It’s truly amazing what’s going on on Mars these days. Smart people, great planning and incredible technology is moving cargo from Earth to Mars more or less automatically. Then conducting experiments, even having a helicopter working autonomously – in totally unknown terrain. While here on Earth even the simplest emergency planning seems to be a big challenge – and controversial. Why?
What NASA’s Mars operation makes frighteningly clear is a very inconvenient truth: The problem isn’t technology, science, capability, options etc., not even resources, it’s people. Humans. There are no humans on Mars and few on Earth wanting to block or delay progress. No politicians to make stupid selfserving claims, no bureaucrats to make inhibiting, unneccessary, unenforceable rules, no workers and unions to protect history and block change etc. Just nature, science, curiosity, research, common interests – and someone behind with sufficient strength and clout to finance the whole thing.
Incredible – and thought-provoking: The Mars expeditions – this one and previous ones – are research with little immediate benefit, lots of (potential) long term benefits. Extremely complex and not very controversial, not even the cost. In comparison, the situation on Earth is messy, controversial, dangerous, unsustainable – and dominated by people. The situation is also factual, easy to observe, (partly) fixable – and a question of survival. Not long term, but immediate survival. We don’t need more technology, more research, more facts, more resources. We do have everything we need – except time. Which cannot be bought.
So what do we do? Wait for another report on why and how fast the ice is melting and the oceans rising? Watch movies from Mars in awe while the neighbourhood is burning? Buy more batteries to offset power outages while plundering the soil and soul of poor countries? Get better phones so we can share our ignorance wide and far with our ‘tribe’?
The point is – and bear with me, there is a silver lining (or at least some good news) at the end: The obstacle between mankind and survival is you and me – us. We want survival, but we don’t seem to want the process. It’s like standing on a sinking ship, looking at the lifeboat and refusing to get wet. And we’re all guilty. On the world stage, leaders start wars to divert attention from their own failures, greed and internal problems. On the local stage we make a big deal out of fixing yesterday’s problems using yesteryear’s methods and outdated extrapolations about the future instead of accepting the obvious. On the home front we demand – as if it were our birthright – to continue the destructive habits and lifestyles that got us here in the first place. And blame or point to everyone else when pushed for change.
I’m as guilty as anyone. I’ve observed (and commented) a lot while doing little. Including the observation that ‘it’s got to get much worse before it gets better…’ – almost as an excuse, and just moved on as if it were someone else’s problem. Unsurprisingly, that particular belief is shared by an increasing number of people these days. I asked a good friend in LA the other day, ‘how much worse’? He – being one of the wisest and most honest people I know – responded bluntly: ‘When at least half the population is gone, maybe more like 70%’. He was not referring to the population of LA, the US or any country, but of the world. And he added: ‘That includes you and me my friend.’
That’s apocalyptic, but I’m afraid he’s right. We’re seeing the same picture, the same reality. The fires, floodings, pandemics, wars, shortages in food, water, medicine, shelter and more. It’s deteriorating visibly and on many fronts by the month. Still, what most people around my neck of the woods – Scandinavia to be specific – seem to be concerned about is interest rates, utility prices and salary increases.
I know I sound gloomy, but here’s the thing: We ain’t gone yet – and the Mars projects have an immediate benefit: It proves that the seemingly impossible is within reach. That said, saving the world as it is is not possible and not even desirable. But if we want to, the damage may be contained. It has been said before and I’m happy to repeat it: By changing our attitude, even our metric for what is a ‘good life’.
Attitude and mindset drives behaviour. As does need and crises – brutal changes force us to focus on survival instead of (in)convenience. A real change of metric may go like this: ‘We have to stop the waste’ – which sounds easy until we redefine ‘waste’ to mean everything we can do without – forever or for a while. Like – global tourism is waste, golf is waste, holiday shopping is waste, showering for 10 minutes is waste, pick your favourite. If you’re like most people, you’ll pick something that doesn’t hurt, something not so close to heart. Then comes the real challenge: Turn around and start with the ‘close’ stuff. The point being if it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t work. It’s more like the opposite – the more it hurts, the better it works.
Now here’s the silver lining – or at least some uplifting news in all the gloom. Despite all the bad news dominating the media and the world, there are important positive developments to be aware of and to get inspired by, not the least on the energy sector. Admittedly, most people may not have reached this conclusion yet, but Germany’s decision to reopen some of their nuclear power plants is very good news indeed.
Soon, maybe as soon as this year, even the most adamant environmentalists will have a change of heart, and accept the fact that nuclear power isn’t a threat but a solution. The cleanest, safest, most reliable and most sustainable source of energy available. Nuclear in 2020 is VERY different from nuclear 1980. Just like flying helicopters on Mars wasn’t an option 40 years ago. The comparison is more relevant than you think.
And there is more good news. A year back I wrote about an initiative from British industrial conglomerate Rolls Royce, and their blueprint to build small, safe and extremely reliable power plants using standardized components – in 500 days. The SMR is utilizing nuclear waste from older power plants as fuel. Small enough to be places close to where the energy is needed. Incredible, isn’t it?
More recently I became aware of a US based initiative founded on the same way of thinking – New Atlas. Small, standardized components, fast build, extremely safe and being approved by the appropriate regulatory body just now.
To me, this is the best energy news the world has seen in a long time – for many reasons, most of which are still poorly understood or undervalued. The energy density of nuclear fuel is tens of thousands times higher than any other source. Using standardized components makes building fast and maintenance safe and low cost. The small size makes building them close to where the energy is needed a natural, eliminating one of the biggest and (recently) most controversial issues of power generation, regardless of source: Transportation, aka ‘the grid’. There just aren’t enough power lines in the world, they are slow and expensive to build, they represent visual pollution, their building is controversial – with a questionable climate footprint in itself etc.
The list goes on, and as we dive into the facts, the picture becomes even clearer: The obstacle for nuclear is attitude, mindset – and it’s changing. Nuclear is (now) good news.
Like I wrote not too long ago in ‘Tech will save us…’ – Really?, this – or any technology for that matter – isn’t a panacea or a reason to relax, it’s an inspiration. Today, thinking differently isn’t an option, it is a requirement. As is your share of that thinking. It’s not about you or me, it’s us. It always was. We just forgot – for several generations. An incredibly expensive exercise in selfishness.
Mars is closer than ever. An incredible feat – and totally useless if we don’t survive.