Post-Oil Energy Futures

By Tobias Robinson

I'm a reader, I'm always in search of a good book, and there is always at least another three or four on my shelf. A good novel is fun and entertaining, but I define a great novel as one that makes you question what it is you're doing, or how you're leading your life. In 2009 and 2010 "The Windup Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi took out pretty much all of the top honours for science fiction that any one book can, it won the Hugo, Nebula, Crompton Crook and Locus awards, along with a few more. The story follows a number of different characters in Bangkok in a "not-so distant" future. The struggles of the characters, some Thai, some foreign, some who drink too much and all who constantly overheat, are played out in a fundamentally different, but familiar world.

 

Strangely though, it's a future and a context that I've visited before. I can sympathise with one of the characters who, as a foreigner, finds it increasingly frustrating living within a culture that he doesn't fully understand.

As an exchange student in Germany, I didn't speak the language, so getting through an administration system that was over 200 years old, at a university where I didn't understand the cultural nuisances wasn't easy. After many strange conversations, distant office doors and blank, flat academic faces, I was happy when I found myself enrolled in an English speaking class entitled "Planning in the International Context".

Cultural differences and frustrations weren't the only familiar element operating between my student days and this novel.

If I knew then what I was going to learn in that seemingly trivial subject, I would have been far more excited.

 

The word "international" has a history, and we covered it from the first European expansion until the impending doom of the westernised global economy, caused by the peak oil fallout.

( Click - Just for fun)

OK, so it was dramatic, but the lessons I learnt were important ones, and ones that Bacigalupi explores in his book. The success of economies and countries were, and still are, fundamentally linked to energy sources. The evolution of that which carries goods for trade is a great example. This technology/equipment has grown exponentially over time; from things like camel trains and boats, to boats with improved sails, then steam powered engines, and finally oil and nuclear powered ships covering greater distances much faster. The civilisations that had access to the best and most productive energy sources would triumph, whether it was in trade or in the spoils of war. The crux of the subject matter was thus laid out in a question - "What should successful post-oil cities and economies look like?"

 

Paolo Bacigalupi's story didn't just answer this question with his novel, he bought it to life. In Bacigalupi's future a new kind of climate means that people build and inhabit their houses differently, and a thriving genetic manipulation industry employs thousands and shapes the whole face of a city and its region.  Energy and the consumption of it, is a prime concern to all characters, food is scarce, and everyone is acutely aware of both its nutritional value and potential joule output.

 

Bacigalupi has understood what I was taught - increasingly expensive travel and transport puts pressure on entire cities and economies; it also has the potential to bring forth entirely new industries and technologies. The conflicts, potentials and juxtapositions of trade and cultures are the setting in which he plays out his stories. Conversations, disputes and descriptions of how engineered algae is used to store energy in springs adds clarity to what daily interactions would be like in a post-oil world.

 

Whether you're a doomsday sayer or believe that innovation and technology will save the day, one thing remains - the future will be both unlike and like the past.  Like the past, because people and countries will still be driven to trade, we'll still fall in and out of love on a backdrop of cultural, economic and political events.

Unlike the past, because the key energy source is dwindling. Last year a number of Wikileaks revealed that estimates of oil reserves haven't been inflated, they've been somewhat exaggerated (click).

Again, unlike the past because we are already changing how we draw our energy, the ways we use it, and how much is needed. Within our lifetime we are going to bear witness to shifts in all facets of power - and energy is an important one.

 

I keep coming back to fiction for what Bacigalupi has done, he's given the broader picture a personal story; and when we understand the day to day implications of these broader shifts, suddenly our present is re-orientated.

This re-orientation is something we're actively involved with here at PIDCOCK. It's a work environment that is engaged with the changes that need to take place in society and in the urban fabric. There is an active interest in the potential benefits and costs of new technologies and new ways of working. There is an understanding that what we are doing is driving a cleaner future based less on conventional energy sources.

The future will be the same; we'll still fall in and out of love, build up and knock things down, but I'd like to think we'll do it a little easier because of the way in which PIDCOCK contributes to the forces at play.

 

With a special thanks to a great teacher(click).

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