Fusion: An exploration of growth

So I read a yet-to-be-published book on fusion which was, essentially, a history of how many scientists have taken fusion personally and ruined their careers. In the end, it was really a story of how great the scientific method is - because it tries to strip wishful thinking and ego out of science. In theory, anyway - but in the case of fusion, the promise of abundant, cheap electricity clouds people's thinking.

That's all well and good, but it brings me back to a couple questions. First, for our purposes, it is important to remember that climate science is also a subject that people (including climate scientists) have a huge stake in, so it's important to be skeptical. That applies both ways, too - and is really the reason that the IPCC was set up.

But more than that, it really got me thinking about civilization's energy needs. Fusion power is so alluring because seawater can be turned into huge amounts of energy - and therefore cheaply solve the world's energy problems. And when most people think about energy problems, I think they think of energy shortages.

And that's fine, because there are a ton of places where there are energy shortages. Something like three quarters of the world's population would get a tremendous improvement to their quality of life with access to more clean, reliable electricity. But would new and better forms of power plants really help?

Because here's the thing. Humanity damages the environment - in lots of ways, we always have. The Romans decimated Europe's forests and contributed to the growth of the Sahara desert, for one pre-industrial example. Industrialization has done a lot of damage - no one can really try to dispute that. Much of the damage done was because of rapid, unregulated growth - the new, industrial cities grew faster than infrastructure, factories manufactured things without regard to their byproducts, and so on.

So if the rest of the world is industrialized by a quick infusion of electric power, is that a good thing?

The point I'm trying to get around to is whether growth is a good thing. According to basically every economist and politician, growth is the best thing ever - we measure our economic prosperity by, essentially, how much we've grown (or haven't grown, lately). Well, why?

Economic and industrial growth is good for two reasons. First, as noted before, plenty people in the world aren't benefiting from technology and energy the way, say, Americans and Europeans are. Economic growth in places like China is, in part, bringing a higher quality of life to people. In places with high quality of life, economic growth means that growing populations have access to new jobs - and that's good too.

But do we think that way? Or have we become obsessed with bigger and better economies?

Certainly, when people are losing jobs due to a shrinking economy - that's bad. But someday - and I'm sure I've made this point in earlier posts - growth will have to stop. And we need to look forward to that future.

And someday, we'll find a specific amount of energy that is enough. Perhaps we already have, in the form of communities like BedZED (I want to write a post about this soon). But when we find that point, will people be happy with that? Will politicians? Will we be content?

Or will we keep looking for growth? If we can solve our energy problems with renewable power - and there's a lot of cool research into how small solar operations can greatly benefit small communities in developing countries, as an example of how it could - will we still spend millions and millions of dollars on fusion research? Just because it's cool, and because we think we'll need even more energy?

Or can we find balance, as a species?

Sorry about all the questions - I'll get back to nuclear power and other topics shortly. Sometimes I just find myself in a wondering mood.


  1. Growth is obviously bad. Because with growth there are fewer starving children.

    Balance? The universe is not built on balance it is built on flow. If you want more flow this might interest you:

    Bussard's IEC Fusion Technology (Polywell Fusion) Explained
    Why hasn't Polywell Fusion been funded by the Obama administration?

  2. Probably because there's no evidence that table-top fusion experiments can ever break even (and, to date, none of them have come close). Is there fusion occurring? Sure - but that's not the hard part. The hard part is generating energy. That said, boron-11 is most certainly a promising fuel for future reactors because of its low neutron production, but the key word is "future". A working fusion reactor has been 30 years away since World War 2.

    I thought I addressed your first (sarcastic) point in my post; maybe I just wasn't clear enough. There are good reasons for growth - one of them is feeding children, while the other is accounting for population growth. If we assume that we're actually making progress in the world, then eventually the children will be fed (and my point is that they'd be fed better, quicker, and cleaner with solar power than fusion, fission, or fossil fuel). And eventually we'll run out of space for more humans. So will we still try to grow? And should we?

    To really delve into the balance versus flow idea, I should unpack my meaning. In my mind, nature progresses from steady state to steady state, and while there's flow (and sometimes-rocky transitions between them) nature is generally a balance set of interactions. Humanity is not, and hasn't been for a while.

    Just thinking out loud. I'd be interested in your thoughts.