Suddenly in the middle of the crisis? No, it wasn’t that sudden. We have known for decades that the use of fossil fuels pollutes the environment, affects the climate, affects biodiversity, widens the gap between rich and poor, and can surrender us to the power of big corporations and totalitarian regimes. We have heard for decades about the danger of resource depletion.
While some thought we could safely work towards the point where we said goodbye to fossil fuels, somewhere else it is decided that the tap will be turned off, prices will skyrocket and we will be hopelessly behind the intended transitions. And we cannot solve the acute problems with discussions about new techniques or nuclear energy.
Influence and spirit
The energy issue is too important to be left to engineers, economists and politicians alone. How do we think and talk about energy ourselves? One of the things that stands out is that energy is not only related to gas and light, but also has an almost cosmic meaning for many people: ‘everything is energy’. But energy is also a personal concept: you can say that a good conversation gives you new energy.
Some people think that this personal use of the word energy is a technical metaphor, like “letting off some steam” or “he has a loose thread.” Historically, this is not true. The religious and personal use of the concept of energy is older than the scientific one – physics once borrowed it from everyday language.
Literally, energy means ‘to work’ or ‘work’. It has been used in European languages since the Renaissance. But they used it differently than we do now. For example, in a poem by John Skelton (1460-1529) we read of ‘a spiritual / and a mystical / and a mystic / effects energiall as the Greeks do call it’, referring to religious inspiration. Later the word is increasingly used for human rather than divine spiritual power, although the poet Coleridge also calls religion ‘a collective energy’. The use of energy for fuel, heat and light was unknown at the time. But that would soon change.
Around 1800, the idea arises among various natural scientists that all physical forces, such as heat, mechanical motion, magnetism, etc., can be reduced to the same principle. In his Lecture on natural philosophy, held before the Royal Society in 1802 (and published in 1807), Thomas Young suggests the word ‘energy’. His proposal catches on, and gradually this new understanding comes to the center of physics. The science of energy gives us heat, light and our daily bread. But it is still a word that is also used in a completely different sense, and that use continues to our time.
Nature as a gas station
What are the differences between the human and the physical meaning? Some might say that the first is vague and the second precise. There is something to be done about it. When a group of exhausted footballers are ‘re-energized’ in extra time by a sudden goal, it is anything but guarded. On the other hand, the thousands of figures in which people talk about energy consumption become quite meaningless over time.
An important feature of the physical approach is that the value of energy can be expressed in money. Energy, unlike man’s mental strength and religious inspiration, is thus firmly rooted in the realm of scarcity. When usable energy is scarce, it places the owner of the means of production in a privileged position. He can hoard the fossil fuels and sell them when demand is high. The reserves give the owner ‘power’: not just strength, but power. And the user also only has to press a button and the power is at his disposal: as soon as I need it, the power flows from the wall. In this way, the scarce is kept available as needed, and nature is, to quote the philosopher Heidegger, ‘reduced to a giant gas station’.
The debates about the energy crisis constantly use the terminology borrowed from the scarcity model. They are very quantitative: energy problems are expressed in figures for production, consumption, CO2emissions etc. If we keep talking about it like that, then we keep the ‘gas station thinking’ going. But changes in the use of energy are not only a matter of technology, but also of culture. A lot of fossil energy can be saved with adaptations in nutrition (minimal use of meat), mobility and consumption (less redundant goods).
The history of the word energy thus shows an interesting change: from the religious and later the human sphere it has moved into the realm of power and scarcity. The question now is whether we can learn anything about our current situation from the older use of the term.
Back to ourselves?
There is a big difference between the image of a depleted energy store that is one’s property and the light of the sun that shines for all. The seventeenth-century poet Henry More saw energy as a phenomenon that emanates from the sun, but at the same time never leaves it. The sun was for him the symbol of the energy of the soul, because the life of the soul does not leave it when it gives itself to something or someone else. It is remarkable that someone at that time uses the image of the sun to represent the inexhaustibility of energy, an overfed that is contrary to our image of scarcity.
Today we are looking for and finding more and more opportunities to use the sun’s inexhaustible energy and stop using nature as a gas station. However, much work remains before the entire energy system is adapted in the short time left to limit global warming. The strength and power of fossil fuel ownership is also not easy to put aside. Moreover, the conversion of the inexhaustible energy into useful applications will always continue to require scarce resources, which burden nature.
We therefore desperately need energy as a spiritual source and strength of mind to find a way out of the physical energy shortage that is now making us even more trapped in the current crisis. By using that energy, we can find other perspectives on our lives and reduce our use of fossil energy. We can work on our mutual relationships, our connection with nature, the well-being of other living beings on our planet, and solidarity with people who are struggling because of scarcity. In this way we feed life on our beautiful planet more and more with energy that flows for all. With the sun and ourselves as source.