Malthus, Slaves, Servants, Energy, the Industrial Revolution: Is a Travelling Wave Reactor the Answer for Peak Oil and Peak Everything on a Planet with 7,000,000,000 people?

The English scholar Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) is famous for developing a theory of population that stated that the growth and wealth of societies are limited by their resources. All living things are limited by this law which is observed in the simple demonstration of bacteria growing in a petri dish with a finite supply of nutrients.

Basic Malthus:
  1. The increase of population is limited by the available resources.
  2. Population increases when resources increase.
  3. Misery and vice are the outcome of the unavoidable competition for scarce resources as they run out.
Malthus’ views had implications for social policy. If he is correct, then helping the poor by giving them food only encourages them to increase in number. Suffering in the present will be reduced, but suffering in the future will be increased as those dependent on charity increase in number. In a similar way, it would be dangerous for a country to import food because that would only increase the population and make it dependent on remote food sources. A nation should be able to feed itself from its local resources.

Malthus could not imagine the great increases in food production that were achieved after he lived, but even if he had lived to see the large increases in food production, he might have still said that eventually food supplies will reach a limit and populations will crash.

Shortly after Malthus’ time, the Industrial Revolution took off in England, and Malthus’ theory faded from influence. It seemed like limitless growth was possible. No one could explain why Malthus was wrong, but the evidence showed that populations were increasing while the standard of living was also increasing. Society never fell into the Malthusian trap.

Economists have debated for a long time why this Malthusian trap was avoided, and why the Industrial Revolution occurred first in England instead of somewhere else. Some views state that it was England’s control of resources from its colonies that made it rich. Others say that it was the unique situation in England that combined the right mix of political power, geography, history, culture, institutions and scientific knowledge. Another theory is that it was the application of new energy sources that cancelled out the usual Malthusian limitations on population growth. The Industrial Revolution happened just as coal was being mined and burned to power the new machines of industry.

The discovery of new energy sources also made food production increase tremendously. For example, fossil fuel energy is used to fix nitrogen which allows food to grow. Yields of corn in the US have increased tremendously in the last fifty years, but this is achieved by the industrial production of ammonia. Natural gas is burned to fix the nitrogen in the air into a form that can be used by plants. Without the input of fossil fuel energy, global food production would decline greatly. This energy source took millions of years to form underground, but we have used up most of it in two centuries. It is a finite source that will run out sometime in the next one or two centuries. Even if it doesn’t run out, the continuation of burning this fuel will lead to catastrophic global warming.

What are the implications of this depletion? Matt Ridley in The Rational Optimist explains fossil and nuclear fuel as the slaves of modern life:

Today, the average person on the planet consumes power at the rate of about 2,500 watts, … or 600 calories per second. About 85% of that comes from burning coal, oil and gas, the rest from nuclear and hydro… Since a reasonably fit person on a bicycle can generate about fifty watts, this means that it would take 150 slaves, working eight-hour shifts each, to peddle [sic] you to your current lifestyle. (The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley p. 236)

Ridley states that it was the sudden availability of coal and oil that was one cause of the end of slavery in the US. It coincided with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution. Machines could now do much of the hard work on farms, and do it more cheaply than the cost of buying and owning slaves. In addition to the moral arguments for ending slavery, it was also no longer economically rational.[1] The use of fossil fuels not only liberated slaves, but it increased freedom and living standards for everyone. The average person could now have luxuries that were once beyond the reach of kings. This greater material progress might be the cause of moral progress. It allows us to obtain more education, more entertainment, and more travel, all of which expand our empathy. Since the Industrial Revolution, violence has decreased and human rights have increased.

This way of looking at fossil and nuclear energy emphasizes that they were the causes of the Industrial Revolution and the escape from the Malthusian trap. Money is just paper. Gold and silver are just metals. Fossil and nuclear fuels are the real currencies that make our economy function. If we don’t find substitutes for these limited resources soon, it is difficult to imagine how our society will be structured in the future.

In a world of depleted energy sources, if some people wanted electricity, they would have to produce it on land with biofuels, hydroelectricity, wind farms and solar panels, or even with human power, but the total amount of solar energy falling on the planet (which creates these forms of energy) is limited in comparison with all the energy that was stored underground (as oil, coal and uranium) over millions of years. Perhaps some of the energy would be produced by animals, and human servants and slaves turning turbines, but these would also need energy inputs in the form of food calories. It might be a very hierarchical society, with most people having a low standard of living.

It is not likely that society would transform into a feudal hierarchy in which a small elite soaks in heated swimming pools while a hundred slaves pedal bicycle turbines to provide the heat for the mansion, but it is certain that there would be a reverse in the steady decline in the number of people working in food production. Whether you are rich or poor now, this shift back toward an agricultural lifestyle is unthinkable. There will be fewer people pushing information around the Internet, and many more people pushing ploughs.

This is why the environmental movement has so much trouble getting its issues onto the political agenda. Powerful corporations don’t really need to control the media or cover up truth because the average citizen essentially has the same fears as the richest corporate baron. When we hear about the horrors of the Alberta Tar Sands or the nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima, we want to just put our heads in the sand and not think about it.

Jeremy Grantham is the head of an asset management firm in Boston. He speaks quite bleakly of the vindication of Malthusian theory that is now apparent. He believes that in the early 21st century, the Industrial Revolution has ended and a new era has begun. During the Industrial Revolution, economists thought Malthus had been wrong, but now resources are running out and it is clear that Malthus’ laws cannot be avoided. The use of fossil and nuclear fuels for 200 years just allowed us to delay the end of the growth cycle in our little petri dish called Earth.

Grantham believes that energy problems will be solved with new technologies, but he points to shortages of other vital resources such as potassium and phosphorous (essential for fertilizers), water, soil and many metals. He believes that the negative effects of these shortages can be avoided if governments stop their short-term planning and aim for the long term. As far as energy is concerned, he sees hope in renewable energy and the next generation of better and safer nuclear reactors. Others point out, however, that uranium is running out just as fast as fossil fuels. As I wrote above, going backwards is unthinkable, so the futurists hope for a technological fix.

The wealthy philanthropist, Bill Gates, supports a next generation “travelling wave” nuclear reactor called Terrapower that he claims would be safe and use up spent fuel already in existence. By investing in this revolutionary, untried technology, Gates seems to be admitting what critics of nuclear energy have been saying for years; that is, the present concepts of reactor designs have no hope of solving global warming. Nuclear energy supplies about 14% of the world’s electricity, which is just about the amount we could reduce with a modest attempt at conservation. Raising this percentage to meaningful levels is impossible, given the dwindling supplies of nuclear fuel, spent fuel storage problems, and the political and ecological constraints on further construction of reactors.

Gates says the world population will increase from 7 billion to 9 billion this century, and that all these people deserve to be lifted out of poverty. The only way to do this is to give them “services,” and doing so requires cheap energy supplies for everyone. In Bill Gates’ vision, there is no Malthusian trap, no limit to growth that cannot be matched with improvements in technology. Reverting to a pre-industrial, low energy lifestyle is not an option in Gates’ vision.

I would rather hold out hope for a breakthrough in fusion energy, which, according to recent reports, may be within reach if we invest heavily in it now. Without a breakthrough, we will have to admit, as Jared Diamond says in his book Collapse, that the earth will solve the problem for us. We will return to a less energy intensive way of life by necessity. 

Renewables have a limited potential, and nuclear fuel is finite and likely to run out in the next few decades. In addition, any serious consideration of the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear catastrophes leads us to have serious doubts about the wisdom of continuing with this form of energy, regardless of how safe future nuclear technology might be. How can we talk about nuclear power as a solution to global problems when these accidents have already poisoned so much arable land for centuries to come? In both of these accidents, fortunate winds and a few good decisions (that came amid many bad decisions) prevented them from becoming much worse global catastrophes. If we continue with nuclear energy, we may not be so “lucky” with the next accident. When Chernobyl occurred, many people called it our “final warning” (the subtitle of a book and movie about the disaster), but since then the human race has only displayed its tendency to double down on bad bets. Russia and Japan have been undeterred from pursuing reactor sales of their “newer and better” reactor technology since their catastrophes.

Even if most people in the developed world don’t think too much about the energy crunch, they think about it enough to realize they don’t want to think about it too much. Rich or poor, we know our quality of life has depended on abundant energy supplies, but there are no answers on the horizon. Yet if we want to find a way out of the energy crisis, we’ll have to think a little more seriously about those “150 slaves” we each have at our command.

[1] A similar explanation of the economic rationale for American slavery is described by Charles C. Mann in the book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. African slaves were used only because they had more immunity to malaria, which was common in the South. Plantation owners had originally preferred to use indentured servants from Europe because they spoke the same language, came from the same culture and knew how to do farm work, and were less likely to flee because their bondage had an expiry date. However, in the South, these servants died from malaria in great numbers. The African slave trade was already established in Spanish colonies, and when American farmers started using Black slaves, they soon noticed an economic advantage in doing so. The region of the US that used slaves corresponds exactly with the regions where malaria was endemic.

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