A classic liberal utopia

As F. A. Hayek said in 1967 – what ‘we lack is a liberal Utopia, a programme which seems neither a mere defence of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibilities of the mighty.’  What we have with ecomodernism is a broad statement that development, economic growth and environmental conservation are compatible.  This has been stated much more succinctly before.  Notably by the UN in the 1987 report on sustainable development.  Something I took to heart as a relatively young and idealistic man with degrees in hydrological engineering and environmental science.  What we continue to lack is any sort of a programme for reclaiming this principle – of sustainable development – back from increasingly strident anti-democratic and anti-capitalist voices.  Nor do we have much in the way of a philosophical underpinning – the foundations on which a sound future is built.  Neither is there any discussion of the design of social institutions or much detail on the technologies of ‘decoupling’ development from the environment.  The lack of detail allows critics to invent objections out of thin air.

Intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts. These socioeconomic and technological processes are central to economic modernization and environmental protection. Together they allow people to mitigate climate change, to spare nature, and to alleviate global poverty.’

So what are these socio-economic and technological processes?  For me it starts with democracy and the rule of law – the hard won freedoms of the enlightenment.  To quote again from Hayek if I may.  For a classic liberal there is a commitment to ‘political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force.’  The outcome is a social contract – the rule of law – that is compromise arrived at in the cut and thrust of politics.  It may be obvious that democracy is the foundation for social progress – but it is always worth restating.

One critical freedom is economic freedom.  Markets need fair, transparent and accessible laws – including on open and equal markets, labour laws, environmental conservation, consumer protection and whatever else is arrived at in the political arena.  Optimal tax take is some 23% of GDP and government budgets are balanced.  Interest rates are best managed through the overnight cash market to restrain inflation to a 2% to 3% target.  These nuts and bolts of market management are mainstream market theory and keep economies on a stable – as far as is possible – growth trajectory.  The critical project for development is opening up markets for agricultural products.  The Copenhagen Consensus found that a deal on the DOHA round of trade talks would make the world richer by $11-trillion by 2030.

The suggestion has been made that the ecomodernist ‘agenda’ involves moving people from the land and into cities.  This is not merely anathema to democracy, freedom and the rule of law but resulted in Russia and China in immense human tragedies.  A much better idea is to improve the productivity of both small and large land holdings using the most modern farming techniques.  This is far from limited to genetically modified organisms.  With increasing population and changing consumption patterns we will need twice the amount of food from the same amount of land by 2050.

Increasing agricultural productivity – and expanding markets for the produce – creates resources for improvement in health and welfare, the provision of safe water and sanitation and for moving away from inefficient and unsafe open cooking fires. The practices themselves conserve soil and water, enhance biodiversity, return carbon to soils and protect downstream environments.

There is a brief overview of potential for climate change mitigation through changes in management of grazing lands  – 5 billion hectares of hope – here .

The following is an example of a movement that is sweeping the world.

Here’s the problem – and some solutions.  The history of US agricultural is an object lesson – it is now a net carbon sink.

The fundamental hydrological equation is very simple.

Runoff = Rainfall – evapotranspiration – deep infiltration – change in soil moisture.

Organic rich soils – those with vegetation with deep roots, rich in soil fauna and covered with mulch – allow more water to enter the soil profiule, more is stored in the near surface layers, more infiltrates and replenishes deeper aquifers. There is less runoff, less export of sediment and nutrients, less downstream flooding and more water is filtered through soils to maintain dry weather flows in down-slope waterways.  The result is much greater drought resilience and less environmental impact.  The ‘food forests’ pioneered by Australian Bill Mollison is one way to higher productivity on small holdings.

These changes to land use and agricultural practices – and quite simple technology – change the world.  Increased water infiltration replenishes water tables and wells and the constant struggle for adequate and safe water is made much easier.  Simple energy technologies reduce the demand for firewood – and the daily grind of collecting it – and conserves environments.

Half a billion of these is equivalent to taking half a billion cars off the road. It would save 4 million lives a year and untold illness.  They use half the amount of firewood as open fires and produce 90% less particulate emissions.  It is not nearly enough energy – but useful energy.  It can even charge phones.


We can have a quick look at what this might mean for climate change mitigation.  Emissions of methane and nitrous oxide can be managed while sequestering carbon, reversing the effects of land degradation and enhancing biodiverstity.

EPS greenhous gases

Source:  Greenhouse Gas Emissions by sector US EPA

There can be real progress on nitrous oxide and methane, the reversal of agricultural and ecosystem degradation and significant sequestration of carbon dioxide.  The resources generated encourage transition from inefficient burning of biomass in open cooking fires – a major source of black carbon aerosols.  Black carbon has a climate forcing roughly that of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels.  Compare the potential here to reduction of greenhouse gases from electricity generation (26% of emissions) and transport (13%) over several decades.

There is in this a blueprint for design of institutions in that nexus of government, business and communities that Elinor Ostrom called polycentric governance.  It is through the study of successful human management of land, water, forests and fisheries that we gain insight into the design of institutions for wise stewardship of global commons. It is a vibrant and exciting field of human study and one that involves people literally at the grass roots level.  At the core is the principle that resources are best managed locally and as informed by science.  The short video – ‘Iriai – the Commons of Kitafugi’ – shows just one of those success stories.

In my long career I have designed many water systems.  At one level – complex treatment systems for acid mine drainage using lime precipitation, ion exchange and reverse osmosis to provide potable water for a township of about 800 people.  At a cost of $5m – something we can afford in the west.  At the other scale is something I am working on for my friend Liberty – who lives on Brooker Island in the Louisiade Archipelago.  Water from air powered by a wind turbine.   Both show the power of technology to expand our options.

The most modern idea in water engineering is integrating stormwater, water supply and sewage treatment into a single system that provides for the most efficient use of water, diversifying sources of water, recycling and reusing water for multiple purposes, reducing downstream effects of nutrients and sediments, mitigating flooding and improving the aesthetic of cities.  The dream is to transform cities into a new ideal of sustainable urban living.

One of the transforming technologies for cities – I feel – would be electric cars.  I might actually live in a city absent the noise and fumes.  It is not technically difficult to put together a 430hp, 250km/hr top speed, 0 to 100km/hr in 4.2 seconds electric car using off the shelf parts.  It could even be built in a flexible format in micro-factories using 3-D printing.  Energy is the key.  I am open to technologies – wind, biomass, geothermal, landfill gas, solar and biomass are all competitive on a restricted scale and in niche applications.  On an industrial scale – 7 billion people plus – advanced, small modular nuclear designs are compelling.

High temperature, fast neutron reactors are an obvious future source of both electricity and liquid fuels.  There are many versions of small nuclear reactors operating around the world – starting with the US military in the 1950’s.    There are eight new small modular reactors on a fast track to generic approval in the US – and more than 45 concepts and designs under development globally.  A version of the high temperature, fast neutron technology was first built in Germany in the early 1960’s, a prototype was run at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the late 1960’s, a demonstration plant is being constructed in China after a decade of running a prototype there.

In February 2010, General Atomics (GA) announced a modified version of its GT–MHR design as a fast neutron reactor – the Energy Multiplier Module (EM2).  The EM2 is a 240 MWe helium cooled fast neutron high temperature reactor operating at 850°C.  The company anticipates a 12 year development and licensing period.  GA has teamed up with Chicago Bridge & Iron, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and the Idaho National Laboratory to develop the EM2.

The EM2 is a technology evolution designed to a performance specification that included cost, safety, fabrication, installation and operations that give it outstanding potential to change the energy landscape.  The fast-neutron reaction first converts fertile material – including uranium, plutonium and thorium – to fissile material which then splits under neutron bombardment to produce heat and lighter elements.  Inert helium moving through and around the core is heated and drives a high efficiency Brayton cycle turbine.  Helium is then cycled back through the reactor.  Helium – rather than water – cooling enables siting flexibility in a footprint that is ten times less than conventional nuclear plants.   The small modular design allows network grids to be developed in place of large and expensive grids shuffling energy across whole continents.  A huge cost advantage in regions without existing electricity grids.  High temperature operation enables efficient conversion of heat to electricity.  It enables hydrogen production with what would otherwise be waste power and heat in low load periods.  Liquid fuels compatible with existing infrastructure can be produced from hydrogen and captured carbon dioxide.  High efficiency – 50% greater than conventional nuclear – cuts costs of power by 40%.  Sufficient to make it cost competitive against natural gas generation in the USA at a gas price of $6-$7/MMBtu.   Natural gas prices in the US are about half that at the moment.

em2 reactor

Source:  General Atomics – Energy Multiplier Module webpage

It is a relatively small heat source and combined turbine that can be factory built, delivered on trucks and dropped into place – anywhere as they don’t need water cooling – for decades of hands free operation powering 350,000 houses per unit.  The promise of EM2 is to deliver low cost power for centuries to come from spent nuclear fuel currently stockpiled – burning 100 times more of the energy content of fuel than conventional reactors.   Globally there are hundreds of thousands of tons of conventional nuclear waste sitting in stockpiles.  The EM2 can burn conventional waste, uranium or thorium providing essentially limitless energy.

High-level wastes are produced in the fission process from enriched uranium.  The ‘spent fuel’ is easily radioactive enough to kill with a short contact exposure many years after removal from reactors.  Isotopes from long lived waste can enter the environment and the food chain where the dose is far less but the exposure is longer and more widely spread.

In nuclear fission uranium atoms split converting mass to heat.  The fission process creates radioactive isotopes of lighter elements such as cesium-137 and strontium-90.  These are “fission products” and account for most of the heat and radioactivity in high-level waste.  Some uranium atoms capture neutrons and form heavier elements – actinides such as plutonium.  Radioactive isotopes decay to harmless materials.  Some decay in hours, but others over many thousands of years.  Strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of 30 years – half the radioactivity will decay in 30 years.  Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years.  Conventional nuclear waste contains 96.6% uranium oxide, 3.4% fission products and 1% long lived actinides.

The EMdesign provides for recycling waste from conventional plants by passing it through a number of burn cycles in EM2 reactors.   Fission products – a small proportion of the waste – can be removed by mass separation using volatisation techniques after each burn cycle.  Waste fission products cannot be used in nuclear weapons and can be held safely in a repository where the radioactivity decays to levels in the original ore over 300 years.   The remainder of the material – with added fertile material from stored conventional nuclear waste – is returned as fuel in the next burn cycle.  The reactor core design provides for factory sealing and a 30 year burn cycle without refuelling.  The reactor is designed to never be opened on site and thus there is little opportunity for diversion of fissile material from operating plants.

em2 - waste reduction

Source:  General Atomics

The core design uses uranium carbide particles that are sintered into porous fuel plates and isolated from the main helium coolant flow with a silicon carbide coating.  The silicon carbide is stable up to 20000C and won’t meltdown under any conditions.  In normal operation heat is diverted to the turbine or passively circulated through 100% redundant heat sinks.  The porous fuel plates provides for gases generated during fission to be vented and scrubbed through filters.  The backup to the backups is full containment in an underground reinforced concrete bunker.  With a small footprint and no requirement for water cooling – they can be located anywhere.  In Africa – it would do away with any need for a continent spanning grid.  A major cost advantage.

Nuclear reactors have significant excess generating capacity when used to supply peak load.  High temperature reactors can provide heat and power during low load periods – or as dedicated hydrogen production facilities – for efficient hydrogen production by high temperature electrolysis.  Air capture of carbon dioxide (CO2) enables decentralised facilities to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.   Air capture can provide pure CO2 for industrial use.  Captured CO2 can be catalysed with hydrogen to manufacture ultra-low emission liquid fuels.

carbon engineering

Source:  Carbon Engineering

Carbon Engineering (CE) is developing a scalable industrial technology to scrub COfrom the air.   Construction is underway at their Squamish demonstration plant site.  The “wet end” of the plant circulates liquid to scrub CO2 from the air and then concentrates the product in solid calcium carbonate pellets.  The “hot end” of the plant processes the solid pellets to produce pure CO2 while re-making the original capture chemical to begin the cycle again.

Electricity from nuclear power plants could eliminate 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions.  Liquid fuels produced from hydrogen and captured CO2 another 13%.  Technological convergence provides an alternative to sources of energy that seem likely to become increasingly scarce and expensive.

Going beyond that requires a whole new approach – although cheap and reliable energy is the foundation for social progress and economic development.  Economic growth provides resources for solving problems – restoring organic carbon in agricultural soils, conserving and restoring ecosystems, better sanitation and safer water, better health and education, updating the diesel fleet and other productive assets to emit less black carbon, replacing cooking fires with better ways of preparing food, etc.  We can sequester carbon in agricultural soils and increase productivity, conserve and restore ecosystems, reduce nitrous oxide and harmful tropospheric ozone emissions and save money on fertilisers, reduce the strong climate effects of black carbon and the millions of premature deaths that result from cooking over open fires at the same time.  Population, development, technical innovation, multiple gases and aerosols across sectors, land use change, and the environment is the broader context that ecomodernism addresses.

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1 Response to A classic liberal utopia

  1. Dakota Kirby says:

    Very nice blog you hhave here

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