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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

SIMPLE SOLUTION ESSAYS: Billions and Trillions

Every so often I continue to serialize my third book, SIMPLE SOLUTIONS ESSAYS.  (As necessary, I update portions.)

On 29July08 I poked some fun at the extraordinarily large numbers being tossed around.  Of course, our economic figures are nothing compared to the vastness of space.  But Peak Oil and Global Warming remediation numbers are frightening, nevertheless.  The International Energy Agency last month reported that it will take $45 trillion to insure that our climate only rises about 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050.  The Manhattan, Marshall and Apollo efforts combined, in today's dollar, only amounted to $0.24 trillion.

Billions and Trillions

Carl Sagan wrote a book entitled Billions and Billions. While we tend to get wrapped up in our own infinitesimal problems, keep in mind that it takes light 100,000 years (travelling at 186,282 miles/second) just to get from one end of our Milky Way Galaxy to the other end. The closest spiral galaxy, Andromeda, is 2.5 million light years away. Yes, if we can ever design a spacecraft to travel at the speed of light, it would take two and a half million years to reach our closest true galaxy. And, there are more than 100 billion galaxies in our universe. 

But let's think small.  Modern man, homo sapiens sapiens, only arrived on the scene around 100,000 years ago (and, to re-make that point, this is the time it takes light to move from one end of our Milky Way Galaxy to the other end). The World population just hit 7 billion people. We first reached 1 billion just about 200 years ago, zooming to 6 billion in 1999.

Apparently, Everett Dirksen never did say "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money." Or, at least the Dirksen Center could not find anything in their files to verify that statement. Laid end to end, a billion one dollar bills would circle the globe at the equator four times. A trillion would take us from Earth to our Sun. One thousand billion dollars amount to a trillion dollars.

How far does a sum of one billion dollars go these days? We are paying $1billion/year to Pakistan for counterterrorism. There is a billion dollar large floating golf ball (left, really a radar station stationed in Alaska) that spends many holidays in Pearl Harbor. Each space shuttle shot is supposedly about a billion (actually $1.5 billion if you divide the total cost of $209 billion by 135 flights). The Lighthouse, a 984-foot skyscraper designed by American architect Thom Mayne, being erected in Paris, will cost a billion. The Freedom Tower (1,776 ft) has been financed for $3 billion. Each Nimitz class aircraft carrier carries a $4.5 billion tag.

What about rate of usage? For the past decade, the U.S. Department of Energy has annually spent less than a billion dollars for renewable energy research. The Bush budget for this coming year remains less than $1 billion. Farm subsidies will amount this year to $25 billion. And farmers are doing well because of the ethanol debacle. Our arms shipment to Middle East countries (not including Iraq and Afghanistan) will this year add up to $63 billion. We will spend around $600 billion this year in the U.S. on gasoline. Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz (right, Harvard economist) estimates the cost of the Iraq/Afghanistan War to be $3 trillion, that is 3,000 billion dollars.

A few months ago, President George Bush requested a $3 trillion (some coincidence!) Federal budget, predicting a budget shortfall of $407 billion. But, it was this week reported that this deficit will actually be closer to $500 billion. Our overall Federal liability is $57.3 trillion, or about $500,000/household. Our gross national product is about $13 trillion, while that of the world is $65.6 trillion (we are 20% of the world).

How are our companies doing? Just four oil companies (Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron and ConocoPhillips) last year earned $100 billion in profits. Quarterly reports show that record profits are continuing this year. In 2007, General Motors lost a record $39 billion, and Ford just posted a worst ever quarterly loss of $8.67 billion. Toyota seems poised to sell more cars than GM this year. Our airline companies are predicting a total industry loss of $13 billion this year. But we're talking paltry billions here.

Going back in time, the Manhattan Project (to build a couple of atomic bombs) cost $2 billion, or $21 billion in current dollars. The Marshall Plan for post-war Europe cost us $13 billion over four years, or $80 billion today. The Apollo mission cost about $23 billion spread over 13 years, or $140 billion today.

So if Peak Oil and Global Warming are so dreadful (right photo from Treehugger), why don't we just start a new Manhattan Project for a sustainable world? Well, the International Energy Agency last month reported that it will take $45 trillion to insure that our climate only rises about 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050. The Manhattan, Marshall and Apollo efforts combined, in today's dollar, only amounted to $0.24 trillion.

Do we have a problem? Try dividing 0.24 into 45. You will obtain a figure of nearly 200, which means that for the world to take immediate action just to suffer an uncomfortable temperature rise would cost about 200 times more than Manhattan/Marshall/Apollo combined! Remember, the U.S. Congress this year killed the global warming mitigation bill and only included about a billion dollars for renewable energy research, while the G8 Nations in Japan weakened their resolve to tackle this problem. Oh, yes, our Congress, though, somehow, in no time at all, for them, actually found $300 billion to bail out our so-called housing crisis. What's going on? It really does not matter, for those were billions. The reality is that the $45 trillion IEA estimate could well be $450 trillion if you look closely at what actually has to be spent to control carbon dioxide by 2050.

Yes, the Pickens' $0.7 trillion wind farm initiative helps (which he promptly abandoned) and so does the Gore $5 trillion renewable electricity for the U.S. proposal, which most pundits panned as impossible. Forget about billions and trillions. Don't waste time with more or less taxes. Why not just take that quantum leap to a free Green Energy Age, as explained in my HuffPo of July 17?

Comments (24):  The responses were quite interesting and combative.  A few agreed with me, but there were a few nit-pickers and some with valid counterpoints.  I enjoyed the exchange.

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