Bottom of the Barrel

Week in Review / by Lee Billings /

A new book argues that marketplace innovations will make the future brighter, better, and more prosperous, but is such unbounded optimism rational?

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Or perhaps we should just pour money into revamping the developed world’s vast energy and transportation infrastructure so as to minimize fossil-fuel use? This is certainly feasible, but requires decades of labor—decades we may not easily afford if the effects of climate change and peak oil manifest quickly. An additional complication could arise if we merely use technological innovation to boost the efficiency with which we use fossil fuels: Paradoxically, enhancing thrift could create more, rather than less, demand.

There are other, more exotic, speculative, and difficult solutions, each of which, if even possible, must traverse treacherous market-enforced adaptive valleys on the journey from the lofty realm of research to the mundane reality of commerce. Maybe J. Craig Venter’s new microbes boasting synthetic genomes will soon suck carbon directly from the atmosphere and convert it to fuel. Maybe we’ll make a breakthrough in practical power generation from nuclear fusion, or somehow build fleets of solar-power satellites to beam power Earthward from orbit. Maybe we shall master molecular nanotechnology, and ubiquitous “universal assemblers” will manufacture on-demand all products that any individual could conceivably need. Maybe.

Or maybe the market will mostly dictate our scraping at the figurative bottom of the fossil-fuel barrel as long as possible, even if that frontier lies literally at the bottom of the sea. Consider that the Deepwater Horizon rig that set off the ongoing environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was a marvel of innovation created by market demand, a behemoth capable of operating beneath nearly 2.5 kilometers of water to drill more than 9 kilometers into the Earth’s crust seeking oil. Similar innovation in search of more fossil fuels now threatens further damage to fragile areas like Canadian boreal forest and the Arctic.

We can also probably credit the market for British Petroleum’s reluctance to quantify the extent of its spill—the greater its volume, the more stock prices might fall. Based on satellite imagery and newly released video of the seafloor leak, some sources now estimate that it is jetting 95,000 barrels per day with no clear end in sight. That’s more than 15 million liters every 24 hours, nearly twenty times greater than earlier leakage estimates. Most of that oil and its impact on offshore ecosystems has essentially been hidden, either through the deliberate heavy use of highly toxic chemical dispersants or through the complex, dynamic behavior of crude oil flowing at great depth and pressure into vast amounts of seawater.

Could it have also been a market force, the necessity of maximizing short-term returns for shareholders, which caused the disaster in the first place? BP may have been attempting to cut costs when it sent a group of inspectors away from the Deepwater Horizon before the inspectors could conduct an expensive test to ensure the soundness of a cement seal on the newly drilled well. Hours later, a blowout of natural gas from the well jetted to the surface, and the rig exploded.

To think things are so simple is tempting, but probably erroneous. Markets are a manifestation of myriad inputs and diverse actions, some rational, some not. They are not distinct, purposeful entities as sometimes portrayed. They do not harbor malevolent or benevolent intentions. To say Adam Smith’s invisible hand is the primary cause of the BP disaster or of our seemingly intractable energy situation is, in my mind, as unrealistic as saying it is the primary solution. Instead, maybe achieving a rich and dignified future for the bulk of humanity requires creating stranger bedfellows: regulated innovation, frugal prosperity, extravagant parsimony, and cautious exuberance. Which makes for a decent Zen koan, but probably not the most welcome read on a frivolous first-class flight from New York to Hong Kong.

Lee Billings is a staff editor for Seed. He likes space.

Originally published May 21, 2010

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