Here’s a statement you don’t hear often these days: “The world has never been better and it is improving.” People tend to be more pessimistic, and, given today’s global troubles, with good reason it seems.
But Larry Cathles, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University, thinks people tend to be “way, way too pessimistic.” “It’s the fashionable thing to say these days. But there’s really no basis for it. And we’re really hurting ourselves by thinking this way,” he says.
To prove the point, Cathles recently produced an extensive analysis for the Journal of the Geological Society, looking at the resources humans will need over the next century and how we might get them. He assumes that the population will increase from 7.1 billion to 10.5 billion, and that, by 2113, everyone in the world will want at least the equivalent of a European standard of living today.
“Is there anything we’re going to run out of, or that we can’t live without, or substitute? After looking at this carefully, I don’t think so. We have plenty of options,” he says.
Cathles’s prescription is detailed, but comes down to a few key building blocks: large-scale nuclear power (or possibly solar) and widespread ocean mining for materials like copper, lithium, and phosphorus. Do these things, and we’ll have everything we need for centuries, he says.
The biggest challenge is energy. Without it, nothing else is possible. We’ll need five times more power than we use today, Cathles says–or 75 terawatts versus 15 terawatts on a worldwide basis. Cathles sees the two main options being solar and nuclear power, assuming we want to limit carbon emissions.
Solar is clean, abundant, and workable, but it does need a lot of space. According to his calculations, Europe would need to cover an area twice the size of Poland (a big country) with solar panels to power itself. The world, assuming an energy demand of 7 kilowatts per person, would need to cover 30% of its non-polar desert area, or about 6% of all land. That’s a lot of land.
Cathles’s solar cell efficiency assumptions are very conservative–15%, when many upcoming modules are surpassing that. But still, he thinks the land use requirements of solar make it unfeasible as a society-changing technology. Nuclear would be a better bet, he says, because it has a tinier footprint and can be used anywhere.
“The technology is getting better, and there are environmental benefits. It’s a very good option to consider, but it’s almost off the table now, because people are scared of it. What we should be afraid of is not meeting the expectations of the developing world,” he says.
To feed energy consumption of 75 terawatts, Cathles calculates we’d need to build 22,272 nuclear power stations at 3.3 gigawatts each over the next 100 years. That’s a huge number of any type of building, let alone one that people generally think of as dangerous. But, again, Cathles says we’re being too pessimistic. The Chinese have shown how massive construction programs are possible, given the will. “They’re not that difficult to build. We could produce them like sausages, if we decided to. You build a factory for modular reactors and just manufacture them,” he says.
Moreover, there’s plenty of nuclear fuel available. Cathles says the sea bed contains enough uranium to sustain 10.5 billion people for 100 centuries (if the power stations used “breeder” reactor technology). Thorium, which is a more efficient fuel and represents less weapons-proliferation risk, is even more widely available. The Earth’s crust contains four times more of the mineral than uranium, according to early estimates.
Cathles says the ocean floor contains copper to last 112 centuries, and enough zinc for 323 centuries, given current use rates. Lithium dissolved in the ocean could supply electric vehicle batteries for a quarter of the global population. And, there’s also plenty of phosphorus (a key ingredient for fertilizer) and rare earth metals (also important for cleantech).
He points out that ocean mining has begun for lithium, rock phosphate, and copper and zinc, and that offshore mining is potentially safer (extraction is remote controlled) and less environmentally hazardous (“there are no mine shafts, mine tunnels or waste piles that produce acid drainage”) than land-based mining. (Some environmentalists disagree, as we wrote here).
Cathles’s biggest worries aren’t about minerals or energy at all. They’re about soil depletion. He points out, for example, that half the fertile topsoil in Iowa has been lost over the last 150 years–a resource that’s near-impossible to replace. “Soil loss may be humanity’s greatest future challenge, and the last thing we may want to be doing is taxing our soil resources further by cultivating biofuels,” he says, in the paper.
Of course, Cathles naturally makes a lot of assumptions. It’s impossible to predict exactly how many people will be alive in 2113, or what their expectations might be. And, it’s equally possible that some new technology will come along making the nuclear and solar moot, or that either will advance dramatically.
In a sense, that’s not the point, he believes. The most important thing is that we’re optimistic, and that we look at the bigger picture. Cathles, who is 70, notes that the global population has tripled in his lifetime. And the energy growth required for 2113 is no greater than the growth in energy use in the United States over last 50 years. In other words, the new resource requirements are not so different from the old resource requirements.
To rise to the challenge, Cathles says the human race needs to start having a rational conversation based on real risks, not imagined demons. “We’re becoming very risk averse, and part of that may be specialization, and our ability to connect with people of like minds [using modern communications],” he says.
“It’s very easy to get a lot of facts that support a particular point of view, and to fan our concerns, and spend less time talking to people we have differences with.”