On false hope

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.


Well, here we are in 2023, and maybe some of you have been making New Year’s resolutions, and maybe you’re even still sticking to at least some of them. I’ve written before about the dangers of hope, at least when not accompanied by effective action. The most pernicious form of that is false hope: the mistaken belief that not only will they think of something, they already have thought of something. Isn’t that just fine and dandy?

Naturally, this putative solution will be a technology of some sort, because we always seem to suppose that new technology is the answer, even though it is technological hypertrophy that has landed in out current mess. The topical example right now is that evergreen favourite, nuclear fusion.

Of course life on this planet has been pretty much dependent on nuclear fusion for the last 3.7 billion years or so, courtesy of the sun, which is itself an immense fusion reactor. That’s not the kind we’re talking about here, though. Usable fusion energy down here needs to be contained – we wouldn’t last long in the heart of the sun, after all – and the energy needed to provide that containment plus the energy to set off the fusion reaction in the first place has a tendency to exceed the amount of energy we can get out of the process as a whole. Obviously, this is not terribly useful in itself.

Recently there have been many articles claiming that this barrier has been breached. Well, an experiment has been performed that seems to show that we can actually get more energy out than we put in, if we don’t count some of the energy that we put in.

But experts have stressed that while the results would be an important proof of principle, the technology is a long way from being a mainstay of the energy landscape. To start with, 0.4MJ is about 0.1kWh – about enough energy to boil a kettle….

Prof Justin Wark, professor of physics at the University of Oxford, added that while, in principle, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory could produce such a result about once a day, a fusion power plant would need to do it 10 times a second.

And there is another point: the positive energy gain reported ignores the 500MJ of energy that was put into the lasers themselves.

The Guardian, 13th December 2022

But let’s not be nay-sayers. Let’s just imagine for a moment that this time the researchers have finally cracked it. Indeed, let’s imagine that somehow every power-station in the industrialised world had been magically transformed into a fusion-powered generator overnight. What would that actually achieve?

Would it fix our transportation issues? Not unless we invent some sort of battery technology that doesn’t spontaneously burst into flame and is not so heavy and bulky as to preclude the development of the electric truck or the electric container ship. (In case you hadn’t noticed, neither of those things is available right now.) Nor will it conjure uo the physical resources need to build these things out of thin air. I’ve already waved my magic wand twice; three times seems excessive.

Would it fix our food issues? Well, we don’t have electric tractors or combine harvesters yet, and of course abundant free electricity would have zero impact on issues such as soil erosion or the declining nutritional value of our food or the depletion of water sources. (Look up fossil water if you want to be depressed.) Nor would it do anything to improve the grotesque maldistribution of food and water which we find today.

Would it fix the biodiversity crisis? Again, it’s hard to see how cheap, abundant electricity would help. If anything, it would merely empower capitalists in their quest to exterminate all other life on the planet, in the finest Dalek tradition.

Indeed it’s hard to see how it would do anything, really, beyond allowing the current Business As Usual™ scenario to stagger on for a few more decades, doing even more harm to the vast majority of people, so say nothing of other living beings. That’s not really a future to be very hopeful about, when you look at it.

That’s not to say that we can’t build a liveable future. Plenty of people across the globe are doing that right now, and at least some of them are going to succeed, at least to some extent. The future is not going to contain electricity too cheap to meter – that promise is older than I am, and I ain’t no spring chicken. It won’t contain iPhones or data-centres or plastics or inverted GM corn syrup. We can do without those things, and better without those things.

But you – yes, you, the person reading these words – you are going to have to make that happen. It won’t come from scientists in white coats, and it sure as hell isn’t going to come from whichever government you happen to live under. Whether or not Gandhi actually said it, be the change you want to see in the world. Seriously, that’s what it comes down to. Change doesn’t happen because you hope it will. Change happens because you make it happen.

Have a great year. Surprise yourself.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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