Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Virtues of Scarcity

This morning on The Current, Anna Maria Tremonti was talking about geothermal electricity sources. Iceland gets virtually all of its non-transportation-related energy from geothermal sources. It's easy there because they have geysers of hot water on the surface of the land. California also produces quite a lot of electricity from geysers (if I heard correctly, sometimes it's up to 20% of their electricity production). According to The Current, the technology exists for geothermal-electric generation to be used everywhere. One technique is to dig a tunnel about 500 feet deep (where the rock is hot), close off an area down there, and pipe down water. The water comes back up as steam; the steam is used to create electricity; and the cold water is sent back down the hole again. This form of electricity would be extremely cheap.

This got me thinking about what would happen if North America had virtually unlimited, dirt-cheap electricity. Hmmm. My guess is that we would use so much that we'd either start damaging the earth or use it all up.

For example, we might decide that the only way to cope with cold Canadian winters is to build giant domes over cities and heat the whole thing. Then we'd consider it an abrogation of human rights to not heat every settlement, no matter how small (and of course to cool them in summer). How about the idea of heating the rivers so we can fish and swim year-round? And freeze some in the summer so we can skate outdoors. Or we'd start using unbelievably inefficient manufacturing methods. Or prices would drop on goods so we'd start treating even more items as disposable. How about one-trip plastic cars? Disposable houses? Then we'd look back and be amazed that we could ever have survived without all this stuff. "How primitive and rustic!" we'd say, referring to those days when we had to change our clothing during the year to cope with temperature changes.

Unless there's scarcity and a price incentive, we seem to use up everything. We have water shortage issues even where I live, which is a small splotch of land surrounded by the Great Lakes - and in some communities, the only thing that is holding back complete paving-over of farmland with subdivisions is the availability of water. At one point, we'd used up the bandwidth available for transmitting radio waves - now technology has increased that limit, but who knows how long it will be until we bump up against similar constraints on our seemingly endless supply? A mature capitalist economy turns out to be one that is intent on exploiting every resource to the limit, and so destroying itself.

Perhaps that's a slightly too negative reaction to the possibility of using geothermal-electric generation...


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