Printing Food…

NASA is funding the development of a printer for food:

3dprinterfood

Of course, its immediate application is as an experimental technology to feed hungry astronauts in space.

This is getting interestingly close to the fantasies of a Star Trek-style food replicator. Consumers go to the store, buy cartridges of nutrients and flavourings, load them into their printer, download some recipes from the internet, print, and eat.

It may be early to hypothesise about costs, but I hypothesise that 3-D printing foodstuffs may massively lower the costs — both in material inputs and in monetary inputs — of producing food.

For instance, today 70% of water usage is for food-related irrigation. Today it takes 1000 to 3000 litres of water to produce one kilo of rice, and it takes 13000 to 15000 litres of water to produce one kilo of grain-fed beef. So crops and animals take lots and lots of water to rear to the time they go onto human plates. Manufacturing food directly in a 3-D printer cuts out all the resources and energy involved in rearing animals and growing irrigating crops — so could massively cut down on water and resource usage.

Unfortunately, in this era of 2-D printing inks for inkjet printers are more expensive than fine wines. It has been jokingly said that the first thing many of those who experiment with 3-D printing will do is a print a 2-D printer that isn’t such an infuriating moneysucker. So printing at home is by no means guaranteed to lower costs or increase convenience. The technology is still in its nascency, and ultimately the results may be very poor, at least to begin with.

But in the long run, the cost-saving and resource-saving potential may win out. Perhaps 3-D food printing could be the innovation that does for human demand for agriculture what petrochemical fertilisers did in the 20th Century. At the time of Malthus, it was widely recognised that humans were oversaturating the land, that population was growing unsustainably and that it all had to end in starvation, cataclysm. This Malthusian fire and brimstone is once again popular today, with many true believers “doing the math” and declaring that human population growth is unsustainable, and some even suggesting forcible measures to prevent excessive population growth. But the first Malthusians failed to factor human innovation into their calculations. Fertilisers and other innovations in agriculture were black swans that derailed their predictions. In the long run, an innovation like food printing that massively reduces land use, water use and resource use could be the black swan that derails the predictions of modern Malthusians.

And with enough practice, recipes designed for 3-D food printers may turn into as much of an artform as recipes designed for regular ingredients and human labour. There will most likely aways be a niche for human-prepared and naturally-grown food. But music, video, books, etc, distributed via the internet are now of sufficient quality for widespread acceptance. With sufficient innovation, care, thought and experimentation it is possible that food (alongside various other 3-D printed goods) distributed digitally can reach acceptable standards.

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Free Market Ecology

These gargantuan global conferences where the emissaries of governments meet in hallowed halls to thrash out a global planning agenda — dressed in the clothes of ecology, or sustainable development, or whatever the buzzword of the day — are a waste of time.

They are a waste of time for the taxpayer, who has to stump up to pay for such efforts. They are a waste of time for the protestors who swarm to such events holding placards and shouting slogans. They are a waste of time for the ecologists who — whether right or wrong — believe that the present shape of human civilisation is unsustainable. Possibly the only group that really benefits are the self-perpetuating bureaucratic classes, who often take home huge salaries they could never earn in the private sector.

And the Malthusian targets of the bureaucracy have a history of missing.

The Guardian notes:

Rio+20 was intended as a follow up on the 1992 Earth Summit, which put in place landmark conventions on climate change and biodiversity, as well as commitments on poverty eradication and social justice. Since then, however, global emissions have risen by 48%, 300m hectares of forest have been cleared and the population has increased by 1.6bn people. Despite a reduction in poverty, one in six people are malnourished.

If these bureaucratic classes knew the first thing about economics or markets, they would begin to question whether such conferences — and all the promises, intergovernmental commissions, and regulatory pledges they spawn — are necessary. The more I question, the more I come to believe that all that is needed to halt any man-made ecological crises are free markets and free speech.

The history of human civilisation has been one of triumph over the limits of nature. While we have had our ups and downs, recent projections of imminent ecological ruin — such as those in the 1970s produced by Ehrlich and Holdren and the Club of Rome, or earlier by Keynes, Malthus and Galton (etc) — have all failed to materialise. But the trend goes back much further, into the distant past. Throughout our history our species has done what has been necessary to survive. Humanity has lived on this planet for upwards of 500,000 years, and through that time, we have survived a myriad of climate changes — solar variation, atmospheric variation, cycles of glaciation, supervolcanoes, gamma ray bursts, and a host of other phenomena.

It will be no different this time. We are dependent on our environment for our life and for our future. That is widespread knowledge, and so as the capable and creative species that we are, we have already developed a wide array of technological solutions to potential future environmental problems. This is a natural impulse; humanity as individuals and as a species hungers for survival, for opportunities to pass on our genes.

As I wrote last month:

If we are emitting excessive quantities of CO2 we don’t have to resort to authoritarian centralist solutions. It’s far easier to develop and market technologies (that already exist today) like carbon scrubbing trees that can literally strip CO2 out of the air than it is to try and develop and enforce top-down controlling rules and regulations on individual carbon output. Or (even more simply), plant lots of trees and other such foliage (e.g. algae).

If the dangers of non-biodegradable plastic threaten our oceans, then develop and market processes (that already exist today) to clean up these plastics.

Worried about resource depletion? Asteroid mining can give us access to thousands of tonnes of metals, water, and even hydrocarbons (methane, etc). For more bountiful energy, synthetic oil technology exists today. And of course, more capturable solar energy hits the Earth in sunlight in a single day than we use in a year.

The only reason why these technologies are not widespread is that at present the older technologies are more economically viable. Is that market failure? Are markets failing to reflect our real needs and wants?

No; those who so quickly cry “market failure!” fail to grasp markets. Certainly, I think GDP is a bad measure of economic growth. But throwing out the concept of money altogether as a measure of society’s needs and wants is completely foolish. Markets are merely an aggregation of society’s preferences. Capital and labour is allocated as the market — in other words, as society — sees fit. As Hayek showed in the 1930s, the market gives society the ability to decide how a good or service should be distributed based on individuals willingness to give money for it. The market gives feedback to producers and consumers through the price mechanism about the allocation of resources and capital, which in turn allows on the basis of individual consensual decisions corrections that prevent shortages and surpluses. Under a planned system there is no such mechanism.

The fact that greener technologies have not yet been widely adopted by the market is merely a symptom of the fact that society itself is not yet ready to make a widespread transition. But the fact that research and development and investment continues to pour into green technologies shows that the market is developing toward such an end.

Solar consumption has gone parabolic:

And so it will continue; as society evolves and progresses, the free market — so long as there is a free market — will naturally reallocate resources and labour based on society’s preferences. Without a free market — and since 2008 when the banks were bailed out and markets became junkiefied intervention-loving zombies, it is highly dubious that there is such a thing as a free market in the West — planners will just end up guessing at how to allocate resources, labour and capital, and producing monstrous misallocations of capital.

The political nature of such reallocation is irrelevant; whether the centralists call themselves communists or socialists or environmentalists, their modus operandi is always the same: ignore society’s true economic preferences, and reallocate resources based on their own ideological imperatives (often for their own enrichment).

My view is that the greatest threat to the planet’s ecology is from the centralists who wish to remove or pervert the market mechanism in order to achieve ideological goals. It is not just true that removing the market mechanism retard society’s ability to evolve into new forms of production, resource-allocation, and capital-allocation based on society’s true preferences. The command economies of the 20th Century — particularly Maoist China and Soviet Russia — produced much greater pollution than the free markets. Under a free market, polluters who damage citizens or their property can be held to account in the market place, and through the court system.There is no such mechanism through the kind of command of economy that the centralists seem to wish to implement.

The answer is not central planning and government control. The answer is the free market. 

Keynesianism & Eugenics

The theory of output as a whole, which is what The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money purports to provide, is much more easily adapted to the conditions of a totalitarian state.

John Maynard Keynes

In looking at and assessing the economic paradigm of John Maynard Keynes — a man himself fixated on aggregates — we must look at the aggregate of his thought, and the aggregate of his ideology.

Keynes was not just an economist. Between 1937 and 1944 he served as the head of the Eugenics Society and once called eugenics “the most important, significant and, I would add, genuine branch of sociology which exists.” And Keynes, we should add, understood that economics was a branch of sociology. So let’s be clear: Keynes thought eugenics was more important, more significant, and more genuine than economics.

Eugenics — or the control of reproduction — is a very old idea.

In The Republic, Plato advocated that the state should covertly control human reproduction:

You have in your house hunting-dogs and a number of pedigree cocks. Do not some prove better than the rest? Do you then breed from all indiscriminately, or are you careful to breed from the best? And, again, do you breed from the youngest or the oldest, or, so far as may be, from those in their prime? And if they are not thus bred, you expect, do you not, that your birds and hounds will greatly degenerate?  And what of horses and other animals? Is it otherwise with them? How imperative, then, is our need of the highest skill in our rulers, if the principle holds also for mankind? The best men must cohabit with the best women in as many cases as possible and the worst with the worst in the fewest,  and that the offspring of the one must be reared and that of the other not, if the flock is to be as perfect as possible. And the way in which all this is brought to pass must be unknown to any but the rulers, if, again, the herd of guardians is to be as free as possible from dissension.  Certain ingenious lots, then, I suppose, must be devised so that the inferior man at each conjugation may blame chance and not the rulers and on the young men, surely, who excel in war and other pursuits we must bestow honors and prizes, and, in particular, the opportunity of more frequent intercourse with the women, which will at the same time be a plausible pretext for having them beget as many of the children as possible. And the children thus born will be taken over by the officials appointed for this.

Additionally, Plato advocated “disposing” with the offspring of the inferior:

The offspring of the inferior, and any of those of the other sort who are born defective, they will properly dispose of in secret, so that no one will know what has become of them. That is the condition of preserving the purity of the guardians’ breed.

In modernity, the idea appears to have reappeared in the work first of Thomas Malthus, and later that of Francis Galton.

Malthus noted:

It does not, however, seem impossible that by an attention to breed, a certain degree of improvement, similar to that among animals, might take place among men. Whether intellect could be communicated may be a matter of doubt: but size, strength, beauty, complexion, and perhaps even longevity are in a degree transmissible. As the human race could not be improved in this way, without condemning all the bad specimens to celibacy, it is not probable, that an attention to breed should ever become general.

Galton extended Malthus’ thoughts:

What nature does blindly, slowly and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly. As it lies within his power, so it becomes his duty to work in that direction.

Margaret Sanger — the founder of Planned Parenthood — went even further, claiming that the state should prevent the “undeniably feeble-minded” from reproducing,  and advocated “exterminating the Negro population”.

And these ideas — very simply, that the state should determine who should live, and who should die, and who should be allowed to reproduce — came to a head in the devastating eugenics policies of Hitler’s Reich, which removed around eleven million people — mostly Jews, gypsies, dissidents, homosexuals, and anyone who did not fit with the notion of an Aryan future — from the face of the Earth.

Of course, the biggest problem with eugenics is that human planning cannot really control nature. Mutation and randomness throw salt over the idea. No agency — even today in the era of genetics — has the ability to effectively determine who should and should not breed, and what kind of children they will have.

As Hayek noted:

The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society – a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.

Keynes’ interest in this topic appears to have descended from his contempt for the individual, and individual liberty. He once wrote:

Nor is it true that self-interest generally is enlightened; more often individuals acting separately to promote their own ends are too ignorant or too weak to attain even these.

The common denominator in all of these examples — and in my view, the thing that brought Keynes toward eugenics — is the belief that the common individual is too stupid to be the captain of his own destiny. Instead, the state — supposedly equipped with the best minds and the best data — should centrally plan. Eugenicists believe that the state should centrally plan human reproduction, while Keynesians believe that the state should centrally engineer recovery from economic malaise through elevated spending. Although it would be unwise to accuse modern Keynesians of having sympathy for eugenics, the factor linking both of these camps together is John Maynard Keynes himself.

Keynes’ description of an economic depression — that a depression is a fall in the total economic output — is technically correct. And many modern Keynesian economists have made worthwhile contributions — Hyman Minsky, Steve Keen, Michael Hudson, and Joe Stiglitz are four examples . Even the polemicist Paul Krugman’s descriptive work on trade patterns and economic agglomeration is interesting and accurate.

The trouble seems to begin with prescriptions. Keynesianism dictates that the answer to an economic depression is an increase in state spending. And on the surface of it, an increase in state spending will lift the numbers. But will momentarily lifting the numbers genuinely help the economy? Not necessarily; the state could spend millions of dollars on subsidies for things that nobody wants, wasting time, effort, labour and taxes and thus destroying wealth. And the state can push a market into euphoria — just as Alan Greenspan did to the housing market — creating the next bubble and the next bust, requiring an even bigger bailout. State spending creates additional dependency on the state, and perverts the empirical market mechanism — the genuine underlying state of demand in a market economy — which signals to producers what to produce and not produce. Worst of all, centralist policies almost always have knock-on side-effects that no planner could foresee (causality is complicated).

So Hayek’s view on the insuperable limits to knowledge applies as much to the economic planner as it does to the central planner of human reproduction.

While eugenicists and Keynesians make correct descriptive observations — like the fact that certain qualities and traits are inheritable, or more simply that children are like their parents — their attempts to use the state as a mechanism to control these natural systems often turns out to be drastically worse than the natural systems that they seek to replace.

As Keynes seems to admit when — in the German language edition of his General Theory — he noted that the conditions of a totalitarian state may be more amenable to his economic theory, the desire for control may be the real story here.

Keynesianism brings more of the economy under the control of the state. It is a slow and creeping descent into dependency on the state. As we are seeing in Europe today, cuts in state spending in a state-dependent economy can cause deep economic contraction, providing the Keynesian more confirmation for his idea that the state should tax more, and spend more.

That is, until nature intervenes. Just as a state-controlled eugenics program might well spawn an inbred elite suffering hereditary illnesses as a result of a lack of genetic diversity (as seems to have happened with the inbred elite Darwin-Galton-Wedgwood clan), so a state-controlled economy may well grind itself into the dirt as it runs out of innovation as a result of a lack of economic diversity. Such a situation is unsustainable — no planner is smarter than nature.

Solar Dissenters

Quite often, an energy doomer will turn up commenting that I am overlooking the fact that the expansion of the last century has been oil-fuelled and that this century’s new oil scarcity means that the party is over.

These people are wrong — for the same reason that Malthus (and all Malthusians) have always been wrong about everything — they have ignored the hard-to-measure variable of human ingenuity.

Back in September I remarked:

The solar energy hitting the earth exceeds the total energy consumed by humanity by a factor of over 20,000 times. More solar energy hits the world in a day, than we use in fifty years, at current rates.

Nuclear fission has massive unquantifiable tail risk. Solar power has almost zero tail risk.

Goodbye, Fukushima.

The dissenters soon appeared, screaming unintelligibly about solar panels not working at night. Not so.

A new high efficiency solar cell design that can use almost the entire solar spectrum has been announced by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

What this means is that the resulting solar panels will be able to generate power while it’s dark! What’s more, the new solar technology can be made using existing low cost methods already in operation.

A conventional solar cell captures light from one part of the spectrum. This new solar technology uses different materials stacked in layers, which use different wavelengths. Significantly, these include low and mid-energy wavelengths.

Human ingenuity triumphs again. The beauty of solar is that nothing can compete with its ubiquity, its reliability and its decentralisation. The growth of solar energy melds with nature: solar energy is by far the most abundant source of energy on our planet, far more so than hydrocarbons. Oil and gas are a necessary stepping stone to the solar revolution, nothing more. They are, ultimately, solar energy from aeons ago locked away beneath the earth.

Directly harnessing the power of the stars is an obvious step in the development of any sustainable terrestrial species.

None of this excuses the excesses of Solyndra, though. Solar will deploy as it becomes economically viable for it to do so, not via the assent of politicians.

With conventional energy prices continuing their century-long march upward, that will not be long.