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How Science Can Drag Politics into a Renewable Future
Reframing sustainability as a problem of engineering
Last week I spoke with Susan Krumdieck, a mechanical engineer, Professor and Chair of the energy transition at Heriot Watt University. Susan gave her vision of a future, transitioned world—a world founded on sustainable principles and renewable economies—and explained how engineering can be the driving force which makes that vision a reality.
Susan flips the normative process of creating that vision by starting with the science, not the politics. She discusses how science must reimagine its role as fulfilling needs rather than responding to crises. She also insisted on the role of narrative in the transition, that were not going to get there unless we change our understanding of the paradigm we live in.
I highly recommend listening to the episode, it’s full of hope, determination, acute logic and scientific principles. But it was Susan’s argumentation of narrative that I found particularly fascinating. I mentioned degrowth early on in the episode and she said: you don’t need to start from a place of degrowth, you can engineer a world in which degrowth will automatically happen. Politics and economy and short-term things, she says, whereas engineering, science, energy are all vital components of modern life that we can plan for over the long term.
Obviously, these components are as constrained by the capitalist paradigm and power as politics and economics, but Susan’s fundamental argument which I found so astute is that rather than starting the conversation trying to convince people to accept that they will have less than before, focus on engineering the transition which will then automatically contract our energy use and our economies. That degrowth becomes a byproduct of the renewable economy.
Degrowth scholarship sells a vision of a happier, healthier world—which is absolutely crucial—but the focus is on the contraction. The argument states: we will have to contract, but here’s how it will be better. Susan counters: the world will be better, it will also have contracted.
Her vision is extremely nuanced. There is no sense of returning to a dark age, but rather progressing into a renewable future that is more mechanically, economically and energy efficient, a world that is simply run better for its inhabitants—not this mad house which is currently threatening to go off the rails and crash over a poly crisis cliff. Currently, we don’t use or build things to maximise their efficiency or capacity because we have the magic of fossil fuels to fill in the gaps. We cannot continue to run on fossil fuels, therefore we simply will have to maximise efficiency and reduce energy. (For astute readers and listeners, we do also tackle the Jevon’s Paradox during the episode).
Susan explains that we can build homes which use 5% of the current energy demands, simply because they’re better designed. She says we have the technology to build computers and mobile phones which last a lifetime. She insists the world will still be digital but equally far more localised—you might not have a car, but you will have a community, more leisure time, homes and tools you can invest in for a lifetime according to sustainable engineering principles.
This is all degrowth—but coming from an engineering perspective first. And perhaps it is this perspective which could sell degrowth to a world obsessed with the post-enlightenment tradition of prizing rationality and intellectualism as the driving forces of human development? Perhaps this is the only way to sell the necessary contraction of our energy use and economies—through engineering principles which are painted as modern, progressive, if not down-right futuristic?
Degrowth could be the trojan horse for getting radical climate policies into the mainstream. Perhaps transition engineering could be degrowth’s trojan horse?
The main debate in degrowth is around the very term—naysayers claim the public won’t ascribe to a word which positions itself as the opposite of the world we’re in and demands that they live with less. It would be perfectly normal for this argument to be true—centuries of economic theory have been tied to labour and growth. Taking away one key pillar could, of course, cause people to panic about how they will feed their families and heat their homes. If there is less, will there be enough to go around?
Of course, there’s more than enough to go around, the problem is it isn’t fairly—or rightly—distributed. Nonetheless, even though the world we live in isn’t working for the vast majority of its inhabitants, the paradigm and its problems are familiar. Most people can’t imagine a world of degrowth. After all, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism.
That’s why perhaps smuggling that necessary contraction into the equation through an engineering paradigm could move the transition along faster. Rather than asking people to grapple with a new economics, they merely have to buy into how we engineer things better, and use science better to build a world that benefits everyone.
Susan says we have to leave behind the idea that we’re going to substitute fossil fuels with renewables, that we will have the exact same world running on renewable energy. She insists a different world will be formed through the capacities of our renewable economy. Therefore, renewable economies aren’t about our energy source, they’re about providing new ways of organising, of living. Renewable economies provide ways to respond to what is feasible in terms of the planetary boundaries, of what we have access to, and what we want.
Now could be the prime time for introducing this vision. People are increasingly aware that the world we exist in today is broken, despite all the social progress which has been made (and must be maintained). Our energy demands are running away with themselves. Our economy is running away with itself. The “invisible hand of the market” is making terrible errors and billions are suffering from growing inequality, extreme weather events, and the greed of the few. We're looking at a summer of strikes in the UK because people are fed up and they want better.
This is the time to feed a vision into public discourse: Yes, we will have renewables, and the world will look different because of it.
Susan is adamant that the solution to the climate part of the poly crisis lies with engineers, that engineers have been researching humanity’s way out of the problems it creates for itself for millennia. Part of her work, then, involves asking engineers to change how they think about the problem: Where do we want to be in 100 years time, and how do we get there?
How do you think long term rather than responding immediately to a current part of the crisis? This is vital considering the systems’ perspective which understands most steps forward will have cascading effects and cause other problems, feeding into the idea that perfection is the energy of progress. She wants engineers to have a clear, long term vision of the world we need. From speaking with her, it seems possible.
The question, of course, becomes: How do you get the politicians and economists on board? The gatekeepers of society who can’t see past the next election? Perhaps such incompetent federal governance will demand such projects and visions begin at the grassroots. However, I suspect the middle-men of society (as according to Sally Goerner’s theory) who I increasingly think are the legal entities of corporations, will pave the way. This demands funds being channelled to technologies and ideas whose Return-On-Investment is equally radically long-term as the engineers driving the transition. There’s obviously a taste for it—Elon Musk continues to raise enormous amounts for his companies which are propped up by subsidies purely because of the futuristic appeal.
He’s nailed the narrative. Shame about his goals.
Rather than raising capital to send a small number of human beings to space, how do we convince the world to invest in a transition which will engineer a better life for everyone?
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