Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Of Balloons and Scarcity

One of the things that arrived during Lauren’s birthday party was a mylar balloon filled with helium. 

It’s bright and shiny, in the way that such balloons are, and the cats are just fascinated.  It skitters around the house carried by the air currents from the furnace in a random Coriolis pattern, trailing felines and making just the sort of scraping noise that something out of a low-budget horror film would make if it were trapped in your attic, which is why we try to anchor it at night.

For a while I thought it was losing its lift, since it had settled to an altitude of about knee-height, but it turned out that Tabitha had weighted it down to make it easier for the cats to prey on it.   Lauren apparently figured that out too, and now it cruises around the ceilings once again.

It is a very nice balloon.

You don’t see them very much anymore, oddly enough.  It was only a few years ago that these helium-filled mylar balloons were everywhere – you’d go to the supermarket and they’d fill up as many as you wanted, and they were so much nicer than the old latex ones that lost their helium overnight.

But there’s a helium shortage, don’t you know.  They don’t make the stuff, being an element and all, and there are important industrial uses for it that tend to trump balloons.

It’s kind of odd, really.

We live in an age of unprecedented abundance.  By any historical standard, the modern world – particularly the industrialized part of it – is awash in goods and resources to an extent that previous generations would have found inconceivable.

We are surrounded by stuff.

We expect there to be food.

We don’t worry too much about survival.

Oh, some people do.  Poverty exists, and in some places it exists good and hard.  In those places there isn’t much stuff, and there can be even less food.  Survival is in fact something to worry about there. 

But we regard those places as exceptions, as places that have somehow missed out on the larger prosperity and abundance that defines the modern world, places that could be brought into that prosperity and abundance if only we refined our politics, our economics, our technology, our distribution networks, our ethical standards – as if it were simply a matter of choice on our part that scarcity continues to exist amid all this plenty.

It can be shocking to come face to face with the fact that those aren’t the exceptions, even in something as trivial as a helium-filled mylar balloon.

The fact is that there is only so much stuff that can be made.

That while we may have raised the Malthusian limit on food production, we have not eliminated it. 

And that any age of abundance will invariably be followed by an age of scarcity that will reach even those areas where scarcity is regarded as a problem for other people.

Humans evolved in scarcity.  We’re good at it.  Not in the numbers we have now – those, unfortunately, are not sustainable in the long run, and the faces behind those numbers are not anything you want to think about too hard if you want to sleep at night.

Such thoughts are a lot of weight for a balloon to carry.


TimBo said...

A horror story just in time for Halloween.

Dr. Phil (Physics) said...

For 20 years I have been telling my students that the helium shortage is what will really drive us into space.
Gas mining. Just like in Star Wars.

Dr. Phil

Eric said...

It's insane that helium balloons were ever considered appropriate at all. It defies comprehension: we've known reserves were limited and exhaustible for more than a hundred years. Heck, at one point in time, it was considered too valuable to sell to Nazis (the Hindenburg was built to use helium in its gasbags, but the United States was the only country in the world with a strategic reserve--thanks to our uranium deposits--and when relations with Germany became tense in the late 1930s we cut sales). A few decades later, and we're giving the stuff away as a cheap, disposable party favor. No sense at all.

Dr. Phil (Physics) said...

The volume used in balloons is small. Fact is, you can't contain helium long term. Because it is the ultimate noble gas, it passes through the walls of any container -- or room. Then in about six weeks, due to elastic collisions, all those released helium atoms reach escape velocity. The real crime is that we no longer enforce the regulations which required oil and gas wells to recover all helium. We vent far more than gets used in balloons.

Strange to think that all the helium we use is the result of alpha particles from all that U238 in the Earth's crust, collected under ground for millions of years.

Dr. Phil

David said...

See - learn something new every day. I didn't know that helium couldn't be contained, Dr. Phil.

If the solution is just to start capturing the helium again, and since helium is of some strategic and military value, I wonder why there has been no decision to enforce those laws again. Laws benefiting military contractors seem to be the only ones that are popular with Congress these days.

Eric said...

I was all set to make a snarky comment about how a law requiring energy companies to do any extra work would come up against the fact that laws benefiting energy companies are even more popular in Congress than laws benefiting military contractors, but some quick fact-checking has educated me.

What happened, actually, was that the National Helium Reserve ended up consistently in debt because helium demand never quite rose to expectations, so Congress de-authorized Federal helium refineries (PDF link) and made the Bureau Of Land Management responsible only for selling crude helium, and not for storing it.

This strikes me as an example of government being obligated to do what it should, even if it appears to be a money-hole. As Dr. Phil points out, all the helium on Earth is the product of uranium decay over vast stretches of time, and given helium's Nobility and low density, it's marvelous there's any on Earth at all, because helium atoms really don't want to be here and make a point of snootily zipping off as soon as they're capable. (Something I learned in this discussion that I think is also marvelous is that helium manages to hang around for six weeks in spite of its best efforts to have nothing to do with anything else. Thanks, Dr. Phil!)

The only place to get more helium is outer space. Or wait a long time for enough uranium to spit off enough alpha particles to amount to anything, which isn't much of a solution. And helium is likely to become more useful in the future, so we ought to be hanging on to it. Or so I think. Congress, in it's infinite wisdom, largely agreed until the Clinton Administration, then disagreed, and now seems to be having trouble making up its mind (having apparently decided that strategic helium is too valuable to part with but too expensive to keep).

David said...

Thanks, Eric - I tell you, I have learned more than I ever thought I would on this subject, and that is a good thing. :)

I do remember when they gave up on the helium reserve. I didn't think much of it at the time (why do we need stuff for blimps?) but it makes more sense now.