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The Ultimate Source of Clean Energy: You

Photo © alphaspirit/Adobe Stock

A seemingly universal consensus: The world needs more energy. And it has to be clean. Fossil is out, renewable is in – etc. etc. etc. You know the drill – it’s everywhere, all day. What if it’s wrong? The metrics, the goals, the premise?

What strikes me is that we rarely question neither the metrics nor the goals. They’re taken as given, carved in stone, unchangeable – like gravity. It’s wrong – they aren’t. Even the most fundamental of parameters are not only changeable, they should be questioned. Like ‘new energy has to be clean’. Obvious, right? Until we realize that there is no universal definition of clean, not even ‘sustainable’.

For example: Hydroelectric energy is considered clean and sustainable by definition, but is it? What about the destructive changes we make in order to ‘cultivate’ nature to provide the energy? Tunnels, roads, dams, huge flooded areas, dried out lakes and rivers, destroyed habitat and wildlife, powerlines – the list goes on. How clean is this? And wind turbines? The list is about the same.

‘That’s the cost of development, progress’ seems to be the common consensus. Or at least, that was the common consensus until recently. Fortunately, more people are asking more questions these days. Which brings me to the first point above: ‘The world needs more energy.’ Really? The fact is that this single statement and the mindset it communicates, is killing our planet, destroying our future. A corollary to the statement is the following: ‘We have to continue to use fossile and other ‘bad’ energy sources until we find new and better ones.’ Implicitly – it’s acceptable that the change takes time. But is it?

Again, the question of metrics pops up: How much change, how much time? The answer is ‘we don’t know’ – and ‘it doesn’t look good’. It seems we need much change and have little time. And – even more importantly – the stakes are high: Survival. That’s the one thing many people – even politicians – seem to finally agree on. So given the stakes, we’d better err on the safe side, right?

Unsurprisingly, the ‘safe side’ means using less energy, not more. For everyone, you and me included. Optimize, downsize, travel less, change lifestyle… At this point most of you will stop reading. You sense this is going in a direction you don’t feel like – at least not right now. But the math is embarrassingly simple: There is no magic bullet. No new energy sources are readily available, many of the old ones must be closed down fast. And while technology will help, technology will not ‘save us’ from making big changes – as discussed in “Tech Will Save Us” – really? a few weeks ago.

Admittedly I’ve been more than a little interested in energy for a long time. Which sent me to Vaclav Smil’s now famous ‘Energy and Civilization – a History‘ back in 2017. An incredible eye-opener (strongly recommended) and a great source of inspiration in its detailed discussions on how the world managed with less energy, how energy continuously changed (and formed) the world – and all the creativity and ingenuity that went into using what was available – in many cases with minimal destructive consequences.

Of course, retrieving energy from nature has always had some consequences. 20 years or more on a treadmill or in a coalmine did not bode for a long and healthy life. For example. 100.000 cobalt miners in Congo enable our supposedly sustainable electric vehicles and cell phones, but are unlikely to turn 40 years.

I was very inspired by Scott Dunn’s post on Medium the other day – The Greenest Energy Is The Energy We Don’t Use. He brings up a very important and rarely discussed factor in the energy equation: Lower energy consumption means less war, more peace. Read the post, his reasoning is enlightening – and inspiring.

As tempting as it is to dive right into the discussion, I’m going to make it short. We don’t need another 10+ minute read on Substack, Medium or, we need focus and mindset. Everyone want peace, survival, sustainability. And while solar panels and big batteries may sound (and look) good, they’re not.

Survival has a price tag: Less energy consumption – which means less consumption in general. We can do that. Many of us have started already. It works. And feels good too.

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