Our recent article on a future in which energy will be abundant and freely available for every person and company on Earth received some interesting feedback. Bottom line: even if this future were within reach, would humanity be capable of handling such a situation wisely? And as a consequence, should we encourage it or try to prevent it instead? Today, we dive into some of the ethical and practical consequences.
- Energy will be abundant and freely available for all, as we concluded in a recent article.
- The question is, can humanity cope with such a situation?
- We examine the ethical and practical consequences in authoritarian and democratic societies.
Manfred van der Voort had some intriguing questions for us:
1) Can we, as a human race, handle abundance well? For example, when it comes to Nutrition, humanity shows that an abundance of unhealthy food does not work out well for everyone; 2) The abundant energy itself may be green, but the generation, distribution, and storage of it sooner or later compete with scarce land, scarce space, scarce water, and scarce mineral resources, and 3) The availability of free green energy in no way means that people will engage in sustainable economic activities with it; in other words, getting green energy is no guarantee of sustainable behavior. As far as sustainable behavior is concerned, humanity does not yet have a positive track record.
Van der Voort also says there are major ethical issues concerned. “We shouldn’t accept that this is ‘just happening’ to us”, he says.
These are some fascinating challenges to consider, and indeed, they reflect potential problems in a future where energy is abundant and free. Let’s look at each one and suggest some countermeasures.
1) Can we, as a human race, handle abundance well?
It’s true that an abundance of resources, particularly food, has not always resulted in positive outcomes for health. This has partly resulted from a lack of education about nutrition, leading to unhealthy choices and a food industry that has often prioritized profits over health.
In the case of abundant energy, education will also be key. People must be educated about the potential impacts of overuse, even if energy becomes abundant. This could involve lessons on the environmental footprint of energy-intensive activities and how to balance comfort and convenience with sustainable practices.
We understand that most people will need incentives for better behavior. That’s why policies and regulations could be implemented to stimulate responsible use of energy. This might look like tax breaks or subsidies for businesses that operate under certain energy consumption thresholds or penalties for excessive energy use.
2) Generation, distribution, and storage of energy may compete with scarce resources
While it’s true that energy generation and storage methods can require land and mineral resources, there are ways to minimize these impacts. For example, renewable energy infrastructure can be integrated into existing buildings and structures (solar panels on rooftops) to minimize the need for additional land. Additionally, energy storage solutions like batteries could be designed to be more efficient and require fewer rare minerals. We’ve seen dozens of examples of such devices on Innovation Origins. Here are 420 examples.
As for the scarcity of water and space, innovative solutions could help. Desalination technologies powered by renewable energy could turn abundant seawater into fresh water, alleviating water scarcity. Likewise, vertical farming could significantly reduce the land needed for agriculture.
3) Free green energy doesn’t guarantee sustainable behavior
Sustainable behavior is indeed a challenge and goes far beyond just the energy source. There will need to be systemic changes across all levels of society. Legislation and regulation will be key here, ensuring that industries are incentivized to adopt sustainable practices and penalized for harmful practices.
Public education and fostering a culture of sustainability can also drive sustainable behavior. This can include initiatives to increase awareness about the impacts of consumption, waste reduction programs, and promotion of sustainable alternatives.
Lastly, research and development can be directed toward creating more sustainable technologies and practices. This could include everything from more energy-efficient appliances to new materials that replace plastic.
Looking at Manfred van der Voort’s three main points, we can conclude that these challenges are real but not insurmountable. The transition to a world of abundant energy will not be without its hurdles, so we will need careful planning, education, and systemic changes to navigate these challenges successfully.
Would it need an authoritarian regime to solve these issues?
As we noticed above, much will depend on government incentives. Indeed, it’s quite a task for any individual – let alone for humanity – to change your behavior. This brings some interesting new questions. For example: would authoritarian regimes be more capable of countering the negative effects of unsustainable human behavior than democratic societies? What could a democratic society do to ‘enforce’ sustainable behavior in times of energy abundance?
To start with: whether an authoritarian regime is more capable of enforcing sustainable behavior is a complex issue. In theory, authoritarian regimes can implement sweeping changes more swiftly and uniformly due to centralized power and less immediate accountability to public opinion. This might enable them to rapidly implement strict environmental regulations or major infrastructural changes. However, it’s important to note that this does not guarantee their measures will be sustainable, fair, or even effective.
On the other hand, democratic societies, while sometimes slower to implement change due to checks and balances and the need for consensus, have the potential to create more enduring and innovative solutions. The reason is that these solutions often come with broad public support and participation and are subject to scrutiny, debate, and revision.
To enforce sustainable behavior in times of energy abundance, democratic societies could consider the following:
- Legislation and Regulation: Implement laws and regulations that encourage sustainable practices. This could include carbon pricing, higher energy efficiency standards, or stricter pollution control.
- Education and Awareness: Educate the public about the importance of sustainable living and the impact of their choices. This can be done through school curriculums, public awareness campaigns, and community outreach programs.
- Incentives and Disincentives: Provide incentives for sustainable behavior, like tax breaks for energy-efficient homes or subsidies for electric vehicles. Conversely, penalties or disincentives could be applied for unsustainable practices.
- Investment in Sustainable Infrastructure: Invest in infrastructure that enables and encourages sustainable living. This could include renewable energy sources, public transportation, bike lanes, and recycling facilities. Promising start-ups could benefit from such a policy.
- Engagement and Participation: Foster a culture of participation where citizens feel their actions make a difference. This could include initiatives like community gardens, neighborhood clean-up events, or participatory budgeting for sustainability projects.
- Transparency and Accountability: Governments should be transparent about their sustainability goals and progress and should be held accountable for meeting these goals. Public reporting, independent audits, or citizen review boards could facilitate this.
It’s important to note that while democratic societies have these tools at their disposal, their effectiveness will depend on many factors, including political will, public support, and the society’s specific cultural, economic, and environmental context.
Ethical questions remain
While the prospect of abundant and free energy for everyone might sound unequivocally beneficial, potential ethical considerations could complicate the picture. Here are a few of them:
Equity and Fairness: If new technologies are required to realize this era of abundant energy, those technologies might not be equally accessible to everyone initially, especially in less developed nations or among poorer populations. If these technologies become necessary for basic functioning in society, this could exacerbate existing inequalities.
Resource Use and Environmental Impact: Even if the energy is abundant and free, the materials and resources required to produce and distribute that energy might not be. These resources could be exploited in ways that harm certain populations or ecosystems, creating ethical dilemmas. Furthermore, free and abundant energy could encourage wasteful behavior and excess consumption, leading to unintended environmental consequences.
Job Displacement: Transitioning to new energy systems could lead to significant job displacement in traditional energy sectors, such as fossil fuels. If not properly managed, this could lead to economic hardship and societal disruption, raising ethical questions about the right to work and the social responsibility of governments and industries to support displaced workers.
Power Dynamics: If energy becomes free and abundant, it could shift power dynamics unpredictably, potentially destabilizing economies or political systems. These disruptions could have ethical implications if they lead to harm or are manipulated for unethical ends.
To prevent or mitigate these potential ethical issues, governments could prioritize equity and fairness in distributing new technologies, regulate resource use and environmental impact, provide support and retraining for displaced workers, and monitor and respond to shifting power dynamics. However, these measures would require careful thought, significant resources, and a commitment to ethical principles.
Manage it carefully
That leaves us with the remark from the first paragraph: while the idea of abundant and free energy is appealing (and within reach), it’s important to consider the potential ethical implications. The key to understanding these issues lies in the law of supply and demand, human behavior, and environmental sustainability. As with any major societal shift, it must be managed carefully to ensure it benefits all members of society and minimizes harm. Which means that preparing for an era after the energy transition also means thinking about the practical and ethical issues that were raised by Manfred van der Voort, among others.