Challenging Elon Musk’s ideal of “sustainable energy”

In this issue:

  • Challenging Elon Musk’s ideal of “sustainable energy”
  • The Human Flourishing Project: Rejuvenation

Challenging Elon Musk’s ideal of “sustainable energy”

Elon Musk has a new, extremely popular interview on the extremely popular Joe Rogan Experience podcast.

One of the foundational ideas he bases his energy analysis on—including his condemnation of fossil fuels and his conspicuous failure to advocate non-carbon, nuclear energy—is that we need “sustainable energy” because we’re going to inevitably run out of “unsustainable” fossil fuels (and presumably nuclear).

I address this fallacy in our Energy Clarity email series (see next item).

Energy Clarity Sample: “Sustainable” energy vs. evolving energy

People often are concerned about the future of energy. They worry, “If we keep producing and consuming energy the way we are today, won’t we run out?” The answer, if you take that literally, is absolutely. If you do anything the same way, over and over, you will eventually run out resources: if you look for the exact same solar panel materials at the exact same places, for example, you’re going to run out of those. Or if you keep getting your steel from the exact same place, at some point it’s going to run out.

But we shouldn’t think of human beings as repeaters. The fact that a behavior cannot be repeated forever doesn’t mean that it’s unsustainable in the sense that the behavior is short-range and irrational. The truly long-range behavior is to always do the best thing at any given time, and improve and adapt over time.

The long-range behavior in metal, for example, is to always look for and use the best form of metal. Maybe that will be steel for 500 years and then maybe something completely different. And maybe the iron ore and the carbon for that steel will come from one place for 20 years, and then a different place for the next 20 years—we don’t know. As long as policy supports using the best metal at any given point in time, then human beings will keep discovering better ways to produce and use metal.

If somebody says, “We shouldn’t use metal at all because it’s not renewable,” and instead mandates that we make our skyscrapers out of wood because that’s renewable, you would probably think that doesn’t make much sense. There’s no reason why we should commit to using some particular material indefinitely. The same is true for energy.

Consider oil. Every year we consume more oil, but our oil reserves have actually increased. How is this possible?

Fossil fuel resources are created, not taken. We’re taught to think of oil reserves as a fixed amount that nature gives us that we’re constantly using up. That’s not how it works. What happens instead, is that people find progressively better ways to find, extract, refine, and use oil.

For example, in the 1800’s people discovered something called “skunk oil.” It was unusable because it had a lot of sulfur in it and smelled like rotten eggs. Then people figured out how to refine it so this previously unusable product became usable oil. They used ingenuity to expand the supply of oil resources. The popular term “oil reserves” just refers to the amount that’s currently in inventory. Basically, the amount it makes sense to develop given our current technology and economics.

As we evolve and figure out new ways to turn non-resources into resources we can take more and more unusable hydrocarbon and make it usable. With any given fossil fuel there’s likely at least ten times more of it than we’ve used in the entire history of civilization.

And as we evolve we also have the unlimited ability to create other energy resources as well.

This doesn’t mean we can just ban some form of energy today without severe consequences. What it does mean is that over time we could potentially transform anything in the world into energy. Just the potential of nuclear technology alone shows that we don’t have to worry about running out of energy.

The key to abundant energy resources is to leave people free so that over time they can continue to evolve new and better ways to get energy.

We don’t need repeatable energy or sustainable energy. We want evolving energy.

Human beings are not repetitive creatures. We are evolving creatures who continually improve the materials and processes we use to flourish.

The Human Flourishing Project: Rejuvenation

On the latest episode of The Human Flourishing Project I discuss the role of rejuvenation in human flourishing and share some methods to identify what will rejuvenate you the most.

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