Health News Digest

September 24, 2012

Report from Albuquerque:  How Energy Abundance Might Affect Health Care


By  Michael D. Shaw

Last week, I was privileged to be on a panel entitled “The Societal Implications of Energy Abundance.” This presentation was part of the 18th International Symposium on Electronic Art. Or, as it is better known this year, ISEA2012 Albuquerque: Machine Wilderness. ISEA events are annual, and take place all over the world. Next year, for example, the scene moves to Sydney, Australia.

As the Symposium’s website explains, “The ISEA2012 title ‘Machine Wilderness’ references the New Mexico region as an area of rapid growth and technology within vast expanses of open land, and presents visions of a more humane interaction between technology and wilderness in which ‘machines’ can take many forms to support life on Earth.”

The moderator of our panel, soft-spoken genius Scott M. Tyson, abstracted what our effort was all about…

Major technological change affects the way we live and the way we interact in society. Few inhabitants of this planet in 1890, who traveled to town by horse and buggy, could have imagined that in 60 years time, people would travel the world in jet planes in the span of a few hours.

Likewise, in that same time period, the world developed a dense grid of instantaneous telecommunications, first over wires, and then even without the wires to provide greater mobility. In this same time frame, humankind has sent machines into outer space, studied far away galaxies, gained an entirely new understanding of the universe, and cured many diseases thought incurable.

Physicist and futurist Tyson refers to “A radical new cosmology, which might provide humanity with its deepest glimpse and understanding yet into the innermost workings of the universe, as well as the natures of void and the seemingly inexhaustible quantum fluctuation energy, enabling a new, cheap, and inexhaustible power production paradigm that may be benign and free from costly and dangerous side effects.”

My portion of the panel considered how abundant energy could affect health care.

Without question, the most important benefit would come from the newfound ability to deploy desalination of seawater on a vast scale. Whether accomplished via thermal methods (distillation) or membrane processes (primarily reverse osmosis), large amounts of energy are required. As a result, desalination is limited to areas in which there is no reasonable alternative.

Imagine if the energy factor were removed. Water shortages would disappear, affecting many aspects of life throughout the world, not the least which would be agriculture.

But to improve health, this abundant water must also be pure, and free from pathogens. At this point in history, the greatest benefit that science has given mankind is the use of chlorine to purify water. Arguably, until our magic energy paradigm comes along, it will remain the greatest.

Freed from energy concerns, however, water treatment can be rolled out everywhere. Here in the first world, we sometimes forget that a large percentage of our fellow humans currently lack basic sanitation. With abundant energy, we are now talking about pure abundant water and greater quantities and varieties of food for the entire planet! This would promote a staggering level of improvement in global public health.

Meanwhile in the first world, consider that health care organizations spend nearly $9 billion per year on energy. If this money were freed up, it could be devoted to preventive medical activities, such as improving hospital infection control, and truly meaningful community outreach programs.

A rosy forecast, to be sure. But, just as we did on the panel, we must also consider the dark side. History teaches us that with each improvement in energy technology came concerted efforts to employ it in the production and use of weapons. In addition, potential windfalls of saved money inevitably either end up in the pockets of a few select individuals, or simply get squandered on the latest boondoggle.

Perhaps, though, in our abundant energy paradigm, enough of the traditional reasons for war would be eliminated. Given a peaceful world, perhaps the public would scrutinize and expect more from its politicians, as well.

A radical new cosmology, indeed.