Arnold Kling  

Technological Independence

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Gizmag writes,


The aptly-named LifeStraw is an invention that could become one of the greatest life-savers in history. It is a 25 cm long, 29 mm diameter, plastic pipe filter and purchased singly, costs around US2.00

...LifeStraw is a personal, low-cost water purification tool with a life time of 700 litres – approximately one year of water consumption for one person.


A lot of the gee-whiz about this technology concerns its potential in underdeveloped countries, where people lack clean water and suffer from a high rate of disease as a result.

But it strikes me that this sort of technology has potential to affect life in developed countries as well. If you could decentralize water purification, electricity generation, and security against violence, what might that do to social structure?

Thanks to Pablo Halkyard for the pointer.


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The author at The Crooked Links in a related article titled The LifeStraw writes:
    The aptly-named LifeStraw is an invention that could become one of the greatest life-savers in history. [via]... [Tracked on September 2, 2005 6:25 PM]
COMMENTS (9 to date)
spencer writes:

OK, try decentralizing water purification and sewer treatment.

This means, for example each home will have to have a septic tank rather then send their sewage to a central processing plant.

Consequently, the minimum size of the typical surburban lot will have to be 1 to 5 acres -- depending on local conditions. I owned a home for years in a town that used this to require all lots be at least 2 acres in size. It was a very effective technique for keeping people of average or below average income out of the town.

This undoubtedly would have a massive impact on urban development patterns, but I doubt that much of it would be desirable.

spencer writes:

OK, try decentralizing water and sewer treatment.

This means each home would have a septic system rather then sending the sewage to a central processing station. Consequently, each home would have to be on a lot of 1 to 5 acres -- depending on local water tables and soil types --
to safely treat sewage without harming the neighborhood water supply. I lived in a town for years that used this to require that all lots be at least 2 acres -- a very effective method of keeping average and below average income people from residing in the town.

So this looks like it would have a massive impact on urban development patterns, but I doubt that much of it would be desirable.

jaimito writes:

¡A mi juego me llamaron!

I mean, you are talking (nonsense) on a subject I know. Water and sewage infrastructure is necessarily collective. In New York, the drinking water is taken from upper New York State. Would your wife want to travel there with a jar on her head for your morning tea? Los Angeles gets most of its water from 300 km. Mexico City originally built on a lake gets its water from 250 km. About treatment: Would you supply unpurified raw water to drug addict mothers? Cholera epidemies in Harlem is the lest you may expect.

The personal water purification chlorine tablets havebeen around for generations. No technical innovation here.

jaimito writes:

Sorry prof, the absurdity of the case made me forget your question. You asked what might decentralization of infrastructures do to social structure. In itself, not much. You would have to decentralize food production, cloth making and so on to arrive to a truly autonomous village society. Women would have to spend their days making flour from cereal grains and drawing water from the river. Men would have to do the real hard work of turning the soil under the sun.

Bob Knaus writes:

Poor Prof. Kling! This one's not quite as funny as his suggestion of diamond spheres so cheap they could be burnt as fuel, but it is amusing. I'll try to show my work on this one.

As described in the Gizmag article, the $2.00 invention has a lifetime capacity of 700 liters. That is, indeed, very close to the quantity of 2 liters/day sometimes quoted as the minimum needed to hyrdate a human. It falls far short of the 20 liters/day recommended by WHO as needed for short-term survival following a disaster.

In any case, $2.00 for 700 liters = $2.00/185 gallons = 1.1 cents per gallon from the Lifestraw.

In Kansas (surely an average state if there is one?) municipal water usage averages 130 gallons per capita per day. That doesn't include industrial or agricultural use.

Municipal water is often priced at a minimum monthly rate, with additional charges per thousand gallons above the minimum of say 5,000 gallons. In Kansas, a household using 10,000 gallons per month paid $38.49 on average. Some urban readers of this blog will use less, but their water rates are likely somewhat higher.

In any case, $38.49/10,000 gallons = 0.4 cents per gallon from your tap.

So that's what decentralizing your water supply would do, triple the cost per gallon and quite literally make you suck it up!

Bob Knaus writes:

Like jaimito, I was distracted by the absurdities myself. Back to the question at hand!

I live on a sailboat. I can make my own drinking water from seawater, treat my sewage to EPA standards, and choose between solar, wind, and diesel as my sources for electricity. I travel in areas where the security threats can all be handled by my plastic flare gun. So I think I've decentralized all of the items mentioned and then some.

From a personal perspective, it's very liberating! But I shudder to think of an entire society of ne'er-do-wells just like me.

Timothy writes:

It is worth noting that technology tends to get cheaper over time. Yes, the LifeStraw produces water at a cost of ~3x the tap today, but in 20 years I doubt it will be so. Do y'all remember when portable CD players were a few hundred dollars? What about five years ago when one of those travel DVD things was $900?

Today I can go grab a portalbe CD player for $38 at Wal-Mart, and the portable DVD player for $150. So it wouldn't surprise me if the same technology that makes the LifeStraw process possible became cheap enough to make decentralized water treatment possible. Now, whether or not I think decentralization is likely given that is a different matter, and I don't, but it's not like the LifeStraw will stay that expensive on a per-unit basis forever.

Bob Knaus writes:

Timothy - I agree that the cost of technology might well make the Lifestraw even cheaper than $2.00. But it would still be an ineffcient method of purifying water. WHO has put a huge amount of work into practical small-scale and emergency methods for water purification. Solar disinfection using plastic bottles on the roof seems an especially elegant approach, with a capital cost of zero. If the Lifestraw succeeds, it will be because aid agencies airdrop them to disaster areas, not because they become a primary water supply.

A higher level critique of the Gizmag article would pinpoint innumeracy on the part of reporters and readers. A quick read gives you the impression that this wonder device will supply a year's worth of water for 2 bucks. Wow, isn't technology something? Gosh, what'll they think of next???

A different way of asking the question that Arnold posed would be "What if goods requiring large amounts of energy and/or raw materials were subject to something like Moore's Law?" An interesting question, and one explored at length on Star Trek: The Next Generation for instance. But unless we get to a point where a transmogrifier (or was it a replicator?) is practical it will be purely speculation.

Timothy writes:

Bob:

That's pretty sensible, I think you're right that the LifeStraw will end up doing things like emergency relief, and I can see it becoming pretty popular for camping and backpacking etc. I mean, there are already low-cost iodine and purification tablets, and there's always boiling, but the tablets make water taste bloody awful even if it is potable. If thise LifeStraw's water actually tastes okay, I can see a market for it in that arena. And during emergencies, like you suggested. Part of flood kits and the like. Of course, there is that "bever fever", but I can still see it being handy for that. And at less cost than one of those fancy Nalgene bottles, or even a couple bottles of Dasani.

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