I want to follow up on my recent post, suggesting that rationally planning for the future might not be such a stupid idea after all, by turning to the next obvious question: How could we plan for the future? What ideas should take priority? Where do we want Canada to be in 100 years? 1000 years? How can we help make sure it gets there?
Back in high school, my chemistry teacher sometimes tossed out what he called guaranteed ways to become a billionaire — problems which would definitely make you a lot of money, if you could figure out how to solve them. Today I want to do something similar for the country. I’m going to speculate about some areas of economic activity which could, if Canada invested in them early and substantially and had some luck in its results, net us enormous benefits, probably in the trillions.
I didn’t just pick “trillions” because it was a big number. Right now, the largest economic priority of the Harper regime is investing in making the Albertan oil sands economically profitable. Everything else, from Canada’s international reputation to our faltering manufacturing sector, is being risked on the gamble that the oil sands will pay off. If the oil sands do continue to pay off, we (and by “we” I don’t actually mean us, I mean the increasingly foreign owners of the oil sands) will enjoy revenue in the many trillions of dollars. So basically I’m proposing areas where we could potentially make as much as we do from the oil sands, but only if we channel enough resources and effort into researching them now that we will be in a position to reap payoffs from them years down the road.
At the same time, these are not pie-in-the-sky notions about dream economies. In 100 years’ time, we will not be making a penny from the oil sands, either because we’ve run out of exploitable oil or because we’ve run out of purchasers for the oil. Over the same timespan, there will arise vast demand for several new types of products which right now the world economy is unable to produce at any price. Someone is going to attempt to supply revolutionary new products and services: either we sell them, or we buy them. The reasoning is fairly simple. It’s better to be the exporter than the importer.
Investing seriously in any of the following would probably require somewhere $20-$30 billion per year. For a country the size of Canada, this is easily affordable.
If you want to know how far we’ve come as a society, a good place to start is mortality statistics. In 1900, 1.7% of the American population died in any given year. At least one-third of those deaths were from bacterial infections, and of the top 10 causes of death, five (pneumonia, tuberculosis, diarrhea, nephritis, and diphtheria) were types of infections. A century later, the death rate had dropped roughly in half. The single most important reason for this decline is the decline in deaths from bacterial infections. Then, tack on all the lives saved through surgery, chemotherapy, etc., none of which would be possible without antibiotics.
In 25 years’ time, antibiotics as we know them will be largely useless because of growing bacterial resistance. We’ve reached the point where this will happen, regardless of careful rationing. The successor to antibiotics will achieve two things. First, the people who develop it will be able to exact enormous profits from it (although they will have to be careful not to get too greedy, because in the face of mass death other countries will soon start calculating that flimsy patent laws are less important to them than the survival of their citizens). Second, the people who use it will save an even greater sum in the loss of productive people to simple ailments, from earaches to skin infections.
Right now, Canada has very little in the way of an actual national medical research industry. Our pharmaceutical strategy is so decrepit that at the moment we’re not even able to supply our own hospitals with necessary drugs. The research field has been largely ceded to American and European companies, which means that in the future, we will be reliant on foreign companies to set prices for everything from new cancer treatments to the post-antibiotic equivalent of penicillin (at a time when penicillin no longer works).
The cost of investing in medical research essentially depends upon how much medical research we want to conduct. However, the U.S. National Institutes of Health has a budget of about $30 billion per year. This, or something like it, would be quite affordable. It’s not even just about the direct profits from sales, though: we also have to think about the hundreds of billions of dollars per year which will be lost as people succumb to currently treatable infections once antibiotics are a thing of the past.
Large-Scale Alternative Energy
Between solar panel company bankrupties in the U.S. and controversial wind farm plans in Ontario, we appear to be heading into a closed season in the alternative energy sector. Here’s the thing, though: at some point within the next century, Canada’s booming fossil fuel sector will be completely shuttered. It will happen no matter what the price of oil is tomorrow, or a year from now, or in two decades. It will happen for one of three reasons: we finally regulate fossil fuels to prevent climate change; someone invents a cheaper alternative; or, we run out of recoverable reserves. One of these will happen. So we may as well plan for what we’ll do the day after that.
The obvious solution is to make Canada a leader in the energy technologies which will replace fossil fuels, allowing us to be well-placed for the inevitable economic transition, regardless of why it occurs. We could, for instance, pour money into developing new and more efficient solar panels. Or we could invest in fusion power. Recent estimates suggest that with $100 billion and a couple of decades or sov, a research program could develop an economically viable nuclear fusion reactor. We have the money, and we certainly have the time. Instead of buying the F-35 and the navy’s new ships, we could have become the world leader in fusion power.
This is still a gamble, of course. It could all go nowhere. Or it could work, but someone else could get there first. Still, fusion power would exponentially extend our energy supply. It would do so very safely, without either the pollution and carbon emissions of the fossil fuel sector or the radioactive hazards of the current nuclear power industry. And Canada could be the world leader, if we wanted to be. In any case, whatever happens, it’s going to require more leadership than a handful of tax credits and a few million-dollar grants.
Currently Canada is many steps behind in this area, but it is not too late. A large-scale government-directed strategy could help us catch up. For the time being, we can still assemble enough capital to draw away highly skilled workers from other countries undergoing severe austerity measures to help jump-start the Canadian research program. If we really want to be an “energy superpower,” this is not a competition we can afford to lose.
Since it’s increasingly clear that our government is not interested in preventing climate change, it’s high time we started thinking about mitigating it. I’m not in favour of this. Prevention is cheaper, safer, and less likely to fail than after-the-fact attempts at reversals. But there are a variety of geo-engineering schemes, and if any of them are ever going to be implemented, the people who’ve developed and constructed the equipment for the schemes in question are going to make a mint.
The cost of geo-engineering is likely to be extraordinarily high, perhaps prohibitively high, and there really will be no way of knowing whether it will work, have drastic unintended consequences, or simply do nothing at all until long after it’s too late. That’s exactly why I don’t favour this as a solution to climate change. But it’s still worth investing in — either because a foolish and risk-loving government thinks it’s really Plan A, or simply because a prudent and risk-averse government wants to have a backup Plan B. And in the event that geo-engineering schemes are ever implemented, Canada won’t be the only government willing to pay for it.
We could, however, have a research sector which has produced and marketed some core elements of any such scheme. And once our world has tipped over the precipice we’re currently poised on, people are going to line up to pay handsomely for a workable solution, if one exists.
With the recent announcement of an asteroid mining pilot project, space travel isn’t quite the 1960s-era pie-in-the-sky waste of money that many people have come to think it is. And despite grumbling to the contrary, space research is still comparatively cheap. NASA’s budget is only $19 billion a year. If nothing else, Canada could very easily have its own NASA. A NASA that didn’t blow its budget on useless space shuttles incapable of getting out of low orbit.
Current events suggest that within the next century space travel beyond Earth orbit will become commercially viable for private corporations. This industry will require a large workforce of exceptionally well-educated scientists and engineers. No country is currently capable of providing that reliably; the American sector is under-funded and in tatters, while its education system is besieged by creationists. We could build our own industry, in part, by poaching their experts. European space research may not survive the current fiscal crisis. This will leave China as the leader.
Canada cannot compete toe-to-toe with China. If, however, any off-planet industry ever begins, whoever runs that industry is eventually going to become unbelievably wealthy. It wouldn’t hurt if Canada had at least a few small niches secured for itself.
None of these schemes is a sure money-maker. If they do have a return on investment, it won’t happen for decades or longer. None of them can be undertaken by the private sector without massive government assistance. But even if we tried and failed, the worst-case scenario would be that we’d spent billions of dollars creating the most highly-educated and knowledge-based workforce in the entire world. I assume such a workforce would be able to find other productive opportunities, even if the flagship research projects ultimately didn’t pan out.Tweet