Suppose we can live on this planet in a way that we are kept warm, fed, have access to much information and reduce a lot of harm, accidents, we can travel to places, .... without destroying the biodiverse ecosystems on this planet.
For all those wishes, we need energy. And because we are with many and we like to use it, we want a lot. Here, "many" is 7 billion, "a lot" is 15 TW, and both numbers are increasing. 15 terawatt is 15 trillion Joules per second. Humanity accelerates 15 trillion kilogram one meter per second per second, every second.
Looking at the figure above, one should be impressed by the enormous post-war growth of the oil-driven global industrial enterprise we call Economy. It allows billions to eat meat, stream videos, order clothing from across the globe. The trend is so stark, that a quick reduction of overall energy usage seems unlikely. Furthermore, there are billions who are (made) jealous to those who so easily access those services and entertainment. Therefore, more demand is easily created.
And more supply?
The best studies we undertook show a strong correlation between certain particle concentrations in the air and the average temperature on the Earth's surface. The effect of the particles being analogous to the roof of a greenhouse: reflected light waves (radiated heat) stay trapped in the system. We know this for quite a while now. In fact, climate models predicting human-made atmospheric warming have been right for 50 years.
This means that although Peak Oil may be years from now, there is a strong imperative to reduce the outlet of said particles strongly. At the same time, the challenging assignment - or stubborn desire - is to maintain the current level of luxurious services. This requires other means of energy conversion, more sophisticated, more clean, more recyclable. However, if you want something that is good, and you want it fast, it's often not cheap.
As the world of energy is so vast (the energy market is the single largest market in the world), it takes a long time and a lot of effort to make changes in its composition. Perhaps it will take too long and too much effort for us to maintain our current standards of living, i.e. the very low amount of work we have to do to get fresh food and videos all day.
The world as we know it runs on the energy that fuels it. And we have found ways to make use of great energy conversions. Life on Earth runs on the mechanism that carbohydrates form good bonds. And so, burning carbohydrates is an amazing way to release stored energy.
And one doesn't even have to be an addict to understand why something that is so easy and so nice is so hard to leave aside. One could object that such an anthropomorphism of global dynamics is a simplification. But it seems often a straightforward explanation. Isn't technology eventually just a magnifier of the exposure of human desires? We build no things, other than the things we wish to build.
Where was the warning disclaimer that should have come with our prefrontal cortex? Or the word of caution before the external application of its analytical reasoning in automating machines? Probably unheard by the chanting stadiums celebrating every doubling of GDP/capita.
The fact that you can read this, is the result of a long scientific endeavour, technological breakthroughs and the devotion of energy and activity to the establishment of infrastructure, production of devices, belief in the dissemination of information.
This is a marvelous achievement of us, arrogant chimpanzees, to stay calm and repeat and invent and play and - above all - communicate.
There should be, nevertheless, a word of warning to the application of this unique strength.
In October 1920, Arthur Eddington's article appeared in Scientific Monthly, in which he speculated about the energy source of the Sun and the other stars. Before then, it was not understood how something that large could produce so much energy for so long. Burning coal? Well, then the Sun had to be much younger which contradicted geological results. The newly discovered nuclear sciences may hold the answer. And he turned out to be right.
We sometimes dream that man will one day learn how to release it and use it for his service. The store is well-nigh inexhaustible, if only it could be tapped. There is sufficient in the Sun to maintain its output of heat for 15 billion years.
The article concludes with a pondering on the role of speculation in science. To anyone interested in science or eloquence, I couldn't recommend you enough to read it.
Eddington's dream is now precisely one hundred years old. And it still has great appeal.
Being active in the world of fusion, I can happily provide many examples of the value it brings to the scientific training of young people, to the international cooperation with shared goals, to the advancement of understanding in all disciplines involved in the nuclear fusion reactor. Further, I experience joy in pointing to the many possibilities the fusion reactor provides as illustrations of physical phenomena included in many European secondary school curricula.
All this, with the overall objective to grow society's potential to build these machines for the generation of a steady load of electrical power to the grid, without emissions or meltdowns.
The promise is large, the road will be long, read more in the sections below.