A roadmap for growing prosperity while saving the planet

Chris Jablonski at ZDnet interviewed me recently about my next book, The Infinite Resource.   Here’s a short excerpt.  Click at the link at the bottom to read the whole interview.

In your upcoming book, The Infinite Resource – Growing Prosperity While Reducing Impact on the Earth, you point to knowledge as the path to a prosperous future. What inspired you to pick this theme?

RN: The book is really the intersection of two lines of inquiry. The first is the state of the environment and our natural resources. We’re simultaneously facing climate change and peak oil, ocean overfishing and fresh water shortages. As someone who cares about the future, I wanted to understand those challenges for myself.

The second is about innovation and its relationship to resource use and prosperity. I come from a tech background, so I’m used to the incredible onward march of Moore’s Law. But I was surprised to discover that something like Moore’s Law operates in solar energy. In the last 30 years, the price of electricity solar photovoltaic cells has dropped by more than a factor of 10. This decade, it’ll drop below the price of electricity from coal fired plants – the current cheapest. In 20 years, if the trend continues, it’ll be half the price of electricity from coal fired plants.

The driving force behind the reduction in solar energy prices is innovation. Scientists and engineers in the area keep coming up with new ways to make solar cells cheaper, thinner, lighter, and more efficient. That’s an accumulation of knowledge that has the promise to help us offset the depletion of a physical resource – oil.

That intersection led me to view our knowledge base itself as a resource.  And as a resource, knowledge plays by different rules that make it incredibly powerful. Unlike physical resources like oil, our stockpile of useful ideas and engineering designs and insights into the laws of nature keeps growing. Ideas don’t get destroyed or consumed in usage. If I have a piece of knowledge and I share it with you, I don’t have to give it up myself – its impact gets multiplied by the number of holders. And best of all, the right knowledge can substitute for or multiply just about any other resource – energy, labor, materials, land, even time.

Read More: A roadmap for growing prosperity while saving the planet | ZDNet.

Cheap Plastic Made from Sugarcane

Plastics are frequently manufactured from oil, but they can also be manufactured from ethanol.  With oil prices high, Dow is scaling up production of plastics from methanol derived from sugar cane in Brazil.  By implication, if next gen biofuel algae that produce ethanol come online, those will also be suitable feedstocks for making plastics (and cheaper than sugar, if the algae have the promised yields of 5-6 W/m^2).

Hat tip to FuturePundit for the link.

Making plastic from sugar can be just as cheap as making it from petroleum, says Dow Chemical. The company plans to build a plant in Brazil that it says will be the world’s largest facility for making polymers from plants.

via Cheap Plastic Made from Sugarcane – Technology Review.

Sheer Numbers Gave Early Humans Edge Over Neanderthals

Early humans may have overwhelmed Neanderthals by dint of sheer numbers.  Of course, that begs the question of why homo sapiens had such larger numbers than our homo neanderthalensis cousins.

Between 35,000 and 45,000 years ago, Neanderthals in Europe and Asia were replaced by the first modern humans. Why and how this transition occurred remains somewhat controversial. New research from the journal Science suggests that sheer numbers may have played a large role in modern humans’ eventual takeover; archeological data shows that early populations of modern humans may have outnumbered Neanderthals by more than 9 to 1.

via Sheer Numbers Gave Early Humans Edge Over Neanderthals | Wired Science | Wired.com.

Iron-rich dust fuelled 4 million years of ice ages







Iron-rich dust fuelled 4 million years of ice ages – environment – 03 August 2011 – New Scientist.

DUST is all that’s needed to plunge the world into an ice age. When blown into the sea, the iron it contains can fertilise plankton growth on a scale large enough to cause global temperatures to drop. The finding adds support to the idea of staving off climate change by simulating the effects of dust – perhaps by sprinkling the oceans with iron filings.

an oceanic desert because it lacks the iron crucial for plankton growth. That changes at the start of ice ages, when a wobble in the planet’s orbit causes an initial cooling that dries the continents, generates dust storms – particularly in central Asia – and sends dust onto the surface of the Southern Ocean.

The plankton that then bloom take the carbon they need from the water, causing the oceans to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to compensate. This cools the atmosphere further, creating yet more dust-producing regions, and the cycle continues, sinking Earth into an ice age.

This adds support to the notion of fertilizing the oceans with iron to increase plankton growth and sequestration of carbon (without acidification).  Experiments to date haven’t produced significant results, but that does not rule out the technique.