of discussion that you don't do anything. Wait for the oil crisis to come. Everybody's always predicting that there will be an oil crisis, but actually, this time you sort of know. The reason you do is because the energy information agency (EIA) has revealed that the amount of new strikes of oil, big as it is, including big Brazil ones, is not enough to offset the declines in U.S. production. The United States used to be an oil-exporting country, blessed with huge oil reserves. The new sources are not enough to counteract that, so the draw on Middle Eastern reserves is going up. That means you can calculate when the crunch time is just for the Middle East resources alone. When it hits zero, then you are going to get price instability.
27:40Mysterious. On way into coming in this morning, heard on radio caller: wind turbine in front yard might be ugly and might offend your neighbor. Quick to say it would be beautiful because it would be sustainable. Not sure what it could sustain with the current technology of wind turbines. Isn't it possible that as the amount of carbon diminishes--and the amount of reserves has risen for a long time. In 1970, when scientists were forecasting the end of carbon by 2000, when 2000 came along, even though we had used a lot more carbon between 1970 and 2000, we'd found so much more--hard thing to measure--but eventually, earth is a finite place: isn't it possible that our effectiveness in using carbon will rise, as it has? We're more energy-efficient than we were 50 years ago. The amount of GDP we can get per BTU has gone up dramatically. Isn't it possible that we'll find ways to power our electricity, cars, planes so that a gallon of gasoline goes much farther than it did before and reduce that pressure you are talking about on Middle East oil fields? What you are asking me is a speculation about what will happen in the future and supplies in the future. The best answer I can give you--I looked at this question very carefully when writing this book, and it wasn't easy because the oil industry is vast and those guys know much more than I do; very hard to assess what's true and what's not--my best guess as to the true situation is that the Middle East reserve problem is real. The Middle East is not the major source of oil imported into the United States--our major source is Canada. Also, the reserve numbers are way off, at least the BP ones because they didn't include the oil sands of Venezuela, which are vast. So they understate the true reserves. Aren't there sand shale fields somewhere else, too? There are other sources around but the really big ones that you can really say the problem is off by are Venezuela. Cheerful thought. Love Venezuela. The Middle East reserves are being drawn down, so something will happen when it hits zero. It might not be the end of oil, but it's a good guess that there will be price fluctuation like crazy when that happens. Something economically occurs at that point, and that point is roughly sixty years out. At current drawdown rates. Maybe some improvement in technology will improve the drawdown rate. All I can tell you is it's gone up--monotonically. China's grown, India's grown. China's got to worry about having fuel supplies for an economy that's growing madly. Same for the Indians. China's growing faster. Human nature--every one of those people is going to want a car. Technical constraints: my guess is no. You can get more bang for the buck with fuel, but fuel is so cheap that it doesn't pay to conserve it. As long as that's the case, the technologies that might get another 20% out of fuel aren't relevant. Russ: But as the sixty years--or maybe 100 or 40--pass and we get closer to economic zero, as the carbon-based fuel gets scarcer its price will rise, and those technologies that are not economic today will become viable. Laughlin: Exactly. Russ: Don't think that prices will fluctuate wildly--think they will grow steadily. Laughlin: The people I know on Wall Street, all ex students, are all thinking that the first sign isn't price going up like crazy, it's price fluctuating like crazy. Why? Because there's a buy response. Like the business cycle. People want to buy when it's cheap, and then when they don't buy, there's a crash, and so on. The oil supply is very inelastic. We had a recession and the price level tanked--giant amount of supply and no demand. I will defer you to economic experts for that. Russ: Don't think there are any. Laughlin: If it's your money and you are placing the bets, that makes you an expert. The technologies for replacing oil, to make gasoline, already exist. It's not that you need to do fundamental research. The main pieces were invented before WWII. The Nazi government made gasoline--not very much. Russ: They had lost access to their oil supplies. Laughlin: No, this is all WWII history. Germany has had and still has an oil problem.
35:31Laughlin: At any rate, you ask, why don't you make your gasoline right now? It's too expensive. So what you expect to happen is a price crossing. Right now the prices don't cross. Why? Because it's cheap. Well, it's more than that, it's basic economics. Now this is a theory I'm telling you. The energy business is cut-throat. The reason gasoline is relatively cheap is because all those companies are trying to kill each other. Russ: It's a beautiful thing, competition. Laughlin: It is a beautiful thing. Their nightmare is that synthetic fuel plants get built, because once they do--the feed stocks to them are cheap. The entry barrier to making synthetic fuel is the plant, the capital cost. So you don't want your competitors building those plants. How do you defend against that? Low prices. This is classic J. D. Rockefeller thinking. Russ: Not sure it's true, but it's one view. Not sure it's a strategic plan, just may be that they think it's the best thing to do. Laughlin: Let me come back to that. Case in writing this book that is a gorgeous. The plants in question are already built. First of all, the Germans did it. The South Africans built one, diesel fuel, called Sasol, made synthetic fuel and still makes it. Boutique diesel fuel, expensive. When in northeast Asia, learned that numerous companies had quietly been building pilot plants near Chinese coal mines--want to learn how to do it, be ready, waiting for the prices to cross. The environmental argument, or not subsidizing the building of the plants is that carbon footprints double. Carbon footprint of a synthetic is bigger, so people who are Green don't like it. To make gasoline out of coal you need hydrogen, get the hydrogen from water, and getting water costs energy. So, you have to burn some of the coal to get the energy to make the hydrogen, and then you burn other parts of the coal to get the gasoline. How are we going to run out of coal then? Let me get to that. My own guess is a price crossing--reason in: I don't think governments anywhere have the willpower to do what it takes to get the prices to adjust artificially. Maybe they don't even have the means; it's physically impossible; but we've had numerous cases both in this country and Europe governments have tried to modify the carbon fuel prices by taxes, and when they get a little bit too high, the truckers go on strike; and that's the end of that. Happened in England--the government said, "We are not giving in to these people!" and then they gave in. You asked about running out of coal; is that going to happen later? How are we going to power these synthetic fuel plants without coal-based electricity? The way I think it will come out is that there will be first a crossing to coal, followed 150 years later or so by a crossing to other carbon sources from plants. Why? Because, assuming that governments don't have power to stop price competition, they can't stop the price crossing either. So the demand for fuel will be voracious and the energy companies providing it will be obligated to get the carbon of the fuel from the cheapest source. Anybody who doesn't use the cheapest source will get wiped out of the saddle, like going extinct. Obviously, if you could pass the right laws, you might just skip that step and go right to the long term one. But my guess is no government is strong enough. They usually don't pass the right laws anyway. Could get close. Long list of reasons why you think that might happen. First price crossing is to coal simply because it's cheapest. Second one: when the coal runs out, you've got to have carbon fuels because planes won't fly without that; why do you need carbon? Because it's so good. Where is it? It's all in the air, so you have to get that. You can do it with a factory, or you can do it with plants. My money says it will happen with plants because they're so great. They've been honing their skills for six hundred million years and they know how to do it. Good at it, tailor made to take carbon out of the air--all you do is add water and sunlight. Probably a new branch of agriculture will spring up to provide the feedstock. The capital costs will already have been made: the plant that makes fuel out of coal--meaning the factory--is the factory that makes it out of grass clippings. Once the factories have been built it's fairly easy to switch them over from the fossil source to the non-fossil one. But that would enslave the plants!
42:51It's an interesting scenario. More than a scenario. It's going to happen with 100% certainty and the reason why is they can't make airplanes fly without carbon. Let's go back to the question you asked: What about all the carbon coal in the ground running out--couldn't you just pass laws to stop that? Here's where geologic time matters. If you make cap and trade cut down on your carbon use, your coal use, by 20%, that merely extends by 20% the time it takes to use it up. That doesn't make any sense. You have to reduce it to zero. Russ: The only argument really that has any water, which doesn't float for me, is it's immoral to use the coal; we should leave it where God or nature put it--which is under the ground. So if people tell me we shouldn't use plastic bags, I always say: plastic bags are made out of oil, the oil came out of the ground; we'll put it back in the ground in the form of plastic bags. It's really not so horrible. Laughlin: The immorality of using the coal is just fascinating. Tests how moral people actually are when you push them to the wall. I have a chapter in this book about the California energy crisis. Russ: Book is not out. Forthcoming book. Laughlin: California crisis is contemporary, but so extensively reported that you can see clearly what happens when people don't get their energy. They go crazy! They chop off the head of the governor, even though the governor was not responsible for the problem. They become irrational. Apropos of asking the students: in the future will the lights go off. Then we talk about this history; boy, they really won't--politically impossible. People don't like reading in the dark. When we were in that crisis, no one talked about saving the earth or the ecology or the blue sky. Only get my lights back on. Get my air conditioning. Moral argument is fictitious. Metaphorical argument. In real morality, as in Greek tragedy, you have to make a choice; and you make the choice, moral choice, when you do the tough thing. In my experience, most people will never do the tough thing. They are so unbelievably weak; and especially true with left-leaning people who haven't thought through the numbers very clearly. Say: When you cut down on the coal use, you are burning more natural gas, because that's where the energy comes from. That puts carbon in the air, too. Well, it turns out, that doesn't compute. Because the idea that energy is conserved and you must have it from somewhere. For most people, it's kind of a tax you put on someone else--you just order them not to burn coal anymore; and then they will and everything will be fine. But everything won't be fine: they'll just burn more natural gas. Find myself musing sometimes that maybe the Russians are secretly behind it because they have so much natural gas. When I was in Germany last month, that conversation was very shrill because Germany is a big coal-burning company. No nukes, don't want nuclear power. Talked to Minister of Scientific Education; she was telling me how they had put caps on coal, and I said, "Doesn't that mean you are going to have to pay the Russians more for natural gas?" She says yes, that's a problem, and then changes the subject. The Russians are pretty good business people; probably saying "Go, Greens, go!" I feel obligated now to tell you a story, apropos of conspiracy theories. There was one I documented in this book that actually came out in the Wall Street Journal, summer of 2007. Bio-fuels. At that time, there was in Congress a law that has now been signed into law, called the Energy Independence Act of 2007. There was a provision in it that the government--the air force--should procure a large fraction of its fuel from nontraditional sources by, I think, 2030. A big fraction, like 20%. Then, the WSJ reporters noticed that a coalition of Greens and big oil put a rider on that clause which was that the ultimate fuel so-procured must not put more carbon into the air that petroleum distillates would have. Enormously amusing. You see, to do that, would knock out the coal companies. There is only one thing in this world that the big oil companies are afraid of, and that's a big coal company, because the coal companies can do it. You want to stop using foreign oil? They can do it. So, you want to stop those guys; pals with the Greens: require that you not put more carbon in the ground; then no government subsidies to build the plants, then no competition for you. Bootlegger and baptist coalition here--podcast: high-minded, morality, Greens, form coalition with the not-so-high-minded oil companies. Not the first time. People get taken advantage of.
50:35Other work--two of your books that are in print, first, The Crime of Reason, where you argue that there is an increasing sequestering of knowledge--that there are areas of the intellectual enterprises that have been off limits either by legislation or because they are taboo, because they are perceived to be dangerous. You include in there nuclear weapons, biological understanding--where people are worried about the weaponization of smallpox, plague, anthrax, etc.--cloning, and even intellectual property. How worried are you about this problem and, on the ground, what are you worried about? You are a professor here at Stanford, you get to teach "whatever you want." Not literally--you'd get in trouble if you taught your students how to make a suitcase nuke. Not just from the University. True that if I'm an inquisitive mind and I'm one of your students, I don't know if you'd know how to make a suitcase nuke, but if you did and I wanted to know it, you probably wouldn't tell me. What are you worried about? 'Cause it's a worrisome book. The broad-brush answer is that I've lived through the industrialization experience, which is the off-shoring of electronics, microchips, to the Far East. In fact, I spent two years in the Far East doing administration at university partly in response to this problem. If that's where it went, that's where you go. Through thinking about that and things related--what's happened to machine tools? what's happened to cars? what's happened to chemical processing, oil industry and so forth? Manufacturing going overseas. I realized that something had happened in the 1970s which was very profound and which has long-term implications for our country. Very insidious, actually. Back in those days we collectively we collectively made a decision that it would be okay to send making things abroad. We were going to be an information society--term "information age" got coined at that time. You are going to be the smart people, know things, tell people how to make stuff. Give them the capital. Then they'll make things. We don't have to do anything, just manipulate people. Roll camera forward. Digital Millenium Copyright Act--making it illegal to understand things--"decrypt" things. From a programmer's point of view there's no difference between decryption and understanding--they are the same thing. Programming then is language, not a secret technology, not a thing but a concept. That law and the strong increase in the power of the patent laws very depressing for people working in private industry, particularly at lower level, because they see that their aspirations to get this technical knowledge and become rich with it are blocked by the fact that this knowledge is owned by somebody. You will see on the Internet a lot of talk that is kind of radical--the Congressmen are in the pocket of big business. In allowing the allowing more aggressive patenting of intellectual ideas. That's not the situation at all. It's that the people in Congress are desperate to make those ways of making your living that still exist in the country. Pulling every lever they know how to including making goofy laws because it's the 11th hour. One by one you are losing things that people use to make a living. So you are suggesting that the increased scope of patent laws is a response to the flow of jobs and knowledge overseas? Yes. Why are you worried about that? That was my take on it. And also I read it. The same goes for the patent laws. Knowledge for the sake of itself is not very useful to us; we want things that are owned by us; that someone else learns them and takes them and we can prosecute them, it's against the law. Now what's the problem? What I figured out is that it's actually quite fundamental and obvious--it's elementary economics. If you live in the world where knowledge is the currency, there must be less of it. Why? Because no one will pay for something you get for free. So, in the Jeffersonian ideal world, everybody's a farmer and they write letters to each other--they exchange information but they charge you for corn. The world we have increasingly grown into, is where we have to have secrets. That's how you make your living. Making a living is not nice--I'm not going to give you the thing unless you pay for it. My measure of of success is whether I can shoehorn a very large amount of money out of you for this thing. The way economics works is that process isn't solid unless you really want to give me the money. The amount of paying you have to pay is a measure of how valuable the thing is that I'm giving you. So, in the information world where information is the economy, there has to always be paying in exchange of information; has to always be money exchanged. There has to be something scarce. That means that strewing the world with enlightenment can't be. So, knowledge can't be free any more. Not only that, but the sense of the law is it's not just acquiring knowledge--it's if you go and acquire it yourself, you are violating the law. In some cases that is a criminal act. Learning things of technical value is theft, and that means that the whole idea of just learning stuff and bettering yourself doesn't make any sense if the thing itself is valuable, owned by someone else.
59:35Counterpoint at large. I worry a little bit about the profusion and scope of patent law on intellectual property. Open-minded, don't know. But in this world we live in, where knowledge is hoarded, secretive--because only scarce knowledge has economic value--yet I walk around and people are attending and acquiring knowledge, the pace of innovation is pretty healthy. We don't know what the alternative world would look like, but it's not like we live in a world where we are stuck. How would you answer those points? The first one, I have politically incorrect answer: the business model. The man who writes that he doesn't care if you drive a hybrid, even if that's not his title, is immune to worries about being politically incorrect! Did put that in there because if everybody drives a Prius it just takes 10% longer to use up all the oil. Attending elite universities is not education--it's access to the peer group. There's a lot of truth to that. The actual education you get is pretty generic. If you were really diligent, you could open books and read it. What you are really selling is access to other students and to colleagues. Gateway to certain things--that's what you charge for, can't charge for knowledge. Does that hearten you? We've found a way? That's the way it is. Would prefer a world where people pay professors giant amounts of money to strew knowledge and enlightenment around to people who need it. But that's not the world we live in, so I make my way as I can. Talking as contrarian as I can, but there is a simple idea here: People who tried to repeal the laws of economics failed. The pace of innovation has increased: As far as I can tell, there is no evidence, at least technically. Quite the opposite. Concrete examples. You probably have a little flash drive, a little thumb drive. This is the technology that destroyed the film industry. This technology is Japanese, based on something invented at Intel called an EEPROM which I worked on as a student. The problem was that EEPROM's couldn't be erased electrically; needed ultraviolet light to do it. A very famous engineer working for Toshiba invented a way to do it. One thing led to another and the film industry was gone. You mean camera film? Yes. Great world! Love the digital world. Another example: blue diode. When I went to school we all learned you couldn't make blue diodes because the energy gap of silicon wasn't big enough. Nobody told this guy, so he just did it; now we have blue LEDs all over the place. What's good about a blue diode? Technical detail: allows you to replace incandescent lights with diodes, which you couldn't do before because they were too red. Other reasons, but that's the big one. The really famous example is the flat panel display, which was an utterly brilliant Japanese invention. What they invented was a process. Have to get the flow of your product through processing so that you get a very tiny loss per step. The invention was the process. Everybody said you couldn't do that. So now the cathode ray tube which used to be our television--nobody knows what they look like any more. Vanished off the face of the earth. There are innovations in automobiles: where are the most innovative automobiles? Japan. Son little: Here's the earth; show me where cars come from. There's a lot of software. I-phone. We're not dead, but in the hard-core stuff, the capital of innovation is Japan, not America. Whether that will continue is anybody's guess. Japan's ex-colonies, South Korea and Taiwan, are now doing to it what it did to us. The flat-panel displays that you buy are not made in Japan. Increasingly made in China. Almost all the flash memory doesn't come from Korea any more--from China. Cheap pots and pans now made in China. Bicycle made in China; textiles, North Carolina, discussion about textile industry and where innovations happen. Not in Raleigh. The innovations idea is partly untrue; how much, have difficulty gauging. What do I care if they are made in China or Japan or Taiwan or South Korea instead of Raleigh? I get to use them. Nice that Steve Jobs, American, if I like the i-phone. All I can tell you is that this is playing out now and we'll see. Better than any theories. Maybe it's true you can do without all that manufacturing capability. However, this is not what we are talking about. What we are talking about is innovation and American innovation. I think American innovation is not nearly as great as the proponents say it is. Because they are not telling the truth.
1:09:03Want to talk about your other book before we leave: A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics From the Bottom Down. You suggest, reading the summary, that we ought to be taking a different path in our thinking about the physical world; ought to be thinking about emergence--which is a favorite topic of this program in the economic sphere--rather than reductionism. What do you mean by that? And where do you think we ought to be going? I mean the same thing you do. There are things that happen in systems that you don't manage because you don't understand them. That this should happen in economics or government is obvious--everyone knows this. What is not so obvious is that it happens at the most primitive levels of nature as well. The call for a new way of thinking is slightly hype. I do have a real problem with ideologies, especially in science. It's supposed to be expunged of them; of course it isn't. One of those ideologies turns out to be that you can understand all things by taking them apart. Discovered it slowly working with very practical things like transistors and magnets and chemical reactions and so forth. The belief is easier for people to swallow than the facts. Part of the impetus for writing this book: there are these industrial things that happen that really matter. This is an ideology problem run amuck, detrimental to your well-being. Such a great insight--see it in any child, wants to take things apart to get down to the basics. That's what we've been doing in physics for how long now? Long time. In real physics, you do both: the first law of physics is: Never argue with the data. It turns out that physics is really about law, not about reductionism--about quantitative relationships among measurements that are always true. And law in physics seems a self-evident thing--religious principle. Lightning comes down from the sky and that's the way it is. Much Newtonian law is just that way, roots in religious thinking. But there are other kinds of laws that are made. Example: Rigidity. Here's this pin: it's rigid. Proof: suppose you are up in a plane at 30,000 feet eating peanuts. You know the plane won't fly apart. Why? It's a law. Where does that law come from? Rigidity of matter. Made of little atoms. Obviously absurd, but also experimentally wrong, because if you take a small bunch of atoms and do nanoscience on them you'll find they are not rigid. Quantum mechanics, kind of squishy. So in fact rigidity is a law of nature that is like a pointillist painting, like a painting of Monet, get up close it's meaningless little dots; back more, it makes more and more sense, becomes perfect. Organizational. In physics we like primitive things. Superconductivity: ability of electric currents to flow perfectly. Same story: chop it down to a few atoms you discover it doesn't work. Or superfluidity in helium--same story. Emergent law. The whole has properties that are not visible from the parts. Could have used other parts and the behavior would have been the same. Occurs a lot in physics; fancy name for it, universality. Physicists feel more comfortable mathematicizing the behavior than thinking of it as a physical phenomenon. Field theory says it's so. The mathematics works because it happened. All the errors in the equation vanished away because the behavior is universal, doesn't depend on details. Can take wrong equations and solve them and get the right answer. Standard model of elementary particles--understanding of the vacuum--has things in we talk about in reductionist terms, emergent: Higgs boson, now under investigation and concern. That is like a sound wave. Entire idea of space as empty Newtonian nothingness is actually refuted by the body of experiment we have, which shows that it's filled up with all this stuff; and the stuff is elastic--that's what gravity is. Why it's as simple as it is at the scale of people, no one knows. Just have to postulate it. So, you know for sure it's organizational, quantum mechanical organizational. That's always what happens when you take something apart that's organized itself: when you try to find out its secrets you find out it's way more complicated. You don't need to know all that stuff. Whole being bigger than sum of parts is common in nature. Book: this is the origin of all law, not just some of it. Meaning that all the physical laws we know of are emergent. So that the experiments work only because we are approximating? No, it's because when you do the experiments slow, at long length scales, the properties become universal, like rigidity; and that's a law. And then the little pieces out of which it's made don't matter any more, so you can just postulate them away as a practical matter. The idea that law is something that's always true could be a little shocking. Cultural tradition. Book is about that: the origin of law in the natural world. Totally radical? No, it's not. Everybody knows it's so, but not built into the simple language we use.
1:19:45Cultural: why cultural discomfort with that? Because I have lived and worked in parts of the world where the culture is different, and I've become very cognizant of the fact that Judeo-Christian roots powerfully influence everything that happens in this country and in Europe, Canada. People like to think of themselves as beyond all that stuff, but ain't so. Bred in the culture you live in. That story about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, universality of law, inability to observe at a macro level the micro reality--you could flavor that with Judeo-Christian understanding. There's a certain divinity to that if you want to put it that way, fundamental mystery there. Sure you could. Our religious traditions are complicated. We think of them as Hebraic. But they're not completely. A big chunk of them that are Greek, Greek stoicism. The Greek traditions have atomism in them and they have emergentism in them also. What happened in the early Christian days is that those ideas got amalgamated with Jewish religion and as a result we have little bits of that in our culture. If you open up the Bible, at the beginning you will find there isn't any emergent anything. It's top down. The law is what it is. Scary, fearsome thing--if you don't obey the law it will be extremely bad for you. Different from let's have a committee meeting and make a law. Both of those traditions are there, even in Christian culture. The oral law in Judaism is a committee; came out of the Sanhedrin, group of wise men who made the law real on earth, took control of it. This is another conversation. Living in Asia a long time, Confucian place, different ways of looking at things. The idea of the one correct thing is missing. To a Western person, it makes perfect sense that there should be one correct thing, not two. If there are two, you get upset. One of them must be wrong. In Confucian cultures, that world view is called monism, and it's pejorative. It means you are a child if you think that way, you want to have fights all the time. The key to peace is to have more than one true thing--you have yours and I have mine. Not saying that one is better. I'm definitely a moralist as a scientist--won't tolerate wrongness. In the body of the logos is an invention when it comes to the application of it into the laws.

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COMMENTS (69 to date)
Mads Lindstrøm writes:

Robert Laughlin seems skeptical that we will drastically improve car mileage:

"Russ: ... The amount of GDP we can get per BTU has gone up dramatically. Isn't it possible that we'll find ways to power our electricity, cars, planes so that a gallon of gasoline goes much farther than it did before and reduce that pressure you are talking about on Middle East oil fields? Robert: What you are asking me is a speculation about what will happen in the future and supplies in the future. .... As long as that's the case, the technologies that might get another 20% out of fuel aren't relevant".

(I tried to cut out sentences fairly, and I hope I am not misrepresenting you here Robert)

Not only do I think we will have vastly more efficient cars in the future, I would claim the cars are already here. For example, see the Volkswagen 1-liter car http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volkswagen_1-litre_car - the car drives 100 kilometers on one liter of diesel. Granted very few people would drive this car today, but if gasoline was $100 / gallon people surely would.

Regarding the "everybody wants a car" idea. It seems that the utility of car is less in a densely populated area than in a sparsely populated area, as you need to deal with traffic jams in densely populated areas and as the places you want to travel to, is farther away in sparsely populated areas. I have no empirical data to back this up, but in my personal experience it seems that even poor people living in the country side insists upon owning a car, while middle class city-folks do not always own cars. In the future, as we get more and more people on the earth, it will seem reasonable to expect that a smaller percentage will own cars. However, it may, or may not, be a larger number of car owners in absolute numbers.

Jonny Anomaly writes:

This was a nice conversation on an important set of topics. However, the discussion of cap-and-trade was far too simplistic. Dr. Laughlin said, "If you make cap and trade cut down on your carbon use...by 20%, that merely extends by 20% the time it takes to use it up. That doesn't make any sense. You have to reduce it to zero."

But why should the choice be between reducing fossil fuel consumption to zero, or letting people consume however much they want? If, as Laughlin argues, sudden scarcity of fossil fuels will lead to price fluctuations in energy markets and possibly even civil unrest, and if carbon dioxide emissions will cause some species to go extinct because of ocean acidification, and some parasitic microbes to proliferate in equatorial regions (all of which are significant harms to people in future generations), wouldn't even a modest cap-and-trade system be desirable?

There are two main reasons classical liberals should consider endorsing cap-and-trade:

1) Liberals from Locke to Mill consider harm to others as a limiting condition on the rightful appropriation of natural resources. When our consumption imposes costs on other people, the least we can do is reduce those costs a little bit, or figure out a way to compensate future people for the costs we impose on them.

2) Tradable permits are the least painful way of reducing harmful pollution -- far more efficient than imposing price controls, outright bans, or other command and control measures.

Karsten writes:

Amazing podcast! Inviting people from fields other than social sciences is a great idea; this podcasts shows why...

Mads Lindstrøm writes:

Hi Jonny,

How is tradable permits any better than a carbon tax?

John S. writes:

Very interesting podcast but I wish you had challenged Dr. Laughlin in a few areas. First of all, his implication that the US no longer manufactures anything. Your colleague Don Boudreaux is fond of writing letters to the editor to correct this misconception.

Second, the following statement at about 58:11 had me scratching my head: "The way economics works is that that process isn't solid unless you really don't want to give me the money ... the amount of pain that you have to pay is a measure of the value of the thing I'm giving you." Is that the way economics works? The statement seems to stem from the view that all economic transactions are essentially theft, rather than rational trades between buyers and sellers.

A. Zarkov writes:
Tradable permits are the least painful way of reducing harmful pollution -- far more efficient than imposing price controls, outright bans, or other command and control measures.
According to Laughlin, whatever means you use to control carbon emissions only postpones the day when the supply goes to economic zero. One way or another, men will use the stored carbon in the earth's crust until it's exhausted because carbon makes for prosperity. Does it matter if we use it all up in 150 years or 500 years?

Taxing carbon, or a cap-and-trade-system only makes sense if we have an alternative to hydrocarbon fuels and we don't. Even our best batteries have only 1/80 the energy density (by weight) of gasoline. We could use very expensive limited-range electric cars and charge them off the electric grid. But what about trucks and airplanes? Even if we replaced all our coal and gas-fired power plants with nuclear reactors, we would still need high energy density liquid fuels for transportation.

All paths ultimately lead back to hydrocarbon fuels for very good physical reasons. As long as people don't want to return to the pre-industrial age, we are going to use fossil fuels. Even if the U.S. decides to become a poor country, China and India won't and they will use fossil fuels to become richer. As soon as we have some new scarcity of energy, we will forget all about global warming.

MaxFrank writes:

Russ,

I really enjoy EconTalk and I look forward to this one also.

May I suggest having Frederic Mishkin on to talk about monetary policy?

Professor Mishkin, a former Fed governor, prolific author and professor at Columbia, is a leading expert on monetary policy and how it affects and is affected by financial markets and the broader economy.

And like Fed Chairman Bernanke, he favors an explicit inflation target for a variety of reasons including increased accountability on the part of policymakers.

And perhaps you can also get his opinion on whether central banks should raise their inflation target, as some economists like Olivier Blanchard have suggested.

Thanks!

Jonny Anomaly writes:

Reply to Lindstrom and Zarkov:

1) tradable permits and consumption taxes aren't very different from a moral or economic standpoint, though permits tend to be more politically feasible because they are essentially a tax on firms (and only indirectly on consumers in the form of higher costs).

2) the fact that we will use up all hydrocarbon energy sources at some point in the future does not mean we should just ignore the effect that using them up very quickly has on future people. To be sure, a social discount rate should be used in policy making so that we don't weight future lives too heavily. And we should not impose a carbon tax on ourselves unless China and India are on board (that was the glaring flaw of Kyoto). But that doesn't mean we should just do nothing and hope for the best.

Nathan writes:

Near the beginning of the podcast Laughlin touched on an important point that makes a future of widespread electrical or hydrogen-fueled vehicles impossible -- hydrocarbons, particularly liquid hydrocarbons, provide the best way possible way to store and move energy simultaneously*. They are energy-dense both by mass and volume, they don't require pressurization or refrigeration at standard pressure/temperature, and they are safe. If we run out of econaomical hydrocarbons in the ground we'll be diverting a significant amount of the energy we generate through other means to synthetically create gasoline liquid hydrocarbons.

Fission power was scarcely mentioned ... I suspect that when/if fossil fuels become more relatively expensive the overblown fears of fission power will gradually dissolve and it will become a larger share of the mix. Of course eventually the uranium will become more expensive and we may find ourselves in the same place but who knows how long that will be. (Also in the back of my head is the thought that the heavy involvement of government in nuclear energy has hidden the real costs of extracting and refining the fuel and that it may not be the great source of energy I think it is, but on balance I think it will gradually take the place of fossil fuels in the future)

I tend to think that any peak energy scenario will play out relatively badly, with more war and such. Any efficiecy gains will be sucked up by population growth (more energy leads to more articficially fixed nitrogen leads to more biomass in human bodies). I certainly could be wrong, however,if factors limiting population growth assert themselves before an energy peak does.

I didn't like the stuff on The Crime of Reason but I did like the stuff on A Different Universe

*OK, other than golf carts, ships at sea for very long periods of time, and long-range space travel.

A. Zarkov writes:
"the fact that we will use up all hydrocarbon energy sources at some point in the future does not mean we should just ignore the effect that using them up very quickly has on future people."
We don't really know the effects on future generations because the science, both as to cause and effect, is uncertain. We could try to apply discount factors, suitably adjusted for uncertainty to future effects, but no one knows how to do that.
"But that doesn't mean we should just do nothing and hope for the best."
Any significant attempt to curtail CO2 emissions is likely to have economic consequences that the public will not tolerate. If people find that their electric bills "skyrocket," (as promised by Obama) we will get a regime change. It would take a dictatorship to impose draconian emission curbs. We will get only minor curbs so the government can announce it's "doing something." We will also waste a lot of money on new industries like the all-electric car. The U.S. Department of Energy is pouring billions into this fiasco. In fact, according to my calculations, the all-electric car results in more CO2 emissions not less. We generate about 70% of our electric energy from coal and natural gas. The energy to charge the car batteries has to come from someplace, and that someplace emits CO2.
A. Zarkov writes:
"Not only do I think we will have vastly more efficient cars in the future, I would claim the cars are already here. For example, see the Volkswagen 1-liter car..."
We won't have more efficient engines without new materials because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. To get high efficiency the engine has to run very hot. For example, the maximum theoretical efficiency of a steel internal combustion engine is about 34%. Today a good hybrid is about 25% efficient. Remember the hybrid is still an internal combustion car, it runs off gasoline. To double the efficiency we would need to approximately quadruple the operating temperature (expressed in Kelvin). Putting in the numbers you get about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Obviously that's too hot for a steel engine. We would need some kind of ceramic engine. There is no way around this basic law of physics. We are materials limited. Many people seem to believe that spending more and more money on R/D will always produce more efficient engines. It won't.

The other way to get a more efficient car is to get less car. The Volkswagen 1-liter car is a good example. This car is very small (2 seats) and light (700 pounds). It uses exotic and expensive materials like carbon fiber and titanium. Moreover, right now, this car is more a concept than a production vehicle. I suspect it will be very expensive and the public will reject it. All this is another way of expressing the obvious. Less energy means less prosperity. Driving around in a souped up golf cart is a real step down in prosperity.

J. Maybe writes:

Sorry but I had to stop after Laughlin asserted that since hydrocarbons are the most energy dense fuel we have today (they're not, they're just much safer and easier to use than nuclear fuels), they will still be the most dense in 200 or 300 years. Take a look at the curve for energy density in electric batteries over time. Or, from an economic standpoint, think about the incentives for technological innovation as the cost of gas rises (albeit unsteadily) over the next three centuries. Trillions of dollars at stake for finding alternatives and hundreds of years of technical advancement and we'll still have no better energy options than gas?

Nathan writes:

J. Maybe - You're right that nuclear fuel is denser, but of course having a nuclear reactor onboard is prohibitive for most vehicle applications. And while battery energy density has improved, it's starting from a relatively low base and is only growing asymptotically to fundamental limits. What is special about liquid hydrocarbons is the number of double hydrogen-carbon bonds that they pack in a given space, with a given molecular mass.

Matt G. writes:

I was really disappointed with the beginning portion of this episode. I wish Laughlin would have been challenged on his early arguments.

The idea that the sea levels were a lot lower 20,000 years ago than they are today and that the climate has shifted by many more degrees than the few degrees predicted in the next decade is a huge exercise in misdirection. Very reminiscent of the arguments you typically hear from climate change deniers. The problem is not the absolute shift in temperatures or sea levels, it's the rate at which the change is occurring.

Laughlin was so quick to point out that life, over geologic time scales, is pretty adaptable and hardy. Well yeah, over geologic time scales. The problem is that we don't have 100,000 years to watch a gradual shift in temperatures. Rapid shifts in temperatures are actually quite rare in the geologic record and there's a lot of evidence to suggest that when they occur it tends to be catastrophic for the biosphere. The same biosphere that Laughlin admits we should be trying to protect. I hate to be the bearer of bad news here, but loss of biodiversity is not just due to human encroachment on animal habitation. The same CO2 that Laughlin lauds as "plant food" is acidifying our oceans and impacting the bottom of the food chain, contributing to the wide-scale collapse of fishing stocks around the world. That's just one simple example.

I'm just not seeing the relevance to Laughlin's anecdotes about the earth of 20,000 years ago. The plants and animals we have now aren't adapted to those conditions and they're not going to be in the next 50 years. I'm also puzzled over Laughlin's cavalier attitude towards humanity's survival. Is the human species likely to go extinct as a result of climate change? No, but that doesn't mean everything is going to be great either. Isn't setting the bar at non-extinction a little low?

I understand that there is no objective best climate and that the earth has experienced a wide range of climates and conditions in the past. However it doesn't follow that those conditions are good for our current biosphere or that life can adapt to them in such a short time-frame.

Adam writes:

A thought-provoking interview. Very interesting points on the efficiency of carbon fuels, the folly of regulating CO2 flows, and the flight of technology.

Laughlin's a little too sanguine about the response of govt to popular concern. Note our current govt's response to the recession--rent seeking and ideology despite general unrest and obvious failure. Of course, there're no better example of ruthless control of the populace than the Soviet Union and Mao's China--140 million dead and uncounted others enslaved to keep the leaders in control. See:

http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/20TH.HTM

Too, I'm not so confident about govt's determination to keep the lights on. Contrary to Laughlin's suppositions, today's headline indicates the lights are already going out in the US. See:

http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/innovation/08/09/smart.grid/index.html?hpt=C1

chitown_nick writes:

First off - Matt G - I couldn't agree more. As far as the adaptability of life goes, the pace matters. If you cut down 1000 trees in a section of forest over 20 years, each one has a chance to grow back in a similar environment, and some similar forest can re-emerge. If you cut them all down in the same year, you end up with a desert.

Russ, thanks for including the carbon/energy topic on your podcast. It was a good discussion.
As far as the first argument about rates and results goes, I am curious about one thing. In the very early discussion in the podcast, Robert mentions that in 200 years, we will likely not be using fossil fuels. I tend to agree with this assertion, although I wonder less about how the future will look than how we get there, and therefore what will be possible to have in the future.

Another way of putting it - how does an inelastic good react with a decrease in supply? I imagine at some point in the relatively near future (a few decades or less) there will be diminishing oil supplies, as your guest suggested as well. If there is no major shift otherwise, wouldn't price be expected to skyrocket? As mentioned in the later discussion, local responses to that problem have been complete political turnarounds, either by Californians dumping the governor or the British government changing its policies. What would happen if there was a global shortage of energy and no government could bring about steady supply simply by a change in policy? I would guess some major turmoil, no solutions, then more turmoil.

In 200 years, coming out of a scenario like this, I suspect we are less likely to have a stable, peaceful society in which people can opt to have cars or not to have cars because they want them. That is, unless something significant happens (policy-wise, or market emergent) to reduce the severity of the impact of the shortage of energy supply in the future. I think that would be a great topic for a future discussion as well.

David K writes:

Great podcast. A couple of comments.

Excellent perspective on why things like DMCA exist. I completely agree with the guest's view. Illegal to learn, illegal to experiment destroys innovation in the US.

A note on blue diodes. They have shorter wavelength, and as such you can store more data in the same area since you have a more sensitive 'needle' to read the data. The shorter wavelength also assists in other areas as well.

In regards to Apple: Steve Jobs has a unique ability to con others into destroying/changing their old business model to make Apple money. The devices are marginal at best. The ability of Steve to get the music industry to put their music in an online store was nothing short of astounding.

chuck writes:

This was an enjoyable podcast until the digressions to other subjects. Most notably, I found Laughlin's comments about DMCA/IP and innovation and manufacturing quite incoherent and misinformed. As archaic as some of our IP laws are, Laughlin's illogic that China is "innovative" simply because manufacturing occurs there is a flagrant non sequitur. It also misses the point that China isn't and hasn't been much of a leader in innovation: China is a net copier (leecher is more appropriate given the rampant piracy there) and user of existing technologies. More manufacturing occurs in China and the far East because of cheaper labor (and cheap shipping), not because those places are necessarily innovative hotbeds. Labor (manufacturing), transportation, and innovation are separate issues; they're often mutually exclusive, too.

Floccina writes:

Since co2 can be removed from the air we do not need to stop emitting it. (Biochar looks promising) We just need to reach balance. I write this as a note but I am not convinced that we should do this.

floccina writes:

So is any scheme that just taxes co2 without and accompanying pay out to those who remove co2 from air just a scam to collect more taxes?

Mads Lindstrøm writes:

To A Zarkov:

I did not mean to suggest that driving the VW 1-liter car, would not be a step down in prosperity. My point was that, if need be, we could build cars with a lot better mileage than the average car today. I was simply responding to Robert Lauglin claim, that we should not expect large increases in mileage, even facing a lot lower oil production. If you think the 1-liter car is a vaperware example, then compare the highest-mileage production cars we have today, with the average car today.

The VW 1-liter car is more than a concept. There is a working prototype. According to Wikipedia, VW would start production in 2010. That said, I am not convinced they will actually produce this car. But we will see.

Regarding engine efficiency. Yes, you cannot brake the laws of thermodynamics. But the internal combustion engine is not the only way, to turn hydrocarbons into movement. You can use fuel cells and an electrical engine. The latter is here right now, and is working well. However, fuel cells are not ready for prime time yet.

Patrick L writes:

While I think many people will get a lot to think about from the discussion on climate change, or the economics discussion, I think the most dangerous and exciting part of the whole thing was the very end where Laughlin proposed that all of physics is emergent.

The emergent order of evolutionary systems comes from millions of trial and errors where incorrect additions to the system are removed through death. The emergent order of markets comes from millions of individual actors responding to signals and adding information and their signals for others. Incorrect additions are punished, and correct additions are rewarded.

What then would it mean for the properties of our universe to be emergent?

Nick B writes:

Thanks Russ for the interesting topic (as always) today.

I was intrigued by the statement in the discussion today (as well in the guest's original article) that the Earth doesn't care whether we use all the oil in 100 years or 300 years. It's a blink of an eye in geologic time.

One thing that strikes me, however, is that many implications of running out of oil cause problems for people more than they cause problems for the planet. The Earth will readjust to some new balance, or return to equilibrium in a few millenia. People, however, cannot wait that long for balance. An interesting offshoot I'd be interested in hearing discussed is what are the implications for humans (not the planet necessarily) of transitioning to the future 200 years out that Mr. Laughlin describes, without fossil fuels as an economically viable energy source any more.

If there are major extinctions, or major volatility in energy prices, as might be some likely consequences your guest proposed, what would that likely mean for macro economic well-being? Do we have precedent for what to expect? Is this at all comparable to an energy version of the Irish Potato Famine, or some similar abrupt scarcity?

Thanks for your discussion, as always.

David K writes:

@chuck

He didn't say that they were more innovative because manufacturing occurs there. He said that because we shipped manufacturing overseas we are struggling to come up with products of value that we can sell to others. Our backward IP laws are based around protecting the only thing of value we have left which are the ideas we come up with. The problem with ideas are that they are usually easily copied. We try to change the laws of economics using the rule of law to create artificial scarcity. We have done this by making the sharing of knowledge illegal.

mc writes:

Where on earth did you get this guest? I refuse to believe this was a physics professor. His arguments were liberally peppered with such rhetorical gems as 'clearly', 'obviously', and 'I figured it out'. His science was fatuous and his economics infantile. I can only assume that Russ was similarly gobsmacked as I, as none of the guest's nonsensical arguments were challenged, nevermind rebutted. I'll chalk this up as a one-time mistake, and continue to listen, as I have for several years now.

wbond writes:

In defense of Western culture (or at least the Greeks) and emergence:

Leo Strauss often pointed out the the Greek's "nature" (physis for the physics professor) contained a sense of the potential of a thing and not just it's current innate state. This fits well with biology, of course, where emergence, is perhaps most obvious in the natural sciences.

mgravity writes:

Ugh. As a physicist, I'm embarrassed by this guy. Started off fine, his science all seemed rather solid, at least the parts I was knowledgeable on, but man, his economic ideas were ridiculous.

I couldn't believe it when he said "If you live in the world where knowledge is the currency, there must be less of it". And then he called this "quite fundamental and obvious... sort of elementary economics". Is this anything other than complete nonsense? Is there any commodity where being able to charge for it leads to less of the commodity (this is a serious question, I don't know)? Doesn't that completely ignore that the quantity of knowledge produced should depend on how much you can charge for it?

I see this "I sat down one afternoon and figured it all out" mentality all the time whenever we physicists discuss economics, and it drives me crazy. I've given up trying to explain to my colleagues that, as complicated as physics can be, economics is much, much more complicated.

Someone needs to explain to Laughlin how little he really knows about what he imagines he can design.


Max writes:

I really enjoyed this podcast. Economists often have a bias to very short time frames and focus a lot on growth. Much of our productivity gains since the industrial revolution are a direct result of our increasing use of energy. Very few economists think about what the economy will look like when our growth in energy consumption comes to an end. Outside of a fusion solution, growth in energy consumption will slow considerably as fossil fuel stocks are drawn down.

One interesting point that Russ made was that we always seem to get more efficient at using energy, and GDP/BTU has been increasing. I was surprised by Robert's answer because he didn't mention either the laws of thermodynamics or the efficiency of machines. These efficiency gains have to end because there is a maximum amount of work that can be attained from a given amount of fuel. The only reason we have become more efficient is because we started from a low point. It is much easier to make a machine 5% more efficient when it is 50% efficient than when it is 90%. And you can never make a machine more than 100% efficient.

David Barber writes:

I'm pleased to see I wasn't alone in finding this one less-than-pleasant. I spent a goodly portion of the time I gave to this one wishing someone would challenge some of, any of, the assertions being made. The interview simply wasn't up to the usual high standards of this program.

Justin P writes:
"I understand that there is no objective best climate and that the earth has experienced a wide range of climates and conditions in the past. However it doesn't follow that those conditions are good for our current biosphere or that life can adapt to them in such a short time-frame."

It also doesn't follow that this is the optimal biosphere possible. Ever think of that?

Mads Lindstrøm writes:

To chitown_nick:

Yes, demand for oil is inelastic in the short term. But is it also inelastic in the long term? Imagine sharply rising gas costs. Will you stop driving? No, because you need to get to and from work. Will you take another job located closer to home? Properly not right away. But when you do buy a new car, you will value high mileage more than you do now. When you do change jobs, you will value a job closer to home more than you did when the price of gas was lower. Generally speaking, we make many decisions where we commit to a certain energy usage medium/long term, and thus energy demand is inelastic in the short term. But it do not follow that energy demand is also inelastic long term.

Mads Lindstrøm writes:

Several people have suggested that energy shortage may lead to war, but I feel people are only looking at one side of the coin. It is true that increasing energy costs will make it more desirable to fight over energy. However it is also true that going to war will become a lot more expensive, as wars requires a lot of energy.

A. Zarkov writes:

Mads Lindstrøm:

The VW 1-liter car is more than a concept. There is a working prototype. According to Wikipedia, VW would start production in 2010.
Note the Wikipedia article says that VW has delayed production until 2013 and links to this announcement.
Yes, you cannot brake the laws of thermodynamics. But the internal combustion engine is not the only way, to turn hydrocarbons into movement. You can use fuel cells and an electrical engine. The latter is here right now, and is working well.
We have working fuel cells that use hydrogen as the feedstock, but hydrogen functions as storage medium. You still need an energy source to make the hydrogen. A fuel cell that can run off a liquid hydrocarbon fuel is current research now. This class of fuel cell works by reforming the hydrocarbon using steam at a high temperature. I doubt that these systems will prove more efficient than simply combusting the liquid hydrocarbon directly to produce mechanical energy. Then there is at least a 10% loss in converting the fuel cell electric energy into motion using an electric motor.

It's really hard to do better than a good internal combustion engine running off a liquid hydrocarbon fuel such as gasoline. Most of these schemes simply move the combustion point from under the hood to somewhere else. We could use nuclear energy as feedstock for electric cars, but electric cars won't be practical until we can increase the energy density in batteries by a factor of 20. That might not be possible.

These alternative energy schemes resemble fusion research. The practical application keeps getting put off until some future date. Magnetic fusion research has been in play for about 60 years. Inertial confinement fusion for about 40 years. So far we still have nothing.

In my opinion our future energy will come from breeder reactors and natural gas. Our transportation fleet will continue to run off liquid hydrocarbons derived from coal by a Fisher-Tropsch process. All this won't happen until oil becomes much more expensive. Nothing else seems to make sense given our ample supplies of coal and natural gas. We need cheap energy to be prosperous and that's what people want.

Monty writes:

Fantastic!

Thank you Russ for having such great interviews.

I am a lowly engineer, but I have many interests, including philosophy and economics. I find when trying to discuss almost any topic that the problem of monistic thought is the biggest barrier to progress. Many people never progress beyond their technical, ideological, or intellectual training. This makes having an intelligent conversation with them on any topic virtually impossible. While the morality of monism is essential to scientific and engineering discipline, it is an impediment to solving emergent problems like you find in economics and politics, and as your guest so eloquently pointed out, even science. In fact monistic thinking leads directly to top down architecture.

Designing real things for a living teaches you that there are many ways to skin a cat, and all of them can be valid. You also learn that top down doesn't always work out so well and designing a self organizing system can be the most powerful way to approach many problems. To do this requires an awareness that the answer you are in love with may not be the only correct one.

So even though some listeners may not think that any of this is relevant, I suggest they peel back a few more layers of the onion, or zoom out a bit and consider the field in which the onions grow.

I almost did not listen to this podcast, because the "global warming" issue and carbon thing is so irrational, that it is almost always impossible to have a discussion, especially if you have a deep understanding of thermodynamics and chemistry, or even a cursory knowledge of geology, cosmology or economics. You find yourself having to attempt a 5 min explanation of entire fields of science, engineering and philosophy to someone, who may not really want to understand. Understanding would compromise their monistic view of _____________.

I am glad I decided to listen.

Thanks again,

Monty

chitown_nick writes:

to Mads:

Thanks - I think that's a good point that over a medium/long time frame, as new vehicles are purchased and jobs acquired, choices will lead to reducing energy demand for commuting, and other driving.

One question nagging at me is how this will affect more complex structures in the global market. As oil gets more expensive, and transportation likewise becomes more expensive, will shipping costs trump labor costs, moving entire factories from Asia (for example) back to the markets where the goods are sold? This type of shift in the macro-economy would be of gigantic proportions. Entire factories require companies healthy enough to essentially re-capitalize from scratch, or new ones to emerge and build from the ground up. End user prices, either via shipping or via justified domestic production would similarly go up, meaning the quantity of goods sold would likely decrease. I'm sure there are alternate scenarios, but I wonder what the cascading effects on quality of life would be.

Monty writes:
I couldn't believe it when he said "If you live in the world where knowledge is the currency, there must be less of it". And then he called this "quite fundamental and obvious... sort of elementary economics".

Mr Gravity,

I think the point Laughlin was making is valid. I don't think it was an example of absolute economic law. I think Laughlin was just pointing out the perverse incentive structure inherent in our current system.

This system is currently being disrupted by technology that makes the cost to transfer knowledge and to copy essentially zero. The ability to reverse engineer and to replicate using computerized forms of manufacture are becoming less and less expensive.

Therefore a system such as the patent system, which originally was intended to encourage the disclosure of information, is being used more and more to prevent the transfer of this knowledge, or at least the ability to profit from it.

In these issues are the root of class structure, and how society is organized.

I don't think Laughlin was suggesting he "just sat down and figured it all out."

Being somebody who sells their brain for a living, I ponder these issues a lot.

In the end I have come to the conclusion that the patent, and trademark system is unworkable and will eventually fail.

As to how I am going to earn a living.....well that is an interesting question isn't it.

One must conclude that encryption, trade secrets, branding, and capital barriers to entry will be the only way to protect the ability to profit from knowledge moving forward. I suspect there will be room for some open source models as well. Other than that I haven't the foggiest idea what will happen, but it will be interesting to watch it unfold.

Monty

hp writes:

I think that our concerns about energy and energy costs are exaggerated. Last time I checked my family health insurance premium was over $12k a year. I pay over $3k a year in Medicare taxes. I wouldn't be surprised if I spend at least 10x more on health care than I do on energy. The big driver of our declining prosperity over the next 30 years is going to be soaring health care costs, not rising energy prices.

David Alton Dodd writes:

First of all, best podcast in a long time, excellent guest, I love the way he thinks outside of the box. I hope you have him as a guest more often, Russ.

And, to the great comments in here, I think it's important to note that economics and physics share a common thread, which is abstention from speculation. One can't scientifically be comfortable with the speculation that some undiscovered or unproven fuel source will compensate for the drainage of oil and coal any more than an economist can honestly predict where interest rates will be in three years.

Such gamblers gamble, and the physicists and economists merely observe such transactions and take notes.

Robert Kennedy writes:

I don't know. This weeks' podcast just seemed less rigorous than others. Dr. Laughlin certainly made a variety of interesting and insightful comments but I think he was more than willing to make casual assertions that were not really backed up with sufficient data. Others have noted his casual remarks about hydrocarbons vs nuclear, manufacturing in the US, etc.

That said, I got several important takeaways:

  • We're going to use up all of the fossil fuels at some point, no matter what we do in the market or via public policy. so government policies to limit consumption, vs banning consumption, don't really make any sense from a consumption standpoint.
  • Carefully consider the environmental impact of fossil fuel consumption vs all of the other environmental impacts of the human species.
  • The earth has a long arc and has proven to adapt to whatever happens to it. Fossil fuel consumption in the past xx years may be a minor blip on that arc.
  • Of all of the potential environmental impacts of fossil fuel consumption, speciation impact is the one that potentially matters.
  • As humans, we should consider speciation impact holistically, in terms of everything we do, and not just fossil fuel consumption. Consider human population growth, use of pesticides, increased farming, etc.

Personally, I'm a bit cynical about the future doomsday social scenarios of fossil fuel scarcity. There is so much we don't know about how cultures and technologies will evolve as fossil fuels become scarce. The possibility of future price fluctuations & civil unrest does not seem to me to be a good reason for current public policies to limit consumption. No matter what we do today, about almost anything, there will price fluctuations and civil unrest about something. Does that obligate us to stifle current living standards via public policy for all of these possible future outcomes?

All that said, i personally can't yet get my head around the right public policy actions to mitigate environmental impacts. As an avid listener here, I'm certainly cynical of any public policy action other than staying out of the way.

Jim Labbe writes:

Boy, I found Laughlin to be rather pedantic and cocksure of his views based on some very flimsy core reasoning. His main argument as to why all the fossil fuels will be used up- regardless of the social and environmental impact- seems to rely on the very unscientific interpretation of "human nature." Putting aside the very likely possibility of alternative energy sources will be developed as viable economic substitutes (especially as we come to price the cost of dumping carbon in the atmosphere), Laughlin makes leaps of reasoning that posit "human nature" will mean everyone in China and India will want to have cars: impacts of climate and the geopolitics of oil be damned.

It won't happen with out human effort and intention but it is entirely possible that China and India could avoid- to a significant degree- the U.S. transportation system model that is so dependent on the single occupant vehicle. And contrary to the claims of many in the automobile and oil industries who profit off this dependency, American are in fact beginning to give up their cars where the incentives to drive are changing. People are not biologically or culturally determined to get in and stay in their cars or even airplanes. We are thus not determined in anyway to burn up all the remaining fossil fuels.


BZ writes:

I have to say that I giggled a little bit when the physicist started explaining "basic economics 101" to Dr. Roberts. His response, "that's one view", is a sign of his graciousness.

chitown_nick writes:

To R. Kennedy:

I very much agree that we should be more concerned with speciation than other changes to the environment, which we cannot necessarily know fully. I might add effects on water systems (although the real end results of this effect as far as humans are concerned is crop sustainability, etc. so that may fall into speciation as well).

Further to your point, I increasingly agree with the argument that we don't know from a planning perspective what will result from upcoming scarcity, and civil unrest can come from any number of sources. Top down imposition may not be the answer to fossil fuel scarcity. Already we see utilities offer incentives for efficiency to offset capital costs of new generation plants, and other pseudo-private actions along those lines, without a centralized cap-and-trade policy forcing such a decision.

If our public policy should not be intended to benefit a specific (renewable) energy source, should we also remove benefits to other energy sources (tax credits to oil and coal exploration, for example) to allow full price for each to drive consumption decisions?

Side note - this may bring down deficit spending or otherwise accounted tax burden by $8-$10B annually, just form the fossil side (link).

John Berg writes:

I assume chitown_nick intended to give prime concern to "despeciation." However, I suggest no action until we in the West conduct a comprehensive study to identify all species lost since the first, yet unidentified species. I will join any other party interested in this issue to recommend that more money should be devoted to this subject by the Federal government. However, I am troubled that this issue may fall into the hands of international study, as for example the UN, since the East has a culturally fixated view of predestination.

John Berg

Robert Kennedy writes:

To Chitown_nick:

I very much agree that we should remove the subsidies that we current give to current energy sources. Let the true costs emerge. On that theme, I would submit that a non trivial amount of the federal defense budget (and likely the State department budget) is spent on securing supplies of oil in other parts of world. Thinking way outside of the box, maybe the feds should stop spending that money or find a way to bill the producers for those services.

chitown_nick writes:

John:

I believe many studies are already being conducted. Many of them currently use projections, rather than documented extinctions, although I imagine by the time we observe extinctions if that is the case, things would have progressed beyond a certain reversible point. One study in Nature by Western scientists points to a probability of a large wave of extinctions. Someone (I believe Justin P) made a point that we cannot assume the current climate is the best. In a manner of speaking, the current climate and current range of species available for us to interact with is what we are equipped to do and invested in. Others that are "better" may be possible, but we as people would have to adapt to them, at some cost.

Quick addition to R. Kennedy:

True costs of each potential energy source would be great, and I'd love to see that happen, including defense and state department implications. One major hurdle would be the short term price spike that would occur from this type of change, and seeing if politicians have the staying power to face public outcry over high energy prices. Apparently, from examples in the podcast discussion about CA and Britain, the track record isn't great there.

MikeRino writes:

In reading this blog, it's like stepping into the past 100 years. I'm shocked and distressed a professor! would teach energy density and not discuss the inefficiency if the Internal Combustion Engine.

The energy density of gas must be converted by one of the most inefficient processes in propulsion, the ICE.

So, talk of the Fuel must also be partnered with Engine Efficiency.

The efficiency of an electric motor, on the other hand, being 90% cancel's out the need for gas's energy density. This is now the end of the gasoline era, as China and India ramp up, and as China continues to buy and horde gas on global markets, gas will be priced higher and higher.

This is the beginning of a New Age, of Sustainable Energy Sources, because of the population boom, we are being forced to recognize and account for the massive negative externalities of all carbon fuel. This is an opportunity for the US to establish a leadership position in transportation and battery storage solutions. The investment in better battery technology are being made. The only question is will we be Left Behind.

If people want cars, they will have them, and they will be Electric. If we don't sell them someone else will.

McGoorty writes:

I would like to add two small points, which are simultaneously questions. I think the point of Julian Simon's "Ultimate Resource" was that if you don't believe we can rely on technological change to provide us with an infinite amount of natural resources that's fine, BUT, since recorded history we have always had technological advance, so the burden is on you to suggest why we can't count on it now. Additionally, if I recall correctly, A. Kling's new book suggests that the rate of technological change is increasing! This, to me, would put even more pressure on those who think conservation is the answer. I am not stating this as fact, it's just what came to my mind listening to this podcast. Also, I got the feeling Dr. Laughlin didn't really like Dr. R's technology argument.

I honestly want to be corrected, anyone who can, please do.

MikeRino writes:

Any discussion of energy policy that leaves out the massive Negative Externalities of Coal: Browned Out Farms and dead cattle is unrealistic from the start. How do you ignore the cost of lost productivity, farm foreclosures and bankruptcies, especially in our Southern states, floods, and wildfires, the rise of commodity prices for Food and Fuel, the destruction from invasive species, the acidification of our oceans, the poisoning of our sea food?


McGoorty writes:

What fuel do you foresee that can provide no externalities sir?

Schepp writes:

Russ,

Great podcast. The number of comments shows how difficult this topic is. The main points that I heard were:

If there is global warming at the rate the IPCC says, that does not dictate how individuals and society can, should will procede.

Any policy or group action will be filled with public choice self interest actions that will muddy the benefits from programs. I think Dr. Laughlin made great points about how the policy was checked by the reality of the market. I think he was over critized by commentors. True he is just a physist and not an economist. But his comments seemed more focused and balanced than those that are promoting policies that are being reigned in by the reality of the trade offs that need to be made for individual people to live well.

I will agree that Dr. Laughlin in almost every comment challenge the IPCC stance that we must take action, yet he peppered the interview with denials of that was what he was doing. I think this not official challenge method detracts from learning.

Monty writes:

As to the poster who thinks the internal combustion engine is inefficient. That is a common misconception. There are limits to how efficient any process can be even if perfect (2nd law of thermodynamics). It is as if you neglected the time value of money in an accounting exercise.

Energy density is THE measure of a fuel. Conversion efficiency has to do with the prime mover. While electrical motors are very efficient, the losses are simply moved to where you create the electricity, transport the electricity, charge and discharge the battery. Hydrogen must be manufactured. It is NOT an energy source and it is quite possibly the worst method to store energy. Add a few carbon atoms to the hydrogen and it becomes a very useful fuel. If you can make a fuel cell that uses a liquid hydrocarbon light and inexpensive, then you could replace the internal combustion engine with something better. But so far the technology is not competitive.

The problem with all of this is there are a lot of religious hopes and political ideologies mixed up with non-negotiable physical and economic laws. Laughlin is approaching this problem from the physical law direction. There MAY be breakthroughs. There are promising things going on, but they are not guaranteed.

You cannot legislate away the laws of nature.

Monty

Bob Laughlin writes:

I normally would not join a blog criticizing myself, but Russ invited me to respond. First of all let me record here the URL

http://large.stanford.edu/publications/coal/references

This is an electronic library I created as I was writing my energy book, provisionally titled WHEN COAL IS GONE. I accepted some things as true and rejected others as false, just as everyone else does, but I left a record of my decisions that anyone in the world may go back and examine. The library also reveals why talking coherently about this matter on radio is so difficult. The fact base is so large that you can't be logical in the time available, and the rhetorical shortcuts required to get a point across are then bound to get interpreted by some listeners as a political agenda. I have no such agenda, actually.

It is appropriate that this conversation is taking place on an economics blog, for the energy/climate problem has a large economic component. Thus, for example, you can stop importing oil right now if someone (other than yourself, of course) will pay for the shale or fischer-tropsch plants. You can stop putting extra carbon dioxide into the air right now if you allocate funds to pave Texas with biomass farms. You'd better erect massive trade barriers when you do, though, since your third-world competition will otherwise destroy you with cheap products made by burning coal and oil, made even cheaper by your abstinence. Outside the context of massive and unprecedented future intervention by governments, discussions about futuristic energy technology are actually discussions about future energy production, delivery and storage costs. I am aware that many people would like this to be a purely technical problem, but unfortunately it just isn't.

Here are some responses, in no particular order:

To Anomaly: "Why should the choice be between reducing fossil fuel consumption and letting people consume however much they want?"

... Because the big mitigator of CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere, absorption into the deep oceans, occurs on the scale of 1000 years. This number is known very precisely from carbon-14 measurements of foraminifera in the ocean muds. Thus extending the life of oil supplies for 20 years is irrelevant to the earth. It's probably irrelevant to the biosphere too, unless you posit that life on earth (and civilization) has only 100 years left to go, because it's only a 10% modification of the rate of CO2 buildup now (and a 0% modification of the buildup over 200 years).

To John S.: "I wish you had challenged ... that the US no longer manufactures anything."

... The argument over whether the US "manufactures anything" is really an argument over protectionism. I don't want to get into that, as it's above my pay grade. Either free trade is good or it isn't, and you just have to look at the numbers and decide for yourself.

... De-industrialization, however, is real. On the way back from the San Francisco airport last night I surveyed cars as they passed by and found about 1 in 15 to have American brands. Some of the foreign ones had been put together in America, but most had not. (The local Toyota factory in Fremont just closed.) Most of the cars on the road were Japanese, followed by German and Korean. Toyota just bought Tesla Motors, presumably to acquire its technology. Andy Grove's recent letter to the New York Times just stated what we already knew, that microchip manufacture in the US is on its way out. I myself no longer work on semiconductors, even though I was trained to do so (I'm a Bell Labs alumnus) and love the subject dearly, because it's a money-loser. When I was at NC State in Raleigh last spring, people were talking about the wholesale export of the textile business to China and its unhappy implications for university's textile school. Kaist, the excellent engineering school I headed for two years in South Korea around 2005, did not exist in 1973, when the US auto industry first came under attack. The faculty comfortably talks about "economic war" and even toasts to it. Kaist trained most of the engineers at Samsung, Hyundai and LG Chemical, all fearsome manufacturing firms. Samsung made the flat-panel television in my home and was the key actor in the rise of flash memory, the development that made my digital camera a reality (and which wiped out Kodak's film business). To the best of my knowledge it is impossible to buy an American-made television. While in Korea I visited the mighty Hyundai shipyards in Ulsan, where a large fraction of the world's ships are built. No matter how hard boiled you discipline yourself to be, your heart still skips a beat when you see monstrous LNG transports as big as mountains under construction, diesel engines as big as houses, huge cross-sections of ships lying around as though they were toys - none of which was made in America.

"The argument seems to stem from the view that all economic transactions are essentially theft"

... No it doesn't. The point is merely that work is required to make the thing you're rationally trading, and you won't be able to bear the cost of that work (i.e. you will go out of business) unless you can make enough profit to cover that cost. In this particular context, people who "make knowledge" can't continue doing so unless the knowledge thus made has a high market price. Thus free exchange of information is incompatible with a knowledge economy.

To Zarkov: "Taxing carbon only makes sense if we have an alternative to hydrocarbon fuels and we don't."

... This is not true. Taxing carbon, like taxing anything, "makes sense" if you can get away with it. The problem is that you can't get away with it on big scales. If you raise diesel fuel prices too much, the truckers go on strike (as they did in Britain). If you raise coal prices too much, your energy-intensive industries (e.g. automobile manufacture) go abroad.

"As long as people don't want to return to the pre-industrial age, we are going to use fossil fuels."

... No. The world won't be using fossil fuels 200 years from now, period. If you want to argue with this, make it 5000 years. The point is that fossil fuel use is temporary on the grand scale of human history because the total amount of such fuel is finite. I personally don't think that people of the future will opt for returning to a pre-industrial age, but this decision will be up to them.

To Nathan: "I didn't like the stuff on CRIME OF REASON."

... I didn't either. It was too big a jump to there from COAL. Russ effectively forced me to cut rhetorical corners I otherwise wouldn't have cut.

To J. Maybe: "I just had to stop after Laughlin asserted that since hydrocarbons are the most energy dense fuel we have today ... they will still be the most dense in 200 or 300 years."

... I'm right about this. Sorry. Chemical energy storage is limited by quantum mechanics to about two electron volts per bond. You can do worse than this but you can't better - ever. Thus batteries might, through a series of engineering miracles, achieve the energy density of kerosene, they will never exceed it. Quantum mechanics also causes all atoms to be about the same size, incidentally. Moreover, it's a general engineering principle that the more energy you stuff into a small space, the more explosive danger you get. Even if there were physical forces available between those of chemical bonds and those of atomic nuclei (which there aren't) you would never use them to make fuels because the fuels thus made would have more explosive power than dynamite. Jet fuel evades this problem by not working without oxygen. In the presence of ample oxygen it's about as explosive as dynamite.

To Matt G.: "... Rapid shifts in temperatures are actually quite rare in the geologic record and there's a lot of evidence to suggest that when they occur it tends to be catastrophic for the biosphere."

... References, please. When I quoted the geologic record in COAL, I was careful to annotate every fact with a sound paper from the refereed literature that I had myself actually read and understood. The ice age sea level evidence, for example, is very excellent and multiply corroborated. The multiple mass extinctions are real. The radiodated time scales are real. Temperature evidence, by contrast, is more problematic because the rocks don't contain actual thermometers. You have to argue indirectly. You have the same problem with paleobotany, incidentally. Animal bones tend to preserve well as fossils but plant remains don't.

... Now, I insist that the true fossil carbon issue is whether you stop burning now or stop burning 200 years from now, NOT whether you stop burning at all. The fossil carbon supply is limited, and we're burning it up fast. Thus what's on the table is a choice between pain now and pain later, not a choice of saving the earth or not. I myself am betting on a do-nothing future at the moment, not because I want this outcome but because I think no electorate will ever vote to increase economic pain on itself. People may say they will, but when push comes to shove they'll only be willing to inflict pain on someone else.

... You could, of course start a big war, thus pushing the population pressure problem in the right direction. Unfortunately, it might go badly, leading to the other person's progeny having a glorious future on an uncrowded planet but yours unhappily not. I don't favor the war option myself.

... By the way, I am one of the few physics professors you will meet who has served in the armed forces. Pershing missiles.

To Adam: "Laughlin's a little too sanguine about the response of government to popular concern."

... My prototype for political response to an energy problem is the California Energy Crisis. The lights went out, and the Governor's head promptly got chopped off, even though the Governor was not responsible for the problem. This admittedly happened in a rich country with free elections,and it is conceivable that we'll become poor and/or oppressed in the future, thus rendering the analogy moot. But my best guess is that this won't happen, and that we will still have elections through the next two centuries.

To chitdown: "As far as adaptability of life goes, the pace matters."

... This is correct. Rapid change is bad for the biosphere. Let us, however, please keep on task. The issue is not whether the earth needs protecting, which it does, but how much protection you can purchase with the money you have. This is a decision that will be made politically, and each of us has one vote. I suspect that absolute triumph of Nature over people is not in the cards here, simply because it would require especially great sacrifices from the poor, and they have a large number of votes. However, we'll see.

"How does an inelastic good react with a decrease in supply?"

... This brings up a matter which concerned me a great deal when I was writing COAL, and which I researched correspondingly carefully. Peal Oil,when it comes sixty years hence or whenever, will very likely generate a temporary price glitch but nothing more because the technology for converting coal to diesel fuel already exists. It remains only for demand to send prices up sufficiently to turn on this additional supply. There are also supplies such as shale and clathrates in the wings, not to mention huge natural gas reserves, but the coal supply is better known and thus easier to pin down with numbers. Exactly how much fischer-tropsch fuel costs to manufacture in present-day dollars is difficult to assess because of subsidy distortions, but I think it's about twice the cost of petroleum distillates. True, this would double the yearly atmospheric carbon burden, but I believe that nobody would vote to curtail carbon emissions if the consequence were no fuel for their cars. The second crisis that comes a century later when the coal runs out is a little trickier, but I think it's very likely that people will simply substitute biomass for coal as the fischer-tropsch feedstock. This does not mean that the energy itself will come from agriculture. By that time there will have been a price inversion in which energy from carbon-based fuels becomes more expensive than energy from other sources. (The reverse is the case today.) That would open the door to using carbon as an energy storage medium rather than a primary energy source. Nuclear energy may or may not be the alternate source of choice, but its existence will put a price ceiling on whatever the alternate source turns out to be. I myself anticipate a vicious market fight to the death between nuclear and solar energy. Thousands of years in the future it will definitely be solar because the supply of nuclear fuel, even if you breed, is limited.

... Thus I concluded that the go-go supply-siders may have gotten it right on this one. The collateral damage to the atmosphere in this scenario is, of course, enormous and there I believe some thought could be given to managing this two-century transition so as to achieve a better environmental outcome. There is, of course, the awful possibility that green politics might stop the resources from coming on line fast enough to avert war, but I think this is unlikely.

To David K: "As to blue diodes and such, you can store more data in the same area since you have a more sensitive needle to read the data."

... I'm afraid I really botched my answer to Russ about industrial innovation. He caught me off guard with his question, and all I could think of quickly was the blue diode, which, as Russ fully understood, was probably not that big a deal on the grand scheme of things.

... We were talking about American industrial innovation, and whether or not the US is getting out-performed in that department. In the circles I frequent it is common knowledge that Japan, not the USA, is the superpower of technical innovation. The momentous Japanese inventions that touch your life every day include the laser printer, the flat-panel display, the videocassette recorder, the write-able compact disc, its cousins the CDROM and DVD, digital cameras with flash memory and the hybrid car. We can also throw in frivolous things like the amorphous alloy golf drivers banned from tournaments because their special springiness gives their user too great an advantage. If the US ever decides to reinvigorate its nuclear power industry it will have to use Japanese designs because Toshiba bought Westinghouse's nuclear capability and has been steady improving it. (Japan's electricity supply is 40% nuclear.) The other possible source of reactors, of course, is France.

To Chuck: "As archaic as some of our IP laws are, Laughlin's illogic that China is 'innovative' simply because manufacturing occurs there is a flagrant non sequitur."

... I must really have miscommunicated here. I was absolutely not belittling the creative dynamism of my country. I'm a blue passport carrier, and this particular aspect of my culture is something I hold dear.

... That said, it is a grave mistake to patronize China. It is a great nation, much older than America and amply supplied with cosmically smart people. The reason that China 'leaches,' as you put it, is simply that this maximizes profits. These folks are no fools. Moreover, making money selling things rather than burning money 'innovating' them is strongly encouraged by the state. That's why there's such resistance to revaluing the yuan. It's widely perceived there that Japan's decision to give in to the Americans on this matter precipitated its economic problems in the nineties.

... The premise of THE CRIME OF REASON is actually resonant with the sense of your criticism. It is that the ongoing sequestration of technical knowledge, both for national security reasons and in the name of "propertyizing" ideas, is an evil unintended side effect of our decision in the seventies to de-industrialize. In assigning value to knowledge but not to manufacturing, we committed ourselves to a society in which knowledge isn't for everyone, for the same reason lots of money isn't. Currency can't work unless it is dear. It's exactly the reverse of what people thought would happen - universal enlightenment, leisure, endless intellectual happiness and so forth. Among the strange side effects now playing out is the inversion public education's premise. In the information age, you can't teach kids anything really important (i.e. that will help them make a good living) because it's theft.

To Floccina: "So is any scheme that just taxes CO2 without an accompanying payout to those who remove CO2 from the air just a scam to collect more taxes?"

... To paraphrase Marlon Brando in "The Freshman", scam is such an ugly word. Let us say a fresh strong revenue stream for things you might like to purchase other than energy for the people or saving the biosphere from CO2. As discussed above, the time scale is wrong for the latter.

To Max: "One interesting point that Russ made was that we always seem to get more efficient at using energy, and GDP/BTU has been increasing."

... I took the liberty last fall of plotting the data myself. One axis was total GDP, the other the total energy consumption in joules (proportional to BTUs). Each point on the plot was a country. It was rather linear, with a slope of about fifty times the local market cost of electricity, in US dollars per joule. I frankly don't understand how this could be if there are great historic advances in GDP per joule. That would require all countries' advances to be the same. I am therefore concerned that this alleged steady improvement of the GDP/BTU ratio might be a data analysis artifact.

To hp: "I think our concerns about energy and energy costs are exaggerated."

... They are indeed - for now - because the competitive dynamic in the energy business keeps prices low. Energy is astonishingly cheap, especially considering how central it is to everything. That will all change when the monstrous middle east reserves run out, which by my reckoning is about 60 years from now. You and I will be dead by then, so it won't matter to us. This is the geologic time problem I keep mentioning.

To Jim Labbe: "It won't happen without human effort and intention but it is entirely possible that China and India could avoid - to a significant degree - the US transportation model that is so dependent on the single occupant vehicle.

... Spoken like a man who has never visited China. It's too late, I fear. Beijing in the summer is a clone of Los Angeles, unbearable because of the smog. Hong Kong is always bustling with traffic, despite having a state-of-the-art underground. Just google for Shanghai and take a look at the traffic circulating around the Bund at night or in Pudong. Even in Kunming, the "boondocks" in China, there is plenty of traffic. In the sense of its car obsession, the country reminds you eerily of home.

... Even when cars were still scarce in Mainland China, drivers from the communes used to "borrow" the car at night to conduct business on the side, at a tidy profit. Moreover, cars are status symbols everywhere, but especially in places where relatively few people have them. What better way could there be to impress your future father-in-law than to show up in a big black car,preferably chauffeured!

To BZ: "I have to say that I giggled a little bit when thephysicist started explaining "basic economics 101" to Dr. Roberts."

... Russ was nodding vigorously with approval when I did this. Apparently he got something you didn't.

"His response 'that's one view' is a sign of his graciousness."

... That remark took me aback too, and I wish Russ had taken steps to clear up what he meant. At that moment in the conversation I had opined that Congress had purposefully strengthened the IP laws because they were desperate to stop the hemorrhaging of US industry overseas. That's what Russ apparently disagreed with. It might have been the overseas part he didn't like. I don't know. He didn't disagree with the strengthening itself, which is a matter of public record. Moreover, what the Congress WROTE in it preambles to these laws, and what has now been sustained in the courts, is that they intended to protect American industry, notably the music, movie and software industries but also more corporeal things such as pharmaceutical companies, with product lines expensive to develop but easy to copy. It could be that the laws were really all aimed at malicious college freshmen, but I think billion-dollar events in industry, such as the abduction of Intel's memory business by Nippon Electric many years before, also had something to do with it.

... Several years ago I was invited to serve on a research review panel in Taiwan. The subject was nanoscience, and it was the usual mix of plodding university activities, for the most part. At the end, however, there were a few terrifyingly competent presentations from the partners inside Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute, known as ITRI for short. The subject matter included polymer paint formulas, tool casting techniques and micellar drug delivery, all of which were other people's highly-developed technologies. I knew something about all of these things, in particular the latter, for it's a cancer therapy strategy that's been on the burner in drug houses since my graduate school days. I later learned that ITRI strikes terror in the hearts of young entrepreneur types in Silicon Valley, for it's notorious as themost efficient purloiner other people's IP in the world. Taiwan's entire semiconductor industry, now an international juggernaut with major activities in Mainland China, was spun out of ITRI.

To Mike Rine: "I am distressed that a professor would teach energy density and not discuss the inefficiency of the internal combustion engine."

... One reason is that Russ didn't ask me about engine efficiency. A more important one, however, is that engine efficiency is largely irrelevant to energy consumption. The reason is that the energy business needs to push its product, and it responds to decreased demand by (1) lowering prices and (2) creating new sources of demand. Real-life engines also have two large costs over and above the cost of fuel: making the engine in the first place and routine maintenance. Conventional internal combustion engines, it turns out, win handsomely in latter two categories. They're dirt cheap to make and they usually run with little or no maintenance for the lifetime of the vehicle. Indeed for most people the price of fuel is a relatively unimportant factor in choosing what car to buy, at least compared to purchase price and maintenance reliability. That's why we have gas guzzlers.

To Schepp: "I will agree that Dr. Laughlin in almost every comment challenge the IPCC stance that we must take action. Yet he peppered the interview with denials of that was what he was doing. I think this not official challenge method detracts from learning."

... And I deny it again. The IPCC is concerned with assessing prospects for climate change and issuing advice to governments about how to deal with it. I'm concerned with neither. I only care about what the energy business will be like when the crisis is past - and also perhaps making a little money selling books right now. My phone is not ringing off the hook from legislators eager to get my help reading and interpreting IPCC documents, and even if it were I would tell them no, go read and interpret the documents yourself.

Bill writes:

I'm looking forward to listening to this on my hike today. I read Laughlin's book, A Different Universe, several years ago. It was a great introduction to the concept of emergence in the physical sciences. Although not quite the same, it's a concept that is very important to the field of economics.

AHBritton writes:

As a Nobel Prize winning physics professor, I don't doubt the guest's intelligence. I am, at least somewhat, skeptical that these critical thinking skills he has developed as a physicist transfer equally to all fields of inquiry.

I would like to say I enjoyed this podcast, and a lot of territory was covered so I may have to listen again, however I was left somewhat wanting.

To begin with what I found most interesting was a seeming stylistic contradiction. On the one hand he points out several examples (such as the blue diode) which were at one time thought to be physically impossible, until someone found a way to do it. On the other hand Laughlin's entire conversation was peppered with his certainty and declarations of impossibilities.

I also had some stylistic concerns as Laughlin seemed very scattered at times. There seemed to be a lot of loosely connected concepts and what, to someone who has only this experience to go on, seemed like thousands of assumptions. He would declare things that to me seem questionable as obvious and necessary.

For someone who talks often of hubris I was surprised that you did not challenge him on more of these (although I understand the assumptions were SO frequent it may have been impossible to carry on a conversation questioning all of them, as I am sure each question would have lead to a thousand more topics and assertions).

I would also like to address peoples liberal use of such terms as "nature" and "equilibrium." It's important to understand what we are talking about. For one thing nature is hardly equilibrium. The earth (and universes) history is peppered with catastrophes, asteroid collisions, mass extinctions, etc. For instance an asteroid could easily be headed towards the earth right now and lead to a completely "natural" end of mankind.

Now many complex systems, especially lifeforms and ecosystems, strive towards some form of "equilibrium." These are emergent orders, but they are hardly static.

Without getting too much into it I think the important things for humans relates to having enough of an equilibrium for us to anticipate and plan are day to day activities without too much uncertainty for the foreseeable future. Tied into this is the issue of all of humanities supporting elements, such as natural resources, and the species that we rely on, whether for food or a myriad of other reasons.

AHBritton writes:

Justin P,

"It also doesn't follow that this is the optimal biosphere possible. Ever think of that?"

It depends on what you mean by optimal. There are many versions of optimal, such as optimal for you (mostly dominated by short term concerns and hardly geological ones), optimal for biodiversity, humanity, etc.

I will assume you mean humanity (correct me if I am wrong). It is true there may be other weather patterns, etc. in which humans would be able to flourish even more. It is still possible that despite this a "quick" shift to such conditions would cause the opposite effect, inability to adapt, widespread suffering, etc.

We don't really know. The one thing we DO know is that we can survive relatively well in the CURRENT environment. That we make PLANS based on these environmental conditions and to change them would require humanity to make shifts in infrastructure and other humanity wide habits. The other thing that would be most definitely true is that there will be winners and losers. To take just a hypothetical instance, it is possible that Canada would prosper from being able to grow many crops they were previously unable to, at the same time increasing desertification in other areas… so "optimal" for Canadians, less "optimal" for Israeli's.

No matter what it involves lots of speculation and to me it seems like somewhat of a cop-out to say, "how do you know it won't get even better?"

Richard writes:

Russ,

A really interesting guest with some profound insights that have really made me think. However, I think he felt rather too much a need to oversimplify. The energy density of hydrocarbons is high, but don't forget that there have been nuclear powered ships and submarines for decades.

It was shockingly naive of him to assume that in the centuries of technological advancement to come that an engineering solution to a wider set of applications could not happen. Furthermore there are experiments on the far more friendly nuclear fusion reaction that the future seems likely to make common use of.

I think he blinded you with science and needed more challenging. He rather took advantage of your lack of knowledge, for which he should be ashamed. The tone of his voice was of an enthusiast not a calm person (rather like Nassim Taleb and Mike Munger all of whom I learn a great deal from).

It would be interesting if he returned again to answer some of these physics questions. I think he was too certain of the future. "All we learn about the study of history is that we learn nothing from the study of history". Historically we have been very poor at predicting the future - it's worth remembering.

I am sure that necessity will force us to invent a brighter future, without hydrocarbons.

John Berg writes:

It's naive to think that hydrocarbons with carbon chains of various lengths are only good for burning. Consider that fertilizer and plastics come from crude oil. Long carbon chains are difficult/expensive to build and future medicines may depend of the availability of such chains now only available from nature.

John Berg

LoneSnark writes:

Bob Laughlin,
Yes, many things you find in America that used to be wholly made here are now imported. But, at the same time, many things (and services) you find overseas that used to be wholly made there are now imported, too. I and my college friends are all recent graduates from NCState University, we all have found productive work as engineers for manufacturing concerns, and most didn't even need to leave Raleigh to find it. Our employers export more overseas than they sell in America. I suggest you check the actual Federal Reserve statistics on American industrial output, which is significantly higher today than it was when you claim we de-industrialized. We did no such thing, it is just that our factories produce more while employing far fewer workers. So, freed of the need to consider employee commutes to work, our factories have moved away from cities to the cheaper/safer/unregulated countryside where you don't see them anymore. And you can be forgiven for believing an unseen factory does not exist. But when anyone tells me Americans don't make anything anymore, I offer to take them on tours of the factories my immediate friends work at here in the greater Raleigh area, making everything from electronic components to heavy machinery.

A. Zarkov writes:

Laughlin, wrote,

To Zarkov: "Taxing carbon only makes sense if we have an alternative to hydrocarbon fuels and we don't."

... This is not true. Taxing carbon, like taxing anything, "makes sense" if you can get away with it. The problem is that you can't get away with it on big scales. If you raise diesel fuel prices too much, the truckers go on strike (as they did in Britain). If you raise coal prices too much, your energy-intensive industries (e.g. automobile manufacture) go abroad.

I did not express myself clearly. We are in complete agreement. We can't significantly tax carbon fuels because we have no cheap substitutes.

"As long as people don't want to return to the pre-industrial age, we are going to use fossil fuels."

... No. The world won't be using fossil fuels 200 years from now, period. If you want to argue with this, make it 5000 years. The point is that fossil fuel use is temporary on the grand scale of human history because the total amount of such fuel is finite. I personally don't think that people of the future will opt for returning to a pre-industrial age, but this decision will be up to them.

After we exhaust all the natural sources of fossil fuels and nuclear energy we will be forced to use solar energy. I imagine we will deploy a network of earth satellites that convert solar energy to microwaves beamed down to surface collection stations. With virtually limitless energy, we can make liquid hydrocarbon fuels for transportation.

[Some spelling corrected--Econlib Ed.]

chitown_nick writes:

Dr. Laughlin:

Thanks for your comments. It's very much appreciated to see comments come full circle with a response. As a technical person dealing with non-technical problems every day, I very much appreciated the full range of responses.

Monty:

Energy density is THE measure of a fuel. Conversion efficiency has to do with the prime mover. While electrical motors are very efficient, the losses are simply moved to where you create the electricity, transport the electricity, charge and discharge the battery. Hydrogen must be manufactured. It is NOT an energy source and it is quite possibly the worst method to store energy.

I could not agree more. I spent a period of my life in graduate school researching fuel cells. We did marvelous things with efficiency, but we had to start with hydrogen. We then ran some experiments with methanol, a very small hydrocarbon, ran it through a reformer, cleaned out the carbon monoxide, and ran it through the fuel cell. The overall efficiency was almost identical to an internal combustion engine.

I would argue, however, that one benefit of breaking up the system into various stages (electric generation, transmission, storage, and conversion) allows non-fossil fuels to be introduced in small ways along each step - thermal reforming with solar heat instead of fossil heat, wind electricity generation, etc. - to reduce the dependence on these fuels in the future. We will never beat thermodynamics, but the technology innovations you describe as increasing may help in using non-fossil energy sources within the thermodynamic laws more greatly to our advantage.

Monty writes:

chitown_nick:

I would argue, however, that one benefit of breaking up the system into various stages (electric generation, transmission, storage, and conversion) allows non-fossil fuels to be introduced in small ways along each step - thermal reforming with solar heat instead of fossil heat, wind electricity generation, etc. - to reduce the dependence on these fuels in the future. We will never beat thermodynamics, but the technology innovations you describe as increasing may help in using non-fossil energy sources within the thermodynamic laws more greatly to our advantage.

No arguments. Being able to broaden supply is always good.

I'm far from being hostile to the conservation arguments. I live in a passive solar house and collect rainwater for domestic use. These things make economic sense. The problem with this debate is the confluence of Science, Economics, and Politics. Unfortunately Scientists, Engineers and Economists are largely absent from the table. I have little hope for the short term result.

When the problem becomes acute we will move to nuclear fission and perhaps some of the thorium reactor designs. That will be combined with Fischer Tropsh or bio-reactor processes with both fossil and bio based feed-stocks. I also have great hope for in situ bio resource utilization of coal deposits. Solar and wind will have selected application also, but I think the massive amount of land and resources required/KW will much favor local smaller nuclear plants.

I'm hopeful that some of the recent advances with solar cells will make it out of the lab. I'm also hopeful energy storage technology will advance. Perhaps we will even finally crack the fusion nut.

The problem is people think we can just flip a switch and these things will happen. They want to place a huge tax on the economy that will cripple the ability to develop these technologies. They neglect the massive capital invested in current infrastructure and inventory. We have to have a rich, vibrant economy to be able to transition to these newer technologies. Imposing a huge energy tax will only ensure our reliance on current tech. and ensure that future generations are far poorer than they need be.

I don't understand why the greens can't understand that only wealthy societies have the luxury of worrying about environmental externalities. I would argue that the more wealthy the society, and the less expensive energy is, the more we have the ability to solve these issues.

After all a landfill is merely a plasma torch and a lot of energy away from total reclamation. Every waste stream we have can be totally reclaimed if the cost of energy is low enough. The cost of energy needs to go down, not up.

Dorian Taylor writes:

There is an interesting talk by the chemist Dan Nocera which echoes Laughlin with respect to the superiority of fuel. His solution, however, is to decentralize fuel production and to use hydrogen extracted from water by synthetic photosynthesis. Regardless of your position on that, it's worth a watch.

chitown_nick writes:

Thanks Monty.

I agree that there is a big problem with the people who "think we can just flip a switch and these things will happen." Working in a field strongly dependent on energy technology and markets, I appreciate that sentiment maybe more than most. The more I deepen my understanding of issues around energy, the stronger I see the dependence on traditional capital sources (venture, stock IPO's, etc.) more so than on government grants. A strong economy is a requirement for these capital sources to flow into new investments.

However, policy speculation leads many of these investors to pick one technology investment over another, so I am also aware that small policy decisions, or even the possibility of a policy change, can affect 10-20 year capital decisions, which snowball rapidly. Even given that, I am still leery of policy that picks winners - there may be an unknown contender out there that could do even better things for society at large.

The main point I think I would contend with is that "the less expensive energy is, the more we have the ability to solve these issues." I work in energy efficiency - helping industries continue current production (or increase production) while using less energy. It's essentially the principle that if you can make clothes while creating less scrap (by lining up your patterns in a thought-out way), you reduce your overhead and increase your profit. You make yourself less vulnerable to supply cost fluctuations - 10% of a smaller amount of input is a smaller effect on your business. However, if the commodity you're dealing with is less and less expensive, your incentive to smartly manage is decreases. Less expensive energy, then, makes less people interested in devoting resources to solving energy supply problems.

I suppose I also disagree that wealthy societies are the only ones who have the luxury of worrying about environmental effects. I would propose that exactly the opposite is true. Poorer societies are often poor because of a lack of a particular resource. Therefore, they must develop systems to conserve and manage these finite resources with much more dire consequences than do wealthy societies with an abundance of resources. One way to look at the energy problem, then, might be as a problem of how to motivate people, while they are wealthy, to develop new resources to replace the current (cheap) resources before they become dear. And also how to channel this motivation into a positive incentive rather than a fear incentive.

It's like talking yourself into saving for retirement. I want to save now so when I'm older I will be able to live comfortably; NOT, I should save, otherwise I'll be a wretchedly poor old man later. Both true, but one is a much more motivating means of presenting the situation.

Monty writes:

chitown_nick says:

The main point I think I would contend with is that "the less expensive energy is, the more we have the ability to solve these issues." I work in energy efficiency - helping industries continue current production (or increase production) while using less energy. It's essentially the principle that if you can make clothes while creating less scrap (by lining up your patterns in a thought-out way), you reduce your overhead and increase your profit. You make yourself less vulnerable to supply cost fluctuations - 10% of a smaller amount of input is a smaller effect on your business. However, if the commodity you're dealing with is less and less expensive, your incentive to smartly manage is decreases. Less expensive energy, then, makes less people interested in devoting resources to solving energy supply problems.

I suppose I also disagree that wealthy societies are the only ones who have the luxury of worrying about environmental effects. I would propose that exactly the opposite is true. Poorer societies are often poor because of a lack of a particular resource. Therefore, they must develop systems to conserve and manage these finite resources with much more dire consequences than do wealthy societies with an abundance of resources. One way to look at the energy problem, then, might be as a problem of how to motivate people, while they are wealthy, to develop new resources to replace the current (cheap) resources before they become dear. And also how to channel this motivation into a positive incentive rather than a fear incentive.

Short version:

This is of course a nuanced issue. I do agree that the policy issues can swing large industries around. I would prefer these issues be decided based on economics not political considerations. It is very difficult to plan a large capital investment when you are dependent on a regulatory regime that may change with the flick of a pen. It also then creates a dependent industry that tends to put up barriers to change. On that I'm sure we are in agreement.

I also understand where you stand regarding price incentive. This is a very long discussion to attempt in this format. I will just say that the typical use of accounting principles for EROI and such are horribly flawed on a fundamental level. They make no rational sense. Price alone should be the arbiter of decisions. I would like to see a freer market where local factors and broad externalities are accounted for. One where there are no subsidies to any energy industry. For instance, lets let the oil companies protect their own supply lines....

I did not mean to suggest a policy that artificially pushes the cost of energy down. Merely that as a society, the less expensive energy is in REAL terms, the better we can address many issues facing us presently.

As to the poor society vs nature thing. I meant it in the following context:

When the decision is one of feeding my children or preserving an endangered lemur. The lemur goes in the pot.

Only wealthy societies have the luxury of setting aside a place for the lemur to live. In addition, the inverse correlation of wealth and birth rate in a society are a positive for conservation efforts.

anonymous writes:

Are we really stuck with centralized power utilizing carbon based fuels because of aviation? Does aviation really force the hand of the other transport sectors?

A good benchmark for a battery might be adipose tissue- another kind of carbon battery. Gasoline has a slightly higher energy density but the efficiency is way down for gasoline relative to fat. For out society, there may be inefficiency in being stuck with liquid fuels and the transport infrastructure that consolidates power behind liquid fuel producers. Not to straw man Dr. Laughlin’s argument but we have solar planes now and rocketry has never found carbon based fuel adequate. General aviation may fall into the more relevant middle of that spectrum but why would far future aviation necessarily force other modes of transport to into line behind hydrocarbon liquid fuels and not things like carbon batteries? There have been so many novel transport proposals including massive underground ultra high speed mag lev trains and massive high speed dirigibles- do these need gasoline?

Laughlin says we will have things because people want them. When people have an addiction, one of the things they want to be free of is the pusher. People (assuming awareness and choice) do not want oil’s toll road ie the liquid fuel transport infrastructure. People do not want centralized food, transport or energy and it does not matter if it is centralized but in private hands. When the President talks about the nation being addicted to oil he is talking (whether he knows it or not) about oil supplanting democracy with plutonomy. Ordinary people don't want the fuel trucks, gas stations, refinerys and privately owned oil fields.

Allan writes:

I'm impressed by Bob Laughlin taking the time to write a point by point response to his critics here. That raised the level of discussion enormously.

Nevertheless, I must say I found the structure of this podcast interview jarring. First we start off with an eccentric perspective concerning "what the earth cares about". I enjoyed this part. The geologic perspective is too often lost in the shuffle.

Subsequently--too often for my liking--the reasoning degenerated into fait accompli due to failure of political will (based on the minor truism that people won't vote economic hardship upon themselves). This is cart before the horse if the listener is interested in determining the outlines of the failure of the human backbone in managing our future affairs.

Bob was quick to say that plants seem to optimized for CO2 extraction at certain established CO2 levels, or something to that effect, but reluctant to note that plants might be equally optimized to certain temperature bounds and soil conditions. Certainly, agriculture can be relocated over time as climate drifts. It's a matter of huge practical concern exactly *how fast* this agricultural adaptation can take place. When the time comes to adapt coastal Bangladesh into a shrimp farm, just how fast can locally-adapted mangrove forests be established?

Essentially the argument becomes that we lack the political will to vote hardship on our driving habits now, while passing along an uncertain food supply to following generations. A petty grievance averted ("because people want them"), to confront nature, red in tooth and claw later (short belts and starvation). Isn't that trade-off just Jared Diamond in slow motion?

It might very well be true that we lack the political will to make the responsible choices. If so, I'm wavering a bit on why we're having this discussion in the first place. Isn't the game about having a little bit more political will having identified the prospects clearly, rather than wringing our hands in resignation?

Bob is ultimately arguing that something like the The Mont Fleur Scenarios as applied in South Africa is a non-starter for global economic and environmental issues.

I'm doubtful myself, but inclined to continue frantically shaking the sofa cushions for a resource toward a better outcome.

Monty writes:
Not to straw man Dr. Laughlin’s argument but we have solar planes now and rocketry has never found carbon based fuel adequate. General aviation may fall into the more relevant middle of that spectrum but why would far future aviation necessarily force other modes of transport to into line behind hydrocarbon liquid fuels and not things like carbon batteries? There have been so many novel transport proposals including massive underground ultra high speed mag lev trains and massive high speed dirigibles- do these need gasolin

What is fat? It is a hydrocarbon. Nature has decided to store energy in hydrocarbons because it is a very good way to do it. Especially if you live in an oxygen rich atmosphere.

XO2 + CnHn = YCO2 + ZH20 + energy

This is how most life on earth functions. Then plants capture the CO2 and use photosynthesis to start the process over by making hydrocarbons and releasing O2. CO2 is used in commercial greenhouses to INCREASE plant growth. Attempting to demonize and regulate a molecule that is part of the cycle of life is insane.

RP1 is a rocket fuel based on kerosene. H2/LOX has a higher specific impulse, but the low energy density means it is only practical for upper stages. SpaceX is using RP1 and so did the Saturn V first stage, so I fail to see how hydrocarbons are not satisfactory.

The only solar powered aircraft we have built are totally impractical for anything other than very limited use, not transporting humans or cargo.

This is part of the problem. People who are not familiar with the constraints of technology see something on TV or in a popular magazine and think it can replace existing technology. This is simply not the case.

When I see people talking about high speed trans continental electric trains powered by nuclear energy, I at least know they are serious. However, The infrastructure cost to do this may still make aviation with synthetic hydrocarbons the better option. You only need a mile of pavement on each end.

The problem is, no expert in any one field is smarter than the aggregate knowledge of the economy as a whole. Even well meaning interventions on the part of regulators will have unintended consequences. Every time an artificial incentive is placed in the structure of the economy, it hampers our ability to find solutions that truly do conserve precious resources.

Many of the problems we face are a DIRECT result of government intervention in the economy. Things like government guaranteed flood insurance that allows people to build where no rational human would build. Government financed roads that then lead to urban sprawl. Government financed electric grids which distort incentives in the alternative energy markets. Artificially depressing the cost to borrow money which leads to squandering resources. Agricultural subsidies....on and on and on. I have a very hard time accepting that the government under the guidance of a few academics will do any better job changing the weather and altering the chemistry of life on earth.

I am afraid I may live to see religion and ideology retake the field from science and reason. This time belief will be wrapped in the language of science.

anonymous writes:

Monty

Thank you for the apt correction on rocket propulsion. But are we stuck with gasoline tanker trucks vice superconducting line? Are we stuck with combustion engines when we can at least do gasoline fuel cells? If we can do gasoline fuel cells is all hope lost for a battery that will at least suffice for general transportation, ie the metal fuels (powdered system) or even lithium titanate? If aviation needs liquid fuels then it seems fine that there are options with algae, but does that define everything else? Even telecommuting would seem to give us a lot of flexibility.

What I perceived coming from some of Laughlin’s comments was that a post coal/oil future is one based on synthetic liquid hydrocarbon fuels going into cars with combustion engines. Even if we end up mining our own trash i.e. the technology from Changing World Technologies, there is something very discouraging about this picture because it would seems tailor preserve the power of the oil dynasties and their attendant ideologies.

I heard it said that after WWII the Germans were forced into the field where they were forced to eat like primates and during this period there illness dropped off the charts. So maybe we can eat weeds and perm culture? Along the same lines is the notion that allowing all American farms to overgrow with prairie grass would scrub all the excess carbon out globally in ten years time as it completely rebuilds the soil and puts water back in the ground.

Monty writes:
Thank you for the apt correction on rocket propulsion. But are we stuck with gasoline tanker trucks vice superconducting line? Are we stuck with combustion engines when we can at least do gasoline fuel cells? If we can do gasoline fuel cells is all hope lost for a battery that will at least suffice for general transportation, ie the metal fuels (powdered system) or even lithium titanate? If aviation needs liquid fuels then it seems fine that there are options with algae, but does that define everything else? Even telecommuting would seem to give us a lot of flexibility.

The only things we are stuck with are the laws of nature and economics. I would love to see all subsidies removed from the system so we could see what really is the best allocation of resources.

Ironically I think that the result would be closer to what many in the green movement claim they want to achieve. Instead, by attempting to regulate C02 emissions and the economy, they will achieve the exact opposite.

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