On the sustainability of progress.

I Find Karma (adam@cs.caltech.edu)
Fri, 9 May 97 10:07:57 PDT

Remember that discussion we had a week ago about energy sources, etc?
Well, I found a really good site on the Web about the sustainability of
human progress (in things like material goods, population growth, food,
energy consumption, and raw material consumption), and as we all know,
anything we find on the Web by definition MUST be true. :)

Check out the site yourself sometime, it's got lots of interesting
opinions and links:

Or, for a table of contents:

Or, for a specific discussion of global warming and how it is both
possible to avoid it and/or recover from it:

The page is maintained by John McCarthy, a professor of computer science
at Stanford. The guy who coined the term "Artificial Intelligence".
The guy who invented Lisp. The guy who got the Turing Award in 1971.
So we're not talking about a lunatic here; we're talking about a really
smart guy who thinks things through and looks to rational explanations
(like Rob) and/or economic explanations (like Rohit) of things.

Among the choice answers on the index page (which I still recommend you
visit, because it's got LOTS of links... for example, the page of
irrational quotations at
) are:

Q. Can the world grow enough food for 15 billion people?

A. Yes, it can, and with present technology. With better technology,
probably a lot more. Biotechnology based on molecular genetics is just
beginning to be applied to agriculture.

Q. Aren't our forests being exhausted?

A. No. In the industrial countries, the land in forest is stable and the
quantity of wood is increasing. In the tropical underdeveloped
countries, there is still substantial conversion of forest to
agriculture. Here are some details.

Q. Isn't the world running out of energy?

A. No. Nuclear and solar energy are each adequate for the next several
billion years. That's right; billion not just million or thousand. See
the discussion of Energy Problems for the general discussion and the
summary of Bernard Cohen's article justifying the billion year estimate.

Q. Isn't it important to conserve energy?

A. Energy needs to be regarded as just another commodity, to be used in
whatever quantity is cost-effective. It is available in whatever amounts
may be needed. Treating its conservation as a special goal has been
wasteful of human effort. We are the poorer for it. (6)

Q. When will we run out of oil?

A. Twenty years ago, I had been convinced that by the end of this
century we would be out of oil directly pumpable from the ground.
Obviously, we won't, and I am cautious about how much oil there is left.
Maybe 20 years, maybe 50 years, maybe 100 years, but I can't see it
lasting longer than 100 years.

However, oil can be extracted from oil shale, from tar sands (as it is
in Alberta, Canada) and synthesized from coal. These processes (except
for tar sands) are too expensive to compete with just letting it just
flow out of the ground in Saudi Arabia, but the technology was developed
when it was thought oil would run out soon. The costs would be
affordable. Taking these sources into account we probably have several
hundred years supply of oil, provided "greenhouse" warming permits its

Q. What will happen when all these sources run out?

A. Oil is readily replaced for heating and electricity generation.
However, it is not so readily replaced for transportation. If we can
develop good enough batteries, electric cars are a solution. If not,
liquid hydrogen will work for cars and trucks. Other solutions are being
promoted these days, e.g. compressed gaseous hydrogen, but I don't see
anything but liquid hydrogen that will both avoid the emission of CO2
and give the range of gasoline powered cars. In the end, I don't think
we will give up the range.

Q. What about the ozone layer and UV-B?

A. On the theory that chlorofluorocarbons put chlorine in the upper
atmosphere which destroys ozone, their manufacture has been banned. A 90
percent reduction would have been just as effective and less
economically disruptive, but industry seems to be adjusting to the total

The theory has widespread acceptance, but there are many scientifically
respectable dissenters. Because ozone is regenerated all the time, if
chlorofluorocarbons are the problem, the situation will return to
normal. There has been much exaggeration of the effects on humans of the
increases in UV-B that have actually occurred. Nevertheless, UV-B is
harmful to some plants. Experiments with shielding plants from UV-B show
that UV-B reduces growth in some plants even at normal levels.

Robert Parson has an FAQ about the causes of the ozone hole in the South
Polar Regions. However, ground level intensity of UV-B don't seem to
have increased appreciably anywhere. The sheep in Chile supposedly
blinded by UV-B turned out to have pink eye, a bacterial infection
common in sheep and not rare in American school children.

Q. Won't global warming do us in unless we drastically reduce our use of

A. No. Global warming can be avoided or reversed should it turn out to
be a serious problem. However, there is a thorough paper Why Global
Warming Would be Good for You by Tom Moore of the Hoover Institution.
See (5) for a reference to some critiques - mostly ill-tempered. It is
also controversial whether global warming is occurring.

Here is Health and Amenity Effects of Global Warming, also by Tom Moore.
It offers statistical evidence that regions of the U.S. with warmer
climates have lower death rates and also are preferred to colder
regions. Also death rates from most causes are greater in winter than in

Q. What about trash and garbage? Aren't we likely to drown in them?

A. The U.S. produces about 375 million tons of trash and garbage per
year. There is no real shortage of land where it can be put. It should
be piled quite high. What changed is that before the recent enthusiasm
for wetlands, filling in swamps with garbage was the approved thing to
do, and the land was available without cost. Now it must be paid for,
but the costs are quite bearable.

Q. Given all this uncertainty about the prospects for continuing
material progress, isn't it better to be safe than sorry?

A. Yes, but material progress is much more likely to be safe than is
stagnation. The proposals for limiting progress are likely to cost lives
from poverty and make humanity less capable of dealing with dealing with
the inevitable emergencies. The proposals claiming that safety lies in
restraining progress are more likely to lead to sorrow than continuing
progress in general.

Q. Isn't the static American standard of living evidence that some
things are getting short and hence more expensive.

A. No. Food, minerals and many manufactured goods continue to decline in
price. What has gone up are medical expenses, bureaucratic expenses of
all kinds, social security payments and costs of meeting environmental
and safety regulations. People voted for these expenses, and the
perception that the standard of living hasn't improved may be based on
discounting all these increased expenses as not actually contributing to
the standard of living. With all that it is not certain that the
standard of living has been static. Maybe it is just that those who
"turned on, tuned in and dropped out" are facing some of the
consequences. Moreover, our whole society is facing the consequences of
so many people having found education to be irrelevant.

Q. Have environmental and health and safety regulations been expensive
to our society.

A. Yes, they have cost about $625 billion per year according to one
estimate. My opinion is that many of the regulations have been
worthwhile, but a great many (probably most) have contributed very
little when compared to the costs they have imposed on individuals and

However, our society can survive even a large amount of irrational regulation. I remain an extreme optimist.


I'm for truth, no matter who tells it. I'm for justice, no matter who
it's for or against.
-- The Autobiography of Malcolm X