Solutions to all the world’s problems are all around us. Every day there are thousands of new solutions presenting themselves to solve every pressing problem facing the planet and humanity.
It was Bucky Fuller who made this observation back in the 1960’s, that given sufficient willingness we have everything we need now to house, clothe and feed every human being on the planet ten times over, and at a standard of living equal to a billionaire. What is required, Bucky Fuller said, is a Design Science Revolution. Updating this for modern time, what we really need is a Green Design Science Revolution.
Green architecture comes in many forms, and they get more amazing by the day – urban skyscraper farms, floating eco-cities, glowing solar towers, turbine-driven skyscrapers, magnetically levitated wind collectors. Where does it end?! Vincent Callebaut is definitely of the leading architectural visionaries leading this movement.
Lets start with the picture [to the right]. The so-called Lilypad Project is perhaps the most fantastical of these green wonders. The idea is to create a series of floating self-sufficient ocean-going eco-city islands. Each one would be able to house 50,000 residents and would support a great deal of biodiversity. Collecting pools located in their centers would gather and filter water for use on board.
These would be places for adventurers and refugees alike as water levels rise around the world and threaten many, particularly island, habitats. As fears of global warming induced population displacement are steadily realized, the allure of waterborne aquatecture becomes more and more enticing.
Designed by Alexander Asadov, this incredible floating Aerohotel (pictured above) features a lighter-than-air aesthetic that sits serenely atop an elegant system of supports. Conceived as an elevated aquatic structure replete with hanging gardens, the space-age floating island preserves the entire extent of the ecosystem beneath it, contrasting with man-made islands that disrupt their immediate environment with tons of gravel fill.
The beauty of most of these solutions is they not only solve their intended design problem, they also solve many of the other problems of the world as well. Whether it’s poverty, pollution, political tyranny, climate change, disease, or environmental degradation, they are all related to each other via a complex web of life in a materially closed system at the bottom of a gravity well. Solve one piece of the puzzle, and the rest of the puzzle gets a little bit easier to solve as well.
Although I’m still a bit jaded with the American political process, I’m more hopeful than ever before. The reasons are many, but most especially the “can do” attitude that is sweeping the nation since Obama’s victory. It’s a shift in consciousness. I’m seeing solutions, rather than intractable problems. I’m seeing that we can do anything if we’re willing enough. And I’m not the only one feeling it, millions around the world are.
Thanks to 8 long years of disastrous policy and rampant corruption, people have seen just how much bold faced lies and crap they can take. People are fed up with the constant bullshit, and they are not going to take it anymore. When pundits and other so-called “experts” say we can’t do this, or we can’t do that, people are crying foul! I’ve heard it on the radio, and seen it on the streets. People know now that we can do anything if we set our mind to it.
I heard a recent radio interview with some so-called electric car supporter saying it will takes us decades to convert even 25% of our car fleet to electric and plug-in hybrids, except this time he was out smarted, and out WILLED by everyone else on the panel, including the callers, who said their is no reason we can’t convert to 100% renewable and electric vehicles in half the time – if we are willing.
Better Place, a company that aims to build a worldwide electric car charging infrastructure, has announced an agreement with the state of California to build a $1 billion network in the Bay Area. Meanwhile, Tesla CEO Elon Musk says his company is looking at rapid charge technology, and the possibility of swappable batteries. The entire US fleet of vehicles could be powered by renewable energy.
A recent study done by Mark Z. Jacobson at Stanford University says that wind, water and sun beat biofuels, nuclear and coal for clean energy.
Wind was by far the most promising, Jacobson said, owing to a better-than 99 percent reduction in carbon and air pollution emissions; the consumption of less than 3 square kilometers of land for the turbine footprints to run the entire U.S. vehicle fleet (given the fleet is composed of battery-electric vehicles);l the savings of about 15,000 lives per year from premature air-pollution-related deaths from vehicle exhaust in the United States; and virtually no water consumption.
“There is a lot of talk among politicians that we need a massive jobs program to pull the economy out of the current recession,” Jacobson said. “Well, putting people to work building wind turbines, solar plants, geothermal plants, electric vehicles and transmission lines would not only create jobs but would also reduce costs due to health care, crop damage and climate damage from current vehicle and electric power pollution, as well as provide the world with a truly unlimited supply of clean power.”
Jacobson’s research is particularly timely in light of the growing push to develop biofuels, which he calculated to be the worst of the available alternatives. In their effort to obtain a federal bailout, the Big Three Detroit automakers are increasingly touting their efforts and programs in the biofuels realm, and federal research dollars have been supporting a growing number of biofuel-research efforts.
“That is exactly the wrong place to be spending our money. Biofuels are the most damaging choice we could make in our efforts to move away from using fossil fuels,” Jacobson said. “We should be spending to promote energy technologies that cause significant reductions in carbon emissions and air-pollution mortality, not technologies that have either marginal benefits or no benefits at all”.
The three best alternatives that Jacobson is mentioning are each seeing revolutionary advancements. The Maglev wind turbine is designed to generate up to 1GW of power.
Magnetic levitation is an extremely efficient system for wind energy. Here’s how it works: the vertically oriented blades of the wind turbine are suspended in the air above the base of the machine, replacing the need for ball bearings. The turbine uses “full-permanent” magnets, not electromagnets — therefore, it does not require electricity to run. The full-permanent magnet system employs neodymium (”rare earth”) magnets and there is no energy loss through friction. This also helps reduce maintenance costs and increases the lifespan of the generator. Maglev wind turbines have several advantages over conventional wind turbines. For instance, they’re able to use winds with starting speeds as low as 1.5 meters per second (m/s). Also, they could operate in winds exceeding 40 m/s. Currently, the largest conventional wind turbines in the world produce only five megawatts of power. However, one large maglev wind turbine could generate one gigawatt of clean power, enough to supply energy to 750,000 homes. It would also increase generation capacity by 20% over conventional wind turbines and decrease operational costs by 50%. If that isn’t enough, the maglev wind turbines will be operational for about 500 years. A few hundred of these could power the entire American car fleet.
Beyond centralized solutions, there are plentiful cheap individual ones as well. Accessible individual wind power is getting cheaper all the time, such as Helix Wind residential wind turbine.
On the Solar front we have Nanosolar’s printed solar cell. They are already creating and selling massive sheets of solar cells for less than $1.00 per watt. Their current manufacturing output now exceeds all other solar manufacturers in the world combined! They are claiming prices of less than 30 cents/watt are achievable once manufacturing goes mainstream. To put this in perspective, the current price for coal is $2.10 per watt. Solar and wind are becoming cheaper all the time, and are no competitively cheaper than the more dirty alternatives. There is no excuse anymore to use the dirtier alternatives, other than providing corporate welfare to obsolete industries (coal, oil, nuclear, etc.). The only downside to sources like the sun and wind, is they are not continuously available.
Enter Deep Geothermal. Currently, geothermal plants exist near fault lines and other areas where hot temperatures are closer to the surface. For example just south of Reno, Nevada there is a geothermal plant that powers the entire city, or equivalent to 220,000 homes. This tiny plant and all of its facilities takes up less than 8 acres of land. This plant works because it’s sitting on top of a geothermal basin, where hot temperatures are right under the surface. So location is everything with current geothermal implementations. Deep geothermal technologies change this because they are able to dig deep enough, that location doesn’t matter anymore. With deep geothermal power water is pumped down to the hot rock, heated, and then brought back to the surface to turn turbines for electricity. Dig deep enough and boiling hot temperatures are available everywhere. You could set up a geothermal plant anywhere power is needed. Nevada is also home to Solar One, the third largest solar concentration plant in the world, producing 64MW of power on less than 400 acres. Combine Nevada’s abundance of sun, wind (especially in Northern Nevada) and resident surface geothermal could power most of the United States, turning Nevada into one of the 10 biggest economies in the world.
Cars meanwhile could be converted over to running mostly or entirely by electricity. About 90% of the population drives their cars less than 100 miles a day. So the limited range of current battery technology would take care of 90% of automobile energy consumption. The other 10% could be a combination of electric and plant-based fuels with 100 – 300 miles per gallon possible.Rather than these plants taking place of food crops, they could be saltwater based and be grown in currently non-arable areas. The use of saltwater crops for food and fuel could expand the world’s arable land by 50%! That’s over 50 million square miles of previously uncultivated territory in the world’s coastal deserts, inland salty soils, and over-salinized agricultural land (For more information on salt-water agriculture see Food vs Fuel). The water for these salty plants could come directly from the ocean. Meanwhile a portion of this seawater could be desalinized, bringing fresh water to the very arid regions that need it. An added benefit of all these saltwater plants along with renewable energy could cut global greenhouse gases back to pre-industrial levels
As I mentioned in Regreening the Earth, the European Union has proposed building out a massive renewable energy works that would tie together very-large scale solar facilities in Northern Africa, offshore wind powered turbines in the North Sea to form a large universal energy grid. The Africans would also get a cut of this cheap energy, since most of the solar plants would be in the Northern Sahara. As part of this plan, large scale desalination plants would line the African coastline to bring much needed water to areas of Africa that have been suffering from devastating droughts and desertification. This massive increase in fresh water to Africa would alleviate many of Africa’s problems with hunger, disease, and poverty. The potential for re-greening Africa is very compelling, and could be a model for re-greening much of the rest of the world. Comprehensive solutions like this EU proposal is precisely what the world needs to making the world a better place and bringing us all into a prosperous and robust 21st century future. .
However, climate change is but one part of our current environmental crisis. The other is the wholesale destruction of fragile ecosystems taking place around the world. Locations like Indonesia and the Amazon are seeing the most diverse plant and animal kingdoms give way under chain saws and bulldozers. These vital ecosystems, having evolved over millions of years, are bring destroyed for short-term economic gain.
The problem of resource depletion is big, and it will require an equally big solution What we need is a wholesale transition to a world-wide regenerative economy – based on value, rather than debt. ( A regenerative economy is one that recycles and regenerates everything it uses and creates back into the economic fold to be used again and again. This eliminates both the need for chewing up the planet or creating toxic landfills.
To get a better understanding of the regenerative economy, I recommend watching Sustainability is Only Half the Solution, Regeneration is the Other Half.
Below is an artist depiction of San Franciscos powered by geothermal energy “mushrooms” and algae-harvesting towers produce hydrogen, which is stored and distributed via a series of carbon nanotube walls. Fog catchers capture moisture from the atmosphere to distill fresh water.
A network of above ground and underground systems “fulfill infrastructural needs for the movement of people, water, hover-cars, and energy throughout the city”. Taking cues from nature, a giant super system resembling seaweed and chantrelle mushroom will hold together this network to collect water, power and distribute it across the city.
The biggest challenge in creating a regenerative economy is converting waste back into useful materials. This includes all of our waste such as water, petroleum based plastics, and precious metals. One solution to having abundant clean water will be the widespread adoption of cheapnanofilters, which have already proven effective in treating waste water. Biodegradable and recyclable plastics exist, and only require infusions of capital investment to become cheap enough to compete head on with traditional plastics. Saltwater agriculture + plant based plastics = win-win regeneration. Add in the growing potential of nanotechnology and microbe-based reclamation tools, and we could clean up and eliminate ALL of the toxic materials we’ve ever created, while simultaneously restoring damaged ecosystems. Human civilization finally becomes a deeply organic and fully integrated part of the biosphere.
All of this effort toward creating a sustainable and regenerative economy would simultaneously solve many, if not most of the world problems. It would create hundreds of millions of new jobs. It would allow developing and third-world nations the opportunity to leap-frog entirely the polluting and wasteful industrializing phase right into a clean, green, regenerative economy. This would result in a radical reduction of world-wide poverty and hunger, while bringing them the benefits the best of the 21st Century has to offer.
So this brings me to two other pressing problems – population growth and political tyranny. As I mentioned previously, all the worlds problems are interrelated. The rapid rise in pollution, industrial waste, and environmental destruction can be directly linked to population growth. Population growth in turn means more competition over dwindling resources, which means more wars, genocides, and politically oppressive regimes run by brutal dictators and junta’s, supported by first-world industrialists. BUT, if the means to health, wealth and economic prosperity can be had without further resource depletion, then the incentive for war is significantly reduced. The same goes for political oppression and culturally based genocide wars, which are the result of desperate, ignorant people caught in the web of poverty, disease and lack of education. Economic prosperity and education go hand-in-hand. If developing nations are able to access the world’s knowledge through the internet, this opens them up to the rest of the world. Freedom is a tantalizing thing, and once people have it they will do everything they can to keep it and expand it. I found out just yesterday, Saudi Arabia now has it’s own all-girl rock band called Accolade. Their hit song Pinocchio is getting massive airplay throughout the middle east. They still can’t perform live, and must wear their black shawls while in public, but the influence of downloadable music and iPods is having a cultural influence on the young in oppressive regimes.
When people are well off economically several things happen – they are less likely to commit crimes, less likely to commit acts of terrorism, and less likely to have children, and less likely to put up with assaults on their freedom. The net population growth in the First World is zero. All population growth is happening in Second and Third World countries and their immigration into First World countries. Improve the economic conditions of the world’s poor, and population growth stops.
All this will take is willingness to make it happen. Most people don’t even know their are solutions, or think it is way more difficult than it seams. So it’s about educating and inspiring as many people as possible. This is why I’m cautiously optimistic that if a minimum threshold of people wake up and adopt a can-do attitude we can in fact make it happen.