First They Ignore You…

Published 07 May 2011


I spend my life making presentations on the world’s shift from dirty, centralised insecure energy to a cleaner, more distributed and secure energy infrastructure, driven by the underlying economics and geopolitics. In this 3-minute video I try to tell the same story, but using only images and music. The question I wanted to raise is, if the shift is inevitable, should you spend your time and energy hanging on to the past or looking to the future?

The world is shifting to abundant, secure, cheap, clean energy. It is a shift which will take many decades, but it is a shift which is inevitable.

Inspired by the words of Mahatma Gandhi – First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win – to show why it is that, although clean energy will eventually win out over fossil fuels, there is so much pushback.

Watch it here or on YouTube. And follow @MLiebreich on Twitter for updates.

The cost of renewable energy is already much lower than most people think, and it is coming down all the time.

Even without subsidies, rooftop solar is now cheaper than daytime electricity prices in a few leading markets; by 2015 that will be the case in almost all sunny countries. The best wind farms now produce power at the same cost as state-of-the-art coal-fired plants — again before subsidies. Sugar-based ethanol provides half the fuel for cars in Brazil, it’s competitive at $45 barrel and the global market is multiplying. The first commercial plants making biofuel from plant waste are coming on line. China has improved its energy efficiency by 20% over the past five years, as have countless western companies. The first mass-market electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids are flying out of dealers’ lots, and they go 1000 miles before filling up with gas.

The list goes on. And all of these developments reinforce each other – electric vehicles can store intermittent power from solar and wind – and are being woven together by a new, intelligent, smart grid. This is not a rehearsal, it’s a clean energy revolution.

Fossil power, by contrast, is dirty, dangerous, insecure, and politically and economically corrosive. Controversial statement? Look at the news: Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Huge gas explosions in Middletown, Buncefield and San Bruno. An endless stream of coal mine explosions and collapses. Violent protests in the Middle East – a region blighted by the curse of oil: home to over 50% of the world’s remaining oil reserves, the bulk of it in a country where women are banned from driving cars. Where nearly a fifth of the world’s oil passes through the Straits of Hormuz: just 35 miles wide, with the world’s leading rogue state, Iran, on one side, and a country reliant on foreign troops to maintain order, Bahrain, on the other.

In addition, fossil fuels are subsidised to the tune of more than $300bn per annum (according to the International Energy Agency), and that doesn’t even include the cost of security – which we pay through our taxes, not at the pump – or the health costs from particulates and other forms of pollution — which we pay through our health bills.

If the choice of clean energy over dirty is so clear, so simple, so inevitable why isn’t it more obvious, and why isn’t the shift happening more quickly? Energy is the world’s largest and most capital-intensive industry, and people want the lights to stay on and their gas tanks to stay full. Any wholesale shift in energy use requires changes in human behaviour, which can take a generation or more. The clean energy revolution will be a revolution in slow motion, taking place over many decades. But also, the proponents of fossil fuels have sunk trillions of dollars and their reputations into the current energy system. They will not abandon their investment without a fight. This is absolutely to be expected – the same thing was true of the tobacco industry.

And hence the background to this video. As Mahatma Gandhi said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”. In the 1970s and 1980s, in the wake of the first oil shocks, renewable energy was so far from being economically viable, that it was largely ignored. In the 1990s and 2000s, the oil price was so low that, it was easy to laugh at clean energy’s claim to be able to achieve competitiveness.

Now clean energy is reaching scale and taking real chunks out of energy market after energy market. That hurts fossil fuel providers, and with prices of clean energy coming down, it’s going to start hurting a whole lot more. Fossil fuel providers are beginning to realise they are in an existential struggle, and they are fighting back. It started with coal — it is almost impossible to build a new coal-fired power station in the US or Europe — but it will not stop there.

Of course many questions remain. How long will it take for the world to shift to clean energy? What will be the exact mix of power sources in different regions? What will the role of nuclear be in a post Chernobyl / Three Mile Island / Fukushima world? Can natural gas act as a transition fuel or is the current dash for shale gas a bubble? And the most interesting question of all: which companies and countries will be the long-term winners, and which will fight the trend and be the losers. Only time will answer these questions, but nothing will change the eventual outcome.

The future of mankind is not the same as the future of fossil fuels. Sit back, crank the volume, and enjoy.

Executive Producer: Michael Liebreich Producer Director: Thomas Marshall Editor: Mike Whittaker Assistant Producers: Nathaniel Bullard, Jo Jagger, Alice Tyne Music: Rising Mercury, by Nick Ingman & Terry Devine-King; Somewhere a Clock is Ticking, by Snow Patrol.