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“Why Nations Fail” — A great read with an H2 epilog

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by guest blogger Stan Thompson

Davidson College is near our NC home and its proximity offers neighbors access to an astonishing parade of great minds. In 1962 I met cosmologist George Gamow there and even got to ask him a few questions. Albert Einstein had died only seven years before. Some would say Gamow was his then-current equivalent.

It must have been about 2012 when, at Davidson, I had the good fortune to hear MIT economist Dr. Daron Acemoglu. With University of Chicago economist, Dr. James A. Robinson, had just written “the great read” I reference here: Why Nations Fail. It garnered many book awards but, unlike some really deep books, it’s a delightful page-turner for anyone who loves history.

The sub-title of Why Nations Fail is The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. It’s main theme is how the presence of one dominating resource in a country—such as oil or diamonds—can motivate and enable a strong man or an oligarchy to seize power and then provide the means of sustaining central control.  Once entrenched and enriched, despots are almost impossible to dislodge by a public yearning to be governed by liberal democratic principles.

Acemoglu and Robinson use the histories of various countries to illustrate their point—both with bad news and good news instances.

The bad news comes from “extraction,” the good news from “inclusion.” Inclusion economies have many revenue streams so getting a tyrannical handle on them all is as hard as domination in monocultures is easy. Liberty is a by-product of inclusive economics.

The good news might be summarized as, blesséd are the countries with a broad mix of resources because oil, diamond or cotton monocultures are prone to tyranny. Oil and diamonds are extracted using technology; cotton became king via involuntary servitude and too-cheap labor.

Why Nations Fail was written in a recent dark age when people still believed that “hydrogen is the inevitable car technology but it’s not ready for prime time.” (It will be ready as soon as there are enough hydrogen truck stops to prime the market pump.)  Another dark age meme was “Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe.” So are the oceans and South Stump Creek “if only we knew how to separate it.” Toward the end of that dark age, the fact that the Hindenburg was diesel powered had begun to dawn on gee-whiz journalists.

Now, here’s the H2 epilog.  It’s about the dawning of the epoch of synthesis and the slow setting of the sun on the energy extraction epoch.

In trying to dodge the climate bullet, civilization has begun a transition from energy extraction to energy synthesis. We extracted coal, oil and gas. But hydrogen, of the desired green persuasion, is beginning to be synthesized, largely from what let’s call “heliarchic” (sun-sourced) energy and water. Not all energy used to produce green hydrogen is heliarchic;  tidal energy, for instance, or nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion, when it eventually emerges, will not be heliarchic.

Here’s a reality that gets little press:  vast amounts of the gas drawn from the earth are destined become solid matter: nitrate fertilizer. It’s this process that yields almost all the greenhouse gas complained of in journalism that purports to show why the hydrogen transition is a long way off.  Per one source, half a billion tons of nitrate fertilizer is made annually from extracted natural gas. The pundits who like to cite that “most H2 is brown” don’t mention that it’s mined to green our lawns and lettuce.

Hydrogen technology has had the misfortune of defining a change that future generations may regard as being as significant as the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.  It spans the extraction and synthesis epochs and has triggered the change.

H2’s fate has been like that of the elephant whose shape was debated among a group of blind people, each of whom was touching a different part of the beast. Some see it as the silent motive force moving a hydrail train through norther Germany. Others see it in a 50-pound bag at the Home Depot. It’s both. The train is the future but the 50-pound bag is both the green future and the brown past.

The difference between the extraction and synthesis epochs is nicely illustrated by the two kinds of nuclear electric power generation. Fissionable materials are extracted from the earth; what will eventually happen to the fuel rod leftovers is a matter of perpetual political brouhaha. By contrast (apart from some hardware that may become “hot”), fusion has two very emblematic synthesis attributes: it draws from the immediate surroundings the light elements to be fused, as versus deep-down or far-flung. Its feedstock is everywhere, not turf-specific. No Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gadaffi, or Hugo Chavez can ever hope to corner the market on deuterium, tritium or lithium or use them to fund a pervasive intelligence network. The fusion of light atoms into heavier ones, plus heat, is a perfect instance of synthesis.

What if we could synthesize the ammonia for fertilizer from sun and water and air instead of extracting it from the earth?  We can and soon will—though not for a fairly long time in the amounts now mined; but that’s not the point.

The emergent trend is that synthesis of something as bulky and mundane as fertilizer—from sun, water and air—is now economically feasible and about to happen.

Natural gas is where you find it. Green hydrogen is where you make it.  Endless wars over remote patches of sand grow less likely the more synthesis takes hold.  Dr. Acemoglu, Dr. Robinson, take heart!

When the wonders of steam power were first being revealed by James Watt, Robert Fulton, Richard Trevithick and George Stephenson and animal traction, universally used and understood, was about to vanish, the general public didn’t look around and remark, “Our world is changing!” anymore than we see how profound is the present replacement of extraction by synthesis.

Hydrogen technology is introducing synthesis; but we have no more grasp of what’s to follow than Robert Fulton had of an Airbus A 380.


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