The transition to sustainable, renewable energy sources won’t be an easy one, and it won’t be “painless,” according to noted complex systems researcher Jérôme Dangerman. The current system is so thoroughly entrenched that only severe, recurring crises, or perhaps a very determined intervention, will result in its transformation — that’s what he argues in his new doctoral thesis on the subject.
It should probably go without saying that the current system of energy production and consumption is unsustainable, accompanied as it is by climate change, resource depletion, geopolitical conflict, and pollution. But is such a massive, complex, interconnected system really something that can be easily changed?
Dangerman argues that it isn’t, stating that “the system is locked into its current situation and no transformation will come about without intervention or a crisis.” He does note that such an intervention would have to be quite “forceful and decisive” — with all of the necessary measures being taken regardless of politics. But is “forceful and decisive” action — with regard to internal dynamics — really a possibility in a large, unwieldy modern democracy like ours?
In his new interdisciplinary thesis, Dangerman “maps out the entire global energy system in its full complexity and the elements that play an important role, such as economics, technology, politics and sociology. Concluding that the system indeed is in state of lock-in and it will not transform without determined intervention or an uncontrolled crisis. So there is hope, but only if strong measures are taken.”
Radboud University provides more:
An important mechanism in technological industries, which affects the classical principles of free market forces and which conserves the current energy system, is what Dangerman calls the principle of ‘success to the successful’. A successful activity attracts more success, at the expense of alternatives. The question of whether alternative action should be taken is essentially not addressed — until it’s too late. That is, until the climate has been irreversibly disrupted, essential ecosystems have collapsed or energy has become unaffordable. For this reason it is important that the current flows of subsidies and investments, which are now primarily aimed at conventional energy, be redirected towards renewable energy.
Although Dangerman observes there are still many signs indicating the absence of transformation of the current energy system, he sees a ray of hope in the fact that production and consumption of renewable energy are nonetheless growing — albeit much more slowly than possible and still insufficient in absolute terms. In this phase of the system, targeted involvement of governments stimulates that growth through legislation or subsidies. The experiences thus gained in Germany are highly instructive for the rest of the world.
The sort of intervention that Dangerman is talking about, and has suggested before, is to force shareholders to also pay for environmental damage — thus forcing the economy to favor those that “produce and use energy more sustainably.”
If such actions aren’t taken, and we simply continue on the same path that we are now on, it can be easily argued that irreversible damage to the global energy system, global economy, and global ecosystem could occur.
Dangerman notes, in conclusion: “The cynic may say that the loss of an old system creates lots of room for change and innovation. That may be true, but what is the cost of allowing the entire system to crash? Moreover, only a few of the strongest and a couple of lucky ones can absorb the consequences of a crashing system. It will be less painful to take measures now.”