Where have we come from, and where are we going?
After “Why are we here?” those are probably two of the most challenging questions anyone has ever put out there. Unfortunately, I can’t say I have the answers, but a book I recently read takes a sweeping and entertaining look at the history of humans, providing some thought-provoking insight into the past and the future.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari integrates history and science to explain and challenge pretty much everything. In looking back, Harari describes the forces that have shaped human society and postulates what we can do to influence the course of centuries to come.
That said, Harari admits that the future is unknown and he’d be surprised if his forecasts are fully realized. Still, by looking back, we may indeed glimpse the future. One example he cites: We can safely assume economic growth requires energy and raw materials, and we know that these are finite. “But the evidence provided by the past is that they are finite only in theory. Counterintuitively, while humankind’s use of energy and raw materials has mushroomed in the last few centuries, the amounts available have actually increased.”
Our sources of energy started simply—fire was discovered to heat. And then we learned about conversion—fire under a kettle produced steam. In viewing our human condition through that lens, while resources may be finite, human ingenuity so far has seemed infinite.
And in a compelling way, I feel this is the situation in which global energy producers now find themselves.
It’s no secret that lower oil prices and the prospect of a diminishing demand for fossil fuels are prompting a serious rethinking by energy companies. Such trends may be amplified for oil companies in Europe, where national governments are attempting to replace vehicles that use combustion engines with electric vehicles, thereby significantly cutting emissions and oil demand. Given larger concerns about local air pollution and climate change, some or all of these steps may be justified.
Environmental concerns about the consumption of energy are of course nothing new. But what’s changed in the last few years is the maturation of new and arguably more sustainable energy sources that can be used to power our lives. Evident for a while, wind and solar stand poised to reshape energy markets. And as we see the world begin to transition from a hydrocarbon-dominated system to one where renewables are beginning to build an influential market share, the serious players in energy will seek to leverage all technologies available—from established to upstart.