In a nice bit of serendipity, just as we were posting today about Fab Labs and the potential for "personal fabricators" upending material design and production processes, Chris Phoenix at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology was writing about the next step beyond even that. In his essay "Living Off-Grid," Phoenix describes some of the more prosaic implications of the development of nanofabrication systems -- a technological leap quite possible within the next couple of decades, and almost certain by 2040 (and I'm being intentionally conservative with these estimates).
Most notably, Phoenix argues that the use of nanofabbers will allow individuals to see exactly how big their "ecological footprint" really is:
The developed nations today have a massive and probably unsustainable ecological footprint. Because production is so decentralized, it is hard to observe the impact of consumer choices. And because only a few areas of land are convenient for transportation or ideal for agriculture, unhealthy patterns of land use have developed. Economies of scale encourage large infrastructures. But nano-built equipment benefits from other economies, so off-site production and distribution will become less efficient than local productivity. Someone living off-grid will be able literally to see their own ecological footprint, simply by looking at the land area they have covered with solar cells and greenhouses. Cheap sensors will allow monitoring of any unintentional pollution--though there will be fewer pollution sources with clean manufacturing of maintenance-free products.
What Phoenix doesn't address is whether there would be even greater advantages to not going off-grid, but instead to combine efforts in dense distributed networks. While living the self-sustaining, rugged existence is a Waldenesque fantasy for some, urban environments remain enormously popular. The molecular nanotechnologies that Phoenix describes will be even more beneficial for those living in dense communities than for those living in quiet isolation.
What I don't address would fill hundreds of articles and papers. I hope people will help me write them. CRN has several collaborative research programs.
To answer your point, Yes, dense networks will be improved by molecular manufacturing. Largely this will be due to greater efficiency and compactness: light bulbs and computers account for vast amounts of power, and will be vastly improved. I calculated once that greater New York City could almost be self-sustaining if it collected all the sunlight that fell on it and used it efficiently (e.g. direct chemical food recycling instead of agriculture). You'd still change the microclimate, whereas distributed living could fade into the background. But both ways will work.
One prosaic but important benefit of large-scale molecular manufacturing would be better housing. A few pounds of material could build a wall-sized double panel, vacuum insulated (with the gap supported only from the edges). That should almost eliminate sound from your neighbors, and provide very efficient thermal insulation if the inside of the gap was silvered.
Chris, thanks for replying.
I don't think that total community self-sustenance is the goal for many people. Distribution, diversity and cooperation have distinct advantages. Rather, the goal (at least for us here at WorldChanging) is the combination of improved quality of life and vastly reduced footprint.
The vacuum insulated wallboard idea jumps out at me as a particularly valuable way of improving quality of life in dense urban settings. Having lived in both urban apartments and a suburban sprawl single-family-house over the past few years, one of the biggest advantages to the SSFH is its relative peace-and-quiet. I know that I'm not the only one who would prefer a denser environment, but can't stand arguments and bad music coming through the walls at all hours of the night...
I'm thinking one of the greatest limitations to bringing about changes such as self assemby/fabrication to allow for off grid production would be inteligence. Are people going to be able to handle these new methods that require a certain level of education and thinking ability. In the case of the wall panels, in an on grid system, would we rely on the carpenter in the field being able to make field adjustments to the system or are we talking a predesigned "kit of parts" dropped off for simple assembly? I hope to see the trades adapt to the comming of composite and nanomaterials in a manner condusive to some sort of craft, rather than the mind numbing "put tab a into slot b" process a lot of our current prefab construction requires of its workers.