Interdisciplinary Approaches to Energy

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Of late, I have been considering the need, and value, of interdisciplinary approaches to energy production and development. Here is an excerpt from some recent writing:

We face the daunting task of promoting sustained increases in the standards of living for all peoples while creating settlement patterns that eliminate wasteful energy usage and contribute to ecosystems services. In this era of heightened environmental consciousness, perspectives abound regarding potential solutions to this problem, many of which remain segmented within disciplinary boundaries. For example, in a recent interview in Technology Review magazine and always enlightening TED Talk, philanthropist and former Chairman and CEO of Microsoft, Bill Gates, used an equation to explain the need for revolutionary energy technology. Through the equation, he described carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which are contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and global climatic disruption, as:

CO2 = P x S x E x C,

where P is the population of the Earth, S is the level of services enjoyed by the Earth’s human population, E is the necessary energy used in providing the goods and services, and C is the carbon intensity of producing that energy. Gates argues that to solve the upcoming environmental crisis, one of the variables must fall to zero [1]. Since population estimates are projected to rise (P), humans will continue to desire greater levels of service (S), and energy usage will continue to rise to support these services (E), the only viable option for stemming global climatic disruption is to reduce the carbon intensity of energy production to zero. Thus, Gates advocates for substantial monetary and infrastructural support to promoting revolutionary energy technologies.

While important in representing a general shift in debate over energy production and climatic change, the solution above is an example of disciplinary thinking to problems. Experts from other relevant fields might suggest that the assumptions above are not valid, and would propose other approaches. For example, a population ecologist might argue that, even as U.N. estimates indicate world population will stabilize later in this century, the human population still exceeds the support capabilities of the planet [2], [3]. Likewise, an anthropologist might argue that the level of service delivery that Americans expect to enjoy, including oversized homes, inefficient modes of transportation, and relatively little re-use of manufactured products, is an ingrained set of values that are not absolute or even optimal. Other societies, both past and present, have shown the capability to live fulfilling and productive lives with much lower levels of environmental impact [4]. Finally, an engineer or architect might argue that the amount of energy required to function at the current level of services can be drastically reduced or even eliminated. Indeed, ideas of regenerative design and net-positive energy buildings exemplify such thinking. Thus, for many, it is no forgone conclusion that lowering the carbon intensity of energy production is the only viable method to achieving a long-term sustainable society.

Thus, examining a problem from the viewpoint of several relevant disciplines reveals the shortcoming associated with singular approaches that do not integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines. In addition to the overall problem of developing technologies that supply sufficient energy for increased human well-being, we also face the problem of ensuring that proposed solutions are interdisciplinary, tackling both technological and sociological challenges within the framework of a rapidly urbanizing planetary landscape.

[1]    J. Pontin, “Q&A: Bill Gates: The cofounder of Microsoft talks energy, philanthropy, and management style.,” Technology Review, 24-Aug-2010.

[2]    D. Meadows and Club de Rome., The limits to growth : a report for the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind, 2nd ed. New York: Universe books, 1979.

[3]    World Commission on Environment and Development., Our common future. Oxford ;;New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

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