Energy has been a hub of human civilisation ever since human sapiens developed skills enough to understand the evolution of mankind. They realised fairly early in their civil life that plants and vegetables grow out of proper nourishment from the soil, water, sun etc. Later on as civilisation developed more specific insights components of soil, the role of water and the space needed for the sun to take effect on planetary life was made more specific. Be that as it may, the form of energy needed to propel movement, reinforce life, strengthen action got more varied. Force of water was discovered to move activities off the land surface, wind power pushed when channelized or put in control. The concept of ‘sail ’emerged. Subsequently fossil fuel came into the picture as did petroleum and natural gas. Thermal energy became the toast of many human efforts. Atomic fission lead to release of energy– like in all other cases in both a constructive and a destructive manner.
Then two events happened, one – the realisation that someday the sources of non-renewable energy would run out. The renewable sources of energy became the foci of attention. Very soon there was a commonplace realisation that everyday life, if it was active, needed some source of energy. The second realisation, perhaps partially reinforcing the first. Was of one creating a new bleak scenario out of the pandemic of Covid-19.
The year-long experience and still continuing, exposed the limitations of human knowledge and boundaries of scientific discovery. It is a humbling experience. The endless series of webinars and chats talked of change, very little of which seemed to have impacted the ground conditions. That may be another story.
Even before the end of 2019, there were institutions, building energy scenarios. As compared to beginning of the 21st century when coal was estimated to provide 43% of global power generation, by 2050 it was supposed to be reduced to 16%. Fossil fuels which at the beginning of the century were providing 67% of global energy, were estimated to go down to 38% by the middle of the century. Forecasting energy estimates of availability and utilisation was big business.
The renewable sources of energy became the foci of attention. Very soon there was a commonplace realisation that everyday life, if it was active, needed some source of energy.
It was gradually realised that future of energy was about technology not about fossil fuels. With this realisation the vocabulary began to change. The talk of green energy became popular and in the pantheon of air, water and indeed ocean energy entered gas. Gas became important because it was considered clean fuel. Coal was definitely out but remained in focus because it helped to generate employment. With talk of green energy, talk of energy took on different shades. Green energy referred to that kind of energy, also, which arose from natural resources such as sunlight, wind, water and more. Their charm was they do not hurt the environment.
It may be strange but true that the accelerator for fossil fuel energy was pressed at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century putting coal at the centre of industrial revolution, which was then experiencing an overdrive in Britain and some other European countries. It fuelled the expansion of the European empires across the globe from North America to Australia. The key participants included Britain, France, Portugal, Spain and a sundry assortment of other nationalities. Steam ships replaced the sail ships. Aeroplanes were still a matter of the future. Cargo ships and passenger ships in that order empowered nations to take charge of huge land masses which included Canada, what is now United States, Australia and New Zealand. The emerging empires penetrated even the more populous territories in South America, Africa and Asia. It was happening because energy sources gave imperial mother countries, power. Supported by coercive power of the gun and ammunition, imperial advance was speedy, ruthless and almost total. It led to raw material loot to fuel the industrial prowess of imperial nations and the rest is history. World War I and World War II were glaring illustrations of what even organised human propaganda could not obliterate.
The impact of exploitative industrialisation on manpower, wealth accumulation in certain pockets of the earth was so comprehensive that slowly but surely even climate got to be affected. The search began for new protocols.
It is estimated that the years 2013 to 2020 were the warmest years, on record, of this planet since 1880. It almost inspired one of the most famous titles of novels in English, ‘For whom the Bell tolls?’ The question doing the rounds was; has humanity overreached itself through its rapacious search for more comfort, more wealth and inevitably higher dominance.
Yet one of the many facts of life is that in spite of the Greek philosophers’ enunciation, human beings are not sufficiently, ‘learning animals. Their capacity to learn and change is very slow and very often small. The constant search for convenience and comforting logic creates a situation which makes it impossible to bridge unfathomable realities.’
The story of energy and human civilisation highlights this process more than anything else.
To close the narrative above, it needs to be noted that, empirically, it is established that only 20% of people who suffer a heart attack change their lifestyles. How much the human race will learn out of the experience called pandemic is a matter of current and future speculation. One thing that is clear for the Post-Covid era is that unless the human race learns to fashion sustainable change, the colour of the future itself may be difficult to predict. That will determine business.