Where to put our energies
On Europe's wake-up call about the need for energy, and how it could change the world if we really commit to the effort
One of the factors that diminished the deterrent effects of European warnings against a Russian invasion of Ukraine was continental Europe's dependency on Russian-supplied natural gas. About a quarter of European energy comes from natural gas, with half of that used for heating, and about a quarter used for each of industrial purposes and electrical generation. Europe counts on Russia for 41% of its natural gas.
■ Part of this dependency comes from the depletion of Europe's own North Sea gas supplies; it's not often easy to make a transition from one energy source to others, so finding other supplies was easier for many purposes than going with alternatives. Another part of this dependency is the result of European efforts to phase-out the use of coal in order to reduce carbon pollution (a meritorious goal). But renewable energy is still in a growth phase -- and Germany is prematurely shutting down its nuclear-energy supply.
■ For all of human history, we've been constrained mainly by resources. We've managed to stay ahead of Malthusian collapse thanks to innovation, and that innovation has been driven in no small part by markets. As resources become scarce, the incentives grow to find alternatives or to use the existing resources more efficiently. (It also helps that increasing prosperity tends to act as a serious depressant on birth rates.)
■ But things could get interesting -- in a good way! -- as we emerge on the other side of our current energy-related growing pains. Renewable energy is on a tear, already accounting for more than half of Iowa's electricity (with other states to follow). As the cost of generating solar power continues in a freefall and the cost of energy storage drops, we can start to imagine a situation in which energy may not be completely free -- but it could enter a virtuous cycle in which it becomes ever-cheaper.
■ Should that become the case, we can imagine outcomes that would result from a world in which energy becomes nearly cost-free. Most importantly, the resource limitations that have defined human history could begin to lift: Unlimited energy would let us clean our air and our water virtually without constraint. It would let us produce food anywhere (with the help of artificial illumination inside greenhouses and vertical farms) and without susceptibility to weather or climate problems. It would even permit us to recycle now-wasted resources of all types, reducing still further the Malthusian limitations on our world.
■ The faster we can push the cost of energy as close to zero as possible, the sooner our most important constraint will shift from the scarcity of resources to the innovative capacity of the human mind. We have geniuses like Norman Borlaug to thank for having rescued millions of lives from starvation.
■ If almost-free energy can help the world reach a stage wherein resources are so abundant that they are no longer serious constraining factors, many of the consequences of absolute poverty could be erased, lifting people into greater economic security. And it is under conditions of resource security that people can pursue the most challenging and rewarding of research, advancement, and new ideas.
■ For now, we still have to live with significant constraints. And energy may remain the most painful among them for a while to come. But sometimes the shock of disaster serves as a wake-up call to those who had been complacent. Figuring out how to throw off the yoke of energy dependency as soon as possible ought now to be a self-evident priority of the very first order. And if we succeed at it, the feedback loop it would create could be enormously rewarding for all of us on this pale blue dot in space.