The Slow Future!

The Future Is Not Accelerating

I have some bad news and some good news for you about the future. First, the bad news. The future is not coming at us any faster than it ever has. We will not become immortal cyborgs with superintelligent computer friends in the next twenty years. The good news is that means we have a lot more time to get our shit together, and possibly to save the world. Welcome to the slow future.

Sculpture by Christopher Locke

One of the big mistakes that futurists make today is suggesting that our future is accelerating because science is operating at a fever pitch. We’re churning out so many magical devices that in twenty years we’ll have transcended death, disease, and poverty. Whether they’re wild-eyed Utopians like Ray Kurzweil or pessimistic doomsayers like Bill Joy (who popularized the idea of a “gray goo” apocalypse), they’ve made the error of assuming that all aspects of our lives will change as quickly as microchips do under Moore’s Law. When you consider that our technology has advanced from the first telephones to smart phones in roughly a century, it’s easy to understand why it seems like tomorrow is arriving faster than it ever did.

Geological Time and Species Time

The problem is that very few things in our lives are like technology. Indeed, most things on the planet — including many subjects of that supposedly accelerating scientific research — are operating on a geological timescale. Evolution, climate change, and the construction of the physical universe down to its atoms are processes that we measure in millions or billions of years. To understand the future properly, it’s crucial that we listen to geologists as often as we do computer scientists. Scientists like Peter Ward and Lynn Margulis, who study billion-year changes in life on Earth, have a much better perspective on tomorrow than someone who has only studied the past century. Earth-shattering events such as climate change are almost never visible from the tiny flash of time allotted us as individual humans.

Because of this observational challenge, it is hard to speed up the process of geological discoveries, whether they relate to climate change, or to materials science that could one day give us fine control over molecules. Unlike computers, which we invented, the Earth’s processes are something we can only understand through observation. And we need time to do it. Maybe not millions of years, but certainly not just a century either.

There is another kind of slow time that we often ignore in our rush to hurtle into tomorrow at light speed. This is called species time. It is the amont of time that a species, like say Homo sapiens, is likely to exist. Most species are only around for about a few million years at most — then they die out or evolve or a little bit of both. Often you hear about organisms like sharks or algae that have lasted for tens of millions or billions of years, but those numbers apply only to a general description of these creatures. Specific species of shark and algae evolve and die out over the millennia, though the same forms re-evolve over and over. In this chart (via Wikipedia) you can see what the typical lifespan of a species is. Note that mammal species like ourselves tend to last about a million years.

The Future Is Not AcceleratingSEXPAND

Most evolutionary biologists believe that H. sapiens evolved about 200 thousand years ago. So we’re pretty early in our species life cycle. I know we like to think of ourselves as special creatures, and to be fair it does seem like we are the only superintelligent life that’s ever existed on Earth. But it’s worth keeping in mind that despite all our accomplishments, like electric blankets and cities and videogames, that we are still part of a species whose lifespan is measured in tens of thousands of years.

This is particularly important when you start to think about a reasonable timeframe for the development of space travel and solar system colonization. There is strong evidence that humans first began exploring the oceans by boat about 50 thousand years ago. Reed boats are the technological advance that helped us reach the shores of Australia from Asia at that time. Now, there is mounting evidence that these same kinds of boats, lashed together with simple tools, bore our ancestors from Asia to the Americas about 15,000 years ago. But it was only about 500 years ago that ocean exploration really started to transform our civilizations. Thanks to new shipping technology, buttressed by international trade, we have begun to form a global society. Airplanes have helped too, as has instantaneous communication. But looked at from the perspective of species time, our interconnected world was 50 thousand years in the making.

What if our space probes and the Curiosity rover are the equivalent of those reed boats thousands of years ago? It’s worth pondering. We may be at the start of a long, slow journey whose climactic moment comes thousands of years from now.

In Your Lifetime

Let’s return to the one timeframe that we can all grasp easily: the length of a human lifespan, which under ideal circumstances is around 75-85 years. This is also the lifespan of our computer technology, whose development appears so rapid to us in part because we actually witnessed it in real time. Unlike the development of our climate, or of our species’ ability to travel the planet in miraculous vessels of our own making.

I think it’s obvious why we want to measure the pace of the future using technology, and make computer scientists our guides. Technological change is both familiar and easy to observe. We want to believe that other scientific and cultural changes can happen in similarly observable way because generally we think in human time, not species or geological time. Put another way: We all live in a hyper-accelerated timeframe. Slow time is essentially inhuman time. It is what exists before and after each of our individual lives.

That said, it’s undeniable that technological change and fast human time can profoundly affect events unfolding in slow time. For example, we must act now, in our lifetimes, to prevent climate change from destroying our food security, our livelihoods, and the millions of species who share the planet with us. We must act now to keep our space programs alive. And of course we must keep innovating new computers to help us analyze everything from genomes to carbon atoms more quickly and efficiently.

Still, we can’t expect all the efforts we make in our short lifetimes to pay off in our lifetimes, too. You will not live to be 200 years old. I repeat: You will not live to be 200 years old. Life extension like that is not going to happen in our lifetimes because quite simply it takes time to analyze our genomes, then it takes more time to test them, then it takes more time to develop therapies to keep us young, and then there is a lot of government red tape and cultural backlash to deal with too. Maybe our grandchildren will have a chance to take a life-extension pill. But not us. And that has to be OK. Making scientific promises we can’t keep will do a lot of harm. Ultimately it undermines the public’s trust in both science and people who prognosticate about it.

Many Timelines, All At Once

We need to think about the future as a set of overlapping timelines. Some events take place in human time. Others exist in the slow time of Homo sapiens or the planet’s carbon cycle — or even the Milky Way’s collision course with Andromeda. Problems arise when we believe that all time is human time. We lose sight of long term goals like species survival on a constantly-changing planet. We fail to prioritize projects like food security and instead focus on curing aging. Both are very worthy goals. But one needs to happen now, in human time. The other will take generations.

In a sense, we are trapped in accelerated time. We cannot feel or observe the slow future because we will not live to see it. But it exists, in a way that is more vital and important than any one of us. The slow future is our best hope if we want to steer humanity toward a tomorrow where our species survives.

Wind Farms in the Upper Midwest.

Four New Wind Farms In The Upper Midwest Could Power 750,000 Homes


shutterstock_123206926CREDIT: Shutterstock

Last week, Minneapolis-based utility Xcel Energy proposed its fourth wind farm in the Upper Midwest since mid-July. If approved, the 150-megawatt Border Winds Project would be developed in North Dakota near the U.S.-Canadian border and produce enough electricity to save customers an estimated $45 million over its lifetime while reducing annual carbon dioxide emissions by about 320,000 tons.

In July, Xcel Energy — the nation’s top utility for wind-based power — proposed to add 600 megawatts of wind energy through three wind farms in North Dakota and Minnesota. With the addition of the Border Winds Project, Xcel could save customers more than $220 million and add a total of 750 megawatts of wind power to its existing Midwest portfolio, which would bring its wind capacity total in the region to 2,550 megawatts — or enough power to serve over 750,000 homes.

“These projects will lower our customers’ bills, offer protection from rising fuel costs, and provide significant environmental benefits,” Dave Sparby, CEO of Xcel subsidiary Northern States Power Co., said in a statement last month. “Wind prices are extremely competitive right now, offering lower costs than other possible resources, like natural gas plants.”

Xcel has submitted the four projects to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and the North Dakota Public Service Commission for consideration and expects to hear the regulators’ decisions by late fall. If approved, construction will begin immediately in order for the projects to qualify for the federal renewable energy Production Tax Credit (PTC).

The PTC, which was set to expire at the end of 2012, was extended in January to projects that begin construction by the end of 2013. The tax credit provides 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity produced over the first ten years of operation.

The Upper Midwest is not the only region that’s benefiting from Xcel’s aggressive push to add more wind power before the PTC expires. In Colorado, Xcel has asked regulators to approve a 200-megawatt wind farm that would save customers more than $142 million in fuel costs over the 20-year contract term.

Xcel also proposed three projects totaling nearly 700 megawatts that would be built in New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, citing a lower price per megawatt-hour for wind energy generation than their own natural gas-fueled generation. These projects are expected to save customers $590.4 million in fuel costs over 20 years.

Altogether, Xcel is awaiting approval on about 1,650 megawatts of wind power that could come online before the end of the 2016, which would increase its overall wind capacity by 30 percent.

“We are committed to meeting our customers’ needs in clean and affordable ways,” said Ben Fowke, Xcel Energy’s chairman and CEO. “Wind power is simply the cheapest resource available right now, and we are taking the opportunity afforded by the PTC extension to further shape our systems for the future.”

Mari Hernandez is a Research Associate on the Energy team at the Center for American Progress.

10 Real futuristic Technologies!

I quoted this directly from the post but I think it says what the futuristic technologies are all about very well:

Why wait for the future when many of today’s technologies look as though they got here in a time machine? Here are 10 real-life technologies that come from the future.

A couple of clarification points before we get started. By real-world, I mean any kind of technology that actually, physically exists (no vapourware, no conceptual designs, etc.). It needs to be functional, whether it be a fully fledged product, or a working prototype in the lab. And second, we’re strictly going for form over function, here. A futuristic appearance in this case means everything.

Okay, let’s take a trip to the next century and beyond.

Bridge Or Gangplank?

Natural gas is “a bridge to a world with high CO2 Levels,” climatologist Ken Caldeira told me last year.

major new study in Geophysical Research Letters by 19 researchers — primarily from NOAA and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) — suggests natural gas may be more of gangplank than a bridge.

Scientists used a research aircraft to measure leakage and found:

The measurements show that on one February day in the Uintah Basin, the natural gas field leaked 6 to 12 percent of the methane produced, on average, on February days.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) called the emissions rates “alarmingly high.” While the researchers conducted 12 flights, “they selected just one as their data source for this paper,” ClimateWire reports. Researchers actually measured higher emissions on other flights, but atmospheric conditions during those flights “gave the data more uncertainty.”

The Uinta Basin is of particular interest because it “produces about 1 percent of total U.S. natural gas” and fracking has increased there over the past decade.

This study confirms earlier findings of high rates of methane leakage from natural gas fields. If these findings continue to be replicated elsewhere, they would utterly vitiate the direct climate benefit of natural gas, even when it is used only to switch off coal.

How much methane leaks during the entire lifecycle of unconventional gas has emerged as a key question in the fracking debate. Natural gas is mostly methane (CH4).  And methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than (CO2), which is released when any hydrocarbon, like natural gas, is burned — 25 times more potent over a century and 80 to 100 times more potent over a 20-year period.

Even without a high-leakage rate for shale gas, we know that “Absent a Serious Price for Global Warming Pollution, Natural Gas Is A Bridge To Nowhere.” That was first demonstrated by the International Energy Agency in its big June 2011 report on gas — see IEA’s “Golden Age of Gas Scenario” Leads to More Than 6°F Warming and Out-of-Control Climate Change.  That study — which had both coal and oil consumption peaking in 2020 — made abundantly clear that if we want to avoid catastrophic warming, we need to start getting off of all fossil fuels.

Still, the leakage rate does matter.  A major 2011 study by Tom Wigley of the Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) concluded:

The most important result, however, in accord with the above authors, is that, unless leakage rates for new methane can be kept below 2%, substituting gas for coal is not an effective means for reducing the magnitude of future climate change.

Wigley, it should be noted, was looking at the combined warming impact from three factors — from the methane leakage, from the gas plant CO2 emissions, and from the drop in sulfate aerosols caused by switching out coal for gas. In a country like the United States, which strongly regulates sulfate aerosols, that third factor is probably much smaller. Of course, in countries like China and India, it would be a big deal.

An April 2012 study found that a big switch from coal to gas would only reduce “technology warming potentials” by about 25% over the first three decades — far different than the typical statement that you get a 50% drop in CO2 emissions from the switch. And that assumed a total methane leakage of 2.4%. The study found that if the total leakage exceeds 3.2% “gas becomes worse for the climate than coal for at least some period of time.”

Leakage of 4%, let alone 9%, would call into question the value of unconventional gas as any sort of bridge fuel. Colm Sweeney, the head of the aircraft program at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, who led the study’s aerial component, told the journal Nature:

“We were expecting to see high methane levels, but I don’t think anybody really comprehended the true magnitude of what we would see.”

The industry has tended kept most of the data secret while downplaying the leakage issue. EDF is working with the industry to develop credible leakage numbers in a variety of locations.