4 min read

The marvels we missed

Everyone should get behind a world where energy is abundant; how zoning laws in New York City have stifled its growth; and Europe's astonishing luck.
The marvels we missed
Photo by Mehdi MeSSrro / Unsplash

1—The marvels we missed

Where Is My Flying Car? That's the title of a somewhat recent book (2021) by J. Storrs Hall, in which he lamented the fact that energy use in rich countries plateaued around 1970, and "the marvels we missed" because of it. In a review of the book, the NYT's Ezra Klein summarised Hall's main point:

"We've flown plenty of flying car prototypes over the decades. The water crises of the future could be solved by mass desalination. Supersonic air travel is a solved technological problem. Lunar bases lie well within the boundaries of possibility. The path that Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, outlined for nanotechnology — build machines that are capable of building smaller machines that are capable of building smaller machines that are capable of, well, you get it — still seems plausible. What we need is energy — much, much more of it. But Hall thinks we've become an 'ergophobic' society, which he defines as a society gripped by 'the almost inexplicable belief that there is something wrong with using energy'."

After listing a number of gripes with the book, Klein agrees with "two big things":

"First, that the flattening of the energy curve was a moment of civilizational import and one worth revisiting. And second, that many in politics have abandoned any real vision of the long future... We've lost sight of the world that abundant, clean energy could make possible."

You can read Klein's full review here (~10 minute read), in which he urges "progressives... to hasten into existence" a world where abundant energy would "make new miracles possible".

Alternatively, buy or view a PDF summary of Hall's book itself via Stripe here.

2—Controls on growth

In 1961, New York City implemented zoning laws that "capped the amount of floor space that could be built per square foot of land". It also imposed parking requirements and "various other technical changes that restricted the volume and variety of affordable housing":

"To this day, even after incremental reforms under the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations in New York City, significant net housing growth remains impossible. At least 40 percent of Manhattan would be illegal to rebuild merely as densely as in its current form — let alone more.

Rapid suburban growth kept the city cheap amid an exodus of residents from 1960 to 1980. This suburban growth accommodated regional housing demand until single-family suburbs reached the (very limited) density allowed by suburban zoning.

Since population growth within the city resumed in the 1980s, policymakers have been playing catch-up with the housing supply. But measured by the yardsticks of housing costs, homelessness, and the flight of families with children from the city, we are losing."

According to Alex Armlovich, New York City would grow faster than any other area in the US – other than California – if it removed its controls on growth. Persistent homelessness and housing shortages, despite population loss, are a choice:

"People are still paying top dollar to move to New York City and similarly pricey, high-wage cities, but it remains effectively illegal to move there without first buying out an existing homeowner or evicting an existing renter. It is not a crisis of abandonment — it is a crisis of elite complacency, privilege, and exclusion."

You can read Armlovich's full essay here (~5 minute read), which has ideas for "much bolder citywide reform... [that are] fully within the mayor, council, and governor's combined powers".

3—The warnings were everywhere

4—Europe's astonishing luck

Blackouts. Industrial shutdowns. The war in Ukraine and subsequent energy crisis led to dire predictions for Europe as winter approached. But due to some astonishing luck, Europe has emerged relatively unscathed:

"A warm autumn postponed the heating season, allowing gas-storage facilities to be filled to the brim. The present warmth has enabled them to be topped up again (see chart)—a startling turn in the middle of winter. All told, Europe has sucked out half as much gas from storage facilities as at this point in the past two winters. And forecasts suggest a mild end to winter.

The good weather is not the only reason for cheer. Gas supply is growing as new liquefied-natural-gas terminals begin work. A wet autumn and windy winter have helped propel hydro and wind generators. French nuclear plants, turned off for maintenance, are slowly returning to the grid... Power prices in Europe have fallen back to levels last seen before the summer."

That's from the Economist (~2 minute read), which cautions against complacency as energy prices remain elevated, Asian demand for gas is increasing as China reopens, and Europe is still short of what it will need for a bad winter next year.

5—Further reading...

✈️ More than 9,500 flights were delayed and over 1,300 were cancelled across the United States due to "a Federal Aviation Administration system outage".

💱 "China needs to spend more on its people if it wants its people to spend more. But none of these changes can be accomplished in the near term, suggesting that increased consumption—and its contribution to China's economic recovery—will be modest."

👨‍🍳 "A crisis of the chef as artist" – The world's best restaurant, Noma, is closing down because of the enormous amount of labour required by chef René Redzepi and his staff to produce an innovative "menu of only hyperlocal Nordic ingredients".

👨‍👩‍👧‍👦 "India is expected to surpass China and become the world's most populous nation within the next three months, according to a recent report by the United Nations' population division, marking a seismic shift on the global stage in a trend with significant social and economic impact for both countries."