Paul Allen, who will be participating in Findhorn’s New Story Summit 27 September – 3 October 2014, shares his vision of a new story for humanity in this excerpt from a short talk he will be giving at the event. Paul is a member of the famous Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) and is a leader in the ground-breaking Zero Carbon Britain research programme.
Our current relationship with energy is only the most recent chapter in a very long story. Since the dawn of life, photosynthesis has been combining energy from the sun with carbon dioxide and water to power the birth, life and death of an incredible evolution of living creatures. As they died, they each took a portion of this captured solar energy and carbon with them as they fell to the forest or ocean floor. Under the influence of time, temperature and pressure these dead plants and animals became ‘fossil fuels’ – first peat, then lignite, and finally coal, oil and gas. This process went on for millions upon millions of years, creating the largest, most concentrated and most convenient store of energy we have ever known or are ever likely to know.
For the first few thousand years of civilisation, we humans were completely unaware of this massive energy store. Our access to energy was limited to the ‘annual sunlight ration’ that fell on our particular share of the Earth’s surface. We lived at the mercy of the seasons, aided by the axe and the plough, as soil was the vital medium for converting sunlight into food for our families, grazing for our beasts of burden and wood for our fires. To harvest the things we needed we built complex relationships with the natural systems that surrounded us. Everything depended upon access to land, which is why so much blood was spilled in its pursuit. Gradually we developed sails to capture the wind and waterwheels to capture the rain, but the total energy harvested was pitifully low, as our tools were little more than canvas, wooden poles and buckets.
And then we discovered coal – a massive deposit account containing millions of years of concentrated ancient sunlight. Suddenly humanity was no longer limited to an annual ration of solar energy. For the first time in our history we had access to energy, independent of land or season, under our direct control, whenever and wherever we wanted it – and we could begin to live as no one on Earth had ever lived before. Major changes in agriculture, manufacturing and transportation swept the world, transforming almost every aspect of daily life. Then in 1859 the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company began to drill near a well-known seep in Titusville and the era of commercial oil was born. Oil was a liquid, so could be transported in pipelines rather than trucks and was easily refined to produce highly concentrated fuels such as petrol. Fossil fuels gave us the power to break many of our relationships with natural systems, as not only did they provide limitless energy, they could be used as a chemical feedstock to make plastics to make the thing we use, nylon to make clothes or fertilisers to grow food.
The rise of the fossil-fuelled dream
At the dawn of the 20th century, the western world was awash with ever increasing volumes of dirt-cheap fossil-fuel energy, so populations escalated, business industrialised and our captains of industry created economic systems built around the assumption that growth is the norm, and that it would be both perpetual and un-restricted. Coal, oil and gas were plentiful and highly profitable to produce – leading to the re-manufacturing of both our internal (psychological) and external (physical) landscapes to compel us to use ever-greater quantities of energy.
In the physical landscape, trams and rail networks were bought up and removed and newly sprawling towns and suburbs were designed to make the car not just a convenience – but an absolute necessity. Our internal landscapes we also re-designed; although the idea of using goods to show wealth and social standing goes back to ancient Egypt, fossil fuels provided the means for this to become a mass phenomenon. One of the pioneers, Edward Louis Bernays, integrated ideas on crowd psychology with the psychoanalytical ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, and sold the idea of ‘conspicuous consumption’ to American corporations. Underpinned by abundant cheap fossil fuels, powerful new social norms began to take a firm, yet sub-conscious hold on an emerging consumer society, making us reluctant to question the energy that underpins them. Almost without anyone realising it, fossil fuels had pervaded every aspect of our lives.
More and more, faster and faster. More and more, faster and faster. We began sleepwalking into a ‘fossil-fuelled dream’, based on the assumption we’d have access to ever-increasing quantities of cheap energy. In comparison to any other time in our history the energy underpinning a typical western lifestyle went off the radar, but it was quickly normalised. New generations have grown up within this norm, expecting that the lights will always come on, that there will be petrol in the pumps and stocked shelves in the supermarket, and that we will have more fun, better relationships and greater success if we buy more, eat more, travel more and spend more.
A broken dream
But by the closing years of the 20th century, this fossil-fuel dream was clearly fracturing. In a little over 150 years, around half of the Earth’s massive reserves of conventional oil and gas, representing hundreds of million years of concentrated solar energy, had been consumed by a small but wealthy minority. Then, in the wake of the western media projecting our high-energy modernity across the globe, the rest of the world also began to claim their right to such lifestyles. Just as demand began exploding around the world, global rates of conventional oil production approached their peak, after which they must plateau and inevitably go into decline, with what remains being dirtier, harder to extract and considerably more expensive. In addition, we recognised that in burning fossil fuels we had been releasing inordinate amounts of the carbon dioxide locked away by ancient photosynthesis, taking us to the point of triggering dangerous runaway feedbacks in natural climate systems.
Based on the evidence from current Earth Systems Science, we now know current UK emissions reduction pledges are not enough offer a reasonable chance of avoiding dangerous climate change. If everyone follows the fossil fuel dream and tries to live as we have lived, humanity will damage the natural systems that support us – in a deep way, far beyond anyone’s ability to adapt. Yet despite urgent new evidence, progress has been pitifully slow. It is now over 5 years since the world’s political leaders publicly committed us at the Copenhagen UN climate summit to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2°C above the pre-industrial average. During this time, governments have postured and shifted positions over who is responsible for what, whilst committing themselves to as small a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as possible, without any framework or scenario to show how far short this is falling from their agreed 2°C commitment.
The UK finds itself in a catch-22 situation in which business, government and civil society are all looking to each other for leadership on climate. We, as a society, have so far been hesitant to act, as government rhetoric does not reflect the scale of the threat outlined by science. Government focuses on the electoral horizon, not daring to take bolder action out of concern that they lack corporate and social mandate, and may lose votes or media backing. Our modern business corporations, their boards and CEOs are systematically compelled, by the free-market system, to maximise short-term returns to shareholders. They resist legislation on emissions reduction, not through deliberate malice, but because shareholder capital has been deployed in pipelines, mines, oil wells or refineries and it is their legal obligation to maximise return on that investment. To make matters worse, the valuation of these oil and gas companies and of the large pension funds that hold shares in them are now based on the premise that these reserves are burnable. As these energy companies are currently very profitable with massive turnovers in excess of many nations, highly skilled lobbyists, researchers and advertisers deploy vast resources to keep their dream alive a little longer.
But the window of opportunity is closing; many people are now experiencing climate change first hand, and it is time to act. The overwhelming scientific consensus clearly points the way forward – but our vested interests are dragging us in almost the opposite direction. As more and more of us piece together this alarming big picture, this collective human violation of our planetary life-support system becomes one of the deepest and most pervasive sources of anxiety in our time. We see this, we know this, we realise the consequences but feel disempowered. Society has created taboos against the public expression of such emotion and anguish; it is more culturally acceptable to passively observe. We are held fast, sleepwalking through the shopping malls, distracted, paralysed and overloaded in a continuous barrage of information. We simply put it away in that locker, just out of our conscious thought, where smokers keep the knowledge about lung cancer while they get on with the immediate challenges of the day.
Yet if we do not deal with such feelings they manifest in our physical or mental conditions. Over recent decades such collective fear and disempowerment have transformed the way we think about future: from an exciting 1950s world of progress and excitement – to a dark and uncertain world of fear. Every time our contemporary culture looks a decade or two ahead, we now paint ecological collapse and zombie-ridden dystopia. Be it a novel, play, film, TV series or even computer game, the setting is always dark. From Blade Runner to The Road, from 28 Days Later to World War Z – the list seems endless, and a whole new generation are growing up with this vision. And if we are unable to imagine a positive future, how can we create it?
A new story…
Clearly it is time to re-think the future; we know it is possible to reduce emissions fast enough to prevent the really serious problems. Through projects such as Zero Carbon Britain we can access the hard data and confidence required to visualise what a climate-positive future might actually be like. Through linking up smart approaches to food production, diet, buildings, transport, energy and land use we find we have all that is needed to make the transition. We are no longer limited to soil, canvas and wooden poles – we now have an incredible array of ultra-modern technologies capable of capturing enough renewable energy to meet our needs. Rather than residing precariously at the end of the peaking pipeline of polluting fossil fuel imports, Britain can head an indigenous renewable energy supply chain powering a lean, re-localised economy. Fields, forests, islands, rivers, coastlines, barns and buildings hold potential to become both energy and revenue generators, with different technologies appropriate to every scale or location. By their very nature these renewable reserves will not peak. In fact, as renewable energy technology matures and becomes economic in a wider range of applications, the available reserves actually increase.
However, such a transition remains beyond the boundaries of what is currently ‘politically thinkable’ and so has become every bit as much a challenge for our democracy and culture as it is for our technology. Science tells us things – but it is art that helps us take them on board at a deeper level. Creative practice has shown how we can break through prejudice, apathy, economic pressures and blind spots to catalyse a transformation of culture, attitudes and behaviours. Over just a few decades, creativity has radically transformed entrenched attitudes to gender, race, religion, class, health and safety, exploitation and equity. Once a cultural shift is catalysed, legal, political and administrative frameworks follow suit.
Physically, we now have everything we need to transform our energy and living systems but it must be driven by a cultural shift – and we know from our history that these can be catalysed by our art and creativity. So we must re-integrate our arts and sciences can offer a mirror to help us reflect on that 1950s fossil-fuelled dream, which still seeps out into the global subconscious, and to create new spaces, both real and virtual, where inspiration, optimism and the possibility of positive change can be nurtured and explored. Together we can paint a mural across the invisible elephant walking through the shopping malls. Rather than playing a comforting piano in the bar of the Titanic, we can use our creativity to connect up those practical examples of a positive future we see dappled here in the present.
Let’s imagine and bring to life a new culture, no longer focused on simply maximising economic growth, and conspicuous consumption but rather on maximising equity and wellbeing. So, let’s stop growing for the sake of growing and do other things instead. Let’s focus on the things we actually want – delivering a safe environment for kids to play, having more free time to do the things we love, clean, safe hospitals, a healthy natural environment and re-building a sense of community through a collective purpose. If such a culture shift could be achieved, wars over dwindling fossil-fuel reserves could be avoided, millions of global jobs created, economies stimulated and climate chaos avoided; equally importantly, that sense of collective excitement about the future, not seen for a generation or more, could be re-generated.
As we transform our culture, technology and lifestyle we begin to glimpse the next chapter in the extraordinary story of human beings and energy, embracing what it would actually be like to live and love in a world where we are rising to our global challenges. Such a rapid transition will be the ‘greatest turning’ we have made in generations, and will require a great many to commit to the challenge, but in doing so we could turn our ‘blessed unrest’ into ‘blessed contentment’ and discover the sense of collective purpose and adventure that we have been craving for a very long time.
Paul Allen FRSA
The Zero Carbon Britain project was originated at the Centre for Alternative Technology in 2006 as a direct response to the urgency of the climate challenge, and has researched and published three reports on rapid decarbonisation. The research demonstrates how we can make the transition demanded by the climate science within the necessary timeframe. It shows how we achieve a modern society with net zero emissions, using only currently available technology. By producing a robust and technically feasible scenario, the project aims to increase awareness and understanding of solutions to the climate challenge across all sectors of society, and to support and encourage the necessary action to achieve a climate positive, zero carbon future. Published in July 2013, the latest report ‘Rethinking the future’ integrates new detailed research on managing the variability in supply and demand within a 100% renewable energy system, and on balancing our land use requirements to provide a healthy, low-carbon diet. See www.zerocarbonbritain.com