Earth day is April 22 and it is appropriate to think about the future of the Earth and its biosphere. The key word here is think. What popularly passes for environmental concern today has evolved into something much more resembling a religion than scientifically-informed values. Unfortunately, as with many religions, the resulting memetic structure can work actively against real scientific efforts to advance the very goals that the religion started with.
Here’s a simple example: the average environmentally-concerned person seems to believe (a) that recycling is good for the environment, and that disposable stuff should be biodegradable; and (b) that the amount of CO2 humans inject into the atmosphere should be as low as possible.
The problem, of course, is that these are incompatible in a number of ways, the simplest one being that making lots of stuff from carbon-bearing materials such as paper, and burying them in landfills after one use, is probably the most efficient and easily-adopted form of carbon sequestration — and the less biodegradable, the more sequestered. They can’t both be right.
This is minor, however, compared to the anti-technological bias that seems to be an article of faith among much of the environmentalist movement. I find this intensely puzzling, because in the long run, only nanotechnology will make it possible to preserve the Earth in anything resembling its natural state.
Without a climb into at least Western industrialized levels of affluence, the human population will continue growing exponentially. Poor people care a lot more about where their next meal is coming from, and a lot less about the preservation of polar bears and orangutans. But once prople can afford to be green, roughly $30k per cap, richer means greener.
Current-day methods of manufacturing and energy production, even current-day nanotechnology, are messy and inefficient. Eutactic nanotechnology, in which we control not only the structure of the result at a complete, atom-by-atom level, but the entire manufacturing process is controlled the same way, is the gold standard. Compared to this, any bulk process is inefficient, messy, and uncontrolled.
In the near term, nanotech will push clean energy tech such as solar, space-based solar, and so forth closer to economic viability. In the long run it could move the entire industrial economy into a new, clean mode of manufacturing and transportation, and enable us to move dirty, risky, aggressive, high-energy industrial development off the Earth altogether.
The sooner we get to real, eutactic nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing, the better it will be for the Earth.