The long view

Physicist and Nobel Laureate Robert Laughlin was on Econtalk this past summer. The link to the podcast is here.  Laughlin, who likes to take on contrarian positions and is always entertaining, talks about the future of carbon and his forthcoming book “When coal is gone”.  Chapter two of his book originally entitled “Geological Time” was excerpted in The American Scholar with the title “What the earth knows” and can be obtained here.  In that chapter and on the podcast, Laughlin argues that the human age of fossil fuels and its effect on climate is but a blink of an eye in geological time.   The earth has endured much larger perturbations then humans will ever inflict.  He claims that we’ll run out of oil in about 60 years but we will still use carbon-based liquid fuels because their energy densities are without peer.  (You can’t fly an airplane without it.)  However, instead of getting it out of the ground we will manufacture it using coal or natural gas as feed stock.  In about 200 years we’ll run out of coal but we’ll still want to make fuels.  At that point, we’ll have to extract carbon out of the air or ocean, mostly likely using plants.  Laughlin tries to avoid taking political positions and does acknowledge that climate change could be bad for this and the next generation of humans even if it won’t matter much in the long term.  He’s confident the earth and humans will survive this crisis.  The one thing he does worry about is biodiversity loss, which is permanent.  There is a switch in topic to Laughlin’s previous book The Crime of Reason 50 minutes into the podcast.  In that book, Laughlin argues that  the US switch from a manufacturing economy to an information economy will stifle  learning and the dissemination of knowledge because if information becomes a commodity, its value depends on its scarcity.  Thus, the rate of innovation will decrease not increase and we will become more secretive in general.


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