Our energy history – understanding the past to reframe the future

For those that missed Paul and Lola’s inspiring “Extraordinary Story of Human Beings Energy and Happiness” Jon Turney reviews the evening here:

Energy is the master resource: for life, for human beings, for civilisation. But how should we think about it in the twenty-first century? Paul Allen’s presentation for Zero West at the Station in Bristol last week (Jan 25th) was an impassioned call to rethink our energy history. His talk, richly illustrated with images and archive footage, and enhanced by Lola Perrin’s specially composed music, is a deep and wide synthesis, hard to summarise. You probably had to be there, to get the full benefit of the blend of sound, vision – and ideas. Happily, the bare bones can be read (here – https://www.resurgence.org/magazine/article4062.html, or here – http://www.zerocarbonbritain.org/…/The-extraordinary-story-…), and you really should. So here are just a few points that stood out, in lieu of a precis.

Long story short: all we ever do (Earthbound nuclear fission aside) is appropriate sunshine, one way or another. For almost all human history, this meant using energy captured by photosynthesis – whether via food, fuel, draft animals, or slaves. A little wind and water power, themselves sun-driven, iced the energy cake: everything else came ultimately from plants.

All the while, largely unheeded, some solar energy was also captured, via plants, as fossil fuel. Learning to tap those ancient stores – coal first, then gas and oil – built the world we live in now, with all its comforts and conveniences, and its planned obsolescence and hyper-consumption, and alienation. As he put it, our internal as well as external landscapes were remodelled to maximise energy consumption.

We should regard the last 150 years as an energy extreme, Allen insists. It is neither normal nor sustainable. Fortunately, as the work of the Zero Carbon Britain project at the Centre for Alternative Technology – which he co-ordinates – has shown, we can see a path to a viable future.

That can be hard. We seem awash with climate doom and gloom, and downcast by relentlessly dystopian fiction. But we understand how to harness renewable energy, reverting to capturing solar heat year by year instead of releasing it from the ancient deposits. We can institute a culture shift, as we transform our infrastructure, that presages a low carbon lifestyle in which quality of life is enhanced, not compromised. 

One day, we’ll look back on fossil fuels as an important step in our story, but one we have put behind us. “Let’s make it happen together”, said Paul. Zero West is our effort to do that.

Author: Zero West