The story of the experiment that gave rise to the concept of learned helplessness is well known. It was made by the American Psychologist Martin Seligman in the 1960s. A dog was subjected to a series of electric shocks, to the point that it wouldn’t even try any more to escape, even though he could have done so simply jumping over a small barrier. That seems to describe our situation: we have a way out of the problems of global warming and fossil fuel depletion. It is called “renewable energy. But we can’t manage to move in that direction – it is a case of learned helplessness. In the following post, Stuart Staniford tries to explain that this way out really exists.

– Ugo Bardi at his blog, Cassandra’s legacy

It’s easy to feel hopeless about climate change.  The weather gets crazier with each passing decade and in the meantime it seems like society is hardly doing anything at remotely the relevant scale.  Americans refuse to conserve very much, and the Chinese and Indians are burning coal at an ever more rapid pace.

One way to picture the seeming hopelessness of the situation is to plot total global energy consumption against solar and wind capacity (the two leading truly sustainable energy sources).  That looks like this:

That looks terrible right?  Those two lines at the bottom are negligibly different from zero on the scale of our total energy consumption – that blue line, which continues to head inexorably upward after the briefest of interruptions for the great recession.

But that isn’t the full picture.

What it conceals is that the growth rates are completely different.  Over the last ten years of data (all from BP by the way), the average growth rate in primary energy consumption is 2.7%.  Meanwhile, the wind energy grew at 25% and the solar energy grew at 44%.  And this makes all the difference!  Those are incredibly high growth rates and mean that the awe-inspiring power of exponential growth is on our side.

To illustrate in a somewhat cartoonish fashion*, let’s look at what happens if we just extrapolate out those same growth rates to 2040:

We spend the next decade with the graph still looking pretty bad, but then the power of exponential growth starts to really show, particularly in the solar line, and we see that the renewables would get to the scale of the entire planet’s energy use sometime in the ballpark of 2030.

So to look at the situation now and say that it’s hopeless is like looking at an acorn growing its first handful of leaves and declaring that the little sapling is hopeless and that this will never amount to an oak tree.

An ecotechnic world – one in which we drive around in electric cars, and heat our houses and offices with heat pumps, and fly around on biofuels, and power the whole thing from the sun and the wind, is doable.  But it’s in its infancy.  It’s the acorn, not the tree already.

And that being the case, the most important thing by far is that we shelter that acorn: keep it watered, shade it if the sun gets too strong, give it steady doses of fertilizer.  It’s the growth rates in solar and wind energy that are the critical things to watch.  As long as those are high, the situation is not hopeless, regardless of how much coal use is growing.

Now, of course, I’m not saying that the red and green curves in the graph above are how things will go quantitatively.  No question there will be some slowing in the later stages.  The need to integrate renewables and electricity-using technology into all aspects of life is bound to slow things down toward the end.  Ditto the need to integrate renewables planet-wide to cope with their intermittency.

So maybe it takes us to mid-century to get to a near carbon-neutral society.  The point is that it’s not hopeless.  As the weather gets worse – the droughts, the storms, the melting ice – the denialists will look sillier and sillier and the pressure for action will rise.  And as it does, the solutions will increasingly be in place.  So don’t be discouraged if electric car sales are tiny right now, or solar power is a very small fraction of total energy use.  This is a long game.

Also worth noting is that it’s in a couple of decades, as the alternatives truly start to reach scale, that it will be the time to really focus on closing down all the coal mines and shutting in the oil wells.  That will be the time for hefty carbon taxes and punitive cap-and-trade regulations.

Right now, the focus should be on protecting and growing the ecotechnic acorn.

* Wonky footnote – yes, I know I’m comparing renewable capacity to energy use without accounting for the capacity factor.  But it’s also true that electricity is much more useful than primary fossil fuel energy – for example it can be utilized with 3X higher efficiency in a motor, or power a heat pump with a coefficient of performance of 3X or 5X.  So let’s just call it a wash for the purposes of a quick illustration of the general idea.