by guest blogger Stan Thompson
Very different processes distribute the earth’s mineral wealth and the political configurations of its surface. Though different, they coincide in ways that profoundly impact our destinies.
In the late industrial period, the relative value of energy has been so high, and energy extraction as oil and gas has been so profitable, that wherever they have occurred in less industrialized lands they have dominated geopolitics. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the mechanism was colonialism. Advanced, energy-hungry countries went to where the oil was and set up puppet regimes to keep order while they exploited the resource and exported it.
When, with the passage of time, colonialism followed slavery into disrepute, colonies didn’t revert to simpler times and traditions. The lessons of the value of oil and its easy translatability into military power had been mentored-in to some locals.
The lesson was this: Enough ruthlessness and oil can assure that a few people live extraordinarily well. The rest live miserably—both materially and in terms of freedom, self-governance and the pursuit of individual happiness.
The scholarly authorities on how this happens are Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson who explained the process in Why Nations Fail, tracing national histories as examples. Oil monocultures fail because the concentration of treasure and power prevents the native genius of a country from being brought to bear for the general good.
Oil is the easiest extraction dynamic to understand but diamonds and cotton labor have also worked.
The opposite occurs where the means of enrichment rests in the inhabitants’ abilities and not in the ground. These evolve to become inclusive societies which seek and sustain liberty.
Oil is where you find it. If found in pre-technical or post-colonial lands. it attracts power and repells liberty. Hydrogen is where you invest, build infrastructure and make it. No one can own the wind or the sun—though rivers have been contested.
That we are living at a dramatic turning point in history was a made clear in recent weeks when Saudi Arabia and The Russian Federation capitulated to the reality that oil isn’t always…but hydrogen may be.
There will never be a hydrogen-based Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Nícolas Maduro Moros or Fidél Castro (the sugar-daddy of strong-man regimes).
What you should take away from this is that you are living in that instant in history when the epoch of extraction has just begun to give way to a replacing epoch of synthesis and, consequently, one of the chronic engines driving war and despotism is running out of gas.
Look around and take note. Tell your grandkids. These times are as transformative as the dawn of steam—when heat engine mechanics replaced millennia of manual and animal effort—and the electric age, when Tesla and Westinghouse let the mill be collocated with the labor pool instead of the pond that turned the water wheel.
In the same way that James Watt’s expansion steam engine is emblematic of the Industrial Revolution, 3D printing (additive manufacturing) is emblematic of the epoch of synthesis. With additive manufacturing, energy can be combined with information technology and physical matter to synthesize artifacts formerly made by removing (extracting) matter from a larger workpiece.
Synthesis also replaces extraction at the molecular level. Fertilizer is made in enormous amounts by extracting natural gas from the earth and then extracting the hydrogen from natural gas. The takeaway here is that when you extract something you want you almost always get something else that you don’t want but have to deal with. In this case, it’s carbon dioxide.
One of the brighter rays in this dawn of synthesis is that the vast weight of extracted natural gas that goes into fertilizer will soon begin to be replaced by green electrolysis hydrogen. No CH4 carbon is extracted and no CO2 is released. We are relentlessly hammered with the notion that carbon dioxide is an existential menace. But recourse to extraction is the real menace; carbon dioxide is just one particularly urgent example. Traces of toxic heavy metals extracted from the ground with coal accumulate in rivers and fish and there is also radioactivity in coal ash.
Needful things, the bones and sinews of civilization, will always come up from the earth, from limestone for cement to rare earth elements. What changes in the synthesis epoch is that extraction gradually becomes the last resort, not the first, when sourcing matter. Materials obtained through reprocessing will increasingly tend to replace extraction, using ever higher technology and ever more abundant renewable energy.
In our time, the synthesis economy has already begun to dissolve the extraction bonds of geoilpolitics. Oil is where you find it. Liberty, a quintessential synthesis artifact, is where you make it. The hydrogen transition will help.
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