The Moral Technology

Developing transportation beyond oil is a moral imperative.

I have a belief that the distant future matters.

First, the past.

In 1909, a German chemist named Fritz Haber invented a new method of fixing nitrogen, converting it into ammonia, which could then be manufactured at industrial scale. This became known as the Haber process.

Ammonia is commonly known as a cleaning agent that you keep under your sink. It is also an important building block of industrial products. Haber allowed for a brand new world, and with his process, any modern 1900’s nation could quickly produce tremendous quantities of fertilizer, as well as tremendous quantities of bullets, shells, explosives, and poison gas.

So they did.

World War 1. Photos from the National Library of Scotland

Ammonia and oil intermixed to fertilize the technological fruits of two enormous wars. The world was forever changed, and it remains worth wondering and reflecting on everything we lost. It is easier to quantify what we gained: Today, half of the food on the planet is grown with fertilizer synthesized by the Haber process.

The importance of oil is known to everyone: If you were born in a hospital, hands lined with petroleum byproducts were the first thing to touch your skin. Oil held you before your mother did.

When humanity bit into these technological fruits we left the Garden of Eden for the second time. In doing so, we set off a Malthusian time bomb.

Oil and Ammonia allowed the world to concentrate food production. In 1900 farmers were 38% of the US labor force, by the end of World War 2 the figure was 12%. Today it is 2%. World population grew from 1.7 billion to 7.5 billion today. We can now support more people than would ever be possible without these technologies, and this is something to reflect upon. If the technology suddenly vanished, or the machines suddenly stopped, what would happen to our world?

Imagine that oil disappeared tomorrow: Food and livestock may grow for some time, but harvesting and transportation would prove difficult. Since much of the world population depends on this concentrated farming, billions would starve. Petroleum isn’t going to disappear, but it does change in price. You can imagine the cost of oil doubling, tripling, increasing fifty or a hundred fold. When something is priced out of reach, it may as well not exist. Because of the way we’ve arranged the world, if oil becomes inaccessibly expensive on some time scales, we will have calamity on our hands.

The time bomb is thus: Oil resembles most finite resources. Without new technology in extraction, discovery, processing, and so on, it will grow more expensive over time. Imagine constructing a utopia where you have distributed the wealth of the world so that everyone feels the world is just, they are happy, and of course well fed. If this utopia did not allocate any resources to technology, to finding new sources of energy, everyone in the world will slowly become poorer as the cost of oil, and by extension everything else, rises. If you do not do something about the oil reliance, if no new technology is developed, your utopia will perish.

It may be tempting to think a tech-stagnant utopia could side step the problem, de-industrialize the farms, spread everything back out, and no longer rely on oil. But such a world cannot support seven-and-a-half billion people and growing. When our population expanded, we truly did leave Eden, and now good will is not enough. We have a moral obligation to keep working on technology.

With shale and sand oil extraction and fracking, we’ve been able to delay “peak oil” doomsayers for the most recent decades. Oil has remained inexpensive because of technology. On a small time scale, this extends the clock.

Oil is the heart of this Malthusian time bomb. The biggest technological improvement to our civilization would be to defuse the bomb, to move beyond oil. If we eliminate our transportation dependence on it, if we instead rely on electricity or something else that could remain renewable for the future, we will have done a moral good for civilization.

Many people currently see electric vehicles as a quaint toy, just as the first petroleum cars were. I think they are our best source of optimism in the future, and the best bet for stopping the bomb.

Humanity has a bug. We think of the future too little, and too often we think technology propels itself, that the future will simply unfold automatically. Or worse, many seem to have suffered a loss of faith in the future. I wish this was not so. I have a belief that the distant future matters. I hope we all do someday.

Let there be light.