Where there was darkness, now there is light. Pictures of the Earth at night are ablaze with a stunning cacophony of lights. This light show is only made possible through electricity, one of our greatest inventions. The harnessing of energy symbolises our ability to shape the natural world to suit our purposes. Modern civilisation is entirely dependent on this miracle energy source, but there are good and bad sides to this dependency.
The good side is this miracle energy source means many people have standards of living that are beyond our ancestor’s comprehension. You turn on a switch, and a light pops on. You open a fridge, and your food remains fresh. You connect to wi-fi, and you’re connected to millions of people all over the world.
To appreciate just how dependent we have become on electricity, let’s imagine a scenario where you turn a switch, and the lights don’t come on. Imagine an indefinite blackout; no electricity, ever again. How long do you think civilisation (as we know it) would last?
The first few days
As soon as electricity stops working the internet is no more. Your phone, which is largely dependent on the internet anyway, will die after no more than a few days. Televisions no longer work, and newspapers are unable to print. Mass media and the communications network stops in its tracks. A hyper-connected world is suddenly cut off.
Your fridge freezer no longer works (as well as every other white good in the household), and the food quickly begins to go rotten.
The transport system has stopped working — the only way to travel is by car, motorbike, or bicycle. If you are lucky enough to have a gas oven or hob, you can still cook; if you don’t, then it’s raw or cold food from here on.
Oh, and the kettle has stopped working, so you can’t make a cup of tea (or coffee).
Then there are the lights. That glimmering light show is no more. As soon as it goes dark, it’s pitch black. The city would become a foreboding place.
The high street has become a looters paradise because CCTV and the security systems protecting shops are now down. In this heightened state of affairs, it’s not hard to imagine riots flaring up.
A few days after the first few days
Within a few days, the rules that maintained law and order no longer apply. In this new reality, people have little option but to fend for themselves. What makes this new reality all the more hostile is a sense of community that may have created solidarity has evaporated.
In the modern world, rampant individualism has become normalised; everyone has been socialised to see everyone else as competition in a mad dog eat dog world where only the most ruthless survive.
That ruthless mentality translates into an every person for themselves mentality.
In this heightened state of affairs, governments, desperate to maintain law and order, declare mandatory curfews.
The army is deployed in an attempt to maintain order.
But the army is overwhelmed by the army of rioters. It’s not hard to imagine a trigger happy soldier or policeman shooting someone in the carnage.
It’s then, when blood is spilt, that things could start to boil over.
The civilisation that existed only a few weeks before descends into chaos.
Everything that worked no longer does. The system of law and order has been undermined by the energy system that it depended on.
The energy trap
Now, a scenario where the energy system stops working is extremely unlikely. But the point I’m trying to make is that electricity is one of the foundations of modern civilisation. Everything we do is so intertwined with this energy source that civilisation as we know it simply can’t exist without it.
We are slaves to this miraculous energy source that makes our lives so much more convenient.
Yet the bad side of electricity is that while it is a symbol of social progress, it is also a symbol of the climate crisis. Because at present, the only way we can meet the majority of our energy demands is through fossil fuels.
A by-product of these fossil fuels is that they emit carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere.
This release has changed the atmosphere’s composition, leading to a warming climate. If we continue on the same path, we risk increasing the climate to such a degree that it could lead to social collapse.
Here is the ultimate dilemma. We can’t live without electricity, yet we can’t live with it either, because doing so has created a crisis that is only getting worse because of our dependence on energy.
We have become stuck in an energy trap.
At present, 63% of the global electricity supply comes from fossil fuels. It’s simply not realistic to say that we need to stop using fossil fuels immediately; there is no ready-made alternative for us to replace them.
Renewables do have a huge part to play in the energy mix. It’s estimated that 50% of global electricity demand will come from renewable sources by 2050, but this won’t be enough to achieve the goal of net-zero by that point in time.
If we don’t achieve the goal of net-zero, the chances of limiting global climate increases by 1.5 °C will reduce significantly. There is consensus amongst climate scientists that if the 1.5 °C threshold is passed, the impacts of the climate crisis will be far more aggressive.
We can’t live with it; we can’t live without it
What makes the energy trap even worse is that globalisation is leading to more people joining the global middle class. When they do, they join the consumer class of people, and their electricity demands increase.
As a result, electricity demands are estimated to increase by 50% by 2050. So, while renewables will make up a larger proportion of the energy mix by 2050, a large proportion of energy demands will still be met using fossil fuels.
At a time when carbon emissions need to reduce drastically to reach net-zero, that emissions continue to increase makes the possibility of limiting warming to 1.5 °C seem optimistic.
Our civilisation has blossomed through an ability to harness energy to create the goods and services that society needs. Society has never been wealthier. People’s standards of living have never been higher.
The ultimate challenge is that the lifestyles so many see as an expectation aren’t sustainable. The levels of energy they require inevitably mean our reliance on fossil fuels must be maintained.
And so we’re hurtling into a trap.
The problem humanity faces is that once the climate crisis feels like a crisis, the only way to solve it will be to reduce energy demands drastically. That would involve people having to make sacrifices to their standards of living.
Many people simply won’t be prepared to sacrifice their standard of living, even in the face of catastrophe. And so, as energy demands increase, there will be more carbon emissions. This has the potential to lead to catastrophe where runaway climate change becomes a possibility.
While humans won’t voluntarily give up the lifestyles they have come to see as an expectation, we may be forced to if the natural world is transformed due to the changes we are triggering.
Maybe a future where photos of Earth in space at night become eerily dark might not be too far-fetched after all, because an existence without electricity may be a distinct possibility in the future.