Amongst those people who are alert to the ‘perfect storm’ of climate change coupled with peak oil frustration is building as political debates seem to discuss everything else except this, the UN Copenhagen fiasco portends further international talk fests that accomplish little and the tiny steps attempted towards reform (“we might put a price on carbon”) are quickly tossed out of the balloon when some group complains. To many people actual progress is proceeding at a pre-global warming glacial pace. To those people the need to move to a low carbon or even carbon free energy future is critical if we are to prevent runaway global warming. Yet around them they see almost nothing is changing. In Australia we are digging the black and brown coal up as fast as we can and either sending it off to China or burning it to meet or urban energy needs to run our plasma televisions, and air conditioners. Any entrepreneur who proposes a wind turbine farm is certainly going to be opposed by group objecting to the ruination of the landscape, the danger to wildlife or the impact on property prices. Meanwhile state governments invest in freeways rather than public transport and the proliferation of low cost airlines and the growth in per capita air miles is seen as an unproblematic ‘good’.
It is opportune that Vaclav Smil’s latest offering, Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects, has just landed. Smil is required, if uncomfortable reading, for anyone who professes a concern in matters to do with energy transition. In his previous writings Smil has outlined in forensic detail all aspects of our current energy system. In his previous books Smil has destroyed the optimistic claims proffered by alternative energy proponents that we can maintain our current economic and social systems by just changing from carbon-based systems to something else. The numbers just do not add up. So is Smil also impatient for change? No he is not.
In this book Smil outlines how the energy transformation that we must make, and we will make it, is a generational exercise. The history of energy system transformations show us that anything up to four generations would be needed to accomplish the bulk of the economic, political, scientific and social unwinding and rewinding that will have to take place. When we change how we get our energy, and especially if the energy that is coming gives a lower energy return on its investment then everything must change – by everything he means how we live, work, feed ourselves, educate our children, form communities, relate to other people, form our geopolitical relationships, fight our wars, entertain ourselves and create art. Everything.
Smil’s latest warning is that people are underestimating the extent of change and overestimating how quickly the changes can occur. When things move slowly, as Smil says they must, then people will get frustrated, will toss out their political leaders because they are not ‘doing anything’, and then toss out the ones after that because they are no better. What will follow is decline in institutional respect, suspicion that others are ‘free riding’ on the backs of others who are trying to do the ‘right things’ and commercial enterprises will flee from investing in the necessary innovations.
Into this unpleasant scenario I inject myself and all the other like-minded souls who are concerned about the future. What should we do, given Smil’s prediction? I suggest we need to practice patience and purpose.
If Smil is right, and I think he is pretty close, then I think preaching and practicing patience is a good first step. We need to realise that we are unlikely to see the desired transition in our lifetimes. Rather than blame others for failing to do more we should adopt the philosophy of the people who built the great cathedrals and their like. Begin a monumental building process that will be completed and enjoyed by those who come after us. Ours is not the key generation, not the group who will save the world. It merely is the generation that realises that a lot needs to be done and so starting work is far more important that thinking about the end. Adopting and living to that purpose might be the best thing we can do.
Patience and purpose together. The necessary changes will be made quickest when someone starts, so we are the ones who can start now. We need the patience to realise that our individual actions will be largely invisible, like the actions of the person who lays one stone in a wall are largely invisible when the wall is completed. We need the purpose to stay at the task while others are not doing likewise. Someone needs to start, I think it needs to be us.