Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Transcript: Earth 2100 Discussion

Class: Informatics, Computing, and the Future
Instructor: Dan Berleant
Transcriber: Brooke Yu
Date: Thursday, March 07, 2013

[Homework due tonight- 3/7/13; new homework posted.  Watching video in class.] 

Professor:  Okay.  So, let's see.  Any initial comments? 

Male Student:  Well, we're already behind on some of the stuff.  We're in the clear by now because I think by this time in the movie a lot more had happened. 

Male Student:  Let's hope it doesn't turn out like that. 

Professor:  Yeah, the movie started out in 2009 and they laid out some scenarios for the future and some things have diverged from what they expected.  So was this movie well done? 

Male Student:  I almost cried when her husband died, so I guess it was pretty good. 

Male Student:  I was wondering why a 70 year old man was out there working. 

Male Student:  The only thing I didn't like was the lack of a zombie apocalypse. 

Professor:  Haha okay, so what made it a good movie?  Or if you think it wasn't good. 

Male Student:  I like it because I didn't know what was going to happen nxt the whole time.  It was thrilling. 

Professor:  What do you think about the female centric narration?  In the old days a movie like this would be narrated by a man.  Did anybody notice it? 

Male Student:  I guess I kind of wanted... women, especially in the situation she was in- she was wanting to change the world- to show the worst case scenario from a complete optimist's point of view was interesting. 

Professor:  So should we all find an isolated spot and stake our claim? 

Male Student:  Head for the ozarks?  Haha. 

Male Student:  Eh, no.  I think our children or grandhilcren would take care of that. 

Male Student:  It's not our problem. 

Professor:  Haha, anyone know any survivalists? 

Male Student:  One of my uncle's is.  He has a bunker. 

Professor:  That is what they call them, right? 

Male Student:  Doomsday preparers. 

Male Student:  He just has a huge bunker.  It's pretty big. 

Professor:  What's in it? 

Male Student:  Like MRE's and ammunition.  If he runs out of food he'll just take from everyone else. 

Male Student:  Where does your uncle live? 

Male Student:  Northwest Arkansas. 

Male Student:  I know some people who bought old railcars and buried them in the ground and connected them.   There are six down there.   They're buried in the ground and you go down in them.  They have all kinds of ammo and guns and all kinds of weird crap in there. 

Male Student:  One of them is for growing plants inside. 

Professor:  They're growing pot. 

Male Student:  Probably they built it in 2000 because they thought the computers were going to crash. 

Professor:  Well, let's see.  I have some questions on the board from last time and I wrote down some more.  Let's see what we have.  Did anyone notice anything at the beginning of the movie- it has already been a few years.  Did you notice anything that was different in the beginning of the movie that didn't happen? 

Male Student:  They showed these really long gas lines and stuff.  It's not quite there yet. 

Professor:  When did the recession start?  Was that in 2009?  So they made the movie- I'm not sure when it came out- it takes a while to make a movie like this, so they probably started before the recession, so they were not projecting that part of it. 

They had San Diego building salt water desalination plants.  Has anyone heard about that?

Male Student:  It's a quick Google away. 

Professor:  Okay, look it up for us. 

Male Student:  Apparently there's a project which provides San Diego county with high quality water, so apparently yeah- something is going on. 

Professor:  Okay, why might they be doing that? 
Male Student:  They're running low on water? 

Professor:  Yeah.  Any place that's building a salt water desalination plant is on the coast and probably running out of water.  So southern California has potential to become quite dry

How about this?  They envision a big buildup of coal-fired electric plants. 

Male Student:  Natural gas. 

Professor:  Okay, what's your argument?

Male Student:  Drilling for natural gas all over the country. 

Professor:  It seems that natural gas- there's a process called fracking to get this natural gas, and it's working so well that they've been converting coal plants to fracking plants for electricity. 

Is that good or bad? 

Male Student:  Isn't it like causing earthquakes? 

Male Student:  Because they're forcing liquid down into the earth. 

Professor:  Yeah, there are some environmental repercussions. 

Male Student:  They're putting chemicals in the earth and there are sludge ponds now that animals can get into and die. 

Professor:  Yeah, we don't really know what they're putting in there.  Of course, mining coal is pretty environmentally dirty too.  Does anyone know whether it's cleaner to burn coal versus gas?  Gas is a lot cleaner.  Coal releases mercury and sulphur. 

For the same amount of energy you get your burning gas produces less CO2 than burning coal.  The reason is if you look at coal- what chemical or element is coal mostly?  Carbon.  I mean, it's a high percentage of carbon, and if you burn it you get carbon dioxide. 

Gas is mostly methane.  Here's the chemical structure [On board.]  

And that has a lot of hydrogen so when you burn hydrogen what do you get? 

Male Student:  Oxygen? 

Professor:  Uh, you combine water and hydrogen and you get water.  This part of the molecule is clean to burn because the ash is water.  But if you burn carbon you get CO2.  The coal is producing mostly CO2. 

So burning methane for the same amount of energy produces less CO2.  So it's cleaner.  It's not as clean.... you know, there's still some CO2, but not as much.  They say the country has a lot of natural gas they can get, so I think this concept of moving away from coal will work for a while.  How long, we don't know. 

Anyway, there's no way they'll be building massive coal plants anytime soon because of natural gas. 

Where I used to live before I moved to little rock, we lived near a train track and the trains carried coal from the midwest to Chicago.  These trains would be 100 cars or more and they would just be stacked with thousands of pounds of coal. 

Chicago burns a lot of coal, and I guess now it burns a lot of gas to produce electricity. 

A hundred thousand pounds of coal is a lot more than 100,000 pounds of CO2.  It's probably 300,000 or more when you burn it all. 

Okay, let's see.  Where are we? 

Okay, so the family moves to a big city.  Turns out that's a trend right now world wide.  Any guesses as to why people are moving to cities? 

Male Student:  Jobs?

Professor:  Okay. 

Male Student:  It's expensive to drive. 

Professor:  Yeah, well, it turns out that it's cheaper in some ways to live in a city- how do I put this.  Rent in NYC is astronomical, but there's environmental efficiencies there.  If you live in an apartment building with a lot of people versus a lot of houses, you have a lot less electric wiring because it's all in one building.  Same with water pipes and sewer pipes, so it's a lot more efficient in some ways per person

And that's a form of efficiency which many people want.  Also there's the commuting issue.  If you live in the city you don't have to drive far to get to work.  Living in little rock you pretty much need a car to get around.  But in NYC you don't have to drive at all.  In fact, it's a pain to find parking spots. 

So I just said why cities are efficient and good.  Can anyone think of why they're not good? 

Male Student:  High crime rates

Professor:  Okay, but that's, if things are run right, that could be solved.  You don't seem convinced. 

Male Student:  No, there's always going to be crime.  There will always be people who break the laws

Male Student:  You don't think bringing people in would bring more of that? 

Male Student:  Oh, yeah I do. 

Male Student:  Sickness is spread easier

Professor:  Yeah, that's the scenario from the movie. 

Male Student:  And if food supply failed people wouldn't be able to sustain themselves

Professor:  That was another I was hoping someone would mention.  Cities are a lot less self-sufficient than spread out communities.  If you live in a rural area people grow food.  People don't do that in cities very much. 

They did talk about how they expected people to grow food in cities. 

Well, they had apartment buildings with crops growing on the walls, and you can read about that on the web.  I have my doubts though, because there's a limited amount of sunlight and you'd have to use electricity to really get everything to grow. 

So I have my doubts about that whole idea of growing lots of food in a city. 

This summer I'm talking at a conference about what the risks are of excessive urbanization.  Things are so centralized that if things break down there would be a huge number of people with no recourse. 

They talked in the movie about how disease caused transportation to break down.  If things break down that way, then cities would be helpless. 

Millions of people without trucks of food coming in- things can get pretty dicey pretty quickly. 

The other thing is- same with electricity.  If you have centralized power generation, the city is at the mercy of something happening to the generators. 

Whereas if people live in a more suburban environment, it's possible that everyone could have their own solar power with solar panels.  Civilization would break down without electricity. 

In my opinion, it would be a good idea to de-centralize food production and electricity production, and for that you have to have people spread out and people need to grow their own food and use solar panels.  Anyone see any problem with that or making that happen? 

I can grow food in my yard.  I don't know if I could grow enough to feed myself. 

Male Student:  Homeowner's association? 

Professor:  Okay? 

Male Student:  They might not let you do it. 

Professor:  Well, maybe in an emergency they would change their minds.  Well, here's my problem- my wife and I work full time.  We don't have time to dig up the yard and grow food.  Most people don't unless you're retired.  So the solution, in my opinion, is robot.  Have robots do it.  You can already get robotic vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers, but what about a robot for farming grass?  It's not a big stretch to change a robotic lawn mower to a robotic crop grower. 

Male Student:  That's really not that hard.  You'd just need something to plow it and throw it out there. 

Male Student:  The new tractors that do all the plowing anyway, it's GPS coordinated so you just turn it around. 

Male Student:  Yeah, it does everything on its own. 

Professor:  Yeah, so the technology especially in the US for growing food is pretty advanced, and I think it doesn't exist now for people like me to grow large quantities of food in my backyard, but I think it's going to get there, certainly in your lifetimes and I think it'd be a good idea.  I think robotic technology could do it. 

So you have local generation of electricity and locally grown crops, then you'll be fairly immune to some disasters and disruptions that could really make a city at risk. 

Like I said, you can't grow a lot of crops in the city because there's not enough space.  Same with electricity.  If you have a huge sky scrape, you can't use solar panels alone to get electricity.  The food is the bigger issue. 

Let's see.  Just before we go.  If everyone eats an American diet, we'd need 4 earths worth of food to make it work.  What do you think of that? 

Male Student:  I like chicken.  And I like it fried.  

Professor:  The problem is everyone else would like it too once they had a couple of tastes.  So what do you think is going to happen? 

Male Student:  Well, the part of the film where they had a lot of people at the Mexican border and they broke through and border control started firing- I could see that sort of stuff happening, but I don't know what the ethical.... what would an American person do in that situation.  Because technically yes these people are in bad condition, but if we overpopulate the US then we're in a bad condition as well. 

Professor:  I'm not convinced climate change would cause that scenario, because if you go south, there's a lot of rain and stuff grows there, so why would people be that desperate to leave.  I'm not convinced that that would happen.  I think the southwest in America would run into some severe water problems, but on the whole I can't imagine south and central America doing that. 

Male Student:  It'd probably just be northern Mexico coming up. 

Professor:  I just don't know. 

Male Student:  Do you think the world is overpopulated?  What's your opinion? 

Professor:  Well, the world produces enough food to feed everyone, so in that sense no.  Most countries are experiencing lower birth rates, so it's not rising as fast as it was when I was your age.  In many wealthy countries it's starting to decrease.  Certainly the number of children is less than 2 in many countries. 

But it could happen.  I don't think it's beyond capacity now.  We'll talk more about it next time and contiue the process.  See you next time.  

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