Or, why I am not excited about fusion power…
I should preface by saying that I remain unconvinced that controlled fusion energy is possible or, if it proves so, economical. The last time I read about all of the investment money going into fusion research, however, I found myself wondering whether success would actually be a good thing.
We live in a time when the human race is about to become reacquainted with limits. Limits to energy, to phosphorus, to water availability, to arable land. Energy is, above all, the driving factor. With unlimited energy, we could extract phosphorus from seawater, desalinate billions of gallons and pump it to the deserts, even produce food in giant vats filled with synthetic nutrients. We could industrialize the shit out of this planet. We could, in just a few centuries, find ourselves living on Coruscant, the city-planet at the center of the Star Wars universe. And would we? You bet.
It would begin with fanfare. Fusion power would be announced as a grand breakthrough, a gateway to a limitless future. In desert regions facing water and food shortages, we would install desalination plants and synthetic food factories. Success! Millions of lives saved, thanks to fusion. Within one generation, we would pass a point of no return. From that point on we would be incapable of sustaining human civilization with energy from the Sun or fossil fuels. As synthetic food became cheaper and more refined, it would be accepted and farming would become quaint and old-fashioned – an inefficient waste of land and topsoil. Millions of acres would be restored to prairie and forest, and wildlife would flourish. For perhaps 100 years the human race would live in an age of abundance. The human population would boom, doubling to 15 billion, 30 billion, 60 billion over that time.
Then the problems would begin. Land that was once farmland, then restored, would become subdivisions. Cities would expand and merge. As the functioning of the biosphere sputtered and failed, we would replace natural functions with synthetic ones. Imagine huge machines the size of small towns consuming terawatts of electricity, filtering carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and splitting it into oxygen and carbon, returning the oxygen to the air and feeding pure carbon into synthetic food factories. Remaining natural areas would be overrun with tourists, and wilderness would become a concept of the past. As energy use grew exponentially, the sheer heat output would warm the planet even with no greenhouse effect, and we would be forced to dim the sun, spewing reflective smoke into the high atmosphere, to keep the planet cool. As land grew scarce, cities would expand upward, leading to a world in which our great-great-grandchildren lived and died under artificial light, eating artificial food, and breathing artificial air.
It is easy to imagine a world in which we replace dirty oil and coal with clean fusion, in which energy is abundant and everyone can live in a five-bedroom house with digital controls and flat-screen TVs in every room. Unlimited energy could get us there. It is also true, however, that with current levels of available energy we could provide the same level of abundance – if only we had one billion humans rather than 7 billion. We, as a species, have not shown an ability to match our population with our resources to maintain abundance. Instead, we reproduce to the point of scarcity, then depend on technology to push the limits higher, restore abundance, and keep growing.
My generation is already facing scarcity. Oil production has peaked, and we are living in a time when available energy per capita is decreasing. Wind and solar are growing exponentially, but it seems likely that this will not keep pace with fossil fuel depletion in a world with a growing population. Wallets will grow lighter and bellies will be empty. Like most, I would love to see fusion arrive on the scene and evaporate these limits. But when I project this forward, I can only see a world that I would not wish to live in.
Homo sapiens is not yet ready for fusion power. Before we harness the power of the stars, we need to build a collective wisdom: establish a desired human population size and devise incentives to maintain it, abandon our winner-take-all mentality in favor of “gross national happiness” and equitable resource distribution, and accept our responsibilities to the biosphere that has existed for billions of years prior to our arrival and has every right to continue for another billion years or more. Unless and until that happens, I can only hope that unlimited fusion energy remains a dream for the future, and that my generation continues the tumultuous journey from an age of abundance to an age of limits.