By Dennis M. Bushnell
The COVID-19 pandemic is and has been a singular event in the development of postindustrial econometrics, greatly accelerating several massive ongoing trends and technologies. The totality of these trends and technologies is changing and will continue to change where we live, our costs of living, independence, modes of transportation, econometrics, health, communications, housing, and the climate and ecosystem.
As a result of the IT revolution, society at the start of the pandemic was already well into an immense shift to “tele-everything,” including telecommuting, telework, teletravel, teleshopping, tele-education, telemedicine, telecommerce, telepolitics, and—with on-site printing starting—telemanufacturing as well. This shift from physical to virtual presence and interactions was greatly accelerated by the pandemic and mitigated its societal and economic impacts.
Pre-pandemic, we were already leaving the Industrial Age and moving swiftly through the IT Age into the Virtual Age. Massive ongoing econometric-related shifts included renewable energy, increasing do-it-yourself (DIY), machines and robotics subsuming employment, rise of the gig economy, printing manufacture, artificial intelligence (AI)/robotics/machine autonomy, electrified transportation, personalized medicine, and immersive virtual presence and digital reality.
During the pandemic, tele-everything enabled many to live and work far more independently and with reduced need for physical travel. Years of projected further societal adjustment to and utilization of digital reality were, with the exigencies of COVID with regard to social distancing, etc., condensed into days or weeks.
The discussion herein speculates as to how some aspects of personal econometrics might further change going forward, post-pandemic, ending with a summation of the multitudinous resulting favorable cost and climate/ecosystems benefits of these projected changes.
Rise of a Do-It-Yourself Mode of Living
Before the Industrial Age, few had “jobs.” Folks were farmers who lived almost wholly in a do-it-yourself mode. The Industrial Age required factory workers, which necessitated their proximity to factories. The resulting requisite population density led to the expansion of cities and urban areas and, later, the automobile-enabled suburbs. In that process, many lost the time and the land area for serious do-it-yourself living and associated independence.
As we move out of the Industrial Age into the Virtual Age, the technologies enable a return to effective do-it-yourself independent living. With tele-everything, folks can, and many now do, live wherever they want, such as on mountaintop acreage. The massive and decreasingly expensive renewable energy developments are enabling distributed electricity generation and storage, obviating the need for wires to deliver electricity. The burgeoning electric personal air vehicle developments enable physical transportation without requiring road access to the homesite or fuels. With the bio revolution, it is possible to grow significant amounts of food on a small holding, where water can be drilled for, captured from rain, recycled, etc., potentially freeing homeowners from all the physical, electricity, road, and water grids. The development of massive numbers of low-Earth-orbiting satellites provides worldwide high-speed internet, with an emerging competition situation that should keep prices low. This provides superb communications for tele-everything without wires.
The development of the already large gig economy, where employment is via the web, would add to the telework options in the rest of the economy. With tele-everything, we can do tele-education and telemedicine, as discussed. Then there is telemanufacturing or on-site printing. With carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen available on site, we can make and print plastics. In fact, 3D printing is now being used to manufacture homes.
Overall, we are now seeing develop the option to shift to independent, tele-everything, off all the physical grids, back to independent living, enabled by tech developments. This shift, if sizable, would have truly massive econometric impacts on industrial agriculture, power and water companies, cell towers, ground transportation infrastructures as a whole, manufacturing, and education. With a shift to prevention, medicine is affected as well.
Such a shift back to the future to independent DIY living would have massive favorable impacts upon climate, the ecosystem, and the economic 1% and 99% inequity problem. The current econometrics associated with manufacturing, finance, fossil fuels, service industries, employment, etc., would be massively changed, with an option for nearly jobless independent living, and would mitigate greatly the impacts of the ongoing replacement of human labor by machines.
Humans have twice before wholly changed their living and working arrangements, from hunter/gatherer to agriculture and from agriculture to industrial. This high-tech-enabled back-to-the-land rebirth, with the technologies once envisioned for the greening of society now emerging, should be successful this time due to tech developments—if that is the way humans decide to live. The alternatives are “interesting” as we increasingly, in the present econometrics’ milieu, try to compete with the ever more intelligent machines—machines that can now ideate and create, the heretofore touted last bastions of human exclusivity.
The Astounding Ongoing Success of Renewable Energy and Storage
Energy is a sizable segment of gross domestic product. Climate change, primarily a result of anthropogenic CO2 emissions, is becoming serious to deadly, with many worldwide adverse manifestations. The climate solution approaches include energy conservation, now ongoing with buildings that generate versus use externally generated energy, and reducing both extant and fossil fuel–generated CO2. Greening the planet via growing halophytes (salt plants on deserts and wastelands using saline), water would, due to some 18% root sequestration, pull much CO2 out of the air. The remaining major climate approach is reducing fossil fuel–generated CO2 emissions from coal, gas, and petroleum. A substantial percentage of the latter is used for petrochemical feedstock for plastics, and the huge amounts of biomass from significant halophyte production could replace petroleum for that purpose.
Since the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, there has been extensive and accelerated research in renewable energy, including photovoltaics (PV), wind, geothermal, hydro, biomass, and solar thermal, with a combined capacity of some 16,000 exajoules. Our current fossil carbon fuels generation, the energy we use, is approximately 500 exajoules, far less than what renewables are capable of producing. There are also several large-capacity renewable energy sources not yet tapped, including heat exchangers in the Gulf Stream and high-altitude wind.
Research over the past decades has now resulted in renewables that are below cost parity and less expensive than fossil carbon generation, sparking a major uptick in their utilization. That in turn has resulted in nuclear plants not being cost competitive and, consequently, some closing. Coal generation has plummeted for the same reason.
PV and storage costs have reduced some 85% in the last eight years.1 The cost of onshore wind dropped 70% in the last 10 years, and PV plus storage are now half the cost of a gas peaker plant. Renewables now account for some 90% of new generation, 27% of world electricity generation, and there are projections for 80% in one to two decades as costs continue to decrease.
With PV selling at 1.7 cents a kilowatt hour and still dropping (versus fossil fuel costs in the 5 cents plus range), some are starting to posit electrical energy too cheap to meter going forward. Also, the PV efficiency, via two electrons per photon and more of the spectrum, is projected to greatly increase into the 70% plus range. This makes PV interesting for external film application on cars, planes, ships, as well as homes, the latter part of at-home renewables termed distributed generation.
With the excellent outlook for inexpensive green electricity and the progress in greater than lithium-ion battery storage energy density now two to three times, there are serious ongoing efforts to convert transportation to electrics. This would greatly reduce even further the use of heavy transportation fuels such as petroleum. This is for all transportation, whether via land, sea, air, or space. Also, with inexpensive green electricity available, many of the industrial processes could convert from utilizing fossil fuels to green electrics.
Therefore, renewable electricity generation and storage reduces not only CO2 due to electrical generation, but it would also reduce most of the other uses of fossil fuels as well. Cheap green electricity would also enable processes such as desalinization, ocean resource extraction, and other processes (e.g., green hydrogen and hydrocarbons produced from captured atmospheric CO2) that were previously too expensive in terms of energy. With regard to aerospace, the outlook via renewables is that electric, emission-less aircraft would use less energy due to improved efficiencies (e.g., electric motors are almost twice as efficient).
Post-COVID Economic Growth
A dominant metric of econometrics is economic growth or expansion. The pandemic-induced economic downturn, the national debt taken on to support society during the pandemic strictures, and the actions increasingly necessary to stem and solve the ongoing severe ecosystem and climate degradation together will probably limit economic growth. We are currently driving the ecosystem in deficit, short 50% of a planet’s worth of resources now. As the rest of the world tries to come up to Western living standards, which will further degrade the ecosystem, the projections indicate we will be short several planets’ worth of resources.
Fundamentally, with a fixed planetary set of resources, continuous strong economic growth is apparently not a reasonable expectation. What is happening, however, is a large personal economic benefit separate from conventional growth per se—major cost of living reductions.2 With the huge constellation of LEO satellites going up to supply high-speed internet worldwide, internet access costs should reduce. With the large and continuing cost reductions in renewable energy and storage, the greatly increased energy conservation technologies, and the conversion of transportation, manufacturing, and buildings to inexpensive green electricity, energy related costs will drop. As medicine shifts to prevention and personalized tele-med, health maintenance costs should drop. With tele-ed, education costs should drop. With tele-everything, digital reality, and five-senses virtual reality, transportation costs will reduce. As machines replace humans in the workforce, many costs are dropping. As housing is increasingly printed, housing costs should drop, aided by an expected (due to tele-everything) shift of the population into areas with less expensive land. Printing manufacturing should be less expensive.
All of this provides a higher standard of living, which is less obviously tied to “growth.” This is of course right out of the abundance playbook of Peter Diamandis.
Looking forward, post-pandemic econometrics will change much due to the convergence of major drivers such as climate/ecosystem degradation and their now very obvious negative impacts, the machines (e.g., AI, robotics) taking jobs including those involving ideation and creativity, (from Marshall Brain, “This time is different, never before have we created a second intelligent species”), the increasing debt situation, and the massive impacts of the IT, bio, nano, quantum, and energetics tech revolutions.
The renewable energy success story, based upon economic/cost considerations, will be a major solution contributor for several problem spaces. The costs of living are projected to decline. The greatest econometric unknowns are the impacts going forward of machines that perform increasingly better than humans with regard to nearly all metrics and the resulting impacts upon human labor, or what the humans will do all day.
The high-tech, back-to-the-future DIY on steroids discussed herein is one possibility. The increasing capability for direct machine-to-brain communication and brain augmentation on the way to uploads are another. A third possibility is to collect and distribute in some agreed upon fashion the wealth created by the machines, e.g. a guaranteed income, which is being studied and experimented with.
In the usual way things develop, these three possibilities and others will be employed, but econometrics will probably be ultimately quite different from what we had pre-pandemic.
1. Hicks, Wayne, “Declining Renewable Energy Costs Drive Focus on Energy Storage.” National Renewable Energy Laboratory, January 2, 2020. https://www.nrel.gov/news/features/2020/declining-renewable-costs-drive-...
2. Diamandis, Peter, “Demonitized Cost of Living.” Peter H. Diamandis Blog, July 16, 2016. https://www.diamandis.com/blog/demonetized-cost-of-living
About the Author
Dennis M. Bushnell is chief scientist at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.