The Way We Live Now

In the rich part of the world today we enjoy a lifestyle that would have seemed magical 200 years ago. There are two principal factors that have made this way of life possible. One of these factors—human cleverness—is obvious to everyone. It plays the leading role in digital technology, which is where the most rapid and transformative changes of our lifetimes have been happening.

The other factor—cheap energy—is one that seems somehow less obvious. We have been exploiting fossil carbon in a big way for a long time (the first steam locomotive was in 1825), and maybe this is part of the problem: energy has receded into the background, so that we take it for granted.

We can’t run the experiment of a world without fossil carbon. We can speculate that electricity, telegraphy, telephones, radio, television, and digital technology would still have happened on some time scale, but this is just speculation. Population would presumably be much lower, considering that 50% or more of the nitrogen in our bodies now comes to us courtesy of natural gas via the Haber–Bosch process. Perhaps England would have burned up all its forests and suffered a major crash.

Turn21 is all about getting as many people as possible, as soon as possible, to see the world in its true perspective, and central to this changed worldview is recognizing the role of cheap energy in the way we live now.