The Climate Crisis Is an Opportunity

When did we become so resistant to progress?

Moby Dick book cover from Wikimedia, modified by author

As the Chinese language does not say, every crisis is an opportunity. The climate crisis is a great opportunity to make the 21st century much better than before. So why are we so attached to 19th-century technology?

I wonder if, in the early 1900s they were still bemoaning the decline of whale oil and horsepower. For whale oil, you had to find and kill a fucking whale, and horses shat everywhere. I feel like people gladly transitioned to new sources of energy, and new ways to live. New energy literally gives a society new energy.

Today, in the early 2000s we’re at a similar inflection point. Renewable energy has advanced to a dramatic level and we can now, with a little more capital investment, switch to completely renewable by 2050. We must switch in order to avoid catastrophic climate damage, but at the same time, what an opportunity.

Do we really want to go into the future using the same ancient technology we were using over 100 years ago? Digging up poisonous rocks, drilling for flammable liquids? Why are we even talking about this like it’s a sacrifice? Fossil fuels are not only destroying the earth, but they’re also destroying our imaginations.

If you brought someone from the 1960s today they’d be like, ‘what, you’re still doing this shit?’ We’re still flying kerosene powered 737s. Actually we made them worse, now they crash themselves. We’re still driving petrol cars, only we made so many of them that they can’t move. What do we really have to show for ourselves? Twitter? Taxi cabs? Who cares.

The climate crisis isn’t just a chance to not kill ourselves, it’s a chance to live. Yeah, the transition to new energy is going to be hard for some financial whales, but for the rest of us, life will get much better, and much more interesting. Personally, I don’t want to live in the last century anymore. I want to live in the future.

Can we ditch these assholes already?

Do you want to keep giving these murderers money?

Speaking of financial whales, do we really want to keep making these people rich? Coal barons, the evil Saud family, every tinpot dictator sitting on top of dead plants? Renewable energy is better because renewable energy is everywhere. We don’t have to be blessed (cursed?) by ancient geology, we can just use modern technology. And every country can do it for themselves.

The same sun shines on everybody, the same wind blows, and the same waves crash on every shore. Renewable energy is much more equitably distributed across the Earth and could ease the horrible political distortion and wars that accompany fossil fuels.

Just as it was stupid to chase around whales to fill a lamp, it’s stupid to grovel in front of oil barons and despots to fill our tank. It’s time to move on, and harness the energy that’s all around us, and to stop making evil people rich.

Who wants to be a coal miner?

A young coal miner, Wales, 1947.

People talk about jobs, but what are they holding onto? The renewable energy industry already employs 10x more people than fossil fuels, and these are good, interesting jobs. You don’t have to go deep underground and get miner’s lung. You don’t have to stay alone in the middle of crashing waves on top of an explosive oil rig. These are good clean jobs, and there are more of them.

And if you’re an engineer or entrepreneur, renewable energy offers many more opportunities. How much innovation is there in fossil fuels? Dig it up faster and burn it more? Bribe more and have fewer scruples? Renewable energy, however, is wide open and full of challenges and opportunities.

There are still things that renewable energy can’t do very well. It can’t fly long-distance planes or easily reach the temperatures needed to make cement or steel. These are opportunities. Forget Shell and Chevron, today that’s like investing in a whaling fleet. The next trillion-dollar opportunities are going to be in clean energy, and those are the jobs we should want for our kids.

And frankly, the last 50 years have been embarrassing. In the early 1900s, we discovered entirely new sources of energy, communication and rapidly learned how to fly and then went to the moon. What have we been doing with our best and brightest for the past 50 years? Delivering pizza faster? Creating financial derivatives? Sharing photos? Let’s do something amazing again. Something truly groundbreaking and new.

Will you miss breathing exhaust?

And you, personally, are you really going to miss using fossil fuels so much? Perhaps you’re not near a power plant, but if you live in a city, do you enjoy breathing in exhaust? Do you like constant noise pollution?

Taking cars as an example, electric cars are just better — they’re faster, they’re quieter, and they smell better. And you know what’s better than electric cars? Cities without cars at all. Why not open up our cities to walking and biking rather than making them rivers of metal death? Why not expand public transport and remove parking, improving quality of life and unlocking billions of dollars worth of real estate?

Hence it’s not just about replacing fossil energy with renewable energy. This transition is a chance to rethink how our societies function altogether. Do we build transport networks for vehicles, or for human beings? Do we keep growing GDP endlessly like cancer, or do we improve quality of life? This great societal shift is not just a chance to change our energy supply, it’s a chance to change our culture.

It’s no sacrifice at all

Note that in all of the examples I’ve discussed, I haven’t spoken about the downside — the destruction of our climate and civilization as we know it. The downside is terrible, but I’m trying to show you that the upside is great.

The climate crisis isn’t just about avoiding sending our civilization backward, this is our chance to finally move forward. Our current civilization is using the 1800s technology to create a 1900s world. It’s 2020 right now, and we’ve spent the first 20 years of this century mucking about. It’s time to innovate, it’s time to use new technology and it’s time to change.

Our ancestors didn’t sit around bemoaning the loss of whale blubber, and we can’t sit around complaining that it’s ‘unrealistic’ to give up fossil fuels. Our ancestors didn’t live in the past, they invented the future. Now it’s our turn.