Progress isn’t always as beautiful as we want it to be.
Creationism and Photoshop: two manifestations of our cultural obsession with perfection. It’s appealing, the idea that highly complex things or impossibly beautiful things just exist, just like that, with no work, no effort, no trial and error.
The reality is arguably very different. Beauty takes effort and time. A swanky lifestyle costs money. It took a billion years for a single cell organism to appear and another three billion before they figured out how to work together in multicellular style.
The story of human development is no different. It has taken time and hard work. Hunting and gathering transitioned slowly to industrial agriculture, wooden wheels took hundreds of years to become cars, cultivated cacao beans eventually, thankfully, morphed into Green & Blacks.
And so it is with renewable energy. Ten years ago, the power output of individual turbines was still being measured in kilowatts. This year, a whopping 10MW turbine is being erected in Norway. Bell Labs first modern solar cells, invented in the fifties, were about 6% efficient. Today, there exists a 40% efficient photovoltaic panel. Yet as anyone with even a passing interest in the environment knows, people who do not share that interest also do not like renewable energy. The message is very clear: Do. Not. Want.
Renewable energy is, apparently, not efficient enough and when all the lights go off and we’re left sitting in the cold and the dark, environmentalists will rue the day (shake angry fist here) they had the audacity to suggest such a foolish notion.
Of course there are problems with renewable energy. There are problems with everything. Nothing, not even a carefully airbrushed face or a fully formed world created in the blink of an eye, is actually perfect. Yet it is rare to hear such dismissive scrutiny cast against any other kind of technology.
When the first car was invented, nobody claimed it was useless because it didn’t go far enough on one tank. When the first mobile phones came on the market, no one refused one because they couldn’t get their emails on it. When it comes to electricity, there is a level of expectation to blame for this attitude. For the most part, we all grew up with electricity available abundantly and immediately. The thought of anything jeopardizing that is scary. But that can’t be the only issue at play here.
Our coddled culture of convenience is so rife that people find it genuinely traumatic to put paper in one bin and tins in another. In this respect, a perfect society is the next step on from a convenient society: if it doesn’t suit immediately, reject it.
We have also lived through an unprecedented exponential technology boom. It is completely normal, now, to walk into a shop on the high street and walk out again a few minutes later with more computing power in our back pockets than it took to get to the moon, and for less money than it costs to make dinner for your friends.
When that’s the world we live in, why wouldn’t a wind turbine work perfectly straight away? If the entire solar system can be created in just seven days and I can talk to satellites in space with the gadget in my pocket, why wouldn’t one solar panel power my entire suburb?
Somewhere along the way we have lost our patience and our perspective. But worse, we have lost our resilience. The threat of famine or war or flood is more terrifying now than it has ever been because we can no longer even cope with the most minor of inconveniences, the smallest imperfections. The idea of something that isn’t flawless immediately has become unthinkable.
Yet whatever anyone says, fossil fuels will run out, nuclear cannot power 100% of everything, and renewable energy is working. Just look at the astonishing successes Spain, Portugal and Germany have had with a rapid expansion of the industry. It is happening slowly and imperfectly. It is taking effort and money. There is no way of instant airbrushing. But like the evolution of anything, it will get there in end.