Human civilization was shaped by energy, and our ability to make it available in useful forms. Planning for the coming age of energy abundance we will have to understand beforehand the type of society that will emerge, and how to thrive in it.
In today’s high income countries we take reliable energy for granted, gas for our cars, electricity for lighting and air conditioning, heating in winter. Energy for transportation, industry and agriculture have created the world we live in. Power availability and energy consumption per capita are strictly correlated to economic output, but also to apparently farther components of society.
If you asked a Roman slave if his life was just, the answer would have been a clear no. But a followup question, if he could imagine a society where slavery was outlawed, would have been met with incredulity and ridicule. “Hey, I’ve got a Coliseum to build! If I refuse, I’ll be killed, and the next slave will take my place. But how could it be built otherwise?”
Today slavery is illegal worldwide. We have been able to achieve this not because we are better than the Romans from a moral standpoint. (To prove this, there is plenty of slavery in practice still today, and child labor in coal mines was perfectly acceptable just a hundred years ago or so.) We have been able to restructure society because we didn’t need to rely on human and animal muscle power anymore.
We are moving in a world where new levels of power and energy consumption are possible, and going to be commonplace. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, an increase of an order of magnitude. For example 30 kW per household in Europe, and 1 Tj per person per year, instead of the 3 kW and 1.5 Gj of today.
What would you be able to do in a society like that? What problems that we are facing today would be easily solved? What new problems would emerge?
Abundance from today’s point of view may appear an ideal utopia, but it is just a new equilibrium, with its own challenges. As we achieved a production of calories that lead to the radical increase of population, and availability of food, our behaviors did not adapt rapidly enough, and we have a worldwide epidemic of obesity.
For us the dogmatic position of the Roman slave believing that a society without slavery would never be possible looks laughable. What are the dogmatic assumptions about society today, that will look equally ridiculous in the world of tomorrow?
These are some of the themes, that I will be covering in my talk at the New Energy World Symposium, and I hope you will join me.
Registration for the New Energy World Symposium is open. An Early Bird discount of EUR195 is valid until February 17.