Re: Understanding nanotech
Sun, 29 Aug 1999 16:33:01 -0700

Robert J. Bradbury, <>, writes:
> On Sun, 29 Aug 1999 wrote:
> > Seems like reducing whatever current effect human technology has on
> > the planet's heat budget would have to be offset against heat created
> > by use of nanotech . . . of course, that's subject to the same idea
> > contained in the first point, i.e. that the Earth's energy system
> > has only one significant real input -- solar energy.
> Yes, solar energy is still much larger than all of our puny
> technological efforts. The ability to relatively easily
> manipulate it is going to result in some interesting property
> rights issues (probably akin to the discussions regarding
> extensions of national rights out to various distances in
> the oceans).

I don't fully understand the heat balance issues, but it's worth noting that there are a number of proposals for using more than the natural solar energy input of the earth. These include geothermal energy, nuclear fission, nuclear fusion plants (power from seawater), and solar satellites. In some cases these forms of power may be locally more convenient and concentrated than solar power, and could be quite attractive. Any large-scale use of these energy sources will just make the heat problem worse.

As Robert says, the property rights issues may become acute. One approach is to use the technique some localities are experimenting with for pollution control, and have "heat pollution rights". Everyone would have a certain amount of heat pollution they were allowed, and people could buy and sell the rights so that those who wanted to pollute more could have their excesses offset by those who were willing to pollute less. (The market transfers could be restricted to people in the same region if it was important to keep localized heat balances stable.)

We had a debate here a few months ago about whether it would be ethically acceptable to impose such abstract property rights on others who wanted to pollute freely, and there wasn't much agreement. My feeling is that if you do need to use force to solve the problem, this kind of approach is the best way to manage it, because it provides the maximum possible flexibility.

Another approach, which is probably more widely acceptable but is somewhat clumsier, is tort law, where I can claim that my neighbor has injured me by emitting excess heat. This can work in some cases but it will be harder to show injury if the local heat emissions are well radiated. If the only real problem is the cumulative effect of billions of individual polluters then it will be harder to claim that any one of them should be made to stop.