Oct 18, 2018 | essay

We Could Have the Future Star Trek Promised Us

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We’re not living through the easiest chapter of human history. Wealth inequality has soared unchecked since the 1970s. Estimates place $32 trillion in off-shore tax havens. 10% of humans live in extreme poverty, while half the world’s wealth belongs to 1% of its population.

This is not a great recipe for peace or stability.

Any number of policies—say, a global wealth tax, universal basic income, or socialized medicine—can take the edge off of inequality, making it less lethal. But what if science and technology could make the entire global resource pie so large, even a minuscule slice could represent abundant prosperity?

For Trekkies, the solution has been staring us in the face for decades. Star Trek’s utopian civilization is underpinned by economic abundance. They have so many resources that the best thing they can do with their time is build spaceships and explore the stars.

While The Enterprise relies on engine and propulsion technology that’s grounded more in TV magic than science, the Federation’s economic engines are much more realistic. What both the Federation and its starships have in common is abundant energy. With cheap or free energy, anything is possible, from feeding the world to distorting the fabric of spacetime for fast travel.

It’s not only Star Trek which premises utopia on energy abundance. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series centers around an interstellar empire whose prosperity is built on abundant energy. In Prelude to Foundation, Professor Hari Seldon can barely even imagine a world primitive enough to be bound by energy poverty. Meanwhile, in the strategy game Stellaris, the galactic economy is built upon trade in energy resources—wealth equals energy. Abundant energy is a favorite theme in science fiction, given its dramatic social impacts and the stark difference it represents from our existing world.

Human history is a tale of ever-improving technology for harnessing energy. As hunter-gatherers, we foraged for calories across vast distances. In the agricultural age, we built elaborate technological and human systems to harvest calories in predictable, high-yield cycles. In the industrial age, we found new applications for fossil fuels, which not only further improved agricultural yields but also produced so much energy that we could build machines whose productivity dwarfed the contributions of the humans and animals we’d relied on for eons.

As technology progresses, the individual human’s energy budget has increased. While a generous energy budget in the 1800’s might provide lamp oil and a good meal, today many of us have enough energy to power multiple computing devices, a dozen or more light sources, and even move a multi-ton vehicle over tens of kilometers.

Energy is priced into every endeavor. The cost of a liter of fuel impacts transporting raw materials, finished goods, and people. Energy costs impact manufacturing and agricultural processes. The cheaper the energy, the more we can do.

Harnessing heat to do work is old hat. It’s technology we’ve had since the 1700’s. While we’ve made steam with everything from burning wood to fossil fuels to nuclear fission, another source of heat is waiting right beneath our feet. Through geothermal power plants, we can harness heat energy beneath the Earth’s crust, which roils as hot as 5000° C.

Iceland is a notable beneficiary of this process, with a quarter of domestic energy production driven by geothermal generators. In a utopian twist, Iceland got a world-famous tourist attraction, the Blue Lagoon, out of one of their geothermal projects. While other energy facilities produce waste with nasty environmental consequences, the Svartsengi plant’s main externality is an accidental, beloved pool of beautiful, mineral-rich, constantly-renewed warm water.

Still, the cost and feasibility of harnessing geothermal energy can vary. As geothermal vents are unevenly distributed, some places are better suited to their use than others. Not to fear: the costs of solar energy are collapsing as well. At current rates, the cost of solar halves every ten years. Bids for solar energy around 2¢ per kilowatt-hour have popped up in Chile and Saudi Arabia, and even wind energy is approaching similar yields. If the average American is currently paying 12¢ per kWh, we can see that technological progress holds considerable promise for creating abundant energy.

As far as Star Trek was concerned, the lynchpin of a planetary economy wasn’t dilithium crystals or fusion power. It was good, old-fashioned solar power. While this may have spurred a convenient crisis to send the original Enterprise crew on a whale-watching tour, it also makes sense. Why bother with elaborate power plants fueled by exotic materials when you have a ball of fusion power floating just one AU away?

Similarly, we must turn our focus toward the enormous opportunities beneath our feet and in our sky. If we want a utopia where everyone can eat, have access to medicine, and contribute to human growth, ending energy poverty must be near the top of our agenda.

Abundant energy is useless, or even dangerous, without according frameworks of democratic governance and equitable access to resources. Like any technology, abundant energy could be used for evil deeds, like fully automated mass surveillance or self-driving machines of war, and the dangerous, even genocidal implications of irresponsibly-applied nuclear energy are already well understood.

There are political responsibilities to meet no matter how much scientific and technological progress we make around energy. Still: we have a lever to increase everyone’s slice of the global resource pie and it doesn’t depend on any science fiction miracle tech or exotic, TV-plot-driven materials. All it needs is more research on tools we already have, shared investment, and hard work.

Not to mention wise stewards.

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