SCARCITY…? by Extropia DaSilva
Scarcity, it’s a fact of life. Whether it be lack of money, lack of time, or lack of food, we have all experienced scarcity in one form or another. It’s so fundamental in our experiences, in fact, that coping with scarcity is written into our genetic code. One reason why obesity is such a problem in nations that have achieved abundance in sugar and fat is because we evolved in a world where such high-energy foodstuffs were rare, and there was no guarantee of finding enough to eat, so it made sense to hold on to every calorie.
But that remark I made about fat and sugar- that they are now abundantly available when once they were in scarce supply- tells us something important about scarcity. And it is this: Sometimes, maybe even most times, scarcity is an illusion. We think it exists but in fact we are mistaking scarcity for other things. In this essay, I want to expose the scarcity illusion by discussing a vital resource we are, supposedly, running low on.
One would be hard pressed to think of a more vital resource than water. It belongs firmly within the category of ‘need’ rather than ‘want’. Ours is a consumer-driven world full of ad campaigns that portray ‘wants’ as ‘needs’ and set about trying to convince us that we cannot live without this or that. But the way to determine if something really should be classified as a need is to ask of you would literally, inevitably die if you continued to lack it. Where water is concerned that is definitely the case.
Water is not just vitally important as a drink but also in pretty much everything we do. We need it in order to grow our food. Wheat consumes something like 790 billion cubic meters of water per year, and to provide a pound of corn requires 110 gallons. What about meat? 1 pound of chicken meat requires 500 gallons (taking into account both the water the bird drinks and what’s used to grow the grains it eats). It takes 460 gallons to produce a quarter-pounder burger.
One cotton shirt requires 650 gallons, and it takes 35 gallons of water to produce a single microchip. You can imagine, then, how much is consumed in producing the millions of chips produced in a single intel plant every month.
IF ALIENS COULD SEE US…
Still, if aliens were to visit our solar system, they would be forgiven for thinking, whatever problems we might have, water shortages would not be one of them. How could we lack for water, when it covers over 70% of the Earth’s surface? And yet, if they were to tune in on our media networks, the aliens might well discover that we do somehow seem to be facing water shortages. Putting the words ‘water shortage’ into NewScientist’s search engine fetches results like:
‘World leaders in Davos to focus on risks to humanity…water shortages and pandemics ranked top’.
‘Splash and grab: The global scramble for water’
‘Can legislation stop the wells running dry?’.
What’s going on? There are two things that our aliens might consider as they attempt to resolve this contradiction of water shortages on an oceanic planet. These are: what water we can use, and how we manage the water we can use.
CAN WE DRINK IT?
When we talk about water, we tend to mean water that’s safe to drink. Most water on Earth- 97.3%- is saline and therefore not directly consumable. Furthermore, another 2% of the world’s water is locked up in ice, so that leaves .5% for our purposes. According to the World Health Organization, 1.1 billion people have no access to drinkable water, leading to such miserable statistics as:
1.6 million people dying every year from diarrhoeal diseases attributable to lack of access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.
Intestinal helminths (such as hookworm infection) affecting 133 million people.
All told, a billion or so people lack access to safe drinking water, 2.6 billion lack access to basic sanitation, and this leads to consequences like half the world’s hospitalizations being attributable to drinking contaminated water, 5% of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP lost in one way or another to lack of access to clean water, and 443 million school days a year lost to water-related disease.
For those who don’t lack for safe drinking water, how well do we manage this resource? Not all that well, as it happens. About 95% of the water that enters most people’s homes goes down the drain. America uses 70% of its water for agriculture but throws away 50% of the food produced.
Observing health problems due to lack of access to safe drinking water on one hand, and good clean water streaming out of leaky pipes and wasted in other ways on the other, the aliens might well disapprove of how we manage this most vital of resources. But there would be no reason for despair.
Look back over those grim reports of illness due to lack of clean water and you will see the same word repeated several times: Access. There is a difference between a resource that’s truly scarce and one that’s not easily accessible. And it is this: The former, truly scarce resource is fundamentally limited and there’s nothing that can be done to increase its supply. But a resource that’s inaccessible can be made accessible given the development and adoption of appropriate technologies.
THE LESSON OF ALUMINIUM
In a way, drinkable water is like aluminium. As is the case with water, there’s a lot of aluminium on Earth. It makes up 8.3% of the weight of the world and is the third most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, coming behind oxygen and silicon. Today, aluminium is treated like one might expect such an abundant element to be treated- as something that is very ubiquitous and cheap. But it was not always so because, like fresh water is for so many today, aluminium was once inaccessible.
The reason why is because aluminium never appears in nature as a pure metal, and this is because it has a high affinity for oxygen. This affinity causes it to tightly bind with oxides and silicates to form a claylike material called bauxite. Bauxite is 52% aluminium, but since time immemorial nobody knew how to extract pure aluminium from bauxite, and so this 3rd most abundant element was considered more precious than gold. I mean that literally. In the 1800s, Napoleon III threw a banquet where the honoured guests used aluminium utensils. Everybody else had to make do with mere gold ones.
Things sure are different now, and for that we can thank discoveries made in the mid-late 1800s. Of particular note are American chemist Charles Martin Hall and Frenchman Paul Heroult, for it was they who created a breakthrough technology called electrolysis which uses electricity to liberate aluminium from bauxite. This is what turned aluminium from a metal considered more valuable than gold to something so abundant and cheap we think nothing of using it in products like tin foil that are designed to be used once and thrown away.
Like aluminium, water is not rare. There’s plenty of it but it’s mostly found in a form that’s not fit for our purposes. It’s too salty, or its contaminated with pathogens or heavy metals and other things that make it unsafe. These are the kind of problems technological innovation can do something about.
MAKING DRINKABLE WATER
The clean drinking water that comes out of your tap was made safe using water purification methods. One such method is something called ‘ultraviolet disinfection’. Asok Gadgil, an engineer and inventor of portable UV systems reckons, “in terms of energy use, 60 watts of electrical power…is enough to disinfect water at the rate of…fifteen litres per minute…This much water is enough to meet the drinking needs of a community of 2,000 people”.
UV disinfection is not enough by itself to purify water, because it’s not effective at removing pollution like suspended solids or soluble organic matter. Large-scale applications use a combination of UV and other treatments like chlorine. New York’s largest treatment plant is capable of treating 8,300,000 cubic meters of water per day. The global average water uses comes to 1385 cubic meters per year. If we take that global average and a population of 7.2 billion, we find we would need an annual 9.972 trillion cubic meters of fresh water. Assuming we wanted to disinfect it all using plants like New York’s, what kind of footprint would that have?
To disinfect that much water, the world would need 3,327 such plants. Since this facility takes up 3.7 acres, we would need roughly 12,309 acres of land in order to theoretically purify all water currently used globally, on average. This is only a rough estimate, as I said, and does not take into consideration other footprint factors such as power needs. But consider this. The US has 845, 441 military bases and buildings, which collectively occupy 30 million acres of land. Disinfecting the total fresh water use of the world would require using just 0.04% of that land.
As stated previously, 97.3% of the world’s water is saline and not directly consumable. If there was a way to remove that salt, we would have a global abundance of fresh water. Reverse osmosis is the most common desalination method in use today, accounting for nearly 60% of installed capacity according to the International Desalination Association. There is a desalination plant on the Bass coast near Wonthaggi, in Southern Victoria, Australia. It occupies about 50 acres of land and conservatively produces roughly 410,000 cubic meters of desalinated water per day. In order to produce enough potable water to provide for the 345 million Africans who lack access to drinkable water, it would require 318 such plants, taking up a total of 989 miles or about 3.9% of Africa’s coastline.
We can see, then, that water really isn’t scarce at all. It’s just not being accessed well enough to provide for everybody’s needs. If we could just scale up the purification methods in use today, it would only require a small percentage of land to produce a global abundance of clean water.
INNOVATION FOR MORE EFFICIENCY
But this is not a realistic prospect, because it merely extrapolates existing methods. Moreover, I was assuming drinkable water was required in every use we have for water, which is of course not true. With a combination of new methods of purification and better management of water to cut down on waste and misuse, we could achieve water abundance with an even smaller ecological footprint.
Captive desalination or captive deionization is one such experimental method that promises a powerful increase in efficiency. Unlike conventional methods, it does not produce a waste discharge, and it has been shown to operate with greater energy efficiency and lower pressures. Researchers at DIME Hydrophobic Materials have come up with a type of sand that, when placed as a ten centimeter layer between desert topsoil, decreases water loss by 77%.
Intelligent networks that embed all sorts of sensors, smart meters, and AI-driven automation in order to improve our management of water. A smart metering system created by Hewlett Packard is in operation in Detroit, increasing productivity by 17% and Spain has installed a nationwide computer-assisted irrigation system that will save farmers 20% of the nine hundred billion gallons they currently use. There are even plans to develop nano-based self-healing pipes. That should sort out the problem of leakages.
It’s not all large-scale industrial solutions. An English engineer named Michael Prichard has invented a hand pump that has a membrane with pores 15 nanometers wide. At that scale, the membrane is capable of removing all waterborne pathogens. The handpump is capable of producing 6000 litres of water before automatically shutting off when the cartridge expires. A larger jerry-can version can provide a family of four with enough water for three years and costs less than half a cent a day to run.
Even the humble toilet is being targeted for an upgrade. In their book ‘Abundance’, authors Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler asked readers to imagine a toilet absent of the kind of infrastructure required today. No pipes under the floor, no sewer systems. Toilets that don’t waste anything but instead provide parcels of urea for fertiliser, table salt, and sufficient power to charge your cellphone. “There’s over a megajoule per day of energy in human feces”, reckoned Lowell Wood, an astrophysicist now working along with others to upgrade the toilet for the 21st century.
THE RESOURCE LIE
That we can potentially make uses out of that which we currently flush away, and increased productivity via the introduction of new technologies and practices, tells us a very important thing about resources. It is a commonly-held belief that resources are running out. In 1798, Robert Malthus wrote his ‘Essay On Population’ in which he argued that food supply could not keep pace with population growth because of the finite productivity of land. Ever since then catastrophe for the human race resulting from depletion of some vital resource or pollution of the environment has been a recurring forecast. In ‘The Population Bomb’ (published in 1968) Paul Ehrlich predicted, “in the 1970s and 80s, hundreds of millions will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked on now”.
There does appear to be a grim logic to such forecasts. Doesn’t it make common sense that if resources are consumed they must eventually be extinguished? Experiments seem to prove this is so. Bacteria grown in a Petri dish would, in theory, multiply exponentially until two weeks later their mass is equal to that of a galaxy. In practice they deplete their supply of nutrients and the population crashes. Surely the same must be true of human populations?
No, and the reason why is that, unlike bacteria in a petri-dish, humans are technologically innovative. Technology makes humans highly adaptable, and this means issues like how much potable water there is, what the food-growing capacity of land is, or what resource we rely on for our energy demands are not fixed quantities but, rather, dynamic variables.
In a sense, the ecological doomsayers were right. Given the technologies and knowhow of their day, there was no way to support a population of 6 billion. But the technology changed and that meant resources changed. “Is 6 billion the turning point?”, wrote Matt Ridley in ‘Rational Optimist’, “at a time when glass fibre is replacing copper…and most employment requires more software than hardware, only the most static of imaginations could think so”.
RATIONAL OPTIMISM IS NOT UTOPIAN
And yet, despite continually thwarting pessimist predictions and not only preventing collapse but delivering levels of prosperity than previously imaginable, rational optimism continues to be dismissed as hopelessly naive. Accusations of ‘technoutopia’ are labelled at anyone so bold to suggest that the future promises an ascent to abundance rather than a decline into impoverished misery.
Of course, one can always make up scenarios in which resources run out. “Not everybody can own private land equal in size to Africa, therefore there will always be haves and have-nots”. Such extreme versions of resource consumption should not distract from what people like Peter Diamandis and Peter Joseph mean when they speak of abundance, which is not that everyone can be mega-rich but rather that nobody has to suffer absolute poverty. The resources to feed the world, to provide sufficient energy for people’s needs, to provide access to decent education, medical advice, and financial services are all well within our capabilities.
This is not the best that can be achieved, it is the least we should do. But how ambitious could rational optimism dreams become? Given the necessary technological capability and wise management, it’s actually pretty hard to think of a resource that could not be made abundantly available. I once described gold as a rare resource, but my friend Valkyrie suggested that nanobots could harvest gold from the oceans, which contains nearly 20 million tons of the stuff. And why limit our sights to Earth? NASA has estimated that the total mineral wealth of the asteroid belt including platinum, gold, iron and water could be as much as $700 quintillion or $100 billion worth for every one of Earth’s 7 billion or so inhabitants. And then there is virtual and augmented reality. If we confine our resource base to just Earth, of course it is absurd to suggest that we could all have a back garden equal in size to Africa. But even with today’s computer technology we can make videogames like No Man’s Sky which provide players with over a quintillion planet-sized planets to explore. And there is, of course, a tremendous amount of space in space. Maybe, in the future, a person settling for a garden the size of Africa would be considered to have very modest ambitions indeed.
SCARCITY IS A LIE
Abundance is not a fantasy; scarcity is a lie. We do not lack resources, we simply have not yet put into effect ways of accessing all that is available, and distributed those resources in ways reward those that make wealth while not condemning those without such business savvy or simply hit with bad luck to a life of impoverished hardship. To adopt an abundance-based mindset is not to abandon reason and retreat into some utopian fantasy. It is not to say that we will inevitably solve all our problems and build a fantastic future for ourselves. Rather, it is to free ourselves of the attitude that scarcity is a fact of life and recognise it for what it is: Something we create for ourselves, either through our technological ignorance or through corrupt practices. The amount of corruption in the world today (which Dylan Ratigan, author of ‘Greedy Bastards’ estimates to be costing trillions of dollars per year) may give us cause to hold our head in our hands but there is good news, in that problems we create for ourselves are problems we can resolve, if we can summon the will to do do. As for problems of technological ignorance, the solutions are out there, and we just have to find them.
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