Thoughts on Solving the World's Problems

There is no need to get some super new technology to solve problems. All the pieces are available now. The following articles describe many of the steps. Some things, such as increasing transportation efficiency, are not the whole solution. Others, like the remote controlled lunar mine and power satelite, have the potential to solve problems permanently.

Automobile Efficiency

I will give a rough calculation of the efficiency of the standard compact car, and compare it with some alternatives.

First, we have the efficiency of the engine which I will set as thirty percent. Most engines are poorer than this ( some "high performance" engines have efficiencies as low as ten percent), but I will be as conservative as I can in this calculation, in order to get the highest efficiency possible for the automobile. It is my understanding that the turbo-charged diesel tops the list of efficient engines at about thirty-five percent, with experimental types up to fifty percent efficient.

Thirty percent efficiency means that for every gallon of gas burned, almost three quarts is wasted. Only about one quart is actually used.

So the automobile is thirty percent efficient if it transports its design load everywhere it goes. My subcompact car has a design load of about 700 pounds. If it only moves one passenger ( me), it moves about 21 percent of its design load. Doubling that ( to be conservative), it moves about half its design load. This means that it is about fifteen percent efficient when we consider the thermal and loading efficiency together.

Another major inefficiency is aerodynamic. I drive my car at 55 MPH whenever possible. I have been told that the main load on a car over 25 MPH is the wind load. This load increases as the square of the velocity. This means that the wind load at 55 MPH is four times what it is at 25 MPH. If this is true, then I could cut my consumption by at least 2 if I always traveled at 25 MPH instead of 55 MPH. Because of the public's demand for "performance" and "power", many cars are designed to run at 100 MPH where the load is 8 times what it is at 25 MPH. I will be conservative and only cut efficiency in half for aerodynamic factors.

At this point the efficiency of my sub-compact car is around 7 percent. A bigger car might be as low as 2 percent when these factors are multiplied together.

There are a whole host of further inefficiencies: time is spent driving around lost or for no reason, time is spent idling at stop lights, and a great deal of energy was consumed in building the car in the first place ( cars don't last for ever, they are lucky to last ten years before the metal is recycled or thrown away).

At this point, my sub-compact car might have an efficiency of around 2 or three percent. This means that for every 100 gallons of gasoline I purchase, I am throwing away 97 or 98 gallons.

Contrast this with the efficiency of a well designed electric train-- especially one running on solar power.

The efficiency of collection of solar power can vary from 20 to 50 percent, but, since it is free, might be thought of as 100 percent efficient. To be conservative and consistent, however, we will set it at 90 percent.

The efficiency of an electric train run from a coal fired plant can be as high as 35 percent.

Let's use 35 percent.

The loading of the train with good scheduling could be 75 percent. Factoring this in lowers the overall efficiency to 26 percent.

Aerodynamics are diffrent with a train. A long train can have as high as 90 percent efficiency. We'll say 21 percent, or three times the efficiency of the sub-compact.

The train can last almost forever, so no figure can be given for recycling inefficiency, and no power is used when the train is not running to its destination, so there is effectively no additional loss.

A train running from coal fired electricity is 21 percent efficient, and perhaps as much as 70 percent efficient when run from solar power.

This means that we could move ten to twenty times as many people with the same expenditure of resources.

I can drive my sub-compact for around 15 cents a mile. I could ride a well designed train system for less than a penny a mile. Travel in the city could be even more cost effective.

Other Automobile designs can be more efficient as well. If the car is powered by a more efficient engine or by an electric motor, thermal efficiency might get as high as 70 percent. If the car is made lighter and smaller (so the loading efficiency is higher), and the car is run slower ( to improve the aerodynamic efficiency) the overall efficiency could be 50 percent if powered from solar sources, and, maybe 20 percent from fossil fuel sources. Electric cars don't consume power unless they are used, and, because they have many times fewer parts, can last much longer than the current cars. .

If I design a car to run on electricity, to carry around 200 pounds, and to run at 25 MPH, the overall efficiency could be thirty or forty times higher than the current device. The only problem would be that it couldn't run on the roads which the government has so thoughtfully built for us.

I am amazed, however, that there aren't more batteries and motors on bicycles.


The art of agriculture as described by Virgil in the Georgics ( around 40 BC) is very close to the art as done in the mid nineteenth century.

At that time, most of the work was done by hand and most of the people were farmers. The development of farming technology has been, mainly, the elimination of hand work. Currently, hand work occurs mainly in the harvesting of fruits and vegetables, where machines damage too much of the crop.

The steam engine provided a portable source of power for farm machinery and brought a large amount of power to the field. Tractor drawn plows, harrows,and seed drills along with steam powered grain threshers, revolutionized the production of grains. Every year saw an increase in the production of grain and a decrease in the number of people needed.

The cost of the farm machinery led to a need for intensive land use to pay for the macinery.

The increased intensity of production led to rapid soil depletion, as well as an increase in pest activity from the high concentration of plants of the same type in the same area. Solution to these problems seemed easiest by the application of chemicals developed by the then-new chemical industry.

The soil depletion problem led to research into what soil constituents were neccesary for plant growth. The pest activity was solved with chemical poisons--initially substances like arsenic, and later with organic chemicals which could be less toxic to humans.

Soil Depletion Research

The basic scheme of the soil depletion research, or plant physiology research was to grow plants in a totally inert medium, like gravel, and add the chemicals thought to be needed. By changing the recipe of chemicals, and noting the effects, it was possible to determine a great deal about plants.

The main result of this was to determine that plants need three main chemicals, and a huge list of trace elements. The three main chemicals were nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. All the chemicals must be water soluble for the plant to use them, but can come from a variety of sources. The pure chemicals, of course, are what are needed for valid research.

Huge deposits of nitrates, potassium salts, and phosphates were discovered and exploited to eliminate the soil depletion problem. Processes were also developed to produce cheap ammonia for fertilizer.

Because the research was done with plants grown in a medium lacking nutrients, soil was modeled as such a medium, and the current chemical fertilizer systems were developed with that in mind.

The model has soil as the mechanical support for plants, and water mixed with nutrients supplying everything else. In its extreme form, this model produces the hydroponic method of growing plants. This method allows further automation of the process in some cases.

The important point is that the model is very simple. The chemicals used in the lab provide the simplest possible explanation. In the lab, money is no object and variables must be cut to the minimum. The model works in the real world largely as an impediment. When a farmer is told to use one hundred pounds of ammonium nitrate per acre, he buys the ammonium nitrate even though his nieghbor is throwing away manure. He has been seduced by the simplicity of the scientific model, and he spends money he has borrowed to buy chemicals he needs only because he spent money on a soil test and a new tractor. Meanwhile, human and animal wastes pile up and pollute the water.

Most of the work on plant physiology was done in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when mechanical and simple chemical models where in vogue. The system was studied in the simplest possible way without looking at the whole picture. Anything outside the model is "garbage". The newer model is ecological and includes all elements of the situation.

The ecological model studies the way things are done in the undisturbed natural setting and looks at all factors. Growth of plants is looked at as an enclosed system where all parts are useful and significant. Nothing is waste. Every part contributes.

Ecological solutions to farming problems are more complex, but create a system in which outside supplies of chemicals are not needed or desired.

Ecological farming is usually called "organic".

Farm Machinery

The largest increase in farm production came with the introduction of machinery. The machinery displaced workers and increased yields.

The machines are fairly simple for the most part, but often have interesting details.

The most important first piece of machinery was the tractor. The tractor pulls various types of equipment in the field. The main tasks are plowing, harrowing, seeding, fertilizing and harvesting. The tractor drawn plow and harrow prepare the ground for seeding and remove weeds; the seed drill distributes the seeds at proper intervals;fertilizer spreaders distribute manure or chemical ferilizer; and harvesting is done by hand or with a device specially designed for the crop--like a tractor drawn hay baler.

A single tractor operator could do the job of dozens of earlier farmers. A single tractor, therefore, could put a dozen people out of work. Most of our institutions were concieved when society was mostly hard-working low tech farmers. Those insttutions have never fully recovered from the huge blow caused by the tractor and its related equipment.

Farmers have always been conservative. Once a technique has been proved to work, there is very little energy for trying something new. Farmers have been known to pass techniques down for thousands of years. In the modern world, this tendency has been multiplied by machinery. Machines consume most of the available money and energy on the modern farm. A machine is designed to do a job in one particular way, and a farmer cannot let a machine sit idle while payments are being made on it,so the movement toward ecological farming requires great courage on the part of the farmer.

Large scale ecological farming machines are rare. Someone is going to make a fortune in this business.

The Problems

Although modern conventional farming is currently more productive than organic, and often gives more attractive produce, it causes a few hidden problems. The most important physical problem is garbage. Back when 90 percent of the people worked and lived on the farm, garbage existed in very small quantities because recycling was almost automatic. Even cities had pigs running the streets, cleaning up. With mechanized transport of food, and the concomitant lack of transport of food wastes, came the problem and concept of garbage.

Another important problem is more spiritual: Human beings have become disconnected from the nature which sustains them. Farmers have to care for living creatures. Such care makes them more human. Everyone needs some living thing to take care of. Everyone needs connection to nature.

A third problem is the loss of cottage production with its automatic recycling and low impact systems. The farm kitchen I remember was an amazing place. Vegetables and fruits were canned and dried; grain and meat were ground, butter churned; milk and cream separated; in all, hundreds of products were prepared.

My Idea of Garbage

In a sustainable culture there is no garbage.

Everything and every mess we make stays right here. We can rearrange the pieces, but all of it stays right here.

If someone goes to prison, he is "locked up", he is gone...until he comes back worse than before.

If something goes to a landfill, it is gone...until the landfill is full.

The mistaken concept of garbage has produced a society which is out of balance. There is no "there" where things can stay. The human "garbage" stands on the street corner and beats up old ladies.

To solve the problem, we acknowledge that there is no garbage, and then design the structures to insure that society uses everything it makes.

One simple structure is made by insuring that everyone knows enough to earn a living.

Another simple structure is made by building community compost heaps, and having wastes segregated into compost and man-made in two different sites.

Another simple structure is made by insuring that everyone has a chance to take care of someone.

Everyone and everything must be included in all plans and systems.

Connection to Nature

Farmers who work outside are in the natural world and control little of the work environment. All farmers have to take care of other creatures. These two factors should be part of everyone's experience. People who lack these disciplines are crippled. They are disconnected from a large part of the world's peak experiences.

People who are insulated from nature can easily develop false views of life. Even an act so simple as growing a plant or caring for a pet can be a life changing experience.

Every part of the city environment should have plants growing in it. Every apartment should have at least one square foot devoted to vegetables. Every rooftop should have a communal garden. This would change the community, and humanize the whole enviroment. The contribution to physical and mental health would be incalculable.

Pets, which are the current city dweller's tenous link to nature, are a drain on the environment. They eat food starving humans could eat, and make messes everywhere. Plants have none of this. Eating food you grow yourself is one of the most satisfying things you can do.

It can be simple. Buy some potting soil and a pot, scatter some wheat or barley seeds in the potted soil, water every day, and within a week edible wheat grass can be clipped.

If you lack space for a pot, fill a jar with alfalfa sprouts. Put a teaspoon of alfalfa seeds on the bottom of an old jar with holes poked in the lid. Water and drain every day. Harvest in a week.

Kitchen scraps can be recycled back into compost for a planter. This can be done with a small composter or directly into the soil. This step alone would do a lot to reduce the landfill problem. If 10 percent of the vegetables used in the city were produced inside the city, that would mean at least 10 percent less landfill use. Indeed, once the value of compost became known, landfill use could be reduced by 90 percent--with compost sold on street corners.

The Home as Workshop

The modern home has lost most of its quality as a workshop. Even the modern kitchen has been reduced to a place where food is cooked for immediate consumption.

Most of the space in the modern home is totally useless--a way of destroying heating and airconditioning energy.

In older societies, work and living occurred together. Travel was impossible. Working at home today is largely restricted to typing on a computer. Quiet, non-polluting industrial processes (there should be very few other processes in a sane world) should be done in a home or home a workshop environment. Traveling to work is the cause of many of societies ills. Home work, home education, home childcare, all lead to home sanity.

The Past, Present, and Future

The Past

It would be wonderful if we could recreate the enthusiasm of the technicians of the past. Every new thing was a marvel ( even though most came about from the use of machine tools and electricity). The future was bright.

When Joseph Whitworth built his surface plates and micrometers, I'm sure excitement put beads of sweat on his forehead. Months of work culminated in one test. Afterward, it was on to the next wonderful thing. Everything was well understood and controlled--except the excitement.

Projects always have long periods of labor when not much seems to go on. After that, there is one time when it all comes together, the work can go on display.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the work was displayed often at world's fairs and county fairs to all who would listen. Nearly everyone listened. Nearly everyone began to think that the humanity's tool kit was just about large enough to solve any problem. No one noticed that what they saw was the clever application of the same tools over and over.

The tool kit has grown, it's still not big enough, but a lot can be done with it.

The excitement has diminished. People have lost sight of the need to play with these things. Play has become packaged as the computer game--the ultimate in psuedo-excitment where everyone can win the chance to "beat the level." After you "beat the level", you get to beat the next level.

Don't just play computer games; make computers do something useful. Tools really aren't exciting unless they are used to make something.

How Technologies Change

Each technology has started crudely, moved to a stage of rapid growth, and then matured with a lot of its early potential unrealized. At the maturation, a new technology takes over which solves some problems and creates others.

In the excitement phase, the technology has so little impact on anything that there is no concern for consequences. The technology is easily changed, but its developers move the changes toward easier production and cheaper product.

When a technology is no longer exciting, and has matured, its broad level of disemination and lack of enthusiasm, make change difficult. At this point, however, its bad effects are noticed and pressure for change is increased.

Change will not come about through pressuring the purveyors of the old technology. The old must be replaced by new technology, or, at least, by a new version of the old.

The steam engine built the railroad. After a hundred years or so, steam gave way to the diesel and the railroad was mature. In the United States, the automobile had forced it into frieght hauling.

In the mad dash of steam and diesel development, the electric railroad was largely forgotten. Now, the electric railroad is the darling new technology with potential to save us from the automobile.

The Present

No one living in a world where billions are hungry and millions die every year of starvation can say there are no problems. We think that someday, somehow, the problems will be solved largely by technology.

I believe that technology can solve the problems of starvation and political unrest and environmental collapse, but only if the effort of techological development is headed in that direction.

Political unrest and environmental collapse are largely a product of starving people doing desperate things. There problems really are simple: no good water, no food, no way to cook food without destroying forests, and strong desire to have children since the infant mortality rate is so high and life is so boring.

There are some simple technological solutions: solar cookers made of aluminum foil and local materials to cook food and purify water, freeing up animal dung for use as fertlizer.

In fact, the solar furnace, supposedly invented by Archimedes before Christ was born, could be the best new technology of all. It could generate electricity cleanly, refine metals, make ceramics--all for free.

People in energy-starved countries could use them with steam engines to build workshops of all kinds that ran when the sun shone. The technology is reliable, easy to understand, relatively safe, and pollution free.

Solar furnaces could run electric trains filled with vegetarians and problems might be few and small ( well, at least fewer and smaller).

The Universal Workshop

One of the ideas which I find most interesting is what I call the Universal Workshop.

The vast majority of humans on this planet have lots of time, no jobs and no access to technology. Even if they do get something like a television, or a truck, it doesn't last long and repairs are impossible. As a result, beneficial technology doesn't benefit for long.

If these people were in possession of a method of repairing and building high tech items locally, technology would be sustainable for them. If, at the same time, the method was non-polluting, they could really pull themselves out of the hole in style.

The Universal Workshop, as I now envision it, would consist of a solar furnace for casting or smelting, a machine tool ( probably a lathe) for creating precision surfaces, and some equipment useful to the workshop's specialty, like a vacuum pump for re-evacuating television tubes.

Most of the time, people don't need extremely high tech solutions to problems, only enough technology to accomplish the task in the simplest possible way. It is always better to solve problems with technology which the user understands.

A good example of this is solar electricity. Silicon photo-voltaic cells are wonderful sources of power. They are reliable and extremely forgiving. If they break, however, they can only be replaced, because they are built in a very high tech environment. A solar furnace and steam engine generates electricity with old technology, yet it is reliable and anyone can learn to fix it in a week or two. Primitive cultures would be better served by such power.

I can see a culture in which a market dominated by solar furnaces creates most of the items from recycled pieces. One little shop builds water pumps; down the street,another builds steam engines; further down, someone builds transistors. Each shop is pretty self sufficient, and the people ( who today would be unemployed and bitter) are busy and happy.

The failure of the universal workshop idea would be the lack of knowledge and motivation. As long as high technology is thought of as difficult and complicated, requiring many almost magical operations, such a workshop looks impossible. If the truth is known, however, then it becomes fairly easy. I would love to get the contents of this book in video form and have it uplinked to the Indian government's educational satellite. Some of the quarter billion watchers would have the motivation.

The Future

The important thing about future technology is that it be sustainable. Whatever development is done should lead to a society which can maintain its basic form for centuries.

The biggest area of non-sustainability in our current society is in the areas of transportation and energy. Coal and oil form the bulk of the energy sources in our society and they are finite in amount. The number of energy consumers grows every day, and the problem gets worse.

A Look at my Idea of a Sustainable Future

A sustainable future begins with a gas tax to allow the construction of a passenger electric train system equal to the interstate highway system in scope. An electric train efficiently uses power from any source, allowing the changeover from fossil fuels to be gradual and efficient. Automobiles should gradually change from gasoline to electric or hydrogen power.

The next part is the construction of thermal solar power plants in as many areas as feasible, and the construction of solar furnaces for smelting, and metal work.

The space program can be used to produce a remote controlled lunar mine for the production of material for power satelites to beam energy down to earth at night. The remote controlled mine would be tons cheaper and more efficient than a manned mine, and, by being a useful long term project, could excite everyone's imagination. Virtual reality could allow everyone to participate.

Once the capability to build satelites is in place, it becomes possible to supply an almost unlimited amount of clean energy to the earth or to space colonies. By using this energy more efficiently, less will be needed.

I believe that around 80% of all human resources are wasted under the current systems. An Automobile engine turns about 20% of its energy into work. About 20% of the space in a house is used. About 80% of our food is wasted. THe efficiency gains possible are tremendous. A sustainable lifestyle is probably not that hard to achieve. It might occur when we waste only about 50% of our resources.

The Remote Controlled Lunar Mine

The mine would start with the launch of a package containing some general purpose robots, the materials to build smelters and machine tools, and spare parts.

The Robots:

The robots would be robust remotely controlled devices with enough artificial intelligence to help with the two second time lag.

The development of such a simple robot is well within the reach of current robot technology. The key to success, I believe, would be including the richest variety of tools possible in the smallest possible package. The robots should be of different sizes, each with its own toolkit of "hands" and "arms" and "legs" so that the probablility that the robots could perform a given task would be maximized.

The smelter:

The smelter would most probably be a vacuum chamber ( with vacuum pump to recover refined gases) surrounding a chunk of ore at the focus of a large solar furnace capable of exceeding 5000 degrees centigrade. Two high voltage charged plates would be on either side of the ore to draw the appropriate ions away from the heated ore. Metals would condense on the floor of the chamber, while gases formed the atmosphere.

The dust melter:

A beam from a large solar furnace could be aimed at a stream of lunar dust, melting and fusing it into an all purpose building material. The beam could be moved in any pattern and the fused rock structure would follow the shape.

Such a system might be able to produce a ton of metal, and a hundred tons of fused rock structure a year, producing all the heavy parts and castings for more robots and smelters. After a few years, hundreds of tons of material would be produced, along with robots, solar cells, and structures for the power satelites and a linear induction motor mass driver.

At that point, the power satelite phase of the project would begin, and human life on earth would make a great leap toward sustainablity.