Tuesday

January 25th, 2022

Insight

Nuclear fusion is close enough to start dreaming

Tyler Cowen

By Tyler Cowen Bloomberg View

Published November 29, 2021

The nuclear fusion startup Helion announced last week that it has developed new technologies that may make nuclear fusion viable - practically, economically and environmentally. It is too early to tell if its claims will pan out, but there have been so many breakthroughs lately that they cannot be dismissed.

The possibility of carbon-free energy generation raises a seldom discussed question: Just how much would it change the world if cheap and clean energy sources were truly abundant?

Keep in mind that one source of cheap, clean power will lead to others. Maybe nuclear fusion cannot be used to fly a jet plane, but perhaps it could be used to produce relatively clean hydrogen fuel, which could then be deployed in ways fusion could not. A chain reaction would occur, eventually bringing cheap, clean energy across the economy.

As an inveterate traveler, my first thought is that I would be able to get everywhere much more quickly. How about a supersonic or perhaps suborbital flight from Washington to Tokyo? A trip to Antarctica would no longer seem so daunting. Many remote places would be transformed, one hopes for the better.

One second-order effect is that countries with good infrastructure planning would reap a significant relative gain. The fast train from Paris to Nice would become faster yet, but would trains on the Acela corridor?

Next in line: Desalinating water would become cheap and easy, enabling the transformation and terraforming of many landscapes. Nevada would boom, though a vigorous environmental debate might ensue: Just how many deserts should we keep around? Over time, Mali and the Middle East would become much greener.

How about heating and cooling? It might be possible to manipulate temperatures outdoors, so Denmark in January and Dubai in August would no longer be so unbearable. It wouldn't be too hard to melt snow or generate a cooling breeze.

Wages would also rise significantly. Not only would more goods and services be available, but the demand for labor would also skyrocket. If flying to Tokyo is easier, demand for pilots will be higher. Eventually, more flying would be automated. Robots would become far more plentiful, which would set off yet more second- and third-order effects.

Cheap energy would also make supercomputing more available, crypto more convenient, and nanotechnology more likely.

With the relative plenty of material goods, however, people might invest more resources in status-seeking. Buying memberships into exclusive clubs - that select group of people who own an original van Gogh, say - might become relatively more expensive.

And limiting climate change would not be as simple as it might at first seem. Yes, nuclear fusion could replace all of those coal plants. But the secondary consequences do not stop there. As water desalination became more feasible, for example, irrigation would become less expensive. Many areas would be far more verdant, and people might raise more cows and eat more beef. Those cows, in turn, might release far more methane into the air, worsening one significant set of climate-related problems.

But all is not lost!

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Because energy would be so cheap, protective technologies - to remove methane (and carbon) from the air, for instance - are also likely to be more feasible and affordable.

In general, in a carbon-free energy world, the stakes would be higher for a large subset of decisions. If we can clean up the air, great. If not, the overall increase in radical change would create a whole host of new problems, one of which would be more methane emissions. The "race" between the destructive and restorative powers of technology would become all the more consequential. The value of high quality institutions would be much greater, which might be a worry in many parts of the world.

At least in the short run, fossil-fuel-rich nations such as Saudi Arabia and Russia would be the losers. Over the longer run, many commodity-producing nations would have to worry, as nations like China might find it easier to grow more of their own soybeans and stop buying from Brazil and Argentina. Drought-stricken areas with deserts and water problems but decent institutions could be some of the major winners; perhaps the American West would continue to gain economically on the East. All that extra land could be put to more productive use, but improving New Jersey might prove tougher.

As is so often the case with new technology, the challenges are real but the potential is enormous. I'm looking forward to whenever this new world comes to pass.

(COMMENT, BELOW)

Cowen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream."

Previously:
10/27/21 America's national mood disorder
06/10/21 Lifting of mask mandates poses a challenge for Libertarians
05/28/21 Why economics is failing us
04/19/21We need green energy. We don't need green jobs
04/14/21 Libertarianism isn't dead. It's just reinventing itself
04/05/21 What does the world need? More humans
02/10/21 If Biden goes big now, he may have to go small later
01/12/21 Covid improved how the world does science
12/07/20 How to make sure your complaint is heard
10/27/20 It's getting better and worse at the same time
09/14/20 How to be happy during a pandemic
09/04/20 Trump is winning the vaccine debate with public health experts
07/01/20 Why Americans are having an emotional reaction to masks
05/20/20 Covid-19 will expose the ghosts in the U.S. economy
05/07/20 Are aliens visiting us? US military seems to think so
05/06/20 America's reopening will depend on one thing --- trust
04/22/20 How the covid-19 recession is like World War II
04/15/20 America is returning to 1781
04/08/20 Covid-19 is is upending everything for status seekers
03/17/20 The coronavirus will usher in a new era of entertainment
01/28/20 Social Security isn't doomed for younger generations
01/08/20 Why 2020 is harder to predict than 2019 was
12/02/19 Equality is a mediocre goal so aim for progress
11/25/19 Inflation inequality creates winners and losers
11/09/19 OK kids. This boomer has had enough
10/20/19 Would you bet against Trump in 2020?
09/25/19 The right industrial policy for America
09/24/19 Harvard's legacies are nothing to be proud of
09/02/19 Yes, the Fed could still stop a recession
08/20/19 A trade deal with China wouldn't change much
07/29/19 How your personality traits affect your paycheck
07/16/19 Internet 101 should be a required class
05/28/19 How Dems actually are the ANTI-immigrant party
04/23/19 Want to help fight climate change? Have more children
03/22/19 America isn't as divided as it looks
03/12/19 The Twitter takeover of politics: You ain't seen nothing yet
03/04/19 How to tell which Dem dreams won't come true
02/07/19: Now the Dems want to end America's nuclear first strike option. How clueless is that?
01/29/19: The shutdown hit a lot of government workers --- hard. But, ultimately, who is responsible for their unfortunate circumstances?
12/12/18: The West is abusing its legal power to punish people or institutions that do things it doesn't like. It better stop
10/23/18: The US needs Saudi Arabia, and vice versa
10/19/18: The right finds the perfect weapon against the left
07/24/18: The drive for the perfect child gets a little scary
06/04/18: Side effects of the decline of men in labor market
05/14/18: Proving Marx's theories right
05/08/18: Holding up a mirror to intellectuals of the left
05/01/18: Virtual reality will make lives better ... mostly
04/16/18: It's hard to burst your political filter bubbleIt's hard to burst your political filter bubble
04/09/18: The missing key to grasping why American politics seems to have become more polarized, with no apparent end in sight
04/05/18: Two American power centers are about to clash
03/22/18: We fear what we can't control about Uber and Facebook
03/08/18: How to stop the licen$ing insanity
01/10/18: Polarized Congress needs to bring back earmarks
12/27/17: The year when the Internet collides with reality
11/07/17: Would you blame the phone for Russian interference?
10/23/17: North Korea is playing a longer game than the US
10/12/17: Why conservatives should celebrate Thaler's Nobel
08/02/17: Too many of today's innovations are focused on solving problems rather than creating something new

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