#184 Reality Check: Less Quantity, More Quality in a Future that will Work. Part 4 of our series with Dr Simon Michaux
What does the world look like in 2050 if we make good choices now?
This is the fourth of our ongoing series with Dr Simon Michaux. As ever, we ranged far and wide, but this time within the remit of ‘what does the world look like in 2050 if we make good choices now?’ Specifically, how do we construct and power our civilisation beyond the emergence of the new system. And yes, that’s impossible to predict exactly, but it’s not overly hard to make some basic observations – that we’ll have phased out fossil fuels; that we’ll reduce our inputs and outputs; that we’ll live more simple, but higher quality lives.
Specifically, we narrowed down on possible energy sources, and Simon proposed something which has been known for decades, but not put into practice, once again, with his trademark data to support his thesis. This one is genuinely hopeful – though of course we’ll have to completely rearrange our entire value system to put the living biosphere (current and future) ahead of profit – but we do know this… Enjoy!
Manda: So what I wanted to do with podcast number four that you’re about to hear is have a look at what could work, what can we do so that we can build that future that we be proud to leave behind? And Simon really came through on this one. He talked about some things that he hasn’t spoken about elsewhere, at least not in public. And I came away from this conversation feeling genuinely hopeful, which was not really the case after podcasts 1 to 3 with Simon. So here we go. Be prepared to absorb some quite startling numbers and then perhaps we all need to get together and work out how we can all make this happen. So people of the podcast for the fourth time, please welcome Dr. Simon Michaud. Simon, welcome back to the Accidental Gods podcast for the fourth time. Actually, I keep forgetting I have to call you Superbrain from here on in because I got a text from somebody saying, My God, that bloke’s Superbrain, eh? So, dear Superbrain, welcome back to the Accidental Gods podcast. It’s a pleasure to be talking to you as ever. One of the most exciting. It’s always adrenaline filled, talking to you. It’s great fun. How are you in Finland?
Simon: Hello, Manda. Life is good! Spring has come. For the audience, I should tell you that when I was in school, my marks were average and I barely got into undergraduate university. nd it wasn’t until I finished and came out the other side, and found myself in doing a PhD, that suddenly my brain suddenly threw a switch and everything was easy. It started to work. And from that point, everything from that point on was easy.
Manda: Doesn’t that say quite a lot about our education systems, that they were not able to throw the switcsooner? Because it’s quite clearly a high functioning switch. Anyway, let’s kick into… Because we finished podcast number three quite suddenly, because your machine decided to switch off. So what we are going to do now is you and I are going to map out a future that would work. What we’ve established so far, really clearly, in podcasts one to three, is that most of the maps that we have to getting forward are not going to work, because the material flows are just not there in various ways. The energy isn’t there, and the actual stuff to make things are just not going to come out of the ground in the amounts that we need. So we’re being gaslit by people who either know it and don’t care, or actually mostly are probably ignorant, because there seems to be the mindset that fundamentally, business as usual will chug on, and we’ll just swap out fossil fuels and swap in renewables, rebuildables, or whatever we want to call them, and the world will carry on exactly as before, where you can go out to the shops and buy whatever you want to help yourself feel better about the fact that everything else is going to shit. So given that you and I want the human race to continue, neither of us believes that total extinction of all human life, in fact, all life on Earth is inevitable. Although I think it’s definitely on the cards. We need to understand what that future looks like. So we have Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which I think will still apply. We kind of got a bit stuck on power in podcast number two, but we still know what the hierarchy is, so let’s have a run through a future. Let’s give ourselves a timeline of say, 2050. Okay, you and I might not still be around, but let’s, let’s pretend that we are.
Simon: Oh, we will.
Manda: I’m older than you think I am. But anyway, whatever. 2050 feels like it’s midpoint of the century. What does the world look like if we’ve actually followed a decent logistical track between now and then? Over to you.
Simon: So there’s going to be a radical reimagining of every sector at the same time. So we’re not looking for a widget that suddenly changes everything, like a new thing that you buy at the supermarket. So everything’s reimagined. And everything, from where we get our energy, to what form it takes; where we get our food from, who grows it. That has to change. How we do our transport is probably the biggest change. And across the board it will be less quantity, and more quality. We socially will have to change our relationship with energy and with raw materials. And with each other, and the environment. And while it sounds complicated, that’s actually one change. Not lots of them.
Manda: Can you say a little bit more about that? Or do you want to carry on? Carry on your flow and we’ll come back to it.
Simon: So we’ll come back to it. I’ve written it down, I’ll remember. So, the way this will work, I think is just certain things are just not going to be in the market anymore. It’s not going to be a voluntary change. We’re seeing it already. I think I saw an article where China is going to ban the export of rare earth elements, right? So that means any technology that has rare earth elements in it cannot be sold outside China. And so heck and flip.
Manda: As of when? When do we need to buy all the solar panels by?
Simon: Well, that’s an interesting question, because when is the supply chain… There’s a momentum to this. Whether they actually follow through on that…. Was it a threat, or whether is it part of going through Chinese parliament or not? You never know with the Chinese. But there is a massive east-west divide coming, and you could say everyone involved is done playing games now, and the conflict is going to go to another level.
Manda: Wouldn’t it be nice if we were able to do this without a conflict somehow? Are we going to get to 2050 if we do it by conflict?
Simon: It’ll just be more disrupted. The people who run our society have decided that conflict is a good thing.
Manda: Okay. We need to get rid of them before 2050.
Simon: Well, you know, there was a peace deal on the table in Ukraine, and good old Boris Johnson went in and scorched it. I remember. But it’s not just one person, though. That is a big system. And the war is a by-product of a strategy, in my opinion. So anyway, we’re going to see… We also saw over the weekend that – I think it was Chile, has nationalised all lithium deposits.
Manda: Oh, well done, Chile.
Simon: So what that means is the lithium will now be used, according to the Chile government, on their own terms. And so they’re going to do what Saudi Arabia has. And so all these international mining companies now who thought, well, we’ve got the money, what’s the problem? It’s a different world now. And so once that starts, then all elements of lithium and cobalt, and like half the cobalt happens to be in the Congo.
Manda: That’s always been a bit of a touchy zone.
Simon: Yeah. So I can see someone annexing that militarily.
Manda: Do you think – because, you know, Chile has a history of trying to be socialist, and the Americans crushing it very nastily. Do you think they’ll let them now nationalise lithium, or do you think they’ll just send in the CIA?
Simon: There’s a book called Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.
Manda: Yes, it is a video also. I’ll put it up. I’ll put it in the show notes.
Simon: It’s very good. That is the sequence of events that they would like to try. Unfortunately for them… One of my favourite books was written by an author called Naomi Klein, called The Shock Doctrine.
Simon: I’d like to meet Naomi one day. Her and Naomi Wolf, they’re extraordinary. In the 70s, the Americans tried a whole lot of stuff, and it was very successful. But the people involved in America now remember this. They say, we’re not putting up with that. And so I think that the traditional methods of the of of economic coercion won’t work in South America so well because it’s now in their culture. They remember this stuff. But there are no good guys, and I think everyone will try to do the same thing. Anyway, so Chile… I think this is only the beginning. If you’ve got a very, very necessary set of resources for something like energy or food or water, or something important and there’s not enough to go around, then various groups will try and step in and take it. And if it wasn’t governments, it’ll be things like a large corporation. And it’ll step in and say, we’re going to take that. That’s human nature. And so we’re seeing the beginning of it, to me, it was apparent five years ago.
Manda: It’s only human nature if you think we’re all Vikings. You’d better just give us a very brief of your four classes of people. Other people may not know this.
Simon: There’s the inherent nature of the human being where we do want to be nice to each other and nurture each other. But there’s also a level in our biology where it tells us to consume all resources in competition with everyone else. So. A quick summary. This is just a very basic model put together where I believe we’ll split into four paradigms. Number one is the cornucopians. The people who believe there is no problem, or someone will think of something. Business as Usual. Leave us alone. I want to go back to my bank account, please.
Manda: Yeah. Somebody shouted at me the other day about the fact that the Chinese were weaponizing the weather and actually climate change wasn’t really happening. And I thought, okay, yeah. Business as Usual. Yes.
Simon: And so all sorts of things are being weaponized, like our own money is being weaponized at us. There’s warfare on all levels. And so this is why you see: I’m now going to a cave in the wilderness. Goodbye.
Manda: That’s where we’re heading. But we want it for everyone. So not that many caves left.
Simon: All right, the second group is the group I call the Vikings, but we can now call the raiders.
Simon: The Colonials. Except they’re not going to hand it over to their masters. They’re just going to keep it for themselves. Instead of actually making things for the future about what we actually need going forward, they’re going to try and take it from other people. And so I’m going to take stuff from you because I want it, and I couldn’t be bothered doing it myself.
Manda: We could just call them Romans actually.
Simon: Romans! What did they ever do for us?
So they’re the raiders, and they’re the people who will just take stuff until something gets better, not realising that they’re actually destroying any hope for the future, someone else didn’t come up with something else. The third group is the prepper community, the people who will attend to the immediate needs of society. They understand that the wheels have fallen off, and the conventional ways of getting things like food and water is not going to work. It’s community based in various actions. The healthiest example of that would be the Transition Town network. But there are various groups of that. How do we take like a village, self-sufficient, that sort of thing, grow your own vegetables?
The fourth group is the group I call the Arcadians, and they’re the ones who actually are thinking long term. A century from now, what will human society look like? How do we get through this very sort of troublesome period where we maintain the more civilised aspects of our society? And how do we be genuinely wise on the other side? And there are things like, how do we maintain levels of education, is a big one. Like, kids are now educated for 20 years before they move into the workforce. So how do we do that in a low energy world? So they’re the four groups.
Manda: And so what you’ve been discussing is Business as Usual cornucopian behaviour by the old guard of people for whom hierarchies, power hierarchies exist, and they want to remain at the top. And if we look at the Arcadians, then what we’re talking about then is horizontalism, and horizontal organisation, and mutual cooperation, and everything that goes with it. Do you think the Business as Usual people are just going to win out because they have more firepower?
Simon: No. Because their own thinking will get in the way. There’ll come a point when the Business as Usual people will realise things are getting harder and harder and harder. The parts they will apply firepower to, to defend business as usual will become increasingly ineffective. And in fact, they will face off against the Raiders, and the Raiders will see them as the most viable target to go and raid.
Manda: Yeah, because those two seem quite interchangeable in the way that the kind of transition end of the preppers and the Arcadians seem to me to be blurring into each other, that there is a raiding mentality to Putin and Ukraine, or if the American government decided that it was going to take over Chile again because, hey, they want the lithium – that’s a Viking action on behalf of Business as Usual.
Simon: That is correct. But then you’ve got, so the different tribes will then come against each other, say that’s unacceptable. We’re not going to put up with that. And if you’re going to do that, then we’re not going to interact with you in this form.
Manda: Okay. So let’s get ourselves back to 2050. Let’s let the politics go for a little bit because that could get very knotty. Let’s have a look at what we’ve got. Different qualities. We’ve got more quality, less quantity. We’ve got different ways of producing power, presumably different ways of storing it and using it. We’ve got different ways of accessing water and sewerage because fundamentally big cities, if you don’t clear the waste away very quickly, you’ve got typhoid within about three days. So that’s still going to be essential if we have big cities. And then we’ve got different ways of producing and transporting the things that we need, starting with food and then moving to the the things where we will die less fast. Because it seems to me a lot of people, particularly the prepper community, are looking at how do we perpetuate something that feels like what we grew up with? And what the Arcadians are getting to is, systemic change isn’t a replication of the past. It’s systemic change. It’s emergence into a new future. It looks completely different. It’s an evolution. So yeah, let’s take as read that the evolution has happened. What does it look like?
Simon: So the prepper community is a holding action. The Arcadian community is an Evolution. Yep. The Raiders are a degradation. And like a coming apart of things. Business as usual, as heat death.
Manda: Yeah. And I think Business as Usual is going to merge into… they’re either going to become Raiders or they’re going to become Preppers. Business as Usual is not… Gaslighting yourself only lasts so long. Denial is a river in Egypt, and it runs out of water.
Simon: Yeah, exactly.
Manda: Then we’ve got Raiders, Preppers and Arcadians. Let’s assume we’ve got Raiders and Arcadians, and let’s assume further that by 2050, yeah, we may be something similar to Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, where there’s the Zottarich, kind of behind a big fence, and they cannot be bothered to go into the wilderness. But the wilderness is full of the people who walked away, who get the different future.
Simon: So we’re looking at a more decentralised future, I think, where things are going to happen on a smaller scale. Political authority could be moving away from nation states and more towards the shire council level, because they’re the people who own and run hospitals and, you know, waste transfer stations and sewerage sanitation plants and the schools. So they’re doing the useful work. And also, as a consequence of a low energy future in network terms, we have to become less complex and smaller in size for the network.
Manda: Do you know, have you an idea of what a viable size is? Because we’ve got the Dunbar number there as our concept of social limit. The Dunbar number, for people who don’t know, is Ian Dunbar, who worked out – it wasn’t Ian Dunbar. He’s a dog trainer! A guy called Dunbar, whose first name I can’t remember, but he was a social anthropologist, and he worked out that the maximum number with whom you could have reasonably effective social interactions was 150, and that that was generally village size. And once it gets bigger than that, you split off and start a new village. So are we looking at units that size, do you think?
Simon: I thought, like I came up with the number of, say, 30 or 40 families, which I suppose is 150 people.
Manda: Yeah. Give or take, isn’t it. Yeah.
Simon: And anything larger than that, then you start having replications. There seems to be a level of human consciousness when masses of people come together of 250,000 humans, when you put them together, then you get a lot of synergy things at an industrial level. So how do we do that?
Manda: But that could happen online. That doesn’t have to happen with people living within walking distance of each other.
Simon: But the cities are 12 million people. You’ve got to get a lot of food like into London, for example. How do we do that? And the only way they’re going to survive is if they go the Isaac Asimov route, where they start growing yeast factories for food.
Manda: Which never struck me as very energy… if we’re moving to a low energy world, you do not want to be putting significant amounts of your energy into growing food when you could be growing it, courtesy of sunlight, you know, six miles down the road.
Simon: Exactly. So now we’re talking about the natural thing will be to decentralise how big those communities are. I’m not entirely sure, the answer to that could be What energy source do you have naturally? If you happen to be, for example, in areas of, say, Norway that have lots and lots of natural hydro power, then they can have a high energy density society. If you happen to be in Iceland where you’ve got enormous amounts of hydro and geothermal.
Manda: Hydropower, can you conduct industrial activity with hydropower? Is it intense enough?
Simon: Yes, you can. In fact, they do it now.
Manda: Okay. But you wouldn’t be able to mine with the hydropower because unless the mine happened to be under the waterfall.
Simon: You’ve got to actually transfer the power to the mine somehow. And in theory, I suppose you could, but no one’s done it yet. The amount of power that a mine needs is generally around 100MW.
Manda: How long… rolling?
Simon: So that’s the installed, the rolling power. So you are actually looking at a considerable amount of concentrated power to do it and it tends to be in the middle of nowhere, often in the desert.
Manda: And it will require, one assumes, huge amounts of copper cabling that probably won’t exist. Okay. So let’s drill down into this. Let’s take Norway. They’ve got some hydropower. They’ve got a lot of wood, they’ve got biomass, if nobody’s gone and nicked it all. They’ve got quite a stable culture and at the moment, quite good governance that understands equity, getting stuff. it seems to me about 2050, the global stocks of – let’s say copper, let’s use copper as an index for everything else – must have stabilised, because we will not be able to pour the energy into getting it out, the energy or the water to getting it out and transporting it around. So we’ll have to be reusing what we’ve already got in some kind of recycling. But you only recycle stuff when the thing that you’re recycling is done with. So there’s an amount that’s in constant use and there’s a smaller amount that’s being recirculated. And that seems to me to be a rate limiting step.
Simon: That is correct. So I think we’re going to see a reinstitution of the old boneyard.
Manda: Everything is dismantled. And.
Simon: For use, you know, and the things that are not reusable, like when you take a car to a wrecking yard, an auto wrecking yard. As a young man I used to go out to the auto wreckers and crawl over these car hulks to get parts, and that was how I used to fix cars. So what they do is a car comes in, and some mechanics will go over the whole car and strip it. Anything of value gets taken and put into a shed, like taken out of the weather and put on a shelf in the shed. I think we’re going to see that. But instead of actually putting it into new cars, we are going to repurpose all those things. The alternator and the starter motor from an internal combustion engine is useful. Your computer, that if you were to hand that in, there’ll be electronics in it that still might be able to repurposed, but someone’s got to pull them apart.
Manda: Especially if it’s been redesigned such that that is the case. But I’m vividly remembering in our first podcast together, you holding up your cup of coffee and going once you’ve poured the milk in, it’s no longer the case that you split it into coffee grounds, water and milk, it’s become something new. And so unless people start diverting a lot of intellectual creative energy towards separating the milk from the coffee as a metaphor in everything that we’ve got, there’s going to be a certain amount that isn’t reusable, recyclable or refurbishable, I guess.
Simon: That is correct. And so we will lose a lot of resources that way. If we start making things that were designed to be recycled through necessity, we could we could start to turn that around. The amount of resources flowing into society is about to take a step change down. And we are just not prepared for that yet. So there’ll be a lot of human innovation. There’ll be a lot of chaos, and a lot of rules and regulations from Business as Usual will prevent this from happening to start with.
Manda: Because they want to still have planned obsolescence, and you still need to buy a new widget every three years because we make money out of widgets.
Simon: They want their paradigm to continue. They want their authority to be recognised. We had these rules for a reason. You are destroying civilisation by taking away my rules.
Manda: So we need – this is back to, I have a kind of triad of the legacy media, politics and economics, and they feed off each other in a continuous cycle, and we need to break that cycle somehow. Such that we can have new governance systems creating a new economic system, and then business and the media will have to change. But that requires everybody to get behind it. You know, this needs policy shift.
Simon: So I remember reading a historical account of biblical Palestine 2000 years ago, and in that environment, the average person had completely lost faith in the ruling class. And it was it was like this amorphous soup of chaos, and no one knew anything. No rules were recognised. It was all it was very close to anarchy. And I think then we saw something very similar happen in the 16th century with the the witch burning era, with neighbours, you know, reporting on each other. That was anarchy as well. But that was directed, yeah, that was maliciously directed to shape political power. That’s not what I’m saying here. I think we’re going to be heading into another era like that where trust in institutions at all levels has been eroded. And, you know, things like there’s four pillars in a relationship. There’s love, there’s trust, there’s respect and there’s honour. And all four pillars are being eroded in our society, in all things, to the point where the social contract, even between us all, has been eroded to the point where those things are now discouraged.
Manda: But if we’re going to get to 2050, we have to reverse that process.
Simon: Oh, we will. We have no choice. So these things have a half life of effectiveness. You cannot have a strategy like that for very long, because people start to wake up. Hang on, I’ve heard this story before and there’s this: Right, now, it’s a knife between the ribs. Is it a sharp knife or a blunt knife? We’re not going to put up with this anymore. And so there’s a window of opportunity. A window of opportunity between when something is possible and something is irrelevant. We are approaching such a window. And in that window, do we turn on each other? Or do we realise the person next to you is actually your solution? And what’s happening at the moment is the efforts to get everyone to turn on each other are becoming stale. You know, especially when the same methods keep coming out. Hang on, I’ve heard that one before. I’ve been programmed to hate you, but hang on. That didn’t work last time.
Manda: I hope. I really hope so. Let’s make the assumption that in 2050 we’ve got over this somehow. I’m still really keen to know the logistics, the kind of size, and what it looks like, and how it’s being powered, and how the water flows out of the tap (if there is a tap) and how we’re growing our food, and how much mining and manufacture is actually still happening by 2050? Or are we in a steady state where we’re able to roll with what we’ve got, and we can begin to do the whole regenerative -are we going to be doing the reparation, a regeneration of the damage that we’ve done?
Simon: We probably have no choice in that. What I’m now looking at is if you’ve got like a village of, say, 150 people, but you’re going to have a cluster of villages, that village won’t be industrial. Those villages will cluster around a small industrial cluster, a small city. And I don’t know how big we’re talking about. It might be something like a thousand people.
Manda: Okay. That would now be a very big village and certainly in this country.
Simon: So the outer, the satellite villages, their role is to grow food. The city in the centre, its role is to do industrial things with the products that are made out in the villages. We can’t go anywhere any more, so we cannot, for example, if we get things wrong, we can’t just palm it off. If we get things wrong, we’re in our own nest. Fix it.
Manda: Yeah. Okay.
Simon: Right. So the only path forward through that is regenerative farming. Also when we lose industrial agriculture.
Manda: Yes. Which we have to do if we’re not going to kill the seas very soon. Yeah.
Simon: We have to do. And so, I think the rail network will be very important. Because we can move heavy large volumes of goods around. Sail will become important again. But instead of ships that are powered with, say, fossil fuels, will – you know if we go back to sail assisted ships? That’s the wind. It’ll be slower, it’ll be harder to do and all that. But we can do it.
Manda: Yeah. And presumably sail assisted ships with modern technology of radar and GPS positioning and things, it’s harder.
Simon: To get you in and out of port, you might have say, a hydrogen or ammonia system to get you in and out of port. But once you’re out of port, you put up the sails and away you go.
Manda: Yeah, something like that. Because I listen to the hydrogen podcast with Nate Hagens, and I know hydrogen is an extremely inefficient way of moving energy. But yes, it’s still what you’ve got. And but also, I have to say, he was quite clear that – I thought, you burn hydrogen and you get water. Yay. And he went, no, no, you burn hydrogen and you get nitrous and nitric acid, or nitrous and nitric oxides, and they are massively more greenhouse gas potential than CO2. So burning hydrogen, probably not a brilliant idea.
Simon: So it’s not a brilliant idea on a number of fronts. For example, instead of making hydrogen, you make ammonia and use geothermal to do it and you’re transporting ammonia. Ammonia is a liquid, and the ammonia can be used as a fuel directly.
Manda: Okay. So it doesn’t need pressure and temperature that liquid hydrogen does.
Simon: No, it doesn’t. And it won’t corrode any containers. It ends in the same way in brittle it so you can transport it.
Manda: It’s not a massive reduction agent. Okay.
Simon: You can’t have a hydrogen pipe, for example. We just don’t have the materials to do it. But if you had an ammonia system and then you had a high tech system to collect any flare off, the exhaust plume, and that exhaust plume is then collected and their chemicals are in their own right, which can be repurposed to other things.
Manda: Right? So this is an equivalent of carbon capture and storage, but for nitrates and nitric.
Simon: Yeah. But if you do it in a way that doesn’t depend on a lot of exotic technology or energy, so what I’m saying is that transport network is completely reimagined. And so what I believe will happen in all sectors at the same time. Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. It’s a movie, right?
Manda: Is it, right? I haven’t seen it. Is it good?
Simon: It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoyed it. It’s very strange. It’s like the scriptwriter was on acid when they wrote the script.
Manda: That’s entirely plausible.
Simon: And so, yeah, I’m a fan of Michelle Yeoh. She’s an amazing actor, and she’s not been given the credit, I believe, for her abilities until now. And so I think she won an Oscar for that film. Anyway, some people looked at it and said, Oh, no, not my cup of tea, but I liked it. I thought it was all right. Anyway, so all sectors, all at once, will be reimagined in ways that we can’t imagine now. The growing of food, the manufacturing stuff, even sewerage. How do we do sewerage, sanitation, composting toilets.
Manda: But, you know, that’s limited in a village or small town of a thousand people, that’s harder than it is for 150 for sure.
Simon: Yeah. So if you were to reinvent a sewerage sanitation system with the new restraints you could do it, but it would look different to how it is now. Especially if you have the idea that you’ve got to somehow process that sewage without dumping it onto your neighbour.
Manda: Or in the rivers like we’re doing in the UK at the moment. Yes.
Simon: Or in the rivers. Yeah. Which if we are now dependent on those rivers for other things, we shouldn’t do that anymore.
Manda: Also, there’s a lot of movement towards: this is quite a useful resource that if we can process it correctly, and we’re not just spreading any typhoid, we might want to be putting this on our fields.
Simon: So if we were to actually phase out industrial agriculture and everything and go like full full spectrum, or get small scale organic in a regenerative sense, we need to actually be generating a balanced fertiliser, nutrient fertiliser. And sewerage and grey water systems for that matter are all useful. And the merging of a grey water system. If you were to merge an aquaponics system with a grey water system, with a sewage treatment plant that was actually a compost factory, and that compost would then go out to farms and by the time it gets to the farm, it’s not dangerous to handle anymore.
Manda: Yeah. And presumably it’s also not dangerous. It’s not only not full of bacteria that we don’t want, but we’ve also got all the chemicals. Because I read an article the other day, I had no idea previously, but human breast milk now has something like 84 different toxic chemicals in it, because it’s in the water. We’re not clearing them out. And then we wonder why people are getting sick.
Simon: So the water run-off from our systems has got to go into something like a grey water system that has lots of plants in it. The plants uptake all the harmful elements and they go into the plants. We then harvest those plants and we burn them in a combined heat and power plant. And in the end, all the heavy metals that were in the plants collect in the ash at the bottom of that furnace. And then we actually get the metal, and that’s how we extract heavy metals from the environment. We work with Mother Nature, but then we go industrial hand in hand. So it’s not one or the other. It’s both together.
Manda: That’s how the Vikings used to make swords. They used to gather a moss that that obstructed iron from the environment and they would gather tons of it and burn it down and get enough iron to make a sword. It’s amazing. So we’re basically… Okay. So this is one of the ways we’re going to get some of the stuff that we need.
Simon: Yeah, it’s problem solving. And so, so if we realise that the environment is full of toxins now and we have to do something about it, and if we don’t do something about it, it doesn’t get done.
Manda: True. Okay.
Simon: And so we have to use industrial or technology somehow within the restraints that we are now working with and it has to be part of our everyday life.
Manda: So we talked a lot in podcast two, you and I, about power, but I’m still really curious at this level of, let’s say a thousand people in a central industrial area surrounded by smaller villages, but within transport reach. And the smaller villages are producing food, fibre, fuel, and the central unit is then processing them as they need, with, I’m thinking, quite a lot of electric bikes to and forward, and maybe some trains for the big stuff. What is our power generation looking like and how are we sharing that power?
Simon: So at the moment all conventional power systems have problems to scale up, right? And the smart money at the moment, if we insist on doing things this way and only this way, we aregoing to go into a situation where fossil fuels are gone. Oil, gas and coal, no more use. But also wind power and solar panels are not going to be able to be implemented in large numbers because they’re not available on the market.
Manda: Because China decided no more stuff.
Simon: Because we no longer make stuff anymore. And we are now at war with the people who do.
Manda: Yeah, but even if we weren’t, from what I’ve heard from you, there just isn’t – the material flows are not there. So even if the Chinese go, it’s all ours, they’re still not going to have enough.
Simon: No, they’re not. And so they’re going to be in a society where the rich get the rich stuff and the poor get the poor stuff.
Manda: And that’s a fast way to revolution.
Simon: And the Chinese are very happy with that sequence. They don’t care if they do that to their own people. They care even less if they do it to us. And so I’m trying to create a world where we don’t have to interact with that cycle at all.
Manda: So what does it look like? How are we generating, let’s assume we’re not getting a lot more solar panels. We’re not getting a lot more wind.
Simon: Something has to be completely reinvented, right? Like one part of the energy sector has to be reinvented. Or we go into a society that’s very low energy. We just use what non-fossil fuel systems we have at the moment, which frankly in Germany, what do they do? They shut down the nuclear power plants. They’re not allowed to use coal power plants. Their renewable sector is not working either. What do they do? So we’re now going to cut down the Black Forest.
Manda: Oh, goodness. No.
Simon: And so combine that for heat, they have to do something to to get through winter.
Manda: That’s finite. You know, this is not a replicable, scalable answer.
Simon: Yes, I know. So this is the nature of the problem. And so but then you have to say, is this really the only way out?
Manda: Well, it can’t be. It’s not a long term solution, is it? The Black Forest is gone. And then what do you do then?
Simon: What to do? Yes. Now what? So meanwhile, they’re claiming everything’s fine. Everything’s fine.
Manda: Well, you’re just kicking a very big can a little bit down the road and everybody must see that.
Simon: But now the can is now starting to roll back towards the foot. And it’s bigger all of a sudden. It’s not just a can.
Manda: It’s full of sharks.
Simon: Yeah. You know, so what the analogy for Germany is, you know, when there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s really the headlamp on the train coming towards you. That’s Germany.
Manda: Oh, great. Yeah. Well, we have a government that just opened up more fossil fuel exploration, so it’s even worse actually.
Simon: So, yeah, Yeah. Well, so one of the things I’ve been looking at and I’m not sure if I’ve talked to you about this before, and this is actually a new frontier for me, is an Evolution. One of our energy sectors has to change all existing conventional ways of approaching our energy for one reason or another. It’s not going to work. So one of those sectors has to change if we’re to get through this in a sensible form. Now one of the areas I’m looking at is an evolution of the nuclear industry. Now I’ve come across thorium. Now, the convention, when I first looked at this, I actually rejected it. Right now because the way thorium is presented in the literature, in the official reports, is thorium solid fuel. It’s okay, but it’s not practical. And the problem is you’ve got your thorium in balls of, you’ve got thorium with graphite on the outside. You put it in the reactor. There comes a point when you’ve got to get the fuel out of the reactor to clean it. And if you don’t clean it, the thorium that’s got energy is locked inside the contaminated ball. Okay? And so while it’s really, really radioactive, you’ve got to process it. You’ve got to take it out of the reactor process and put it back in. It’s a pain in the ass. And so people go, Yeah, you know what? This is not worth the hassle. Uranium is more effective anyway. All discussion for thorium has been directed towards that. But when actually one of the generation four energy systems, it’s called olten salt. So molten salt, thorium reactor. Or it’s a Liquid Fuel Thorium Reactor LFTR.
Manda: Okay. And what sort of temperature is the thorium liquid at?
Simon: So it’s not, we’re not liquefying the thorium itself. It starts as a salt. So you get the thorium, you put it in a salt, usually fluoride. Okay, you can put it in a chloride salt, but if you put it in a fluoride salt, it’s less corrosive inside the reactor. And so the salt circulates. And so any problem elements just drop to one side of the reactor and just stay there till they’re consumed, and the energy keeps going. And as the salt comes back out, any contaminated fuel can be extracted and more fuel can be put in while the reactor is running.
Manda: Goodness. Okay. Is this being done on an industrial scale anywhere in the world?
Simon: It’s been done in the United States in the 1970s by the military and they shut it down. Tricky Dicky Nixon basically said, no, we’re not doing this anymore. And the best thing I can come up with is they did this to make sure that a uranium civilian nuclear power system was to camouflage the nuclear weapons industry.
Manda: Yeah, of course.
Simon: So one of the arguments against thorium is, are we proliferating nuclear weapons? Now, that’s not true, as it turns out. But the people who are saying that are giving cover for the group who want to proliferate nuclear weapons, it’s just this. You’re kidding, right?
Manda: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because the output I remember you said a little bit of this in podcast one, the the output of a molten thorium reactor is used in medical isotopes. It’s not useful for weaponry.
Simon: So the medical isotope industry need things like caesium and strontium. And we need to make those isotopes somehow.
Manda: For as long as there is a medical isotope industry. I’m thinking that the intensity of modern medicine is one of the things that we will have to abandon. It’s just not going to keep going. But anyway, that’s probably a different conversation.
Simon: One of the segues, and we may end up with podcast five on this one, is this a school of thought that the modern pharmaceutical medicine can now no longer be trusted as an institution, as a science and everything like that? The whole thing will have to be reinvented, and this is going to make you laugh. Let’s go to South America and we’ll get Chinese herbal medicine to meet with the Amazon Shaman methods.
Manda: Ayahuasca, right? Well, hey, Yes.
Manda: Yeah, yeah.
Simon: That’s a random, random segue for you there. So. So what’s happened is thorium molten salt, it starts out as thorium and you’ve got to irradiate it. So it goes to an isotope of uranium called u-233. Right. And so that happens inside the reactor itself. And that’s where the radiation happens. And it all gets burned up and then you get the fuel at the other end. If you get a situation where you have a reaction that runs away, which is really hard to do with thorium, you get to a certain temperature and you’ve got like a melt plug, and the whole thing just melts out and drains and the whole thing cools down, right? And you’ve got a concept called Doppler broadening where if the reaction goes too strong and gets out of control, it will actually start absorbing itself through neutron bombardment and the reaction will collapse.
Manda: Oh, interesting.
Simon: So there’s not one but two things that actually stop a meltdown from happening.
Manda: Yeah. You got your own feedback loops, the feeding. Whereas with uranium, the feedback loops are all pushing it into greater instability, these ones are reducing the instability.
Simon: I’m going down the rabbit hole here to try and sort of find out, is this real? Because what I discovered was like, I used to mentor PhDs and used to review PhD students every year. And there’s a way to, when the PhD students try to gaslight you in trying to sort of tell you everything’s fine, just sign the form and let me live.
Manda: Yeah, I will have a thesis at the end. It will be worth it. Yes.
Simon: Or are they bullshitting?
Manda: Yeah. Okay.
Simon: That language was visible to me in a lot of these thorium reports.
Manda: Okay, so now we have to work out what is it they’re hiding.
Simon: So it’s circular reasoning. It was circular reasoning, and all discussion about liquid thorium salt was was quietly diverted into solid thorium fuel. And then they would downplay the whole molten salt thing. And when you actually sort of go through the reasons not to do it: oh, we’re a lab that’s actually funded to look at solid fuel only. Yeah, these are bullshit excuses.
Manda: Yeah. Yeah, totally.
Simon: Right. The neutronics simulations that actually sort of come out that will predict what will happen in a reactor doesn’t exist for the liquid thorium salt, so they don’t have a reason to reject it. The work hasn’t been done.
Manda: Hasn’t been done. So who’s going to do it? Because if you’re right, let’s take this back to 2050 and you’ve managed to do the work. And we’ve got molten thorium reactors. What kind of, how big are they? Are we talking something the size of of Sellafield, Windscale, something that’s basically, you know, hundreds of acres?
Simon: No, that’s the other odd part of this story. When I think of a nuclear reactor, when I first came across this, I’m thinking about a complex that’s like massive, hundreds of metres tall. It’s massive, it’s expensive. It takes 30 years to build.
Manda: Has got so much concrete in that we’re just going to blow our fossil fuel budget just making the concrete?
Simon: And the locals hate it and all that. Right? So the Chinese have actually made a small modular unit and actually it’s up and running and it’s stable.
Manda: A molten thorium modular unit.
Simon: Molten thorium modular reactor. Right. So this thing is two megawatts in capacity. It looks like… I’ve got I’ve got a photograph of it. I can send you this photograph if you like. That looks like it will fit inside a single shipping container.
Manda: Two megawatts inside a shipping container! You could have one per village. You could actually have one per village as opposed to these tabletop nuclear that people like Monbiot talk about, which would in fact swamp the entire village and be radioactive for how long? So do we get any radioactive output from this that we need to worry about?
Simon: So here’s here’s the thing. I’m trying to work out how much of this is real. And what I’m finding at the moment is all of that what I’ve just spoken about is real, but it’s been covered up. And it’s actually the the nuclear weapons industry that has been holding this back.
Manda: Even in China?
Simon: So the Chinese have been trying to do it, but they’ve been lobbied by the US government not to connect that reactor to the power grid.
Manda: And they’re listening because…?
Simon: I think, no, they’re in a conflict at the moment. And that conflict will go to a different stage and when it does, it doesn’t matter. And then you’ve got to think, well, the Chinese are the Chinese, they’re just going to do what they’re going to do. So, okay, so the amount of – you look at the uranium cycle, I think actually, I did some calculations. So we’re going to generate 10,000 gigawatt hours of electrical power over a year. Right now, if we’re going to do this with the uranium, we would start out with 278.8 tons of yellowcake mined from 123 million tons of ore at, say, 0.5% grade.
Manda: Whoa, hang on a minute. 123 million tons of ore. How how long does it take to mine that?
Simon: That’s a couple of months.
Manda: Oh, really?
Simon: These mining operations are huge.
Manda: Wow. Okay. That’s not a rate limiting step.
Simon: Then you’ve got these massive trucks going back and forth.
Manda: Oh, God. Burning fossil fuels to carry the uranium. Yeah. Okay. So 123 million tons of uranium.
Simon: 278 tons of natural yellowcake, which is u3o8 has got to be mined from 123 million tons of uranium ore and then refined to to 278 tons of yellowcake. We then have got to go through conversion where we’re converting the yellowcake to what’s called uranium hexafluoride. So now this is radioactive. The yellowcake is radioactive. It has to be handled with care. You can’t just let anyone do it. So then we’ve got to take that uranium UF6, and we’ve got to enrich it. The isotope that drives the fission reaction is called uranium 235. That is actually what controls the reaction. But natural uranium has only 0.7% content of that isotope. The rest is u-238. So we’ve got to enrich it to about 3 or 4%. The target is 4.9%.
Manda: Is this what the uranium centrifuges are for? The ones that they nailed in Iran?
Simon: That’s the one. Yeah.
Manda: Right. Okay.
Simon: I think Saddam Hussein was actually doing a like a World War Two version. So that then is put into what we call nuclear fuel rod assemblies, uranium oxide. And so from that, we are making 32.9 tons of fuel rods. So we’ve gone from some 123 million tonnes of ore…
Manda: Three million tonnes to 30, nearly 33 tonnes.
Simon: 33 tonnes of fuel rods. That goes into a nuclear reactor and it generates 10,000 gigawatt hours over a year. This is like a nuclear power calculator, like say 365 days, 90%, 92% availability, whatever it is. Okay, so but only the U-235 is used. The rest is not. And Uranium 238 is highly radioactive. It’s also very hot. And so at the end, you have to pull out 31 tons, 584, 31,584 tons of spent nuclear fuel. 96% of the original mass comes out. Some of it – then you’ve got your different classifications of waste. And so a portion of that has to go into long term storage.
Manda: How long is long term? Are we talking millennia?
Simon: Okay. So, very low level waste goes into permanent storage, like in a waste dump. And that’s about 9200 tons. Low level waste, 21,824 tons goes into storage for 300 years. Uh, intermediate level waste, 347 tons. That’s about 3000 years.
And the high level waste, we’re talking 19 tons, that has got to be stored for 100,000 years.
Manda: 100,000 years. That’s a third of the total evolution of human history.
Simon: And the idea that we’re going to have a stable society 100,000 years in time.
Manda: Somebody thought this was a good idea. I just…
Simon: So it was the military. It was the military people who actually did, right? So now let’s look at the thorium. This is not solid fuel. This is liquid fuel. So what we do is so we’re going to start with the ore. We’re going to start with 280 tons of monazite mineral sands. From that, we’re going to extract out 1.45 tons of natural thorium. Thorium oxide.
Manda: Are these radioactive? Do we have to do this very carefully like we did with the yellowcake?
Simon: So it’s mildly radioactive. The hazards for storing thorium salt. The hazard sheet says put it in a plastic container that’s sealed off from water.
Manda: Okay. You don’t need lead or, you know, you don’t need 20in of concrete or something.
Simon: Okay. So it’s the sort of thing that you wouldn’t put your child on, right? But it’s not.. a bit of common sense is all that’s required.
Manda: Is it an alpha emitter? A gamma emitter? Do you know, Just out of interest?
Simon: You’ve got low level alpha, right? I think that’s the case. There’s no gamma. Gamma is the problem. Low level alpha and some beta, but it’s easily contained and there’s not very much of it. So it’s not a radioactive material. It’s what’s called a fertile material. So from that, we’ve now got 1.45 tons of natural thorium oxide. We’re going to then make 1.3, four tons of thorium, fluoride salt. And this is what gets put into the reactor. It’s a conversion. You could add things and all that. Anyway, so this is the stuff that you pour into the reactor. It’s not radioactive in the conventional sense. That reactor makes 10,000 gigawatt hours of power over a year and you’re adding a little bit as you go. At the end of it, you’ve got 13.46kg of low level waste to be stored for 300 years. Alternatively, you could make it into the medical isotope industry.
Manda: Wow. And it’s low level, so it’s not going to wipe out the planet if you screw up, mess up.
Simon: No, and to store it, you just put it in a steel box, or maybe a box lined with wax.
Manda: And there’s 13kg of it. That’s less than my horse’s feedbacks. I could pick that up, as opposed to 331584 tonnes, which is what you told me and I wrote it down, of the uranium.
Simon: In context, the Finnish annual power consumption is 85 terawatts. Right? So if everything was thorium molten salt, we would need 11.4 tonnes of salt fuel. That’s a single truckload for a year for the nation of Finland. Right? And that’s the fuel going in.
Manda: Yeah. Yeah, that’s. Wow. For the whole of Finland.
Simon: And the fuel coming out is, you know…
Manda: Eight times 13. So what’s that? So about 100kg. It’s probably less than you and I weigh put together.
Simon: So it’s ridiculous. So what I’m trying to determine here is, is this stuff real? Um, if we’re in a hall of mirrors. Now, what I’ve now come to understand is there are multiple countries around the world working on thorium, on the quiet. You’ve got India, they’re actually making a reactor. China already has done it. There’s a picture of it and there are lobbying actions to try and stop them. What’s interesting is America is actually working on this on the quiet, and they’re trying not to tell anyone. I’m now in contact with a group called the Thorium Network. And if you’re interested, there’s a guy called Jeremiah Jose who talks about this sort of stuff, and he’s one of the people that promote this idea. And I’ve been trying to sort of determine, um, is the stuff he’s telling me correct? And so far the answer is yes. But if that’s the case, the predicament we’re in at the moment need not have happened.
Manda: No. Although to be fair, our predicament is not just a power predicament. It’s also a total pollution of the planet predicament. We’ve broken so many boundaries. It’s not just the fossil fuels, but even so, the fact that we’re generating nuclear fuel that has a 100,000 year half life, or we could have this one at 300 years max, or we turn it into medical isotopes, it’s actually criminal.
Simon: So what used to really concern me was the idea of a conventional nuclear power plant at every mine site. And that’s what was proposed in the mining industry because that’s the amount of power they need anyway. And their brilliant idea was to put all that spent nuclear fuel into the waste dump.
Manda: Back into the mine? Right!
Simon: Yeah. And yeah, they don’t that’s not appropriate. They don’t quite understand that that’s not appropriate. And then you’ve got the idea of your average shire council has one of these smaller nuclear reactors. And so the probability of a Homer Simpson just goes up.
Manda: And also, you know, they call them tabletop nuclear reactors. I’m going that’s a very, very big table. Because however small you want to make your uranium nuclear reactor, it’s not going to fit in a shipping container. It’s not going to fit in ten shipping containers, whereas this could.
Simon: So what worries me is this has been repressed. But if we want to make the thorium, where do we get it from? Usually thorium is a waste product in the existing nuclear industry. They don’t want it. There are stockpiles of it all over the place. They don’t know what to do with, okay, it’s a waste product or a penalty element in any rare earth mine. They don’t want to know. They say, this stuff costs us money.
Manda: So have you crunched the numbers of supposing we were to replace the world’s current electrical flow with thorium? How long have we got until the thorium runs out?
Simon: I haven’t actually sort of done that because it.
Manda: Seems to me this is a bridge. It’s not going to be a forever solution, but it’s a bridge.
Simon: No, but there’s so much stuff that you’re sort of doing there that it will take us many years to go through our waste dumps alone, right? So any rare Earth mine, for example, has got all these dangerous chemicals to extract the thorium. And there’s another project that I’ve become interested in that uses plasma to change the texture of the mineral sands, which makes the rare earths easier to extract. And thorium is one of the elements that fall out in that process.
Manda: Tell me what plasma is. Because I’m used to medical plasma, which is a fraction of blood, and I’m guessing that’s not what you’re talking about.
Simon: So no, this is a geek thing. There are four states of matter. You’ve got the solid, like an ice cube.
Manda: Oh, that kind of plasma. Okay. Yes.
Simon: And then we go to a liquid. When the ice cube melts down and it becomes water and heats up. And then we get to heat that water until it becomes steam. Now it’s a gas. We’re going to heat the steam to the point where all the electrons are stripped off, all the molecules. And we’ve got what’s called an ionised gas. That ionised gas is a plasma.
Manda: And what’s the temperature at which these are working?
Simon: About 3000°C.
Manda: So have you crunched the numbers of how much thorium you create for your thorium nuclear reactor in order to create that heat, to create more thorium?
Simon: Oh, yeah. The energy return and energy invested is a number that is so high that I dare not say it out loud. And I actually want to go down the rabbit hole and actually check these calculations.
Manda: Wow. So it’s higher than oil?
Simon: Oh yeah. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Without a doubt. Because you got, like, almost nothing to actually make the fuel in comparison to conventional nuclear. All the radiation happens inside the reactor itself.
Manda: Okay, so you don’t need all the super cooling and all the massive amounts of water.
Simon: Then you’ve got your waste when it comes out is a much smaller volume. And the needs to contain that waste are so much different.
Manda: Yeah, you’re not shipping it around the world in massive ships that you’re having to…
Simon: If all of that hold water, then we’ve actually got a conversation here. And the thing is, is it holds water so far and my brain is bleeding with the implications of that.
Manda: Yeah. How long do you think it would take if you started now and somebody were to fund you, to get something that would be replicable at an industrial scale where people could actually use it?
Simon: Well, the picture I just showed you, it’s already been manufactured, right?
Manda: It already exists.
Simon: So now what you say is I’ll have one of those, please. A blue one.
Manda: Right. But the Chinese go. No, thank you. We’re keeping them all to ourselves. But you could reverse engineer that.
Simon: I suppose. I would be asking other people with a more nuclear savvy engineering education to go with that.
Manda: And the American spy network in China to go and have a look at it please. But then they’re not going to share it either.
Simon: So it’s my understanding that the Russians are actually the best technically advanced group that actually does nuclear technology at the moment. But we’ve arranged ourselves to be on the opposite side of a conflict with the Russians.
Manda: And the Chinese. So the Chinese and the Russians are probably talking to each other, but they’re just not talking to us.
Simon: Okay, so what I would do is like, I’ve actually got a couple of reports from the US military, from the 70s, and they’re public domain. You just got to find them. And so there was a, they had an eight megawatt system running for 6000 hours of uninterrupted power at the Oak Ridge Laboratory. And so they did it. It was fine. It was stable. But for political reasons, they were told to shut it down. Right? And the details of that have been buried. Try and recreate that reactor. How long will that take? Well, it depends on the cooperation of the people involved.
Manda: Is a lot of the technology similar enough to existing nuclear technology to go, I’ll have an off the shelf set of pipes that we could knit together
Simon: Pretty much.It’s the same stuff. It’s not that different. Like the uranium nuclear system, fission system, is nasty. The engineering to contain that is far in excess of what’s needed here.
Manda: So we’ll have the the the baby version of that in blue, please.
Simon: There’s a thing to say here, too. I actually found the nuclear clerics the most difficult to deal with in the last few years. And I used to call them the vegans of the sustainability movement. They were the pro-nuclear group. They were aggressive as hell.
Manda: Yes. I’ve listened to some podcasts.
Simon: They had some science, but they almost never had all the practical elements on hand and they were really difficult to deal with. And it was really hard because of their attitude not to launch them into a lower orbit, to be slingshot into the sun.
Manda: But then you could convert them to thorium and they can be just as evangelical, but with some actual fact based behind it. That would be nice.
Simon: What I’m now finding at least some of them were actually correct, but the problem is they just got in their own way and I actually dismissed them. And the reason I dismiss them is the language in all the official reports were to direct me away from liquid thorium, salt towards thorium solid fuel. And I just believed it. And I almost fell for it.
Manda: So some of the nuclear clerics have been preaching liquid thorium?
Simon: Some of them, yes. But the way they do it, makes them so right, you’re a high maintenance twat. You’re going to stay at a thousand paces.
Manda: Yes, evangelicals are like that.
Simon: So anyway, so that’s a big segue. But if that actually works, then we’ve got a small localised power source that we could do things with. Now, we’ve got to be very careful here because we don’t have it here yet and we’re not allowed to have it at the moment. So is it really a solution? And if we were to actually develop it, would we be able to manufacture enough of them to be useful in time? The answer is no.
Manda: Because of material flows or because of time constraints?
Simon: You’ve got to have the technical knowhow to actually build a device like in that photograph. Not very many people on the planet can actually do that.
Manda: But we could skill up. If we knew it was what we needed to do, you know, war, effort and all that. If you can go from…
Simon: Yeah, yeah. Look, there’s a phrase we have from Australia: Harden up! Harden up, Australia! So snap out of it. Stop your whining. Get to work! Yes. The answer is yes. But because vast proportions of our society won’t have a bar of this or any of the issues as well, it’s actually going to be a very boutique solution only for the like-minded.
Manda: But it’s always struck me that one of the reasons why the Business as Usual people are so obstructionist is because they at a very deep level, know that we’re driving towards the edge of a cliff, but they cannot find a brake pedal or the steering wheel, so they’re just going to pretend we’re not. This is the brake pedal and the steering wheel. If you could explain to, I don’t know, the Rishi Sunaks of this world that if they were to divert things away from, I don’t know, maybe we just don’t build so many luxury yachts and personal super jets, and instead we build these, you know, it’s not that we’re going to get to business as usual. And what would worry me is in the same way that the people who think nuclear fusion is the answer, they have this kind of weird idea that we’re just going to import nuclear fusion, it’s going to take over everything else, and the world will continue as it has. And that cannot happen because we’re hitting so many other planetary boundaries. But if we can get through, guys, it’s not that we’re all going back to the Stone Age. We’re going forward to something different, but that something different does have a power source that is neither fossil fuel nor going to contaminate the planet for the next many millennia. That’s a whole different narrative.
Simon: Correct. So the people who are sabotaging this for their own reasons, and the reasons are many and varied, I guess there’s a frustration in the next statement. They’re going to taste like chicken. They’ll taste just like chicken, right? I can think a lot of our existing leaders will just be replaced in one form or another. And and we’re just not going to have this anymore. And there’s going to be a period of time when society will actually go through its archives and say, well, how many of these ideas could have worked that were scotched for economic reasons or political reasons or military reasons?
Manda: Yeah, those three being neatly wrapped together to be almost indistinguishable.
Simon: Yeah. You clowns!
Manda: Yeah. Yeah. We need rid of them. I mean, we know this. We need a whole new political system. We need a whole new economic system.
Simon: So back to the energy. Let’s say the thorium thing doesn’t work. I’ve got high hopes for it. I’m still going down the rabbit hole. I still am having trouble believing what I’m seeing because it is so simple. And, you know, I’m really sort of second guessing like I’ve got the science right? You know, like what am I missing? And it turns ou: the politics. So anyway, so but let’s not depend upon that. Another thing that might come through is what we call deep geothermal drilling. So if we can actually drill holes into the crust really deep, quickly and easily, then geothermal power can be a game changer. And so that is a technology breakthrough that may happen.
Manda: How deep do we need to drill for that to be relevant?
Simon: 7 or 8km, maybe ten kilometres.
Manda: That’s very deep. And that’s going to take a lot of energy to get down that far to do that. But again, the energy return over energy invested. Have you crunched the numbers on that?
Simon: Unknown, because you’ve got the thing where you drill a hole and you may not have the heat down there that you thought.
Manda: How could you not?
Simon: There are pockets of heat in the crust.
Manda: It’s not just a sphere with layers on top. I always imagine it like a gobstopper: you go down to the blue layer and it’s hot.
Simon: So you can think it’s hot, but it may not be as hot as you need? That’s the other thing. Like, like there’s a temperature gradient. It’s not till you get down there and have a look. And then the geothermal systems in Cornwall that they tried, you can get the holes down there, but then you’ve got cracks and faults in the hole. So lots of steam coming up goes into the cracks, not up the tubes where you want.
Manda: And then do you create earthquakes as per fracking?
Simon: And so… I don’t know. If you set up a geothermal plant correctly, it’s actually less intrusive. Fracking, you have a hole drilled in and then you go into actually explosive charge will then break a hole area which will then settle and crack and then pressure is relieved. And if you do that in a whole region, then the earth wants to shift and that’s how you get your earthquake.
Manda: Yeah, You also, as far as I can tell, with fracking, you’re contaminating the water table for the rest of the duration of this planet, which is not a kind thing to do. Are you contaminating water table with the geothermal?
Simon: So not that I know of, because you’re putting in one, or two holes, sorry. And they’re going down and they’re lined. And if you are interacting with the water table, you’re not putting anything into the water table that’s nasty. Whereas fracking, you’re pumping chemicals down the hole.
Manda: And they won’t tell you what the chemicals are because that’s a trade secret. Yes.
Simon: So I used to be an activist in Australia with a group called Lock the Gate. And there was a region that I used to live in called the Scenic Rim. And they made a documentary called Fractured Country, which describes that whole issue and how the local government decided they wanted the royalties and collaborated with foreign capital. And the people on the ground found themselves at war with corporations and the governments. And they even changed the law and the legal language so it wouldn’t be managed by the Mining Act. And so the people on the ground had no idea what was happening. And for every ten operators, nine of them were Chinese and the 10th was American. And so all the gas was extracted out for export.
Simon: Foreign investment. And in Australia they took all the gas out, but then they wouldn’t sell it back to us because they had a gas shortage and it was, more money could be made elsewhere. And so we had a gas shortage.
Manda: If we get to 2050, the historians looking back at our era are going to wonder how people could be both so venal and so gullible. But anyway, let’s not go there because we’re running out of time. It seems to me that, so, what we’ve got to is little industrial units of around a thousand people based around whatever industry is useful in that geopolitical area, with satellites around it of villages of 30 to 40 families. And each village could potentially maybe if Simon is right, you’re going to be a saint in the future, Simon: not just Superbrain, Saint Superbrain! molten thorium reactors in each of these little villages.
Simon: So if that’s if that’s true, I get assassinated. So…
Manda: Oh, yes. No, we’ll avoid that one. Okay. You’ll just be a god, then. Gods don’t have to be assassinated. God Superbrain who’s created the molten thorium reactor idea. I’m suspecting we’re going to run out of copper or something to transmit this, but we’ll worry about that at a future podcast.
Simon: Sure, we will have to actually source our raw materials differently. And one of the sources would be where all of those raw materials we’ve already dredged up already, where are they now? And so a lot of our rubbish dumps and a lot of our existing cities and a lot of our existing technology, like internal combustion engine cars, they’re rich environmental sources of, I’m talking about a form of recycling, but what we call recycling has to be completely reimagined. So if we’re going to have an era of pulling everything apart like a bone yard and repurposing everything to new technological outcomes, like you might make a water purification out of parts from a car.
Manda: So there’s going to be a whole new set of creative ideas and networks of creative people going, Hey guys, I had this new idea of what you could do with an old carburettor. Look, you could make it into this.
Simon: Now you have it right there, right there. And that’s society is going to reinvent everything and the norm is going to be: right, I’ve come up with a new idea. And everyone says, that’s great, let’s hear it.
Manda: Right, so everything’s open source.
Simon: So open source along with the diversity of ideas because so much is going to be needed and they don’t know what’s going to work and what’s not. And so there’s going to be an environment of, let’s try stuff and if some of it works, then we’ll be okay.
Manda: So are you going to put the molten thorium reactor open source when you’ve got it all sorted?
Simon: If I could. That’s an interesting question. So that’s an interesting question. You cannot actually, it’s not really feasible to turn it into a nuclear weapon. You’ve got to turn it into uranium first and you need a reactor to do it. And then once you’ve got it into the uranium, the isotope only lasts for 28 days.
Manda: So there are not ethical constraints to its being open source?
Simon: I’m not entirely sure if that’s correct, but there’s certainly less ethical constraints. If you were to make a nuclear weapon, it’d be a dumb ass idea to try and use thorium, when you can just use uranium, which there’s plenty of anyway. So the ethics of that, that has to be thought through and probably discussed amongst people who know what they’re doing. Once again, I’ve just stumbled on something by accident that appears to be quite interesting. You would probably want to talk to the thorium network leader Jeremiah Jose. I have his contact details.
Manda: Yeah, Yeah, I’ve got his name down. Yeah, that’d be grand. Simon. I think we’re going to have to finish because first of all, I’m sure you have other things to do. And second, we are so far over time, again. That was amazing. Really amazing. I feel hope filled for the first time in quite a long time, because it feels to me that there’s our window. And if we can see the window, we can get there. So thank you for drawing back the curtains on hope and possibility. Simon Superbrain, it’s been an absolute delight. I have no doubt we’ll talk again at some point in the future. Thank you.
Simon: You’re welcome.
Manda: And that’s it for this week. So much thanks to Simon for everything that he is and does for being a super brain, obviously, and for applying that brain in directions that it seems very few other people are going. Simon is really thinking about how we can build the future that will work. Actually, brick by brick, megawatt by megawatt, litre of water, by litre of water. How can we do this? And then he’s sharing the results with the rest of us. And as I said at the top, this feels possible. I don’t know how, but it’s the first time I’ve really seen the window and felt that there was a route through to it. So I will be working on the stories that we can build around this. How can we write the novels, the film scripts, the poems, the videos, the op eds in the newspapers that will veer us away from business as usual? That’s the first thing we have to do is stop the gaslighting, stop people thinking that our current way of doing things is the only way or is a durable way. And then beyond that, to build a sense of how the different world might look if we actually get it right. It feels very exciting. I think I said that before, so I’ll stop. Thank you, Simon. I so enjoyed that. We will be back next week with another conversation. And in the meantime, as ever, thanks to Caro C for wrestling with the sound and for the music at the head and foot. Thanks to Faith for wrestling with the tech and for the search function. I’ll stop mentioning that eventually, but I’m still very impressed by it. Thanks to Ann Thomas for wrestling with the transcripts and thanks to you for listening, which I hope involves no wrestling at all. And if you know of anybody else who would really like to get to grips with the future that we could build, then please do send them this link. And that’s it for now. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.
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