October 28, 2013

Energy Transition: Moving Into a Better Future

On 20 October, 2013 my brother, one of the most important men in my life, was married in a beautiful outdoor ceremony, surrounded by the love of family and friends and by the peace of nature, the whole suffused in brilliant sunshine. His bride, my new sister, was even more radiant than she usually is.

Photo Jason Hutchens

Neither of them are extremely young. They have each seen quite a bit of the world, sometimes on their own, sometimes in a relationship, so far transitory. They have known the advantages to being unattached. There is a certain kind of freedom that you enjoy if you only have to take care of yourself and no-one else.

Like many of us, these two people have decided to give up that freedom, in exchange for a formal and lasting connection, made of their own free will, in a leap of faith that their life together will be better than the separate lives they are leaving behind. The bride's best friend, her honorary brother, read this poem at the ceremony:


Standing on the edge of my open heart
     I leap into the air
     sweet, breathable, yet unknown,
What awaits me I do not pretend to undertand;
     I will open my arms of my days
     and fly into this horizon

                                     Janet Childs


This kind of thing takes courage. A marriage is a celebration, not only of the couple's future life, but also of their courage in having overcome the fear of the unknown: the possibility of having to deal with their partner's ditry socks strewn all over the floor, and other annoying habits as yet undiscovered, other vagaries of a life together.

In this we are like the explorers of old, back when the Earth still had large pieces of Terra Incognita, and when people still warned you of falling off the edge if you went too far, or of monsters that awaited you in unknown seas.

Those warnings didn't deter the Vikings, and later the Spanish and Portuguese explorers: they went ahead anyway, and loaded their too-small ships with men, supplies, and whatever navigation technology they had at their disposal, and set sail.

And found no large sea monsters. But a large new continent, filled with possibility. And beyond that, even more stunning, a vast new ocean, and eventually, the final proof that the earth is not flat but round, and can be circumnavigated. Probably the sestet of Keat's sonnet are still the best words to describe the wonder of discovery:


On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

Much have I traveled in the realms of gold
     And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
     Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
     That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
     Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
     When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
     He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise—
     Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

                                     John Keats


There is the excitement of the "wild surmise". There is a stunning into silence in the solemn acknowledgement of the opening of a whole new era, and a closing of the old. (Darien is what is now Panama).

The "watcher of the skies" is William Herschel, who built telescopes and peered through them at night, after his day jobs as the organist at the Octagon Chapel, as the Director of Public Concerts in Bath and as a music teacher at his home. His observations led to a whole new way of thinking about the birth of solar systems and indeed entire galaxies, and definitively displaced mankind from the center of the universe.

No two ways about it: these transitions and discoveries are scary.

But marriage lends to life a richness that, while not impossible, is very, very difficult to find on your own. The discoverers of the New World brought back with them the potato, tomato and corn, and (my favourite) the coffee bean. They also brought back the tobacco leaf, but we're mostly over that menace now.

After the Age of Discovery, Herschel's astronomical discoveries blew life into a whole new field of cosmology. And the steam engine was invented and put to work, replacing the power of so many horses - and so many slaves.

The rise of abolition was a scary time for slave holders, who had built a very comfortable life for their large families on the power of human labour. Many people in government had ties to slavery (think of Jefferson). People wrung their hands that abolition of slavery would bring about unimaginable disaster and social displacement, that the economy would be ruined; that slavery was the "natural" world order; that abolition would lead to the ruin of the former slaves; that the freed slaves might exact bloody revenge on their former masters.

In other words, that one cannot possibly transition from the energy of slaves to the new energy of coal and oil.

But the world did make that transition.

And now it is time to make the new transition. And it's scary for those of us who have built very comfortable lives on the power of fossil fuels. Many people in government have ties to the fossil fuel industry. People wring their hands that stopping the use of fossil fuels will bring unimaginable disaster and social displacement, that the economy will be ruined, that the development of natural resources is the natural world order, that the transition might give rise to hunger, rioting and bloody uprisings.

Guess what: we now look back and say, Yes, abolition was the obvious, the morally just thing to do. Fossil fuels helped better the lot of countless people, contributed to feeding millions, raised living standards. We're better off than before abolition. Besides, no number of slaves could propel you at 65 mph for hours at a stretch. Or get you and your luggage off the ground and wisk you off toward your vacation destination. Fossil fuels enabled us to do things that anti-abolitionists couldn't have dreamt of.

But for all the good things that the energy from fossil fuels has brought us, we are finding that it has its dark side, in the form of pollution, the encouragement of waste, and now climate change. Sometimes you find out that a relationship has become unhealthy. Then it's time to sue for divorce.

I'm not saying divorce is easy: in many ways it is just as scary as marriage. It's an upheaval. Like in the case of those major discoveries, it's easy to cling to the status quo that is unhealthy but familiar. But it's really time to break away: We all need to be like those explorers. We need to gather our courage, and trust that the new energy will not only get us away from the bad side effects of fossil fuel energy, but will bring us new possibilities that we cannot right now conceive.

Take heart: we can do this energy transition. After all, we've done it before, in getting away from the energy of slaves.



Shared at Simply Natural Saturdays

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  1. Yes, take heart! it's a challenge, but who doesn't like a challenge?

    1. This from the man who installed PV on his roof: a shining example!

  2. Wow ... I love how you make us see things differently ... how you take a wedding and history and weave them into current possibilities. Fabulous ... and beautifully written!

  3. Very well written! I am inspired!


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