Julian Blanco


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Do we really want free/cheap energy?

Do we really want free/cheap energy?

Let’s imagine that one of the current alternative energy efforts where wildly successful and energy cost turned to virtually zero, what would happen then?

My hypothesis is:

The price for stuff would sink
Consumption would multiply exponentially
Earth resources would consequentially be drained exponentially faster as well
We will likely have an environmental catastrophe (possibly threatening our existence)

Today the economic limit of production is the energy price (simplifying here), what if the energy cost didn’t matter?
You could fish the seas faster, build larger boats to do so nonstop, as the steel to build them will be cheaper because the machines to extract ore will be less constrained, and so on.

I would love to hear the perspective of the TED community.

On the other hand, if we use this to expand outside earth, then resource consumption and environmental issues are gone.



  • Nov 19 2012: Nice food for thought, but partly reductio ad absurdum.
    A society in which the price of energy has reached zero, fundamental scientific breakthroughs have occurred in several fundamental fields including materials science. Steel, plastic and other current fossil energy based derivatives would be far less attractive as newer, better, cleaner and cheaper options would be available. The innovations and social adoption that are needed to reach 'zero energy price', change the energy related infrastructures in such a way that the methods of today would be considered uneconomic and inefficient. You're statement would obviously be true if it happened tomorrow/overnight, leaving all other factors unchanged. But that is science fiction. I do believe that within the process of reaching the ‘zero price point’ we would see some negative and positive fluctuation in the usage of fossil energy and its derivate products/services, but that is already the case. Eventually they would disappear, at least in the way as we use them today. (it’s not sure whether we reach that point, but that is not part of the hypothesis)
    The essential factor in exploitation of the earth’s resources (faster than nature can keep up with) is caused by human nature, and not by the price of energy. As long as the world’s population keeps increasing at the same pace or faster and modern societies maintain the same consumption patterns, the problem remains intact.
    Conclusion; The way towards zero energy price is what’s most important. Furthermore, I think that free energy/almost free energy is equivalent to significantly lower carbon footprint (they cannot be free/cheap for a large population for a long period if they are not highly efficient and cradle to cradle). Finally, low carbon footprint only solves our climate problems (huge as it they are). Problems with water, food and land need similar attention, and as you pointed out, they might be negatively affected by the availability of free energy.(continued)
  • Nov 19 2012: In order to solve those problems, in addition to scientific breakthrough in for example artificial nutrition, agriculture and irrigation, we need to literally rethink what it means to be a human being – and that should not be a freely consuming and mating monkey with a large brain. Unfortunately, probably something terrible on a global scale needs to happen first…

    Thanks for the post Julian!
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    Nov 1 2012: Arthur C Clarke believes that cheap energy will do what CO2 warming cannot - i.e. direct injection of heat into the atmosphere.
    However, what would actually happen?
    In an open system, you cannot really know anything until it happens.

    By all report we are getting close to finding out.

    Those who now benefit from hierarchial dominance will resist - no one knows to what extent. But it looks like thay are losing.
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      Nov 1 2012: Hi Mitch!

      So you agree with my hipotesys.

      Question for you:
      Do't you think we are hierarchical "by nature"?
      (not just looking at human cultures but also to our close relatives.


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        Nov 1 2012: Hi JB.

        Primates have at least 4 modes of interaction;
        Dominance(hierachial - active),
        Leadership (Hierachial - passive),
        Reciprocity (personal - mutual),
        Communality (general - contributive).

        Only dominance and leadership are hierachial by nature. Dominance is sexual-competition based behaviour that us usually associated with males - hierachial structure enforced by violence.
        This form is a relic - it is cogent for the selection of kin-protection and works to produce the fittest "defender". It fails in primates because all other species are physically "fitter".
        Leadership is cooperative behaviour. The hierachy is formed by the followers - not the leaders.
        Reciprocity is intra-personal binary transaction-based behaviour that forms low-level networks. Such networks are incapable of enhancing the general adaptive dynamic of the individual.
        Communality is general one-to-many. It produces an active network that increases the adaptive potential of the social network.
        Consider - a neuron in a brain has thousands of contributors and recipients - it is the rich network that produces the adaptive property of networks.

        Don't listen to dominant people - they are relics. They would have you think that dominance is the primary interaction mode - they are lying

        Have a look at teh work on baboon troops by Robert Sapolski - there is a Sapolski documentary about stress on youtube.
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          Nov 3 2012: Dear Mitch:

          I must admit I can't completely follow your argument... Yes, there are many forms of interaction, yes primates have less complicated social structures, no, in some cases large primate males can defend against predators, yes a neuron can have 10000 connections, but how is that related?

          I do agree that there are many tipes of interaction, collaboration being a key one in humans, but at the same time not the only one. Hierarchi is not a relic, I see it live and kicking every day. You may argue that it's stupid, less "evolved" or anachronic, but most modern humans participate more or less in that.

          My point is not to argue how the world should be, but how it is.



          Ps I love Sapolsky, there is a full lecture on human behaivioral biology, I recommend it in case you have not seeing it yet.
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        Nov 3 2012: Hi JB,

        Yes - I've seen the full Sapolski lectures.
        I am not saying that hierachies don't exist, I am saying that they have specific roles.
        When you ask if we are hierarchial by nature, the answer is no on 2 counts:
        1. Hierachial behaviour is not the whole of the dynamic - therefore the exclusion contained in your question is false.
        2. There is no such thing as "nature" in any static sense. THere are dynamics, and these dynamics change over time in a chaotic/adaptive manner. Rolling all that into the word "nature" is falacious becuase it presumes a static meaning where none exists.

        I observe that the hierachial component of interaction is rapidly being supplanted by the other modes. This transition is most in evidence on the internet.

        I indicated the work of Sapolski mostly becuase of his observation of what happens when you remove dominance as the main social norm in a baboon troop. This has significant ramifications for human social adaptation.

        Dominance structures have adaptive adavantage in times of scarcity - where some must die.
        Dominance creates the hierachial structure, with those at the bottom of the structure exposed to predation.
        Collaberative (network) structures arise in times of abundance - where none must die. Collaberative structures produce surpluses that serve to extend times of abundance.

        The predominance of any particular structure will reflect the ambient abundance/scarcity. However, the application of either structure to an inapropriate context will induce unecessary death of individuals until the balance is achieved.

        The baboon observation demonstrated teh inapropriate application of hierachy being imposed by the alpha males to teh detriment of the troop. When they were removed, the troop flourished.

        All very well to accept reality for what it is, but it is a terrible mistake to think that it is appropriate and has not room for "should".

        "Should" is conjecture, but potentiates adaptive paths forward.
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          Nov 3 2012: Dear Mitch:

          1 agree, I didn't meat that the only dynamic is hierarchical.
          2 disagree, humans do have natural traits, that is not implying the way in which those traits will manifest, which is, as you say highly dynamic.

          Where do you observe hierarchi being displaced? I can think of many examples, but I would not affirm that's a macro shift.

          In the case Sapolsky describes (where all dominant baboons of the trop where killed) he doesn't say that hierarchi is abolished, just a new form created and taught as culture.
          Also that new troop may be in trouble when again faced by the more agressive neighbors, and so forced to go back to the previous state. So it's not clear if that adaptation will be beneficial, or just destroy that population (evenif the result is highly beneficial for the membersin the mean time)

          Sapolky also says the reason he studied baboons in that region of Africa is that they just need a few hours a day to feed, so they can spend the rest of their time/energy making others miserable. That is contrary to your statement that abundance will somehow abolish or decrease hierarchi in favor of collaboration.
          This means no one has to die of starvation, they are likely to die from abuse or be unable to reproduce.

          I would no call the way top baboons act as inappropriate, they are being baboons, and that application is a result of evolution, not bad will (I intend for this comment to be baboons only, in no case I'm implying humans)

          Agree on the need for many "should", and change, etc, we just have to be very clear on the line that separes reality from idea.

          Thanks for your answer!



          Ps is interesting how we got the opposit conclusions from the same resource (Sapolsky lectures)
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        Nov 3 2012: Hi Julian,

        I am not saying that hierarchy is a bad thing. I am saying that it is destructive when applied to the wrong context.

        If it only takes a few hours per day to satisfy the needs of life. It does not follow that behaviour should become abusive. Sapolski observed abuse is common in baboons. Others have observed that it is less common in chimps, and absent in bonobos.

        What I observe is a principle - not an idea. I observe a dynamic where the practice of abusive hierarchy can "latch-up" and remain as a social norm at inappropriate times.

        You invoke the holy fear that a community must be forever vigilant against abuse from neighboring tribes. I assert that such territorial incursions will be the result of population shifts caused by scarcity. Watch out with that holy fear - it is a media construct - perhaps part of the hierachial "latch-up" in humans.

        There is some room for improvement in our social norms.

        Regards also!
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          Nov 5 2012: Hi Mitch:

          Agree on your first, second and third paragraph.

          On paragraph four, it depends on many factors, you don't need nuclear bombs to defend from bears, but you can't be unable to defend your self completely. At a personal level, I believe you can defend yourself using your head and being cautions, many countries could do without military (almost zero conflict hypothesis), others need to be vigilant...

          For sure our social norms will change with time :)



          Ps there are other "softer" manifestations of hierarchy, status symbols in general, social roles, etc, again other ways to manifest the threads.
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        Nov 5 2012: I agree .. And I should correct the assertion of media being responsible for the xenophobia. They are merely an amplification.

        Without getting too technical, humans hae a physical limit to the number of other humans they can develop true understanding of. That limit is variously stated at around 200.
        There are 7 billion people on the planet - well in excess of 200.
        In the absence of matured mutual understanding provided by our own brains, simplistic models of understanding must be employed to account for "them". These models will inherit the bias of false positive evaluation (assuming everything not understood is a threat).
        The false positive is not absolute - it depends on the "them" model we learn - it is entirely disconnected from causal brain development and open to popular definition. Difficult but not impossible to get a harmonious definition.
        The dynamics of status are different. Status dynamics is governed by choices between the fields of potential advantage/disadvantage. This operates in the zone defined by the 200-person limit of understanding.
        The formation of hierachy in that environment is entirely composed of aquired experience maps of "self" and "other". It is not fixed in stone and is sensitively dependent on social norms defining these self images and other images.
        The true driver of these dynamics in humans is the proto-self - the proto self is, essentially identical in all humans. Deviations from this absolute identity arise in social dynamics - which are driven by scarcity/abundance dynamics. However, convergence to actual current states of scarcity/abundance is delayed by social intertia propogated through historical norms.
        This is best represented in the fallacy of law.
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    Nov 1 2012: see Sneetches by Dr Suess as a basic explanation for how human mind and human greed works..
  • Dec 1 2012: Well-said. But I think there are positive possibilities that would be worth the risk rather than paying unfairly to a ruling-class looking to primarily widen the control of abundance.
    Though maybe the biggest danger would lie in the cheapening of our experiences after that? (Think "Alvin & the Chipmunks on Youtube" 24/7/for the next 85 years. And you enjoy every minute of it because all your memory-functions are being run on a separate thumb-drive.
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    Nov 16 2012: ups everything in this world takes something as input & delivers desired output hence processing is always costly in this earth as usual
  • Nov 10 2012: Cheap energy will free more resources for consumption and as Julian points out something else will become more "valuable" like seafood, a limited resource. Any consumed resource in the event of cheap/free energy will become more scarce and thus more valuable.
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    Nov 6 2012: Pat G: care to add something constructive? or your own opinion maybe?
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    Nov 3 2012: So yes, I advocate free energy, enabling the education of all people (I mean being able to think for oneself and being empowered to take responsibility and realize creative endeavors, not cramming rhetoric to pass standardized tests) and allowing us to invert Maslow's pyramid so self-actualization consumes more of our time. This could result in widespread joy, purpose and progress for humankind.
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    Nov 3 2012: Perhaps what Ying meant by INVALID hapiness was all that generated by pple suffering from wetiko. This state of being favours scarcity of resources and 'everyone for themselves' behaviour.

    So VALID happiness (in my opinion) would include: significantly increased awareness and consciousness, a sense of oneness with the pple and the planet, being empowered to self actualize, the opportunity to experience and share joy, peace and love etc

    This VALID happiness would cultivate a long term focused, sustainable environment plan, with organized monitoring (using Fresco's concepts) and distribution of planetary resources.
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    Nov 1 2012: We really have to get behind those guys developing artificial silk, i bought 6 things today and each thing came packaged in plastic,aluminum, and cardboard that was not recyclable. I hope they open source it otherwise those resources we are using will be gone before we know it.

    We are bathed in free energy 100% of the time, what people don't want to do is add it to the chore list of things to upkeep around the house. What i've noticed is people don't know how to go without power, take away that like what happened with Sandy and you have mayhem as people that are used to being informed are cutoff, the stress is made worse as they can't power up they're phones.
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      Nov 2 2012: Remember when you used to get milk in glass bottles and you would send them back to the factory and they would refill the same bottles? Glass and aluminium are virtually 100% recyclable, we're just too lazy to do it. I guess as oil becomes more expensive plastic may give way to glass and aluminium again.
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        Nov 3 2012: I agree, a return to glass would be preferrable but i'm taking into account our throw away habits that we have gotten use to. If we could throw away something that is beneficial to the earth system then i wouldn't get angry at how nz's recycling system just sends it to other countries but only uses one part of the amount sent.

        Silk in packaging that breaks down over a long period of time to basic proteins? Beats cutting down trees for cardboard packaging for only 50 small strips of sticky plasters.

        Have you noticed the prevalence of total plastic sealed packaging?
  • Nov 1 2012: yes, but as has been shown by this discussion - There are always reactions and feed-back loops.
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    Nov 1 2012: The definition of economics is the study of scarce resources that have alternative uses.

    Point is that as the price of energy falls or becomes more plentiful other items will become more scarce.

    In Napoleon's time aluminum was more valuable than gold then they figured how to make it more economical and it's value plummeted.
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      Nov 1 2012: Hi Pat,

      I'm not saying that scarcity will desapeer, in a free energy world gold will still be more scarce than water.

      My question goes to the social and environmental impact of free energy as a whole.

      If you could blow up a full mountain to get 2grams of gold and make 30% profit (assuming current gold prices) how would that impact the world?

      I hope my comment is understadable :)


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        Nov 1 2012: All I'm saying is that something else will become scarce and therefore valuable. If everything fails food, firearms, potable water, blankets will be the most valuable it won't be gold.

        Maybe the most valuable thing will be trees because there is a shortage of oxygen which trees produce or there is too much carbon dioxide which trees absorb.

        But in your scenario it will be something other than energy, your guess is as good as mine.
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          Nov 1 2012: Hi Pat!

          So you agree that in case we had free energy the consumption of natural resources would likely accelerate and have a large impact on the environment?

          Do you believe we will be able to self regulate?


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        Nov 1 2012: No I don't agree something else, other resources will become valuable.
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          Nov 1 2012: Hi Pat!

          I'm not saying that everything will be equal in value, there will always be scarcity, that's not the point of my argument.
          To understand your point,, you are saying: even if energy where free, some other thing will be scares and that will slow the consumption of planetary resources,
          Is that your point?


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        Nov 1 2012: Yes