ZCBlog: The Story of Human Beings and Energy


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Humanity’s relationship with energy presents us with some big challenges, not only for our technology, but also for our culture, society and democracy. In his recent article for Resurgence & Ecologist magazine, Paul Allen, the Zero Carbon Britain Project Officer, takes a look at how this relationship evolved and exactly where it went wrong.

The extraordinary story of humans and energy began over 400 million years ago with the formation of fossil fuels. For thousands of years human societies lived on their annual sunlight ration, until the discovery of fossil fuels, that had a massive effect on how we see ourselves and our relationships with our friends, family, communities and the natural world. On one hand such a transition brought us the incredible advances of medicine, science, education and entertainment. But on the other hand, we must now live with, or bury, the pain of the destruction, exploitation and capitalisation of our natural spaces and the people who inhabit them.

Although it has become a deeply pervasive source of anxiety, society has created taboos against the public expression of such anguish, leaving many paralysed, overloaded with information – sleepwalking through the shopping malls. Over time, this build-up of collective anxiety has transformed the way contemporary culture portrays our future: from an exciting new world of progress to one of darkness and uncertainty. Whenever contemporary culture looks ten or twenty years ahead, we now paint dystopia and ecological collapse.

Forest of oil wells in Signal Hill, California 1923
Field of oil wells in Signal Hill, California 1923

Yet if people can’t imagine a positive future, how will they create it? The Zero Carbon Britain project has been developed by CAT to help us to think differently. We must, of course, acknowledge that fossil fuels have enabled a fantastic transformation: fuelling the embryo of human society, much like the yolk of an egg fuels the development of the chick. But we know fossil fuels cannot go on forever, as burning them releases the massive amounts of carbon dioxide locked away when they were formed, and the peaking of conventional oil and gas supplies will also cause increasing turmoil in the economies and societies that still depend heavily on them.

Wind and Solar energy generation at CAT

The next chapter the story of humans and energy must begin now. Our tools for energy capture are now no longer limited to soil, canvas and wood; we now have an incredible array of renewable technologies that can capture enough energy from our annual sunlight ration to more than meet our global needs. The conclusion of the story of humans and energy is still unwritten, but is has become clear that our 21st century challenges can no longer be met with a 20th century approach, including how we think about the future!

Zero Carbon Britain – Rethinking the Future is available to download free of charge.

The full Resurgence & Ecologist article can also be found on their website.