Resistance To Renewable Energy Is Similar To The Early Rejection Of Coal

Without good stories to help us envision something very different from the present, we humans are easily stuck in our conventional mental programming

Per Espen Stoknes

I was reminded of the above quote when I came across this recent article about America’s early rejection of coal. With cheap wood available and houses having wood fireplaces, not many saw the wisdom of shifting to coal. As the article states, our current societal struggle with renewable energy has a long history. Coal itself faced a similar pushback in the early 19th century when the power source promised to solve many of the country’s problems.

The above quote from an earlier post captures the challenge: humans get stuck when our mental models are challenged. In that post, I explored what the last 250 Years of Innovation say about our future. Those 250 years saw five historic waves of innovation that changed our economies. Each wave – lasting between forty and seventy years – overthrew the prior order. That overthrow was reflected in changes to the beliefs, institutions, structures, and reward systems that enable optimal decisions to be taken across a society. In essence, it is the organizing system of society. Those five historic waves were:

  1. 1760-1830 – mechanization
  2. 1830-1900 – steam, steel, and railways
  3. 1900-1970 – electricity, internal combustion engine, telephone, assembly line and mass production
  4. 1945-1990 – electronics, communications, and computers
  5. 1985-Present – Digital, Internet

When waves of innovation put societies on the cusp of change, those most invested in the old ways rarely grasp the speed with which those ways will become obsolete.

Per Espen Stoknes

Coal was a key driver in the early days of the industrial revolution, yet it wasn’t until the 1860s, that American households were finally and rapidly shifting to coal. By 1885, the new fuel had won. The resistance was not simply a mental model challenge. As the article states, with coal, Americans needed improved stoves and railways to transport the fuel. Fast forward to our current transition, and a similar scenario exists; we need better ways to store and transport renewable electricity. Each wave challenged our way of thinking, and this current massive wave is no different. The article tells the coal story – it’s a very good read.

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