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The Energy Transition will Transform Society

We are in the middle of an Energy Transition right now!!  Philosopher and author Roman Krznaric looks at how this will change our lives and society in ways that are unimaginable.

Towards the Philosophy of Energy

I’ve always had a phobia about science. Don’t bother asking me about the difference between red and white blood cells, or what an electron is. I just don’t know. And when I try to read up on it, the knowledge seems to disappear into a cognitive black hole in my brain. My excuse – such as I have one – is that I’m a philosopher and cultural historian, and tend to busy myself thinking about subjects like the art of living and social change.

So it may seem a little strange that I’m trying to write a few words here about one of the subjects at the heart of the scientific endeavour: energy. I might have solar PV on my roof, but I’m the first to admit that I don’t really know how it works. I realise, though, that understanding the energy transition that we are in the midst of – switching, if far too slowly, from fossil fuels to renewable alternatives – is of colossal importance. It is set to have a seismic impact on how we live: in our families, in our local communities, and on our one and only fragile planet.

I have therefore decided to put myself on a scientific sabbatical and spend the next year exploring this energy transition, particularly trying to understand how it will impact on social relations in the megacities of tomorrow, in both the developed and developing world, from Greater London to Greater São Paulo. I’ve started talking to solar technology experts, particle accelerator physicists, and engineers endeavouring to build mini nuclear fusion reactors. I also recently sat in on a week of fascinating MSc lectures on the future of energy at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute under the watchful eye of solar guru, and Joju Technical Director,  Dr Chris Jardine.

I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned so far – my various thoughts and reflections on what might be broadly called the ‘philosophy of energy’. I’d like to share one simple observation at this early stage of my journey. My apologies if it is obvious to you – I am writing from a starting point of being an energy novice. Here it is:

We have no real idea what is about to hit us.

Yes, that’s it. Let me explain.

Energy Transitions aren’t always noticeable

One of the curious things about the industrial revolution, and the rise of fossil-fuel economies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was that those who were in the midst of it hardly realised it was going on or recognised what impact it would have on daily life. According to historian E. A. Wrigley in his book Energy and the English Industrial Revolution, even great economic thinkers like Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo were ‘unaware of the transformation in train’ and ‘were unanimous in dismissing the possibility of what later generations came to term an industrial revolution’.

Energy Transitions have unexpected effects

Even today we can still fail to grasp how profound the effects of this energy transition were on social relations. A classic example, familiar to historians of domestic technology, concerns the invention of the enclosed iron stove in the eighteenth century. Previous to this innovation, men were typically tied to working in and around the home, particularly to gather and cut firewood for heating and cooking. But once the iron stove came along, and coal replaced wood as the standard fuel, it became necessary for men to put down their axes and enter the paid industrial workforce to earn enough cash to buy the coal they needed to fuel this wonderful new appliance.

The unexpected result was to exacerbate gender divisions: men were no longer around the household to do domestic chores and support child rearing as they had done for centuries (yes, there were plenty more househusbands back then) and as a consequence women were left, literally, holding the baby (as well as the cooking pot).

Cookstove, energy transition, gender, society, community

The innocent enclosed iron stove caused huge ruptures in gender relations across the Western world.

What about the current Energy Transition?

I am certainly not able to predict how the energy transition taking place today is going to affect our lives, but I am certain that we need to get ready for the unexpected. Energy flows through every aspect of human existence. As commentators such as the economic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin have pointed out – for instance in his book The Third Industrial Revolution – if we are generating, owning and distributing energy in new ways, it is bound to have profound social impacts.

Just imagine, for instance, that we see a major spread of community micro-generation schemes, with neighbourhoods collaborating to share the solar energy they produce on their roofs, and developing shared battery storage facilities to keep the lights on during long winter evenings. This is more than just a shift to the age of the ‘prosumer’, where we are both consumers and producers of energy. It could have far wider ramifications, for instance by strengthening community cohesion and reinforcing pressures for the decentralisation of economic and political power as the old centralised system of energy production gradually erodes. With energy production and ownership becoming local, people may well want a lot of other things to be local too. The way we power our households could end up empowering our communities.

If, on the other hand, we all opt for individual battery storage and stay cocooned inside our own homes, or if energy storage becomes dominated by large corporations, then the potential of solar technologies to promote community life and the decentralisation of power may not be realised.

In this sense, energy transitions could have significant effects on two of the great issues of social and political life of the modern era: the balance between individual and communal values in society, and the extent of centralised, elite-dominated politics. None of this, of course, would have surprised someone like Karl Marx, who believed that altering the economic ‘base’ (the structure of economic ownership and organisation) would have enormous knock-on effects on the ‘superstructure’ of culture and politics.

Just as the internet has impacted on everything from how we fall in love to how education works, we can expect that the energy transition will, in fits and starts, have similarly profound effects on the landscape of daily life, from work and health care to family relations and how we spend our leisure time. It will touch everything (and in some part of the world this is already starting to happen).

So all I can say at this point is strap on the seatbelt in your electric car and get ready for a bumpy ride. And let’s hope that our final destination is one where humankind can thrive sustainably on our planetary home.

Roman Krznaric is a philosopher, cultural historian and energy novice. His new book is Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day. Find out more at

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