Change is the opportunity to improve things

Change is the opportunity to improve things


High-rises replacing huts, tractors in place of oxcarts, LEDs instead of oil lamps: scarcely anything in today’s world is the same as it was a few hundred years ago. In the case of energy though, the move away from burning hydrocarbons has only been recent. The inevitable energy transition also offers the opportunity to change society for the better.

Nothing is as constant as change. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus is said to have said this around half a millennium BC. From today’s perspective, changes from that era seem almost to have been at a snail’s pace. However, it is still true that humans are more adaptable than almost any other living creature. They can survive in the Arctic Circle and in the desert, in the big city and in the wastelands.

Plentiful and lean years have repeatedly alternated in world history, just as in the lives of individuals. In recent decades though, we in Europe have hardly needed this human capacity to adapt. Of course, there have always been situations that turn everyday life upside down: a serious illness or accident, the loss of a job. But these mostly impacted individuals or small groups. As far as society as a whole is concerned, there is incrementally a little more every year – as predictable as a savings plan.

It was not until the Covid-19 pandemic that many people realised how thin the ice was that has passed for social normality for a few decades. In this situation, many discovered that they were capable of upheavals the like of which they had not even contemplated before. Sometimes, they were very simple things. “Working from home and online conferencing instead of air travel had always been unthinkable. Then Covid-19 showed how quickly people can react,” says GP JOULE Managing Director Ove Petersen.

At the same time, the crisis revealed yet another human capacity: that is, to look ahead, to make conscious decisions and to pursue common goals. Undeniably, there was a lot of arguing and suffering in the process. But a combination of community effort and scientific innovation achieved what few thought possible: keeping the pandemic at bay sufficiently to maintain the functioning of health care systems at an adequate level throughout, while avoiding economic collapse. Besides all the disasters great and small, Covid-19 has reminded us what we are capable of when it matters.

Change as the new normal

It seems that we will need this rediscovered knowledge much more often in the future, because the quiet times do not look like they will be making a reappearance. Heat waves and floods, fires and snowstorms remind us that the greenhouse effect did not take any time out during Covid-19. In world politics, too, all the signs point towards escalation. Although energy prices have just started to fall again somewhat, we have learned how unsafe it is to rely entirely on others for such a critical basis of existence. We also learned how to help ourselves. “Efforts to save energy were huge, although we were still far from a supply shortage,” says Petersen.

But then why weren’t we able to solve the climate crisis long ago? Forward-looking action is counteracted by an opposite effect. In its long history, humanity has not only learned to react, but also to manage its energy well. If you run every time a branch snaps, you will have no energy left when the sabre-toothed tiger really does attack. Unfortunately, this way of perceiving danger no longer really works in the modern world, because it is rare that we are suddenly confronted by a roaring predator.

The climate crisis is many times more dangerous than a sabre-toothed tiger, but it has stalked stealthily into our world. A flood here, a record temperature there. For many years, it was all too easy for anyone to simply put the newspaper aside or dismiss the reports as scaremongering. The PR machinery of the fossil energy industry helped wherever it could. The American climate researcher Michael E. Mann describes this with impressive effect in his book “The New Climate War“. Transformation researcher Maja Göpel also explores the question of why we as a society do not build the world we want as individuals. Her conclusion: it has been our view of the world, shaped by a belief in economic growth, that has made us overlook the obvious for so long.

Overlooking has now become almost impossible. But even horror scenarios of eternal drought, acidified oceans and sunken continents are at best only good for a short-term wake-up call. At worst, they lead to paralysis and depression. Michael Mann even describes these ideas as a targeted means of sabotage by fossil fuel companies. He calls the naysayers “inactivists”. “Doomsaying has overtaken denial as a threat and as a tactic. Inactivists know that people who believe that nothing can be done are being led down the path of inaction. By giving up, they are unwittingly doing exactly what is in the interests of the fossil fuel industry,” Mann said in an interview with the Guardian.

The change for the better has begun

The only way out of this misery is to look forward to a change for the better. And the signs are good for that. Wind energy and photovoltaics are mature technologies and are becoming cheaper by the day. Battery research is constantly bringing new products to market that apply a wide variety of raw materials. Manufacturers of fuel cells and electrolysers are scaling their factories at lightning speed. Heat pump suppliers can hardly keep up with demand. And politics is also changing faster and faster. Even experts who have been explaining energy standards in seminars for years can hardly absorb the latest regulations as quickly as they are passed.

Is the pace sufficient to make up for the failures of the past decades though? Not yet, sadly. On the one hand, there is the absolutely essential acceleration phase. New solar factories have to be built, new experts trained. But much more critical is the lingering scepticism – the fear of change and the need to really pull out all the stops. Because a real turnaround means changing our daily life. A mobility turnaround will not only mean switching from one fuel to the next. It also means that there must be fewer cars and more bicycles, trains and buses – or, in rural areas, autonomously driven shared taxis. This is also a great opportunity, particularly for people with less money.

Consistent climate protection will also not avoid having to bring the troubled issue of human nutrition to the table. Animal- based foods not only cause high CO2 emissions, but also require the largest areas of land in Germany to provide animal feed.

Seeking consensus with consequences

Petersen therefore sees the greatest challenge now as being to develop a real social consensus on the fact that the energy transition must succeed and that we must meet the climate targets. This also includes the targeted redirection of the use of existing land and resources, if necessary. “During the oil crisis in the 1970s, it was possible to impose speed limits and driving restrictions on Sundays. Today, we find ourselves in a much bigger crisis – yet all we worry about is whether catering businesses on the Baltic Sea will still sell enough ice cream on Sundays.” Petersen also does not accept scarce resources and lack of space as an excuse: if there is enough concrete for motorways and sports stadiums, it can hardly be too scarce for wind farm foundations. If there is enough space for growing cattle feed and new industrial estates, there will also be space for new solar parks and the afforestation of new forest areas. If it’s possible to approve an LNG terminal in a few weeks, it should be possible to do the same with a hydrogen pipeline.

“We don't even have to change everything – it just takes a few adjustments. And these are urgent. It’s the same even if we no longer manage to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, but only to 1.8 degrees: we must get going now. And we know clearly from the experience of the pandemic that we can do that,” says Petersen. Now it is time for society to once again become aware of its ability to adapt and innovate and kick off into a better future.

Tackling the energy transition from below – how it works

The more people who support the energy transition, the easier it will be to achieve. But obvious as it might sound, it’s sometimes much easier said than done. “Yes, but...” is often the response. It’s good to keep in mind that resistance is a normal part of any change.


Maja Göpel advises taking a step back every now and then and – if necessary – looking for a new path to the goal. It’s important not to get bogged down in individual eco-perfectionism. Even though our own environment and good role models are important: appealing to personal responsibility is a decades-old way for corporations to deflect clear rules. This is no different in the energy sector than it is with the tobacco and arms lobbies. Climate researcher Michael E. Mann describes that it’s often the very same PR institutes that are behind it.


Even threatening worst-case scenarios can become a danger in itself – namely when they are so overwhelming that they make people freeze with terror. Mann also describes this so-called “doomism” as a tactic to avert real change.


In contrast, the website offers specific guidance for local initiatives. Examples range from solar campaigns to the referendum on buying back the energy grids. Experiencing self-efficacy, preferably together with others, is considered the best remedy against frustration. And in case things still don’t go as well as hoped for, Göpel advises: “Keep friendly and patient, but keep at it.”