How it all began

As you can see on the Energy Transition Lab webpage, one of the aims is to provide a save space for risky research. This is the dream for many researchers, I would argue. Risky means that you may perform research which does not lead to publishable output. In the scientific community all too often only the positive research results are communicated, the failures are swept under the rug. For sure, I as a researcher want to publish, since this is how I can improve my CV. Still having the freedom to do something risky is quite alluring.

Studying the kind of transition that we need is kind of futurology, since this has never happened before. The changes that we need will have to be substantial. Well, this may be up to debate for some. A wide-spread notion is that the transition we need is a repetition of transitions we did in the past. From firewood to fossil fuels, from horses to cars, from low input agriculture to high input agriculture. The struggle with the limits of our environmental system is not new, but a constant companion throughout human history. The technological innovations since the industrial revolution ostensibly removed these limitations. Though, the sustainability problems that we are facing show that this is not the case. Instead of thinking about how we can deal differently with limits, humanity seems to prefer to use the same strategy again. Humanity invests much resources to provide new innovations that are said to solve the problems we are facing. Though, I argue the problems are only shifted in time and space. This is by the way not new. Shifting a problem in time and space has always been the side-effect of applying some technological innovation.

Now, is technology bad? No. The question is how, is it used and to what end. Thus, when I started thinking about the energy transition, I had to think about the goal. Towards what are we transitioning, and what is transitioning? For me the energy transition is part of a sustainability transition. Hence, an energy transition must support a transition towards a state that is overall sustainable. In that sense, the energy transition is not limited to the energy system, but connects to a wider context.

As I have stated people have different views on what is needed to achieve sustainability. I am part of those people who understand that a fundamental change is needed. I understand technological innovations as quick fixes that shift problems in time and space instead of providing real solutions. In order to achieve sustainability underlying mechanisms and more importantly the underlying paradigm needs to change. That led me to the conclusion that a socio-technical transition is not far reaching enough, if it does not also include a socio-economic transition.

I think I need to give you some background information, so that you can understand where I am coming from. I am a systems thinker. Systems thinker see connections among everything and everything can be understood as a subsystem of some other system. Thus, a problem cannot be understood and addressed fully if not all relevant connections are captured. Ultimately the systems thinker searches for the root cause of a problem. The root cause of the sustainability problems we are facing is unlimited accumulation on a finite planet. The way we employ technologies is directed by this underlying mechanism. Thus, at some point accumulation will eat up the efficiency gains of a technology. So, my understanding is, that the technology is not the problem. The problem is the underlying structure of the socio-economic system into which each new technology needs to be embedded to be mainstreamed. For me the question then was, if we do want to achieve a sustainability transition how can we escape this structure? And then it became clear what my research will be about, breaking path dependencies.

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