Between 1927 and 1983, the architect and philosopher Buckminster Fuller wrote and spoke often about the logic of a cumulative and self-accelerating ephemeralization of the products of all encounters between human knowledge and technology. As Fuller explained in his book Critical Path, when Magellan’s crew completed the first maritime circumnavigation of the globe, the journey had taken 2 years; when the first steam ship did it, it took 2 months, the first airplane 2 weeks and the first orbiting space capsule 2 days. We are now a lot faster on all fronts.
This trend is also seen in IT. What we once knew as the “floppy disk”, around the year 1990 seems almost totally alien to the universe of micro-USB or micro-Flash storage devices now available, which are more than 1 million times as efficient in their use of materials and storage capacity. The technology needed to harvest, convert and transfer solar energy is following a similar self-accelerating cumulative ephemeralization curve.
20 years ago, it was notably more expensive to harvest, convert and distribute solar energy than to produce electricity using fossil fuels—in part due to government funding frameworks, externalization of major costs and the combustion-fuel bias of existing infrastructure. It was also, however, the result of the fact that the amount of raw material needed to support the conventional heavy-duty solar panels capable of competitive energy conversion was significant, even if the active silicon itself were abundant and lightweight.
In 2005, it still seemed, to many, unthinkable that the solar technologies then active in the marketplace could take a lot of terrain away from combustible hydrocarbon fuels, without major investment in industrial-scale production, and government support for a mega-company able to produce premium solar panels for large-scale deployment. Enter Solyndra: the business failed not for lack of demand or the inadequacy of the technology, but because it bet on a business model meant to be like that of the big oil companies or big auto manufacturers.
The market favored, as was to be foreseen, business models more in tune with the ephemeralizing tendency of solar energy technologies: lighter, more adaptable, less expensive and less dependent on market dominance. In China, such companies were springing up, with major state backing, and capable of building dominant market share, supported by a national supply chain aimed at producing a cheaper but just as effective product.
Now, in 2013, we see ourselves surrounded by new ultra-efficient technologies for harvesting solar energy. The following list of technologies is capable of generating many times more energy than total present and forecast global demand, and of doing so without generating new carbon emissions or other greenhouse gas emissions, and for less than what we spend now to get our energy:
- Organic solar concentrators (solar windows)
- Solar “glitter”
- Spray-on solar paint
- Rotating solar-PV cones
- Bio-solar (cellulose nanocrystals)
- Molten-salt solar thermal (24-hour solar)
- Printable solar (MIT)
- Solar PV road surfaces
- “The Artificial Leaf” (solar generation of clean hydrogen fuel)
Any one of these technologies, if supported by pervasive market-established infrastructure, could capture and deliver more energy than we currently consume. (The Sun delivers to the Earth in just one hour more energy than we consume in one year.) Together, these technologies amount to an actually underway ultra-efficient ephemeralization of energy production. In that sense, we are living the beginning of that future in which Fuller argued we would routinely access cosmically abundant clean energy resources.
The situation is reminiscent of a very unique word, a valued statement of emotional circumstance from an endangered indigenous language of the Canadian arctic: Inuktitut. The word is “puijilittatuq” and means, roughly, “he does not know which way to look, due to all the seals coming to the ice surface”. There is no word like it in any other language, and we must rescue that conceptualization of a very human perceptual/circumstantial moment, because we are, in fact, living a solar puijilittatuq moment. The cumulative self-accelerating ephemeralization observed by Fuller is now opening a future of abundant clean energy…
We need to know which way to look, and how to see and understand the abundance that engulfs us. We need to learn how to participate in the illimitable energetic and regenerative syntropy the Sun is offering.
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