America has been on a 45-year energy diet, and we ought to try and end it
Techno-optimism like this could be an amazing end-run around tedious moralistic debates about climate and poverty. It could attract supporters from both sides of these debates, couldn’t it? And new supporters who are currently sitting it out bc participating in these debates sucks unless you are an ideologue.
This is like catnip for people who love sci-fi. I love this.
I wrote a book review for AstralCodexTen on roughly this topic: https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/your-book-review-wheres-my-flying
It really seems to me that we missed a big opportunity to grow energy use in a carbon-free way with nuclear power in the 70s, and much of the malaise since then is a consequence of stagnation in energy usage.
One thing that worries me about renewables is it seems like they might not scale to providing massively more energy; solar could meet our current needs but can we really devote enough land to solar to 10x our energy? Hopefully geothermal or next-gen nuclear or fusion works out.
Matt hits the nail on the head. The problem we have is that all these issues are framed as issues of morality-people are bad, we should have a smaller footprint, fewer children, and feel guilty. Really, its a technological question that is solvable with nuclear power and some other technologies. Why can't people think "Yes! Let's use twice as much energy to do twice as many cool things!" But do it in a clean way?
One thing I would like to have Matt explain to me is this-- why are so many issues like this? You could write a very similar article about why we don't test everyone for COVID everyday with cheap at home tests and just install super duper air ventilation systems in every school. Instead COVID became a moral battle instead of a technological one.
It reminds me of parts of the personal finance community, FIRE, etc. There is often a ton of focus on doing without. Reuse your tea bags and ziplock bags, drive an old shitbox, never go on vacation, etc. And very little focus on increasing earnings.
“It’s great you’re eating beans and rice three times a day saving $5k a year but you left $20k on the table when you didn’t negotiate harder when you took a new job.”
There seems to be a strain of masochism that runs through both groups.
I really like Matt's framing here . It highlights a point I almost never see talked about in energy circles. The innovations we've seen in energy production in the last decade or so are once-in-a-century revolutionary and we've barely began to contemplate the implications of that.
The raw cost of making electricity using solar and wind, when the conditions are right, is now significantly lower than it's ever been in the history of civilization. I believe the current average levelized cost of utility PV at 2 cents per kWh is less than half the lowest ever historical cost of making electricity using any other means. Think about that for a second, within the last 10 years innovation has halved the cost of making electricity and that cost is still on a steep decline.
It seems very likely that electricity will be too cheap to meter during certain periods of most days within a decade or two. The implications of this will be revolutionary and we've barely begun to contemplate what it means.
Wonderful article! This is the kind of tech/progress-positive content I subscribe for! So rare to see a mindset of energy abundance as good in these days of moralizing about not altering the environment.
More of this. It is always surprising why more people who call themselves progressives aren't more comprehensively in favor of .... progress .... across more domains.
Geothermal tech is close to achieving the depths that would allow it to provide humanity with unlimited baseload energy. An interesting takeaway from an industry conference last month is that they are using materials developed for space exploration to handle the pressures and temperatures at depth.
Innovation is how everyone wins. Remember that when billionaires are criticized for going into space.
Love this article. Sure, it's possible that some of it is a little too far-fetched (or maybe not, I'm not an energy expert), and tomorrow we'll see a dozen competing Substack writers pointing out "but what about X?" and people rolling their eyes at it on Twitter like we did with One Billion Americans. But like that book, Matt's thinking BIG, and he's looking at things from an angle nobody else seems to be. This is what I signed up for.
With that in mind, I'd be curious what this does regarding future warfare. On one hand, a world with abundant energy, food, clean water and air seems like it would have few reasons for conflict. On the other hand.. once you have the technology to make cost effective supersonic laser space fighter jets, somebody's gonna find an excuse to use them, won't they?
Damn, I love it when Matt writes science fiction.
More seriously, I approve this vein of techno-optimism. We may have advanced so far into climate change that we have already sealed our doom, as well as doom for most life on the planet. But it's too soon to be certain of that, and so long as there is room for doubt there is reason for hope. Hope, creativity and ambition will make us better, more generous, courageous, inventive, and active people. If we have to go down, let's go down striving rather than cringing.
Breath of fresh air here.
I think about this in other industries as well.
"Let's replicate animal meat in labs so we can substitute for a ribeye or burger"
Why stop there? Let's engineer the *greatest steaks of all time*. Something nature could never produce.
There's this mindset where we're simply looking to substitute for the current, like we're caretakers of some ancient and storied estate where we can replace things as they break, but shouldn't actually *change* anything. Its a depressive and short-sighted way of looking at things, related to the kind of Zero Sum thinking that has everyone arguing over the existing pie instead of looking to expand the pie.
More like this!
Fascinating piece. I've been concerned for years, hell decades because I'm terribly old, that we as a nation have lost our narrative thread. We were plucky colonialists, then pioneers, then 'can-do' Yankees, then we 'saved the world' in WW2, rebuilt the world in the aftermath, faced down the Communists, etc... Different mythologies for different times. People need a story, and the story can't be all on the negative side - less of this, less of that, hair shirts all-around - there has to be a pay-off, a better world. There has to be a picture of what we can be, something to work for, not just something to avoid.
This is the first piece I've read that points a way to that positive narrative: not sitting in sweltering huts with the lights out and nibbling tofu, but a future of unlimited carbon-free energy, and all the coolness that would come from that. Scolding alone is not very effective. Scolding while holding up a picture of a bright future is much better. Optimism and hope.
If there's any unifying thread to Matt's work it's that we need to break out of a scarcity mindset and be more optimistic. Whether it be tech, population, economics, or zoning, growth can solve many problems with economies of scale.
Things never work out how we expect but I think this approach is more realistic (politically and economically) long-term than the more-dystopian degrowth ones despite the leap of faith required. Scarcity is just like NIMBYism where everyone else wants someone else to bear the costs. Growth and abundance ultimately requires the fewest compromises.
I think I'm missing something about this. Are there people who are arguing against having a lot of clean energy? My impression is that the impediments to this future are technological and fiscal, not political will or public opinion, so I'm not sure who this article is arguing against. The climate stuff that passes through secret congress is generally only the "give money to clean energy RND" stuff, right?
I couldn‘t agree more and am glad to see Matt pushing this direction (techno optimism rather than general fatalism). I also really appreciated the (presumably intentional) casual triggering of 911 truthers with „Jet fuel, as we know, can melt steal beams“. Both substance and style in this post.
"The turn toward conservation and efficiency was a necessary evil in an era when we couldn’t come up with a better way to deal with geopolitical instability linked to oil and pollution linked to all forms of fossil fuels."
I agree with the main thesis that we should think big generate a lot more energy than we do now. However, I think calling efficiency a "necessary evil" is pretty silly. A lot of the things we've replaced in the name of efficiency --- resistive electric heat, incandescent light bulbs (roughly the same thing), single-pane windows, uninsulated attics, etc. --- are comically inefficient. Replacing single-pane windows isn't a necessary evil; it's a great thing! If we generate a ton of clean electricity but then all move to resistive heating, that would still be super wasteful.
I think that increasing efficiency and energy production are both good. It's energy austerity that's bad.