The Energy Matrix – the cost of pollution

Here’s a post I wrote for Sublime Magazine and Max Gladwell:

Who would have predicted the world of science fiction films would prove so prophetic? Our planet is being over-run by machines and we need people like Arnold Schwarzenegger to save us.


matrixgreenrobotIn the world of the film The Matrix, robots, machines and other perennially nasty automatons have taken over the world – another normal day in Hollywood. However, it’s a pleasant surprise to find out that the film’s creators have gone so far as to think about the energy crisis that must ensue from such a power hungry group of captors. In order to sustain themselves, the machines grow humans in cozy little pods and use the energy our bodies generate to power their world.

Ingenious really, aside from the fact that our bodies are way more efficient than any machine yet invented – so the energy output would hardly allow them to make a cup of tea (or warm oil), let alone enable them to achieve their (presumably unconscious) goal of world domination. We mere mortals only need a meal or two a day to power something capable of building the pyramids, reconstituting itself, and designing the combustion engine. Of course, we do all this with a handy little bit of consciousness and, sometimes, ethics along the way.

Although reality might not excite science fiction aficionados as much as the Matrix was able to (after all, the film is aided by Hollywood necessities such as flip-phones, leather trench coats and ballet-rich gun battles), the energy fight between man and machine is perhaps as significant. Energy, and our ability to wield it, has arguably been the most important factor in our societal development. It could also lead to our demise. Without it, we would wave goodbye to the advances of the industrial and technological revolutions. With it, if we continue as-is, we might wave goodbye to mother nature, as we know her. Humankind, in this case with the aid of machines, is at war with our planet.

Yet the truth needn’t be this inconvenient. There is more energy than we could ever need at our disposal. We can capture the sun’s rays, the power of our tides, convert the wind and play (perhaps the wrong choice of word) with nuclear fuels. Our problem is the cost that the energy takes to create – not just the economic cost of deriving our energy from coal or from solar or other forms of production, but the holistic cost to the economy and the planet.

The price of our power needs to represent the cost of creation – namely we must include the environmental cost of production and the externalities they cause. In the case of a coal-fired power station, this would incorporate the environmental impact of extracting raw coal, its delivery and the cost of carbon and pollution produced. Renewable energy sources should not be excluded from this examination – we must also lay the same ground rules and establish the environmental cost of a solar field or a new dam. It is only when we can accurately measure the true holistic cost of the power we consume that we can start to determine its value. It is only when we understand the true value of consuming energy that we can judge what constitutes wise usage. If it suddenly costs $100 more to fly from New York to San Francisco (because the true cost of producing energy at 37,000ft has a greater cost), it would better enable the consumer to make a decision about the value of their journey.

greenbuildingIf leaving a skyscraper’s lights on at night costs a company an additional $1m/year, we might find that we would see the stars more often. If the holistic cost can be measured, the argument that we mustn’t tax certain industries because of the immediate economic ramifications would no longer hold water. Airlines beware.

It might seem like a pipe dream to be able to measure the externalities accurately, but we’re not as far away as you might think. By putting a price on, and creating a market for, carbon, we’re taking a step in the right direction—the direction toward accurately reflecting the cost of our energy on a global scale. Given the potential ramifications of significant climate change, such as famine, drought, flood, sea-level rise etc., creating a global marketplace for carbon could prove to be a more important world event than the creation of the United Nations.

As Copenhagen rounds the corner, it is up to us – the citizens of the world – to encourage our leaders, somewhat like Keanu in the Matrix, to swallow the green pill (note to Matrix purists, please excuse my choice of color) and shape up to the reality of what is actually happening, rather than that which we’d like to believe.

Only then, will we have Hollywood-esque happy endings.


One thought on “The Energy Matrix – the cost of pollution

  1. Thought provoking. I’m for taking the green pill. Let’s hope that others do so with positive intent for a better future and not misguided intent for corruptible purpose.

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