Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Sustainability Challenge

This is a comeback post, after a rather long hiatus. Thus a statement of purpose is probably in order. If the quest for alternate energy is a quest towards sustainability, then what is the Utopia that the quest for sustainability should lead to?

Sustainability is today the biggest challenge facing human civilization. Sustainability essentially means two things - the survival of human civilization, and the continuance of life in Earth's biosphere with a proportionately small or absent human footprint.

The separation of these two goals is rather important. While humanity has been responsible for altering the natural environment, in the slightly longer term these changes are meaningless, in the view of the changes nature itself brings about. Global warming has been going on ever since the ice age started ending and human intervention (in either direction) might not matter much over the span of even a few decades. Events in the past have led to mass global extinctions, at least one of which almost wiped out the human race even before civilization began.

Another reason for the separation is that the human race probably already has a global footprint which which is too big for nature to sustain. Cities are the most unsustainable places from the nature perspective - a city is an organism built and sustained only by human intervention. And as cities grow, and more and more of the human population gets concentrated in them, the more they get isolated from nature. The solution then should be to make that isolation total.

Today cities only "take" from nature in the form of land and mineral resources, fresh air and water. Nature does not really get much in return - pollution perhaps. But what if we isolate cities from nature?

What if the cities could manage with the amount of resources they already had? Resources could be recycled - almost all resources. We are not talking about today - we are talking about Sustainability Utopia. If we had the technology to build a city with some resources, and then run the city with those resources, recycling to the maximum extent possible (including air and water) and where additional resources are required, bring them in from extra-terrestrial bodies, we could make that city a microcosm within the biosphere - one that neither takes from, nor gives to the rest of the biosphere.

This has two advantages. The first and more obvious one is that we give nature a chance to recover from our ravages and become more of itself. The second is probably the more important one - we delink ourselves from the destiny of the rest of the species on the planet - at least the ones in "nature". We thus isolate ourselves from the vagaries of planetary cataclysms like asteroid hits, super-volcanoes, super-storms, and ice-ages. Moreover, such mini-biospheres could be re-created on other planets, or even in space. They would represent the biggest ever triumph for human civilization over the forces of nature.

Apart from a myriad of technologies that would need to be generated to get to this utopia, probably the biggest hurdle from the physical universe would be the huge amounts of energy required to power these mini-biospheres. The biggest source of energy in our part of the galaxy is the sun. The sun presents us an option to hedge our bets against a civilization-threatening event. If we can make solar technology so powerful and easily available that each and every building on earth can generate its own power, and feed into a smart-grid to give and take power as required, we will do to power what the Internet has done to information. But this would essentially be an intermediate step. In the longer run, we should put huge solar panels into space, orbiting the earth, and transmitting power to individual households till the day power becomes virtually free. The only catch is that the power consumers on earth must not pollute - in any manner at all.

Should we then ignore all other forms of energy since the ultimate smart source is solar? No, because the solar utopia is still a few decades away. In the meantime the pursuit of other alternate forms of energy will fuel the drive to reduce the footprint of human civilization on nature. It also has the potential to change global politics presenting a huge potential for conflict reduction, since energy is a major source of human conflict. Not just will we not see wars over oil, but if energy is abundant, we can desalinate sea water, reducing conflicts over water.