Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Energy, Global Warming, and Science Fiction

In present-day science fiction, you don't read much about energy, global warming, and associated problems. Why?

Because science fiction writers, readers, and fans thrashed everything out three decades ago, figured out the most workable solutions, and moved on.

Around 1973 the big buzzword in science fiction was "the hydrogen economy." The idea was that we should move beyond a petroleum-based economy to one based on hydrogen. Hydrogen burns cleanly; the only waste product is water.

In order to obtain hydrogen, we would need electricity. Ultimately, that electricity would come from controlled fusion. But fusion wasn't (and still isn't) practical. We would need something to tide us over until we perfected fusion.

The perfect medium-term solution was (and still is) space-based solar power stations, which would beam power to Earth via microwaves. In the mid-1970s Gerard K. O'Neill and his team laid out a workable roadmap to building these power stations.

Until solar power stations were widely available, we would have to get our electricity from a variety of sources: renewables such as wind, ground-based solar, tidal, geothermal, and ocean temperature differential...but mainly nuclear fission, because the energy available from all the others was only a fraction of the total we'd need. As quickly as possible we would eliminate the burning of fossil fuels -- first, because of the emission of greenhouse gases and other nasty stuff, second because they were limited, and third because petroleum and other fossil fuel components are too essential chemicals to many of our industrial processes to go around burning up the limited supply we have.

Now, science fiction circa 1979 was willing to admit that all of this didn't solve the global warming problem for all time. Sure, it took care of greenhouse gases, but all energy use results in waste heat, and sooner or later an expanding energy-intensive civilization would be generating enough waste heat to make Earth uncomfortable. Sure, it would take thousands of years to reach that point, but science fiction thinks in terms of millennia.

So in addition to all the other solutions, sf proposed that we work on long-term ways to mitigate warming...the longest-term of all being methods to move Earth further out from the sun as necessary. (Eventually it would be necessary to move Earth anyway, if not in the next million years because of increased energy use, then in several billion when the sun moves into its red giant phase).

There you have it. Now suppose the world had listened to science fiction back in the 1970s. Today we would have a global hydrogen economy fueled by limitless space-based solar power and we'd be starting to decommission no-longer-necessary fission plants.

Now here's the real meat of the matter: What is science fiction saying today, that people 30 years from now will wish they had listened to?

Like the blog? Send the author a donation.
Subscribe in a reader

1 comment:

thuff said...

Ahh, ya know the one problem with moving the Earth out a little bit is you'd also have to slow it down a little bit so it didn't go flying away. An alternative might be to blow away a small part of the Sun and reduce its overall output. And when I say blow away I mean send it hurling into space, so obviously it would have to be the top or bottom part of the Sun so that it wouldn't wipe out anything important on its way out of the Solar System. Problem solved. Now all we need is a really, really big bomb, a way to calculate exactly how much of the Sun needs to go, and a way to get the really, really big bomb there without it melting. But I'll leave that to the engineers. =)