December 04, 2009
Imitating the Japanese

Here in the United States, where we consider ourselves The Indispensable Nation, we’re engaged in dividing the pie between the insurance companies, the drug companies, the banks, and the weapons manufacturers. Military and finance are the only things we have left, as is typical of late-stage empires.

Like the old Chinese emperors, we consider ourselves the center of heaven and earth. But in fact we’re so far behind the middle of the pack that we can only hope to catch up by taking the most drastic measures available, namely actually looking at our situation honestly. Which, being Americans, we’re both well- and ill-equipped to do.

One thing we’re good at, if we can free ourselves from slavery to the financial interests, is learning from anything we see anywhere. Shamelessly stealing ideas is what got us going, as well as coming up with some of our own. So maybe we should check out what another group of folks renowned for their ability to learn from others is doing with their national effort.

With few energy resources of its own and heavily reliant on oil imports, Japan has long been a leader in solar and other renewable energies and this year set ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets.

But Japan’s boldest plan to date is the Space Solar Power System (SSPS), in which arrays of photovoltaic dishes several square kilometres (square miles) in size would hover in geostationary orbit outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

“Since solar power is a clean and inexhaustible energy source, we believe that this system will be able to help solve the problems of energy shortage and global warming,” researchers at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, one of the project participants, wrote in a report.

What kinda silly bullshit is this? Everyone knows oil will last forever, or at least our lifetimes, and as good TV-fearing Americans, isn’t our own lifetime all we care about?


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The researchers are targeting a one gigawatt system, equivalent to a medium-sized atomic power plant, that would produce electricity at eight yen (cents) per kilowatt-hour, six times cheaper than its current cost in Japan.

The challenge — including transporting the components to space — may appear gigantic, but Japan has been pursuing the project since 1998, with some 130 researchers studying it under JAXA’s oversight.

Last month Japan’s Economy and Trade Ministry and the Science Ministry took another step toward making the project a reality, by selecting several Japanese high-tech giants as participants in the project.

The consortium, named the Institute for Unmanned Space Experiment Free Flyer, also includes Mitsubishi Electric, NEC, Fujitsu and Sharp.

Solar power satellites, I tell you now, are the way it’ll go. In the long term we either let our civilization destroy the planet, or we switch away from fossil fuels toward the cleanest forms of energy we can find. There’s nothing on earth even close to the reliable intense power coming from the sun all the time, every day, no weather, no significant cycles.

We can’t possibly use all the energy the sun sends us, at least at our current technical level, though of course Freeman Dyson posited a civilization that would completely enclose its sun, not losing a single watt, and thus be undetectable. We’re not there yet, so we can put up as many solar power satellites as we want, until we run out of silicon. And you know where there’s a lot of silicon? On the Moon.

In terms of elements, the crust is composed primarily of oxygen (41% to 46% by mass), silicon (21%), magnesium (6%), iron (13%), calcium (8%), and aluminium (7%).

While we debate which subset of the super-rich to enrich further, the Japanese have a decade-old plan, with target dates and corporations doing research, to free themselves from oil and coal and nuclear, the polluting energy sources, and move to a sustainable future.

The United States is going to change drastically over the next couple of decades. Broadly speaking, we can either clutch the last dregs of empire, or we can move into a coöperative role with the rest of the world. We don’t lead any more, no matter what we say. As Greider talks about in Come Home, America, our economic dominance has ended, but we haven’t acknowledged it yet.

We continue to claim pre-eminence based on our military strength, but we have to borrow the money from China to pay for that military. Which at least means war with China is unlikely, that’s something. But the world is chuckling behind its respective hands at our posturing. Everyone knows we no longer have the manufacturing base, and that’s the only thing that matters. Military power does not long outlast the outsourcing of industrial might, as Paul Kennedy went into detail explaining in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.

We need to recognize our actual position in the world and start behaving as one among equals, certainly not indispensable. If we’re unique, it’s as a melting pot. Concentrating our wealth as much as possible is destroying that positive energy, which built the nation and is its best legacy.

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Posted by Chuck Dupree at December 04, 2009 11:11 PM
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It's hard not to wonder about this particular project. I know nothing of the practicalities but I can't help but think of Reagan's Star Wars proposals that are still impractical and wonder if this isn't the same thing in reverse. Although it might indeed be practical.

Posted by: Buck on December 5, 2009 4:11 AM
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