The Speculist: The Politics of the Future, Part 1


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The Politics of the Future, Part 1


Recently I suggested that any blog on any subject (politics, religion, cat) is improved if the blogger understands the implications of accelerating technological development.

I'm not suggesting that bloggers should all be techno-optimists like we Speculists. Bill Joy is the prime example of someone who has considered the implications of the future and has recoiled from it.

I am suggesting that these issues should be considered. Whether you're a pessimist or a optimist, whether you approach politics from the left or right, a complete contemporary political philosophy should include some theory on the implications of accelerating technological development.

Phil's "Amazing Exponentials" speech is a good place to start to get a general understanding of accelerating technological development. And of course I recommend Ray Kurzweil's book, The Singularity Is Near.

But in this series of posts I'd like to hit some specifics. If you accept that exponential technological development is likely to be important, how can that influence your politics? Results will vary, but here's how my understanding of accelerating technological development has influenced my thinking on U.S. energy policy:

Normally I wouldn't place a high priority on energy independence. World trade is a good. It reduces tensions. Sellers don't typically want to kill their customers.

But this theory seems to fail in our current conflict. People who do want to kill us largely hail from petroleum-rich regions. Our patronage of Saudi Arabia didn't prevent the participation of 15 Saudis in the 9/11 attacks.

The problem is that there is a disconnect in these countries between the elites who benefit greatly from trade with the United States and the rest of the population.

Oil is not the direct cause of these problems, but it's no coincidence that much of the world's oil reserves are found in troubled regions. Oil revenue lessens the incentive for the ruling elites to address problems. Instead of working toward an economy based on the productivity of their people, the tiny ruling class happily takes the oil money while the rest of their country is kept poor, uneducated, and angry.

These elites don't want that anger directed at themselves, so religious proxies point to external villains: Israel and the West - particularly the U.S.

Direct military intervention might be necessary to depose a threatening regime, but it doesn't address the problem in the larger population. The presence of U.S. troops only angers people taught from birth to hate the United States.

We could defund this anger by moving toward energy independence and sustainability. Former petro-kleptocracies would either have to modernize - creating an economy based on the productivity of their people - or return to a primitive agrarian economy. Either path seems preferable to what we face now.

I'd love for hydrogen to be a part of our solution. Every now and then we get tantalizing news of a possible hydrogen breakthrough. But it seems likely that a hydrogen economy is - if we ever see it - decades away. Fortunately there is another alternative that could be quickly implemented:

Plug-in diesel hybrids.

Most of the present hybrids on U.S. highways are not plug-ins. They generate their electricity from braking or by charging from the engine. This is a step in the right direction because it improves fuel efficiency, but not by a shocking amount. The non-plugin Prius is said to get 60 miles per gallon on the highway, 51 in the city.


But plug-in hybrids would be revolutionary. The off-the-grid electrical equivalent of a gallon of gasoline costs about 75 cents. And if the reported all-electric range of 60 miles with an experimental plug-in Prius could be achieved in a production vehicle, most people would essentially burn no liquid fuel in their daily commutes.

The hybrid technology that's been developed for the Toyota Prius and other nonplug-in hybrids has needed further refinement to give us a production-ready plug-in hybrid. Last month Lithium Technology Corporation demonstrated a converted Prius that addresses many of these problems.

May 25, 2007

Lithium Technology Corporation (LTC) yesterday unveiled a retrofitted Toyota Prius, with plug-in capabilities allowing for 125+ miles per gallon fuel efficiency, which is powered by the Company’s unique battery technology. The battery for the Prius utilizes LTC’s new product line of lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) cells, the largest cells of their kind in the world, which are considered to be the technology of choice for car manufacturers.

Phil recently pointed out that the current non-plugin Toyota Prius is harmful to the environment because of its nickel cadmium batteries. The lithium ion batteries that are necessary for plug-in hybrids would be much more environmentally friendly. According to Tesla Motors:

Unlike other batteries that came before them, Lithium ion batteries are classified by the [U.S.] federal government as non-hazardous waste and are safe for disposal in the normal municipal waste stream. However, dumping these batteries in the trash would be throwing money away. Even a completely dead battery pack contains valuable, recoverable materials that can be sold back to recycling companies for cash.

By switching to plug-in hybrids we could reduce oil imports by 52%. Domestic electricity could power most of our daily commuting. Longer drives, or high-speed commutes would kick in the internal combustion engine.

The best choice for that internal combustion engine is diesel. We could quickly ramp up a domestic biodiesel industry that harvests oil from algae (see "High Hopes for Pond Scum" parts one and two). Of course this would further lower our need for imported petroleum.

Many of the aggravations of diesel engines could be addressed in hybrids:

  • They're noisy.

    Hybrids would tend to kick in the diesel engine only on the highway. Commuting within cities and neighborhoods would be accomplished primarily with silent electric engines.

  • They're smelly.

    See above. They're wouldn't be a lot of diesel exhaust in the cities and neighborhoods. As for the smell of the fuel itself, how often would you have to refuel if nearly all of your daily commuting could be electric?

  • They're hard to crank on cold mornings.

    I think that diesel engines have improved in this regard over the years, but how hard would it be to engineer the electric engine to warm the diesel engine?

  • They're hard to crank if you ever run out of fuel.

    The car could be engineered to switch back to electric if you ever get dangerously low on diesel fuel. Also, an electric engine could be engineered to reestablish pressure in the diesel engine if you did run completely out. And running out of diesel would be a rare problem for people who aren't burning much liquid fuel.

For those who would argue that electric vehicles just move pollution to the power plants, studies have shown that even on a coal grid, pollution is reduced more than 60% over burning fossil fuels within the car.

But we don't have to stay with a dirty coal grid. We should move to cleaner nuclear power - fission plants now, fusion later.

Nuclear power has had a very good safety record in this country. But it is possible to be even safer. We could use melt-down proof reactors inspired by our nuclear submarines. The pebble bed reactor design would be a safe land-based alternative.


These three steps:

  1. Move to plugin hybrids
  2. Ramp up biodiesel production
  3. Begin the move to nuclear power

...should be a national priority. We could be well on our way in ten years. Considering all that we could gain, it just seems like smart politics.


The trouble is that this is all so rational that I fear the political process will have little use for it. If we all got to work on these things, whom would we have to blame for all the problems?

But sign me up, anyhow!

Here in Iowa, the cost shifting in grain based fuels is starting to be felt by farmers and consumers. Any thoughts on the supply and demand realities of alternative fuels? There is an adjustment when economic paradigms shift, but no one seems to plan for and mitigate the consequences. Great ideas do have consequences. Can the Speculists help inspire people to think them through? That's the kind of politicking I would welcome.


Fortunately the biodiesel I'm advocating comes neither from corn nor must it be grown on corn land. So, it should have zero affect on food or feed corn prices.

The best biodiesel crop is algae. And the desert may be the best place to grow these crops because of a higher level of CO2.

Check out my "High Hopes for Pond Scum, part 2" post.

I don't think "the political process" will have anything to do with it. The political process, in retrospect, would have been better off without the internet, but they can't stop it, they can only adapt to it.

Energy changes will be the same. Stephen was right to say that technology is changing our world faster than politics, and the best political systems are those that step aside and let the changes happen (typically democracies with free markets and freedom of expression).

And yeah, I do think that electric cars just "move the pollution," but that's a way of dimissing claims that they "save the earth" (which is invariably hyperbole). What matters far more to me is that they "save my wallet," which is what REALLY drives change and technology.

Personally, I love the idea of a battery/fuel hybrid. It makes so much sense and solves so many problems.


Some pollution is moved to power plants with EV's, but studies have proved that polution is less per car than with internal combustion. Check out the link in the post.

But your comment about your wallet ($.75 for the equivalent of a gallon of gas!) raises a valid point:

Should this be a political thing at all? Some might argue that this doesn't need to be pushed with a government energy policy. They would argue that the free market will bring about these changes when the technology is ready.

I'm sympathetic to this view point because I think the independent actions of self interested individuals usually leads to a better result than the grand plans of most politicians.

But here's the deal. I think we've gotten close enough to this future that we can push a little without doing any harm.

A few tax incentives might get us there five years sooner.

Faster, please.

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