A new renewable energy infrastructure as the instrument of radical change: Jackie Carpenter

April 2001

This paper argues that the development of a secure sustainable energy system can be the instrument of change: a practical, active, radical path to a new and better future . . .


People are aware of the tension and feel fear. Global warming and climate change seem to many to offer the biggest threat ever faced by mankind. There are floods, storms and wild unpredictable weather. Population growth, coupled with the certain knowledge that we are using up the storehouse of raw materials that the earth once had, paints a dire picture. The rate at which we are converting raw materials into rubbish almost defies belief. Imagine the ten million mobile phones in the UK going into landfill sites every three or four years as the fashions change? Imagine six thousand million mobile phones going into landfill every few years if everyone in the world achieved the level of owning a mobile phone? And all the other gadgets and cars and machines and clothes and furniture as all our raw materials are converted into rubbish at a truly alarming rate.

Meanwhile, animals are becoming extinct and even the bountiful seas are becoming empty of fish. The economies of the world, largely theoretical, based on money as a commodity that does not really exist but that is manufactured by banks without restraint or logic, suddenly seem set to fail. Illness in animals as well as in people expands all the time; far from scientists and doctors curing or preventing diseases and money spent on illness becoming a thing of the past, the budgets for the Health Service (really the ‘Illness Service’) increase alarmingly.

People in large numbers feel forced to strive for greater and greater personal wealth and power to offset their fear, and in their way contribute to the growth preceding the breakdown.

Some seek more powerful armies, but armies cannot fight the demons that we are fighting in these times. They add to the chaos as they fire depleted uranium bullets into the environment and stockpile horrific chemical, nuclear and biological weapons. They compound our fears, the weapons of our own armies becoming more of an enemy that any human enemy could ever be.

Some seek to gain maximum power so they can exploit the weak and those far away in distance or in time. They steal from their grandchildren or take more than their share from the poor countries. They work towards becoming part of the powerful centre, taking taxes and profits from others, manipulating the laws to keep themselves in power. They use immoral instruments such as usury, advertising and market forces to increase their power. They imagine that science and technology can find a solution to everything and that, at the last resort, they will be able to use space travel to escape (although where they think they will be able to find a destination that can compare with even a ravaged earth is unclear.) . . .


Many people dream of a future in which individuals become more empowered – not because they have won the lottery and can suddenly call the shots, nor because they have

worked hard and with brilliance until they have become one of the captains of a multi-national – but because we have all become more empowered. The dream is of a future where ‘they’ listen because ‘they’ are friends and people we know in our local community and neighbourhood rather than faceless leaders and bureaucrats in some distant unknown centre such as London, Brussels or New York.

These people have a vision in which the world is a beautiful place again, with clean air and clean water. They imagine our children, healthy and strong, playing happily out in the sunshine with no fear of injury. They envisage wonderful, tasty, nutritious food grown amongst beautiful landscapes teeming with wildlife. Local people in this dream will develop local customs that suit them, educating their children in what is important to them. Farmers, craftsmen and artisans will weave their own creative inputs into the fabric of their society and here and there surges of creativity will create wonderful buildings and works of art to rival those of past ages.

Sometimes it seems as though everything is moving in a opposite direction to this dream. Society is heading towards a global system; the internet weaves its spiderweb into every home; world trade advances inexorably; technology becomes so complicated that no one person understands it. The ordinary people feel totally powerless, whether they are poor people suffering from hunger in the third world or well-off middle-class people suffering from frustration in England. They lack any sort of power to make the future as they would wish it to be . . .

But others look to a different set of ideas that will provide solutions to their fear of the future. The problems are increasing; the fear is growing; and as it does so, this type of solution is increasing at the greatest rate. People build a cushion for their insecurity by buying into local self-sufficiency. They go to the farmers’ market to buy food. They know if there is a fuel crisis and the lorries cannot deliver food to the supermarket, it will be good to have a farmers market. They support their local village school, and campaign and fight to stop the small post office being shut . . .  They have a feeling that supporting the multinationals is not a good idea and they start using their local credit union and even think about taking all of their money out of the Big Banks. After reading about the Banks obscene profits, no-one is obliged to use them. Even a small unimportant person can wield a little power.

This wave of local empowerment has started and cannot be stopped although none of the central institutions wants to encourage it. The Government thinks it is not democratic, because surely democracy means voting for a central government to do what is best? The multinationals and big supermarkets either arrogantly dismiss the wave or try to enforce regulations that benefit large organisations. They know they have more power over the governments than the people themselves. They use their great powers to try to maintain the status quo, appealing to the basest emotions of humanity. Marketing appeals to people’s greed or to their fear of not being wanted. Advertising tries to make young people think that appearing cool, trendy and fashionable is important but although many are taken in, a great many are not. Most people know in their hearts that duty, responsibility, loyalty and morality are the qualities to be admired, whatever the adverts say. They know that love and happiness are the true goals, not fast cars and trendy clothes and furniture.

And so the little people go about their business quite oblivious to what those in power think they should be doing. I can grow my own vegetables in my garden. No-one knows. My vegetables are not part of a food statistic. I can heat my water using the sun and then my kilowatt-hours will not be part of the economy. I can trade in LETS and only earn a little cash so that I stay below the tax threshold but claim no benefits. I can develop a wide set of friends and local acquaintances and set up a help network, so that we are

always there to help each other. I can be a little mouse, running about on the forest floor while the huge dinosaurs of government and big businesses go about their business above my head. If there is a breakdown of the large human institutions, will I even notice?

. . . The aim must be to arrange for a positive path forwards during the breakdown of the unpleasant aspects of the old world order and the building of a new world. Building the basic infrastructure for the future need not just come about as the result of change: it can be the instrument of change, the practical, active, radical path. At the same time, the decommissioning of all large, polluting industrial plants will provide employment for many years to come and be seen as a dynamic mission. It is akin to the work of cleaning up after a reckless party and tidying the house ready for a period of pleasant living.

And the living will be pleasant if we achieve a basic set of building blocks on which to establish our future. The basic human needs are well understood, and they do not include the need for vast amounts of materialistic and fashionable goods. People need water and food, then shelter and warmth, then human companionship and culture, then higher creative aims. Local food systems can be re-established now, even if it takes decades for them to come into full productivity. Loss of local know-how in crucial industries such as cheese-making needs to be re-gained. Meanwhile a steadily diminishing amount of world trade can help to feed people until the adjustment to local food has been made. Despite globalisation, in most localities a local infrastructure for rudimentary health, shops and education still exists and can be re-developed. There are local builders and craftsmen, people who can mend and make things.  Even if the money system were to break down entirely, people would find ways to barter and trade, as human beings always have . .  .

But to go from our present way of life to this new future offers a major problem in one area. How can we secure the energy supply that we need for quality lifestyles? Back in the dim and distant past, before coal and oil came into use, people lived at a primitive level and used very little energy. Not surprisingly, we fear the idea of becoming primitive again, of going back to the cave. Electricity is a wonderfully convenient invention and without it we cannot even have lights in the evening, let alone computers and all the amazing household appliances we have invented. And how can we travel without an energy supply? It may be that our aspirations for technical gizmos diminish as we regain our sanity and our sense of place within nature, but there is no need to plan for a totally technology-free world. The best way will be to identify appropriate technology that can co-exist in harmony with nature, and to use our undoubtedly technological human brains to find ways that make our lives easier and less of a chore without damaging the ecological systems around us. Nature is bountiful: the sun beams 15,000 times as much energy to the Earth as is used by human-kind. Oil and uranium are at the root of our problems. Energy originating from the sun must be at the root of our solutions.

So perhaps the most important immediate consideration is to actively build a reliable energy infrastructure as soon as we possibly can, before any possible breakdown begins to occur. We have more wealth than any set of people has ever had in history, and we could use this wealth to secure the energy resources that we need for the future. The energy supplied by the mega-utilities that comes along cables from large nuclear or coal power stations hundreds of miles away is not exactly inspiring in its reliability. Even without any idea of the large companies failing, they regularly fail to provide power, at least in some rural areas or in severe storms. If the weather is going to become worse and the future more uncertain, then local self-sufficiency of energy is a very sensible strategy . . .


Taken from a paper by Jackie Carpenter of Energy 21 – 2004 President of the UK Women’s Engineering Association. The remainder of the paper focusses on renewable energy generation.





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