When scientists trace the physical history of the earth, they employ a geologic time scale to dictate the division of time. The presence of a new deposit in the earth signals the advent of a different epoch, and thus a new age of terrestrial history. In light of this, the determinant of whether we indeed inhabit an Anthropocene, an epoch distinguished by human influence, must necessarily lie within the earth; it must express itself in some manner atop the layered geology amassed up to this point in time. While there are, of course, compelling candidates which fulfill this criterion, such as plastics, carbon soot, and radioactive particles, their incorporation into the geologic time scale is essential for the legitimacy of the Anthropocene as a concept. This might seem absurd to a modern observer, who has only to look outside the window to behold the technical imprint of mankind upon its habitat; yet given the all-consuming permanence of the earth, only the compressive force of geology can capture the evolution of time.
In relation to the evolution of human civilization, it might take a similarly inconspicuous metric to demarcate time. While the simple impartiality of planetary geology is lost within the fractious subjectivity of the social sciences, sources of energy provide an elusive way by which to classify the stages of industrial history. The dominant means to generate fuel before the industrial revolution was the incineration of wood. In the emerging industrial period, the English began to exploit the more potent properties of coal to power their workshop of the world; at the turn of the twentieth century, newly industrialized societies increasingly replaced coal with oil.
Every discarded source of energy was supplanted for a single reason: the market had discovered a more efficient means to produce energy. Every successive fuel source has proved denser than the last; more energy is contained per unit volume in oil than coal, and in coal than wood. The expanding complexity of human civilization is matched by its widespread adoption of more productive energy sources at different stages in its timeline. This tendency for increasingly dense energy sources is not a novel concept; One can easily embrace the sensibility of it all: why would any entity, whether public or private, willingly regress in its productivity by selecting a less efficient energy source? Why would the English utilize the inferior properties of wood in the presence of coal? Why would a general power his tanks with coal in the presence of oil?
This hardened logic of efficiency presents a dilemma for the advocates of renewable energy, whose voices are loudest in the transatlantic world. The density of energy extracted from wind and light is less than that of fossil fuels, let alone hydrogen, the highest energy-dense source of energy and simplest existent chemical component. The relative inefficiency of renewables dooms their feasibility.
Yet the notion of a limitless energy source, made cheap by its renewability and sustainable by its ecological compatibility, appeals equally to the industrialist, the consumer, and the conservationist. All three will welcome the fact that this hypothetical renewable energy already exists, yet not in the form of wind, solar, geothermal, or hydropower, but nuclear fusion.
No other renewable energy source can recreate the power and efficiency of fusion, which involves the heating of hydrogen atoms to compel a fusion reaction. None of the emerging industrial economies of Latin America, Africa, and Asia can reach their full potential upon a foundation of wind and solar infrastructure, the utilization of which is most easily accessible to a small collection of wealthy microstates in Europe, who can afford to partake in some playful tinkering with renewable sources to supplement their postindustrial energy needs. To expect India and Indonesia to power their emerging economies with wind turbines is as absurd as the suggestion that General Zhukov power his tanks with Welsh coal. A shift to an inexhaustible and sustainable reserve of energy, no matter how necessary, can never be accomplished with the favored energy sources of contemporary environmental advocates.
Humanity has, in fact, already discovered a denser source of energy than oil in the form of nuclear power. Yet just as a century had elapsed between the first extraction of oil in 1859 and its overtaking of oil in 1964 as the world’s primary energy source, a long transition between oil and future nuclear fusion is underway, which must accomplish two principal objectives: to convince the world of its utility and efficiency, and to develop the infrastructure to ensure the market can more efficiently produce and rely upon it than oil.
The difficulty of each task probably ensures that nuclear fusion will not become the world’s dominant energy source for several more decades (yet never underestimate the speed with which the market can adopt an innovation en masse if it is profitable). The specter of nuclear war will always prove more convincing to the public mind than the words “Atoms for Peace.” Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Cold War arms races, Godzilla, Chernobyl, North Korean brinkmanship, and Fukushima will inevitably continue to symbolize nuclear science.
The science of fission, however, departs from these calamitous images. While currently a very expensive and resource-intensive process, scientists have observed a steady drumbeat of breakthroughs since the turn of the century. In February of this year, in fact, scientists based in the United Kingdom broke yet another record in the quantity of energy they could extract from pressing two hydrogen atoms against one another. With every passing year, we approach the point in time at which scientists can recreate on earth the very process which sustains the stars in heaven.
Fusion cannot extricate itself from the popular infamy which justifiably afflicts fission, a separate nuclear process that involves the infamous separation of two atoms into smaller nuclei. Fusion, on the contrary, is a process that forces the combination of two lighter nuclei into a single heavier nucleus. The procedure not only generates three to four times as much energy as the splitting of an atom, but the neutrons it produces are not radioactive in themselves. The promise of fusion consists of both the renewable nature of nuclear energy and the relative safety of its less potent energy rivals. Its harnessing evades the nuclear waste and perilous hazards of twentieth-century nuclear power.
Regardless of the difficulties of public persuasion, the biggest challenge may yet be logistical. Fusion is yet to be recreated in a practical manner, in a format that can yield limitless low-carbon energy. Its development will require numerous subsequent years, and more years still in which to integrate it into civilian infrastructure, and years beyond that in which to outcompete oil in producer profitability. When practical fusion is of such widespread availability that its cost-benefit ratio exceeds that of oil, both for consumers and producers, its domination of the market will instantly be realized to a universal level. The world will, at last, possess an inexhaustible supply of affordable, safe, and environmentally compatible energy.
The ultimate dream may yet be the production and integration of miniature fusion reactors into infrastructure throughout the world, whether private or public, civilian or military. The existence of compact fusion “batteries” would revolutionize the conduct of war, the operation of cities, and the maintenance of homes. Every residential unit, every public facility, every school, and mode of transport would run on an energy fit to sustain human civilization into perpetuity. Its environmental agreeability surpasses even that of wind and solar, the farming of which requires an expansive network of infrastructure that scars both the natural world and public pocketbooks.
The appeal of fusion extends beyond economic and ecological practicality into a geopolitical context, in which it becomes a strategic necessity. As an antidemocratic great power rises in the East, it will become increasingly vital for the transatlantic world to consolidate its energy priorities around the revolutionary potential of fusion. Alternative renewable sources will become increasingly perilous as Chinese technologies grow more competitive. Electric cars, for instance, present a growing danger even as the world understandably presses for their multiplication and greater accessibility. A Chinese company maintains an iron dominance over the supply of electric car batteries, enjoying a leverage which is set to increase alongside the overall worldwide market share of electric vehicles.
When the supply of equally sensitive semiconductor technology is monopolized by Taiwan’s TSMC, the wider world can breathe freely with the recognition of Taiwan’s political nature as a liberal democracy; when such control of such technology is at the disposal of an authoritarian regime without a rule of law or respect for individual liberties, however, the need to establish energy independence becomes a matter of geopolitical survival for countries whose political systems threaten the CCP. The prospect of fusion-powered cars in the future is therefore only one demonstration of its myriad opportunities for defense against Chinese energy leverage.
The technological potential of fusion will likely extend beyond energy to facilitate an accelerative string of future scientific breakthroughs, in a similar manner to the legacy of the twentieth-century computer in our present century. Given the ease with which rival powers can fall behind in such a race, it is essential that the transatlantic world in particular, and the free world in general, is prepared to harness fusion before their systemic competitors can.
Yet, if the world’s democracies are to pioneer the transition from petrol to fusion, the involvement of government will ultimately be inconsequential. Enterprising magnates needed no permission from Congress to understand the superior potential of oil; central planning played no part in the grand displacement of coal. When the free market is prepared, the twenty- and fifty-year plans for clean-energy transitions will transpire nearly overnight. The dreams of environmentalists will be fulfilled with greater punctuality than they could ever have anticipated.
Humankind will inevitably tend towards progressively dense sources of energy. Fusion presents the next logical energy source, to mark a new age in our anthropological arc. The various ages of energy that advance the machinery of civilization will not permit a regression to a less efficient energy source; the transatlantic world must rather coordinate its talents and faculties to inaugurate a new division of time, in which we on earth imitate the games of the stars above. Before long the free market, buoyed by the swift pace of science, will afford to play such games. So too will the markets that operate in the illiberal world. For the sake of ourselves, our habitat, and our free societies, we in the transatlantic world must therefore embrace the coming age of fusion.
Alex Williams is a rising senior at Brandeis University, where he is majoring in History and International and Global Studies, and minoring in Studio Art. Alex has been the summer 2021 intern with the Austrian Economics Center.
The AEC’s fundamental goal is to promote a free, responsible and prosperous society. Through education and improving public understanding of key economic questions, the AEC promotes the idea of a free market economy and the ideal of a free society.