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Naam has confidence that innovators can dramatically improve solar and wind power, allowing those technologies to deliver the bulk of energy that humanity will be using by the end of the century. He points out that the cost of photovoltaic modules, which are arrays of solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity, has dropped by 95 percent since 1980. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that other energy options likely will be necessary for a transition to renewables. Consequently, he urges environmentalists to embrace nuclear power, highlighting the economic and safety advantages of small modular nuclear reactors. In some designs, the reactors can be fueled by the nuclear wastes produced by conventional reactors during the last 50 years, solving both an energy supply problem and a waste problem simultaneously. Naam also wants to jettison the Price-Anderson Act, a law limiting liability for nuclear accidents to just $12 billion. That reform will encourage nuclear innovators to come up with safer designs.
Naam does think government-funded research and development can help jump-start many of the technologies he anticipates, especially in energy. I would argue that allocating property rights to common pool resources, and the market prices that would thus result, could well be enough to encourage innovators to develop resource-conserving technologies without recourse to handouts.
While Attenborough laments that humanity is a plague upon the earth, Naam counters with an intriguing question: “Would your life be better off if only half as many people had lived before you?” In this thought experiment, you don’t get to pick which people are never born. Perhaps there would have been no Newton, Edison, or Pasteur, no Socrates, Shakespeare, or Jefferson. “Each additional idea is a gift to the future,” Naam writes. “Each additional idea producer is a source of wealth for future generations.” Fewer people means fewer new ideas about how to improve humanity’s lot.
“If we fix our economic system and invest in the human capital of the poor,” Naam writes, “then we should welcome every new person born as a source of betterment for our world and all of us on it.” Human ingenuity, not panicky restrictions, will enable both people and planet to flourish.
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