'I am become the destroyer of worlds.' So run the TV adverts of the Carbon Trust alerting us to the need to reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide. The quote is from the Bhagavad Ghita, and was made famous by Robert Oppenheimer when he saw his work realised in the detonation of the first atomic bomb in 1945. The looming threat of catastrophic global warming has taken on a cultural significance comparable to that of nuclear apocalypse.
But the apocalyptic mindset can easily mislead us into overlooking possibilities for the creative production and use of energy. There is a large gap between the mainstream consensus of climate scientists that we are likely to see a temperature rise of a few degrees Celsius and the anticipation of disaster found in worst case scenario-mongering. Rather than rely on science, the warnings of sudden climate change such as the collapse of the Gulf Stream always stress the unexpected and the uncertain.
The most catastrophic threats are often framed as the warnings of scientists. But looked at closely they always go beyond what is well understood.
Instead of being rooted in science they appeal to our fear that we don't understand the science well enough.
The exaggerated sense of threat is common to broader cultural pessimism in which it has become possible routinely to anticipate the collapse of civilisation. This outlook has a negative impact on our capacity to shape the built environment. It casts our efforts to improve the world in the mould of Oppenheimer, especially when they are big hi-tech projects.
Change of priorities So what does a more positive approach to energy look like? Energy efficiency has long been an important consideration, and there are reasons even beyond global warming why it remains so. Fuel poverty is not yet eliminated. And in the past the goal of energy efficiency has had a purpose that went beyond staving off the destruction of the environment.
Through increasing efficiency we could increase wealth that freed us to fulfil more human ends. Ultimately, energy efficiency could be seen as increasing labour productivity.
Today, that aspect is downplayed against using energy efficiency as a means of increasing resource productivity. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, provided that we don't lose sight of the ball.
Through the development of new energy technologies, lives that were previously spent gathering firewood or cutting coal could be lived better.
Yet today conservation of resources is regularly prioritised over labour productivity. As a result, the problem of energy efficiency has come to dominate. There is a need to question whether we are prioritising the minimising of negative impacts over finding new ways to make positive impacts.
Energy efficiency of new buildings provides a useful example. Domestic heating accounts for about a fifth of UK energy use, and is therefore a leading target for efficiency. The average new home built in 2002 requires only 60 per cent of the heating energy of an existing home. With improved techniques spurred by continually tightening building regulations, this figure is improving all the time.
Sophisticated approaches to design which rely on computer modelling of the air-flow around a building are often simply inapplicable to the improvement of old buildings. Standards of airtightness are similarly impractical in renovation.
Yet at a time of high demand for housing, completions are at historic lows, below half the post-Second World War high.
Simply building many more new homes would have a far bigger impact than trying to shave the last bit of energy use from a few super-efficient eco-houses ever will. The lesson is that efficiency comes from doing more, not less.
The bigger picture Another example is the trend toward self-sufficiency. Fuel cells are championed not just as a step towards a hydrogen economy but as a way a ensure continuity of supply in event of disaster. Mini-domestic windmills and building integrated photovoltaic cells (BIPV) are also in fashion for the same reasons. The plots of the global warming and the global terror scenarios tend to converge around the idea that we cannot rely on national and international infrastructure and thus we should simply rely on ourselves.
All this is frankly a step backwards.
The development of national electricity grids, bringing power to all who needed it, was one of the great triumphs of the 20th century. Making best use of new technologies will require more integration at every level, not less. For example, ensuring that the energy generated by wind power is used efficiently will, if truth be told, require larger international grids.
Finally, it is important to remember that if there is no way to save energy without making sacrifices then there is always the alternative of generating more. Nuclear power, in particular, has the greatest potential with the fewest environmental consequences.
The main barrier to its expansion is a political reluctance even to test the waters of public acceptability.
The biggest danger is that unless we start to think bigger, the scare stories will become self-fulfilling prophecies. A society that doesn't build is less resilient, and a fragmented infrastructure really will become less reliable. Once put in perspective, the risks of the future are the best reason to innovate boldly.
Joe Kaplinsky is a patent and technology analyst and is writing a book on the future of energy. Contact joe@kaplinsky. com