Around the House

ROBERT BURRUSS

April 27, 1993|By ROBERT BURRUSS

Kensington. -- There's $200 billion in gold under my house. Really. My house is on a lot that's 40 feet wide and 100 feet long -- and a little over 4,000 miles deep. According to the law as I understand it, I own everything under my house all the way to the center of the earth.

That works out to one-fifth of a cubic mile of iron and nickel plus all the chemical elements up through uranium. Assuming, conservatively, that gold makes up one part in a million of all that material, then there's enough gold under my house to fill a cube 30 feet on an edge. At $350 an ounce, that's $200 billion.

The iron under my house, at 20 cents per pound, is worth $300 billion. If you sum up the value of all the minerals and metals under my house, the total is easily enough to pay off the national debt -- well over $4 trillion. The energy value of the uranium alone is a mind-boggling $5 trillion which, were we on a uranium-breeder economy, could supply all U.S. energy needs for more than three years. I'm sitting on vast wealth and can't get at it.

There are other valuable things around my house. Sunlight: The 24-hour average of 100 watts per square meter adds up to about $60 a day at the price the power company charges for energy. That's $22,000 a year in free lighting.

The sunlight drives the growth of my lawn and my four large trees. Each year I move enough organic matter from my land to supply food energy for 10 people, if they could digest it. Cellulose and potato starch are both polymers of glucose, but only the latter is easily digestible -- cellulose not at all, except by bacteria. Of course, if mammals could have eaten trees and grass stalks through the years, there would be no trees or grass left, and maybe no mammals either. Still, that same organic matter, were I to manage it properly, could heat my house for about four of the coldest weeks of the year.

Funny how polluting energy is. It's funny because according to theory -- the Second Law of thermodynamics -- with enough pure energy we could unpollute the whole planet. Pure energy, that's the catch. There's not much of that here on earth. The sun's thermonuclear energy is pure, and it's even free, but we can't economically convert it to electricity here on the ground.

Actually that's not quite right; someday the price of solar-electric cells might be competitive with the dirty ol' fossil sources of energy. But the manufacture of all those solar cells would itself be heavily polluting. Not only that, if all the world's energy demands were satisfied with solar cells, the net reflectivity of the earth would be reduced. Right now the earth reflects about 35 percent of the sun's energy directly back into space. Were that to be decreased by a few percent, previously productive agricultural land might become desert; new weather patterns would develop; the sea level would rise; the air would get hot.

We live within only a few hundred miles of unlimited amounts of materials and energy. The one is below, the other above. But do we really want access to either? Probably not. Not with the present attitudes toward the environment. Not with the idea abroad that the earth is out of equilibrium with its fauna -- especially us humans.

But suppose that the growth of human population cannot by conscious, reasoned intent be slowed, stopped and eventually even reversed. Eventually it will of its own irrational accord reach a peak and stop. There is no brake, though, on the growth of knowledge, and it is our technical knowledge that is multiplying the effective biological presence of each human being. Right now energy-consuming technology multiplies the effective presence of each person in the world by a factor of about 40. That's the ratio of what might be called ''cultural energy'' (used in industry, transportation, heating and cooling) to personal dietary energy.

In the U.S., the ratio of ''cultural energy'' to dietary energy is about 100 to 1. In Europe it is about 70 to 1. In Japan, about 60 to 1. In parts of Africa and south Asia it is close to 1 to 1.

Even if pollution from industry could be stopped completely, the world average ratio of 40 to 1 of cultural energy to dietary energy means that 40 times the present world population would exhale enough carbon dioxide to equal that of all present industry.

It's hard to imagine that the world's population will ever reach 40 times its present value -- i.e., 200 billion. But who a hundred years ago would have thought that in only a century it would reach 5 billion?

Human knowledge will continue growing as long as there are enough people to support basic research of the sort that has so far been beneficial to our species. Human population, however, is limited, ultimately by living space and the earth's capacity to absorb the collective exhaled breath.

The surface of the earth is small. But its volume . . . Under my house there's enough material to build an artificial planet that could hold the entire human race. It would be a squeeze, but there's enough wealth under my house, at present value of the materials there, to carry billions of people for many years. As for energy . . . there's always the sun. It continues to radiate as much energy each second as humanity could, at its present rate, use in a million years.

Someday humanity will find ways to get access to all that wealth and energy. Someday . . .

Robert Burruss is an engineer and free-lance writer.

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