I have watched a few videos recently where Bill Gates talks of a forthcoming revolution in energy technology. I don’t want to do him an injustice but he gives the impression that he thinks this energy revolution will “save the planet”.
I don’t think that a revolution in energy technology will save the planet or even mankind. It has not got the slightest chance. It is a small step among many needed, no more.
Mr Gates is very interested in technology, so it is right that he focuses his efforts on technology, but it is not good when such an influential person paints a too simplistic picture – namely suggesting that some great technological breakthroughs are necessary and sufficient conditions of saving the planet.
We should know what we mean by saving the planet. The human race is a part of the planet but only a little bit of it. It weighs about 300 million tons  while the total mass of life is around 600 billion tons , so the human race is about 1/2000th of life on earth. We are doing our best to increase that proportion through the population getting more numerous and fatter while we simultaneously destroy as much of the rest of life on the planet. We are a relatively small part of the totality of life – yet a species which is on track to eliminating most of the other species and thereby itself.
When we talk about saving the planet we should refer to the totality of life it hosts, with its incredible, unfathomable beauty, ugliness, richness and diversity. Say, 10 million species. Not one.
An energy revolution is very important inasmuch as it brings cheap and clean energy to the world’s human population and thereby removes the desire to burn fossil fuels or cut down forest for fuel. But it won’t reduce our gargantuan appetite for food and the other resources we need to feed our egos or just beat each other up for the hell of it. In fact, the energy revolution could well increase our appetites – no longer held back by constraints in energy supply, the vast human populations of Asia and Africa will find it easier and cheaper to emulate the West in its frenzy to control everything and destroy everything else that it cannot.
Curing Malaria and inventing smart batteries does not cure humanity of its rapaciousness, does not tame the nitrogen cycle which we have sent spiralling out of control since Haber & Bosch’s technological revolution a century ago; it doesn’t bring us to use the land wisely; it doesn’t reduce the population or the birth-rate (education might but an energy revolution does not imply more education); it doesn’t promise any enlightenment. A single, flatulent syllable is enough to disabuse anyone from the notion that economic growth leads to education and enlightenment: Trump.
By all means let’s pursue an energy revolution. But let’s temper the techno-optimism and put technology in perspective. Let’s remember that technological dreams (like others) can easily backfire (lead in petrol, CFCs, DDT and so forth). Let’s also recognise that saving the planet is about much more than technology: it is just as much about culture and society; and it is fundamentally about man’s relationship with the rest of the living planet. Setting our relationship with other living things on a harmonious keel, if at all possible, would seem to need a new enlightenment, a social and cultural change on an immense and daunting scale – something which should also, rightly, terrify us, since the science of social engineering is even less understood than the science of cheap and clean energy.
If Mr Gates has the bandwidth to complement the great work he does on energy, he might want to fund research on how we bring mankind to love nature and live in harmony with other living things.
Image made on Mononotes TM