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« Only Gods or Angels | Main | Where to start? »

June 11, 2006


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Jan-Willem Bats

"Will the looming peak oil crisis arrive within the next decade, or will new discoveries and techniques give us half a century to transition away from fossil fuels?"

We do not need half a century for that.


Jan-Willem Bats

I'm just gonna see if I can turn that into a clickable link:

Honda Plans Hydrogen Cars On The Road In 3-4 Years

John B

Mr Bats -

Does Honda specify what powers the creation, storage, and transportation of the hydrogen? AFAIK, most hydrogen generation (ignoring storage and transportation power costs) is performed via commercial power - which in turn is primarily (~70% in the US) generated via various hydrocarbons, as per http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epm/tablees1a.html

John B

Mike -
You wrote, "The global situation is becoming a vortex, a maelstrom in which multiple risk factors will swirl and combine to create sudden new crises for which we may not have time to prepare."

While true in the abstract, I'd suggest that the global situation has BEEN and CONTINUES to be a maelstrom with ... "sudden new crises for which we may not have time to prepare."

Examples: 9-11. Cuban Missile Crisis. Collapse of the USSR. Black Friday, 1929. Etc.

The trick is to do the best we can with what we've got. One of CRNano's great strengths is IMO that it's trying to get more data on what risks can be forseen, and trying to pull them into a form which can be used to make relatively quick decisions as and when needed.

I hope that (at least some of) the hazards CRNano's talked about never come to pass. However, I'm glad that they ARE being discussed, 'just in case'...

-John B

Mike Treder, CRN

John, you're right, of course, that it's never been easy to anticipate or prepare for crises. CRN's concern is that the stakes keep getting higher, leading toward genuine existential risks. The cost of being suprised couldn't be higher -- but are we willing to pay the price for preparedness?


"the stabilizing might of the U.S. could be in decline"

This is a strange comment. The threat of these future technologies in the hands of the US as a declining superpower who sees itself as a "stabilizing" force is just as dangerous as the threat from any other country.

Jamais Cascio


Good post, and it will come as no surprise to you that I think your collection of "problems that lie ahead" is spot-on. These problems are, in many ways, cross-reinforcing; I'd also add global poverty to that list, as well, as it has the potential to be a multiplier for all of the other listed problems (this also recognizes the point that John B makes above, that problems like these are not necessarily new ones).

Ever the -- well, I wouldn't really call it "optimist," but "anti-defeatist" is kind of awkward -- what this list says to me is that we might want to think about ways to solve more than one problem at once. What kinds of solutions may be out there that offer "economies of scope," and could give us a chance to deal with ongoing challenges in an intelligent and long-view way?

-Jamais Cascio

Chris Phoenix

Craig, I think we agree. My point was that the current dominant position of the U.S. does act as a damper on regional adventurism (whether or not we approve of how the U.S. uses its might). But as the balance of power starts to shift from unipolarity toward multipolarity, it will almost inevitably become less stable.

Jamais, you're right about global poverty. Still another item that should be added to the list is pandemics. Let me know when you figure out the key to scalable solutions...


We humans live by destroying. We solve (= destroy) one problem, but of course, thanks to our limited understanding, we thereby create even more. But survival does not depend on the choices "we" make. It depends on the choices I make, on those made by you, Chris and everyone else. Does that make a "we". Our choices ought to be a 1000 miles apart. To me, this is how the world goes round. I find myself increasingly, not exactly hopeful, but sort of resigned. I believe climate change will turn out to be irrelevant, likewise for Peak Oil and perhaps extending to MM as well.


Thanks for the reply, Mike.

I'm not entirely sure I do agree I'm afraid. Firstly, it should be asked, "Stability for who?" The answer is, unfortunately, one of self-interest i.e. stability for the US. This has had good outcomes for the US, but unfortunately often not for others.

Secondly, I do not think it is true to say that the US has prevented regional adventurism. In many ways, the international arena has seen an increase in the risks of WMD proliferation and terrorism as a direct response to US unilateralism (which, in turn, is a direct outcome of unipolarity).

In other words, regional adventurism has been encouraged in the last few years. In particular, I point to: China's military expansion as well as their drive to shape events directly related to what they perceive as US hegemony (economic and cultural expansion through South America and Africa for example); North Korea's procurement of WMD; Iran's alleged attempt to get WMD. (I should also say that, before these risks, regional adventurism was carried out, just often done with the blessing of the US, Europe, and the USSR, depending on how far back into history you want to go).

Please understand, I'm not trying to "blame" a particular country for the world's ills. Any hyperpower or superpower or even just a state would behave and react in the same manner, as is evident throughout history. When and if India and China rise to power, they will begin to behave in the same way: self-interest.

For me, the fundamental problem lies with the technology itself (one could say all technology) and the framework within which it operates i.e. it is being driven and developed primarily by the military-industrial complex with only two real focuses in mind: profit, and power. Until that is addressed, the problems of poverty, climate change, and peak oil will only ever be addressed for consumers, and for states with the power to carry out their self-interest.

This may sound pessimistic or defeatist, but I remain optimistic at the ability of humans to overthrow tyrrany and oppression. I would just like people to realise that nanotechnology, RFID, biotechnology, biopharming and a host of other emerging technologies are, in their current form, going to repeat age old mistakes.


Craig, it's well known and well documented that multipolarity is the least stable situation of the balance of power. Not sure if you're trying to dispute this, but if you are, I can offer links, sources, and arguments as to why multipolarity is worse.

World War I and II, etc.


Oh, and when someone mentions stability, they are usually referring to world stability.

Jan-Willem Bats

Mr. B.

Plenty of research suggests hydrogen will be easily and cheaply manufactured in the future.

I have read news items about complex molecules that produce hydrogen from water when sunlight hits them, and I've read about mutant (genemodded) algae whose hydrogen production has been increased a 100.000 fold. It would need to be increased yet another 100 times in order to become commercially feasible.

After that, hydrogen production can be expanded as fast as you can grow algae. Which is exponentially.

I have posted more about this on my blog. Just browse the archives.

Hydrogen will be cheap and plentiful. For now, converting conventional power to hydrogen will suffice.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Rip, it sounds to me like you and Craig may be talking about different things. You're talking about reducing the chance of war among major powers. Craig is talking about minor wars and instabilities.

Craig's claim seems to be that a unipolar situation gives the pole nation free reign to stir up local trouble to advance its interests. While not disagreeing, I would point out that a bipolar or multipolar situation gives additional incentive to each nation to do just that, in at least two related directions.

If there's only one superpower, then it tries to maintain and improve its position. With no one to fight, this takes place economically, with politics sometimes serving to support exploitation.

But with multiple competing powers (even just two), in addition to the incentive to grab resources from smaller nations, political jockeying becomes more urgent. This can take two forms (and possibly more): first, a proxy war in which the powers can test their weapons in a sandbox without going nuclear; second, a need to prevent small nations from aligning themselves with the enemy (US in Latin America).



I continue agreeing with this assessment as I have done on several forums.

I would wish to add another concern: which is a hard to pin down but very real tendency of rich states, of which the US has become the most visible example recently, to cultivate their elite and unempower (or strip of legal rights) those who have less power and affluence. I would go as far as to see that elitism and plutocratic memes are on the increase.

If this translates into the ascent towards singularity it'll give loads of people abundant incentive to protest, wage resistance, resort to terror or simply give up and live with no care for the rest of their lives.

I am very keen on having more egalitarian distribution of wealth as soon as possible. If we don't, I do not blame those left out of the loop to annihilate the whole world with an existential/genocide device. I for one don't want to live in a world where rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Phillip Huggan

The likelyhood in a multi-polar world that two superpowers will eventually clash (not necessarily a direct war) is n!/n where n is the # of superpowers. Four superpowers is 6 potential encounters and five superpowers is clearly too many, yielding 24 (120/5) potential polarizing encounters.

Jan, you are right hydrogen is the long-term solution to cheap energy. This RAND study is very pessimistic we will have hydrogen cars by 2020. I'd say a full hydrogen economy is at least 25 years away. I envision solar (nanotech) and wind (carbon composite turbines) sources banking hydrogen to be consumed off-peak hours or to be transported to consumer markets. On the bright side solar cell advances are very close to maturity and don't require a new infrastructure to be contructed from the ground up.

Phillip Huggan

I forgot to link the RAND study that mentions a hydrogen time table. They are optimistic about hybrid vehicles. There is an easy to read spreadsheet in the middle of the free report:


Thanks for the response RIP and Chris. Chris, you're correct in what I was poining at. I certainly acknowledge that two or more superpowers compete with one another through proxy war and competing for territory/influence in the world.

However, the shift to a unipolar world means that the sole superpower must always maintain or expand its supremecy at all costs. This does, as you point out (Chris), rely on economic and political coercion, but still relies on war, ever increasing domestic control, surveillence, torture, imprisonment etc. In other words, there is a shift from competing between equals to maintaining between unequals, expanding the disparity of wealth, power, and so on. Hence the shift to expand the dimension of war into space (have a look at the Vision for 2020 as an example whereby the threat of the have nots will rise in the future and what this means). Unfortunately, this will cause massive instability for others; the more the grip of power tightens, the more the "losers" will try to resist, using ever more violent means.

When people argue for unipolarity, they often do it envisioning their own government/state being the sole leader of the world. Hitler argued he would bring stability to the world but few people would argue that this was a good thing. If China were to become the sole world superpower, would Westerners be so quick to claim that this would be a good thing because it is a stabilizing force on the world? I'm sure the Chinese government would claim that (and they do in some cases, such as Thaiwanese reintegration). Just because there is essentially stability for the ruling unipolar power, this does not mean stability for others. Stability, like the idea of "progress", should not be an end in itself unless qualified with basic values. Stability should entail freedoms and basic human-rights, and so forth, not just for the ruling power, but for everyone. Unfortunately, the quest for unipolarity has resulted in immense misery and suffering using means often at odds with these measurements.

George Kennan described exactly what I'm referring to when talking about the US shortly after WWII in shaping US policy just before the Cold War: "We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population. ... Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity ... To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives…. We should cease to talk about vague ... objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better".

If stability excludes "idealistic slogans", I'm afraid the only unipolar world humans face - either one led by the US, China, India, Iran, whoever - will be one of total surveillence, total control, and total subordination. Well, at least it will mean this on our current path.

John B

Mr Bats:

Thank you for the pointer - your site does contain quite a bit of relevant information. I'd like to point one particular bit back to you, however. In http://jwbats.blogspot.com/2006/05/hydrogen-from-biomass.html, the last paragraph starts, "The vast majority of hydrogen is currently made from fossil fuels".

This is what I'd like to point out. Hydrogen, TODAY, is largely a derivative of hydrocarbons, both explicitly and implicitly. While there are quite a few possibles for future alternatives, many of these alternatives include the hydrocarbon dependancy either explicit or implicit in their design.

The same article, for instance, talks about a corn syrup to electricity generator. The link here is that the calories derived from corn raised using modern methods takes about a third to a half of the energy input in the form of hydrocarbons - fuel for farm impliments & transport & processing, fertilizer, pesticides, etc.

The GE alternative-electrode material is a great step forward, but still relies on electricity. The mutated algae is another great step forward, and I agree is the most promising of the bunch thus far in terms of hydrocarbon independance. *shrug* There's much still left to do to commercialize the algae, and - as the article you reference is careful to point out - much basic science still needs to be done to determine if there aren't yet better alternatives out there.


Phillip Huggan

Hydrogen production via a regenerative fuel cells needs only freshwater for a hydrogen source, and not even that much if desalination technologies advance. Proton exchange membranes are already a demonstrated technology.

Jan-Willem Bats

Mr. B,

Those are good observations. You obviously have a very sharp mind.

I think we agree that the future of energy looks good, and that we can look forward to a better world for everybody.

Mike Treder, CRN

Craig said: When people argue for unipolarity, they often do it envisioning their own government/state being the sole leader of the world...

To be very clear, I did not say (or mean to imply) in the original post that the U.S. as a unipole with "stabilizing might" was the optimum situation. It describes the present situation, which is relatively stable, but this will not last.

As the relative power of the U.S. declines, global stability will decline as well. Given that many states, including the U.S., may be growing in absolute power at the same time, the danger level will increase significantly.


To elaborate a bit on Mr. Treder's last comment - 'the danger level increases as the relative power of the US declines.'

This occurs because a war between two superpowers is going to be a lot more devastating than a war between, say, the current US and a third world nation.

Nobody here seems to be arguing for unipolarity, so I don't see the relevance of describing such a characterization. Strong arguments can be made for unipolar and bipolar worlds being the most stable. It is a certainty though that multipolarity is the worst, and highly unstable. This stuff is just basic International Relations 101. So that's why we are using these terms, Craig.


Thanks again, Chris and RIP. Didn't mean to cause offence, I geniunely thought that you were both wanting a unipolar world because it was more stable.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Craig, your quote from Kennan is interesting, but after reading the Wikipedia article on him I'm wondering whether it could be interpreted differently.

"According to Kennan, when American policymakers suddenly confronted the Cold War, they had inherited little more than rationale and rhetoric "utopian in expectations, legalistic in concept, moralistic in [the] demand it seemed to place on others, and self-righteous in the degree of high-mindedness and rectitude... to ourselves." [32] The source of the problem, according to Kennan, is the force of public opinion, a force that is inevitably unstable, unserious, subjective, emotional, and simplistic. As a result, Kennan has insisted that the U.S. public can only be united behind a foreign policy goal on the "primitive level of slogans and jingoistic ideological inspiration."

That seems to put it in a different light: not "we must be cold-hearted non-idealists" but "we must not be led by shallow public idealism."

As to whether I want a unipolar world because it's more stable: I don't know.

I don't even know where the stability points are. The only one I'm pretty sure of is that it's probably stable to send the world population back to pre-electronics technology and keep them there... stable, that is, as long as the government doesn't schism internally. I don't think there's any other point of technologically enforced stability; if many people and groups are empowered for mass destruction, then stability must come societally. But how to perpetuate stability given the vast diversity of world societies, and the demonstrated instability of even the largest governments (Chinese Cultural Revolution, US McCarthyism, and perhaps the current US constitutional issues should be added to the list), and the difficulties of policing any population that doesn't grant the police legitimacy?

And that's just one axis of trouble: government vs. people. There's also government vs. government, where a nanofactory-based arms race will likely lead to a devastating war.

There are times when I think unipolarity is the only feasible solution. It may even be that multipolarity or open technology will naturally devolve into unipolarity, because force will trump other values (given that offense will likely trump defense) and require force to answer it--leading us into warlordism and eventually feudalism.

Even if unipolarity is inevitable or necessary, that doesn't mean I like it. We'd have to hope that whatever government came to power actually had an idealistic core, and the wisdom to structure the system to preserve that idealism through future incarnations.

The corresponding multipolar hope is that in a free-for-all competition between nasty and idealistic groups, idealism would somehow confer an advantage. Here, I'm influenced by David Brin: the Enlightenment values of inquiry and accountability may actually confer such an advantage, especially if accountability leads to informational openness--and as long as the value set doesn't lead to fatal weakness in the commercial or security sectors. But I'm not so Pollyannish as to be confident that this will work.


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