Wednesday, April 2, 2008

more visions of the future

sometimes I have ideas for how our economy can be improved and made more harmonious with both the environment and human health.

first of all, let me say I am an ardent supporter of free-market capitalism. any criticism of business you find on this blog will usually result from executives failing to live up to their wealth-promoting mission in the world.

secondly, today I was talking to a US equity analyst who was in europe because that's where the leading alternate energy companies are active. I have to say, I am more than a little annoyed that the germans, spaniards and australians are leading this industry. it's more than a bit worrisome to see americans ignoring developments that will be not only positive, but profitable.

in an earlier post, I said the government should create a legal structure that gives cash-rich oil companies a real and functional incentive to promote green technologies. my idea is to let them create new businesses that can be spun off to shareholders at highly advantageous terms. this more or less ensures it will happen. it would channel tens of billions of dollars now returned to shareholders into more worthwhile causes. furthermore, the new companies would be in small, high growth industries, letting them trade at much higher multiples than the oil companies. stock spinoffs have been profitable for investors in names like philip morris, cendant and motorola, so there would be plenty of interest.

despite all the political and economic might of an Exxon Mobil or Chevron, they still exist for the simple purpose of enriching shareholders.... it's not like the oil companies want to ruin the planet or something... why not simply environmental policies that serve their capitalistic interests?

so, what kinds of businesses should they develop?

1- salt water pipeline to the desert
2- farms in desert
3- cities not suburbs
4- bamboo / seaweed companies

1- reclaim the sea -- literally. brazilians are cutting down rainforest to create new farmland as commodity prices soar. why can't we do the same thing with our most desolate land? I say create a pipeline that would pump seawater into the desert to grow food. at some point when it's close to the destination, the water would enter large flat areas under direct sunlight. the steam would then be sent through a solar-powered condenser to support agriculture. brine would be removed from the bottom of the pools and used for other purposes... it could be used for salt, etc, or formed into inert and harmless stone.
to make it especially energy-neutral, the water could be pumped using tidal/hydraulic power.

2- it seems to me there are at least 2 ways to farm the desert.
first, you simply water the ground a lot, and you let your crops are exposed to the weather.
this requires a constant flow of water, which we'd get from the pipeline.

alternately, one must consider encasing an ecosystem in a bubble of plastic or glass. while I know that might sound like a high-impact activity, imagine using concentrated solar power to melt desert sand into glass, which could then be blown into giant bubbles.

an enclosed ecosystem, could be ideal for raising livestock, for their humidity and carbon emissions could be contained. imagine a bubble for fattening up cows and pigs in the desert? after a few years of their manure, the land would support grass and start turning into real earth capable of holding water. many feed lots already dot the american desert... maybe something like this could begin, even without the pipeline? furthermore, if seaweed were grown in the evaporating pools, it could be possible to reduce the cows' need for grain.

the key point is that we could face global food shortages in the future. commodity prices are soaring, even without any major droughts. who knows whether global warming will cause more droughts? the need for more food production is a no-brainer.

3- cities not suburbs
we have to move away from the model of civilization where the car occupies a central place in the use of space. because we have a large country, we've sprawled rapidly across the country ever since the depression/WWII era. this has produced a series of maladies such as pollution, obesity, dependence on foreign oil and even howard stern (what percentage of his listeners are probably in cars?)
most places in the USA make people own cars to move from home to work, then to fitness centers, shopping facilities and back home. even if we accomplish low- or zero-emission cars, they're still bad for the environment (water runoff, wildlife disruption) and human health (obsesity, etc).

why not seek a new kind of development emulates existing pedestrian-based cities ? why not re-create NYC's upper east side in other places?
our entire real-estate industry is clearly in a state of flux. why not create towns in the future where residences consist of multifamily housing, with a variety of bodegas and small shops at the street level?
in another version of this, a lot of progress could probably be made in the dozens of mid-sized industrial towns that dot the rust-belt. many already have walkable downtowns... in many of these cases, however, I can't think of many easy ways for oil money to support new companies.

4- expand into new kinds of resources. seaweed and bamboo seem the most obvious.

even if people don't eat seaweed, it could be valuable as animal feed. is it possible to carry it by train from the ocean to the farm? or, if there is a saltwater pipeline, could we not create a saltwater-based seaweed farm in the middle of the desert, and feed to livestock there?

bamboo also seems to offer many uses in structural items like scaffolding, but I am out of time for now....

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