I’ve been reading a special issue of Innovations called “Energy for Change: Creating Climate Solutions” which claims to be “as thorough a survey of energy and climate solutions as has yet been compiled”. (I’m not putting a link here because the publisher – naughtily – has changed a contents page into an order page since I wrote about the journal in my newsletter. )
Although authored for the most part by eminent engineers, and published out of Tech Central – MIT – the collection is not wholly about technological solutions. Alongside optimistic papers on electric cars, carbon capture, and nuclear energy, there’s also a paper by Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka and of Get America Working, entitled “Engage People, Not Things”.
Drayton urges structural changes in the economy on the basis that “it makes no sense to subsidize the use of machines by keeping energy prices low while penalizing the use of labor through payroll taxes”.
The collection also includes a trenchant critique of GDP as a measure of economic progress (by Felix Creutzig and Daniel Kammen). “If we keep on measuring an economy predominantly in terms of GDP, we may ignore the fact that its capital base is degrading quickly…as long as natural resources are underpriced, incentives favour the development of technologies that over-exploit them”.
But although the scope of the Innovations special issue is broad, its world-view of energy futures is resolutely top-down. These are for the most part push solutions, and the idea of designing patterns of daily life that use less energy overall is given little attention.
A bottom-up, pull-based approach is exemplifed by a new publication out of th Transition Towns movement.
The Chief Executive of Taunton Deane Borough Council, in the UK, asked two transitioners, Chrissie Godfrey and Paul Birch, to work with the council on a series of workshops that would enable workers and elected officials to create their vision of the borough in 2026.
Each of the eleven workshops considered how leading a low carbon lifestyle over the next 17 years could impact on food and energy production, homes, transport, jobs, holidays and leisure. Participants were very mixed: Plumbers, planners, environmental health officers and car park attendants mixed with senior strategy officers, carpenters, and tree surgeons.
From that rich mix of backgrounds, skills, interests and political leanings emerged the resulting book, “Towards a resilient Taunton Deane” , that tells a surprisingly consistent story about what a resilient Taunton Deane might be like.
The energy section, for example, describes how, by 2026, “a radical overhaul of the planning system helped local communities to take energy generation into their own hands. A surge in locally managed
energy coops has made small scale community heating systems, solar and wind farming and anaerobic digesters commonplace; solar panels are commonplace on homes, and mandatory on public buildings”. However, the book goes on, “it is not just that the Borough is generating so much of its own energy, it is also that people are using far less”.
My point here is not that high-tech push is bad, and bottom-up social pull is good. On the contrary: what’s needed is more interaction, not less, between the tech-oriented world and the social one.
That said, the power relations have to change. I imagine a world filled with Transition Towns that are linked together in a network of trade routes. These trade routes will be new versions of the camel-bearing ones that predated railways and globalisation.
The merchants will offer a wide variety of (inter alia) energy solutions. But it will be for each Town (or cluster thereof) to decide which ones to choose.
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