Tag Archives: environmental issues

Recent Advances In Nuclear Fusion (And Why We Should Cheer Them On)

Nuclear fusion: Building a star on Earth is hard, which is why we need  better materials

There a great many technological advancements that are touted as “game changing” or “revolutionary,” but very few end up delivering on that promise. I still remember all the hype surrounding the Segway and the Virtual Boy.

Granted, these might have been just a byproduct of market hype, but there was a genuine belief that this technology would revolutionize the world. It just didn’t pan out.

I know I’ve discussed a number of technological advances that are very likely to deliver on that hype. I still believe that artificial intelligence, brain computer interfaces, and human enhancement will be true game changers for the future of humanity.

However, there’s one technology that I haven’t really touched on. Arguably, it’s the most needed technology in the world right now. It wouldn’t just revolutionize the world as we know it. It might literally save it.

That technology is nuclear fusion.

Now, there’s a reason I haven’t talked about it much, aside from it not being in any particular area of expertise for me. Nuclear fusion doesn’t exactly have a lot of sexy implications like AI or human enhancement. It also has a bit of a bad reputation among those who speculate about the future.

The running joke is that nuclear fusion is 30 years away and always will be.

If you’re not laughing, don’t worry. It’s not a very good joke and it’s not the least bit funny in the grand scheme of things. That’s because nuclear fusion, if we could get it to work on a large scale, would effectively solve the world’s energy problems. It would largely eliminate the need for oil, coal, natural gas, and most other forms of energy.

If it sounds too good to be true, then you’re starting to get the joke. However, this is no magical fantasy power source on par with Dilithium Crystals. Fusion power is very real. We feel it every day. It’s what powers the sun. It’s what powers all the stars we see in the night sky.

Most people who passed high school physics know what fusion is. Basically, you take a bunch of hydrogen atoms, the most abundant element in the universe, and fuse them together under tremendous pressure and heat. The end result is helium, the second most abundant energy in the universe, and a whole lot of energy.

Unlike nuclear fission, which splits larger atoms into smaller atoms, this form of power doesn’t rely on heavy radioactive elements. As such, it produces next to no waste or greenhouse emissions. It also allows us to use seawater as fuel, since all you need is hydrogen. As a power source, it is as close to perfect as you can get.

Naturally, countless engineers and scientists have spent years trying to make fusion a viable power source. For decades, it was promised to be the ultimate solution to our energy needs. However, no matter how many times someone said viable fusion was close, it never came to be. That’s where its reputation as always being 30 years away came from.

On top of that, fusion research has had a few famous frauds. The whole failure of cold fusion was not a good look for the industry. I suspect that affair convinced too many people that we would never have fusion.

Now, there are some legitimate engineering and scientific reasons for why fusion has been so difficult. Again, I’m not an expert and I’m not qualified to explain those reasons. I’ll just say that it often comes back to making a fusion reaction self-sustaining and containing the massive heat required to keep that reaction going.

These are not challenges that require us to break the laws of physics. These are mostly engineering challenges that require study, refinement, and new materials. In the same way you can’t expect blacksmith’s from the 17th century to make a modern car, you can’t expect our current engineers to make a fusion reactor without the necessary components.

Despite what jokes and skeptics may say, we have made real progress. Very recently, an experiment at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that utilized high energy lasers set a new energy record. That may not mean much to the average person and it certainly doesn’t mean that fusion has been perfected. It just means we’re getting closer to that magical break-even point.

That’s the point where the energy we get out of the fusion reaction is greater than what we put into it. To date, plenty of labs have created nuclear fusion reactions. They just take way more energy than they give off. Over the years, that difference has gotten smaller and smaller. Once it crosses that break-even point, then we have fusion and that will be a game-changer.

I cannot overstate just how much the world needs that kind of game-changer right now and I’m not just referring to the lingering damage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Every year, we get increasingly dire reports from the IPCC about the impacts of climate change. Despite what politicians and oil lobbyists say, we’re fueling these impacts with our reliance on fossil fuels.

Fusion, once refined and scaled, could do more than anything to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases. It might not eliminate fossil fuels completely, but it will make them far less necessary for all the energy we need in the present and the future. I would even go so far as to say that nuclear fusion might be the only way to adequately power the future we’re trying to build.

That’s why it’s not helpful to make jokes about how fusion is always 30 years away.

Instead, this might be the best possible time to actively cheer on the people working on nuclear fusion. Only one of them needs to succeed at getting to the break-even point. Only one of them needs to succeed at making a viable fusion reactor. At that point, the world will start changing in a profound way.

It won’t happen all at once, but it will be one of the most welcome and overdue advancements in recent memory. I certainly hope that this advancement happens sooner rather than later. If nothing else, it’ll make the world feel less dire so that the other, sexier advances in technology can proceed.

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Why We Should Embrace Synthetic Meat (As Soon As Possible)

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If you’re reading this, then there’s a good chance you drank milk at some point this year. You probably drank a lot more of it when you were a kid. The fact that you’re reading this proves that you didn’t die, as a result. That may not seem like a big deal, but compared to 100 years ago, it counts as a noteworthy feat.

Between 1850 and 1950, approximately a half-million infants died due to diseases contracted by drinking milk. If you do the math, that’s about 5,000 deaths a year, just from drinking milk. Keep in mind, these are children. That’s a lot of death and suffering for drinking one of the most basic substances the animal kingdom.

These days, death by drinking milk is exceedingly rare. Thanks to processes like pasteurization, milk is one of the safest substances you can drink. If anyone does get sick, it’s usually from drinking raw or unpasteurized milk. However, it’s so rare that most people don’t think about it. It’s just a normal part of how we manage our food and nourish ourselves.

I bring up milk because it nicely demonstrates what happens when we apply technology to improve the quality, safety, and abundance of our food. Despite what certain misguided critics may say, many of which probably haven’t experienced extreme starvation, this has been an objective good for humanity, civilization, and the world, as a whole.

Modern medicine and the Green Revolution, championed by the likes of Norman Borlaug, helped give us more efficient ways of producing massive quantities of food. Now, there’s another technological advancement brewing that might end up being more impactful. You’ve probably seen commercials for it already. It has many names, but for now, I’m just going to call it synthetic meat.

It’s almost exactly what it sounds like. It’s the process of producing meat through artificial processes, none of which involve the slaughtering of animals. For those concerned about animal welfare and environmental impacts, it’s the ultimate solution. At most, the animals contribute a few cells. The rest is grown in a laboratory. Nobody has to get hurt. Nobody has to go vegan, either.

It seems too good to be true and there are certainly aspects of synthetic meats that are overhyped. However, unlike other advancements like Neuralink or nanobots, this is already an evolving market. The first synthetic burger was made and consumed in 2013. It was the culmination of a long, laborious effort that cost upwards of $300,000.

Those costs soon came down and they came down considerably. By 2017, the cost of that same meat patty was around $11. People have paid much more for expensive caviar. That’s impressive progress for something that’s still a maturing technology with many unresolved challenges. With major fast food companies getting in on the game, the technology is likely to progress even more.

It’s here where I want to make an important point about this technology. Regardless of how you feel about it or why it’s being developed, there’s one aspect to it that’s worth belaboring.

We should embrace synthetic meat.

In fact, we should embrace this technology faster than others because the benefits of doing so will only compound.

I say this as someone who has tried an impossible meat burger. It’s not terrible. I wouldn’t mind eating them regularly if they were the only option available. That said, you can still tell it’s not traditional beef. That’s because this meat isn’t exactly the kind of cultured meat that’s grown in a lab. It’s assembled from plant proteins and various other well-known substances.

Ideally, synthetic meat wouldn’t just be indistinguishable from traditional beef. It would actually be safer than anything you could get naturally. Meat grown in a lab under controlled conditions can ensure it’s free of food-born illnesses, which are still a problem with meat production. It can also more effectively remove harmful byproducts, like trans fats.

In theory, it might also be possible to produce meat with more nutrients. Imagine a burger that’s as healthy as a bowl of kale. Picture a T-bone steak that has the same amount of nutrients as a plate of fresh vegetables. That’s not possible to do through natural means, but in a lab where the meat is cultured at the cellular level, it’s simply a matter of chemistry and palatability.

Meat like that wouldn’t just be good for our collective health. It would be good for both the environment and the economy, two issues that are rarely aligned. Even if you don’t care at all about animal welfare, synthetic meats has the potential to produce more product with less resources. On a planet of over 7.6 billion, that’s not just beneficial. It’s critical.

At the moment, approximately 70 percent of the agricultural land in the world is dedicated to the meat production. In terms of raw energy requirements, meat requires considerably more energy than plants. That includes water consumption, as well. Making meat in its current form requires a lot of resources and with a growing population, the math is working against us.

Say what you want about vegetarians and vegans when they rant about the meat industry. From a math and resources standpoint, they have a point. However, getting rid of meat altogether just isn’t feasible. It tastes too good and it has too many benefits. We can’t make people hate the taste of burgers, but we can improve the processes on how those burgers are made.

Instead of industrial farms where animals are raised in cramped quarters, pumped full of hormones, and raised to be slaughtered, we could have factories that produce only the best quality meat from the best animal cells. It wouldn’t require vast fields or huge quantities of feed. It would just need electricity, cells, and the assorted cellular nutrients.

Perhaps 3D printing advances to a point where specific cuts of meat could be produced the same way we produce specific parts for a car. Aside from producing meat without having to care for than slaughter animals, such a system would be able to increase the overall supply with a smaller overall footprint.

Needing less land to produce meat means more land for environmental preservation or economic development. Farming, both for crops and for meat, is a major contributor to deforestation. Being able to do more with less helps improve how we utilize resources, in general. Even greedy corporations, of which the food industry has plenty, will improve their margins by utilizing this technology.

Increased supply also means cheaper prices and if the taste is indistinguishable from traditional meat, then most people are going to go with it, regardless of how they feel about it. There will still be a market for traditional, farm-raised meats from animals, just as there’s a market for non-GMO foods. However, as we saw with the Green Revolution in the early 20th century, economics tends to win out in the long run.

It’s a promising future for many reasons. There are many more I could list relating to helping the environment, combating starvation, and improving nutrition. Alone, they’re all valid reasons to embrace this technology and seek greater improvements. If I had to pick only one, though, it’s this.

If we don’t develop this technology, then these delicious meats that we love could be exceedingly scarce or prohibitively expensive in the future.

Like I said earlier, the way we currently produce meat is grossly inefficient. At some point, the demand for meat is going to exceed the current system’s capacity to produce it in an economical way. At that point, this delicious food that we take for granted might not be so readily available and the substitutes might not be nearly as appetizing.

The issue becomes even more pressing if we wish to become a space-faring civilization, which will be necessary at some point. If we still want to enjoy burgers, chicken wings, and bacon at that point, we’ll need to know how to make it without the vast fields and facilities we currently use. Otherwise, we might be stuck dining on potatoes like Matt Damon in “The Martian.”

While the situation isn’t currently that urgent, this is one instance where a new technology is the extra push. You don’t have to be a major investor in companies like Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods. Just go out of your way to try one of these new synthetic meat products. Let the market know that there’s demand for it and the machinations of capitalism will do the rest.

I understand that our inner Ron Swanson will always have a craving for old fashioned burgers, steaks, and bacon. Those things don’t have to go away completely, just as traditional farming hasn’t gone away completely. However, when a particular technology already exists and has so many potential benefits, it’s worth pursuing with extra vigor.

The planet will benefit.

The people will benefit.

The animals will benefit.

Our society, as a whole, will benefit.

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Filed under biotechnology, CRISPR, Current Events, Environment, futurism, health, technology

Why Evil Billionaires And Politicians Will Save The World

The world is fraught with so many problems. There’s climate change, poverty, economic turmoil, disease, and reality TV shows. At times, it seems so overwhelming. Even though I’ve argued the world is getting better by most measures, I don’t deny there are still a lot of problems in the world that need solving.

So who’s going to solve them? Who will save us from all these destructive forces and guide the human race forward? Movies, TV shows, comic books, religion, and Oprah have convinced us that it’s the selfless, loving heroes who live to dry the tears of sick orphans and shit rainbows who will save us. Hell, a part of us needs it to be true.

However, in the same way media that pretends us that sex involves a lot more rose petals and spanking than it really does, reality presents a colder, harsher truth. Like the making of a sausage or the outcome O.J. Simpson trial, the truth tends to shatter your preferred fantasy with a hammer and shotgun.

The hard truth, in this case, is that superheroes, saints, and legendary kings who pull swords out of stones won’t save us. Robert Downy Jr. is not going to put on a giant suit of armor and defeat terrorists. Christian Bale is not going to put on a costume and beat up all the criminals. In reality, it’s the evil billionaires and self-serving politicians that will save the world.

I’ll give everyone a moment for their eye to stop twitching. Take all the time you need. I have a feeling I’m going to get plenty of hate for this post. It wouldn’t be the first time either. I know this is not a popular sentiment, especially from someone who loves comic books and superhero movies as much as I do. It is, however, the cold hard truth.

Before you try to punch me through your computer screen, please hear me out. I’m not bringing this up to upset people. I’m talking about it because sometimes, a dose of harsh truth is necessary. In a world where too many people look for easy solutions to impossible problems, it helps to maintain some level of perspective.

In this case, it’s less about perspective and more about understanding how the world works and how people, in general, govern their affairs. Most people who aren’t billionaires or in high positions of power probably have some vague, albeit cynical understanding of how they operate. Whether you’ve seen every Michael Moore documentary or watched one too many Chuck Norris movies, the vision is similar.

You imagine a dark room in a highly secure, underground bunker. In that bunker, there’s a group of men in fancy suits. Sometimes they’re old white men. Sometimes they’re evil foreign dictators. Sometimes they’re scheming celebrities who fantasize about all the ways they’ll corrupt the world’s youth.

It’s a mental picture that plays out in every James Bond movie and every hippie fever dream. We all think that the politicians and billionaires of the world live only to destroy the environment, spit on poor people, and pleasure themselves while sick children suffer. It’s a simple, understandable sentiment that makes us feel like the underdogs in our own movie.

However, this isn’t a movie, nobody is an underdog, and that mental picture is complete bullshit. The reality is that evil billionaires and corrupt politicians are still human, like you and me. They still want similar things. Sure, they may want crazier things like a pool of orphan tears to swim in every now and then. At the end of the day, though, they still eat, sleep, and get horny like everyone else.

As such, they have a vested interest in making sure the world stays in one piece and people don’t die needlessly. They need a world that’s stable, prosperous, and not full of rotting corpses. They need it because their power, wealth, and everything in between depends on it.

It’s the harshest, but most refreshing truth, in a sense. Since we don’t live in a James Bond movie, the companies, governments, and religious groups have a lot of incentive to keep the world in one piece. Sure, they’ll still take stupid risks that end up causing a lot of destruction, but in the grand scheme of things, they want the world to keep turning. They can’t get money, power, and adherents if it doesn’t.

That’s why all the evil organizations and sinister dictators we see in fiction wouldn’t last a day in the real world. It doesn’t matter if they’re as smart as Lex Luthor or as devious as the Red Skull. If they enter this world, they have to go through Disney lawyers, criminal cartels, entrenched lobbying groups, corrupt bureaucrats, and governments with bloated military budgets. They really don’t stand a chance.

I can sense that some are still skeptical, though. I imagine the left-leaning crowd will scoff at the notion that big corporations will somehow save the planet. The crowd on the far right will scoff even harder at the idea that governments, dictators, and all things un-American will do any good whatsoever.

Well, while you’re scoffing, all those things you don’t think can happen are happening. Countries like China and Saudi Arabia, who have an abysmal human rights record, are investing heavily in green energy, biotechnology, and robotics. They are making a concerted effort to be the greenest, cleanest, most efficient society on the planet.

Now, they’re not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. Don’t think for a nanosecond they are. Their goals are more pragmatic. They understand that relying on fossil fuels, polluting the air, and trashing the environment is not good for the stability of their country. Even if they’re evil to the core, they like they’re power and they want to hold onto it.

Like the Empire in “Star Wars” or Big Brother in “1984,” the biggest concern of any government, especially the repressive ones, is preserving power. They can’t do that if their society is dirty, inefficient, and disease-ridden. They also can’t do that if their people are sick, weak, or improvised. They need doctors, scientists, lawyers, and henchmen who don’t fall after a single judo chop.

That means these sinister rulers need to create a functioning economy that allows at least some of its citizens to prosper. If they don’t, they risk losing everything. They know as well as any high school history student that the Soviet Union, the Ottoman Empire, and the entire state of Venezuela collapsed for being a bit too evil and corrupt.

The same goes for evil billionaires running businesses that make the Lisa Simpsons of the world cry. Whether they’re cigarette companies, oil companies, or companies that sell lead-laced candy, they need a society that’s peaceful and prosperous. They need people to be alive and healthy enough to actually buy their shit.

That’s why companies that people love to hate will donate billions to charity, invest in new technology, and fund the kinds of social change that combats our tribal urge to slaughter one another for petty reasons. Money may very well be the root of all evil, but it doesn’t discriminate. Money from a minority is as good as money from Bill Gates.

Again, these big companies don’t do what they do out of the goodness of their greedy hearts. They do it to make more money. Sure, big pharmaceutical companies may charge obscene prices for life-saving drugs, but they’ll also work to create new drugs that save even more lives.

On top of that, some evil companies go so far as to compete with one another. If one company does something particularly evil, like make a drug that only treats the symptoms of a disease rather than cure it, another might try to give that company a big middle finger by creating a cure instead. Evil selfish people are petty like that. The fact their actions save millions of lives in the process is just an afterthought.

That’s the greatest irony. In order for all this peace and progress to be made, we need evil billionaires and corrupt governments to embrace some of that evil in order to make the progress we seek. We need them to be selfish, paranoid, and cunning.

That’s why it won’t be some selfless scientist, gentle nun, or peace-loving hippie who will fix the problems of this world. It will be some ruthless company or corrupt government looking to strike it rich, gain power, or selfishly fuel their ego. It’s callous, but the end result still benefits everybody.

For all we know, these devious people just want to do what they do to get laid. If that means running a country that funds education and green energy programs or creating a business that makes billions treating disease, then we should cheer them on. Sure, they’re still not heroes, but they’re going to save our asses and expect us to kiss theirs. If it means a better, safer world, then I’m ready to pucker up.

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