As we begin to come to terms with the serious effects of climate change, it is now more than ever that we must look back into the past to ensure mistakes made in previous generations are not repeated in our current transition period. One such mistake that seems immediately obvious is an over investment in one pathway for transition. For example, while not exactly an energy transition (but nonetheless relevant to sustainability), the change from open sewage system to underground sewage removal in modern cities was a transition that has left us with no easy way to again adapt to changes. In the future if our sewage systems should prove incapable of dealing with novel problems we can of course try to alter it to overcome these challenges, however the heavy investment in infrastructure during the transition period was done in a way that has left us locked into the current sewage system with little possibility of a radical overhaul. While we may not yet be in a position where the sewage system requires a radical overhaul, the same cannot be said for our energy production and unfortunately, the same “lock-in” effect seems so have taken effect. When society transitioned to a fossil fuel economy little care was taken to ensure the new system was adaptable and versatile. Huge investments were made without pausing to thing about how a complete reliance on fossil fuels could hinder us in the future. Of course, people back then had no idea that the carbon dioxide given off would cause the environmental issues we see today, but the problem I want to highlight is not that they were unaware of future problems but that they did not appear to even consider the possibility of future problems arising.
So, what does this mean for our current energy transition? I think these lessons from the past show us the importance of investing in multiple different energy alternatives and not relying on one single source such as solar or wind to solve our problems. We see in ecological and biological systems alike that diversity increases resilience. With a large array of renewable energy sources powering our future societies, we will be less vulnerable to unforeseen problems. If years later we find out wind turbines are having damaging effects on the Earths air circulation it will not be nearly as challenging if we have a vast array of alternative energy sources ready to fill the energy deficit while we transition once again. Furthermore, transitions in the past show us that while we should design our future energy production systems to survive well into the future we should design them with the knowledge that one day they will change once more. Whether this be changes to make the systems more efficient or changes that ultimately see them dismantled, we need to thing not just about the life of the infrastructure but also its death. Technology is constantly evolving and if something is not made obsolete by technological advancements making it function redundant, then it will soon be superseded by a more advanced and more efficient version of itself.
In the real world there is no silver bullet. A successful energy transition for the future will require innovative and new sources of energy designed to exploit the different environments in which they operate. We should take heed of the mistakes made in the past and never slip into thinking that the solutions for today’s problems will be the solution for the problems in the future.