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What will be Prometheus’ new flame?

Posted by Geneviève Ferone on 16 March 2011

A tragedy already enacted many times over

Since time immemorial, the oldest founding myths have perfectly captured the essence of our tormented soul and described the fragility of our existence. The eternal human “factor” has travelled throughout the ages, endlessly weaving the same dramas, touching upon the same wounds. Everything can be repeated at each living moment, in every civilization, playing out the unchanging elements of a tragedy already enacted many times over. Yet behind the recent revolutions and natural disasters, these terrible events that have marked the start of 2011, emerges for the first time in such sharp focus, the extreme vulnerability of our societies in terms of their most precious, shared commodity : energy.

A double irreversibility inflect’s humanity’s path

The energy systems that power the world produce irreversible consequences. The law of entropy reminds us that time’s arrow shapes the future in a sole and unique direction: towards the use and degradation of our finite stock of resources. We will bequeath to future generations a natural heritage that has largely been undermined and depleted, one that is less adapted to their needs. However, time has more arrows than just entropy to govern our evolution. Our increasing knowledge is just as important, though less tangible. The progress of human knowledge is also an irreversible process. A double irreversibility inflects humanity’s path: the depletion of nonrenewable resources and the accumulation of techniques and knowledge.

A race

Starting with these two dynamic processes, we can decide to increase resource use as long as we have sufficient knowledge to ensure the system’s sustainability. Here this means sustaining the planet’s energy system. We are caught in a race in which we must simultaneously reduce the rate of resource depletion and invest heavily in research, especially concerning any and all measures that could reduce the energy intensity of our lifestyles and develop alternative solutions.

All the necessary conditions to best handle this deadline seem to be met. However, we have come to realize over and over again that we have not always fully utilized available information to organize the transition as quickly as possible. This is precisely our current situation . The challenge lies in the ability of our institutions to tackle problems that overshadow them. If we cannot find both technological and political alternatives, we will remain stunned and helpless. Nobody can imagine a world without energy. We are not (yet) capable of doing without fossil fuels. We fear nuclear energy more than the threat of climate change and renewable energy is insignificant when compared with what is at stake. Our ancient Fire is slowly extinguishing and as it declines, it threatens to engulf the globe and divide humanity. Of what will Prometheus’ new flame be made? At no other time in our history has this issue so urgently made itself heard. It has come to a point where the answers we will provide will structure the very framework of the first half of this century.

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