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Apollo 13: a guilty pleasure in the age of scarcity

I was watching the movie Apollo 13 recently for what was probably the fifth time, consuming it in the manner of a guilty pleasure. I say guilty pleasure because this movie is the paradigmatic technofix movie. And, I have little faith that the mounting challenges of resource depletion and climate change can be addressed by technology alone.

But still I revel in the technical mastery and the astonishing ingenuity of the NASA scientists portrayed in the film who saved a crippled spacecraft and brought its crew safely home. Perhaps, I think to myself, just maybe perhaps, these technofix advocates have a point. Maybe when circumstances get really, really desperate, we will somehow pull off an energy transition while at the same time addressing climate change and a host of other issues in one transformative ingenuity-filled marathon. They did it in Apollo 13, didn't they?

Unfortunately, that is precisely what many people believe. I've been having an exchange with someone who works in the computer industry about the potential supply problems for two key but rare metals used widely in electronics: gallium and indium. He rightly points out that the information we have about the reserves of both are sketchy and that the decline in the production of gallium in the last few years could be due to decreasing demand. It could also be the case, he says, that new technology will make gallium easier to get in the future and the decline will be reversed. (He makes the same argument for oil.)

He insists that indium simply can't be that scarce because--get this--there is indium in billions of electronic devices including cellphones and computer screens, in fact, in nearly everything that has a flat-screen display associated with it.

This is curious logic. It says that because we are using a resource ubiquitously and at an exponentially increasing rate, it must be plentiful. Now, I would conclude that such a situation would, in fact, be likely to result in the very scarcity I fear. Of course, it is always possible that everything will turn out all right with regard to the supply of critical metals and energy. But given the risks and uncertainty, is it wise to bet the future of civilization on the most optimistic assumptions?

I realized later that what this computer professional actually meant was that the corporate and government planners charged with thinking about resource supply issues couldn't possibly have made a colossal blunder which would lead to a catastrophic shortage of key metals in the electronics industry. He presumed, I think, that such an outcome was simply out of the question given the competence and intelligence of the people in his industry.

I think this is really the hardest kind of denial to cut through. If one admits this kind of incompetence is possible, then it implies that we could be hitting limits all over the place which have not been foreseen by corporate and government planners. That would mean a complete readjustment of one's world view and a concentrated dose of fear and uncertainty to boot.

Now, I feel that fear and uncertainty on a regular basis. And, I think that's why I occasionally take refuge in the technofix triumphalism found in such movies as Apollo 13 and in quite a few science fiction ones as well. Wouldn't it be nice to be cruising the galaxy with everything one needs at the touch of a button, or better yet, via voice command? Wouldn't it be nice never to have to even think about how much energy one uses?

Yes, it would be nice...and it is nice for a couple of hours to imagine such a life. But then, that's why such interludes are really a guilty pleasure. None of us who understand the real risks we face can afford more time than that lost in a fantasy that has so thoroughly crippled the thinking of even very intelligent people on the planet and which threatens to condemn us all to an unpleasant future.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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