By Donella Meadows
–May 4, 1989–
If the chemists at the University of Utah have indeed achieved nuclear fusion in a bottle on a tabletop, their discovery could open a new age in human history.
The economy could run on deuterium, a component of seawater that is vastly abundant. It is available to poor countries as well as rich ones. We could cool our beer, miocrowave our food, drive our brontomobiles without producing smog or acid rain or greenhouse gases. There would be no spills from pipelines or tankers. We would not have to please the Saudis or give tax breaks to oil companies or defend the Persian Gulf.
Fusion would produce less harmful radioactive waste than nuclear fission and would not depend on a chain reaction that could go out of control. And if fusion can really happen in a lab with a beaker and some palladium electrodes, it won’t need centralized, billion-dollar megaplants, manned by specially trained technicians, surrounded by security systems. There would be no need for a scientific priesthood to plan our energy future for us. “Cold” fusion could make energy not only cheap, clean, and abundant, but democratic too.
Who wouldn’t be in favor of an breakthrough like that?
A few people have stated emphatically that they wouldn’t. They are mostly ecologists, just the folks you’d think would be delighted to find a less-polluting form of energy. But they are also people who have thought deeply about the role of energy in human affairs. Their conclusion was summed up by Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich. If we were to tap cheap, inexhaustible energy, he said, it would be “like giving a machine gun to an idiot child.”
To imagine what might happen if all energy constraints were lifted, you need only look at the claims people are making for the possible world of tabletop fusion.
We would never run out of materials, they say, because we could grind up ordinary rock for its copper or palladium — forgetting that over 99 percent of ordinary rock is ordinary rock and would be left behind in huge, leaching piles. We could produce fertilizer for all the world’s farmers, they say — forgetting that fertilizers run off to pollute waters. We could manufacture anything we want — with all the accompanying wastes.
But we could use some of our abundant energy to combat pollution they say — unaware that most “pollution control” methods simply move waste from one place to another, from air to sludge, for instance, or from Philadelphia to Africa.
If material desires remain unlimited and our planetary consciousness remains primitive, we would just use unlimited energy to generate waste. With no energy constraint, we would run into environmental constraints all the faster.
Then there’s what we’d do to each other. The scramble for tabletop fusion itself reveals the mentality with which the human race would use the boon of a new energy source.
The researchers have not released their precise experimental conditions nor permitted others to visit their lab. Normal scientific rules of objectivity and civility have broken down as information is conveyed through press conferences. Chemists and physicists are scrapping like four-year-olds. The University of Utah has applied for five basic patents. Over 200 major corporations have sent inquiries about buying their way into a piece of the action. The price of palladium temporarily soared.
In short, the main human reaction to this potential new energy source was to try to corner it for personal gain.
The researchers were summoned to a packed Congressional hearing. The government saw a way for the nation to achieve not only economic ascendancy over other nations, but military ascendancy. After all, the one use to which humanity has put fusion energy so far is in thermonuclear bombs.
As C.S. Lewis said, man’s supposed conquest of nature is actually man’s conquest of other men with nature as his instrument.
I’m one of those who hope that tabletop fusion is a mirage — which it probably is. I hope that we human beings have more time to bring ourselves to live within limits, to live in harmony with each other and the earth, and to find purposes more worthy than the accumulation of power or wealth. The funny thing is, if we ever do become willing to live gently, moderately, and unselfishly, we will see that we already have cold fusion at our fingertips.
Fusion is the power that lights the stars, including our sun. Fusion power falls on our heads in quantities much larger than we need, generated from a reactor located a safe 93 million miles away, with an expected lifetime of several billion years, and with no need of investment or maintenance from us. We don’t think much of this power, because it comes at a regulated pace that can’t be hustled. It is difficult for anyone to corner. By the crazy reckoning of our economics, which counts only benefits to some human beings and discounts costs to most human beings and to the environment, we think it’s expensive. But it’s not expensive, it’s not polluting, and it’s there for us to use, as soon as we are wise enough to use it.
The scramble for table-top fusion reminds me of the ancient Zen story of the seeker going all over the world searching frantically for an ox, while riding on the ox. That’s a metaphor for the search for enlightenment, which is in fact as close at hand as one’s willingness to transcend one’s own egotistical desires. It could also be a metaphor for the search for energy — which is just as nearby as enlightenment, and just as available, on the same terms.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989