A reader alerted me to a discussion of the "energy problem" sponsored by the science journal Nature (video below). Two nobel laureates, Mario Molina and Robert Laughlin, sat down with three young energy researchers to outline the problem and explore possible solutions. The energy problem has two aspects. First, the historically transient Age of Fossil Fuels will come to a close in about 100 years. Second, if we continue to burn fossil fuels at current rates for even another few decades, you can kiss our hospitable climate goodbye.
The gimmick in this discussion is that Molina is "optimistic" but Laughlin is "pessimistic" about making the 21st century transition away from fossil fuels toward renewable "clean" energy. I thought the introduction was hilarious in a dark kind of way.
Mario Molina helped to discover the link between CFC emissions and the depletion of the ozone layer. This experience has made him optimistic that science and politics could come to together to solve the energy problem. Robert Laughlin is much more skeptical. He believes economic forces may make any political solutions impossible.
Here's the funny part.
Which laureate will our young scientists agree with?
Don't you love questions which are asked seriously but can only possibly have one answer? To turn the inevitable answer on its head—irony alert!—who can doubt that these young energy researchers are going to side with the pessimist Laughlin? In fact, to them, humanity's energy future looks so bleak that there's really no point in getting out of bed. Why bother with nuclear fusion research? Why have children? Why not kill yourself now and avoid all that future suffering?
But of course the inherent optimism of these young scientists preordains that they will side with the optimist Molina, not the pessimist Laughlin. And they do.
Watch the video now. I will make a few remarks afterwards.
Molina's optimism is based on the international agreement which banned CFCs in order to fix the ozone depletion problem. But banning CFCs was easy. The action had a very limited scope, and CFCs could be replaced. The cost of fixing the ozone hole was very, very small. Do you see any such agreement about banning fossil fuels to fix the climate? Obviously not, for obvious reasons.
The "pessimist" Laughlin turns out not to be a pessimist after all. What a surprise! At the very end of the video, he says, in effect, "well, I was just kidding with all that Gloom & Doom stuff. People can solve problems. I was just trying to get these young people to think deeply about our energy dilemma."
Laughlin believes, as virtually all people do, that we can engineer our way out of the energy and climate problems. Technological optimism is the most common variety because it is a direct reflection of Human Nature. The bottom line is that bona fide, emotionally detached pessimism about the human future can hardly be said to exist. (There are few exceptions outside this blog). That's simply not the way human beings work. Authentic pessimism must be rooted in an unblinkered view of the Human Condition. But objective views of what humans are and what they are likely to do in the future as a result don't exist, or are extremely rare.
Optimistic anthropocentrism über alles!
Thus, for all practical purposes, there are no pessimists. Yet, paradoxically, as Laughlin implies, but does not truly believe himself, only a dark view of the human future could possibly bring about the impossible change in Human Nature required to fix the energy problem and all the other environmental problems Homo sapiens has created on this planet.