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With Feet on the Ground

"Rethinking energy" happens cyclically, but it is vital to go beyond the emotions and approach the theme rationally.

by Mario Sechi
28 October 2019
11 min read
byMario Sechi
28 October 2019
11 min read

This article is taken from World Energy (WE) number 44, "Rethinking Energy". Read the magazine.

The time frequently comes when the whole world finds itself repeating that we need to “rethink energy.” While the choir goes looking for the right note—it almost never finds it, because everyone says something different on this topic—companies in the sector (re)think energy every day. The refrain can apply to the many who have never thought of it before, but it sounds paradoxical for those who do it naturally as their commitment, their career, their profession. Clean energy means a better life. Nobody wants a worse one. Emotions are always (un)predictable, the growth of “green” movements (with a varying scale and impact on public opinion) all over the world has provoked a revival of political attention (often instrumental), and in the end, the term “green deal” has been taken on as a mantra, a formula repeated many times as a meditative practice.

That is why this emotional tsunami needs rationality, it must be explained. It is vital to seek comparison, grasp the positive aspects and of course reject utopian plans, those that are unattainable and end up achieving the opposite of expectations. World Energy does this exacting and profound work of (re)viewing positions, extracting the truth and reproducing it in the form of analysis, visual design (excellent examples of which are in this issue), journalism—and not just isms. We think there is a great need for this. Let’s move on. Decarbonizing is good and proper, indeed a categorical imperative (Kantian, if you wish to look at it in terms of philosophy). How and with whom is a much more complicated operation than the environmental statement. It is a matter that must be removed from ideology and contemporary isms, and put into the urgent inbox of Homo Faber.

We need to talk about policies

Where does the daily challenge of “rethinking energy” come in? In the pace of modern life, in the matter that permeates every environment: in politics. This issue cannot therefore be discussed without mentioning policies, i.e., the system of principles—and the consequent actions—that make up the environmental policy of public and private institutions. NB: I use the term “environmental policy,” which should not be confused with politics in general, a much broader matter. In the Bobbio Dictionary of Politics, Matteucci and Pasquino (a seminal work) the “Politics and ecology” entry reads: “It was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, and in its cradle, in Britain, that the link between ecology and the economy, thus politics, was first theorized. Malthus drew attention to the fact that soil fertility is not homogeneous, and the fact that the human species has a reproductive potential greater than the chance of survival (which depends on the availability of environmental resources). The combination of these two facts pushes humanity to cultivate first the most fertile soils and then, little by little, less and less fertile soils. This results in a steady decrease in the average productivity of the cultivated soil.” We are faced with the fundamental topic of nature and human presence on Earth. And of course biology and evolution. So much so that Darwin considered Malthus’s studies as a solid pillar for his theory of evolution because “the engine of evolution lies precisely in the imbalance between the birth rate and the availability of resources.” What is all this? Malthus theorized the exuberance of man’s reproductive potential and—via Darwin—of all living species. Some might say that these are out-of-date theories, that academic debate is different, and yes, of course, we are aware of developments in economic science, biology and physics. But that’s what Malthus is talking about out there. Don’t you believe us? Let’s move on. We have a lot of hooks to hang the picture on. Before writing the editorial in this issue of World Energy, I read an article by Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times, touching on a delicate point of contemporary life: the (re-)emerging alliance between the populists and the Greens. The unexpected (but logical) link between realists (right) and utopians (left), the phenomenon of opposites marrying in the name of the environment, the natural creation of a political agreement with a single objective. We are completely upside down, but this shows the importance of the issue, the risks that industry runs in underestimating it and the excesses the legislature may incur in overestimating it. To underestimate it means not to grasp the positive effort of seeking harmony with “Creation” (notes from the Vatican and Pope Francis are very interesting and dense with culture); to overestimate it means to follow as automatons the watchwords of movements, but protecting the Earth means standing with your feet on the ground, keeping in mind the necessary and inexorable presence and action of humans on the planet, its mere existence. It cannot be erased, nor can it be imagined to engineer demography, deaths and births, migrations, exoduses, war and peace, abundance and famine. In this context, populism and environmentalism have become two opposing movements, coming to the fore due to the convergence of interests. History helps us understand: the FT article recalls that in America it was President Richard Nixon who passed laws to protect the oceans and endangered species. Nixon, a Republican, a right-winger, implemented these reforms despite the clear liberalism of their connotations. Not only is it possible, but it has already gone down in history. Which, as you know, everyone loves to repeat ad nauseam. Ganesh deftly outlines the divergent and seemingly irreconcilable traits of the two strands of contemporary politics: populism attracts the older classes, while environmentalism is for the young and the very young. Both are united and attracted to a common theme: a harsh criticism (more than justified on many aspects, but spoiled by moral prejudice on others) to the mechanisms of capitalism on positions “recognizable as Malthusian.” Here we are again, with Malthus. And here is the theme of demographics, the availability of resources, inefficiency and reproductive exuberance and therefore the exponential increase in consumption in a society whose model is the capitalism of will, which satisfies not the biological needs but the projections of a soul that is never satiated. A 24h takeaway for the unsatiated and connected soul.

Building a new imagination

Another point for consideration: for populists, migration is a problem for the prosperity of nations, while for the environmental movements it is population growth (and a lack of resources) that threatens the future of the planet. The yellow vests in France thus marched along with the green movements. Another interesting note on the FT: populists and environmentalists have a much wider extension than the parties trying to represent them, they have “an extra-parliamentary wing” that pushes them forward, they are expanding, not shrinking. And they polarize the attention of the public, as demonstrated by the long-distance confrontation between Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg in New York at the Headquarters of the United Nations. If this is the framework on an ideal level, it is clear that we are faced with something powerful, the construction of a new imagination that relies on a few watchwords and the proposal of simple (and simplistic) solutions to complex issues. I would like to draw just one example from Francesco Gattei’s article in WE: “Until the 1970s, the world used only about 20 metals. With the boom in electronics, and then renewables, we began to use almost the entire Periodic Table of Elements and its eighty metals. These are metals that have magnetic properties, as catalysts, accumulators and conductors.” How many of the protesters for radical change in environmental policy have given up using their smartphones? None of them, of course, because technology is an extension of our lives and what Kevin Kelly in “What Technology Wants” calls “individual personal re-invention” and that we must sometimes “choose the inevitable.” Not only that, Kelly also shows in his book how technology is (im)mutable and in turn loves to reiterate itself in other forms and distribution models. To demonstrate this, the Montgomery Ward catalog of 1894-1895 offers tools for agriculture to be purchased by postal order that have the same characteristics and purposes of use as those offered on e-commerce web pages in 2005. Today’s wave of ecology also has its own aspect of immutability, one profoundly depicted by Christopher Lasch in The Revolt of the Elites: “Social classes speak to themselves in their own jargon, inaccessible to outsiders; they mingle with each other only on a few ceremonial occasions and at official festivities.” Twenty-five years after the publication of this seminal work, the situation has worsened and become even more paradoxical because the explosion and multiplication of connections corresponds to a dizzying increase in loneliness. But it is in this being together and alone (Alone Together is the title of an excellent book by Sherry Turkle on this key theme of our present times) that the most incandescent ideas develop. It is in the post-20th century bewilderment, with the dematerialization of work, that restless consciences develop an imaginary imminent environmental catastrophe, now resulting in mass public demonstrations. And it is no coincidence that the demonstrators are very young people with a thousand fragmented digital lives, the outcome of the clangor of the “Fractured Times” described in a book by the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. The irrational wave—but finally a wave with its own logic, lying precisely in the matters we have tried to unpack here—stands before us. And it takes forms that move from the demonstrations to legal decisions, to court cases built on isms, to the economic policy of a nation or an entire geopolitical space (think of the importance of European rules on energy and the environment). These elements—which have suddenly entered the mainstream—are de facto accepted as positive per se, without an informed discussion. They are rarely subjected to an impact assessment, but still end up becoming jurisprudence and legislation. We are no longer dealing with imagination. This is real life.

The author: Mario Sechi

Born in Sardinia in 1968, he lives out of a suitcase. He has laid out, titled and written for a large number of newspapers (L'Indipendente, Il Giornale, l'Unione Sarda, Panorama, Libero, Il Tempo, Il Foglio). Then one day, he decided to found List (www.newslist.it) and is very glad to divide his work between WE and List. He is a commentator on key political and economic events on leading TV and radio stations and writes and hosts TV and radio shows for Rai and Radio24. Now he has no time to write books – although he did write one for Mondadori, Tutte le volte che ce l'abbiamo fatta (‘Every time we made it’) – he has too many to read and not one in the drawer. He listens to music as he writes, pretending he can play the keyboard. As a child he wanted to be an astronaut, as a grown-up he came back to Earth.