On this first day of a new year and a new decade, I want to thank each one of you for your thoughtful support and your leadership in our global community.
The past few days have brought many reviews of what was notable – bad and good – during 2019 and the decade 2010 through 2019. With trends of events and the signs of our times not so auspicious, I looked askance and only briefly at most of that judgmental commentary.
What was stirring in the back of my mind was global warming and what we might do in that regard. Bad weather events seem to be increasing. There is certainty among some that industrial human civilization is the cause of our misfortune, but doubt among well-informed others that we are not entirely to blame.
Those most worried tend to blame capitalism on the usual grounds – responding to our materialism and our self-promoting ambitions, private enterprise promotes consumption. The system has been so successful in meeting human needs and wants that it has arranged for the production of energy on a vast scale. Today, our production of energy, especially electricity and in transportation, adds CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the planet’s atmosphere, trapping heat and raising temperatures. The increase in temperatures, we are told, makes for new weather patterns and accelerates dryness in certain climes, such as southeastern Australia yesterday and today. Wildfires there are immense and rainfall is down 40% from the norm.
My thoughts this New Year’s Day are: yes, industrial civilization has converted naturally sequestered carbon into CO2 in the atmosphere; that is a function of technology made possible by first research science with experimentation and then by using proven science in technology to advance human civilization; that to no longer use current technology for the production of electricity requires the invention of new technologies.
The current technologies for energy production, though largely created by capitalist societies, were also used by all socialist regimes to fuel their economics and make their electricity. The source of the problem is not a system, but humanity itself. As the American cartoon strip of the 1950s once notably said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The historic role of capitalism was to jump start the industrial revolution and then, year on year, make the new form of civilization more and more technically advanced to the maximum possible scale. Markets are without question the most effective social dynamic for spreading technology and its capabilities to more and more people in every part of the world.
It is said from time to time that poor people in the U.S. today life longer and better lives than did kings and queens of yore.
So, global warming should be a call to use capitalism, not destroy it.
Market capitalism should be used to invent and commercialize new technologies to produce electricity in new ways which do not require the off-gassing of CO2.
One thing capitalism could do is invent ways of capturing CO2 and sequestering it or using its carbon in circular economy fashion so that it does not enter the atmosphere in gaseous form.
What about, then, a technological revolution in agriculture where trees and plants pull great amounts of CO2 from the air?
What about new technologies to store the energy produced from solar cells – using compressed air shifting from compression to decompression or giant weights on pulleys in mine shafts or pressurizing water so that when it is released, it drives a turbine to generate electricity or liquifying air by cooling so that when it warms, it expands to drive turbines?
Similarly, if we want our civilization to abandon cheap plastics which do not degrade, use capitalism to create and sell new technologies. BP, Dow, Coca-Cola, Danone and Unilever are investing in the chemical recycling of plastics to break them down for reuse. PureCycle Technologies has a new method of purifying polypropylene into a resin which can be used in making new products. A researcher at the University of Portsmouth has fashioned a bacterial enzyme which can avariciously digest polyethylene terephthalate plastics used for plastic bottles.
And what really has me puzzled is the widespread prejudice against the use of nuclear power. Is it certain that humanity can never invent a technology which will provide for the safe use of nuclear reactors or find secure storage for spent fuel or even come up with reusable sources of fission? I, myself, have a prejudice that the technology of the huge experimental ITER Tokamak fusion reactor in southern France will ever prove to be commercially viable or the plasma contained within magnetic fields will not someday burst its walls and melt everything it touches.
With best wishes for the coming year and decade.