Author works diligently to avoid a global crisis
MIDDLEBURY — The 21st century is a transformative point in the timeline of the human species. We can either collectively find solutions to the urgent problems of climate change, nuclear proliferation and famine, creating new and healthier industries to profit from, or we will struggle through a “New Dark Age,” caught between the world’s changing tides in our outdated ways of life.
So says James Martin, the information technology consultant, author and futurist who entertained and edified a large audience at Town Hall Theater on May 16. The British native, who was invited to Middlebury by the Harvard-Radcliffe Club of Vermont, has published 112 books, he’s the largest single benefactor to the University of Oxford, and he’s the founder of the Oxford Martin School and the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
The leading problem that humans must deal with, Martin believes, is global warming and the danger of climate destabilization.
“It’s very dangerous and most governments are doing nothing about it,” said Martin in an interview with the Independent. “If we deal with it now, it’s not too expensive. If we don’t deal with it for 10 years time, it will get very expensive. If we don’t deal with it for 20 years the planet, to a large extent, will be destroyed.”
The two primary solutions to climate change that he espouses are to reduce the demand for energy and switch to low-carbon energy sources. One of the chief forms of power production that Martin promotes is nuclear.
“The closing of the (Vermont) Yankee power station is absolutely the wrong thing to do,” he said. “The most cost-effective way to get carbon-neutral energy is through nuclear power.”
Martin suggests that the state of Vermont allow Vermont Yankee to keep operating after 2012, but replace its old reactor with a newer, safer reactor.
“A modern reactor is extremely cost-effective and totally safe,” Martin said.
He explained that Vermont Yankee’s current reactor, which is nearly identical to the ones at Fukushima, Japan, that released radioactive material after the earthquake this spring, is outdated. According to Martin, so are the rest of America’s.
“All nuclear power stations in America were built before 1973,” he said. “If you think about what’s happened to computers since 1973, the same thing has happened to nuclear power.
“Fukushima has been a terrible catastrophe in Japan, but an even bigger catastrophe for the rest of the world because all over the world (governments) are planning to close down old nuclear power stations and not build new nuclear power stations. And that’s going to be very harmful,” Martin said. “It means we’re going to put more carbon into the atmosphere.”
SOLAR AND BATTERIES
Martin envisions a world in the near future where all kinds of things generate electricity from the sun, including the clothes we wear and the windows in our buildings. At Martin’s Oxford institute, researchers are developing new types of solar technology that will be as thin and flexible as film from a camera.
They will be very difficult to create, but, Martin said, “Once they’re designed, you can mass produce them at a much lower cost than today’s solar power.”
He believes that this technology is only five years away.
One of the challenges for solar energy producers, however, is storing excess energy for use at a later time. Martin agrees with many engineers that batteries for storing solar power are necessary in places like Vermont, where the sun’s energy is more abundant in the summer than it is in the winter.
In five years, he said, “We’ll have very big, powerful batteries (to store solar energy).”
The primary obstacles that Martin believes impede solutions to climate change are shortsighted business and political plans.
“At the moment, we’re managing things that make a profit,” he said. “There’s literally no management for things that don’t make a profit. So, the big issues on the planet are almost totally unmanaged today. And if we go on like that we’re going to do immense damage.”
He recalled a conversation that he had while attending a recent seminar with federal officials:
“I was sitting next to a very high level senator and complaining to him … and he said, ‘You just don’t get it … all people … all the senators they’re not interested in 10 years from now, they’re not interested in five years from now, they’re only interested in the next election.’”
The first steps toward solving the imminent problems, according to Martin, are to use long-term planning and make low-carbon industries more profitable.
He also believes that humans will slam into some of the world’s physical limits in the not-so-distant future, in particular the limits imposed by a growing global population.
“When I was a kid (the world population) was about 2 billion and soon it will be 9 billion,” Martin said. “If that was rhinoceroses or caterpillars or swallows, you’d be scared stupid, but because it’s humans we think it’s OK.”
He laughed and then sternly said, “But it’s not. It’s going to be almost impossible to feed 9 billion people.”
Martin suggested educating and giving equal rights to women throughout the globe as a solution to this problem, explaining that these factors are directly correlated to fertility rates.
Furthermore, severe water shortages loom in the near future. He predicts that the subtropics of the world will be hit the worst.
“If you calculate how much water we’re taking that nature cannot replace, it’s absolutely huge. So, there’s going to be an enormous water crisis coming up … in about 10 years from now,” Martin said.
The two main solutions that he proposes to this problem are to capture rainwater and replenish aquifers with water from floods.
But, he firmly believes that in order to even begin discussing these issues, our way of regulating populations and working with the world must transform.
“The huge issue is how do you change the world (to) manage the big issues that we’re not managing today,” Martin said.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].