Around fifty years ago energy was relatively expensive and formed a large part of most people’s budgets. Then in the United Kingdom there were few homes with central heating and most homes had one light bulb for each room. Water was generally heated by an electric immersion heater (usually made of copper and un-insulated) and people bathed less frequently than they do now. Most heating was by coal, which was cheap. I remember my parents having to fret over the electricity bill far more than they fretted over the coal bill.
Today, of course, most homes are centrally heated by gas and if you do a quick count you will find the number of light bulbs in the average family home with three bedrooms comfortably exceeds thirty. There is almost no burning of coal and water is now usually heated by gas sometimes by condensing boilers and many homes have energy efficient flickering yellow bulbs. From a single car her ten or fifteen households there are many mutli-car households. A household without a car is a rarity, rather than the norm.
Our energy transition over the past two generations has been from expensive and carbon intensive units of energy to less carbon intensive units of energy but we are using far moiré units, as is the entire developed and developing world. We have lost more on the swings than we have gained on the roundabouts. Emissions of greenhouse gas have increased as have the proportion of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.
As energy became cheaper so we could lead more luxurious lives. We could bathe or shower every day and the expense was not prohibitive. We can buy many electrical appliances and electronic gadgets – in fact as many as we wanted almost, and become careless about leaving them switched on. We can buy huge refrigerators which we could fill with food only to throw away much of it uneaten. We can buy some electric gadgets for some apparent labour saving that needed more effort to operate than mechanical gadgets.
So humanity has progressed. It has progressed in the number of luxuries it has enjoyed and in the intensity of energy use. It has also progressed in its relationship with the environment in which it lives and upon which it depends.
Progress is not always beneficial and kind. Often progress is along a path that leads to ruin.
The progress from relative climate stability to likely violent climate change has been driven by huge amounts of fossil fuel which we burned to keep moving and that burning has created much more carbon dioxide than our planet could absorb. Carbon is an essential prerequisite of life but like every essential thing, there is poison if the dose is too large.
The excess carbon dioxide has stayed in the atmosphere, where it acts as a layer of insulation in preventing heat from escaping from the atmosphere. For millennia our climate depended upon heat escaping but as we have now cut off many of the escape routes we have to plan for a changing climate.
I have, perhaps somewhat laboriously, described how we are, as a planet with more than six billion souls, threatened by events that we have created. Other animals may not say “tis sport to see the engineer hoist with his own petard” because the petard we have built will hoist and hang most of them too.
So having created this vicious cycle which now threatens our survival how do we break the cycle? Certainly not by words or statements of intent, or climate change conferences which in a few weeks time will waste the energy and fuel not only by the attendees but also by those new organisations that will report news from Copenhagen that the reporters do not understand to a world that does not want to understand it.
We can only break the vicious circle with hard action which means sacrificing some of our luxuries. We show neither the desire nor do we have the courage to do so.
If we lived with as few energy devices as those who lived two generations ago, modern efficiencies in heating, lighting, car transport may provide a safer climate for future generations. In essence the safety of future generations depends on the willingness of the present generations to be less selfish.