What if fossil fuels had never existed? | John Gardner | TEDxBoise

What if fossil fuels had never existed? | John Gardner | TEDxBoise


Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven All of us, all of us in this room –
in fact, all of humanity is on the same journey together, a journey to a future
without fossil fuels. It’s kind of like we’re all crammed
onto the same bus, and not surprisingly,
it’s not going so well. We’re getting a lot of arguments, a lot of disagreements, and I think a lot of that
is because we don’t have a map. We’re not really sure how to get there. In fact, we don’t even know
what the destination looks like. And so that leaves us vulnerable
to the naysayers, the detractors, and I think you know
who I’m talking about – they’re the guys in the back of the bus. They’re the ones that, frankly, didn’t even want to be here
in the first place: “It’s a stupid trip.
Why are we doing this?” Or they think the trip
is going to be too inconvenient. Or too expensive. Or my favorite, they’re certain
we just can’t get there from here. So, lacking a good vision
of where we’re going, we’re really forced to take
a leap of faith over a chasm of doubt. So what I’d like to do today
is help fill in that chasm a little bit; I want us to help develop a shared vision
of what that destination looks like. And to do that, I want to develop
what I’m calling an “alternate present”: one that got us to where we are
without the benefit of fossil fuels. I want to see if we can develop
a vision of a high-tech society, full of the conveniences
that we’re used to, but one that got here without coal
or petroleum or natural gas. So we’re going to go
back in time a little bit; not too far, it turns out. It’s the 1880s. That was the time when fossil fuels really started changing the arc
of human development. It’s when we started the electric grid. So what was life like then? Well, the United States had already
been established across the continent. We understood the fundamentals
of electricity, magnetism, genetics. We knew the fundamentals
of how matter was made. We had started to develop
the periodic table of elements. Before that, we had enjoyed the benefits
of the Greek philosophers, great literature, Shakespeare, all the things that came
out of the Renaissance. We had all these things already for us. What was the energy scene like? Well, Thomas Edison usually gets credit
for inventing the grid. He started the Pearl Street Station
in Manhattan in 1882. But like a lot of stories about invention and like an awful lot
of stories about Edison, it’s a little more complicated than that. It turns out that three years earlier, 1879, a man named Charles Brush, in that hotbed of technology development, Cleveland, Ohio, (Laughter) deployed the first commercial
outdoor lighting system, using arc lights and electricity. And that was so successful,
within three years, that system had been deployed
in every major city on the continent. He wasn’t just a businessman; he was an inventor,
he was an engineer, and one of the things
he spent a lot of time on was improving the machines that turned
mechanical work into electricity. At that time, they called them “dynamos.” We call them “generators.” And his generators were being deployed in other facilities, brand new technology facilities
around the country called hydroelectric facilities – in Minneapolis, in Michigan,
upstate New York and all the way to California. In fact, by the end of that decade, there were 50 hydroelectric
generating facilities either under construction or operating across the country. Well, how about wind and solar? Would we have to wait 100 years
to make use of that? Turns out, no. In that very same decade,
the first solar cell was demonstrated. And that created quite a splash. The top physicists of the world said, “What’s going on here?” They wanted to figure it out, explain it, and one of them did, and his name was Albert Einstein, and he won a Nobel Prize for that. And of course, wind
had been around for millennia. There’s evidence that the ancient Persians
used it to grind grain. Certainly, everyone knows about the windmills of Holland
pumping out the water. But certainly, wind to make electricity –
that’s a new invention, right? Let’s go back to Mr. Brush in Cleveland. He had a big mansion on Euclid Avenue; he’s a very successful man. I don’t know what
his neighbors thought of this, but he built this in his backyard. (Laughter) And to get a sense of scale, that’s a person
in the lower right-hand corner. This windmill, they called it then – we would call it a wind turbine because it wasn’t grinding grain
or sawing logs – it was hooked up to one of his dynamos,
and it’s making electricity. And that electricity was being used
to charge batteries. And that system he developed was capable of lighting and providing other uses
for electricity in his mansion for two decades without interruption. I think this bears repeating. In 1888, we had a wind turbine
making electricity, charging batteries. Now, if that sounds familiar, it should. But it took us 130 years
to get back to that future, and that’s what we’re doing now. We’re deploying batteries on the grid to help take up the excess
in the variable energy of wind and solar. And this is best illustrated
by the big battery farm that Tesla installed
in the deserts of South Australia just two years ago. So we had all the pieces in place
for a 100% renewable grid, way back then. But we didn’t do it. And we didn’t do it because coal
is just too good to ignore. It is an incredibly dense fuel; it burns really well. It stores forever. And so that’s the route we took, and we developed
our technology around coal. But absent of coal, we still would have wanted the things
that we expect from the grid. We want refrigeration,
we want air-conditioning, we want lighting. So that intellectual power that went into developing
the coal-centered grid would have gone into
developing a different grid. Because we know through the history of humanity
and of technology development, to turn around a well-known phrase, necessity is a mother. (Laughter) So all the pieces were in place;
we were on our way. But we took a different route. But had we not had coal,
we would have had solutions, and our society today
would be recognizable as a high-tech society,
full of conveniences – probably different conveniences. And yes, some things
we’ve taken for granted now we wouldn’t have. An example of that would be plastics. We can synthesize
the polymers for plastic and then find it from other sources, but the reason plastics are so pervasive
is it comes from petroleum. Without petroleum,
we wouldn’t have had plastics. So we would, as part
of our thought experiment, we would have to imagine
life without plastic. But of course, that also means life
without those annoying plastic clam shells that we all love, or without plastic pollution, or, for that matter, we could imagine
life without smog or oil spills as well. And true, some of the things we’ve gotten used to having
machines do for us that out grandparents didn’t have,
or our great-grandparents didn’t have. We wouldn’t have that; we’d have to do
some of that work ourselves. But I would argue that’s a good thing. The history of human technology shows us that increased access
to energy resources tracks with increased quality of life. But only up to a point. If anything the last
several decades has shown us, it’s that we can have
too much of a good thing. Like too much food, too much energy
is not working well for us. For example, in 2015, the United States was one
of the highest users of energy per capita in the world, and yet we were 29th
out of 35 developed countries in child mortality and 26th in life expectancy. And we got to that unenviable place by spending more of our income,
more of our GDP, on healthcare than any other country on the planet. More energy isn’t making us healthier. It’s not making us happier. So Hans Rosling’s great project, Gapminder, lets us compare data sets
of different things. So I’m going to look
at per capita energy use and an indicator of health,
general health, and what we’re going to look at
is child mortality, number of children aged zero to five
who die per a thousand live births. As we might expect, in 2015, the United States was fairy high in energy use
and fairly low in child mortality. And if we looked back in time at the data, track back in time, and look at other countries
in different arcs, different positions in their development, we might expect them to lie
along a line that looks like this. So if we have low energy use,
we expect high child mortality; high energy use, low child mortality. And it’s true,
there’s a correlation there, but it doesn’t look like this. Let’s look at other countries;
let’s look at Egypt, for example. From 1971 to current times, we saw a rapid decrease in child mortality with only modest increases in energy use. Moving on to Spain,
we see that the train continues, but it turns a corner. And if we look at Australia
and the United States, we see that line has flattened out. If we take the data for all the countries
we have data for – dozens of them – put them on that screen,
it’d be a really messy plot. But you could draw a line through it
that looks something like this and capture the majority of the data. And so that tells us that going from a small
amount of energy to a little is correlated with a significant
increase in quality of life. But going from a little to a lot doesn’t. It’s not making our children healthier, it’s not making us live longer,
and it’s not making us happier. So where does that leave us? Because we’re not in
the alternative present; we’re in this present. We got here on our bus
with our own torturous ride, fueled by fossil fuels. And we can’t put that toothpaste
back in the tube. But I think we can use
this beginning of a vision as a template to compare, to lay out and compare
our own thoughts, our own decisions. I think it’s important that we become
more mindful about our energy choices. You know, the grid was designed
to be invisible to us, to be taken for granted. But if we lived in a remote cabin
with solar panels and a battery, we could still enjoy
the conveniences of modern life. But if we didn’t know we’re up front, within three or four days, we would know
our choices hadn’t had consequences, and we could have a cold beer,
and we could have Netflix. But not an infinite amount,
because our resources would be finite. The current grid makes us feel
like our resources are infinite, but clearly, they’re not. We all live in the same cabin. We just call it planet Earth. We should also make sure
we don’t fall in the trap that this current system we have
is the best system or the only system. And that’s where a lot of the discussion,
a lot of the discourse, around renewable energy comes from is that we want drop-in replacements. We want to not see a difference. We are going to see a difference. We should see a difference, and we should embrace that
because that future is going to be better. The noted sustainability expert
and famed architect and author Bill McDonough coauthored the book “Cradle to Cradle.” He said this once about recycling, but I think he’d agree
it applies equally well to energy. He said, “We should not confuse
an act of doing less bad with one of doing good.” And to help understand that,
he uses a metaphor. So, let’s get back on our bus. But this time, we know
where we want to go. We want to go to Los Angeles, for some reason, (Laughter) and we’re on this bus and we’re flying down the highway
at 80 miles an hour, but we’re looking at the signs
and out the window, and we realize we’re headed
to New York City. We’re going the wrong way. So we elbow our way through the bus
to the front of the bus, try to get the driver’s attention
and tap his shoulder and explain the situation to him. And he listens and he nods; he says, “Okay, I get it.” So he slows down to 40 miles an hour and keeps going. (Laughter) It’s not going to get us
to our destination. We should definitely celebrate every time we shut down
a coal power plant, but if we replace that generating capacity
with a natural gas power plant, we’re only doing less bad. It’s long past time
to turn the bus around, and if we can do that, then I’m sure we will get
to our destination. Thank you. (Applause)

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