Monday, November 16, 2009


Power failures are intended, I believe, to remind us that the most important technological innovation of the modern age is the discovery of electricity. That reminder came again abruptly yesterday evening at 5:30 p.m. Light enough remained to let us find the flashlights and, using those, to find the matches to light the candles. The message for me, personally, was that while technology may be neutral, its absence can be felt as something positively annoying. Light is that ultimate symbol of value. Let there be light!

I’ve spent a substantial part of my life studying technology from various points of vantage. This began for me as a personal point of curiosity while I was still in the Army and later became a professional activity. I remember once in the service filling an empty hour looking up the respective populations per square mile of India and the United States and then calculating the U.S. population as it would be if it had India’s population density. That is a technological preoccupation? Absolutely. By the time I first chanced across Blake’s “Energy is eternal delight,” I lit up, as it were, already adequate to understand that feeling.

You cannot spend your time doing things of that sort without becoming painfully aware of the fact that our civilization is largely defined by the discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels beginning early in the nineteenth century. In my personal parlance we have been and are still traveling on a bubble of oil, suspended in air, as it were, but this bubble, like the soapy kind, is of a brief duration. What follows after we’ve exhausted oil, gas, and eventually all coal? What I am hoping is that we shall still have the most important gift that we discovered: light.

That may happen if we eventually master fusion technology. The interesting aspect of that potential development is that it promises to give us light and modern communications and, possibly, energy enough for emergency transportation—and not much more than that. The reasons for that are that the yield of energy obtained, per unit of new energy needed to get it, will be modest. I’ve summarized the issues on LaMarotte here. Still, if we could get there, it would be a great boon—although, at present, mastery still eludes us. But if this brief blip in history, the Age of Oil, now stumbling towards its chaotic end, leaves us with electric power, that will have justified its vast excesses and violence for endless generations to come.

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