The road to decarbonised energy is paved with… stories?

Too much of the climate change discussion is taken up with doom and gloom. We need to start telling more inspiring stories of our green energy future.

If we care about our energy, it’s time to get excited about tech again. It’s been year, literally years, since we declared “digital sucks”, and the techlash only seems to be gathering pace. But we need to stop letting the digital world of social platforms and intrusive analytics suck away all our attention, and spend time looking at the wider world of technology.

And right now, we need that technology to do its thing, and get ourselves out of the hole(s) we’ve dug for ourselves. We need scientist to work fast and openly to combat COVID-19 (and, hey, look, they’re using digital technology to allow that to happen). But we also need technology to address the climate crisis.

Martin brutally addressed the economic illiteracy involved in the “retreat” position. Degrowth will not work to deliver the changes we need. Instead, we have to go forwards and that means innovation. And we also need the stories that drive innovation.

Storytelling decarbonised energy

One of the few people doing this well right now is Elon Musk.  He’s the most prominent entrepreneur who is building a set of businesses about ways of decarbonising the economy. All the focus is on the cars, but energy-related parts of the business are just as vital. The solar panels and battery storage divisions demand at least as much of your attention.

He is starting to tell the story of a better future, product by product, that is inspiring — and forcing — other businesses to come along with him. But we need to do more than that. He’s not enough; we need more than one green energy storyteller.

We need climate carrots as well as climate sticks. The doom and gloom stories of what happens if we don’t act, can be countered with the potential lifestyle gains if we do.

Better visions of a green energy future

I have a local acquaintance who is doing a fantastic job of reshaping his family home — and life — around decarbonisation principles. He’s gained some press coverage along the way, from sources as diverse as the BBC and a motoring magazine. He’s doing it bottom-up to Musk’s top-down. But we need this to happen at every level.

In this context, it’s great to see Fast Company publish something like this:

Luckily for the 75% of the population who live in cities, new electric railways crisscross interior landscapes. In the United States, high-speed rail networks on the East and West coasts have replaced the vast majority of domestic flights, with East coast connectors to Atlanta and Chicago. Because flight speeds have slowed down to gain fuel efficiency, passenger bullet trains make some journeys even faster and with no emissions whatsoever.

This is actually an extract from a book, The Future We Choose, which tells two stories: one of the world if we do nothing, and one if we take the measures we need. And it’s the latter that interests me. It’s a compelling vision of deploying technology to create the infrastructure and energy we need for a decarbonised future. It reminds me of my father’s old adage: “It’s better to run to something, than away from something”.

Imagining a new social and technology landscape

The authors paint a picture of the lifestyle, technology and economy we’ll need to run towards:

The U.S. Train Initiative was a monumental public project that sparked the economy for a decade. Replacing miles and miles of interstate highways with a new transportation system created millions of jobs—for train technology experts, engineers, and construction workers who designed and built raised rail tracks to circumvent floodplains. This massive effort helped to reeducate and retrain many of those displaced by the dying fossil fuel economy. It also introduced a new generation of workers to the excitement and innovation of the new climate economy.

It seems strange to be talking about positive storytelling at a time when surely we should be talking about politics and innovation? But then, what drives those two but stories of a better world?

We tell ourselves stories of the world we want to live in. The politicians find the money, and the frameworks to make it happen. And the bold, stupid, inspired innovators build the tech that will make it a reality.

I am convinced that if we are to survive and thrive as a species over the next few decades, we need to learn to balance our scepticism with our idealism. It’s better than ricocheting between the two as we have with digital.

Let’s start halting the relentless negativity, and start telling positive stories of the life we could create. And then let’s get to work building the tools, the products and the politics that can make it happen. Stories are what make innovation catch fire.

Photo by Andrew Sellick on Unsplash