Provocation: Can we fix the future by fixing energy?

Five people sit in chairs, with microphones, to discuss energy systems.
From left: Andrew Maynard, Jennifer Richter, Diane Pataki, Manfred Laubichler and Gary Dirks discuss concerns with energy systems during a panel discussion, as part of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory Earth Week events.

By Ayrel Clark-Proffitt

It’s the beginning of Earth Week at the soon to be renamed ISTB7, home of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory. The week is full of dozens of engaging events, but it started with a somber recognition that the war in Ukraine is an immediate global pressure that requires immediate assistance. Zoya Lytvyn, a Ukrainian educator and activist who helped Ukraine launch its first-ever online learning platform, told the audience how her windows literally shattered on Feb. 24 when Russia bombed Kyiv. Her little daughter’s first word was essentially “boom.” She called on the audience to support Ukraine and stand up for education and democracy everywhere.

The discussion was followed by the first “fire starter” of the week, led by Andrew Maynard, associate dean for student success in the College of Global Futures. He asked a panel of experts from the college the following provocation: Can we fix the future by fixing energy?

The answer, in the spirit of eliciting an evocative conversation, was a highly qualified yes. The panelists–Gary Dirks, senior director of the Global Futures Laboratory; Manfred Laubichler, director of the School of Complex Adaptive Systems, Diane Pataki, director of the School of Sustainability; and Jen Richter, assistant professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and School of Social Transformation–focused much of the conversation on the problem of equity within energy and its relationship with other systems.

Dirks expressed the first qualified yes because of the scope and massive scale of the energy system, and because of broad consensus on fixes that can be made. However, beyond cleaner energy, the challenge is the wide array of value systems that affect the process, as well as the high cost of the transition.

A major repository of our energy is actually infrastructure, Laubichler points out, and humans have been building more and more for 10,000 years. Pataki, who also has an appointment in the Department of City & Metropolitan Planning, suggested that urban planning is more important than most people consider. A lot of decision making, even related to energy, takes place at the local level, even at city hall, she said.

Richter questioned the idea of changing the future, and wondered who gets the power to decide how humans will collectively envision a more desirable future. “In order to fix something, you have to identify what’s broken,” she said. “Who defines how our energy system is broken is often tied to who will profit the most from the solution.

“This isn’t about fixing the future … it’s about fixing the past,” she concluded, wondering if the future might benefit more from breaking down the nation-state system in order to foster global cooperation, whereas the current structure promotes competition.

Watch the whole conversation–and all Global Futures Laboratory Earth Week events–at the Global Futures Laboratory YouTube page.



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