Can We Solve Our Energy Problems with Existing Technologies Today Without the Need for Breakthrough Innovations?, 17°

Leslie B. 232°

This is the topic of an Oxford-style debate on solving the world’s energy crisis at the Economist -

The argument for solving our energy needs with today's technology is made by Joseph J. Romm, Senior Fellow at the Centre for American Progress and the argument for the need for technology innovation is made by Peter Meisen, President, Global Energy Network Institute. The debate is moderated by Economist correspondent, Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran. Weigh in here or at the Economist web address above. What do you think?

11 replies

C Robb W. 444°

Those are some heavy hitters so at the risk of sounding simplistic I'm going to weigh in. I say YES! We have all we need now. We first need to simply realize we need less.

I don't think we shouldn't pursue technological advancement on the low carbon energy front but we don't have time to wait for breakthroughs. I am personally capable of existing on the amount of energy produced by 1000W of solar panels stored in lead acid batteries and controlled by off the shelf electronics. This assumes I can do without a car. I have done so in the past and intend to do so in the future. Obviously, the energy to produce these products must be sourced but I believe if we as a society decide to divert the vast resources we waste on pointless consumerism, wars, inefficiency, waste, and personal motoring into developing a renewable energy powered grid, homes that don't need heating or cooling, local economy, universal healthcare and education, and rational widespread public transport we would have more than enough energy and would lead healthier and happier lives. We have the technology to do all of this NOW!

Written in August 2008

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Leslie B. 232°

I tend to agree!

Written in August 2008

Charles M. 110°

You can get a good % of the way there by focusing on one word in this: "need".

Our needs are few compared to our wants.

These days so much of our consumption is tied in with this so-called "quality of life" concept. Economists have to have something to measure, so they pretty much equate quality of life with consumption. By that twisted definition our quality of life will decrease if we consume less.

Unfortunately the way people really perceive quality in their lives is much harder to measure (and the variables are pretty much unknown). This really screws up economists, so they just measure numbers that they can find - regarless of whetjer they are good indicators.

Sure, if you are starving and have far too little, then having more is a Good Thing. However we're way past that point. Right now, obese people outnumber starving people so there is no global food shortage. Similarly wasted energy significantly outweighs "energy starvation" and there is no energy shortage either.

We seem to be the victim of millions of years of survival programming: when there is a surplus, consume to excess because there might be hard times. These days we don't really have any shortages so the mindset no longer serves us any useful purpose.

Of course advertising etc only help to keep those consumptive urges alive: consume more. People with guilty feelings about this get targeted with greenwashed products: keep your high consumption behaviour but feel good because you're buying our guilt appeasing products (which you'd be better off not buying).

Written in September 2008

C Robb W. 444°

In the debate Leslie provides a link to, Mr.Meisen has this to say in his opening statement

"More than one and a half billion people spend their days in repetitive labour and subsistence farming, fetching water and wood every day simply to survive. There are two worlds—the fortunate who have electrical energy, and the poor who do not."

While I agree some level of electrical power is a boon to human development as in smoke free light at night and refridgeration. I doesn't follow that we need 4kwh per day. By reducing our consumption of electricity by 90% we could all go off grid for electricity and shut down every coal fired power plant on earth. This is obviously not going to happen but there is a continuum. Cut it by 50% and it becomes easier to get by on renewables even a renewably powered grid. My point is that once very basic needs are met we find that we don't need vast quantities of electricity from polluting power plants halfway across the continent.

Mr. Meisen also seems to have a problem with subsistence farming. Again, I won't say that being desperately poor and having to depend for your very life on the success of your crop is a good thing but there are studies aplenty that point to small scale agriculture feeding into local economy as being not only the most productive and efficient way to produce and distribute food but also the most healthy both for the environment and those who eat the food. One of the reasons obesity is such a problem is that the poor in the developed nations rely on the corporate model of agribusiness for their food. When they go into a market for food they choose the highest calorie foods they can get for the lowest cost. These foods are packed with empty calories and are extremely low in nutritive value, primarily because they come from one crop, corn.

If everyone of those people were to take part in growing some of their own food, they would get better nutrition, more exercise and could afford higher quality food at the market. Subsistence farming should be considered part of the solution not part of the problem. Witness the levels of obesity and diabetes falling in Cuba due to the move to urban agriculture and local subsistence farming.

Mr. Meisen's point about wood is well taken, every effort to reduce deforestation must be undertaken, Rocket stoves and the like are simple devices that enable far less use of biomass fuels. My friend Tristan is working to spread simple technology to do just that in Malawi. See;
If you want to help existing simple local technology getting the job done perhaps consider taking the money you would have spent on a new cell phone and sending it to him instead.

Written in September 2008

Charles M. 110°

I used to live in rural South Africa. I'm white and enjoyed the benefits of being a white person in apartheid South Africa, but... I can speak two African languages and spent a lot of time speaking with, and getting to understand people living as you mention: spending a lot of time in subsistence agriculture, fetching firewood, water etc.

I hope this does not sound like I am demeaning these people: I am not. Most are very proud people and have every reason to be so.

When us Westerners see people living subsistence lives, we immediately try to apply **our** value sets to what we see: "Oh, see that poor woman carrying a bucket of water for miles. We should give here electricity and pumps and a washing machine!"

What we fail to respect is that fetching water or taking laundry to the river might be hard physical work but it is part of the social fabric and provides an occasion for interactions that otherwise would not happen.

Subsistence agriculture, likewise, is hard physical work but the people who practice it are for less ecologically damaging than our labour efficient farmers running around with tractors.

What is also interesting is that while they might work hard, most subsistence cultures have a far better work balance than we Westerners do. In traditional South Africa, Australia etc it is quite common for people to work hard in the morning and do more relaxing stuff (crafts etc) in the afternoon.

We Westerners might think physical work to be demeaning, but really a vast percentage of the jobs we do in our crazy lives are pointless and can easily be done away with.

The Malawian aid worker should have a look at
This project has been going for approx 30 years in South Africa. The hayboxes cut down on the need for cooking fires and reduces firewood consumption. They also make great small village/home industry projects. They work great in conjunction with rocket stoves etc. [Btw: Wonderbox cooking is great in a Western lifestyle too: great for rice and slow cooking beans, soups, stews and tougher meat cuts etc. Put the pot in at breakfast time and come home to a hot meal in the evening.]

Written in September 2008

C Robb W. 444°

I couldn't agree more, why is it we believe that a simple life is somehow less desirable?
I've lived in situations where I had to carry my water to my abode and I found that chore to be a very centering experience, not mention a strengthening one. I was in no way demeaned by it and in fact gained a better understanding of the value of water and the need to conserve it.
I would much prefer to spend my days growing food instead of corporate profit, hauling water over a hill instead of pointless gewgaws across a continent.

Before enlightenment I chop wood I carry water, after enlightenment I chop wood I carry water - Basho?

Written in September 2008

I look at the "Slow Food" movement as a prime example of how we can get by with less, and actually live a more peaceful, healthy, and sustainable life.

I deeply believe that we have all the tools needed, right now, to fix the ills of our planet and self. The challenge is accepting the challenge.

In the "Slow Food" philosophy, you start by examining the fuel that keeps your body going. Where does it come from, how does it get to your hands, and then how does it enter your mouth. Taking time to cut vegetables by hand instead of tossing them into a gizmo dicer or salad shooter (which I consider the pinnacle of human indulgence) offers lessons and pleasures we simply forget to afford ourselves.

By taking this path, the one where you stop and examine what you consume, how you consume, and why you consume, invariably leads to a slower paced life.

I think we humans, especially in Western cultures, have been driven by consumerism to believe that faster is better. But faster is just faster, not better. It has pros and cons like any other choice, but what we (or at least I) am finding is that there is no need for speed in almost anything I do.

We procrastinate so we have to rush, this is a lack of discipline that can easily be managed through SLOWING DOWN (or meditation). We feel self-consious about our personal income, so we work more hours and rush to complete task to compete. But by doing so completely lose our intent in why we toil.

This cycle can be broken (must be broken) and is simply a perspective change. No technology required and a world of good that can happen.

Written in September 2008

Charles M. 110°

RIght on the mark.

A fundamental Western flaw is the desire to compete and measure. We seem to have a need to validate ourselves by external measures and have to boil everything down to numbers. It is not enough to be happy - no, we can "prove" we are happier with a spreadsheet! Just like we want to see numbers for sports people and teams (number of goals/ intercepts/ whatevers) we also want that for our lives to prove that we're better than our parents or whatever. So our beloved economists generated metrics to measure how good we're doing: we have GDP and standard of living metrics. Of course these just measure easy-to-measure numbers, not the things that really say how vital the economy is or how well the people are doing.

The sick thing is that both the standard of living measurement and GDP measure **consumption** not production, let alone more nebulous factors like "happiness" or "fulfillment".

Indeed advertisers and others seem to go to great length to make sure we have poor self image or poor percieved happiness because they have a product to fix that for us. Of course the trick is to give a short term buzz, not to actually fix the problem.

Thus USA has a great GDP and standard of living even though better measures, like the US National Debt clock show a very different picture. Every US citizen **owes** over $20k in federal debt (+ personal debt).

It's a well known fact in any feedback oriented system: you get what you measure. If the feedback is based on broken indicators then it is not at all suprising that people don't feel the wellness of being or security that the GDP and standard of living indicators suggest.

Even though I'm a technologist, I don't see this being anything that technology can solve. It is more of a spiritual thing. The health of a nation, and the world, is the sum of the individual healths of the people. People need to stop getting their validation from external consumption. Being happy within yourself is a good place to start building a better social and economic resilience.

Written in September 2008

C Robb W. 444°

GDP as a measure of the "health" of the economy includes, the economic activity generated by cleaning up and remediating superfund sites, oil spills, and waging war, particularly in this age of transferring what used to be government duties to private contractors, clever accounting turning negatives into positives.

Written in September 2008

The personal loans suppose to be useful for people, which are willing to ground their organization. In fact, that is very easy to get a small business loan.

Written in June 2010

Lets just manufacture a zillion Pinwheel Generators (gravity-driven energy generators). .

Written in May 2011

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